The road is smooth here, like milk poured over the hills, your hand hot on the back of my neck. By tomorrow we’ll be cut loose from these eastern mountain ranges and will have to suffer through the flatlands. Sweat collects where our skin meets and trickles down my spine, leaving a cool memory behind. I told you this morning this trip feels to me like the Jews’ departure from Egypt, and you rolled your eyes and took the duffel from my shoulder, though I was carrying it just fine. There was no time for breakfast; Just crack an egg on the hood of the car, it’ll be done before we reach the interstate, you said, and I decided not to tell you how that illustrated my point. I thought of you, taking the wheel as I lurch out of the window to scrape the fried egg off the hood with a spatula, you yelling over easy!, and I smiled despite myself, like it was a memory of us.
“I need to stop for food.”
“We only just got moving, Tif.”
“I know, well I’m hungry. I told you I was hungry before we left.”
“Why didn’t you eat something, then?”
“We didn’t have anything.”
You sigh, and I swear I can feel the hot air from your mouth raise the temperature in the car by half a degree. I shrug your hand off me.
The menus in this diner are coated in something oily, and it’s the kind of lighting that makes you forget the sun is shining just outside. I smile at the waitress and order a veggie burger. You order a black coffee. Now you’ll have to pee. Once she walks away I sigh in your direction and I think I see you hold your breath as the air moves toward you.
My stomach turns when the flat, brown meal is placed in front of me, but by the last bite I am making yum sounds and licking my index finger to pick up the crumbs from the plate.
“Much.” Then, “Sorry.”
I find it incredible how good you look, even in this god-awful light.
If I were a stone this river could make me so perfectly smooth, but instead it pushes through, as though it doesn’t notice me here at all.
The preachers of Nebraska dominate the radio until we hit a dead zone where only fuzz comes through. “The point of no return,” I say. It has been so long since you’ve made a sound that I assume you must be asleep, but then your hand finds its way to mine and you say, “my dear, you are a perfect peach.” I make a show of rolling my eyes, only to see that yours are still closed.
“‘Largest Prairie Dog in the World,’” I read off a billboard. “Wanna stop?”
“I’m still bummed about the Second Largest Ball of Yarn.”
“I have a good feeling about this one.”
The Largest Prairie Dog in the World is a 30-foot tall fiberglass statue painted orange and brown.
“Well that’s a let-down,” you say.
“What were you expecting?”
“I don’t know…maybe like a giant pig in a prairie dog costume.”
The grounds are sectioned off by fences and cages. We walk around with our hands clasped and swinging like a pendulum. A plastic table wobbles in the dirt, covered with objects made from alligator skin. “For you,” you say, gesturing toward a vase of everlasting roses, the petals as cracked and pale as the earth around us. We arrive at a square pen, where a hand-painted sign leans against the chicken wire. Inside, a single cow stands, her four legs sturdy on the ground and a fifth hanging limp from her side. “Look, Ev,” I say, pointing at the sign, which reads ‘Our girl Delta is expecting!’ but you’re scrutinizing the dirt at your feet. “Do you think her calves will all have five legs?” You shrug and pull me along.
If this were to be our exodus, what would you say we’re fleeing, I wonder? I would love to know what meandering turns your mind takes as you sit with your head leaned against the window, the fingers of your right hand brushing softly against the fine hairs on your left forearm. Are you aware of these small motions your body makes in the dark?
“We should find a motel or something, unless you wanna take over?” A joke—I’m the sole driver on this trip, since we sold the automatic and you’re too chicken to drive stick.
“Okay,” you yawn.
Under the crinkly sheets and the stiff quilt, I shift away from your hand on my lower abdomen, lightly pressing as though you think yourself to be some kind of healer. As though my womb needed some kind of healing in the first place.
When I wake in the middle of the night you are turned away from me, and I collect my dreams like drops of water in my hands, elusive and uncooperative. Here in the motel bed your body is warm with sleep, and my fingertips crawl toward you, and lightly brush the skin of your side, and stealthily slide down your stomach to that cock of yours, which grows quickly in my hand. “Oh my god,” you whisper, turning to lie on your back. “Oh fuck,” you say a bit louder as you push into my grip. I climb on top of you and let the weight of my body rest on yours, and then your cold hands push me away. “No no no, babe, come on.”
“You come on,” I say, testing you. It’s like someone else is saying it.
“I just…don’t think it’s a good idea right now.”
