You Know What You're Doing

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

You grow up on archaeological digs. Your father, Abner, takes you abroad with him over the well-meaning objections of your uncle and aunt, packing you along like a few extra maps. “Yes, travel will be good for you, but isn’t Marion a little young to go gallivanting off around the world?” “What about her education?” “How will she grow up properly?” Mama traveled, you want to say. But you are strangled in the black dress and the past tense. It scratches. And there is no mother to fix it.

You are sweltering when you arrive in the Mediterranean in your crow’s clothes.

You are wild, you suppose, by any reasonable measure. But nothing is reasonable, caught on the other side of the world from the Great War. Abner buries himself in Egypt and Palestine, and you with him. Languages come easily to you. You can wriggle into tight spaces. Your handwriting is perfect as you write the tags on Abner’s finds. The men call you little prince. You are in between. You are Abner’s messenger. Your feet have wings and your words have weight.

You steal the clothes of Abner’s graduate students so that tailors can copy them for you. You think they’re stupid, boy after overgrown boy. Until you’re finally old enough for one of them to look like a man to you.

Sifting through the past, Abner says that’s what you’re looking for, but you know you are both searching for reasons. Things happen in this life, and you want to know why. You grow up instantly, your body struggling to catch up with how much you know and how much your opinion is respected in the tiny little traveling circus you call your life.

You thought you would always have the world the way you wanted it.

You were wrong.

+

You’re sixteen, old enough to be wearing men’s clothes instead of boys’, vain enough to want to be thought pretty, but smart enough to realize the rules for young ladies have nothing to do with you. The wildness has settled into your skin and your muscles. The sun and hauling crates and baskets of rock have made you something else again.

Even Henry Jones, Jr. falls under the spell of your long stride, your self-assurance. He’s by far your favorite of the revolving door of scholarly young men Abner enjoys shocking with the realities of life in the field, how dirty and unglamorous and boring it can be when a dig goes as expected, barring the shocking terror when it does not.

Abner doesn’t see anything wrong with how much time you spend with Henry—no, Indiana Jones. To him you’re still enough of a child. You make sure of that, so the letters from your aunt entreating him to send you back to Boston before you can be “irreparably damaged” don’t hit their target. Sometimes you’re pretty sure Abner has forgotten your age, anyway. The two of you might as well have always existed together under the sky, united in your search for reason. You’re starting to figure out that things can happen because you want them to.

Indiana becomes your closest confidant. You keep him to yourself with all the jealous intensity of a dragon sitting on a hoard of gold. One cool night under the stars he talks about how his own father was always off on digs and doing research without him, how envious he is of you. You feel like you’re winning at something, but you don’t know what, exactly. You also know what he does in brothels, and you are arch with him about it. He is shocked and annoyed at first, but he likes being shocked and annoyed at you, so you keep going. You act like you know things. You might know things. You’re not sure. You do hang around women sometimes, when you can get away with it. Not with them. You don’t really know how to do that. But near them, to steal what they know before they can chase you away.

(You know what your father does is stealing. You know the things he packs up and sends away don’t belong where they’re going. But it’s not up to you, of course. Nothing ever is.)

Your whole life is brighter, sharper with Indy around. He gives things direction. An afternoon feels like forever. He treats you like you are only yourself. Not a woman, not a man, just yourself, Marion, the in-between creature, he looks her right in the eye and you look out through her eyes and love him.

The three of you are a family as soon as you decide to share Abner. You never did, before. And when you steal Indiana’s clothes, it’s for their smell and not their shape. You’re wearing one of his shirts the day he does a double-take and seems to see what you’ve been trying to make him understand for weeks.

This seems simple. This seems like what it’s supposed to be. He feels it, too. It’s inevitable. It’s going to be whatever you want it to be, because everything is. Your frustrations are few, for all the unconventionality of your life. You see a slice of light across the temple floor. You see how it could be like this forever, and you dive for it.

But you forget what it says on the opposite side of your father’s precious medallion, the one that is supposed to lead the way to the past of all things when he finds the map room, when he finds the lost city, when he finally knows where to dig in the first place. The things he wants are always so many steps in front of him he might as well be dead before he finds them, you think. You forget to take away one measure out of respect for the god who arranges all things. You are arrogant, and you pay.

