:: 2017 FALL TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST FINALIST ::
Fleabag motels, caesuras, femme phases, double bank shots, stale sweat, McDonald’s, bedside Bibles, hatchbacks, counter girls, evolved orchids, tomorrow’s underwear, impetus, the Aqua City Motel
& traffic signals in Laredo.
Fleabag motels, caesuras, femme phases, double bank shots, stale sweat, McDonald’s, bedside Bibles, hatchbacks, counter girls, evolved orchids, tomorrow’s underwear, impetus, the Aqua City Motel
This world, this world is home
but it will never feel like home.
W hat I’m wishing right now is that the men outside my room at this fleabag motel would shut the fuck up. I should have kept driving until I found a cheap but cleaner Days Inn or Super 8 or Comfort Inn or Quality Inn or Motel 6, but by midnight I was road blind and bitchy so I stopped. Now it is 2 a.m. and I am sitting on the sagging double bed in room 66 in the dark, fully clothed, trying to tell by the movement of sound whether these dudes directly outside my door are breaking into my car. The neon light of the motel’s sign slants in through the cracks in the plastic curtains and under the thin door that hangs crooked in its frame, casting a shadow of the lock and chain on the floor. The door rattles every time a semi rushes past, up the embankment on I-35.
It’s my first night on the road this trip. I drove eight or nine hours, made it from Minneapolis to Kansas City, Kansas, or Kansas City, Missouri, I’m not sure which; in any case, I’m heading west, so I skipped the signs for St. Louis, assuming those would take me east. I overshot the mark, though, and the Kansas City I drove through gave way to suburbs and strip malls and Home Depots and upmarket chain hotels that overcharge business travelers and are nonsmoking and hold the smell of stale sweat in their sheets. You can make it out no matter what, the smell of sweat, even with the nauseating smell of industrial bleach. So I kept going, intending to stop at the outskirts of the outskirts, wherever I found a cheap but clean place at the edge of the towns between towns. Instead, the burbs gave way to nothing at all, to the Dust Bowl itself—no motels, no Walmarts, just the American landscape sprawled out in all directions as the sun went down.
“You’re the only one on that side of the hotel,” she said, sitting down and swiveling to face the computer again. “Lock up.”
The police were slowly circling in the parking lot when I pulled in off the rutted frontage road. I could have taken this as a bad sign. I could have turned around and gotten back on the freeway, slid onward through the oil-slick dark. But I was driving without a license, so instead I rattled slowly toward the blue medicinal glow of the office with the red neon sign. Inside, a girl in her twenties who looked unusually tough, or at least had a very do-not-fuck-with-me vibe, sat behind the desk, her face and burgundy hair lit up by the screen of an ancient computer. “Hello, honey,” she said without looking up.
“I need a room,” I said.
“Single?” She turned in her swivel chair and faced me, narrowing her eyes very slightly, not being unfriendly, just sussing me out.
“Yes,” I said.
“Sixty bucks,” she said, not asking for my ID. She pulled out a ledger, the kind my grandfather would have used for inventorying the store. She ran a long blue sparkly nail down the page and carefully printed the date in curlicue script.
“That’s the rate,” she replied.
Two men came in through the back door, bumping into one another and whispering nervously.
“We don’t have any toilet paper,” the short one confessed.
Rain doesn’t exactly fall in the desert, or doesn’t always; there are kinds of rain, I guess, and only some fall.
