This morning, over coffee, Dillon asked me to marry him. I was still in my pajamas, folded into a dining room chair, staring blankly at the crossword puzzle. Dillon stood at the kitchen window, framed in light, like those pictures of Jesus. He always does that first thing, throws aside the sheer yellow drapes and twists open the blinds, basking in the glory of a new day. I resent sunlight that early. I looked up at him, this grinning beam of energy, black hair wet from his shower, work shirt wrinkled because I'd forgotten it in the dryer. I focused on a curl of steam rising from my coffee cup. I said, "What's a group of geese that starts with an 'S'?"
When I think of forever, my chest contracts; it writhes and slithers like something ancient. This is because I'm obsessed with dinosaurs. Once, I kissed a boy at the edge of a dinosaur graveyard. The ground was not a bed of fossils; the creatures were there, frozen in some medium I would see only once, bent to the rhythm of an artist's hands. In time, the memory crumbled so when I looked back, the dinosaurs were gone. But the kiss I remember perfectly.
"Don't be afraid." At night, Dillon wraps me in a too-warm embrace; he is so sure I find comfort in his arms. I lie there in a sweat, willing myself not to squirm away. It always happens like this, when someone enters my bloodstream; they press so long and hard against me they cross over inside like osmosis. But it's a long way to the heart.
I was seventeen when I saw the dinosaurs. I was in love, and love at seventeen is a curse. There is nothing before it, so how can there be anything like it after?
But love at seventeen isn't real love.
I've heard that. I can't prove it was real. Memory eats itself and all that's left are bones. I gather them and scatter them in the dust, like some voodoo priest foretelling the future, though I search for only the past. I brush at the ashes and click bones together and wait for truth to emerge. Every time I capture it, the memory changes.
The first time, the dinosaurs were juniper bushes. This was after my first live-in boyfriend, at nineteen. He had no job, so live-in meant sleeping in my loft during the day, curled inside a hangover. When he smoked, a fog would drift across his eyes, and he could make love for hours. He would pass out and crumble over me and I would hold his limp body and pretend to feel flattered, invoking songs of lovers who writhe and sweat all night, their work forever unfinished. I pretended this didn't feel like failure. I watched him sleep, his mouth hanging open, and drifted into dreams on the waft of his breath: pizza, marijuana, cheap beer.
It was one of these nights that the dinosaurs came back. I hadn't thought of them in years, but now I could hear them, snapping branches and thundering cries, pounding through my gray jungle of dreams. Their vibrations pulsed through me and I woke to a rich flood between my legs, soothing the rawness my lover had left, ashamed, unsatisfied, desperate to see them again.
Every night for weeks they returned, phantom shrieks haunting my dreams. They drifted in shadows and fled with the morning. I would squeeze my eyes shut again, trying to pull them out with me, just enough to glimpse a color, a shape. Eventually I began to guess; after all, there were only so many ways a dinosaur graveyard could be built.
Juniper, then. Creatures crafted from tall, lush foliage; emerald leaves feathered over bruise-colored berries. There were dozens: pterodactyls, brontosaurus, triceratops, stegosaurus, meticulously pruned and trimmed into a bright menagerie. Their leaves swayed in the soft mellow breeze, and the air was heavy with summer. The boy had brought me here, had directed me through the old neighborhood, where pretty gabled houses stood testament to the charm of our hometown. "You've never seen this?" he asked, then shrugged, smiled. "I'll show you."
It was still the beginning, for us, and his nearness obscured everything. He boosted me up onto the block wall, and I looked out over the yard, breathing fast. I saw them, I did, but then he was next to me, tipping my jaw toward his face. I stopped breathing.
Dillon doesn't know where I live. He thinks he sees me in corners of his house, at his kitchen table, on his couch, staring at things he can see. I see a modest single-family detached home with concrete countertops and Saltillo tile flowing red and brown, like a river, through every room. He sees the future. "Children," he says, "or not. Whatever you want; it's up to you." He doesn't know my heart was staked in a past I can't forget, buried with a vision I can't remember.
At twenty-one, the dreams disappeared, along with my boyfriend. I liked being alone. Every morning I walked to work, a local bookstore where I sold music CDs and movies and little wrapped chocolates. Sometimes I stopped at the corner diner for coffee, scratching out answers to the crossword puzzle. I knew the cook liked to watch me. When I looked up, always I could feel him look away, and his shyness began to intrigue me. He was tall and thin and pale; his eyes as blue as his cheeks were pink, and I could see his whole personality, wrapped in pastels.
I knew he would never work up the nerve to ask me, so I asked him, and soon we were taking hikes in the woods behind his trailer. He was gentle and nonbearing, never touching me, always hinting of a future in business or law. Something distinguished. We took trips through the mountains, long, narrow drives among the pine forests, rushing creeks and cool autumn air. Sometimes he would reach for my hand, and I'd hold it like a stone, feeling awkward, feeling nothing else at all.
