So you think you can tell
Heaven from hell
Blue skies from pain
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail
A smile from a veil
Do you think you can tell
Did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts
Hot ashes for trees
Hot air for the cool breeze
Cold comfort for change
Did you exchange
How I wish you were here
We're just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl
Year after year
Running over the same old ground
What have we found?
The same old fears
Wish you were here
-"Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd
When Jack met Lureen Newsome, she was wearing red and white. He thought it looked cute at the time. Everything about her called attention to itself. She practically demanded to be noticed in the way she moved and talked and shot glances across a crowd toward him.
When Jack met Lureen, he was tired. He was tired of being dissapointed and of nobody giving a damn. And here was this cute little gal who had flashed him a wink and was now staring spears across the room at him. She was wanting to be noticed, all right, and he was glad to oblige as long as she kept taking so much notice of him. So he danced with this pretty girl that any man would be a lucky son of a bitch to even get one pearly white smile from, and tried not to listen to the lonely, longing tune being played or think of the open, uncrowded outdoors where the only music was the wind in the trees.
That very night Jack got much luckier than he ever would have expected. While he was driving, Lureen reached her hand over to Jack's seat and tickled the back of his neck right at the place where his hair began.
"You tryin' a make me hit somethin?" he laughed.
She giggled, her mouth suddenly right by his face, tickling his ear. He pulled the car over to the side of the road as she started to plant little kisses on his neck, and suddenly they were breathing heavily in the back seat and her hands were eagerly going right for the buttons of his pants. She did him right there in the car and all he could think was Good lord, this woman's crazy. He didn't know what the hell had hit him, but his blood felt warm pumping through his body for the first time in too goddamn long, and there was another warm body against him, and it felt like finally, and yes, and thank you.
But his mind kept drifting off to find that silence he knew was still hanging at the top of that mountain he'd left, where maybe a bird was making a crooning, mourning-like call that sounded like the song they had danced to. The truth was he felt so alone, even as he lay against Lureen's breasts in her arms afterwards when they still had twenty minutes to kill before she had to be home. She talked on and on about something that had nothing to do with what they'd just done, and he didn't hear a word.
Back then Lureen was such a thrill. Before long he found that what really got her off was doing whatever would make her parents' eyes pop out of their sockets in horror if they knew about her doing it. When she first took him out to dinner with them, she sat next to him smiling that bright white good-girl smile as she did all the talking for them just to make sure they were impressed, meanwhile moving her hand in between Jack's thighs under the table so that he gave a sudden choke and dropped his fork, supressing a laugh. Lureen giggled and glanced to the side at him with a secret smirk; her father looked at him like he was the lowest loser on the face of the earth.
It was so easy to be with this wild and loud girl who would do everything for the both of them, hardly ever needing any effort put forward on his part. This was the kind of girl he could settle down with. Sure. Real easy.
Not like it had been with the other for those few months of unimaginable pleasure and absolute torture he'd had that summer that he just thought he was getting into an easy job. At first he thought he knew there was no cracking Ennis Del Mar's shell, no way he would ever, no chance in hell, nothing there. Everything probably would have worked out better if he'd been right. When he finally, unbelievably got him just the way he wanted him, afterwards he felt like he could have scraped his fists against a tree until they bled because it may be the only time and that was just too much, more than he could take without being driven half-insane from the imprint and memory of that one time, one. But Ennis did cave in and give up resisting for just solitary, isolated moments for the rest of the summer, but Jack practically had to beg like a dog for every one and work for it. Ennis had to be carefully eased into everything to open up. Even every word he said had to be painstakingly drawn out of him with Jack's stubborn persistence. It was fucking exhausting.
He still felt the bruise on his cheekbone from where Ennis had punched him after all this time. There was an ache somewhere in his chest when he thought about it, and a poisonous anger about the whole thing - Aguirre making them leave the job early, and how it unexpectedly turned Ennis back into an inpenetrable mound of rock all over again. Maybe things hadn't needed to go the way they did that day. Maybe there was something else Jack could have said or done. But hell, he thought, why did he need to do all of the talking and doing all the time?
Something inside nagged him and said maybe the way Ennis was wasn't his fault. Maybe he needed him to say something. Maybe he needed Jack to draw the words out of him that he couldn't say on his own. I'm sorry, I didn' mean a hurt you back there, bud.
"Jack?" Lureen would say, sitting beside him with his arm around her, having just asked him some question when he was staring off into thin air. He would take a moment to remember where he was, Ennis's unspoken words still clouding his mind.
