The Mess (Political Animals: a 21st Century Love Story, part 2)

This is fiction, fiction, I tell you, a love story. Another adventure for Kristin and Adam (from “Political Animals”).

The beginning of the mess.
The beginning of the mess.

Kristin squinted up at the sun. It was hot and her legs were tired, but she was in New Mexico, hiking with Adam, and the day was good.

Adam handed her his scratched plastic water bottle, covered in political stickers, the blue strap patched with duct tape. She took it gratefully, dousing her parched lips with water the temperature of breakfast oatmeal, as the bottle had nestled in Adam’s day pack all afternoon. She gagged, but drank anyway.

“How far do you think we’ve walked?” Adam asked, smiling at her from his perch, leaning back on his ankles tucked under his folded legs.

“About six miles, and we have about a half mile more, I would guess,” Kristin wrinkled her nose. “Don’t you think this hike is much harder compared to the distance?”

“Yes, definitely. Two days ago we hiked 15 miles easily, but today feels like my first day at any altitude,” Adam sighed.

Kristin, still standing, ruffled his brown mop of hair and then quickly tightened her own ponytail, even though pulling away was the exact opposite of what she wanted to do. It was the ninth day of their two-week road trip through the southwest and she thought back to the whirlwind of events in the last two months. After nineteen years as friends, mostly across the distance of continents, they were finally in the same place and within inches of each other.

Two months ago she was reading Emma in the midst of a stifling June in her Denver apartment. Adam had sent her an instant message that very day. He was a dear old friend, whom she had met when they both spent a semester of college at the University of Idaho, each visiting from other schools.They had quickly become close friends, discovering a mutual love of politics and activism, but college and graduation had thrust them into different locales and vocations. Kristin taught first grade in an inner city school in Denver, working on local and state campaigns in her spare time. Adam worked in business development and alternative energy in Asia, also with a side career in politics, mostly writing articles and op-eds since he had lived abroad. They had followed each other’s lives with the devotedness of close friends, but with the perspective of long-distance, watching jobs, significant others, and passions change and stay steady over the years.

The ping of Adam’s instant message had been shocking, after a couple of years of rare and brief e-mail missives. Several hours of instant messaging on that hot summer night occurred with swift and significant updates in each other’s lives:  both were single and pondering big changes in career and life direction. They made plans to spend their shared birthday together, when Adam would be coming to town for a job interview and a month’s vacation in the west after years of living overseas.

In the following weeks they planned a road trip of hiking and camping through New Mexico and Utah so Kristin could share her “beloved Southwest.” The route was planned so they could tremble together in the rocky footsteps of Edward Abbey.

“Kristin, Kristin! Are you here?” Adam lightly tapped her shoulder.

Kristin shook herself out of her reverie. “Sorry. I was just dazing. I first hiked this trail the summer after college. My dad was living in Grants and I stayed with him while I interviewed for teaching jobs in Albuquerque. I went for runs in the morning, midday interviews, and hikes in the late afternoon. This is the only place I’ve ever gotten lost. The rock cairns along the trail weren’t so well-marked and I lost my way at sunset. I had to turn and try to find the road and then walked in the dark slowly back to the trailhead parking lot. It was three hours of anguish, but it’s still one of my favorite places to go. I haven’t been here in at least 10 years.”

“I love that a hike where you got lost is one of your favorites. Do you know if Abbey was ever here?” Adam grinned his lopsided grin as he stood up and stretched.

Soon they were walking side-by-side on the rocky trail formed by old volcano lava, referred to in the area as malpais, or bad lands.

“Well, Ed was definitely a wanderer and spent lots of time hiking and camping all over the west. I don’t think he ever referred to this spot specifically, but he went to school in Albuquerque, so I like to think he found it while getting his master’s at UNM. Who knows? Isn’t is great, though?” Kristin realized she was speaking in the high-pitched voice that squeaked out when she was very excited. Adam seemed thrilled and amused by her enthusiasm.

The last half mile they sped through quickly and soon found themselves back at her rusted, but sturdy station wagon.

“So, what do you think about dinner and where shall we camp?” Adam opened the passenger door, slid in, and reached for the lever on the driver’s side. Kristin quickly adjusted the seat, pulling it in from Adam’s over-six-feet driving stance. Kristin looked sideways at Adam as he pushed the passenger seat all the way back and giggled.

“Well, what about a night sleeping inside? We could both do with a shower and some laundry time,” Kristin reached for the mason jar of peanuts from the back seat and took a handful. “I also know a really good Mexican restaurant in Grants and a hole-in-the-wall motel there, too.”

