Appears in Other Voices #42
We’ll drive out west, we gush when we run into each other drunk at a party, out to What Cheer and eat some tacos at Amigos—some real, authentic tacos, not like the fake-o crap you get around here—we’ll drink some Coronas and drive out to the middle of nowhere, all the way out to where the sky—you know, where the sky is like a huge bowl tipped upside down—and we’ll turn up the radio and fuck, one last time, in your car; for good luck, just like old times.
Just a Handful of the Many Things You and I Do Not Understand
How to cook a frozen pizza without burning it. Fractal geometry. The concept of ending something for good.
Outside, it doesn’t look like the snow is melting, but like some brown creature that’s been lurking underground all winter has broken loose and ruptured the white.
—On the road again, you sing over the buzz of the radio. —I just can’t wait to get on the road again. Blah blah blah blah blah with my friends…c’mon, Cupcake, join in.
I haven’t been in your car in two months, but it feels the same: like we’re crammed inside an eggshell on wheels. I crack my window to let in some air.
—I’m boycotting Willie Nelson for doing those fucking commercials.
—But he’s Willie Nelson. He could do shaving cream commercials until eternity and still be a legend.
—He’s washed up, I say. —Done for.
You raise your voice above it all and I remember when we first started coming on these drives, when we’d sing the whole way to wherever we were going, as if our voices were our fuel.
The radio spits static. Your car rattles and retches. We have stories, but we don’t tell them. We talk around things or not at all.
The sky throbs bright gray. The leaf-shaped new-car-smell air freshener that lost its spunk a year ago twirls languidly in the wind. We wait for something to happen.
I’m not sure whose bathroom it was, but the bathtub had feet and was black with mildew and when I woke up in it this morning in a cold inch of water and my underwear, you were next to me but turned away.
The shower curtain was hung so the picture was on the inside: a sunny island with an oversized palm tree. I hadn’t slept that well in months.
In the crook of your arm, you were holding a bottle of Vanilla Stoli. Gently, like you’d hold me if I were someone smaller and more delicate, like you’d cradle a baby if you weren’t so scared of them. I felt nauseous. I leaned over the edge of the tub.
I hate airplanes and I’ve never taken a cruise. I am terrified of the fear that accompanies adventure. Some people call it a rush.
—In case you’ve just tuned in, you are enjoying seven-sixty AM, WLJC radio…
The sweet southern Iowa lilt of Hattie Thomason crackles through the speakers. We have been here before, to Oxford, Iowa, home of Hattie Thomason and We Love Jesus Christ radio. We have been to most of the places we go before. Several times. It’s so much easier to go back to places you’ve been. There’s no chance of taking a wrong turn or being self-conscious among unfamiliar faces, or eating something that will disgust or kill you because it was ill-prepared. You just drive straight there, do what you’ve always done and arrive safely home.
—Do you really think we need that? you say, referring to my map.
You know I was born with a busted internal compass, that I’ve never trusted you to deliver us to the specified location. That this map of Iowa goes everywhere with me. But you never fail to ask anyway.
—Yes, I say. —Absolutely. If there’s one person on earth I refuse to get lost with, it’s you.
I can’t think of a time when I haven’t felt lost: with you or otherwise. The map allows me the comfort of knowing, however generally, where I am in the scheme of things. It’s faded and creased, worn soft as cotton. If it were bigger, I’d wear it like a cape; at night, I’d bundle up in it like a blanket. I’d wallpaper my insides with it if I could.
—I’ve gotta hand it to you, Cupcake. You always did know how to make a guy feel special.
Here’s something special: how we officially met and started going to What Cheer in the first place. It was at Tuck’s, where I spent most evenings downing whiskey sours with whichever oldish man felt like blowing his retirement check on me. In our town, these men are not hard to come by, but they start early and leave early—around the time you usually came in. Nightly, you and I battled for possession of the Golden Tee machine. Unlike actual golf, the game requires no brains and little accuracy, just an extreme amount of aggression and a willingness to injure your self by smacking the hell out of the machine. A while back I’d seen a guy slash open his palm slamming the roller.