+

Looking back, you know it was too much power in your hands.  There was no one to be the adult you so desperately needed. You needed someone to guard you, and there wasn’t anyone. In the civilized world you all stumbled from as if it were a dark cave, the logical consequence of Indiana’s actions with you would be marriage. Sixteen would not be so young for that. Abner wanted Indiana to stay. He would have agreed, if ever he were asked. The dig was more alive with Indy on it. Indiana should have been the one to explain, but he was as drunk on your power as you were. Marriage did not follow. Nor did a child. You had nothing to keep of Indy except a shirt. Not a picture. Not even a shirt, after you burned it out under the stars.

Those six weeks will live in your memory, when you can finally reclaim them from the sandstorm of shame that followed, as the happiest you’ve ever had. There was the running around and digging and discovering you’ve always known, and stolen kisses and sneaking out under the stars. Your head pillowed on his shoulder meant more, meant something else. You were suddenly the woman you wanted to be, the woman your uncle and aunt were afraid of you becoming. You loved that woman. And you loved him. Scruffy and grinning, and if sometimes his face got vacant when he looked from you to the horizon, you pretended it was the cold air making you shiver.

There was sex, too, because of course there was going to be. You knew the mechanics and he knew how to drive. It was matter-of-factly the most fun thing you’d ever found to do with your body, so you did it as often as you could. Which, when you are a pair of under-supervised budding explorers without much choosiness about locale, is very often.

Abner finds out. Or figures it out. Secrets don’t last long on an archaeological dig. He is bemused and indignant at first, because he believes that is what he is supposed to feel, but that quickly turns to horrified anger when it does not turn out that Indiana was hoarding up money for the gold ring that would make all of this a nice, if untellable, story someday. Betrayal.

You feel it is your fault when Indiana leaves. Abner, in the greatest act of love he has ever made towards you, never says that it was. He lays the blame on Indiana, and you bitterly disagree with him until you bitterly agree with him, and that’s how you win all those bets in bars, all those years later. The bitterness of Indiana Jones’s abandonment—even though you never expected marriage, you expected he would want to stay, or at least want the wild woman you were running towards being—cuts the taste of the alcohol, and eventually you don’t feel either anymore.

+

It takes ten years for your tortured, inevitable half-fantasies to occur. The world of archaeology is not so large, there were few times when you truly couldn’t have found him, if you wanted to. Or he, you. Those first years, you lived on the hope he would come back, walk right through that door to ask for what he’d always wanted. You lived with knowing, at the end of every long day, that he wanted something else. You nursed the humiliation and the anger of that until it was sharp as a fang and heavy as an anvil, rehearsed the moment a thousand times so you’d be ready.

You’re half blind with the mountain moonshine your clientele loves to compete with, marveling at your endurance. The women bet on you no matter how many times you lose, when you win you’re their hero. This is your bar, your corner of the world, never mind that you’re here because this is where Abner happened to be when he dropped dead, leaving you with about as much as he’d ever been able to give—acceptance, artifacts, and no money. You’re respected here. And then the shadow of your past falls over you.

When the inevitable occurs and his silhouette does paint your barroom wall, you don’t hesitate. You know exactly what you want to say, and you do.

“I learned to hate you in the last ten years.”

“I never meant to hurt you.”

“I was a child! I was in love! It was wrong and you knew it!”

“You knew what you were doin’.”

“Now I do. This is my place. Get out!”

You punch him in the face, and the miracle occurs. You feel better. You force him to apologize, and he does. It makes you feel sorry for yourself, that younger girl inside you, staring out through your eyes, that the man she loved didn’t deserve her. For her, you hammer on him until he apologizes a second time, when he hears about Abner.

“I’m sorry.”

“Everybody’s sorry.”

You’re disgusted with him, now. As if his sorry and Abner’s sorry and all the grieving apologia in the world can make up for what you’ve lost, what you can’t carry with you. You can’t focus on cleaning up the bar. You can’t focus on Indy. He’s still devastatingly handsome, still devastating, but it’s a thousand times worse now. A part of you wonders how easy it would be, your bedroom is just upstairs—

But of course he wants something of Abner’s, the medallion for the map room, the X to mark the spot. He didn’t come for you. You didn’t need him to. You say you don’t know where it is. He’s willing to pay and you tell him to come back in the morning, You’re the one who decides who comes and goes, now. This is your place. It might not be a dig, but you’re still looking for reasons.

