Your Head or Your Heart by Andrew Waters
Belinda woke disoriented from her nap. She was on a towel in the middle of an old cow pasture. A band of black musicians in long, colorful robes played ancient, percussive music on a tiny stage at the bottom of the hill. Small, blue mountains surrounded her. Where was she? Pennsylvania? New York?
She rose from the towel and looked at her watch. Lunch time. She wandered down the hill and found the path leading to the food carts. Western Maryland. That’s where she was. Pretty here. A music festival her friend Allison drug her to because of some band named Big Head, with whom Allison was currently infatuated. Belinda was off work for three days, so why not? This was her eighth festival of the year. She needed four more to break last year’s record. Only August now; the record within reach.
The festival grounds were an old farm that didn’t make sense to farm anymore, the crowd a little rougher than usual, lots of Tribal tattoos and biker apparel. But so far the event was peaceful, even if the lineup was a slight disappointment. Mostly regional bands, few of whom she knew. The Bomb Squad, a national act Belinda followed, was supposed to headline, but they cancelled at the last minute. Frankly, Belinda was ready to go home. Big Head wouldn’t play until later that night, however, then the long drive to Durham in the morning, followed by another long week at the housewares store where she worked.
She wandered past some trailers looking for a vegan pizza stand she’d eaten at the night before. She could’ve sworn it was around here. And then she saw him.
He was skinnier now. She remembered him swimming in a pool at the beach with his shirt on, embarrassed by the roll of fat around his midsection. “You’re beautiful,” she had said, the words sounding naïve to her now. Something a teenage girl would say. The first weekend they slept together, and they were both self conscious. She had never been naked with a man before, and she remembered the anxious thrill of his hands running over her in the dark of the tiny condominium bedroom, the sound of waves through the open window.
He took her to the same condominium the night he proposed, in the spring of their senior year. She thought about the awkward silence in the car on the long drive back to Chapel Hill, after she told him no.
Their love had seemed too easy for her. Effortless and light. Unobstructed. She had her career in graphic design, the one that flamed out in a series of dead-end, administrative jobs. He had three years of law school. She needed a relationship with more challenges, an epic character theirs somehow lacked. She told him she could describe this need more clearly when she was older. “Can’t we wait?” she asked, but he was disconsolate, and the relationship was over by graduation.
His hair was longer than before. Full beard, shorts and sandals, a “Big Head” t-shirt. He certainly looked the part. Not the staid, corporate attorney she’d imagined. Should she approach him? She hesitated. She thought of the weekend they spent together the next summer, after his first year of law school. They slept together, but the sex left her empty and sad. They hadn’t spoken since. And there was William, the grad student she’d dated off and on for the last two years, their relationship a series of “breaks” and redefinitions. Were these the complications she sought? The question made her melancholy.
She took a few steps back, then weaved through the crowd toward the pizza cart she now saw, trying to decide what to do. An electric chill shivered down her spine; somehow she knew he saw her. Her body vibrated in anticipation, a queasiness in her stomach, a quickening in her chest. She waited in line, staring forward awkwardly, girding herself for their conversation and the direction it might lead them.
She waited. “What’ll it be?” someone asked, and she realized he was not coming. She got out of the line and walked to where he had been standing. He was gone, vanished into the crowd.
Heaviness descended on her. A tear formed in the corner of her eye, and she wiped it away defiantly with the palm of her hand as she stifled the moment of fierce and unusual grief. She walked back to the cow pasture where she found Allison sitting in a lawn chair, sipping a can of Miller Lite. “I think I need to go home,” Belinda said. “I’m really not feeling well.”
“Now?” Allison asked. “Can’t you just go lie down in the tent?”
“I really need to leave. I need you to do this for me.”
Allison stared at her then rose from her seat in resignation. “Jesus, Belinda,” she muttered as she gathered her things, then as they walked back to their campsite, “What happened? Are you OK?”
They left the festival and were on the road by five, Belinda agreeing to drive the entire eight hours back home as an apology. They listened to a Big Head bootleg until Allison drifted off to sleep, the Shenandoah Valley awash in the orange light of a dying sun.
“What will it be?” he had asked her the night of his proposal, after she attempted to explain the reason for her reply. “Your head or your heart, Belinda?” At the time she found the question juvenile, support for her decision.
“I want both,” she told him. “I don’t think that’s asking too much.” But now she was not so sure.