The summer before my senior year of college, I spent far too many of my waking hours in the basement of the state natural-science museum, rarely leaving, even for meals. During my lunch break, I sat eating red licorice under the yellow orb of a desk lamp, turning pale and flaccid as a mushroom.
“You need something with some damn nutrition to it,” my boss, Bill, would say, jabbing a thick finger at me as I chewed plasticky chunks. But he had a MoonPie with Sun Drop for lunch himself, so my eating habits felt like an act of solidarity.
Bill was a geologist whose Twitter handle was @DrRocks and who played in a prog rock band on the weekends. I was his summer research assistant, having taken the job with little idea as to what it would actually entail but knowing it was the least popular option each year on the university’s summer work board. Mostly, I’d taken it as a sort of punishment. I wasn’t a geology major; I’d taken one class as a freshman to fulfill a science requirement: “Rocks for Jocks,” people called it. As summer drew near, though, I’d allowed myself to imagine some possibility of adventure: the geologist and myself, hiking over hillsides together, delving into hidden seams of mineral deposits, plundering the earth, the jumble of ruby and kyanite and hiddenite in my hands like cool, disinterested eyes. By the end of such a summer, I’d find myself strong-legged and sun-browned from the fieldwork, restored.
Of course, it turned out to be nothing like that. Bill, or DrRocks, had gotten a new mass spectrometer. He patted it lovingly from time to time, as if it were a trusty basset hound, cajoling it sweetly before each use. We were going through the current specimen collection, reorganizing it.
“Respect the drudgery, Annie,” Bill would say, and then, with both thumbs pointing at himself, “Respect the drudge.”
He was working on a project involving carbon dating; I’d stopped paying attention the moment I’d understood we weren’t going to be swashbuckling our way to gemstones together. Really, I had very little understanding of Bill’s methods or aim.
It didn’t matter. He mostly seemed to want company, a captive audience, and I could provide that. I’d broken up with my boyfriend, Nick, and my best friend, Beau, right around the same time. It felt appropriately punitive to be stuck in a grungy basement all summer, listening to Bill. Most of the specimens were not even beautiful. I felt a little cheated, having imagined that we’d at least be rummaging through boxes of sparkling, candy-colored stones. Instead I sorted hunks of humdrum gray or black or olive green. Plain old gravel. Penance.
“If they’d give a little more funding to us instead of those damn dino duds,” Bill would say, three or eleven or fifty-eight times a day. His perennial plaint was the inequity in funding and attention between the geology department and paleontology. By his contention, paleontology, the damn dino duds, got everything—the money, the glory, the cartoon T-rex T-shirts in the gift shop. All of Bill’s rocks, lovingly labeled and identified—fewer than half of them had ever even made it out for display.
“Damn dino duds,” I echoed. Even as hollowed out as I felt, I could be loyal. What I didn’t point out to Bill was that dinosaurs were pretty darn interesting, and that’s why little kids loved them, and so maybe this was just the natural order of things, an unequal dispensation of gifts—like how some people seem to possess an intrinsic luminosity while others bumble around, dull and uncertain.
After class, the shivery current of my attraction made me bolder than usual, and I caught him in the hallway to ask: wasn’t he, himself, by definition part of the patriarchy? No, of course not, he’d answered.
Like the difference between Nick and me. My boyfriend, Nick, had broken up with me. I’d met him in one of my English classes, where he’d stood out with his blonde dreadlocks, weaponized smile, and effortless, unearned confidence. He’d responded to the professor the very first day of class, September sunlight dappling his shoulders like a mantle of gold, incorporating an appeal to overthrow the patriarchy into his response, his voice actually shaking with passion. After class, the shivery current of my attraction made me bolder than usual, and I caught him in the hallway to ask: wasn’t he, himself, by definition part of the patriarchy? No, of course not, he’d answered. He was antiestablishment. I laughed. He was too charming to argue with, and I was no arguer. Instantly I loved him, in spite of myself.
