“The Color, The Brain, The Heart” by Tara DaPra

“I will definitely quit smoking,” I told Linda, as I struggled to match her pace. It was my
second day in Montana and the first time I had seen a mountain. Linda kept her strides
long, her calves flexing and contracting with ease through the unmarked path.

“Isn’t this amazing!”  Linda’s gentle voice shone contentment. “I never get tired of hiking
the Beartooths. Little different than Green Bay, huh?”  She looked back, cheeks flushed
through her olive skin. “How ya doing?”

I paused, leaning against a boulder. “Uh, I’m hanging in there.” Linda smiled and kept
moving.

Though my heart beat double time, my lungs wouldn’t open any wider. I kept climbing
anyway, scrambling on all fours, pulling myself up with tree roots, watching carefully for
which rocks were suitable footholds and which were better to send me tumbling down
the mountain, if tomorrow that were more to my liking. Despite my wheezy lungs, my
heart spread warmth I hadn’t felt in months. Sweat cleansed my body of last night’s beer
and began to release the last six months of grief.

In truth, I was relieved not to be accommodated. Since December my friends had been
walking on eggshells, careful not to mention Matthew’s name. As if saying it would
remind me of what happened. Remind me?  That’s all I thought about. I breathed it in
and out all day long, my heart reminding me with every weak beat. I was tired of
changing therapists, trying to find one that fit. I was tired of my family’s frustration that I
wasn’t better yet. I was tired of being that girl whose boyfriend had killed himself.

When my Aunt Linda heard the news, she sent a condolence note on a thin white card
with an orange and yellow nature scene. After the tidbits of family info and the customary
“I’m so sorry,” she closed with the first exchange to raise my interest in months. “If you’d
like to come to Montana for the summer, we have an extra room for you. New scenery
might be nice.”

I had never been to Montana, and since I was spending most days buried in my down
comforter, I accepted.

My first summer home from college, Matthew and I waited tables together at a pasta
restaurant. We fell in love over the Spicy Garlic and spent the summer drinking wine on
his roof. Every morning, Matthew played songs on his guitar, and every night we made
love before falling asleep, limbs entwined. Come fall, I returned to college in Iowa.
Matthew struggled against his tendency to fade with the seasons. I gave him emotional
mouth-to-mouth for three months from 300 miles away.

December 3rd, the anniversary of his engagement approached. Matthew became
overwhelmed with his patterns of self-destruction. This time he sank beneath the surface
and did not come up for air. His last words to me, in a suicide note I received through the
mail, read I love this world and the people in it, but I cannot love myself. I dropped out of
school, drank more beer, smoked more pot. Summer was approaching again. Time for a
change.

“What do you want to do after this?” Linda paused, waiting for me to catch up.

“Have a beer.”

People like to believe, “If only I didn’t have to work/go to school/take care of my kids, I
would watch more movies and read more books.”  After three weeks of a fruitless job
search in a state where I only knew three people, renting one or two movies every night,
reading one or two books each week, I was no longer under that delusion.

Just as I considered serving unlimited salad bowls at the Olive Garden, I got an
interview at Walker’s Grill. Walker’s occupied the garden level of a historic landmark, the
old Chamber of Commerce building. Bill, the owner, toured France every year, sampling
wines and sending cases home. (“Before I die, I’m going to drink a five-figure bottle of
wine,” he told me once.)  I wore a button-down, light cotton shirt with my dark-rimmed
glasses to the interview. The shirt’s shade of blue soothed my nerves and the glasses
made me feel smart. I entered the restaurant with a Midwest work ethic, an eagerness
to learn, and an air of fake confidence.

“How long do think you can commit to this job?” Bill asked.

“Indefinitely,” I replied, blinking slowly.

“I’m the only one who’s here indefinitely,” Bill squinted. I shifted my gaze. “My point is,
we don’t hire people who will only be here for six months.”

“Um, at least a year,” I offered, which wasn’t totally a lie. I had no plans past the
summer, as I was incapable of looking that far into the future.

After the interview, I returned to the cozy 1940’s bungalow on one of the “tree streets,”
a few blocks from Montana State University. Linda sat at the dining room table, head
bowed, sorting through stacks of paper. Her dark hair was clipped in short waves, curved
neatly around her nape. She looked up from the mess. “How’d it go?”