Ennis would be married by now just like he'd said. He had not come back to work for Aguirre again. They lived in completely different states now. Jack knew it was way past the time to realize there was no hope. He should have realized it after they said goodbye. He shouldn't have watched Ennis in his sideview mirror as he walked out of his life. He should have just drove right off and not looked back at all.
He tried to think of Ennis's shirt hidden in his bedroom in Lightning Flat and tell himself it was enough. Tried to accept that it was all he had. The shirt. That and one distant, hazy memory he had that now seemed more like something he'd heard in a fairy tale than something that had happened to him, of when Ennis had come up behind him and embraced him with no hesitation. The memory that hurt more than the remaining ache from the punch.
Enough, he told himself, and made himself marry Lureen Newsome while such a good opportunity was presenting itself.
She was still fascinating to him for all of the first six months or so, the way she so quickly adapted to the role of wife and learned how to keep a home. Everything in their house was so spotlessly clean and white, as if the air inside of it was different than outside and didn't even have any dust floating in it. Sometimes the atmosphere seemed just too sterile and blank, the air so clean it was unbreathable. He often found himself wandering out onto the porch to get a breath of outside air, the wind carrying the dirty scent of pine and dirt.
Lureen once planted herself in his lap while he was watching TV and picked a piece of a leaf off of his shirt that he hadn't noticed was stuck there. "Those red curtains I bought look real nice," she said, looking over at the dining room. "I think I could jus' do that whole room in that color. Get a tablecloth to match 'n' everthin.' What do ya think?"
He gave some half-hearted, neutral response and she kept talking, never short of energy and hardly stopping for breath in between sentences. Then during a rare pause of silence, he put a hand on her leg and said, "Y'know, you're a hell of a woman."
Any time he paid her a compliment like that she would grin widely and seem to turn into silk in his arms, reminding him of a satisfied, purring cat. It always made him think of that first time in her car, when she asked him if he thought she was going too fast. Of course he wouldn't have been thinking that about her; all he was thinking about was that somebody finally thought something of him. But now, every once in a while, he wondered about that, why she was in such a hurry as if she was gasping for air after being suffocated for so long. Why she needed the approval from him so much and melted right into him after he said it was just fine with him.
She still melted into him like that sometimes, and Jack vaguely felt that there was something about her at those times that was very sweet and vulnerable, completely unlike the lively and confident creature she usually was. He almost felt bad when he closed his eyes in the midst of it when he wasn't much in control of his mind and saw a different place around him than here. He once wondered fleetingly if the other ever thought about being back there when he was fucking his wife, then decided he'd never think about that again.
That particular night, when Lureen was happy about her new curtains, was when he got her pregnant with Bobby. He felt like there was something heavy like iron weighing him down in his stomach when he found out. He wouldn't be teaching his boy how to ride the bulls like his own daddy never taught him. No, Bobby would be taught about the family business and be a Newsome, not a Twist.
He felt more and more like he couldn't breathe anymore. Some indescribable pull was always drawing him out into the backyard, away from his family. He spent a lot of time alone out there on the porch, still hearing those unsaid words that haunted him. One aftermoon he was out there for a whole hour and no one ever came looking for him, and Lureen was the only one he heard even once speak his name in conversation inside. He could hear L.D. playing with Bobby, now eight months old, talking to him stupidly in that loud voice Lureen had inherited but sounded smarter using. He got in his truck. He started to drive to the post office.
He should have said something that day they parted. Ennis had needed him to be the one to say something. Maybe. Suddenly it seemed almost possible that he just needed him to be the one to say something now, do something. Maybe Ennis was just waiting for him these whole four years. It only seemed barely possible. But it was worth the try.
He sent a postcard to Ennis Del Mar, drove back home, told his wife he might be driving to Wyoming later that month to go see an old buddy. She had no objection.
Ennis had been miserably sorry about punching him. He had needed a reconnection just as much as Jack did. As soon as Ennis grabbed him and pressed him against a wall with a starving, reclaiming kiss, he knew that he should have known this all along. Ennis hardly knew how to speak his thoughts without Jack pulling the words out of him, but Jack always knew what the words were anyway, like he could read them where they sat nestled and hidden inside him, never spoken. He should have known.
