Absence is to love as wind is to fire; it extinguishes the small and kindles the great.
-- Roger De Bussy-Rabutin
I was reluctant to leave, even though it had been my decision to go. "It'll be good for both of us," I'd told David the night before, trying to convince myself I'd made the right decision. "Really. And a great break for you; think of how quiet it will be without me here. Everyone needs some alone time." Over the past few months, my need for isolation -- to go somewhere alone and just be -- had grown urgent. Mine was a classic case of being spread too thin; I was on the verge of cracking under personal and professional pressures, most of which I had inflicted upon myself. As a result, I had constructed a fortress of distraction, rendering myself incapable of thinking straight. My stress had begun to manifest itself in ways that were visible to others, especially David, who knew what to look for. "You're OCD-ing," he said when we were in the elevator.
"No, I'm not."
"Yes, you are. You just did that thing with your wrists."
Now that he mentioned it, I recalled the unconscious action of placing my right wrist and then my left against the cold metal doorframe. "Okay, maybe I am, a little," I said. My need for sensory symmetry is harder to keep in check when I'm stressed. So is my obsessive impulse to tweeze. In response to this naughty habit, David has launched a "Pro-Brow Campaign," composed of a series of tactics to save my endangered eyebrows.
I put off leaving for a few hours so that I could join David and a friend for lunch, after which I lingered as long as I could without running into late afternoon traffic. Having finally exhausted all the excuses to delay my departure, I asked David to help me to the car; I had a small suitcase, laptop bag, purse, and bookbag -- things I would have had no trouble negotiating alone had I not also been carrying a Snapple and a bottle of water. David grabbed a few bags, including one that wasn't mine, a blue backpack, and followed me to the car. When everything was loaded and I was ready to leave, David took the backpack from his arm, set it on the passenger seat, and said, "Don't open this until you get there."
My destination was Warner Springs Ranch, a hot springs resort located 65 miles northeast of my home in Hillcrest. I wanted to go somewhere remote, but not too far from home. I recalled that, as a child, I had visited the ranch, and it had been cross-referenced in my brain under "a ways away," "middle of nowhere," and "no one lives there." When I learned from the ranch's website that there were no phones or TVs in the cabins, that Wi-Fi was only accessible in the main lodge, and that not even my cell would work out there, I knew I'd found the perfect hideaway.
Twenty minutes into the ride, I called David. When he answered, I said, "What's in the bag, beh beh?"
David chuckled. "You'll find out when you get there," he said.
"Is it perishable? Should I worry about it getting too hot?" I was thinking along the lines of chocolate. David assured me that nothing would spoil before I got to my room, but that I shouldn't leave the bag in my car. Yup, chocolate . "Okay, now I'm saying bye for real. Miss me?"
"Yes, I miss you." He said this dutifully, like the millionth "Yes, Dear" of a hen-pecked husband but with a hint of a smile in his voice. Then he repeated himself in a deeper, more sincere tone: "I already miss you."
I wondered if he could hear me beaming. "Well, take advantage of having the place to yourself," I said, which made me feel magnanimous. "Go out, have fun, get stuff done, enjoy the silence . I'll see you in four days!"
I spent the rest of the drive singing off-key to whatever came on the radio and speculating as to what was in the bag. By now, I'm used to David's thoughtfulness; I settled on the idea that he had packed some kind of tasty treat and perhaps a nice note. I still had 15 miles to go when I turned left at Dudley's Bakery in Santa Ysabel; my cell phone was blinking red and except for one Jesus station, the radio had turned to static.
After arriving, I took my time checking in and finding my cabin. I set the backpack on the bed and unpacked my things, placing my books and portable iPod speakers in the bedroom, my toiletries in the bathroom. When there was nothing else to be done, I sat on the bed and pulled the backpack toward me.
The first thing I noticed, nestled on top of a bunch of plastic baggies and other stuff, was a CD. Written on sticky notes in red and on the CD itself in blue, was "WATCH THIS ON YOUR COMPUTER RIGHT AWAY." I pulled the curtains closed, opened my laptop, and pushed in the disc, which launched my DVD player. A photograph of David and me filled the screen, and a horizontal bar carried the words "miss you" across the image. I clicked "play" and heard David's voice greeting me and then saw him enter the picture and sit in front of the camera by a statue beneath a tree in Presidio Park. I watched in awe as he spoke to the camera, to me, telling me he hoped I was settled in. For minutes, he spoke encouraging words, and then a huge sign that read "RELAX" appeared before his face. I wondered when he'd printed out that sign, when he'd had time away from me to make a video, and then remembered how, the day before, he said I should stay home and read instead of accompanying him on some work errands. I sulked when he left, because I thought he didn't want me around.
My eyes filled with tears as I watched David describe on camera what he had included in the care package, which he had brought with him to the park. He held up each item as he explained its purpose: an aromatherapy kit, which included a scented candle; a lighter; an "Air of Calm" air spritzer; his cologne; protein bars in case I got hungry; a trashy tabloid magazine; fresh pillow cases and a soft, high-thread-count bedsheet. In case I wanted to take a bath but didn't find the tub up to my standard of cleanliness, a sponge and a baggy full of Comet had been provided, along with Algemarin bath foam from Germany. When he held up the dark chocolate, or "relaxation pills," he said, "For each piece you eat, you have to do this breathing exercise." He demonstrated the exercise, then held up another sign on which the word "BREATHE" appeared several times. Jerking it up and down, he said, "This is what your breathing is like now, and this," he held the sign steady, "is what your breathing should be like. Aaaahhh." He had also made signs to emphasize that he thought I was "Nice" and "Great." Another sign said, " Confianza, confianza ," a phrase our friends Rosa and Josue use when they want to say, "Chill out."
At one point David held up a giant picture of my eye, and said, "This is what your eyebrow used to look like. I like your eyebrows. Don't tweeze ." At the end of the video, he held up an image of a half-naked cowboy and said, "See this? Nuh uh," and with a red marker, drew a circle around the cowboy's head and torso and then a red slash through it. He placed the altered image by his head in the frame and said, "No. Avoid shirtless cowboys." He added an extra red X over the body for good measure. Finally, he said, "Just remember," and held up one last sign that echoed his spoken words, "I love you."
What he'd forgotten to include in the video were the four cards he had also left for me in the backpack, one for each night I was away, their sealed envelopes labeled with instructions as to which one was to be opened on which night. I wanted to pack up my things and drive back to San Diego, burst through our front door and capture David in a tight embrace, using every muscle in my body to convey how loved he made me feel. But, seeing how my room was prepaid, and how he'd gone through so much trouble to ensure my comfort in his absence, I lit a candle, dabbed some of David's cologne on my wrist, unwrapped a piece of chocolate, and stared in glorious anticipation at the envelope that read, "Open Wednesday Night."