My brain buzzed with clips of the interview. “I think it went well but it’s hard to say. They
asked me a lot of questions and I remembered to ask questions back so I looked
interested. I tried to make a lot of eye contact to seem confident but I just don’t know.”
I took a deep breath and exhaled. I could feel my heart beat through my fingertips.

“You should send a thank you note.”  She rummaged through the pile and found a stack
of cards. “Here you go.”

Three days later, I got a phone call.

“Hello?”

“Hi Tara, this is Gala from Walker’s Grill. If you’re still interested, we’d like to offer you a
job.”

I had mornings to myself at Linda’s house. I’d come up from the basement, eyes blurry
with sleep, and pour a cup from the French press my Uncle Paul had made that morning
before riding his bike to work, off to fight the polluting oil companies. I splashed in some
water and microwaved the mug for a few minutes, added cream, then sat down at the
antique oak table. Sunlight streamed in the east windows as I read the Billings Gazette.

Montana was run by large landholders, and the state had only voted for one Democratic
president since 1968. I tortured myself every day reading the opinion page. Misguided
souls preached “no state sales tax” despite Montana’s poverty ranking as the highest
outside the Deep South. They called for an amendment to privatize public ownership of
water, one the state Constitution’s founding principles. And they loved their guns.

“Teddy, weeeee!  One, two, three . . . teddy, wee!”  Linda and Paul’s son sat on my bed
sending a brown teddy bear spiraling above his head. My dad had given me that bear for
Christmas two years ago—the annual present he picked out on his own, apart from the
meticulously foolproof list. When I started spending most nights at Matthew’s
apartment—much to my father’s dismay who promptly kicked me out of the house—I
brought it along. Matthew’s parents found the bear when he was in the hospital, and
they tucked it under his arm as he died.
“Dante, it’s time to get ready for swim lessons. Can you put Teddy back please?”

It was Tuesday, one of the afternoons I watched my six-year-old cousin. Dante ran to
retrieve the bear from its crash landing on a pile of dirty laundry. “Ooga-booga,” he
replied, giving Teddy one last spin onto the bed.

“Dante. March.”

“Okay, Tara-tory,” he replied, racing up the stairs. He pulled off his shirt, discarding it the
hallway before he reached his room. Dante was quite proud of his clever nickname. A few
years later, picking up on a buzzword in the media, I would become “Tara-rism.”

With Dante buckled in the backseat, we made the short trip to Rocky Mountain College.
After I secured a parking space, Dante slipped his soft warm fingers in my hand, and we
trekked across the blacktop. The sight of brick buildings and lush green lawns invoked a
twinge of sadness that I was no longer in school.

Inside the pool, the smell of chlorine recalled the excitement of summer vacation. Dante
joined his swimming group, and I sat on the bleachers with a copy of Utne Reader,
content reading to the hum of echoing voices, splashing water, and tweeting whistles.
Between paragraphs of “Four Weeks Vacation: a Campaign to Give Americans more Free
Time,” I glanced around at the other responsible adult figures. I wondered what they
thought of me. Did I look like a single mother?  The nanny?  The depressed niece whose
aunt pitied and brought into her home?  Dante waved from the sidelines, shivering in his
green and orange trunks, lips blue. I smiled back, happy to be the important figure in
someone’s life, if only for a few hours each week.

On other afternoons, I explored the parks near the house, soaking in Montana’s brown,
rocky landscape. Jagged bluffs surrounded Billings. Up the steep hill towards the airport,
I climbed car-sized boulders comfortably positioned at the edge of the cliffs. Wildflowers
grew between the cracks. Twisted pine tree roots grappled through the rocks in search
of water and security. I sunbathed nude in the protection of the rock’s walls, reading
Prozac Nation. Ninety degrees of dry heat beat down from the sun, radiated off the
rocks, and soaked into my tender flesh. The sun—steady, enduring, optimistic—relaxed
the tension grief had twisted through my muscles. My mind went mercifully blank.