As it turned out, Nick’s antiestablishmentarianism included sleeping with other people and getting them pregnant, then using money that would have been his contribution to our rent to pay for the abortion. I preferred not to think about Nick, but I spent a lot of time imagining his new girlfriend, who would have flaming locks of auburn hair and eyes of emerald green, à la Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” a track I was listening to on repeat that summer. I tended to my sad jealousy like it was a small, dark creature that writhed inside of me and needed to be fed. The mineralogy collection was a good place for the aggrieved.
“Damn dino duds,” I would say at intervals, injecting the silence with this oath of loyalty whenever the lab, with its dull lighting and sharp smell of hydrochloric acid, felt too still. Bill would give me a thumbs up from the mass spectrometer. “Goddamn right,” he’d answer. A call and response among the faithful.
Bill had a pierced ear in which he wore an earring shaped like a raven’s claw. I could not stop staring at it. He told me anecdotes in which he starred as a hilarious genius, a lady-killer. I imagined women in singles bars captivated by the raven’s claw earring, just as I was, held in the sort of rapt disgust that does not allow one to look away. Bill wrote long, mournful ballads featuring battles with trolls and orcs for his prog rock band. Like an ancient mountain king, he wore ten rings, one on each finger, each featuring a different gemstone. They were dazzling. He looked like a madman, but each ring, in its superfluous beauty, was a kind of perfection.
“Doomed love,” he’d explained that first day, when he’d caught me staring at his hands. “And death. Mostly estate sales. Or jewelry commissioned for someone, then sold after a divorce. I reset the stones, of course.”
He waggled his fingers before me so that I might better admire. I understood now that each gemstone held a tiny tragedy. Wearing them seemed a bit like inviting a curse.
“All right, Annie,” Bill said one day, drumming his bejeweled fingers on my desk. We’d made it through May, June, and the first days of July at that point, the two of us grown dusty and parched as tubers in a root cellar. “I’ve got news.”
He paused for emphasis, sticking his index finger with its perfect amethyst, big as a walnut, right into my face. I looked up at him, wondering if he’d caught on to the fact I’d been entering and re-entering the same data tables for the past week. Really, I was worthless at doing actual work.
“And you can’t tell a goddamn soul.”
“We’re going into the field after all. Private land. Diamonds. No one here knows about it.” He paused again, stroking his pale mustache with a flourish as he strode to the opposite side of the lab, pressing his hands against the red metal cabinet in which specimens were stored. “When we find the source of these diamonds—natural diamonds, Annie, natural diamonds from right here—it’ll change everything.”
His eyes had taken on the feverish glow of a prospector’s. I rose from my seat as if faced with a holy apparition, literally and figuratively moved.
“Where?” I whispered, because this was what I’d been waiting for: a quest, a mission, something. Meaning. Natural diamonds where none should be: a miracle.
He smiled slyly and wagged a finger at me.
“Bring your boots tomorrow.”
Instead of Nick, I dreamed that night of a place a continent away, a place Bill had told me about: Ouro Preto, a small colonial town nestled in the Brazilian hillside. A gem hunter’s town. Bill had gotten a tourmaline there that looked like a watermelon-flavored rock candy. Asleep, I wandered Ouro Preto’s sloping green hills and cobblestone streets, trailing my fingers along white-walled buildings with orangey roofs. Along the winding main road were tiny storefronts, dim and unspectacular inside but for a tray each proprietor held, filled with topaz and aquamarine and emerald, crystallized light and pleasure. I’d wake with a feeling of emptiness in my palms, like they were insufficiently weighted. The jewels of Ouro Preto began to feel necessary, life-sustaining, even. I imagined this was the hunger the gold prospectors once woke with, the same searching need. The hills around Ouro Preto would be studded with such magic abundance that my dream-self would have only to scoop up a clump of dirt and brush away root tendrils and soil to reveal emeralds as big as goose eggs.
I woke as if jolted from a task, thrown suddenly from the lush hills of my dream town. It was a place I would have described to my best friend, Beau, had we still been talking. But we had not talked since last semester, when he’d turned from me without a word and walked away. I’d watched him, the sad-angry hitch of his shoulders, that familiar shuffle. He hadn’t turned around. Why would he?