When he had gotten the postcard with Ennis's short response, "You bet," his thoughts and his heart had suddenly started leaping around like a fish out of water. He'd had no idea what was going to happen when he got there but he couldn't help imagining, all the while trying not to get his hopes up for too much. What really happened the moment he and Ennis saw each other again was far beyond anything he had imagined during the whole drive there. Everything around them disappeared - everything that had been built into and added onto their lives - and they were nineteen again with no responsibilities and no worries. When they finally opened their eyes and had to go back to reality, Jack was surprised to find that Ennis had two children, had to think before he remembered why he had come in a red and white truck he didn't recognize.
Before they went inside Ennis had muttered breathlessly into his ear, almost soundlessly, Little darlin', so quietly that it barely came out. But Jack would never know for sure if he had actually heard it said out loud or if he had just been hearing it in his head, hearing Ennis's thoughts.
Sometimes it seemed he really could hear them. Jack always heard, loud and clear, what Ennis wasn't saying when he said, "I thought you was sore about that punch." And "I was just sendin' up a prayer o' thanks." And finally, "There ain't no reins on this one." He heard, I'm sorry. Christ, I cain't say how much I missed you. Please. You know it. I need...
He sure as hell could never read Lureen that way. She was like a completely different species to him. It was daunting how she had turned into such an intimidating businesswoman, always so headstrong and domineering. She had taken after her father so much, in ways he had never seen when he first met her and she was just a relaxed young lady. Now she was always talking on and on about nothing, her lips working into the receiver of a phone, her nails tapping noisily on the table when whatever was being said on the other line was aggravating her. If he could ever stop feeling sorry for himself for a moment, maybe he could have felt sorry for her. Poor Lureen. Poor him. Was this his life?
Jack had never hated his life as much as he did when he had to return to it that time after his first trip to Wyoming to see Ennis. In a way he had forgotten that perfectly clean, soulless house and had had some feeble dream that he wasn't really going to come back.
Red and white. Everything Jack had was red or white. Nothing he had was his.
The tile floor of the bathroom was white. The shirt Lureen had picked out for him for Christmas was red. The sheets on his bed were white. The cloth napkins on the table were red.
Lureen's lips and nails were bright, burning red and her face was pale white. These days she wore such a thick layer of make-up that it was like a protective mask. Rings with red rubies and white pearls shined and glimmered on her fingers as she smoked her cigarette and dialed numbers on the telephone.
Jack had a mask of his own. Not that L.D. would ever recognize it, but Jack was practically born to talk to customers, persuade them to take a look at things and buy. Just keep smiling and flashing those teeth, he thought wearily. Sometimes after a whole day's work he would come home and have to go straight into the bedroom where he could have some privacy before Lureen or Bobby noticed he was back and just let his mask peel off for a few seconds, listen to the silence of no machinery and nobody talking. He'd sit on the bed and close his eyes to relieve them of the brightness of the colors in the room and think of the lush green of trees, the dirty dark brown of firewood, the calm blue of the surface of the water at night. He thought of birds sleeping comfortably in nests and trees growing slowly and patiently. Silence, stillness, slowness. Out there on the mountain, nothing was this blank white he saw every day. It felt like negative space where nothing existed, all this white in his life. Not like out there, where his vision was always so full of sky and earth that he felt he could never take all of it in, sometimes thought his heart was going to implode from all the outside pressure when he tried to.
Sometimes when he sat on the bed thinking like this, it was all he could do to take tight fistfulls of the sheets in his hands and hold on, try to keep himself held together tight and not break apart. He'd take in a few deep breaths, put his mask back on, and go out into the kitchen where dinner would be ready.
But the feeling would creep back up on him and take control when his guard was down. Once while he was at the office going through some papers, when nothing at all had prompted it, when nothing had reminded him of it, he had suddenly been hit with a terrible, gut-renching, soul-tearing feeling of helpless needing, a feeling that he couldn't not be with him. His consciousness of the fact that he wouldn't be able to see Ennis again for still another three months was an affliction that he found himself suddenly without the strength to accept, a rock he needed to swallow but couldn't. And he just couldn't help it. He went to the bathroom and started sobbing into his hands as quietly as he could, his shoulders shaking uncontrollably, feeling like the sorriest fool and not quite understanding what had gotten into him until he pictured, in his head, Ennis laughing and smiling in that genuinely happy way that only Jack could make him smile. From then on, he was terrified about whether or not he would be able to keep holding in the feeling when he needed to or if he might break down unexpectedly again. Ignoring it, avoiding it, and just letting it linger inside him seemed to only make it worse, like neglecting an infected wound. He didn't know what the hell he was supposed to do about it. Ennis always said they had to stick this out, stand it. How was it so easy for him?
