Eight hours after I broke off my four-and-a-half-year relationship, I went to the shooting range to fire a gun. I had never shot a gun, and in fact had never even entertained the idea of ever wanting to shoot a gun. Here is what I wanted, all along, more than anything: a man with an Old English name who drove a Volvo and wrote poetry. I imagined he took an active interest in his health and hygiene, used Tom’s toothpaste and owned a juicer. Likely, he pursued an interest outside of himself—cooking, perhaps, or landscaping, or better yet, volunteer firefighting—and I wanted him to be good to me. I wanted his love and dedication. It really was that simple.
There were other things I wanted, too, because of course there always are. I wanted loyalty, for example, and a sense of humor that did not involve farting. I wanted a modest house on a modest piece of property on a road named after a vegetable. Two children were also things I wanted, or three, or even just the one so we could take it on vacation to Europe, or a stone structure somewhere out west, or buy him juice served out of coconuts, neon curly straws clotting from pulp but no less lovely. I imagined that some day, as a family, we might own an orange five-person tent and pitch it twenty feet from the Grand Canyon, hear the coyotes yip at night, their voices echoing deep within the ravine. And sure, I imagined hot dogs, vendors selling them to us in day-old buns.
But what I’d never entertained—not ever, not even once—was that my boyfriend with an Old English name who drove a Volvo and wrote poetry might look at me one morning and decide he did not want to marry me. That after nearly five years of dating, we would find ourselves suddenly and startling unsatisfied, and that even our break-up would seem insignificant, void of emotion and full of acceptance.
“Sure,” we’d both say, meekly. “Breaking up sounds like the necessary course of action.”
There were warning signs, for example—we’d stopped sleeping together months before—but still we talked like it was business deal. We didn’t scream or yell or fight. I signed a lease on a one-bedroom apartment with twenty-foot high ceilings, bought my own juicer, and took to biking.
I was 24, and for many women, perhaps this would’ve seemed a reprieve: not to marry a man I did not love. But because of the town I’d come from—a small, rural countryside place that sold shoofly pie and scrapple at registers—I felt like an absolute failure. The vast majority of my high school classmates were already married, and even more had children, and despite my conviction that of course they weren’t, I still worried they were happier. I tried to convince myself otherwise, but there was no denying the emotion explicit in all their pictures: babies in cherry wood cribs, blond boys with bubble wands and puffed-out cheeks. There were babies with wet, mohawked hair, or chocolate pudding covering their small, round faces. In statuses their parents posted, they were always “SO BLESSED!,” or they were “camping :D!!”
The camping is what it did it. Of course I pictured Arizona: those vast and purple sunsets and the red, iconic rocks. The way they dipped into shadows, into the dark and deeper dark. The tent and its vinyl sides. The swooping sound it made as my new family turned over in sweaty sleep.
It had been two hours since we’d broken up, and I decided that what I wanted most of all was not a bowl of ice-cream or a beer or three beers but to hold a gun firmly in my hands, steady my aim, and shoot at an upright can of pinto beans. Up to that point, my only concept of guns or gun control was of overweight, balding white men with tiny dicks and smaller brains. I was liberal to the core, a child who’d walked around during Clinton’s years saying, “You know, it’s really Hillary behind all those decisions?” Guns were a problem, guns were an issue, guns should not be allowed in the hands of those who did not know when they did not need them, and yet in this moment, I wanted to hold one—to clutch it, however phallic, and feel some sense of power rush back in, flood my body and every single organ.
“I need a gun,” I said. I was standing in a parking garage, a few stolen milk crates in my hand. I thought they’d be good for leverage: to hoist the beans and the apples upright.
On the other end of the line were two of my closest friends—these were people who were in love and had been for quite some time, and that summer, in fact, they’d wed beside an octagonal barn strung with white Christmas lights. There was square dancing, pulled pork, corn on the cob, cupcakes. We danced while old men in overalls drank whiskey from mason jars, tea candles burning on stacks of vintage books.
“I need,” I said, “to fire a gun.”
Because they knew me, they understood. No romantic comedy involving a dog, or a man, or a rekindled romance complete with a fiery embrace on a lakeside dock could ever soothe my pain. What I needed was some violence. What I needed was to release carnage on bland legumes.
“Meet us in an hour,” they said, and of course, they’d bring the gun.
This was never my example, I should note, of how I was taught to cope. My mother—had she been there—would’ve been the first to remind me of that. “A gun?” she’d say, indignant. “You want to fire a gun?!”
She’d married young, at 21, and while she’d had her share of hardships, my father’s goodness—and his love—had never been one of them. He was an honest man who kept a steady job and regular hours. He was home each night at five for whatever supper she chose to make, and he was at every choral concert, every recital, and served as head coach for countless community soccer teams. They’d loaded us up, as children, and hauled us to Paris and London and Rome, and in photos I find all these years later, they’re always holding hands in the photos. There is always that special look.
