The Absolution of Atticus

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13 :: CALIFORNIA

— Grace —

“HE’S TAKING ME to wine country.” I emphasize the destination, hoping to come off just as vague as Mason sounded when he refused to give me the details of our upcoming vacation.

Val’s eyebrows raise over the rims of her glasses. “What? That’s huge! Oh my god, that’s like… like freaking Richard Gere riding over the hill on a white horse with—you know, with the wind blowing his shirt open. You know, like the piratey-looking shirts with the buttons and the—oh my god, it’s Mamma Mia! That’s what it is, Grace, it’s like freaking Mamma Mia!”

I gasp for a breath between fits of laughter. Val has risen from her chair now, palming my desk interrogation-style, “Dude, for real… you’re going to California?!

I nod, giggling. “Uh huh,”

She makes an explosion around her head with her hands and sinks back into her office chair with a flabbergasted look on her face. “God, I’m so jealous. That’s going to be so amazing for you guys! Take pictures of everything. Bring back samples of every wine… wait, can you bring alcohol on a plane?”

I chuckle at her dreamy-eyed expression, the exaggerated movements of her hands. Valerie is the closest thing I have to a sister. Avoiding anything relating to my mother’s impromptu departure last week has been wholeheartedly welcome for the past few days. Val doesn’t even need to ask if I’m okay; she simply knows I’m not. And she doesn’t bring it up. For now, Thanksgiving vacation plans have superseded any and all conversation topics.

Mason and I, butting heads now more than ever, have decided to go away together. It makes sense in my mind. A change of scenery will be nice. California is still warm. Although it wasn’t actually my idea to go on a wine-tasting tour, Mason insisted. He’s convinced that the beach is too cliche, too cheap. In the moment, I wanted to tell him that the ocean is actually priceless, but I figured that would just start another argument. Now that we’ve settled on this destination, it’s going to work. It’s got to work.

+++

Two hours ago, I was standing alone in the apartment hallway with a full suitcase and a jumble of empty words floating around in a cloud above my head. Cooper has done exactly what I asked. He’s kept his distance.

I’ve found that, ironically, the problem has come in me keeping mine.

Now, sitting at the back of the plane, I have to lean awkwardly around Mason’s open newspaper to glance through the window. He doesn’t like the aisle seat. I don’t either, but a slightly bruised shoulder is worth keeping him content for a few hours. When he catches sight of me looking over, he closes the newspaper, leans into me, and presses a full, bristly kiss on my mouth.

“A little excited, are we?” He says, trapping my chin in his grasp.

I blush. “Shouldn’t I be?”

“Yes,” He tucks a strand of hair behind my ear, softly and perfectly. “We’ve been going through a rough spot the past few months, I know…” His eyes scan my face, brows furrowed, assured. “But, I mean, baby I think you need this. I really do.”

I blink in surprise, halfway hurt. At what, I’m not exactly sure, but his eyes are so focused, so powerful. The confusion melts into a smile. “Right… absolutely,”

The liftoff is a thrilling experience. Rumbling and straining, I can imagine the inner workings of the engine, trembling down to my very core. I’ve never been afraid to fly, but I haven’t been out of Boston in years. The energy seems to seep up through the floor of the plane, into the chairs, and right through the palms of my hands, gripping the armrests. I chuckle softly, vibrations of near-freedom resounding within me. We’re about to be above it all, by miles. The whole craft lurches forward. And, gently but abruptly, we are moving off the ground. Mason rubs my arm.

After we take off, he holds my hand and lets me lean on his shoulder for about ten minutes, then pulls away and says he’s getting cramped. We both brought reading material, enough to last the all-day endeavor of reaching Sacramento International Airport before the sun sets. He’s got a copy of One Minute Manager and I’ve got The Reef: A Passionate History. It’s quiet between us, and I can’t help but feel that if someone were to catch sight of us, they’d think us no more than strangers.

Five hours in, we reach Denver International Airport and land. Mason leads me off the plane, hands interlocked, we make it to the terminal. He makes sure our stuff is settled in a neat pile all around me.

“I’m gonna go grab some food.” He tells me, eyes glued to his phone.