She looked at me and rolled her eyes as if it was just like a man to need toilet paper. “Bathroom’s down the hall,” she said. “Should be some in there.” The men bumbled off, mumbling. I put three twenties on the counter. Using her nails as if they were pincers, she picked the money up and put it neatly in an envelope fat with twenties and tens. Her hair was a color not found in nature but lovely nonetheless; she was pale and a little heavy and her lipstick had worn off except for the dark red lip-liner bow. I wondered about her, the usual things I wonder about people I meet in passing: where is home to them, and who is there waiting, and do they love them or possibly hate them, and do they feel lonely, and why do they work the night shift, though it’s as good a time to work as any other, I suppose. What else to do? Sit up like an Edward Hopper, a nighthawk at a diner somewhere? Shoulders bent over the Formica counter and the cup of coffee that tastes like battery acid or cooled road tar, talking or not talking to the waitress, who maybe still gets called a counter girl—that was my job title when I went to work behind a counter as a girl. Seemed reasonable, fitting, at the time, though it surely seems odd now. So I wondered all this about the girl at the Rodeway Inn somewhere southwest of Kansas City, Kansas or Missouri. You wonder these things in a flash, not really noticing you’re making up stories for people as you go, sketching in their lives and their kitchen tables in the early light of tomorrow morning, with or without someone there to make breakfast for, and the smell of bacon frying in a cast-iron pan. The sticky salt and pepper shakers and the table with a chip in the worn white paint. The flowered wallpaper that peels near the ceiling, the water stain from the leak in the tub upstairs.
Of course, I don’t even know her name.
She handed me a key with the number 66 stamped on the keychain. “You’re the only one on that side of the hotel,” she said, sitting down and swiveling to face the computer again. “Lock up.”
It’s the sort of hotel you’re more apt to see in California, the kind with rooms that open onto an outdoor walkway on the second floor and directly onto the parking lot on the first. The police cars were still out there, idling in the corner of the lot with their lights off. I drove past them, trying not to look suspicious, went around the building and parked in front of 66. The far side of the hotel was a good blood-curdling scream out of earshot of the office and the police. I opened the door—it wasn’t locked—and, inside, slid the deadbolt and probably useless chain into place. A good slammed shoulder from the other side would break it. I jimmied the back of the chair under the door handle and sat down on the narrow bed. The bed squeaked whenever I’d breathe. I sat breathing carefully, listening to the dudes who had just pulled up and were arguing almost inaudibly right outside my door.
It was the early nineties, when girls shaved their heads but not their armpits and slept mostly with each other, trying to sort out what it meant to be brave.
I decided to lay low. I smoked and ate an apple with caution, munching slowly and quietly. My exhaled breath hung blue in the air, shot through with ambient parking-lot light. They kept getting in and out of the car. I heard the heels of their shoes come and go purposefully. It’s 1 a.m., I thought. What’s with the coming and going? What’s to be discussed at this hour? One a.m. is when you’re supposed to be lying awake, strung out on too much gas station coffee, telling yourself to get some sleep, or realizing that you’re not going to get any sleep and getting out of bed and sitting in the chair in the corner of the room and smoking in the dark. They couldn’t possibly need to get in and out of the car that many times. I debated getting the instant coffee out of my bag of provisions, into which I’d also stuffed tomorrow’s underwear and socks. I set the apple core in the ashtray and put the cigarette out on the core. I was reminded of every motel I’ve ever been in, the Aqua City Motel and the Starlight and the Lamplighter and the Aloha Inn with the inexplicable plastic Indian towering over the parking lot, holding a plaster tomahawk and wearing a lipstick-red plaster grin. I thought of all the creaking double beds in which I’ve slept or tried to sleep, with someone or without, and all the rumbling coughs through the wall of the next room, and the banging headboard down the hall. And the electric hiss of static on the TV after the last of the late shows and the late-late shows and the nature special on the mating habits of kangaroos and the 3 a.m. seventies soft porn have all played themselves out before the bleat of the morning talk shows has begun.
And then the bar of paper-wrapped soap that says SOAP, the plastic-wrapped Styrofoam cup on the bathroom counter, the toy-sized coffee maker spitting and burning the single-serve packet of coffee as it brews.
And then the moist hand of heat that lays itself on your chest when you step out the door to load up the car. The dark lifting off, the sun washing over the lot, the black billow of exhaust of the trucks starting up, the truckers swinging into their cabs.
