By Nancy McCabe
In this memory that seems to summarize my whole youthful marriage, I’m 22 years old, kneeling in the loft of a half-built cabin by the Ninnescah River, a manic wind creaking joints and whipping tangled hair into my mouth. The wind scuttles a cup from lunch, hop-skipping it across the prairie below. It snarls my husband’s tape measure as he climbs a ladder, nailing on the siding that I try to hold steady as the loft tosses in the wind like a ship at the mercy of the ocean.
For years after this marriage ends, I’ll look for ways to frame it. For him, it started as a romantic pact without restrictions or expectations, gradually eroding because he wasn’t mature enough to compromise. For me, it was a refuge, a rebound from another relationship into one with someone who thought he wanted me, even if I felt no spark, no real physical attraction to him. My friends will frame it this way: he was a good guy, but women aren’t attracted to good guys. They’re interested in inaccessible men.
But no, I’ll realize later. I met him when I was eighteen years old. He was my boss at the newspaper, and maybe he was a nice guy, but nice guys can be predatory, too. He decided he wanted me and that was that. Maybe I had a choice, but I didn’t know how to exercise it. Maybe what I needed was time to discover my own desires apart from anyone else’s. Maybe I needed that to feel a strong attraction.
In my memory, I’m clinging to that flimsy cabin frame. We’ve been married just a couple of years. My husband has built this cabin on his uncle’s property while I’ve worked at the front desk of a company that owns greasy spoons throughout Wichita, answering phones and tallying receipts. Marc reports on his progress each day while I half-listen. He talks about constructing a wooden form, pouring the concrete foundation. He talks about batter boards, corner stakes, subfloors, frames.
All I know about foundations come from a Bible story in which the wise man built his house upon the rock, the foolish one on sand. Our marriage, I know, is built on sand and fear, and the walls will come tumbling down.
When did I become so fearful? I remember “Wheels of Tragedy,” a driving safety movie shown to my seventh grade science class. It seemed irrelevant to me; I was years from driving. A car drifted into the oncoming lane, then bang! It was chaos. Here I lost track. A car spun like a pinwheel, another bounced and rolled like a basketball. Roofs collapsed, sides wadded like ads crumpled for the trash, glass crackled, webbed, exploded into sword-edged shards, doors flew from their hinges.
Or so my classmates said, tenting hands over faces, predicting nightmares, citing later an arm by the road, rain falling on the car’s underbelly, wheels still spinning. Sirens, flashing lights, then silence. A camera panning the aftermath: tire tracks in the dirt. A twisted bumper. A piece of someone’s ear.
What I learned was that I couldn’t see what others saw. I struggled to distinguish twigs from fingers, seashells from ears, arms from flaps of tires from snakes, blood from rain, though in my own defense, the film was black and white.
Why, a few years later, did I get married so young to someone for whom I had little romantic feeling? Some mistake in vision, a sense of being beholden to a man who thought he wanted me, a desire to escape all of the violence in the world: car wrecks and wars, the casual demeaning behavior of teenage boys, rapes and murders, the terrifying possibilities out there in the world. As if, I thought, marriage could somehow cushion me from all of that.
And yet in the cabin’s loft, I am rocked and jolted by wind, high up there surrounded by absences, peering through the frame, through empty spaces, fearing that the wind will fling me overboard, landing me among heaving purple and yellow wildflowers. But I pull the siding tight, hanging on with white knuckled might as if for both of us: me in the loft, Marc on his precarious ladder, barely bothering to hold on.
I’ve been blind before, like when, as a child, my relatives chased the Goodyear Blimp through Kansas City. My cousins stabbed fingers toward the sky, saying, “See? See? Don’t you see?” I didn’t. Nor could I differentiate, in a sci-fi flick, shapes whirling in space, figure out who was fighting who, or why the princess wore those big earphones that turned out to be her hairdo.
This was not an adequate excuse for all I failed to see, much less decipher. Sadness flashing across the face of the gentle boy I loved as a teenager, the one with his own mysterious, deep anguish, a pacifist who would never harm anyone. The suicide ritual he described to me. Three boys who attacked him in the hall. His angry fist battering a locker. In my defense, it was the 70s, it was Kansas, and I was busy studying the sweet labyrinth of his ear.
That day in the cabin’s loft, I am still years from understanding that lost first love or this marriage I now cling to. The wind’s roaring drowns out the ringing of nails as a wall rises around me. It erases objects directly below: the chainsaw, sawhorse, wood scraps. More of the world vanishes as the wall grows: the long prairie grass, the feathery asparagus fields, the thin dark line of the Ninnescah, green patches, brambly blurs—sand plums, wild grapes, poison ivy.
Many years later, I’ll be able to follow links like “26 Things That Look Like Butts” and view double egg yolks, plump Valentine’s candy, malformed peaches, radishes, tomatoes. But I have always mistaken one thing for another. My first love’s hesitation for shy desire, his sadness for something I could fix, his wreckage for the same mangled metal of adolescence from which we all had to extract ourselves, heaving awkward bodies through those gaps of unhinged doors like portals to another world. Him slipping through, somehow intact, disappearing from my flawed sight.
More attuned to my husband’s dissatisfaction than my own, the way he chafes at the restrictions of marriage, the way he goes out at night and forgets to come home till late, I sometimes worry: is there something wrong with me that makes men disappear, the same way my first boyfriend picked up and left town without telling me? I long to close my eyes, to go on not seeing, as I crouch behind a wall that rises little by little, blocking out the horizon, stilling the wind. Marc fills the spaces. Numbs the roar. Calms the shuddering.
Isn’t this a kind of love? I wonder. Not tempestuous like my first love or the windy prairie outside. Not magical like the catfish that, according to lore, fling themselves out of the Ninnescah to bite wild grapes off the vines. Not wild like the long grass that shivers the way my skin did under my first love’s touch. Bracing myself against the wind, trying to stay firm, drains me, leaves me drowsy.
This is love, I convince myself. This calm. This protection.
I build my own wall against seeing that maybe this won’t be enough in the long run. My own wall against this glimpse of how love ends. Wind so tamed you forget its power. Losses so slow you might not heed them.
Gone, little by little, piece by piece: sagging tool belt, reckless fingers. Lip-pinched nails, tender eyes. And then the treetops. Then the sky.
Nancy McCabe is the author of four books of creative nonfiction, most recently From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood, and the novel Following Disasters. Her work has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, received a Pushcart, and made notable lists seven times in Best American anthologies.