LIGHTNING FLASHES ACROSS THE NIGHT SKY in New Mexico and in that split second they could see God peering down through heaven’s blinds.
Before he turned his back, disappearing into the darkness, leaving them alone with each other, gazing out the car window at the desert and in the desert they could see their families disappearing, their future in the rocks, the inside of their heads turned inside out in the shapes of the mountains silhouetted beneath the dim light of the moon. They kept on driving and the desert followed them to Albuquerque, the city lights simmering in the distance. They avoided the highway that went through the city and kept to the smaller roads on the outskirt of the city. The city beckoned them to pull over, to stop upon this organization of humanity and join it, like sirens singing out their deceiving songs, but passing under the lamp posts they could see each other’s thoughts undressing like an old man going to bed and in the ugly nakedness of life slipping on the icy structure of itself they recognized their own dislike of crowds. He pressed on the gas and left the city behind as sunlight splashed on their faces and yesterday washed off.
She was from the Midwest. When she left it was a place like any other place. Once it was different. There was a time when riding her bike that the streets belonged to her, that the trees, the sky, the houses, and the yellow brick church at the end of the street all seemed to be part of a plan. Driving down the main road she would catch a glimpse of a field and it would trigger an image of when the entire land was a field, before it was hardened into concrete by men who stepped out of their cars and into their homes, their hearts also hardened and beaten by a power they could no longer understand but was constantly pressing down on them, showing them images of what they could not become, squeezing out the softness in their hearts, the children bruising their heads every time they laid them against their fathers’ chests. She was born in this place that was called home that was once different but was now the same. This place was the Midwest and the Midwest was camouflaged in its desire to be seen. When the leaves fell in the winter it was like shedding her clothes before a stranger. She finally saw herself through the spiked branches of the land’s intentions. She felt invisible and the country felt invisible to her. At the age of seven she ran away from home and hid in a sewer pipe that ran into a ditch near her house, expecting to hear the thumping of her heart in the footsteps searching for her, only to go home that night and find her mother in the same lawn chair, bottles of beer at her feet, gazing out at the hills like a prisoner looking through the noose’s hole. When she told him the story he said, you spent your entire life trying to disappear, not because you hate yourself or despise people, but to catch a glimpse of what it means to be here only to realize you were never here in the first place. She told him if she can’t find a way to leave this place she would smash her head into the sunset until the sky was soaked in her blood.
He was from another place, across the ocean. He was raised on a farm with no television or any other sorts of visions of the outside world. There was political turmoil at the time he was a child and he vaguely remembers a time when the gravel roads were terrorized by stray dogs preying on orphans with paint rings around their mouths. The children sniffing paint to get rid of the hunger boiling in their stomachs. At the age of nine his parents took him away and brought him to America. He was a tree. They took from his roots and placed him in a room of plastic trees. Go ahead, they said, be like them. But no one told him how hard that was. No one told him the plastic trees didn’t even know they were made out of plastic. They thought they were as real as one can get. How does one imitate being alive, he asked himself constantly, while you are alive.
After a while the windmills looked like people and the people all looked the same and he didn’t know which of the windmills was him and worse, which one was her.
But here on the road things were different. They were constantly distracted. Here in the desert they were safe for the moment. In the desert no one could hear them scream. They did just that, driving down a side road until the highway disappeared and only brownish skin covered the land. They got out of the car and screamed for an hour, till their throats collapsed with desperation and their eyes stung from the hot wind slapping against their faces. The other day they had pulled over in Texas, where the land stretches out like a yawn or an ocean they couldn’t swim in, and watched the hundreds of windmills in the distance, their blades rotating in a synchronized fashion, resembling a live machine. The wind, the country, feeding every one of them. After a while the windmills looked like people and the people all looked the same and he didn’t know which of the windmills was him and worse, which one was her.