At the Yoga Center on one of Billing’s oldest streets, I learned how to breathe. The
space circulated calm, gentle energy between its polished wood floors, uneven brick
walls, and slow chanting music. At the end of each class, in Shiva Sana, the instructor
would tuck blankets under our chins, lay an eye pillow across our brow, and gently
squeeze our shoulders, forearms, calves, and feet. During one particular meditation,
between gentle deep breaths, a bright blue image flashed under my eye pillow. I was
back between the sky blue sheets lying next to the searching blue eyes. My lashes
dampened, and my heart began to pound. Before I could grasp hold, the moment passed.

What took me from that memory?  Since Matthew’s death, I had wished, hoped, prayed,
pleaded, demanded, and bargained to recapture the sensation of Matthew. If he must
stay dead and I couldn’t find the energy to quit living, at the very least, let us meet
somewhere in the middle. I read books with titles like Hello from Heaven! filled with
testimonials of the bereaved communicating with loved ones. I stopped reading them
when the book claimed communication with suicide victims was not likely. Suicide deaths,
it explained, were trapped between this world and the next for leaving the earth before
“their time.”  I crossed “books written by psychics” off the list of helpful things to read in
moments of desperation. I wiped my eyes and disciplined my breath.

On free nights, I had dinner with Linda, Paul, and Dante. Linda would make curried
chicken in a clay adobe pot or polenta with saltissa, the sausage you could only buy at
Stan’s Big Dollar in my parents’ Upper Michigan hometown. We often had dinner guests,
which kept the household fresh: Kane, the son of a family friend, a medical student with
whom I had a one-week fling; Jeanne, Paul’s sister who was running for State
Representative and lived on a grasshopper-infested ranch (as discovered from behind
the safety of a car window); Marjorie, Paul’s mother who was unhappily transitioning to
assisted living. She was entering early stage Alzheimer’s but still had many sharp
moments.

“I heard you lost someone you loved,” Marjorie said to me one night at dinner. I was
taken aback, so used to people avoiding the death topic, suicide especially, at all costs.
“I buried two husbands but nothing like that . . .” she said. Her milky blue eyes searched
my face without pity, without judgment. Marjorie just looked sad.

During my training at Walker’s, Bill catalogued each ingredient in every dish on the
menu, describing the origin, kitchen prep, and cooking technique. I learned the five wine
regions in France and how the grapes transformed when planted in the US, then
Australia, then Argentina and Chile. I made a list of food description words and mixed
and matched them to the salmon, lamb, and pasta specials each night. Tangy and sweet
pork chop chutney; halibut in buttery, rich buerre blanc; bright, tart, blood orange crème
brulee. Our patrons were fierce regulars in the fourteen days morels were in season,
summer vacationers driving cross-country sent by the Sheraton, ranchers requesting
specially cut twenty-four ounce steaks. They listened intently to my descriptions and
trusted my recommendations.

“Hi Bill,” I greeted my boss early in the dinner rush. Conversation buzzed between
patrons among the dimmed lights, white linen, and elaborate floral arrangements. I
placed my tray on the bar and began arranging drinks in a circle. Bill leaned against the
bar, one cowboy boot crossed over the other.

“Not yet,” he quipped. “But I will be after a few more Martinis.”  He swallowed the rest
of his Cosmo and raised the empty toward the bartender. “I’ll take a Mandarin this time,
Jed.”

Two rounds of tables later, the night began to wind down. “Do you wanna go out after
this?” I asked Corrie. She looked up from the order she was punching into the
computer. “I was thinking about the Brew Pub.”

“I have to get Jake from my mom’s,” she hesitated, brushing back a dark curl.  “But I
guess I could have one drink.”

Corrie was a great mother, but she was still young. After working as a nude model for
art students in Missoula, she dropped out of college and moved to LA. By her second
waitressing job, Corrie was picked up by an agent who worked with after-school
specials and made-for-TV-movies. “I was the only fair-skinned brunette in a city of sun-
soaked blonds,” she told me. The week she met her agent, Corrie discovered she was
pregnant. Two months later and one boyfriend lighter, she drove home to Montana,
stopping every thirty minutes to throw up.

