Story from John Brantingham

The Mammoth inside You

You leave with Ellen on your first trip together while dawn is still bluing so that when you get to that spot on the 60 freeway, she sees the sculpture of the mammoth silhouetted against the sky and says, “Oh my,” and then “What’s that?”

You think about saying, “Are you kidding me? How long have you lived in LA?” but you stop yourself, keep your snide smugness to yourself. Instead you say, “You never drive the 60?”

“It’s a life-sized metal sculpture of a mammoth. Actually it’s kind of funny. It’s wrong?”
“What do you mean by ‘wrong’?”
“I mean that’s the sculpture of a European mammoth. American mammoths looked different.” 

“You big freaking nerd,” she says and laughs, and you laugh about what she said and at the surprise of the memory she’s evoking like a spell from 25 years ago, the first time you went out while you both were in high school, and you pointed up at the stars one night and said, “You know a lot of those stars are over 200 miles away,” and she’d called you “a big freaking nerd” and days later you told her that monarch butterflies go through four generations of animals as they migrate across the continent, and she called you “a big freaking nerd,” and you told her later that month that you’d be accepted to the University of Pittsburgh, and she called you “a big freaking nerd,” and then she’d broken up with you a month later because she was going to go to U.C. Berkeley although you told everyone that it was mutual and pretended that you hadn’t begged her to stay together, and the next time you’d heard about her she was married to a banker name Bruce, and when you ran into her 24 years later she told you that her banker man was going to jail for embezzlement, and she was divorcing him because she told him that she didn’t know he could do such a thing, and that was when he backhanded her. All of that between the last time she’d called you “a big freaking nerd” and now.

You laugh and almost say, “Yeah, I’m not a cool guy like Bruce.” But you swallow your words before they leak out of your mouth. Then you think of saying, “I wish I’d been cool. Maybe you would have gone to U Pitt with me,” but you hold that back too, and you’re not sure why you keep almost treating her with some of the same cruelty that Bruce the Banker did. 
You say instead, “Yes, but isn’t it nice that I’m no average nerd. I mean, I stick the landing.”
She laughs and lays a hand on your leg. “That you do.”

As you pass the mammoth, you think about asking her about the break-up all those years ago. You didn’t realize that you’re still angry about that, but it must be sitting there subdermally. The memory of you begging and weeping, and your knowledge that she must have been disgusted at your weakness is there too. The memory of your rebound girlfriends, and the woman you almost married and then who broke up with you because you were still in love with Ellen is there. The sickening happiness you felt when you discovered that Bruce the Banker was such a bad man is there. All of it is there. These emotions loom inside you, hidden as big as the mammoth you’re passing on the hill.
She says, “Yes, nerdiness is just one of the things that I love about you.”

And you take her hand. It’s the first time she has used the word “love” in connection to you in 25 years. It is maybe enough. Right now you think that it probably is enough.