The men outside have raised their voices. Their heels click hard on the pavement. Car doors slam, an engine revs too hard.
Freeway signs concern me: where one exit leads you, and where that takes you in turn. Maybe there are a finite number of possible paths, like those choose-your-own-adventure stories; given X beginnings and X possible endings, you could wind up with only X results. With American roads, though, I bet the number of possible outcomes is endless, or nearly. There are too many junctions at which you have to make a choice: Memphis or Nashville, Detroit or Grand Rapids or Kalamazoo; say you’re outside Philly, and you’re faced with I-76 or I-676, or you get lost and wind up on I-476 or I-276, toward New York or down to the Mason-Dixon Line. The number of options probably expands geometrically rather than exponentially, expands outward in all directions, as you’re forced to choose again and keep choosing, all while in motion, for one place and against another, missing the exits for every route but your own.
But then there’s the business of which one’s your own. And how do you know? Is there a sense of rightness to the route? Is there a sense of being drawn in one direction only? Is there a power, a pull? Is there a sense of a purpose, a path etched in the earth, as with a child’s stick, a line that runs through the sand and the sandstone, the dust and red clay, a scar in the dirt that cuts across the swath of the country, around the full girth of the world?
I-35 is called a border-to-border highway, but isn’t; I have been to both ends of it, and it doesn’t cross or even touch the international borders to the north or south. It begins, or ends, depending on which way you’re heading, at a traffic signal in Laredo, Texas, just north of the Rio Grande; it ends, or begins, in Duluth, Minnesota, on the shore of Lake Superior, which is too deep to freeze and prone to trapping trade ships in floes of ice, which pierce the steel belly of the boat, tear through the metal, sink the ship and its sailors and cargo in water too cold to survive.
When we were kids, late teens or early twenties, Ruth and I took a notion to drive cross-country in short-shorts and ripped tank tops, sweaty and salt-dusted and loose-limbed the way city girls that age are. I wanted to leave Minneapolis for somewhere else—the destination was beside the point—and Ruth wanted to come along for the ride. We were in love with each other and in love with love, and silly and giddy and stupid and so young it now makes me blush to ever have been so young, so stupid and so breathtakingly young.
I thought of the electric hiss of static on the TV after the last of the late shows and the late-late shows and the nature special on the mating habits of kangaroos and the 3 a.m. seventies soft porn have all played themselves out before the bleat of the morning talk shows has begun.
Ruth smoked because she said it assured her that she was alive: her visible exhaled breath was proof. We were always tripping over each other’s feet and toppling onto couches, or locking ourselves in the bathrooms of the Saloon or the 19 Bar. No one cared how long we were in there; no one needs the ladies’ room in a gay boys’ bar. The house music pounded so hard we couldn’t hear ourselves think or shout, and when we were done, we straightened our bras and our lipstick, went back out to the bar, ordered a round of tequila, licked the salt off one another’s necks and tossed back the shots. We were not yet good at pool; that was a skill we came to hone over years of hard drinking and quick-and-dirty sex. Still, even then she could do a double bank shot, which I still have not mastered, but I could break. I always broke with a twenty-one-ounce cue and played with a nineteen.
There’s a picture of us a few days before we left on what we came to call our Big Adventure, sitting side by side on the stoop of an old brownstone up north. It was before our femme phase, and we are a study in contrasts: Ruth with her shaved head and Daisy Duke shorts and Birkenstocks, leaning into the camera to show off her spectacular cleavage, and me, knees akimbo in worn-out Levi’s and a James Dean T-shirt with rolled up sleeves. Ruth has a giggling flirty look, and you can tell she’s batting her eyelashes; I have a crew cut, sunglasses and a smirk.
You might have said we were sleeping together, and mostly that is what we did; loving was incidental to the sleep. We simply found ourselves in the same bed, and the human body is a heat-seeking thing.