After work we drove the three blocks to the Brew Pub. Late night Billings was crawling
with drunken homeless people, most harmless, but it didn’t feel safe to walk. The Brew
Pub was a long space, with a polished oak bar in the center and high tops radiating
around it. We drank pints of Blond Ale. Corrie had one and left. I stayed for four more
as others from work joined the table.

As high as Bill, I climbed into my car and started the engine, paying special attention
not to fasten my seatbelt. I drove a coppery-brown Toyota which badly needed new
brakes, shocks, and a muffler. Driving a beater was liberating. I had no fear of an
oversized pickup parking too close and dinging the door or the stereo getting ripped
off since the tape deck only played on one side.

Pulling out of the parking lot, I made a wrong turn off Third Ave. “Fuck,” I muttered. I
think I can go this way, I thought, avoiding the effort of a U-turn. I rummaged through
my purse to find a light for my Kamel Red and didn’t notice the orange cones
approaching. The car dropped off the edge of solid road into torn up construction
gravel, bouncing roughly. I continued to rummage through my purse until I found the
light, flicked the fuse, and inhaled the incense, before gunning the Toyota back onto
solid road.

“I’ve got the day off tomorrow,” Linda said as we each chose a page from the
Mandala coloring book. Her Eastern European immigrant/lesbian/artist friend designed
the books. This one was a compilation of Mandalas created by children around the
world. “I was thinking about going for a hike. You wanna come?”

“Sure, I’ll set my alarm for seven or so. Can you pass me the orange and blue,
please?”  Walker’s was closed on Sundays. It was good for me to have something
planned on those days – otherwise I might miss the daylight hours.

“I’ll knock on your door around eight,” Linda replied.

By 8:30 the next morning we were buckling into the black leather seats of Linda’s 88
Saab. “Where are we headed?”  I glanced over at Linda. She was replacing her
delicate metal-framed glasses with multi-colored, bug-eyed sunglasses.

She gauged my expression. “I thought the frames were fun at the time.  Now I’m
stuck with them.”  She laughed. “We’re going to the Beartooths but not through Red
Lodge. This spot is along the Wyoming border. It’s much more secluded….
Peaceful.”

We drove south past the smoke stacks of sugar beet refineries. There were only
about three towns between Billings and the Wyoming border, but there was plenty of
earth, the color of deep pumpkin, faded by wind and dust that stretched out to an
invisible horizon. When the two met, they melted perfectly into each other, creating a
soft purple haze you could only see if you relaxed your eyes, breathing into the beauty
of perfect union.

“So how are things going?”  Linda glanced at my copy of Veronika Decides to Die. “You’
ve been napping a lot lately.”

I finished my sentence and put the book down. “Okay, I guess.”  I paused. “Work is
going really well. I’ve been hanging out with Corrie a lot lately. Jacob is such a fun
baby – he loves going out to lunch with us.”  I paused and picked at my fingernails.

“Linda, what would you do if Paul died?”

Linda adjusted the volume on the stereo and thought for a moment. “Well, I’m sure I’
d be very sad. I would probably put a lot of energy into Dante, but I like to think I
could find another partner someday.”

“But what if he’s your soul mate?”

“I guess I hope there’s more than one match for each of us. Why should there only be
one?  Anyway, who says a soul mate has to be your spouse?  Can’t you find that in a
child or a friend or more than one match?”

“I guess I never thought of that.”  As I let her words soak into my brain, I stared at
the mountains slowly rising through the windshield. “Linda, do you know that when I
was young, you were the only adult who spoke to me like a person and not a little
kid?”

She patted my knee and we drove on in silence.

Two hours later we pulled onto a gravel road. The Saab bounced roughly between
potholes. Long pine tree arms brushed the car windows and scented the air. A few
minutes later, the trees receded and the skyline opened. Linda pulled along the edge
of the gravel opening, took the key from the ignition, and turned towards me.

“This is it.”  Her dark eyes sparkled in anticipation.

As we stepped out of the car, I strained my neck to soak in the mountains. Island arc,
continental collision, convergent plate, subduction zone, compression, reverse thrust
fault during the Late Permian to the Miocene describe how these mountains rose from
the earth; understanding those things made them no less magnificent. The brown
giants lined with pines sat quietly as monuments of endurance. The ground around the
mountains was dusty and dry, covered with sage and other tough brush. My heart
jumped as a small pinkish-gray lizard shot out its tongue and captured a cricket.