You bet me whatever I wanted within reason that you could destroy me at the game. When the screen started to spin, I shut my eyes, reared back, and sunk a hole in one.
I hadn’t intended it to be a date. I was dead broke; I’d been eating canned green beans for dinner for a month and a half. We went out for a drive and wound up by accident at the little taco joint in What Cheer, icing our bruised palms on cold margarita glasses.
Since then, we’ve been there a hundred times. Every time it started out enjoyably enough. Then we drank too much tequila and came home and hurled sharp things across the living room at each other. In the beginning, going (the drive, drinks at a sunny table, even the intense satisfaction that arose from whacking you square in the forehead with a stapler) was new and exciting. After a while it became more like trying to get back to the people we had been in the beginning, people I only remember in bright flashes now: flying kites along the lakeshore, stealing tiger lilies from the botanical gardens, lying all day on a couch in a sunlit living room basking in the joy of doing nothing. It was a different you that taught me to fish, and a different me that wanted more than anything to learn. In the end, the trip became an attempt to counteract everything that had happened; eventually, going there didn’t mean anything anymore, so we stopped.
What I want to know is how you go about processing all that history when there’s so much of it you can’t look at it all at once? I haven’t found a good way, so I sum up, compartmentalize, bury; in my head, I write whole letters that will never be penned or mailed.
Today, going means we’re weak. That we can’t let go of the tiny sliver in ourselves that remains blind and hopeful, that guards us against being alone. Even as I feel it dissolving in me like a chip of soap in a warm bath, I can’t help believing in it.
With my eyes, I follow the route I know.
Things We Said We’d Do
Buy a toaster that would not blacken everything. Lay off the whiskey, or at least buy some Jack instead of the kind we had—what was it called?—that was slowly gnawing away at us from the inside out. Put on some nice shoes and go to the symphony. Grow some squash. Stop fucking other people. Find real jobs. Go see a movie in the theater. Buy a basset hound. Take a week off, rent a canoe, float the Maquoketa all the way to the Mississippi. Pay the goddamn water bill. Stop lying to each other when we fuck other people. Go fly a kite. Go to Mardi Gras. Finally ride the bicycles we bought forever ago down to the river, stand at the end of the dock, lean out over the water and feed those expensive, gourmet crackers we bought for this very purpose to the ducks.
—It’s a boot, you say, pointing at the sky.
—It seems more carrot-esque to me.
—It’s not a goddamn carrot.
—It looks more like a goddamn carrot than a fucking boot. Look at all that leafy stuff. The only footwear I’d even consider it being is a ballet slipper.
We’ve never talked about anything that’s happened. It creeps around under all our empty words the way the spider you can’t see crawls around under your sheets at night. I don’t know about you, but it invades my dreams and strips all my memories down to the barest, dullest essentials.
—It’s a whale, I say, though it is nothing like a whale.
This way, we can talk forever and never have to say anything.
The car coughs up a hill. At the top, I wait for us to go sailing off into the open air, the way my car does in dreams.
—It’s definitely a ukulele, you say.
We coast down into the same depressing brown, creep along like we’re following a funeral procession. There are some things you carry so deep inside yourself you will never be able to understand them. What else can you do but dress them up like other things—silly things you can laugh at?
Clouds skirt fast through the blue, changing and changing.
was something we’d both run out of long before we met, maybe before we were ever born. Being lazy and not knowing what else to do, we waited. For the mysterious envelope to appear in our mailbox. For it to come to us in our isolation like a dream to a prophet.
We never would have made it if we hadn’t won the tickets. Or if, as you liked to remind me, you hadn’t won them. If you hadn’t stopped to fill out that card at the mall and if whoever picked the names out had not picked yours from the thousands in the box.
—You know, this is unbelievable, you kept saying on the plane. —Fucking unbelievable.