Adam clapped his hands. “That sounds perfect! Let’s go!”

Kristin nosed the faded red wagon out of the parking lot and back on the highway, her hiking boots pressing on the gas, but never speeding. She took gas mileage and speed limits seriously, while other rules she was not as religious about following. Despite her speed, or lack thereof, soon they checked into the motel, a thick adobe 50s landmark of the Old Route 66 which passed through town.

“This place is awesome! Just enough kitsch to be cool,” Adam looked approvingly at their room.

Kristin flopped down on one of the beds after tossing her large backpack on the luggage rack. “You take a shower first. I’m going to take a quick nap. Then I’ll be fast and we’ll have a really good New Mexico dinner, fit for a Maine man who lives in Hong Kong.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Adam snapped off a mock-salute before digging in his pack for his cleanest t-shirt and a pair of jeans he had stashed in the car trunk, but hadn’t worn.

Kristin heard the rush of water from the adjoining bathroom, closed her eyes and returned to her reverie. The last two weeks had been like a dream. Adam had flown in from Hong Kong for a job interview in Denver, convenient for his planned vacation in the western states. He had been adamant that they spend their birthday together, July 4, and then take a road trip. Back in 1996 in the midst of piles of snow and freezing temperatures they had planned a similar trip that had never taken place. Adam had been clear, this time, that he was spending his vacation with her. She had the summer off as a teacher, and would not return to school until after Adam flew back to Hong Kong. Kristin had jumped at the chance to spend so much time with her friend, but her heart and mind were a confused, jumbled knot of feelings.

Kristin and Adam were both single, and on the same continent, even in the same town, for the first time in a decade. She thought back to when they met in Idaho. She remembered the long, cold snowy winter in Boise and the beautiful, crisp spring that followed. They had been practically inseparable, talking politics and dreams, and everything else in between. A firm friendship was built; she did not remember being attracted to him until later. Over the years, while their friendship had stayed firmly in the platonic field, she would fantasize about the possibility of romance, especially in between boyfriends or when she was particularly lonely. He had been the miles away fantasy of someone who understood her perfectly. It had never seemed a real possibility, while she lived with David and then dated others through the years. His years-long steady had been Ellen, a woman Kristin had learned to love as Adam’s significant other. Kristin convinced herself she was shocked when Adam told her he had broken up with Ellen, now married to someone else. Kristin knew deep down that she loved Adam a lot more than as a friend.

Their wanderings through Utah and New Mexico had only cemented her feelings. After years apart, they quickly fell into the day-to-day familiarity, one that she had missed. Their conversations were as long and as free-flowing as back in college. They talked of politics, religion, careers, world affairs, mutual friends, books, dreams, and the transitions they were considering. They punctuated each other’s remarks with jokes, quiet ribbing, and comfortable silence, giving each other the time and space to respond, ask questions, probe, and challenge each other to get to their deepest, most honest selves.

As the days in their vacation flew by, as wonderful as it was, Kristin’s discomfort grew. Adam, who knew her best, did not know her secret. How could she keep it from him? She did not want to wager at his response, terrified of ruining the friendship with him, but frustrated at her inability to own up to her feelings. How could she be dishonest with herself and him, the person she knew best?

She closed her eyes, blew out a sigh of air, blowing her sweaty bangs off of her forehead. She heard the shower pipes squeak as the water shut off. “I’m running out of time,” she whispered to herself. She bounced off the bed as if movement would erase her thoughts, rustling in her backpack for the sundress she had crammed into a plastic ziptop bag stuffed at the bottom of her pack.

Adam opened the bathroom door and a cloud of steam floated into the room. Kristin jumped, butterflies flitting around in her stomach. Adam walked out, his dark hair dripping on his neck, the grey t-shirt contrasting with his olive skin. He smiled, as if choosing his best crooked smile just for her.

“Did you rest? That shower was heavenly,” Adam leaned down to grab boating sandals from his pack, propped against the far wall.

Kristin smiled back, nodding and darting into the bathroom. She felt silly, her discomfort with Adam awkward and unfamiliar. She used the skimpy motel towel to wipe away the steam from the mirror. She unraveled her ponytail, staring into the mirror, wisps of brown hair falling around her shoulders. Kristin saw excitement dilating the pupils of her hazel eyes. Her skin looked tanned with hints of sunburn, from her perpetual forgetfulness for the use of sunscreen that Adam gently scolded her about daily. The smile lines at the outside of her eyes were deeper than the last time she looked, from forever squinting in the sun and days of laughing, singing, and learning with her first graders. She blamed the worry mark between her brows on her political work. “No campaigns this fall,” she whispered to herself, not because of her vanity, but because she needed a break.