We began our hike through a field of tall grasses. Pickers tangled into the laces of my
tennis shoes; twigs and rough groundcover scraped my unprotected legs. I narrowly
missed stepping in a huge pile of dung. “This is also a horse trail,” Linda said.

As we ascended the trail, the landscape changed quickly from an open grass field to
thick mountain forest. The dirt path forked and Linda led me through a narrow ledge.
Holding tightly to rocks for security, we crawled under a narrow arch toward the smell
of moisture. The scattered sagebrush gradually transformed into bright green moss.
Fresh mint and lavender perfumed the air, and I heard the rush of moving water. Then
I saw our destination: a tall and delicate waterfall splashed over a boulder, trickled
down the rock wall, and landed gracefully in a small pool. The mountain walls on three
sides created a private sanctuary. Long smooth grass covered patches of earth, and
tiny flowers in purple, white, and orange bordered the edge of the pool.

Linda and I stripped down and stood under the waterfall’s shockingly cold shower.
The water washed the salty sweat from our hands, hair, and backs. Under the
waterfall, a thick cushion of moss carpeted the rocks. I inhaled the sharp, clean
mountain air, sending fresh oxygen to my brain. Linda took pictures of me from across
the pool, legs crossed, knees hugged to my chest, head turned toward the camera.
The pictures revealed a grin I recognized from another lifetime.

The basement steps at Linda and Paul’s house opened to a ceramic tile landing, with
doors radiating in all directions. My bedroom was across from the laundry room and
shared the floor with Linda’s massage room, the office where they were launching a
bike tour business, and a sauna. The morning of my birthday, I was buried in navy
flannel sheets and a gray-blue down comforter when I was unhappily awakened by
Dante’s voice.

“See you!  See you!” he chimed to the opening and closing of the sauna door.

He seemed to be playing with some imaginary Pokémon friends or maybe his guinea
pig, but after a few more refrains, Linda’s calm voice, neither irritated nor neglectful,
called out, “Dante, can you please keep the sauna door shut. You’re letting the heat
out.”

It was silent for a few moments before Dante began again. “See you!  See you!”

At this point I was wide awake, pissed to be roused so early on my birthday. I lay in
bed thinking of all the torturous ways I could get back at my cousin when to my
surprise, my anger quietly dissipated.

Late June. Humid. Matthew’s second story apartment, upstairs of a 1920s house. One
oscillating fan struggling to cool the room. “There’s something I want to play for you.”
Matthew watched me carefully as he slipped the reddish-orange disk into the stereo.
“I love this song. It always makes me think of you. I play it a lot when you’re not
around.”  I sat on the honey-colored couch, hugging my knees to my chest. Strumming
acoustic guitar vibrated from the speakers:

These notes are marked return to sender
I’ll save this letter for myself
One thing is always true
How good it is to see you
See you . . . See you . . .

I’ve heard that the dead sometimes communicate through the living:  the young, the
infirm, the insane. They are more pure, more base, closer to the elements. I never liked
that idea. It’s too Hollywood-meets-Sylvia Browne. On my twentieth birthday, I began
to understand that like most things in life, it was simpler than that. More subtle. At six
years old, Dante was open to suggestion. He didn’t self-censor the way we do as
insecure teenagers and anxious adults. He said the first thing that popped into his
head, and that day it happened to be a birthday hello from his cousin’s dead boyfriend.

As the sugar maples turned crimson and began dropping their leaves, December 3rd
crept closer – the anniversary of the day Matthew pulled his car into the garage,
blocked the doors, and let the engine run. All he had to do was breathe in and out. A
neighbor heard music blaring from the garage and broke in the door. Doctors stabilized
Matthew’s body only to discover his brain would never regain any upper level function
– no memory, no consciousness – what the doctors called a persistent vegetative
state. We had to remove his feeding tubes and watch his body slip into physical death.
Death by starvation. His mind, his essence was gone, but his heart still beat and his
lungs pumped air. “His soul is trapped,” my sister said after seeing him in the hospital.
“You’re doing the right thing by letting him die.”