You were breakfasting on a tiny, shiny packet of honey roasted peanuts and Tanqueray and tonics. We weren’t used to free drinks. You were running the stewardess ragged, asking for a fresh one whenever your ice started to melt. She was middle-aged, a little beefy for your taste, but you still seemed to be enjoying her legs.
—Well, I said, comparing mine to hers. —I for one don’t imagine us feeding each other Brie or drinking ridiculously pricey wine or having mind-blowing orgasms or anything just because we’re in Paris.
On the computer screen at the front of the cabin, a red plane inched along, allegedly following the same route as the plane we were on, counting down very slowly how many miles we had traveled. Though the number increased, the plane seemed to hover in the same spot above the wide, cold ocean. We had never been on a plane before. My seat felt rigid and the air was stale. I had pulled the shade on my window as soon as we boarded. I couldn’t remember how long I had been afraid of heights, but I knew it hadn’t been forever.
—I mean, I don’t imagine that going on a trip will fix anything, I said.
You nodded, chewing your peanuts contemplatively.
—You just did imagine it, you said matter-of-fact, like I hated.
I couldn’t help it. We’d never experienced this kind of luck; it hadn’t taken much to get my hopes up.
—To getting the fuck out of town, I said.
Ice clacked against the sides of our cups. My lime bobbed and glowed in a sparkling sea of tonic.
That gin was the best we’d had in months. Even the tonic was fresh: bubbles popped and fizzed in my stomach like they had a life of their own.
We pull into the Casey’s up the road, where the little blonde, perky-ponytailed clerk is flipping through Cosmo and alternately blowing pink bubbles and reapplying cherry flavored lipgloss, the smell of which makes me feel woozy as soon as we step inside.
There had been other girls long before Paris. It wasn’t until some time after that they all started to look alike, that they all became tiny and blonde and started coming in hordes so I had to start calling them all Trixie because I couldn’t tell them apart. Even their voices were identical on the answering machine. It was always, Hey, you, I just wondered if you wanted to, like, go rollerblading or something. You’ve never been much for exercise; that always left “or something.” Not a single one of them ever had a respectable tattoo.
Our town is not that big. So whenever I saw one of these little blonde girls anywhere, I assumed that you already had or eventually would sleep with her. In a way it was comforting. I was never, ever shocked. They all looked like younger, less cynical versions of myself.
I wanted a better version of you, too. All mine had the closest thing I could find to your nose, that girlish button nose which I adore and have always wanted to snip off and sew on in place of my own, which has a bump.
This one probably has a cute little smiley ladybug crawling up her left ass cheek. She looks about seventeen, and it doesn’t seem right that she knows all the words to “Uptown Girl,” which is playing on the boom-box on the counter. It was my first 45. I danced to it in the basement long before Billy Joel had his breakdown and checked himself into rehab. I never wanted to be a brain surgeon or an astronaut when I was young. All I wanted was to dance around a gas pump in a slinky dress; I wanted to be in love. At least I knew what I wanted then.
For a good ten minutes, I stare at the sorry array of chips: selecting, putting back, re-selecting the same thing. It’s the problem I have whenever I’m food shopping: I’m starving but there’s not a single thing that sounds good.
—Don’t you have any normal Doritos? I say to her, as if she is personally responsible for my dilemma.
In the harsh light she looks pale and washed out, like a transparent angel.
—Normal Doritos? Um, I don’t know, she says. —I mean, I’m not sure what you mean. Sorry, she says and goes back to her magazine.
Where We Used to Live
On the outskirts of a little college town on the river, in a little basement apartment that smelled like mold and cat piss (once, for three whole days, before she escaped out the back door I’d left open and was flattened by a dry cleaning truck, we owned a cat named Peaches, who drew blood every time she scratched). It did not have even a single window, which didn’t matter because had it existed, all it would have allowed us to see were factories.