She reached for the ancient-but-not-antique tub faucet, testing for the cold water. She hated hot showers, even on freezing days, and was pleased that Adam had used up the hot water, even in his short, five-minute shower. No chance for scalding here, she snorted. She showered quickly, working fast to scrub, before turning off the faucet to shave her legs. Why the effort after nine-and-a-half days of dust, hiking sweat, and camping grime? They had stopped in Moab on the first day, but that was miles and days ago, buried under the adventures of walks in Utah’s red rock country. She had forgotten about looks and smells. Despite squashing her feelings deep into the backpack of her heart, she felt completely comfortable in her skin with Adam.

“Don’t be silly. It’s Adam. Just tell him. If he doesn’t feel the same, it will be okay. Honestly. Neither of you are attached to anyone. Be brave. Be honest, Kristin!” She gave herself one last cold water shiver and then abruptly shut off the water. The shabby towel barely covered part of her healthy, muscular frame, but she would be dry soon enough in the hot, arid New Mexico air. She let her dark hair hang loose after quickly combing out the tangles with her fingers. Kristin slipped into the red sundress, the last unworn and clean garment in her backpack, the wrinkles quickly shaken out of the modern travel fabric. She stabbed silver hoops into her ears and fastened her grandmother’s silver and turquoise necklace around her freckled neck. The hammered silver cuff that she had bought in Santa Fe, she slipped on her left wrist. She buckled the grey rubber strap of her running watch around her right arm and stepped into black flip flops. She smeared on a finger of lip balm from the tiny yellow and white jar she always carried in her pocket. No more grooming supplies to delay the inevitable, she opened the door, struggling with the ill-fitting door in the frame.

Adam looked up from Kristin’s copy of The Brave Cowboy. “Wow! You don’t look like you’ve been camping for days!” he stutters. “I mean, you look great!”

“Thanks!” Kristin’s heart jumped into her throat at the sign of Adam’s awkwardness.

“Ready for dinner, K? I’m starved,” Adam quickly returned to normal.

Their strides matched, hands brushing as Adam opened the door. Kristin’s stomach butterflies and galloping heart barely stayed inside her body as she squeezed her palms together in prayer, eyes closed briefly. Adam did not seem to notice, his quick lopsided gait already five steps ahead of her before he turned, smiled, and waited.

She caught up, matching him stride for crooked stride. She stuttered with no words on her tongue, but he faced the restaurant’s huge iron gate on the front door, a few stores down from the motel. While a party of seven stumbled out of the door, Kristin and Adam tiptoed into the old dive restaurant. Ice cold air conditioning blasted. Kristin shivered, relishing the cold, while mentally chastising the owner for having air conditioning instead of energy-efficient fans. The waitress steered them to a corner booth, handing them cloudy plastic-laminated menus. They sat, away from the long, loud table of a family, happily celebrating a birthday. Except for the birthday celebration and a couple who paid their bill, Kristin and Adam were the only ones in the restaurant. It was a late summer weeknight in the quiet New Mexico former boom town.

Adam nibbled at chips and salsa. Kristin stared at her menu, even though she knew exactly what she wanted to get.

“Are you ready to order, darlin’?” the waitress asked in a throaty voice, sounding like a jazz singer. Kristin made up a story in her head about the waitress and her basement recording studio, while Adam ordered cheese enchiladas with green chile. Kristin waited for the waitress’s friendly nod in her direction and then squeaked out her own order of a stuffed sopaipilla, also with green chile.

“Did you know that New Mexico has a state question, ‘Red or green?’ indicating the most important decision, not who to vote for, not what you believe in, but what type of chile you eat,” Kristin smiled.

Adam’s face lit up. “I absolutely love that. It gets to the heart of a place, and to the very basic and most important:  how we eat.”

Kristin asked the waitress for an order of sopaipillas for dessert and snapped the menu shut, even though she had not looked at it.

“What’s been your favorite, so far, on our trip?” Adam asked.

Kristin paused. “The absolute whole thing. I’m so glad we have had all this time. What about you?” Kristin threw the conversation ball back to him, unsure how she could begin the difficult topic of her heart.

“That the lands you’ve long described in letters and e-mails and raved about in phone calls have come alive to me. Abbey has nothing on you in description and passion. Remember when we were messaging at the beginning of the summer and you talked about wanting to return to your dream of writing? You should write about this. This magical place you know so well,” Adam looked at her, his eyes smiling.