Once he walks out, you take the medallion out of your shirt. It was Abner’s most prized possession, and when you sold everything else, you couldn’t sell this. He believed in it completely. You keep it with you, heavy as it is around your neck. The admonition to take away one measure out of respect for the god who arranges all things has saved your life time and time again. To wait, for just a moment. To take the breath.

There is no time for breath when the Nazis come. There is no breath in your lungs when the white-hot poker is held so close to your face you can smell the metal. But Indiana Jones comes right back through the door, and now you’re locked together in a fight for your life as your bar burns down, the money with it, the medallion burning into the Nazi’s hand. You wonder, a few mornings later, if that was your father protecting you after all. Killing isn’t all the past can do. That occurs to you as you tell Indy you’re his new partner, and stride out in front.

Released into the world with Indiana Jones at your side is more fun than your sixteen-year-old self could imagine. It takes time to learn what power and regret are for. Even a tomb of snakes doesn’t dampen your enthusiasm. Why should it? This was what you were born to do. When you finally do tumble Indy into bed again, it’s joyful, it’s freedom, you are a star in the dark and he navigates by you. It satisfies you, like the adventures and the peril satisfy you.

+

You don’t think it’ll last. You never did think it would. Both of you are too young, still. He doesn’t understand how being with you might intersect the life he wants to lead, and as long as that’s true, all the imagination in the world isn’t going to help the situation. So when he leaves, as he inevitably must, you’re not all that interested in why, again. You have more pressing things to worry about. Like the kid you realize you’ve got hanging out inside you. The kid you never tell his father about.

So your life splits into the before and after of Indiana Jones again. This time you have a kid and a typewriter and every intention of dragging both of them around the world, but a British fighter pilot gets in the way. Colin Williams looks at you like Abner used to look at his medallion—like you’re the map to what he wants. He touches you like he can learn the key of you with his body. You agree to stay in England. You have a damn good life, better than you ever would have thought. You run around with your son, you finally know how to talk to women. The stories you thought would scandalize just make them shriek and laugh. And when Colin dies during a firefight in the Second World War, they make you casseroles and squeeze your shoulder.

It wouldn’t be damning if during those first few months after Colin died, you looked up at every shadow across the door, would it? It wouldn’t be disloyal to the memory of a man you loved so fiercely, who loved you so well. Perhaps your inevitable fantasies extend to archaeology in general, because one morning you’re packing the suitcase, the kid, and the typewriter, to rejoin a life that never seems to change, never stops, but welcomes all its civilization-bound children home like they never left. You know what you’re doing.

Your traveling circus of a life writing papers and making discoveries with other former students of your father’s continues even when you finally give in to the whispering voices in your head, the ones that say you’re a terrible mother, what about his education if all Mutt does is gallivant around the world? He’ll become just like his father, or Abner, or—God forbid—you. So you send him to school after school, he gets kicked out of them all, betrayed by you and refusing to answer your letters. You wish you could explain that the Soviets picked up where the Nazis left off, that you don’t ever want a white-hot poker pressed to his cheek because of something you won’t give up.

When the Russians finally catch up with you, you fire off one last desperate letter to Mutt, doing the unthinkable. You put him on the trail of his own father, because if there’s one thing you’ve learned after all these years under the sky, it’s that sometimes you are the reason for what happens. It can’t be fate. It’s always been you, and your choices, and what you wanted to do.

You’re settling accounts with yourself, sitting in that tent. Grieving for Ox, hoping Mutt can keep it together, thinking you’re about to die. You’re proud of yourself, your son, the trouble you got into for almost fifty years.

As the Soviet soldiers drag you out of the tent, you are faced, once again, with the inevitable. The tall, grizzled, gray-haired, fedora-wearing inevitable, staring at you in wonder that wipes the fear and the exasperation off his face. All you can do is smile.


Miranda Dubner daydreams for fun and profit. Her work has appeared in The Toast, and she will update her blog someday. Follow her @writingmiranda.