We had both dropped out of college, but all over the place piles of books we had collected rose like sturdy towers. Our sheets were Star Wars. We were too lazy for glassware and recycling and we never cooked. In our cupboard: bottles of liquor, stacks of multicolored plastic cups like you used to have punch in at birthday parties, an occasional mouse or roach. The best part about that place was that my mother refused to visit us there.
Across the hall: Margie, who, when she got home from work in the afternoons, locked her twin boys in her apartment and herself in her red Omni. For hours, while her boys beat the hell out of each other next door, while they smashed each other’s skulls against our wall, she’d sit out in the parking lot with the windows rolled up, lighting one cigarette after the next until you couldn’t see her through the cloud of smoke. We once came home to find the boys secured to the tree in the backyard by dog chains. They barked and pranced as if they were enjoying themselves. We marveled at their capacity for imagination.
Above us: Tommy, Leroy, and Pod—three brothers from Louisiana who slept together in the same bed and who, whenever we were fighting, rather than calling the cops on us like everyone else in the place did, would come downstairs with a big bowl of homemade paella and two huge spoons.
There was the night when the pipes upstairs broke and we came home to find the kitchen ceiling on our floor, water ploshing onto the marigold linoleum.
—Jesus, you said. —What a perfect cliché.
We didn’t get out the buckets, the empty bottles, or the watering can that was meant for the jade plant I’d planned on buying several weeks prior. We just stood there, watching water fall down in sheets. We took Polaroids of each other getting drenched. Eventually, it stopped of its own accord.
Now, on our coffee table which you built, there are probably still several Budweiser bottles resting on my book of Klimt’s paintings you keep forgetting to return even though you always hated Klimt for “single-handedly destroying the art world by making everything so goddam pretty.”
—Look at this pathetic little dude, you say, pulling a shriveled hot dog out from under its heat lamp. —You’d never see this kind of shit in my store.
I don’t remind you that it isn’t actually your store, that you are only the clerk at the 7-Eleven.
—Since when do you eat relish? I say.
—Since forever, you say, and slop on another spoonful.
—Not since forever. You hate relish.
—I hate sauerkraut.
—How could you hate one and not the other?
—I don’t know, hon, maybe because they’re two completely different things.
—You’ll ruin your appetite.
—I don’t have an appetite, remember? It’s the cigarettes. I just eat. Whenever I feel like it. And anyway you’re not my mother.
—Thank God for that, I say.
There Was a Time Way Back When
I would have done anything you asked me, even if it had meant consecutively eating a hundred microwaveable 7-Eleven cheeseburgers.
How the Hell Should I Know Why?
Because I loved how your ass looked in those ratty gray sweatpants? Because I was turned on by your shoplifting—by all the glittery, girlish, heart-shaped barrettes and giant-sized Blow Pops and once, just for the hell of it, the ninety-dollar graphing calculator you stole for me that I could play Tetris on?
Because you said I was the best fuck you’d ever had? Because, even after I helped you downstairs and into bed after a long night out, and you were so drunk that you couldn’t feel your own lips, you could still kiss a billion times better than anyone I’d cheated on you with? Because the smell of you when you haven’t showered in a week makes my stomach turn in that wonderful, bordering-on-nausea, junior high way?
Because even though you didn’t drink the stuff, you could make my coffee more perfectly than I could. Because at night when I couldn’t sleep you’d invent fairy tales for me and rub my belly until I could. And in the mornings before work while I tore through the pile of shoes in my closet, hung over and bitching because I couldn’t find two that matched, you could find me the perfect pair in two seconds flat.
We don’t fuck in your car or anyplace else. Not that we were actually going to in the first place. This is something we haven’t done in a long time. It is another thing we don’t talk about.
Dorothy Greenview, who sounds eerily similar to Hattie Thomason, recites to us very slowly her recipe for snickerdoodles. Her voice has become a depressing drone, a secret, encoded language in the tone of a perpetual question. Over and over she asks me why I thought this trip seemed like a good idea.