I wanted to do something on the anniversary of that day, to not file Matthew’s
memory into the catalog of under-celebrated events in my life. But I could think of
nothing special that was creative and meaningful and understated enough to honor
the life I lost.

I made no plans that day and accepted an invitation from Corrie to find a Christmas
tree. She picked me up in her black Pathfinder with the bumper sticker Well Behaved
Women Rarely Make History on the tailgate. Jacob was strapped in tightly behind me,
red fleece bulging out of his car seat. He smiled and flailed his arms while I buckled in
the front.

We drove towards Red Lodge, my last trip to the mountains, in search of Corrie and
Jacob’s Christmas tree. As the Beartooths wound tighter, Corrie pulled onto the
shoulder near a flat patch of earth. Scraggly pines scattered the rocky ground.
As we searched the area, I thought about the lore associated with pines trees. In my
sorority, the pine tree had been a symbol of the present, its enduring green needles,
its roots that find water where no other trees can live, its one straight stem pointing
towards the heavens. In Chinese art, the pine tree represents longevity,
steadfastness, and discipline. Early New Englanders adorned militia flags with the pine
to symbolize hardiness and fortitude.

“How about this one?”  Corrie stood next to a tree not much taller than herself. The
tree’s branches were thin and few but its trunk was straight and its color strong. I
steadied the tree while Corrie worked the saw. After tying it to the roof, we climbed
back into the truck.

I glanced at Corrie in the fading light as the sun set behind us. “I’m glad I did this
today. I feel like I should be sad, but I’m not. I can’t really explain it. Maybe I’ve been
sad for so long that I don’t have anything left.”

Corrie searched my face, not sure what to say. “I wish I had known what day this is. I
would have done something.”  She leaned across the seat and hugged me tightly.
“There’s nothing to do,” I said into her hair. I let go of her grip and settled into my
seat. “I guess it’s just another day I have to live through.”

As the one year anniversary of Matthew’s death approached, I felt drawn to the place
we had shared our life, the place he was now buried. I wanted to be with my family for
Christmas, to celebrate my progress from the sad, tired girl whose heart pumped very
slowly to a girl who was reintegrating to the land of the living.

“I’ve decided on Minneapolis,” I told Linda. She stacked books into a box while I
packed away my summer tanks. “It’s close enough to Green Bay that I can visit when I
want but not too close that my mother can pop over uninvited. I want to live in the
city. I need a place that’s big enough to keep me interested. And Minneapolis is nice
because there’s a lot of green space.”

“You’ll love Minneapolis,” Linda said. “I lived there right out of college, on 34th and
Grand. Can’t you get reciprocal tuition in Minnesota?”

For my long journey home, Linda packed snacks of trail mix, hard-boiled eggs, and
dried dates (“I always get irregular when I travel,” she told me). As I pulled onto the
freeway, I soaked in the foggy blue mountains one more time, tiny in the distance, and
cranked up the Foo Fighters. It was warm for early December. Most of the October
snow had melted, and the smell of wet earth entered my cracked window. “And I
wonder . . . when I sing along with you . . .” I sang along with Dave Grohl’s angry,
nostalgic, mournful tune, “If everything could ever feel this real forever / If anything
could ever be this good again / The only thing I’ll ever ask of you, you gotta promise
not to stop when I say when . . . ”

“Shit!”  My car’s back wheels slid in slow motion, rocking to the left, rocking to the
right. I held my breath, as if to suspend the laws of physics, though my racing heart
told me it wasn’t working. I turned off the music and struggled to keep my car on the
road, praying a semi was not sitting around the turn. The shady curve along one of
Montana’s signature rocky buttes had blocked the sun from a lingering patch of icy
freeway. I had not noticed the ice until I felt a shadow cast over the sunroof.

A moment later, I was back in the rhythmic pulse of safe highway passage. For a time,
my shoulders remained tense, teeth clenched, brain on alert. But deeper inside my
chest, my heart gradually returned to its steady, enduring, optimistic effort. I had felt
afraid. I continued driving east.

 

 

Tara DaPra is an MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota, Managing Editor for the literary magazine Dislocate,  and a freelance writer for the Rake.  She enjoys equal parts alone time to social interaction, traveling to places new and familiar, and petting her dog Sally.

 

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