It was the early nineties, when girls shaved their heads but not their armpits and slept mostly with each other, trying to sort out what it meant to be brave. We were so brave we sidled and swaggered into small roadside cafés and slid into ripped-leather booths, sticking to the seat, kicking our shoes off under the table and catching our breath from the un-air-conditioned rush of speeding along I-35 and then I-25 and then state highways and then county roads in the rattly old orange Toyota I drove. Before Ruth and I packed up the hatchback, my mother bought us floppy hats so we wouldn’t get killed—she thought they’d lend us a ladylike look—for being a couple of lash-batting baby dykes running around with our butts hanging out of our shorts and our bra straps slipping down our arms. So we’d pull off the interstate whenever we had to pee and when we saw a sign for gas and food, and go tooling down the straight-shot state and county roads named FF or R20—nameless roads that crisscross the prairie and Dust Bowl states, looking for biscuits and gravy and hash browns and eggs to fortify ourselves for the late day with the windows down and the wind whipping in circles through the windows, stirring up a storm of dust and dirt and sand that we carried in on our bare feet and covered our sweaty selves and buzzed skulls with grime. We’d stand at the sink in the motel room later that night, scrubbing our heads with bar soap, watching the black swirl of dirt circle down the drain. We’d pull on our floppy hats and head into whatever diner, wherever we were, and wonder why the hell the waitress ignored us and the rest of the patrons stared. That was before we even had tattoos.
The plan was we would drive due south on I-35 all the way down to Laredo, turn west-northwest (right) at the traffic signal and skirt the border of Mexico, dipping into Coahuila and Chihuahua as curiosity and the back highways took us, or if we needed to stock up on cases of cane-sugar soda and Camel cigarettes. But there are a lot of ways to get yourself south: lateral undulation, sidewinding, a simple straight shot. It all depends on where you want to get to on the way, what you want to watch blowing by, farmland or Dust Bowl, small town or shanty town or red barns, sun-faded and falling to their knees.
I don’t know why I come and go. Why not? Is there any reason or reasoning behind it? How can I ascribe motive to a thing I simply do by habit or nature or flawed design? Once I asked a friend, “Why are you a Buddhist?” We were walking. He answered, “Why not?” I laughed so hard I had to sit down on the sidewalk, it just struck me as so unbelievably funny. He looked at me, puzzled, waiting for me to explain the joke. I didn’t understand his logic; there was no reason for him to be a Buddhist. But then, he was right—no reason why not. At the time, I too must have believed in motive, and reasons for things happening, impetus, choice. Why do I leave? Why do you stay? Maybe I do it by instinct, like a bird flies south, knows how to get where he’s going, knows how to get back. I wrack my tiny brain, but there is no motive, no real choice for or against a given place. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. It’s nothing more than the way you’re aligned. You maybe have a tendency to drift, a habit of wandering off.
Anyway, at least according to what I know of the laws of motion, you can wander all you want. You’ll still stay the course you’ve been given. You won’t, unless there is major cosmic upset, actually drift out of position. You’ll intersect with other vectors, sure; collide with other bodies of matter, bounce off somewhat changed; but then you’ll go on.
It was June of 1995, I was twenty-one and my grandmother’s old Pontiac went like the wind. I pushed the gas down gingerly at first, but then, gathering speed, shot across the prairie on a thin ribbon of highway between rows of corn. My grandmother was long since dead; I had neither liked nor disliked her, but the car was fucking great.
I emptied the contents of my apartment into the alleyway—a single mattress, a giant torn leather reading chair, a ten-ton metal industrial desk, assorted surplus end tables and lamps—dragging all of it down the back stairs and out into the damp yellow sun of late spring. Puddles in the alley, lone sneakers in the gutters, empty forty-ounce bottles propped up against the building’s sooty red-black brick. The lover of the moment said I was crazy to be leaving like this, just dropping everything and taking off without a plan. I said, “I have a plan.” The lover said, “And what exactly is your plan?” The remaining contents of the apartment went into the back of the car, along with the cat box and the cat. I slept with the lover one last time on the hot-pink foldout couch, hauled the couch out to the alley and left.