A year ago, I might’ve said something else. Today I’m going for the chimichangas. All I’m asking for is just one extra-strength, headache-relieving, knock-your-socks-off margarita.
I rummage around in the backseat for the tape of ocean noises I left in your tape deck last time. I see a suspicious pile of Polaroids I don’t touch.
You dump some of the stolen Stoli into your Pepsi Big Gulp and we continue west.
before I’d ever even seen one, I decided to leave you for an ocean. In the middle of the night, I took the train west, all the way out west to Seattle. It seemed to me that an ocean could fix many things in my life, maybe everything.
The ocean was fierce and unpredictable. It was gray and cold and too immense to contemplate.
In the night, I’d get up armed with my hairdryer and fling open the door. I kept dreaming there was an intruder on the other side, but all that was ever there was the too-bright hallway.
In Seattle I couldn’t tell the difference between dreaming and waking.
I couldn’t say who I was, either. I haven’t been to a lot of places, but I’ve been to enough to know that, so far, this is the only one where I can say that for sure. I may not like that person, but at least I can say I know her.
—I think drunk driving is despicable, I say, though I have been doing it frequently since I moved out. I’ve become quite good at it. Cops follow me for blocks and blocks of perfect driving. It’s something to pass the time late at night.
—Yeah, me too, you say, and shrug.
Since I moved out I’ve had a therapist I lie to. I have purposely killed three plants and flushed two goldfish alive, sent them spiraling to their deaths like Paolo and Francesca.
The real problem is the not sleeping. I haven’t been any good at sleeping since I was very young. This time I blame it on church. I don’t believe one way or the other about God, but I have always loved to sit in a church. This church was a Catholic one. The floor was green with branches of gold that made it look mountainous, like a relief map. There was a lot of getting up and down, which I was late for, and everyone seemed fidgety and uncomfortable. What I liked was how I could feel the lowest notes of the organ vibrating in the pews, the pages of my bible, my stomach. I didn’t know what anyone was saying, but I liked the rumble of voices in unison, the gurgling noise of the baby laughing in back.
After he sent all the children downstairs to “reflect on the word of God,” the pastor told us about the time he’d spent with people on their death beds. Most people, he said, no matter how old or how sick, will wait for reconciliation with someone they love, or to finish a project they’ve started, or for some other important thing to happen before they will let themselves “go.” He leaned in and almost whispered that he wanted us to ask ourselves a question. Just one question and it was this: What is the one thing that needs to happen in your life before you can die in peace?
The one thing?
I’ve never suffered from asthma or apnea or anything else. Since church I’ve been terrified that if I fall asleep, in the middle of the night I’ll stop breathing. So I drink; I drive around and think about how you get to the point where you don’t even trust your own body to breathe. About how if I went to jail, at least there’d be the noise of somebody else in the room with me.
On these drives (which I started going on despite my mother’s warnings that you possessed all the characteristics of the typical serial killer), we used to get lost on dirt roads and find little hillside cemeteries where the grass that covered children who had died too young of terrible diseases was warm and gold with sunlight. We found apple orchards, pumpkin farms, old churches, the tackiest of grottoes, whole small bodies of water we could swim naked in without being disturbed.
One day after it had been going on for a long time, the telephone rang. I heard the voice of one of the Trixies on the answering machine. I did not pick it up and press all the buttons on the phone at once or scream in her cute little ear like usual. I asked her very calmly if I could take a message. Like a secretary, I wrote it down on our Garfield and Nermal notepad.
That’s when I knew it was over; not like the other seventeen times. That it was really over for good. I said I was moving out.
The next morning we found out we’d won the tickets. We are the kinds of people who make fun of people who believe in signs, but the tickets, they were tangible—at the gate, I kept rubbing mine between my fingers, expecting the ink to come off; when we got to the front of the line, I watched the ticket-taker as he examined it, waiting for him to say it was a fake.
We have no idea what time it is, except by watching the sun. You have duct-taped the clock—or, rather, over the clock, so you can’t see the numbers. In the beginning, I thought everything you said was brilliant, so when you said you were boycotting Time because it didn’t exist anyway, it sounded good to me.