They came back the last night, a night I sat alone in my apartment, sipping wine. The cool liquid spread over my lips, numb sweet release that turned bitter on my tongue. I called his number, his name, and he came to me, looking restless and unsure. No, I thought with dismay, looking afraid. I told him I was sorry, that I knew I wasn't easy to get through. I told him, "Let's try one more thing." And his fingers fumbled at my jeans, his long limbs tangled for position, his eyes looked anywhere but my face. We struggled silently and I watched the color rise in his cheeks, felt sick with embarrassment for this awkward boy/man. He rested his head on my chest and mumbled something, an apology. I held him there and when I woke he was gone. I wrapped my body in a blanket and stepped out onto the patio, watching my breath cloud the cold morning air. The last trace of sunrise still colored the sky, a careless watercolor smeared orange above the mountains.
My dreams came clear, the way we had watched a furious sunset on the edge of the dinosaur graveyard. The kiss had lingered, long and slow. I remember the sweet ache that spread through my chest and the feeling that we were above time; no one else existed there. When the kiss broke, I saw the sky bleeding behind us. But this time I was standing because the fence wasn't block. It was wood. I know because I pulled myself up to peer over it, and a splinter pierced my palm. It was wood like the dinosaurs prowling behind it; I glimpsed them briefly before he lifted me down and pulled me against his body. Brilliant, ancient figures carved from ash.
Dillon is a beautiful man. He is clean. He is happy. He rubs my feet. He works.
"What are you waiting for?" my friend asks. "Nothing," I say. "I don't think I deserve him," I say.
I am the luckiest girl alive. I am the luckiest girl alive. I am the luckiest girl alive.
At twenty-three, a new bookstore opened across town and I was sent to manage it. The music manager at the old store came to visit. "Finally," he said, giving me a slow smile. "I can ask you to dinner."
His name was Steve, and he had a way of looking me over with his flat green eyes that made anything seem possible. We went out for Italian, parking downtown and walking the city streets at dusk. He placed his warm hand lightly on my back as we crossed streets, nodding importantly at the drivers idling at the edge of the crosswalks. He talked nonstop, about the industry and new musicians, about his reviews for important publications and the free samples he received from the largest recording companies. He took long strides that left me slightly behind, staring at the curve of his bicep pushing against his black t-shirt, and the lovely sculpted shape of his forearm. His fingers were long, like someone who plays the piano or strums a guitar.
At the restaurant, Steve's eyes teased and smoldered, never drifting toward the shapely waitress who brought chilled glasses of wine, woven baskets with fresh steaming bread and delicate plates coated with olive oil and minced garlic. He ordered for me and touched my knee under the table. When the check arrived he reached behind him, patting the pocket of his jeans. He frowned and patted his front pockets. The frown disappeared and the corners of his mouth turned down. He looked at me, his sultry gaze now like a child's, wide eyed and innocent. I took the check and later, in his tiny room in the city, staring at yellowed walls lined with records, a floor strewn with CDs and music magazines, and his stale breath on my cheek, I let him slip a long finger inside me, shutting my eyes, thinking about the perfect curve of his arms, thinking the best has always been behind me.
What I know for sure is the boy's eyes were the desert sky at noon, a blue mirage. I stole glimpses of them in the car that day, pretending to study the passenger side mirror. We drove through a neighborhood of run-down houses, past a trailer park where shirtless boys peered suspiciously from faded porches. He pointed out the way, his outstretched arm close to my cheek, and the sun-washed smell of him flared in my throat. I imagined his fingers brushing my skin, touching my hair. I was conscious of the wetness under my arms and kept them pressed down, my hands gripping the bottom of the steering wheel. I had never been so nervous.
What I know for sure is months later, moving underneath him, my arms wrapped around his back and crushing him against me, then pushing him away so I could watch, I thought, if another girl were to ever see what I could see, to own this body, to move this way underneath him, I would die. The tears coursed in silence; I felt crazy, I felt blissful, I felt terrified. I felt.
Once they were tin. Pressed silver twisted into claws and flattened along elegant spines, bowed over muscle. They flashed in a brilliant sun that could not have shone in a June twilight. Once they were wrought iron, black metallic pipes snaking over reptilian heads and curved into menacing tails, spikes thrust up like steeples. Or maybe that was the fence I saw them through and they were really paper mache. Crude and clumsy, like a child's drawing. But no, they would disintegrate in the rain.
I reach for them in dreams, desperate to complete the picture of this one perfect time. The more I stand in the memory, the more ethereal it seems, like a cloud. I could be right inside of it, and feel nothing. I could be right inside, and never know.
Elizabeth writes from Tempe, Arizona, where she lives with her husband and two children. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Literary Mama, SLAB Literary Magazine, Hospital Drive, The Portland Review, Babble, and Phoenix New Times. Links to Elizabeth's work can be found on her website http://www.elizabethmarianaranjo.com/ .