Love Cairn

Katherine Gehan

Base Level


A little purple wildflower that waits for me beneath the helmet on his motorcycle seat the first time he picks me up. The ride we catch later back to town with a man who calls himself Little Bear after we lose the keys to the motorcycle. The smell of fake pine and musty cigarettes that emanates from the upholstery while I am pressed between men I hardly know. 


Innocence and lust. The scent of Crew hair pomade. Wrestling shenanigans. Him gently twirling and tugging at the ends of my hair the same way a darling boy I babysat as a teenager had when we watched Bulls games.


A date in a deserted canyon floor where, upon sunset, the universe emerges especially for us. Smothering monkey-clinging through the nights—this is my first love and I don’t care if it precipitates dreams of boating and being caught beneath fallen sails. We are insatiably lovesick, constantly pressing our bodies together. 


The eye-rolling idea that I am his angel tempered by the delight of being someone’s heavenly creature. 


Never going to bed angry. Choosing love over logic. 


The journal entries, letters, postcards—all the things I write for him in airports and motel rooms while I travel for work and he waits for my return and trims trees, works under cars.


My navel piercing, Aikido classes, weight loss. Becoming my best self. 


Him quitting smoking, taking up running, applying to finish college. 



Medium-Sized Rocks


A late afternoon mountain-hike in a lightning storm, thunderfear vibrating through the boulder fields up to the firs, skidding across my arm hair. Rain pricking our skin as we fight—I want to turn back while he flies ahead of me, climbing higher. 


The accusation during a day of cross-country skiing with my whiny younger cousins that I absorb other people’s feelings, that I sometimes have no personality of my own. The addition of this flaw to my list of personal failures.


A flood evacuation where I don’t leave a note in the apartment to say where I’ve gone and he yells about calling hospitals. The open phone book. His overreaction tempered by the delight of being loved so enormously.


The acceptance he receives to college on the East Coast and our move together where I possibly confuse my ambitions with his. 


Him trying to break us apart after only three months of arriving in a city where I am otherwise a ghost, waitressing, and sliding into darkness. Our shaky return to each other and survival through the winter. The belief that our shared depression is existential and not chemical: when we understand our purpose, the murk will dissipate. 


His springtime disappearances and new patterns of not sleeping to scheme and obsess about religion.  The black bird of death that appears outside the window in his nights. The magical potions formed from rose petal dew that he keeps inside soda cans and offers to other girls. 


The stories I tell myself that his curiosity and energy is a welcome relief from our winter gloom. 


His cheating, which I finally accept as a breakup, but I move to a futon in the living room because I have nowhere else to go, and he is cheery because it’s all fine—he loves me as a sister.  


That stormy evening I spend on the roof, wailing to sad music, entertaining a dive into trees below where soft leaves against my skin could maybe comfort me. My grief as performance when I realize a man from a nearby building is watching. The faint rainbow that appears and the moment I chose to believe the universe is making promises. 



Smaller Rocks


His arrest for soaring too high into mania, for being scary with a girl on a beach, for throwing his possessions into the Atlantic Ocean. How did I hear the news? It becomes my job to retrieve his impounded car in a beach town near the Cape.


The way the highway hums confusing rhythms through the open summertime windows each time I visit him in the state institution where he is locked away. If he is legally insane, does our love story become a fiction?


My smoking in earnest, making conversation with anyone, dating anyone. My becoming skinny, running seven miles after work each day without a shirt over my sports bra, lighting cigarettes in the empty apartment afterwards. My dating a man fifteen years older, developing tendonitis. 


The sensation of being truly necessary in someone’s life—attending court dates, making phone calls, visiting with his family. 


Unease with the new wisdom that sanity is a precious commodity. Smashing myself into other men, looking for wildflowers and leather. My escape in the fall to a new apartment, the first real bridge away from our mess.


A brief return to him, where I ache for familiarity but everything is askew: smells, habits, rate of speech, but the sex is the same, and that is a comfort. 


Him pushing me away for the final time, for giving me permission. “Go have a beautiful life without me,” and the belief that maybe I can.



Even Smaller


A dinner at a San Francisco Chinese restaurant with him many years later that rattles me because there is only the smallest part of him that I still recognize. Wanting to openly label this but the box of hair dye I use in the hotel room afterwards costs me years at salons to correct its terrible result. The inability to change the space he’s left inside me.


The idea that I have escaped something too large to handle. Letting him go. 


The years that pass, in which I find enough with a different love and I make a life. 



The Tip-Top Tiniest Rock


He ends his own. 



Final Note Tucked into the Rock Tower


In death he returns to me, his complicated energy a spinning weight, a koan caged inside me: I loved him well. The man who leaves himself cannot be loved enough. 


I play middle-age dress up and wear a badass motorcycle jacket, but there is no bike. I read brave essays by the spouses of the mentally-ill and feel a sickening mixture of relief and despair—did I abandon the one person in my life who needed me the most?


On runs in the woods I remember how he taught me to keep my feet light, to slide with the rocks and pine needles, to trust the earth. On these trails I can convince myself that if he was running alongside me, the adrenalin delights and our tender footfalls on the soft dirt would be enough life-support for him. Why could he not wait just a few more moments to let the feeling pass? Perhaps there had been years of moments already and he was tired of waiting.


What did his fingertips feel like on my skin? The lilt of his voice when he says “sweetheart” will never again excavate the deep soil of my heart. 


He has left me alone to pick and choose the rocks with which to build this cairn and I do the best I can, but maybe the whole structure is upside down.


 About the Writer
Split Lip Magazine

Katherine Gehan’s writing has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize, Wigleaf’s Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions, and Sundress Publication’s Best of the Net Anthology and has appeared online in places like McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Literary Mama, WhiskeyPaper, Luna Luna Magazine, Sundog Lit, and Pithead Chapel. Find more at