—Time doesn’t flow, you said. —We flow. Time is just another of our stupid inventions. It prevents us from experiencing this moment because we’re always so goddamn hyperaware of where we have to be next.
We were both unemployed. It seemed equally brilliant to move into that cave of an apartment where we could hibernate all winter, except for the once-a-week check-in phone call we had to make to the Iowa Workforce Commission to pretend we were looking for jobs. We spent our days driving around, spending our unemployment on gas and beer and greasy piles of truck stop food. Now, you claim you no longer remember how old you are. You still have that one credit hour left in Phys Ed to finish your degree.
We have many problems, but Time has never been one of them. Where we have to be next has never been a concern.
My problem is memory—the way it blips in and out, the way it jars you from the moment, infinitely dividing it. The way it conspires against you and turns everything either too ugly or too beautiful. I remember ours as a long history of bright pulses, of small failures.
Just a Few of the Crappy Gifts I’ve Gotten You for Christmas
A box of Tide (since you were always borrowing mine), a Nicorette starter Kit (that burnt your tongue because you didn’t read the directions), a lid-less Crock Pot I found for a buck fifty at a garage sale (I thought we might someday cook a chicken in it).
See, I know they were shitty gifts. But really—and this is the truth—there was this telescope I had picked out for you. The thing was, I never thought about it except right before a holiday when there wasn’t enough time to get the money together, or in the afternoon in the middle of spring, when I was so far away from stars and holidays it seemed silly to think about saving yet.
But I will tell you, it was not a cheap one, like the kind you had when you were a kid, where everything’s blurry, where the stars are like pools of spoiled, spilled milk. It was one I was going to save up for. A big, programmable one that would let us take pictures of space.
—Donnelson, you say when we pass the sign. —I like the sound of Donnelson.
I know what you’re thinking: that we could buy some land and some dogs and, though you have none of the tools, know-how or inclination, build a log cabin just outside of town. That we could start over fresh and become new people. I know better. I know about things we like the sound of. There is an endless sky that looms over all the little towns in Iowa, all that empty space, so you can see a storm coming for miles.
Most days you hate Donnelson; you hate the whole state. The hating of things was what united us in the first place. There are not many people out there who hate as many things as we do.
—What would happen in Donnelson, I say. —Is we’d grow old and start to look alike. We’d never forgive each other for that.
—There must be worse things.
—The rathole apartment is worse.
—Growing old alone.
—Working at 7-Eleven for the rest of your life.
There is one grocery store in Donnelson; the sign is hand-painted, in big blue letters that say: The Grocery Store. There is one bar, the Stumble Inn, where the same three old men (all named Mike, all with long gray ponytails) sit on the same stools and kids just old enough to drink play, too, much Meatloaf and not enough Johnny Cash on the jukebox. Though there isn’t room for it, there’s always a couple drunk enough to dance, whether they are capable or not. What they really do is stand swaying in one place, holding each other up. A few too many times, that couple has been us.
On Main Street, there is a one-room post office that looks like it’s made of gingerbread. The houses are small, like brightly-colored shoeboxes. Snowpeople slouch melting in front yards. A man works on his Harley in the driveway, spiffing it up for spring while his kids toss a snowball to their dog. His teeth snap. It explodes in midair. He trots proudly in a circle.
We pass through slowly, so we see everything. Donnelson is gone in a blink.
For a second, the highway waves before us like a bolt of gray satin tossed between the hills.
Around 450 B.C.,
Empedocles of Akragas designated four stages of human evolution. He described the first stage as such: “Many foreheads without necks sprang up on the earth, arms wandered naked, separated from the shoulders, eyes wandered alone, needing brows.” In Paris, I dreamed I was in charge of a whole nursery of babies. I burped and changed them; I brought bottles and blankets, fed and tickled them; I held them close to my chest but they wouldn’t stop wailing.