It felt like the only thing to do was find diamonds.
“I want you to start at the far end of the field,” Bill instructed me. “Goddamn Carolina diamonds, Annie.”
We’d driven two hours out from Raleigh, along to an expanse of private farmland. Bill had made an arrangement with the owner, a farmer, Bill explained. A friend of the museum. This farmer had allowed prospectors and amateur gem hunters here before—one of whom claimed he’d discovered the first small diamond—and now he wanted to donate whatever else might be found to the state.
I had been gripped by an appetite for jewels so great, so inexplicable, I can only describe it as an illness.
“Generous,” I said, incapable of imagining such generosity myself. I had been gripped by an appetite for jewels so great, so inexplicable, I can only describe it as an illness. I had never been a person with a taste for luxury. I didn’t wear fine jewelry. But the thought of gemstones—something so bright and tangible—made my mouth water. What would I do with them once I had them? I had no idea. Sit upon them like a great, greedy dragon, maybe. Eat them until I glowed from within, cup them in my hands like secret flames.
We were standing in the midst of green pasture. Bill had pulled his truck to the shoulder, and we’d tromped through a stand of balding pines down a shallow hill, carrying our spades and pans. Cows grazing along the opposite slope looked up at us with boredom.
“Come on,” Bill said, gesturing for me to sift through the silt at the stream’s edge, as he was doing. I walked downstream from him and knelt and began scooping up spadefuls of dirt.
What was in our favor, Bill had explained, was new construction upstream, just beyond the farmer’s land. The upheaval of the earth was to our advantage; who knew what the water might bear now that bulldozers and track hoes had done their work.
All afternoon I crouched there, within shouting distance of Bill, sifting and sifting in my little pan. I found olivine and quartz—smoky and rose—as well as a tiny but perfect piece of what I believed to be rhodolite. But no diamonds. There was a crick in my neck, and my knees were damp and sore from kneeling.
Bill and I met under the one large oak that offered shade, where he’d promised lunch. He handed me a MoonPie and opened up another for himself.
“Takes time,” he said. “Anything worth finding takes time. People walk past treasure for years.”
I ran into Jolene in the grocery store. It was evening but still light outside. Late July. My hands had turned rough already from the sun and silt and cold stream water, and I’d developed an uneven tan. We’d yet to find diamonds, but I could sense their proximity, a feeling of expectation that left me all a-tingle.
I wouldn’t have known Jolene, because she was nothing like what I’d imagined. In reality, she was small-boned, with wary hazel eyes and a slightly beaky face. Her blonde hair, her best feature, fell in natural waves to her shoulders. Before I knew it was her, we’d almost collided in the dairy aisle, and she’d sighed softly, apologetically, as she’d backed away to allow me to get my carton of half and half. I had the feeling of being around a gentle soul, someone thoughtful and harmless whom I might want to protect.
“Please,” I said, gesturing for her to go ahead and make her own selection while I held the door to the refrigerated case open. She nodded at me. I saw then she had bitten-down nails and grubby, skinny hands. I saw the blink of a tiny gem on her ring finger.
A voice rang from behind me that pained me in its familiarity.
“Annie! You’ve met Natalie!”
I turned to see Nick, all golden skin and smiling eyes. He was incapable of imagining anyone angry at him, so he grabbed me in a genuine hug that left me breathless.
Jolene / Natalie turned to me and smiled shyly. Embarrassed. She, at least, understood enough of the real world to be uncomfortable. Nick had such an unsullied optimism that it almost amounted to stupidity.
“Annie, it’s so good to see you. Really,” Nick continued, pulling back and inspecting me at arm’s length, the way you might a long-lost cousin or an old friend. “You seem great. And I’ve wanted to introduce you to Natalie so badly. It’s funny how well you two would get along.”
Again, Jolene / Natalie looked at me, a pained but not unkind expression on her face. She was wearing a formless black T-shirt and shorts. At ease. Natural, the way Nick liked his women.