The cat, named Shakespeare, lived to be fifteen—young for a cat to die, but he was well traveled. He would hop in the car and stretch himself out on the dash like a sphinx. He’d wait while I started the engine, adjusted the radio, settled in. By the time we hit the freeway, we’d found a rhythm: I’d start to sing and he would turn his yellow-eyed indifference out on the oncoming world.
I like the in-between places, the pauses, caesuras in space. The places between points, places you pass through, maybe stop for a moment, en route. They have a satisfying sameness, a beige-ness: airports, McDonald’s, rest stops, truck stops, chain hotels. The air in these places buzzes with fluorescence and an acute sense of time. Your body is hyper-alert: you are a body in motion, never a body at rest, and because a body in motion tends to stay in motion, your muscles remain slightly flexed, even in sleep, as if you might suddenly need to sprint. You are always just about to leave. Who uses the drawers in hotels? Some hotels don’t even bother with drawers. Sometimes you don’t even bother to bring your bag in from the car. You just pop the trunk, dig around for underwear and socks, stuff them in your pockets and unlock the door to room 112 or 203 or 1768 or whatever it is, wherever you are. You close the door behind you and sit on the end of the bed, in your numbered nook, tucked neatly into place. You remain at the ready, wearing your coat, ears attuned to any ambient sound.
There are children who refuse to take off their coats. I read this somewhere, something about children and why they do what they do and what it means, and some do not take off their coats. They stand formally off to one side, coats buttoned, or perch at the edge of a chair, hands clasped. They are prepared for any emergency, eventuality, change of direction or cause for alarm. They do not like it when you fuss with their hair. This is a terrible thing to do to an orderly child. Their braids still damp and woven tight, their part precise and sharp, you ruffle their hair to endear them and cause them to hate you forever. The world is a precarious place. These children know it. They are ready for it. They are dressed, their small plaid suitcase is packed and sits by the door, in case they have to take a train. Or maybe I didn’t read this, the thing about children in coats. Maybe it was just me.
There are a lot of ways to get yourself south: lateral undulation, sidewinding, a simple straight shot. It all depends on where you want to get to on the way, what you want to watch blowing by, farmland or Dust Bowl, small town or shanty town or red barns, sun-faded and falling to their knees.
The small plaid suitcase was a gift. I can’t remember who it was from—a relative or family friend now long dead, someone who either knew me well or who understood the strangeness of children. The suitcase was to scale, came up to my hip. I kept it packed: one nightgown, one toothbrush, a pair of clean undies and an emergency book. There was no reason—practical, psychological, other—that I should have needed the suitcase. My own life was entirely safe, compact, secure; whatever one might say about the effects of general chaos on a child, the reality is that I was perfectly fine, dressed, housed, fed and given plenty of books, several of which I own still: the copy of Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales, which now sits on a shelf in my living room, yellowed, curled, missing its front and back covers, 900-some pages long. Somehow it has survived all the moves, all these years; somehow I have seen reason to pack it up every time and unpack it again, setting it on the shelf where I can see it, near at hand should I need it, easy to find the next time around. It’s the first thing I pack when I go.
This, of course, is if I unpack in the first place. Sometimes I don’t. When it comes to comings and goings, sometimes it’s easier to leave things in their boxes, leave the boxes in the car. If you’re staying a while, I guess you unload the car. The last house I lived in, I unloaded the car into the guest room but never unpacked the books. Turned out to be smart—I had to put them all back in the car anyway. I have a lot of books. My car tends to ride low.