In Paris, we compared the calm green of the Seine to the color of the Iowa sky before a tornado. Ordinary gulls swooped toward the water, skimmed its surface, and rose again. We had lost all our rituals.
If I had to describe all the cathedrals and cafes and bottles of wine we floated through, I couldn’t. I can’t remember street signs or the names of hotels. Of that beer I loved, the one you said was so sweet you could feel it giving you a cavity. What I remember better is the generic Paris that’s always played in my imagination like a travel show. The real thing couldn’t compare.
The tiles in our shower were crammed with mold. Whenever we came back from someplace, the maid was rushing to put out her cigarette, so that even though it was not quite forty degrees outside we had to open all the windows because all day long the room smelled of all the cigarettes of all the people who had stayed in the room. We couldn’t afford cigarettes there; we could actually have sex without wheezing.
The only thing I really wanted was to see The Gates of Hell. The lovers—entwined so tightly you couldn’t tell whose arms and legs were whose—that was all I really wanted to see. Those fearless embraces I swear only happen in art.
—But what if? you’re saying, now that you’ve got a nice, warm buzz going.
Your eyes have gotten squinty like they do when you’re really trying to think, which is not often enough.
Though Donnelson long ago disappeared in the rearview, though we are now in the deadest, flattest part of Iowa, the Stoli has instilled you with all the dreamy, irrational, overly-frantic enthusiasm of Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life. The “what if” conversation is what gets us back together every time. It’s what got us together in the first place. Back then I thought maybe you were different than me, that if I listed off all the “what if’s” imaginable, you could make them come true.
—What if we got out of here altogether?
—No one gets out of here altogether, I say. —If you’re lucky you get out in pieces.
—What if we moved up to Canada? We could go back to—we could go anywhere.
We haven’t even touched each other since—we’ve touched anyone else, everyone who would touch us back.
—What if a deer runs out in the road?
Because I am tired and cranky and know we will never go anywhere, I don’t say what I want to say. —What if we run out of gas? What if a semi comes plowing at us? What if, I say. —We go in the ditch and our car explodes and we fry like bacon?
—Somebody needs a drink, you say, and giggle.
—It’s definitely not you.
A drink has always been our cure-all.
I’d tried Sominex and chamomile tea, counting backwards from a million, drinking till my lungs felt spongy and full of booze.
When I hoisted the gallon onto the counter at the 7-Eleven, you didn’t wink and say to me like every other clerk in town:
—Does a body good.
What you did, before I ever even knew you, was you put my milk in a bag for me. And even though I never asked, every night after that you put it in a bag. Walking home, passing by the church, I thought about how God had never given me a bag for my milk. How if there was a God, in all my life he’d never helped me carry a single heavy fucking thing.
Soon I was up to a gallon a night. I was dreaming oceans of the stuff. I’d fall asleep and be startled awake by my own burp, and then sleep would pour into me again in waves.
—I can’t wait to get to Amigos, I say. —You know why? Not because I’m starving. Because it’ll mean we’re halfway there, and that we’ll be turning around, and that if we’re lucky we won’t run into each other for another year.
You light a cigarette and stare straight ahead. I know there is snow melting in those woods, creeks thawing and gurgling. I know rain is ringing in the gutters of farmhouses, earth is squishing under the hooves of calves. But I can’t hear any of it. All I can hear is your slow inhale, crackle of burning cigarette, the occasional hiccup or belch.
I put in the ocean tape and turn it up full blast, so it sounds like radio static. I close my eyes and all I can hear is my stomach growling, you lighting cigarette after cigarette, Dorothy Greenview’s voice in my head.
We used to play the ocean tape when we needed to be someplace else, anyplace, as long as it was far away. It never really worked, but we pretended it did. That was before we saw what an ocean really was, when we’d talk about what it tasted like and how the spray felt like pinpricks on our ankles and tell stories about all the people who were sunbathing. People with good imaginations shouldn’t be together. For us, an ocean-on-tape would always be better than the real thing, because it was ours.