“And I wanted to tell you our news.” Here, he grabbed Natalie’s small hand and thrust it toward me, so that I could better inspect the tiny diamond on her ring finger. “We’re getting married! Isn’t that wild?” He laughed, a mountain-man laugh, unabashed, right there in the grocery store. A lady in a dark coat turned to him, and I saw her eyes instantly soften. Nick was beautiful, and thus the things he did were beautiful.
“Wow,” I said. My mouth was so dry it was difficult to peel my lips apart and form words.
“Yeah,” he said, pulling Jolene / Natalie to his side fondly. She smiled up at him, pleased and embarrassed. “We figured that it’s, like, the most unexpected thing we could do. We’re reclaiming it, you know? Nobody gets married at our age anymore. We’re making it a radical act.”
I nodded, bewildered. My older sister had gotten married at our age to a man whose family owned the largest insurance company in my home county. But my older sister, a quiet woman who favored pleats and monograms and Sunday school, was not like Nick.
Suddenly even the chilled dairy aisle of the grocery store felt too warm. Nick’s familiar smile—dazzling, malice-free—was far too bright. I was aware then of the girl, Jolene / Natalie, touching my elbow.
“Hey,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “You okay?” She looked at me, and I could see her hazel eyes were worried on my behalf.
“Yeah,” I said, catching my breath, waving them away. “I’ve been working in the sun all month. Dehydration.”
I stepped back, stumbling then, almost running away.
“Say hi to Beau for me!” Nick called with an easy warmth.
I shook all through the checkout line, shook so hard my teeth were chattering by the time I’d made it to my car.
When Nick had first told me about Natalie he’d been shame-faced, solicitous, but also a little surprised at how upset I’d been. I’m sorry, he’d said. I just never thought we had a connection like that, you know? I mean, to be honest, a lot of the time I thought you didn’t take me that seriously . . . and I always sort of thought, well—you had Beau . . . Bile rose in my throat at the recollection. I wished I could talk to Beau. He would have understood; he would have had the perfect, quick response.
People like Nick were allowed to live in the world with heedless whimsy; the rest of us were resigned to reckon with our shortcomings—Beau had said something like that once.
As we entered the month of August without a hint of diamonds, Bill’s gruff good humor did not flag.
“My source is reliable,” he’d mutter, reconvincing himself, reconvincing me. “He wouldn’t give me bad info.”
Or, if he caught me rubbing my lower back, sighing, taking a break from our labor, he’d make a little tsk-tsk sound and remind me, “Drudges will prevail, Annie. Respect the drudgery.”
After a long day sifting, digging, wandering through the pastureland and dodging steaming piles of cow dung, we’d drive back toward Raleigh in the quiet of Bill’s truck. The late summer sun would fall slantwise across us, filling my eyes with such heaviness that I often drifted off while Bill hummed quietly to himself. He was always writing new songs, he told me. For this reason he was never bored, even when performing the most mundane data collection. I would nod off, my head tilting towards the passenger window, catching little whispered snippets of Bill’s songs of knights and elves, orcs and wizards, epic battles from some other realm.
When we pulled into the museum parking lot where I’d left my car, Bill would turn to me, his voice filled with renewed conviction.
“When we find them, Annie, I’m telling you: gamechanger,” he’d say. “Finally. The tide’ll turn around here. Even idiots appreciate natural diamonds. Even damn dino duds.”
And I’d nod at him, unable to meet his eyes as summer went on.
In the evenings, I’d take very hot showers, grateful for the water pressure against my aching back, trying not to think of anything. But I thought of Beau sometimes. I wondered what he was doing. At the end of the semester, he had gone back to his hometown in the western part of the state—a little mountain town, but not one of the touristy, picturesque ones. There were too many charming mountain towns competing, with their little inns and restaurants with seasonal menus and local breweries. His hometown had mountains, and that was basically it. He was helping his dad that summer with geological surveys.