He grabbed her hand for a moment and dropped it to reach for another chip and dipped it into the bright red salsa. Kristin opened her mouth to speak, but the waitress clattered to the table with another basket of chips and small bowl of salsa. The red salsa reminded her of blood and her beating heart.

“Adam, this has been like a dream trip, but I have to tell you something,” Kristin’s voice cracked.

Adam glanced at her, his warm brown eyes showing concern. He did not say a word, but a million thoughts passed between them in what feels like an hour, but was really only a second or less.

A dish shattered and a child screamed from the birthday table. The waitress darted over with a broom, a woman picked up the toddler gently rocking and soothing. Kristin longed for her heart to be soothed and healed like the hurts of a three-year-old. She stared up at Adam, his eyes still wide open with worry.

“We are 38 and I have realized something. I’m tired of living in dreams. I want to do things, instead of thinking about them. That includes writing, like you talked about. I’m starting massage school in September. I will go at night, but I will still teach first grade. I have an article written that I submitted to a magazine before we left for this trip. I don’t know if it will get published, but I am proud that I finally stood up and tried. There’s another part of my life where I need to be brave and honest, though.”

She nervously twisted the silver bracelet on her wrist and bit her lip. At that moment, the swinging door between the kitchen and dining area opened and their waitress, in what seemed like Olympic-sprint-speed to Kristin, gracefully glided over to the table with two large plates of food, steam rising like circles of smoke from a campfire.

Adam, with the hunger of a wolf after a long winter, ripped open his napkin-knotted bundle of silverware and shoveled a forkful of cheese and tortilla into his mouth. He looked up at her sheepishly. Kristin lost her balance and resolve to speak, focused instead on her napkin and the plate of food in front of her. She took a bite, the scalding cheese burning the roof of her mouth. Jaw locked, unable to speak, she swallowed the bite. Her esophagus melted, she was sure, and she choked.

Adam reached over and slid her glass of water closer, “Are you okay? Is it too hot?”

Kristin’s eyes watered, the choking continued. She gasped, taking a large mouthful of water. She swallowed. Airway cleared, she let out a big sigh. “Sorry. I got too excited, I guess.”

“You were about to say something and then I rudely interrupted you with my big gulp of food,” Adam’s eyes twinkled at her. “Bravery and honesty,” he prompted her.

She blew the bangs off her forehead again. He reached over and smoothed the worry line between her eyebrows.

“What is it? It’s just me,” he whispered. She thought he whispered, but the tone and volume were normal. He spoke above the din of the clatter of the kitchen and over the hum of the family at the other table picking up the remnants of dinner leftovers and birthday presents, their evening revelry complete.

Kristin blurted, “Adam, I love you. I have for years. But now it’s real.” The world came to a halt. No sound, no movement, no light. Kristin couldn’t feel her body, only her heart huge and beating in her throat, in her temples, in her stomach. She looked down at the table and focused on the faded crack on the bright white plate holding her dinner. She wiped her palms on her sundress, but the world appeared in black and white. Slow motion.

She looked up at Adam and color returned to the world. She saw the grey of his t-shirt and the blue of his faded jeans. She squinted down at the table, seeing the bright red of the salsa, the cobalt blue placemats. She felt warmth and saw his hands grasp hers.

“Oh, Kristin. I think it’s always been you.”

“But you didn’t say anything,” her own voice low and barely above a whisper.

“Neither did you. I figured we’d get past the layers of politics and see if we could regain our magic of being in each other’s company after all these years.”

“Yes, that’s it. The magic,” she croaked, her heart still beating in her throat.

“Well, yeah, but also the magic of daily humdrum. I got the job. I’m moving to Denver, if that’s okay with you.”

Kristin looked up at Adam’s crooked grin. “You mean we can have day-to-day-life, not just sporadic e-mails, phone calls, and instant messages. Honesty and bravery are messy. People are messy. Hearts are messy. Love and life are messy.”

“Yeah, it’s going to be messy and different and chaotic. Vacations and faraway fantasy are fun, but I want the challenge of household chores. The monotony of work and sleep and breakfast. I want late-night chats, and even early-morning arguments,” Adam’s voice cracked.

“Are you ready for the mess?” Kristin asked.

Adam reached over and grasped her hand. “Absolutely, I’m ready for the mess.”

They looked up, ear-splitting grins cracking open their hearts and faces.

Adam chuckled.

Kristin leaned back and let out a full-body cackle. “Let the mess begin.”


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