Steel By Anita Gill
He nearly killed us just after our eleventh anniversary. Glossy pages of the wedding gift guides call it the steel year. A shiny alloy of carbon and iron, strong yet malleable, what makes the bones of buildings, supports bridges, and for many years, served as the exoskeleton of automobiles. My partner and I had orbited the Chevy Malibu in the summer heat of the cracked Hertz parking lot that morning, inspecting for the slightest dent in the reflection of the overcast sky. The pen scraped the contract we confidently signed. The vehicle would shuttle us from Maryland to California. Neither of us noticed the balding tires caused by uneven pavement, surprise potholes, and dirt roads.
The landscape evolved with every mile marker: dense forests of cottonwoods and maples to rolling hills to rock formations jutting out of the earth. Seven months earlier, when we lived in Spain for my fellowship, my partner wrapped his arms around my waist, rested his head in my lap, and confessed I didn’t feel like home to him anymore. I tried to mend the rift. Counseling. Discussions. Sex. It worked. It didn’t work. To soften the blow, I returned to my research. I immersed myself in documents about historical plagues only to be caught in one that accelerated our return to the US.
Maryland became Virginia became Tennessee became his turn to drive, when gunmetal clouds rendered the afternoon into shadow. Large raindrops arrived soon after and smacked the windshield. Their uneven staccato pierced the silence.
This trip was a repeat of the one ten years prior, when our belongings were stashed under a dusty tarp in the pickup truck bed and secured with bungee cords. The radio stayed off. Our conversations were unending, a smooth movement from topic to topic, with moments of mutual laughter and a squeezing of the other’s hand.
How fitting it is to use driving terms for relationships: take a U-turn, go around in circles, speed bumps in marriage. We had none. Then, fresh out of an artist residency, he experienced an awakening. He revealed he never felt emotionally connected to me. With deft hands, he slowly unstitched the narrative we had woven together, reframing memories with the quiet misery he had endured. I blamed myself. I bargained. Promised to change. What others would call desperation I deemed as hope as I clung to the part of him hesitant to leave.
The red speedometer needle wavered five miles above the speed limit, just enough to skirt state laws. I suggested he slow down. He said he was fine. His response was so commonplace, so dismissive to my flickers of concern that I hated myself for having believed he would take my words to heart. And then we felt it underfoot, the brief glide on water.
The rear wheels gave way. The car swerved and fishtailed, a hard left and then right, a frantic amusement park ride. He hit the brakes. The vinyl seatbelt carved notches into my collarbone. We had passed speeding semis that sprayed a thick mist in their wake. I wondered how long until they caught up. My mind leapt forward, imagining, post-crash, the return to consciousness on a gurney, my body trapped in braces and casts. I shrank. I yearned to be microscopic and float out of the car, disappear into the ether. It would not be my end. My mind, my voice, fought to survive. There was so much I still wanted to say, enough to fill a library. I wanted to express everything. But my throat had tightened. I said one word over and over like a chant—his name.
The car slid to the left shoulder, stopping short of the median ditch. Our lungs filled with sterile cabin air. A newfound concern in his voice surfaced as he asked if I was alright.
In a year, we would find ourselves on opposite sides of the country signing divorce papers. On glowing laptop spreadsheets, I would observe my life categorized and listed in columns of items collected over the years, nearly a third of my existence on this earth built with someone ready to abandon it. This had always been a possible path our lives would take. There was no assurance the road might not split. Yet during the in-between, when we fretted over the choice, I had committed a grievous sin—staking my self-worth in reviving his commitment to me. With such a wager, who was I if I failed?
We breathed. Physically unscathed. Outside the window, a woman had stopped on the opposite shoulder. She waited. She watched. A good Samaritan in the storm, her headlights a beacon announcing I am here.
The steel anniversary. We hadn’t cared for such traditions. Or perhaps he didn’t. I had stopped celebrating after the second year. Cloth. My gift had been thoughtful: a packet of plaid handkerchiefs for his insufferable allergies. Later someone warned it was a bad omen. By gifting a handkerchief, you invited a reason to cry.
His voice broke through the ringing in my ears as he repeated his question.
Nothing was fine. But I assured him I was.
Anita Gill is a writer, editor, and recent Fulbright fellow in Spain. Her essays, memoir, and satire have appeared in Kweli, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Prairie Schooner, The Offing, and elsewhere. Her writing has been listed as Notable in Best American Essays and has won The Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction. She currently serves as the Nonfiction Editor at Hypertext Review while finishing writing her first novel. You can find more information on her website anitagill.ink.