The following is an excerpt from Should I Still Wish: A Memoir (January 2017) by John W. Evans. Evans is a Jones Lecturer in creative writing at Stanford University and the author of Young Widower: A Memoir (Nebraska 2014).
From Chapter 2: Badlands
The Billings, Montana, airport was little more than a stopover, a short building fenced a few miles in every direction, with a tower and radio, double-glass doors, and private airplanes crammed to one side of the field. I pulled my car right up to the gate. No wonder, I thought, Cait had to take three planes to get here. Heads of dead animals decorated the baggage claim. The usual candy and soda were for sale in the gift shop, beside sunglasses and paperbacks and a few local wares that looked homey and worn on the shelf. The flowers, at least, were reasonably fresh.
I am supposed to be here, I told myself. I got myself to Billings so that this moment would happen. Sally Todd’s fainting sofa and William Howard Taft’s enormous claw-footed bathtub waited together, in replica, at the entrance to the presidential-themed bed-and-breakfast I had booked online. Past the runways, I could see mountains in every direction and the small bowl of a valley scrubbed into the land centuries earlier, where two cities seemed now to float across a high lake.
It was so beautiful, this West, so unfairly beautiful. Even the throwaway places brimmed with promise and hope and life. I thought of Grandma’s question. What do they take us for, anyway? Every impulse to discovery seemed rewarded here. A whole history of failures, person to person, magnified by so much ambition to peak, cross, circle, sound, mine, and plot, hardly registered in these bright rivers with high cliffs and miles upon miles of open space. I watched the monitor for Cait’s arrival. I ran the numbers in my mind, taking the difference of the bike repair, gas money, food, motel, and lodge charges, against what I had left in the bank.
What was I going to buy that we wouldn’t find together?
Who was ever ready for a next life to begin?
I caught in the reflection of the sunglasses on the rotating shelf my enormous and circumspect face, beaming, seemingly so happily trusting and naïve, so optimistic, with my stocky build and my habit of leaning down to talk to people so I didn’t seem too tall or intimidating. What didn’t he know that I was about to discover? He didn’t know anything about me or what I wanted. He knew everything about me, especially what I wanted. Katie had known it, too, even before she had married me. How little I was sometimes capable of. How easily I was overwhelmed. What I feared and resented in the people I loved, and especially, what I was willing to take for granted. She knew all those evenings I had wasted, pacing back and forth in our apartment in Uptown, insisting we marry, and wondering if I had any talent to do the things I really loved. Once, to end a fight, I had blurted out the secret of the book we were reading for book club. Piggy DIES! I had loved my victory in the moment. I had felt terrible about it for weeks. Look at you, Katie’s look seemed to say. What a victory. How many of those moments would ever really go forgotten in a second life? What worse things would Cait know that Katie never did?
Already, people were walking out from the gate. My hands were cold. Beneath the deer carcass, beside a shelf of freshly tapped Montana maple syrup, I would see Cait and hold her, and know, once and for all, what was real. I had only to say it. Yes, it’s been long enough. I have put myself through the middle space in as many ways as I can imagine. I have lingered there, double- and triple-checking myself for wellness, sanity, trauma, and precedent, and now it is time to continue. The other side waits to take away everything in an instant. So what. I still want this. I want this more than anything else, and I will do this better. I will be a better man. More than the reassuring comforts of misery and diminishment, I want to see Cait and love her. I want to love the West and to find there some variation on what everyone agrees is happiness, a variation on me. I will never again be that man who watched Katie die and was unable to stop it. I will always be that man and I might even learn to like him. And if I see him watching me, waiting for me to fail, with such knowing smugness from every mirrored square on a sunglass rack, then we will wait together. One of us is right. And it was in such careful worrying about what was going to happen next that I missed her anyway, I who had come all this way for the simple purpose of finding her had nearly lost both of us in a sunglass rack. Cait walked out from security, from the end of a vast wall of trophied animals, walked and smiled, so happy to see me, impressed by the droopy flowers in my arms, and certain, as nothing else in a life, that I was there for her. I had come all this way just for her. She was here, now, and she had found me. More than anything, she wanted this too.