Diane Callahan – Paradise Slipping Off Her Tongue

A few years before the divorce, they’re in a busy restaurant outside Acadia National Park, and he’s reading the menu while she’s thinking about pushing a rock up a hill. Her head climbs with Sisyphus, whom she pictures as a French philosopher with a cigarette pinched between his lips, even though Camus is not a Greek hero and is perhaps not heroic at all. She loves him all the same.

Because their diet has not evolved beyond the stubbornness of childhood, they order mac and cheese and a plain burger. The blackberry bourbon lemonade sings to her, drink me, drink me, drink me, as if it could make her ten feet tall. She’s twenty-five but has never had a full glass of anything alcoholic. She asks the waitress for a blueberry soda, because when in Maine, and when married to a teetotaler . . .

They talk about plans, because that is what they do—a time-lapse of the sunrise from Cadillac Mountain, a walk across the land bridge that only appears at low tide, popovers and strawberry jam in their sweat-soaked shirts, and no thoughts of Sisyphus. But those things haven’t happened yet. The day is still darkening beyond the restaurant windows.

The park is called “Acadia,” but she finds paradise slipping off her tongue—“Arcadia,” the fabled utopia, a Thomas Cole pastoral populated by the tiniest of beings in fingernail robes, markings in the dirt as small as a sneeze. How absurd it was to be one of those specks of paint but to focus instead on the choice between flavored liquids and to try so hard not to change anything about yourself, when that, too, could be scraped off by a giant thumb.

They’re sitting across from each other. From their first date, they sat with elbows touching, moving napkins and menus to the same side, arm over arm as their forks poached bites from their shared plates. Here, though, the tables are too square, and a pole blocks the middle, so they don’t touch beneath the table at all, although she holds his warm hand in her cold one, feeling the dimples in his ring beneath her thumbnail, as if she could peel the silver away.  

Then comes the blueberry soda: fizzy, sweet, different. New. A question bubbles up from the bottle. She’s the one to ask it—the meaning of life. They’ve talked about it before, of course.

It’s a first-date question, but they’re two thousand one hundred and ninety-five dates in, so maybe it’s time they rewound back to the beginning.

He says what he’s always said: “It means nothing, but you make your own meaning.”

The question must’ve been wrong. She frowns at it, willing it to sharpen at the edges against a mental whetstone, wanting to hear thoughts that could draw blood.

“I just like thinking about these things,” she says, shrinking. “I want to doubt myself. I want to doubt everything.”

“Does that you mean you want to doubt us, too?” His expression is that of a wounded baby bunny, and she can’t help but rush to protect him.

“No,” she lies. “I’d never doubt you, silly.” Well, maybe that is true after all. It’s the other half of the equation that gives her an existential itch: the “me” independent of “you” in that “us.” She wants to separate solute and solvent so that they’re no longer homogenous and marvel at herself under a microscope, knowing full well that “me” is not an equation nor a solution but rather a Cheshire cat that shifts every time she tries to pin it down with her gaze.

He kisses her hand, and she blurts out, “What do you think of when you stare off into space?”

Her husband blinks at her. “Nothing.”

“Nothing at all?”

“I guess I just notice what’s in front of me. Like right now, I’m thinking about how beautiful you are.”

His answer is not a wrong answer because there’s no such thing. Though she smiles demurely, a barb of disappointment finds her anyway.

He looks down at his phone to check the weather. “What’s got you thinking about all this?”

Her heart perks up at the question. She fumbles an explanation of her readings about the idea of suicide in the face of a meaningless, contradictory existence. Too many inelegant “somethings” and “likes” get thrown in with Camus’s precise phrasings. As she falters along, her declarations suddenly feel obscene under the romantic restaurant lighting, beneath the stare of the bright-colored abstract paintings on the walls. So she trails off in the middle, and instead of continuing her sentence, her husband says:

“Should we get dessert?”

For the rest of the meal, they smile at each other and make pleasant observations about the size of their entrees, the crunchiness of the garlic bread. They discuss their plans, ready their leg muscles for quiet hours of hiking. She lets the myth of Sisyphus melt away as her husband takes pictures of the restaurant, their food, her—capturing only what can be seen.

She loves him all the same. He doesn’t need to doubt, has no doubts, no doubts have found him. The glass bottle of blueberry soda sweats in her hand, and the fizzy sweetness lingers on her tongue. It’s not so different, really, from what she knows: the sting of carbonation, the taste of blueberries, the familiar packaged as novelty.

Diane Callahan strives to capture her sliver of the universe through writing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. As a developmental editor and ghostplotter, she spends her days shaping stories. Her YouTube channel Quotidian Writer provides practical tips for aspiring authors. You can read her work in ConsequenceTales to TerrifyShort ÉditionTranslunar Travelers LoungeRiddled with ArrowsRust+Moth, and The Sunlight Press, among others. Follow her writing, reading, baking, and traveling exploits on Twitter: @quotidianwriter.