I wrote a poem a long time ago about the women in the other cars, the women leaning their foreheads on the passenger window, watching the landscape shift as they rushed down the road, past prairie grass and sand dunes, ditches and boulders, sheer-faced cliffs that drop into gullies, rivers that run alongside the road awhile, then turn, or the road turns, or the river dwindles to a creek, a stream, a thin thread of water wending its way beneath the shifting packed salt plates of high desert, the bloody red mesas cutting shapes in the sky. I described the women’s faces as if I knew them well: haggard, ashy, empty-eyed. I said that you catch the reflection of your eyes sometimes, if the window’s closed, scanning left to right, as if reading the land. I wrote as if I knew the truth about women, and passenger windows, and rushing landscapes, sheer cliffs and gorges, but I knew no more about those things than I knew about anything else.
In the summer of 2000, my hiking companion (also my drinking companion, partner in crime) and I dragged the chairs out of the room and into the parking lot of the Gringo Pass Motel to watch the sun sink down over the Painted Desert to the west. His name was John. The chairs were maybe circa sixties or seventies, upholstered in rough gold-colored cloth. We sat there fading into shadow under the darkening arc of desert sky, gazing in the same direction. That is maybe why I have a hard time picturing his face. By our reckoning, the U.S.-Mexico border ran right through the parking lot. The border crossing was just down the road, maybe a hundred feet south. The border-patrol trucks circled the motel slowly, looking for trouble. We passed a bottle of whiskey back and forth until it was gone, then opened the next. We considered pitching the empty out into the desert to listen to the shatter on impact with the red rocks. There is such satisfaction in throwing a bottle with all the strength in your body—pulling your arm back, twisting at the waist, sending the momentum of motion up through your side and out through your arm, letting the bottle fly. Watching it sail, borne up on nothing, arcing through the air. Then tumbling earthward, like any other weight-bearing object, gravitationally bound.
We rarely looked one another in the eye; you don’t face each other when you’re walking, and each day we walked, parking at the side of the road when we saw an opening in the desert brush and making our way toward anything that looked like a path—a dry streambed, snaking over the unmarked sand flats. We had a topographic map. We bought it in Gringo Pass proper. The town consisted of a bodega and a white church, blinding bright in the high clean sun. We sat on our heels in the corner of the store, unrolling maps onto the floor, bending our heads over their lines.
We wound up with the topographic map; I surely do not know why. I don’t know what we thought we’d find, following the seabed of the desert floor, avoiding the edges of cliffs. Snakes tend to sun themselves in clearings and at edges, don’t like to be disturbed. We didn’t have a watch between us. I don’t recall ever knowing the time.
Is there a sense of a purpose, a path etched in the earth, as with a child’s stick, a line that runs through the sand and the sandstone, the dust and red clay, a scar in the dirt that cuts across the swath of the country, around the full girth of the world?
Evenings, when we’d made our way back to the truck, we’d drive until we hit a town, or at least a restaurant at the edge of town, and sit across from one another, eating tough, salty carne asada. We were hungry and thirsty from walking, drank pitchers of water and beer. We bent over our plates, elbows on the table, our bodies dusty with our own salt. I don’t recall that we looked at one another then, either, or spoke a word. We did, of course. I’ve just forgotten what he looked like and what we said.
I don’t recall what we were looking for, if anything, or if we even knew. If this was a quest for something, or simply a quest. Does a quest require an object? A longed-for thing, some wild desire? If so, we had the desire, and the madness of which desire is made; but maybe that was all. Maybe, as with blooming girls in their youth, there is a longing, amorphous and unspecific, for something; the longing is and is not part of your body, is and is not a physical desire. It has no location, no destination, no object. It simply is. It simply wants.
You would not have said we were lovers. You might have said we were sleeping together, and mostly that is what we did; loving was incidental to the sleep. We simply found ourselves in the same bed, and the human body is a heat-seeking thing. Even in that kind of heat, desert heat, one body seeks another, swimming through sleep to the nearest shore.