Back in the car, looking out the window, he saw in the distance a cross of a church no one went to anymore, saw palatial steel poles carrying electricity to people he didn’t know existed. He saw plants and birds he didn’t know the names of. The sky was spotted with bubbling clouds that were once taught to him in high school which he now failed to recognize. The entire world passing by seemed strange and unfamiliar, untouchable because of his lack of knowledge. He wondered if he knew the names of those plants and the names of the birds if he would have been much happier. He didn’t know anything he thought. He knew there is only one way of being happy but millions of ways of being sad, he knew his heart had been broken, he knew everything everyone else knew, yet they kept on living while he thought of himself as an unconscionable tragedy.
They had been driving in silence, feeling it traveling in their veins, bubbling in their stomachs. He adjusted his posture, placed his left leg on the seat underneath him, and thought of the words that were taught to him at an early age when he came to this country and none of them were fitting for this situation, none of them felt right on his tongue so he swallowed them for the moment, feeling her eyes on him, knowing she didn’t expect him to say anything because they reminded each other of their loneliness and they were glued to their loneliness and so together they were happy in their loneliness.
He knew there is only one way of being happy but millions of ways of being sad, he knew his heart had been broken, he knew everything everyone else knew, yet they kept on living while he thought of himself as an unconscionable tragedy.
He was driving her 1988 blue Volkswagen van, which had given them a few problems throughout the trip but was nevertheless still humming its way across the desert, headlights illuminating the road ahead, which in its endless stretch across the nation was resembling more and more an assembly line where the product was never finished but always changing and taking on new forms as it made its way to the nonexistent finish, oblivious to the nature of never being whole or completed. That was them and everyone else, escaping to the road, thinking they could complete themselves by running from the cities and lusting over the country like it was a voluptuous blonde in a bar, leaning over to order a drink, to disrupt its brain functions with drunkenness for there is something in alcohol that God forgot to put in humans. Every city was marked by the same gas stations with the same products, the same billboards advertising the same fast food restaurant. The land is no longer attributed to man but to the things which enslave him; the law of the land is that every town must build itself as a replica.
In Denver even the crummy streets looked sexy with the mountain in the background. Nothing could take that away. Not even the homeless. It was here they stopped for a drink at a bar where men clutched theirs beers close to their chests and looked at their hands as if remembering a time when they were meant for something else. He looked at her and she smiled and he was glad her face could show him things he could never describe. When the noise in the bar got too loud and the lives of everyone in the city started settling on their minds, they got in the van and drove away toward the mountains. Looking out the rearview mirror he could see the buildings sticking out of the ground like struck matches against the vastness of the plains. They were heading to Yosemite Valley, the name meaning “Those Who Kill,” where she had a job for the summer as a cook. It was there they would settle between the dramatic cliffs and let summer finish them off.
For the longest time he wanted to be someone else. He wanted a body and a soul he could take to the supermarket and not think of death. He wanted eyes that only saw the light and a mouth that only lip-synched the songs played on the radio. For the longest time he wore a stranger’s jacket, watched movies he knew the ending of, and read books with notes already written on the side. For the longest time he was somebody else until she reached across the road and held his bones together.
She put the car in park, got out to get gas, and the road stopped moving. He leaned his head back, placing his feet on the dashboard, his right arm out the window, palm outstretched, feeling the wind against his skin, feeling the music beating in his head, his eyes closed, everything disappearing. She was no longer next to him, he no longer cared. As long as there was the mixture of sound telling him the world was just as fucked as he thought it was everything was going to be alright. In that moment, with his eyes closed, he could play out his entire life and grovel in the sadness of it, the voice from the speaker whispering, what are you hiding, something dirty, something dirty. Yes, he thought, something dirty, his mind drifting within itself, pulling to the surface old memories, snagging itself on the branches of his childhood. He felt like a new bird, fluttering inside his head, not knowing how to navigate or where to fly. Images of his past girlfriends came up and he thought of all the people that have been through him, and how he could never get rid of them, could never wash them out, he could only wait while they were hiding inside him, planning the perfect time to ambush, to create a tidal wave of regret as he tried forget that next to him was someone he loved but only for the moment because he knew one of these days he would no longer be in love with her and he would have to tell her and she would want to know why and he wouldn’t know why. She got back in the car and he wanted to say something but the car started moving and he let the wind rushing in do all the talking for him.