I heard of Beau before I met him. We lived in the same freshman dorm—the honors dorm. Dozens of nerdy, hesitant kids from small towns all over the state cohoused in a cement-block dorm with rooms the size of large bathroom stalls—and word of Beau quickly spread. The night I first encountered him, I’d walked into a heated debate over some book or band or political event—I don’t recall now—in the dorm’s common room. Beau was explaining a point softly but with such confidence that I paused. As I stood in the doorway, listening to him, the ease and depth of his answer, the lack of showiness, I knew this guy was smart: so smart that, as he talked, he created a kind of gravitational warmth, and I felt myself leaning forward, willing myself into his radius. I watched the back of his head (chestnut hair, a touch of curl) and followed that voice of his throughout the rest of the discussion.
When the conversation paused long enough for one of my dormmates to acknowledge me, Beau turned. That was when I saw his face. There was something wrong. It was knobbed and bulbous, the landscape of his cheeks raised with a series of putty-colored hillocks and cysts. Immediately I placed him in a long line of kind and gentle monsters—beasts and hunchbacks, lonely in their towers, their libraries, made excessively wise by their isolation.
My breath caught in my throat, so thrown by the disconnect I felt between that serene voice, those wonderful thoughts, and his appearance. He saw me and held my gaze.
Later that night, when we officially met, he’d smiled at me—the weary smile of someone much older—and introduced himself.
“Name’s Beau,” he said.
I smiled back, nervously.
“Annie,” I said, almost mesmerized by the sight of him.
“I’m going for coffee,” he said, touching my shoulder lightly. “Come on.”
Beau told me things: smart things, little details he noticed, theories of human behavior offered to me like so many tiny pots of homemade jam.
I followed him. There was something compelling about his face, an ugliness so interesting I could not stop wanting to study it, so rich it was almost beauty. He would have been self-conscious, I knew, if he caught me looking too much, so I listened instead. Beau told me things: smart things, little details he noticed, theories of human behavior offered to me like so many tiny pots of homemade jam. Why people like abstract art. Who gets drawn into cults. Why this person in our dorm was attracted to that one. Beau had also read every book I ever mentioned. And yet he was a geology major himself, following his father’s footsteps. He’d tell me stories of lamproite pipes melted from the earth’s mantle some nights when I couldn’t fall asleep, one hand floating above my head, not quite touching me, as if casting a spell.
By the time I started dating Nick, Beau and I were the kind of best friends who could communicate our annoyance at a tiresome person by a glance, a slight pressure of a thumb to the other’s wrist. I thought of us, and I’d told Beau this, as having a kind of elevated friendship—what I imagined had existed between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. I’d taken a class on Bishop and fancied myself a newly minted expert.
“The self-aggrandizing romanticism of a young English major,” Beau had said, laughing a little. “Which one of us ends up in the mental hospital?”
And then I met Nick. Abruptly, Beau and I stopped spending time together. Rather, I stopped spending time with him. No more dinners each evening, no more late-night walks across the main quad. Nick had filled up the space inside of me like helium, leaving me giddy and high-pitched.
“So you really like this guy, then,” Beau observed after I’d arrived late again to our study spot in the library, flushed and exhilarated from Nick, the taste of his mouth still in mine.
I flushed deeper, feeling strangely exposed for some reason, but Beau just kept looking at me evenly, the ridge of his brow slightly damp in the hard light of the study carrel.
“It’s okay,” he said, tucking his chin and shuffling the papers he held before him. “I get it.”
I realized halfway through that summer the other reason I’d heard of Ouro Preto: Elizabeth Bishop. She had stayed in a little white house, the back porch overlooking a view of lush hillside, with her lover, Lota. This convergence pleased me; I still held a fierce wish for the world to be tied together in neat loops and bows. I imagined Bishop walking along the ribboning streets of Ouro Preto. Did the gem merchants call to her, this odd American lady in their midst? Did she pause, looking into their trays of loose stones, covetous, thirsting for the liquid light thrown from those facets: canary yellow, champagne pink, minty green?
No, I decided. She had a cache of her own, polishing simple words until they glittered like her famous fish. I envied her that. Rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! Diamonds refracting light into a hundred hundred colors.