“Okay,” I’m barely able to reply before he goes. The place is full at midday, but somehow it’s lonely. Looking around with my book clutched under my arm, surrounded by backpacks and suitcases, I have the overwhelming urge to hustle out of the terminal before Mason gets back. I could find my way through the crowds, catch the next flight to Australia or Thailand or France or anywhere. I’ve got all I’ll ever need right here with me.

All too soon, Mason is elbowing his way back to me, carrying a foil-wrapped burrito in one hand and a plastic salad in the other. He shoves the plastic container at me and drops to the chair to my right. “God, I hate Thanksgiving. Why’s everyone so fucking pushy during the holidays?”

I study the puny-looking salad with what must be a grimace, because Mason rolls his eyes and raises his voice. “Oh, what? What’s wrong with that? It was twenty fuckin’ dollars! You want me to go back out there?”

Instantly, I feel a few suspicious glances shoot in our direction, and move to shush him gently. “No, no, it’s fine Mase, really… thank you babe.” I lean over and kiss him on the cheek. This seems to calm him down, because he sinks back down into the seat and takes a massive, resolved bite out of his burrito. My stomach growls at the smell of Chipotle, but I don’t dare ask him for a bite of it. Mason doesn’t share food.

We end up waiting for another hour. Mason seems to get more and more frustrated with every passing minute. He’s scrolling angrily through his phone when they finally announce our flight over the loudspeaker.

“Thank god,” Mason kisses me heartily on the lips and snatches up the heavier bags. And then we are sprinting through the terminal hand in hand, though we’re in no rush. These are the moments I love him most. We are so young and so alive. It’s a powerful feeling.

We arrive breathless at the desk, board with no issues, and settle back into a rehearsed silence side by side. Three hours pass this way for me, windowless and shoulder-bruised, like clockwork. The day has felt like five, but we reach Sacramento as the sun is setting. Its vivid golden colors illuminate Mason’s concentrated profile, and I can appreciate him from the shadows. I can assume it won’t get better than this.

+++

There is an Airbnb prepped and ready for us when we make it to Mendocino at almost midnight. The rental car has proven to be troublesome, and Mason is in a sour mood when we pull into the gravel driveway of the house.

Unloading the car, he’s grumbling about crazy Californians under his breath, and then announces, “I’m gonna order some takeout. Will you take these in?” He gestures to the bags and strides back out across the driveway, phone to his ear.

The house is wide open, windows everywhere. I open a few windows, draw my fingers across the granite counter tops, the wicker dining chairs, the sheer white curtains that billow out in the blue midnight breeze and remind me of home. California air has a taste. It’s the ocean and the mist and the soft smell of vanilla after I go through and light every candle in the place. I almost break into tears when I find the balcony.

When I hear Mason come in, I rush back out to the living room. He’s rummaging through the fridge, opening and slamming every cupboard, in what seems to be a blind rage.

I keep my voice steady. “Babe, what’s wrong?”

“They don’t deliver past midnight. I’m fucking starving!” He slams a drawer shut and rubs his head with both hands in frustration, then looks at me with a sigh. His expression softens. “Hey baby… come here.”

A warm feeling spreads through me at the careful act of taming this fire. He wraps me in a strong embrace, kisses the top of my head, lifts me up on top of the counter and moves down to kiss my collarbone. California is warm, and tender, and sober.

He works up my neck to my ear, gentle and better than I’ve ever felt him. Suddenly it gets more aggressive, more urgent. I’m being lifted, legs wrapping around his torso, heat spreading through my arms and chest and legs. When our mouths finally meet, it happens so fast. He carries me to the bedroom, tears my tights with a terrible ripping sound, holds me down against the sheets until I can barely catch a breath. Then he’s in me again and again and again, before I have time to kiss him back. Before I have time to see his face. So I just keep my knees open and feel him inside me, and let my eyes flutter closed through the pain, and try not to gasp too hard or wince too much. He’s got both my wrists pinned down, twisted so painfully I can’t even move. Everything is rough and desperate and twisted. After Mason finishes, he falls asleep with his back to me, bare and suntanned and strong. A wall.

I find myself staring up at the ceiling with tears in my eyes. It’s 2 am. Boston is three thousand miles away, but the ocean is right outside. So why am I crying? How many nights will I spend this way? How constant can the ache be?

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