It is ironic that when life shovels at you bucketfuls of stuff to write about, there’s no time to write. I have been running–and that is to be taken literally–much of the day, trying to stay one step ahead of twenty steps behind. Trying to remember what my sister would tell me: you’re only behind if you think you’re behind.
And so in the name of needing to sleep, which might improve both my situation and my outlook, today I’m prematurely posting Part 2 of “A Handful of Salt.”
Michael rubbed a soft hand across the table top and smiled a handsome smile. “Many people don’t appreciate it,” he said. “It has a lot of character. I like things with character.”
“I can tell,” I smiled, nodding around the room. “So do I.”
“But then,” he chuckled self-consciously, “I can find character in a handful of salt.”
Behind me, one of the Gordon setters snorted—the pundit. My hand encircled my glass of ice water, which I hoped was not leaving a ring on the wood. I was certain he’d correct me if there had been a chance of that: look over his stylish half glasses and wordlessly slide me a coaster. Michael shook his pepper-and-salt head and repeated, smiling to himself, “A handful of salt. If you can believe it.”
It sounded like another challenge. I wanted to say. Let me tell you about salt.
A salt is a convenient working relationship: a positively charged ion conjoined with a negatively charged ion to form a neutral compound, a compound complete, a comfortable partnership. Table salt consists of a halogen atom bonded loosely to an alkali metal: a crystal built of sodium and chloride, elements drawn from either end of the periodic table, opposites having attracted.
When I first learned about the periodic table, in eighth grade earth science, I thought I had discovered the Rosetta stone for human behavior. I could identify people by their elements. And from that predict their actions, and their reactivity with others. It was like some kind of chemical Zodiac. Instead of reading the stars—Gemini, Sagittarius—I read oxygen and gold.
Reading the atomic horoscopes of family and friends allowed me to circle the truth without entering it. Invading the nucleus of an atom is treacherous business. Safer to hover like an electron in a valence shell. Valence derives from the Latin valentia, or power, and depending on the atomic weight of an atom, electrons occur in any of one to five valence shells that, like orbits around a planet, lose strength the further they get from the nucleus. At least that’s how pictures represent these atomic bonds.
On my periodic table, my mother was magnesium, an alkaline earth metal. Magnesium carries only two electrons instead of a full load of eight in its outer orbit—the valence shell which, when the atom bonds with another, either collects electrons, gives them away, or shares them. This means it joins easily with other elements, giving away its own energy for the greater good.
My sister was sodium, an alkali metal, one half of salt. Alkali metals carry only one electron in their outer orbit. Sodium bonds so easily that, like the alkaline earth metals, it does not occur free in nature, and in bonding, it gives its electron away. Back then, before she grew up, I’d watched her give away too much, witnessed the search for a stable state.
My father was a noble gas; specifically, xenon. Xenon means stranger in Greek. Until the 1960s (August 1963, in my father’s case), noble gases were believed to be unable to form compounds at all. Then it was discovered that they could bond, but only under extreme conditions. In the presence of a strong, pretty young nurse with a good laugh and a practical streak, for example.
For a long time, I thought I was, like my father, a noble gas. I did not bond well. I was satisfied with my autonomy, until I realized that I wanted to bond. I desperately wanted to bond. But not just in any old way. I decided I wanted to be a perfect element: one that had all its energy levels filled except the outer one, which would be exactly half full. And I would share those electrons in a strong union, engage in the perfect coupling. I wanted to bond without losing a part of myself, and also to be able to stand alone at room temperature.
* * *
The night before I sat facing lovely Michael across his exceptional table, I had stood with a different man at minus twenty degrees Celsius wearing four-inch heels, balanced on ice. After several months, Dave had proven an inappropriate and unstable partner. I was afraid he really was xenon, the stranger, which has a melting point of minus 112 degrees Celsius, so low it was unmanageable under normal earthbound conditions. I was afraid of my attraction to someone who so obviously could not offer the perfect union. What tragic sort of element was I, to want so much?
“I should have fitted these shoes with crampons,” I joked, hugging myself in the cold. “I don’t like the idea of needing to cling to someone just to stand up.”
“Maybe it would be good for you to try it.” Then he laughed softly. “So maybe we were made for each other.”
I thought of my toenails within my impractical shoes, the red polish. Cherries in the Snow, no less. They were the last part of my body that held the imprint of his fingers, from over two months ago, just before he’d told me that in spite of his intention of falling in love with me, he had not managed it. The polish was almost gone now. I’d left it, to chip grotesquely and slide off the ends of my toes, a visual reminder that if my body could slough him off, my mind could do the same. I had never been in love with him: I’d been in love with who I’d wanted him to be. Why we were together last night, I was not quite sure. An excuse on his part about needing a respectable date for a company Christmas party. But I knew he was really seeing about us. Just making sure. As was I.
We had stood beside the car in haloes of each other’s breath, like paintings of medieval saints. But the saints had died for their beliefs, and I was not having much luck even living for mine. He looked at me how he often had, out of the corner of his eye, like maybe his words meant less if he was not fully facing me, and pushed his hands into the pockets of my suede coat and brought his face close. “I’m sorry,” he said, after he kissed me. “For not knowing what to do with us.”
To be continued in a few days.