They camped on BLM land in Utah, far from the sounds of the highway or any road. Sitting around the fire she told stories of how during the summer her dad would take her floating, and they would camp next to the river. At night they would sit around a different fire, an extinguished fire, and her dad would tell her stories of how as a child she would follow her brother around, mimic him, dress in his baggy pants and skateboard down the street. She glanced at the existing fire and smiled in recollection. When she went to lie down in the tent he unfolded her family’s history over the fire’s flickering flame, like pictures flashing on a wall in a dimly lit room where the fleeting images were all he had for company. He wrapped the sleeping bag tight around his body to keep the feeling of what it means to have a family trapped deep inside him. If he could have had a childhood in America, far from his poverty-stricken childhood, he would have wanted it to be like hers. One where his father could smile at him across the fire instead of having to send postcards across countries, and his mother would have pictures of him growing up instead of stories of how the Communists tortured the women by hanging them from the ceiling by their hair. But his roots have already been planted.
He looks up and the night’s sky is a spider with a million hungry eyes looking back at him, the moon an egg sac in its web. But there was still a bottle of whiskey next to him so when the monsters came out of the sky to take him into the ground, let them taste the poison of his thoughts.
As a child he would pound nails through a bottle cap and place the cap on the street, nails facing up. Looking back there was something about the pain, the horse rearing and thrashing, the fear and desperation of the driver holding the reins that existed in him, but he hid from it. There was something about the past that stayed with him. Something about the anger that he couldn’t kill, no matter how many cigarettes he smoked or how many books he read. There is a reason why they call him an alien, an atmosphere he doesn’t belong in, like the awkward fog that lingers in a car with two people who love each other but can’t find the right words.
In Nevada they saw homes of people in the nakedness of the desert and they were envious. They wondered out loud how the people managed to stay grounded in a place where the wind blew the dust off the land onto the road. They pulled over in a small mining town so she could go in and use the restroom. He looked at the people walking in and out of the store, every one of them carrying their stories smeared across their faces. He wanted to hear their stories but not be part of them. The sun was shining on the car and he fidgeted in the seat as if to shake the heat off of him, watching the door of the store, waiting for her to come out. If he stood still for too long he had to acknowledge the world he lived in.
Yosemite. Nature’s Throne. He watches the water fall over the edge of the cliff like silk and the whole world is undressing before his eyes, glorious and beautiful and hellish. He is surrounded by hundreds of tourists watching the same waterfall on their phones and cameras, making memories while he is trying to erase them. They have been here for a week and she loved it here, sitting around the campfire, the cliffs looming over her like teeth, the sky an open mouth, the air imperfectly dark when she closed her eyes. He didn’t know what to feel, walking the concrete path past the lodges, restaurants, and convenient stores selling waterfalls and cliffs engraved in wood, painted on cups, and printed on shirts.
The sun was shining on the car and he fidgeted in the seat as if to shake the heat off of him, watching the door of the store, waiting for her to come out. If he stood still for too long he had to acknowledge the world he lived in.
He stops and tour buses go by, the faces of strangers looking out as if they are on an amusement ride. He looks down at his feet and they remind him he needs to keep moving. He buys a plane ticket back to Idaho, where they were supposed to go back together, and she wants to know why he is leaving and he doesn’t understand why anyone would want to come home to him because he is never at home.
He wakes up in the morning and doesn’t know whose brain is inside his head. He doesn’t know what to do with his body, his bones have been scattered on the side of roads like a car wreck. He looks at the door but he is tired of running and even if he wasn’t he wouldn’t know where to run to. He doesn’t want her back. He falls in love with the sadness people leave behind. There is a bottle of whiskey in the fridge. He wants to pour the entire bottle into his body. He wants to see what happens. This is not him but he lets it happen anyway.
Featured photo from James Watkins.