I am kneeling at the river not remembering what it is that has slipped from my arms and been carried away. The fabric over my knees is wet but my hands are dry, dry and hard enough to crack open. I cannot make a fist for fear of splitting skin, but I can manipulate this river, draw the water toward me and all it carries. I can draw him up from the water, but when I do he melts away, slides along the skin and down to the ground forever taken into the cracks of this greedy earth.
“…And around twenty million years ago was when the river started to carve out the vast canyon you see today…” A herd of guided tourists pass by, children wriggling out of sweaters, mothers stirring the guts of oversized purses, “Yes Sweetie, I’ve got the chapstick,” forming their momentary bonds, “I swear, he thinks I’m his pack mule.” Below us: the earth in cross-section, the layers displayed so that we can see how time collected and settled, one eon over the other.
You’re doing this thing where you push up from the railing until your feet leave the ground, your body teetering toward the edge. I resist the urge to grab you by the shirt and yank you back, instead say finally, “Okay Ev, you’re making me nervous.”
“Come on, it’s fine.”
“That’s what people say before they fall to their deaths.” It was meant to sound playful.
“So how far is their place from here?”
“Four hours, maybe.”
In all this red rock and sky, can you remember home clearly? How on that day the wheat stood so level in the fields that if you tapped the tops I’m sure it would’ve rippled in response? You were always grumpy about the AC not working properly in that car, but that day you didn’t complain. Only thing you said the whole ride to the doctor was “Tiffany, I love you more than ever.” Sometimes you say too much.
When I was eight the family cat got hit by a car ‒ broke his pelvis in three places. I remember seeing the x-ray, flesh and bone like mist and watercolor. He was an outdoor cat, Midnight, but we made him a soft bed in the living room for the duration of his recovery. We brought his food to him, stopped to rub him behind the ears when we walked through the room on our way to the kitchen. I’d sit on the floor with him when the TV was on, feeling his breath on the back of my hand.
When we got home I let you hook your arm under my armpits and lead me to the couch. I lay with my head on your lap, your hand smoothing the hair against my scalp. You read your students’ work aloud and I felt your voice in my body, not really listening, the rumble of it traveling through me.
Now I’m hard, impenetrable, both of us wishing I were still soft, I think. And I wonder if my body still holds the memory of it all.
As we pull up to the house I spot Paula on the brown lawn—“Hello Weary Travelers!” She looks the same as the last time I saw her—her lips painted on thick and her hair electrified, smoky black and firing in all directions. She pulls and sucks us into that house at the base of the mountains, floats us down onto the red velvet thrones she uses as dining room chairs—this I have told you about, I am sure, she made them herself—and clangs about the kitchen listing our endless options of teas and sweets but in the end serves whatever it is that is her favorite. “George is working, but he’ll appear at some point.” I’ve come to expect time to work like water on all things, but then again, how could it, this house being so tightly packed with life no force could wear it down. This trip has been very much an untethering—have you felt that? But all along this house has formed a safe little eddy on our atlas, a rock in the middle of this rushing country.
“Tiffany Grace,” Paula calls, her voice shrill and retreating. My ears warm at my full name, a holdover from the Grandmother who converted to Catholicism as an adult, honored because I was born on what she called the Day of Epiphany. I seek Paula out, a clear mug of grand jasmine tea in hand, the kind that blooms and stretches in the water as though it were coming back to life. I follow her through each room, taking in her newest treasures: an antique case filled with wooden eyes, a rubber chicken that squawks desperately when you wring its neck, a ventriloquist doll she has named Berty, each item not so important as the sum of it all—a shameless feast, an exercise in delightful indulgence.
A door opens and closes somewhere in the house. “Paula, tell me that vehicle in the driveway is not the one that is taking Fanny across the country.” We three flood the kitchen, Paula and I from the study, you from the dining room, where you’ve stayed all this time. George sits on a stool untying his shoes, but when I get to him he stands and gives me a hug with his long stringy arms.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a button up shirt before.”
“Hi Evan, welcome welcome, so glad you’re here. Yes isn’t it awful? I should be more like your dad, walk around the office in my socks…” his voice is muffled as he kisses Paula on the cheek.
“I was just about to show them where they’re sleeping–”
“–Ah yes of course–”
“–It involves a climb up two flights of stairs, is that alright?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Okay you two bring your tea, Evan where is yours…”
“How is His Honor, Fan, I was going to call him…”
“Georgy doesn’t this tea look gorgeous in the glass–”
“He’s good. He’s talking about retiring–”
“Oh yeah right, all of us…”
“Ready, let’s go up!”