The final days of summer dragged on, and Bill and I had found nothing. I waited for him to grow morose, but he maintained his equanimity, ever ready to plod forward.
Maybe he sensed, however, my own growing gloom.
“I need a goddamn drink,” Bill announced on our drive back. “You in, Annie?”
And because I swear I could hear beneath his cheer a slow creaking in his chest, a mournful sound I didn’t want to hear, I said yes. He nodded. He had a favorite bar, he told me, where he was a regular. Everyone looked for him there. They’d take care of us.
When we walked into the bar, no one turned or acknowledged us.
“Pete! Hey! Great to see you, man!”
The bartender, Pete, looked up with mild interest but said nothing. Bill waved at a couple other older guys sitting on barstools, and they merely glanced up, nodding as one would to a stranger.
I had a renewed awareness of Bill, the ridiculous figure he cut: large and galumphing, sunburnt, sweaty, his voice too loud and oblivious. As he reached for the beers he’d ordered us, I saw his hands, their thick clumsiness, the strange affectation of his bejeweled fingers. Dungeon Master chic.
“What do we drink to?” I asked. “Diamonds?”
He paused a moment, closing his eyes and taking in a deep breath like he was about to dive into water.
“Drudgery.” He held up both hands in the universal gesture for of course. “Respect the drudgery. Drudges will prevail.”
We stayed at the bar too long, Bill and I. I had the feeling I was performing an important task, making some correction to something. As the evening wore on, Bill grew louder, more insistent. He drew in strangers with blustering tales of fieldwork from his grad-school days, stories of stolen jewels and lost treasure, the importance of his sample studies with the new mass spectrometer. He’d begun clapping me on the back, like we were allies, and I felt something like fondness.
When I finally got home that night, my head spinning and stomach sloshing, there was a new shadow by my apartment door. A figure stood up. I startled. The figure moved forward, and I saw then that she was slight. A woman, a girl.
“Jolene.” I whispered, then, correcting myself, “Natalie.”
She looked up at me, her skinny face like a child’s. The one he’d chosen over me.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
I felt lightheaded. I needed to sit down. She sank beside me on my front stoop. The street lamp cast her face in half-light, and I had the strange impression of her as part ordinary girl, part enchantress, part sylph. I’d been around Bill too long.
“I have to ask a favor,” she said, straightening her legs before her and pointing her toes. Across the street, three of my neighbors were returning home from one of the college bars, hooting at one another, egging each other on. Frat boys, I thought. Young primates.
“This is weird, I know,” she continued. “But I need you to tell Nick for me. I’m leaving. I can’t do this. The whole thing. It seemed fun at first, this cool, brave idea. Like an adventure. But I can’t.” She paused, tilting her head back and sighing. “Here.”
She handed me something and, docile, I accepted it. The ring. The tiny diamond on a gold band she’d been wearing. It rested lightly on my palm. I made a fist around it.
“Please,” she said. “Will you return this to Nick? I’m leaving. I’m driving to my brother’s tonight.”
I frowned at her, waiting for the ring to incandesce with its own light and heat, or for someone to jump out with a camera, laughing—something.
“Why me?” I asked her.
“You were his best friend. He admired you.”
She rose to her feet and walked into the circular glow cast by a street lamp, as if it were a spotlight and she were going to recite a monologue. But she did not turn to face me.
“You don’t have to, of course,” she said. “I would understand if you didn’t . . . ”
She let the sentence trail off and walked away. I heard a car engine start a block over. Pulling myself up from the stoop, I was aware then of how my knees ached, my back, my neck. I stumbled inside and fell onto my bed.
You were his best friend.
I thought then not of Nick, but of Beau. My best friend. How I’d driven to his house, weeping, after Nick had made his confession about Jolene, a confession that had, in fact, wounded me even more than I would have imagined. How Beau had comforted me at first, sweetly, patiently, like a good best friend would. And after I’d calmed, after he’d ordered us takeout and turned on a movie, how I’d asked him for one of his T-shirts so that I, a teary mess, could spent the night. How I’d pulled my shirt off right there, in front of him. How I’d known his eyes would fall on me, could not help but fall on me and linger. How I’d undone my bra and turned to him, reaching for the shirt he offered me, daring him, really, to look and keep looking. I knew I was by no means a perfect specimen, but I was young and warm and unmarred. I knew, of course, that Beau was touch-starved.