By the time the sun has migrated to a spot in the western sky, I’ve been waiting for hours for your car to slide on a patch of ice and slip into the ditch and go rolling down a steep hillside. I’ve been waiting all my life for huge, unnamable things that never happen.
—Here we are, I say brightly.
It doesn’t feel like we’ve moved, like we’ve traveled any distance at all.
—Here we are.
Amigos looms before us like a mirage: pink and blue and faux-adobe orange. Gaudily, painfully bright with the sun slipping down behind it, with all those clouds stretched out like stained strips of gauze. A couple of old, rusted cars sit alone in the parking lot. When I remember What Cheer, it isn’t gaudy and the cars aren’t here. When I remember it, it looks like you think it should look when you hear its name.
CLOSED TIL FURTHER NOTICE. —Sincerely, The What Cheer Department of Public Health.
The sign was put up six months ago, to the date.
In the dusty window, the field across the street is reflected. Clouds slide across the glass. White cows with black spots are grazing. They look ghostly, like the black is underneath and the white is laid overtop, like a piece of fabric cut with random holes. Still sea of dead grass: barn and sky floating just on its surface. There are things underneath, but I don’t look any closer; I am not that strong.
—Since when do towns this size have departments of public health? you demand, and start to laugh.
—Shut up, I say. —Shut up, shut up, shut up.
I rear back and kick the flimsy door of this crappy restaurant. I kick it and kick it and kick it. I think I’ll kick it right off its hinges, that I’ll kick the whole fucking door in even if it means breaking my foot, and then I’ll kick down the rest of the place, too.
—Jesus, you say. —Why do you always have to act like such a goddamn baby?
Like the breath of a child that completely fills—then bursts—a bubble, that tiny word fills up all the space inside me until it’s too much to hold, then snatches it back again. Your eyes go hard and glassy and something dark passes over them, disrupting them, like wind over a lake.
In the Waiting Room
there were couches, not chairs like I’d imagined; orange, Naugahyde couches. We sunk deep into ours until we merged with it. It was cracked and its stuffing was coming out, so I picked out little pieces of foam and collected them in my hand.
I tried to read People, because it was on the table in front of me. There were lots of beautiful women inside. Famous women with beautiful, shining dresses and sparkling jewelry. Even their eyes captured the light like jewels, as if, having been given everything, they had forgotten what it meant to want.
At the cathedral next door, bells were chiming the hour. You laced your fingers through mine, but loosely, so I could barely feel them. It felt strange to me that you were doing that—holding my hand. For weeks we’d been saying it was nothing.
I wasn’t there, not really: I was back in Paris, eating oranges in bed with you that last day, that one good day we had there. I was eating that orange and thinking how I had never tasted a better one.
Where it happened wasn’t what mattered. It could’ve happened in our dingy apartment or a field in the middle of nowhere. Any way you looked at it, it was the one thing we’d ever made together.
If it were open, we could go inside, and probably it would happen like it always does.
I know everything inside; I know it like it’s been mine since childhood. The sombreros and bright blankets on the calm blue walls. The towering, fake phallic cactus I had forgotten all about—the one we had the waiter take our picture with. The glasses big as boats we could sail away in.
The first time we were here—a long time back—I found an eyelash that did not belong to me in my rice. You picked it out and blew it lightly into the air and told me to make a wish for us.
I can’t remember what I wished for that day. All I’m thinking now is that whoever came up with the concept of the wish was heartless. That person didn’t understand how, if we could afford it, the perpetually down-and-out-but-eternally-hopeful could stand at a fountain for years plunking in dingy pennies like crazed slot-machine addicts. How we’d spend our whole life savings and all of our eyelashes—how we’d start murdering rabbits for their feet—just trying to lure in that single wish that might come true.
I’m thinking: what’s left for us to do? What we do is we keep standing here, trying to get as close to inside as possible: breath on the window, noses smudging the glass.