By Adrian J.S. Hale
The Columbia River Gorge opened up before us. We were in a car—his car—driving 70 miles an hour through the rough-hewn Columbia River Valley surrounded by massive rock formations that took as long as 17 million years to form. We’d last seen each other the week before, just two families meeting for pizza. We decided on this plan when we discovered that both of our spouses would be out of town. We’d pile into one car and take the kids hiking in the damp, mossy forests beneath towering Oregon fir trees.
He secured the car seats and I filled water bottles. We left after lunch. His daughter was on the passenger side, and I buckled her in, as he reached to the middle seat, across my son to buckle my daughter in. I glanced over and he smiled in a peculiar way. All of this felt too familiar, yet still uncharted, like we both knew some dialect of a language that we had never practiced with each other.
Twenty miles outside of Portland, his grip was tight on the steering wheel and my window was open, salty gusts of warm air wafting through, hitting my face in gentle rhythms. His daughter had fallen asleep and he kept fiddling with soft crooning songs, one after another. I wanted to stop the moment and close my eyes to listen to each lyric, but my kids kept asking questions, wanting snacks and stories and other diversions. “How long?” they kept asking. “An hour.” “45 minutes.” “15 more.” I answered in succession.
“How much longer?” my son asked again.
“Three hundred years,” I said. Next to me, looking straight ahead, he laughed.
As we passed mile markers on either side of the road, the vast blue skies and craggy mountains lined the valley, and we forged our way through. I put my hand out the window to feel the air pushing against me. I wanted to feel the struggle of keeping my hand open and resisting the force of what was coming at me. I was restless with him sitting there, silently smiling, the wind and mountains opposing each other in their stubborn, old ways. I wanted to crack the day open and see what was really inside. I searched for things to say but remained silent, resisting the desire to ask him questions about his inner world. The kids kept stirring or asking for this or that, and my attentions were folded into origami-shaped figures that only came together when each crease was in place for the next. I wanted to unfold it all, crumple it up and see what else it could make.
Truth be told, watching his hands on the steering wheel roused me. His hands were nicked and bruised from hard work but they rested there gracefully. I blushed thinking about where his fingertips had been—what thoughts they’d scrawled out for him, what juicy foods they’d lapped up in a fit of ecstatic satisfaction, what kinds of lovers they’d pleasured. I thought about these acts like I thought about the acts that made our surroundings: they were a flood that thundered through the valley of my mind.
And then—a tap on the glass, the moment broken.
“Oh, look,” he said, his finger lifted. “Look what just happened.”
For a second, I thought he’d caught me watching his hands and was deliberately moving them out of the way of my gaze, but I followed his fingertip to the windshield. I thought he was pointing at the valley itself, the beauty of the gorge, its stands of trees and miles of open sky crowded with cumulous clouds and I was confused.
“Look,” he said again with conviction.
His finger, strong and exact, pointed to the windshield, to the plate of glass separating us from the gorge. I felt a sensation travel up my spine as I followed his fingertip to a round, even pinprick in the glass. From somewhere out there in that vast open world, an infinitesimal fragment of rock had hit us with enough force to make a hole in the glass. I didn’t get it at first. I had driven in this gorge hundreds of times and had never been hit with a rock that put a hole in my windshield. He leaned over and touched the hole, and I looked again, sliding my gaze over the glass, groping for the reality of its existence. All that filled my world for a moment was that tiny hole covered by his finger. He brought his hands back to the steering wheel and with my eye suddenly focusing through the small aperture, I saw the world passing by in wild, messy brushstrokes, a swirl of unrecognizable shapes and twists of color. Everything looked abstract until I refocused, my gaze leaving the hole and once again allowing the prodigious valley beyond to come back into view. We were traveling at our maximum speed through this place that was once carved out by a massive flood, an act of destruction that is hard to fathom. Today, it is peaceful here. Then I saw the tiny radiating cracks growing like webs from the hole.
“Will it shatter?” I asked. He shook his head.
I reached out, running my fingertip over the hole. I longed to feel it, but it was only broken on the outside. Inside it was still smooth and untouched. I shrugged. As I pulled my fingertip back, my own hand came into focus. My long fingertips, marked with scratches and knife cuts from long days of cooking, my strong, hard nails. I didn’t have to guess; I knew where my own intrepid fingertips had been. In that moment, they were there reaching out against the ancient topography, having this chaste adventure with a man I hardly knew. My fingertips extended as far as they could for a pinprick of a hole, one limited window to the great big world, yearning desperately for more than one lifetime could give them.
Adrian J.S. Hale has been writing professionally for over a decade. She has worked for various food and lifestyle publications, including Country Living and Saveur. She and her family travel extensively, but their home base is Portland, Oregon.