He’d turned from me, as if from a piercing light.
“Annie,” he said. There was new hurt in his voice, something I’d never heard before beneath all his arch jokes and quick humor. “What are you doing?”
“Please,” I said, knowing the unarticulated thing I pled for was an act of cruelty.
I had never touched his face before, knowing instinctively that this was forbidden. But I touched him now.
And shirtless, I moved toward him, to his dear, monstrous face, and I’d reached out one hand and let it fall, lightly, against the terrain of his cheek. I had never touched his face before, knowing instinctively that this was forbidden. But I touched him now, as if we were in a storybook and he might kiss me and be made handsome. He startled like he’d been stung, but I’d felt it: a pent-up electric current beneath his skin, running through my fingers.
And then he was pressing hard against me, something so desperate and urgent in his motions—hands on my waist, his hot, dry lips against my own—that I was frightened. Appalled. He kissed me like a drowning man gasping for air—already I was pushing him back gently, pulling away.
“Annie, Annie, Annie,” he whispered, hot in my face, and then he issued a terrible groan, a bellow that shamed me to hear.
“We’re like Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop,” I whispered, quoting myself as if I were offering an inside joke, undercutting the severity of the situation, offering a bit of levity. Someone, someday, would read our letters and find us witty and wise.
He made a sound that wasn’t laughter and turned away.
“Put a shirt on,” he hissed. “I’m going for a walk.”
He offered the shirt to me, and when I took it from him, I saw his hand was quaking.
Beau would not speak to me after that.
In the story I wish I were telling, the story of our nouveau Ouro Preto, Bill and I would have found diamonds by summer’s end. One of us, kneeling damp-kneed by a spot in the stream, would have leapt up, shouting. We would have grasped each other and twirled in celebration, delirious at our discovery.
But as the summer drew to an end, I felt my smoldering jewel-hunger wane and finally dissipate, as if on some level I knew and was preparing myself for the inevitable—the way one learns to kill a longing that will never be fulfilled. I felt clean then, pure, and absent of desire. The act of searching in that field became simply an act that I performed, a ritual in and of itself.
I stopped dreaming of Ouro Preto. I’d remembered a poem by Bishop called “Under the Window: Ouro Preto.” Rereading it, I saw its plainness, its mundane observation and small-town gossip—women talking about having their hair combed, people drinking water, an old man passing by with a stick, oil in a ditch. Ouro Preto, merely a place. The seven ages of man are talkative / and soiled and thirsty.
It had crossed my mind that I could try calling Beau again before the semester started, offering him the story of my summer as a kind of consolation. He would laugh with me, commiserate. Things might somehow be restored. This was my opportunity. I could try it. I could just call him.
But I did not.
I called Nick instead, and we met once more, in a sticky booth at one of the noisy bars near campus. The night, unsurprisingly, ended badly.
Every day until it was time for the fall semester to start, I went back to the farmer’s field with Bill. On our last drive out, I told Bill I had something for him.
“Doomed love,” I said, handing him the ring I’d been carrying around in my pocket. “For your collection.”
He frowned, studying me.
“I can’t take this, Annie.”
“Take it,” I said. “It’s a fake. But it sure looks real, doesn’t it?”
I pressed the little ring into his hand, nodding. He nodded back.
“God damn diamonds, Annie,” Bill said to me later that same afternoon when the sun was starting its slow pinkish descent behind us, behind the polite cows who’d paid us little mind, their eyes benign, glazed. “We’ll find those diamonds yet. If not this summer, then the next, or the one after. We’ll find them.”
And even now, years later, I see him, the image seared into my brain: standing in the setting sun, ugly-magnificent on that hillside, with his big, clumsy hand outstretched, radiant with want.