M oving becomes a permanent condition. It becomes a state of being, a way of life instead of an event. It is not moving as in “a move,” singular, or “to move,” once or twice, packing up the apartment, throwing out the crap that’s collected in dark closet corners, sweeping the filth out from behind the fridge, labeling boxes to remind yourself (grandmother’s diaries, spices, vases, winter clothes) what you keep lugging around so that when it comes time to unpack it all it’s easy: you just slot your stuff, your life, into the pre-fab compartments and cupboards of the new place. Instead, this condition of moving is an active verb, present tense, I am moving, implying a process, implying ongoing, forward momentum, Latin muto, mutare, mutavi, mutatus (n. a/v. to move, change, shift, alter), or more precisely, ut moveo, movere, movi, motus (I move, stir, agitate, provoke). As in movere se (to move the body; to dance).
Turns out there are only two kinds of radio station that follow all the roads of the American landscape: there is the Christian preacher, revival tents and halleluiah and the fires of hell, and there is country. It seems that no matter how far away from any given city you go, the radio frequency of God and country are strong enough that there is nowhere they can’t reach. I bet there’s something to the idea that God appears somewhere on the dial no matter where you are; I bet that’s a sign. When I die it will be the old joke: I will arrive at wherever heathens arrive and God will be saying, “Girl, are you ever dumb,” because I kept missing all those signs. You scroll through the static and there He is again, and then you scroll awhile more and arrive at the country station that will carry you a hundred or so miles. Then that one will fade out, but another one will come on, and you’ll drive through the flat expanses and cornfields and hayfields and the places where the sides of the road rise up in taller and taller sheets of rock, and the scrub in the ditch at the side of the road changes from sumac to weed. You’ll drive, listening to the country station and the whistle of your thoughts in your ears, the hiss of the sand and grit and dust kicked up by the wheels and carried in the window on a rush of wind. By the time you get to the motel your hands will be covered with a film of road dust, and you’ll be able to run a finger through the fine sheen of sweat on your face.
When the radio goes out, you just follow the bits and pieces of thought that go floating past, as if you’re lying on your back watching clouds gather and drift and disperse into cirrus, into nothing, into the clear blue sky.
It was raining the day I left Los Ojos, heading west over the mountains and down across the desert flats. July or August—the air was thick and hissing with the green rain. Rain doesn’t exactly fall in the desert, or doesn’t always; there are kinds of rain, I guess, and only some fall. There are the sudden storms that rip across the sky and break and it rains as if it has always been raining and always will, forever, an eternal heaven or hell of rain, rain tearing from the purple thunderheads in sheets. Those are the flash-flood rains; you can see them coming for miles, approaching, inexorable, and then they are there, present, everywhere around you, and you in your hat are as tiny and helpless as the tiniest skittering sand flea. They erase any boundary that may have existed between earth and sky, tearing open clouds and air, tearing gravity and mass, tearing strata of earth, pulling down cliffs, flooding the canyons and cutting open new canyons with their massive corrosive force. Nothing stands between you and sky, you and dirt, you and the red flood.
But this was not that sort of rain. This was the sort that doesn’t even reach the ground; the ground’s too hot, and its rising heat evaporates the rain before it touches down. Instead the rain stirs and spins in the sky, columns of it waving slowly back and forth, parting for your body to move through it, dampening your face and throat and then closing behind you when you are gone. I was very young. I drove a back road, turned on another back road, then another, and kept heading west.
It was June of 1995, I was twenty-one and my grandmother’s old Pontiac went like the wind. My grandmother was long since dead; I had neither liked nor disliked her, but the car was fucking great.
The neon sign said only “Tattoo,” if memory serves; maybe memory doesn’t. Maybe it actually said “Open.” Maybe the tattoo shop had a name. Maybe it was in a strip mall in the sprawl at the edge of a town, or next to a gas station/truck stop/diner. But what I recall was the neon sign that said “Tattoo” emerging from the murky green shape-shifting rain, and a shack at the side of the two-lane road. This seems unlikely, but maybe that’s how it was.