It was a love, I long assumed, that was gentle and sweet and kind. More than anything, it seemed a nice girl’s God-given right. I was well-educated and articulate, thoughtful and compassionate. I donated money to the animal shelter and watched football and liked Tom Petty. I spoke French. I baked amazing muffins. I’d have no problem finding my own good love.
“You’re a good catch,” my mother told me often. “If not this fish, than another one.”
I wanted to believe her. But I was in uncharted territory—a strange, sad in-between place between worry-free adolescence and what seemed an eternity as a curmudgeon widow. My mother had never been single at 24, had never had to be, and while I’d never imagined myself the type of woman who needed a man, I wanted one, absolutely. There had always been a husband in my greater picture. Where he was, I wasn’t sure, but in the meantime, where was I?
The break-up made me reevaluate. Maybe it didn’t matter if I was learning to knit or if I used soap with fresh orange peels. Maybe it didn’t matter—my crème brûlée. Maybe the love my parents had was not simple at all, and most especially was not a given.
Maybe, I decided, to be 24 and single was to be reckless and insane. It seemed insane, after all, to drive 40 miles into approaching dusk to the only shooting range open. It was late in the season and was, as far as I knew, the only shooting range on this side of the state. This was Iowa, a place where hunting and fishing were commonplace, and yet I’d lived in the state for thirteen months and had never opted to try out a gun.
The moment my friends arrived, they began their education. The man was native, born a few hours north, and in the childhood I liked to imagine, I always saw him wading through streams like Huckleberry Finn. I imagined his band of raucous no-gooders and a raccoon that always stole his lunch.
“You’ve got to bring it in real close to your shoulder,” he said, leaning in to show me. His new wife stood beside him, her arm wrapped around his cottoned waist. “Like this,” he said, nodding. He raised it so it was eye-level. “So close it looks like it’ll hurt when it kicks back. That’s how you know it’s lined up right.”
“But won’t it hurt?” I asked, squinting. I pulled my sweater around my shoulders. It was colder than I’d expected, now nearly dark, and the outfit I was wearing was one I’d picked out especially for this occasion: camouflage-like olive and soft gold jewelry, a neon orange hunting hat I’d found for cheap. It was just of many examples of what I was doing with my time: wasting it, and hard. Earlier, I’d lined the outfit up on my bed, pairing it first with a waist-length chain and then a long, gold pendant necklace with a deer and ankle-high boots. The whole outfit struck me as positively Iowan. I was shedding my East Coast skin, I thought, and admittedly, it made me proud: proud of where I’d come from, but prouder still of where I was.
Had this been a romantic comedy, here would undoubtedly be my climatic moment: a protagonist who suddenly realizes she has all the power and—surprise—has had it all along. I’d raise the gun to my shoulder and shoot the apple straight off its crate. It would explode into a million pieces, red and white and wet, shooting off into the grass, which grew brown along the chain-link fence.
But I did not have the power. The shots I made were always misses. And worse, the gun hurt when it kicked back. My shoulder throbbed with an urgent pain and still I could not hit a can, could not hit an apple. Round after round after round, every aim I made I missed.
I did not feel powerful or strong or full of feminine wisdom.
I felt silly and alone, newly dumped and newly single, holding a gun so big and heavy I wondered aloud how long I could hold it up.
“Maybe it’s not in the cards,” I said. I looked off into the distance, lowering the bulky gun. My skin was red and sore from where the butt had dug into flesh. “Maybe I’m just not a shooter.”
“Try again,” my friend said. He leaned in to help me line up the target—the butt kneading deep into my skin. “Everyone’s a shooter,” he said. “It’s a natural thing to be.”
“These bullets are expensive,” I said. “And anyway, it’s getting dark.”
“Don’t worry about the bullets,” he said. “What this sport needs is just your patience. You have to give it a little time.”
“If I’ve learned a single thing,” his wife said, moving away from the growing darkness, “it’s that you miss until you make it.”
I raised the gun again, leveled my aim, squeezed the stony trigger, and felt the gun fire. This, too, was a miss, the apples still motionless and round.
“It’s fine,” they said, “keep going,” and I realized it was all I wanted to do: stay out there until nightfall, until it overtook our land, pointing and firing and shooting. The miss—however frequent—every bit as important as the attempt.
Amy Butcher is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program and a recent recipient of the Olive B. O'Connor Creative Writing Fellowship at Colgate University. Her recent essays and short stories have appeared in Tin House, Salon, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, American Short Fiction, and Brevity, among others. More at www.amyebutcher.com.
[Image by Jim Cooke]