Something had happened to Lureen. It made Jack a little sad to watch her now. Not guilty. He wouldn't know how to begin taking responsibility for it, whatever "it" was. Just sorry.
He may never have known the true person she was underneath that bold, confident exterior, but he knew for sure that he didn't know this person she had become now. He felt like he never recognized this woman because she always looked different. Practically every time he blinked she had done something new with her hair or was wearing something that the Lureen from three years ago would never have worn. She was always redecorating some room in the house, buying new outfits that she only wore once when entertaining guests, changing the color of her hair over and over, ingratiating, waiting for approval and acceptance.
It was disheartening to compare the way she was now to what she was like that day he met her, when she had looked so pretty with her rich black hair in a ponytail that flailed behind her freely as she rode that horse away like her life depended on it. Perhaps she had been trying to win some battle against her father when she married the worthless fuck-up she'd picked up at the rodeo. But she'd lost. Now she had been reduced to a cold, passionless husk whose eyes never looked at anything farther away than the numbers she spent all day punching into a machine at her desk.
She wasn't that free-spirited young girl he'd known anymore. Something had chained her down, whether it was him who had done it to her or something else. And for that he was sorry as hell, almost told her so, one day when he was about to leave the office and he stopped and watched her punching those numbers for a moment in strange amazement. Instead he said nothing about it, just came forward, leaned over, and kissed her forehead, surprising her.
"You look real pretty today," he said. "Some kinda special occasion?"
He waited for that wide, glowing smile to spread across her face like it used to when he paid her a compliment. But after a moment of confusion she just cocked an eyebrow and smirked. "Allright, cowboy, no need ta beat around the bush. What do ya want?"
He gave an almost-felt laugh. "I don't want nothin' from you."
Even though he had said it in a gentle, joking tone, it was clear from the perceptible change in her that the truth of the statement was deeply felt, and he at once wanted to take it back. Her expression didn't change, but she just became very still and unlike her usual restless, animated self, staring forward at him blankly.
Suddenly he would no sooner stay in that room any longer than he would leave a knife sitting in her chest that he had accidentally drove in there. He just said, "Look, I'll see ya later," put his jacket on, and left. By the time he saw her later, he wasn't going to be sober enough to feel guilty about anything, that was for sure.
Something had happened to Jack. It would have been impossible for even Lureen not to notice.
When she had met him, she thought she'd never met anyone so youthful and enthusiastic. Nothing seemed to ever dampen his spirits or wipe that boyish smile off of his face. Here was someone whose head was always up in the clouds, and maybe she had thought that he could carry her away to those places he dreamed of, take her up into the blue sky where they would stay and never come down. She could relax with him. She felt like he didn't expect much of her; those dreamy eyes, just like a little kid's, never examined her in that judgemental, critical way she couldn't stand.
She thought she might know what had happened to that boy she married. He had invested so much of himself into his distant dreams that when they collapsed, parts of him did, too. She wasn't too sure what it was he had been reaching for and wanting so badly to attain before he became this way, but she certainly knew that he never wanted to end up selling farm equipment. She knew Jack had loved the rodeo, even though now he only complained about it and how it had left him so busted-up. Just talking about it used to make his eyes get all big and blue, his voice get so excited. His eyes never looked that way anymore.
That was all she could guess had happened to the young, coltish, light-hearted Jack she'd known. He had loved something so fiercely, hopefully, and passionately, but that thing had done nothing but fight him and throw him off, leaving him busted-up and broken from trying desperately to hold on. And he still held onto this thing he loved, wishing he could just let go and not want it anymore.
But he had given up. He had done what was easy. Jack had quit the rodeo when he married Lureen and started working for her old man in a business that certainly made more money than the bull-riding. He had given up what was him for what was not. And for what? Comfort and security. Fancy and expensive kitchen appliances. Heavy glass ashtrays that were too nice to use as ashtrays. And for that she was sorry as hell, almost told him so, one night when he came home after being out late drinking by himself and lay down in bed facing away from her. It wasn't like she never noticed that he wasn't okay. After he came back from those fishing trips with his friend in Wyoming, she could always perceive some kind of sorrow weighing him down, like coming back home made him feel like he had chains around his ankles he was dragging around. Or maybe something had happened in Wyoming to make him sad, she once considered. But she didn't dare ask him about it, because everything was fine as long as she didn't. And she didn't say anything then.