Everyone has a story about their tattoos, or a few stories—depends on the person, depends on the tattoo. I’m no different, though I draw a blank when people ask me what my tattoos mean. There is no literal translation for a tattoo. Like music, image has no direct correlate in language; you ask me what the tattoo means, and all I can tell you is what the tattoo is. If it’s a flower, it means flower. A spool of thread and a thimble. A red bird. My skin wears several different tongues—Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese; I’m a white American mutt, these aren’t my cultures, and I have no business getting them inked into my skin. I have nothing to offer by way of explanation, only the stories of where I got them, and how. As usual, I am left with no answer as to why.
Turns out there are only two kinds of radio station that follow all the roads of the American landscape: there is the Christian preacher, revival tents and halleluiah and the fires of hell, and there is country.
That first time, I leaned back in a dentist’s chair, boots crossed, my right arm propped on the armrest, while the salty old proprietor etched the outline of a tat I’d picked from a poster into my shoulder, freckled and browned from months in the desert sun.
It was just a rosebud, old-school style—two-dimensional, flat on my skin, dull red and orange. I don’t remember what made me choose that one. Next to the curved stem, I had him ink in the symbol for woman. At first I thought I’d be brave, have him do two of them, interlocked, for Ruth and me, but I wasn’t brave. I wore that tattoo for nearly twenty years before I had it covered up by a blooming red orchid. Orchids are harder to kill. The bud now only forms the orchid’s core. Now the tattoo covers my shoulder, all fleshed out and in full bloom. I had it done in a hotel bathroom in New York. I was brave again by then.
Is there ever any arriving? Or does one just leave? And leave, and leave, and leave?
Arriving presupposes the shape of a circle. It assumes the world is round.
If you set out at the zero point and head in some direction, the understanding is that you will, or theoretically should, arrive at your destination. The understanding is, when you are small, that if you dig a hole to China, you will tunnel through and there you’ll be. It assumes we’re arrayed here at points on a sphere, rather than at points on a line. There will be no falling off. You can keep walking and walking, and eventually, if you walk heel-toe or at least in a very straight line, you’ll arrive at the beginning, your destination, the end.
We passed a bottle of whiskey back and forth until it was gone, then opened the next. We considered pitching the empty out into the desert to listen to the shatter on impact with the red rocks.
This, of course, is not the case. It is a good metaphor, but it is not the case. We could, for example, be arrayed instead at points on a flat surface, a plane. At certain points, on the road, when you reach a certain degree of road blindness, you think for sure the world is flat—the prairie states, the Dust Bowl states, parts of the Rust Belt, the northern Iron Range. The road keeps on going possibly forever, unchanging, no rise or fall in the topography to give you a view of the far edge of things. On those roads, the horizon suggests no curve. You get no sense of vertigo as you drive. You feel yourself earthbound, the road humming beneath you. You travel at a certain rate. If the average rate of the car is X, and the distance from point A to B is Y, how long will the trip take? But the equations rarely account for variables: rest stops, truck stops, McDonald’s bathrooms, gas-station coffee, naps in the car at the side of the road, seat tilted back a little, feet out the window, resting on the rearview mirror.
You watch the clouds cross the sky, you slip in and out of dreams. The car shakes as the semis rush by. You rock in the shallows of half-sleep, upheld by some lightness. Buoyant, suspended, you drift.
Marya Hornbacher is an award-winning essayist, journalist, novelist, poet and the New York Times bestselling author of five books. Her writing appears regularly in literary and journalistic publications around the world, including The New York Times, the Boston Globe, Smithsonian Magazine, Crazyhorse, AGNI, Gulf Coast, The Normal School, Fourth Genre, DIAGRAM and many others. Her sixth book, a work of long-form journalism on mental-health recovery, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2020, and her seventh, a collection of essays on solitude, will appear the following year. She is the recipient of the Annie Dillard Award for Nonfiction and the Fountain House Humanitarian Award for her activism, and is a current Logan Nonfiction Fellow with the Carey Institute for Global Good. She teaches in the MFA programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Augsburg University.
Lead image: Alex Plesovskich