Above the solid and sturdy base the house seems to narrow, the second story containing only one room, Paula’s office, which is surprisingly bare—“Oh wait, before we go all the way up I have to show you—no never mind I’ll wait ’til you get settled”—and from there the stairs become dark and slick, the wood warped, with a door at the top closed to the attic. You walk ahead of me, Paula behind, George has stayed downstairs—“Oh okay wait stop there Evan, ring the doorbell!”—and you look back, your sober face making me itch, then search the door frame. “This?” I ask when you don’t budge, an impatient finger hovering over a plastic replica of an open lipstick container. “Yes, just push on that,” and when I do I hear from behind the door a familiar tune—“Oh good it still works, go on in.”
Our home for these next two nights has windows on all sides so that it is soaked through with golden light. The bed itself glows in the center of the large room, a swollen cloud passing the sun. “The bathroom is pretty shabby but I left goodies in there for you,” and sure enough there is a basket filled with soaps and lotions, bath salts we won’t use, a fluffy pink loofa. “This is great Paula, thank you.” Your voice echoes mine. Are you even here?
Paula tells us that she absolutely hates having help when she’s cooking and we decide to believe her, so as she warms the kitchen we sit on the back porch in the brisk air, the mountains like paper cutouts. The sun is dipping below them, lighting up your skin with peach and gold. You have not said much at all since we arrived here, and so I search blindly for you, try to summon you with questions:
“Gorgeous here, isn’t it?”
“What do you think of them?”
“Just as you described, only more so.”
An inhale. Exhale. Your lips are cracked from the dry air. “They never had kids?”
I want to bark this question of yours away, but I’m tired of that game. “They got married older.”
You take my hand with both of yours, lift it to your mouth to warm it with your breath.
“Why?” I ask, unable to help myself after all.
The screen door squeals and George emerges back-first, a tray in his arms balancing three glasses, two fingers of amber in each. “Hope scotch is okay,” he winks.
“Oh wow, thank you.” It comes out as a sigh, a thirst. George laughs at us.
Orange and pink. “The sky looks so much bigger out here.” I squeeze your hand in response. The creak of the oven door, the indelicate rearrangement of pans and dishes—I imagine Paula in there with the kitchen items like atoms dancing in the mounting heat. George bends his long body and yells brightly through the screen door, his voice swallowed by the house.
Purple sky. George has left us, joined the noise of the kitchen—“Paula-Honey, what on earth are you doing in here…” I look at your face, your skin a canvas for the sun. Lips revived with the bite of scotch. My throat and belly burn. I want to reach into your mouth and down your throat, draw out strands of thought like yarn.
Our hands, the wood of the porch, the grasses, all begin their turn to gray, and we scoot closer together.
Raw, pink cheeks.
“Can you feel a difference, now that it’s gone?”
It seems so obvious, this idea. What can you mean by this? “Now that he’s gone,” I say, because these sour words feel better than blooming questions.
“No. I don’t think so.”
This river moves so fast I can’t remember what’s already happened or what is to come. The casket made from wicker and tar I am still building or have already released into the water. I think I may choose to live in the river, and maybe then I too will collapse into drops of water, maybe then I can still lap against and soak through, wrap around the nest I built. He could then wrestle around in the depths of me once again, listening to the world from the deep.
Waking was not unlike coming ashore, our roaring dreams spitting us out onto still, muted morning. “Wow,” you say. “Where was I?” And I feel the same, that I did not simply sink into sleep but was swept away altogether. We linger in bed as light soaks into our skin, half-aware, our bodies wrestling happily with the thick dough of heavy down, delighted muscles awakened by the essential stiffening and stretching that comes after days of languor.
I never told you, I fell in love with you in the morning. It was the first time we slept with each other, really slept. You woke like a child, bright and bleary and reaching innocently for the world from the remnants of your dreams. I could have devoured you. You are just that way now, the evidence of sleep still all over you like sand. We wrap around one another, our bare skin meeting at the chest and stomach, my lips on your neck. Your fingertips slip under the waistband of my underwear, get these off, and in a moment they are lost at the foot of the bed between the sheets, and then you are lost as well, and there has never been so much need, so much want, in that ocean of space, and I ask think can they hear me—no I heard them leave—and for this long moment I am pitched on the precipice, hovering and yet in perpetual plummet, and I almost wonder if I could stay just here, and for how long, this sweet and painful and staggering place that I know cannot hold, and doesn’t.
You come up to meet me, kissing the salt off my skin. I can feel myself drifting off again.
“Gonna stay in bed all day?” You’re up, wanting to see what the house has to offer.
“I need like ten minutes” I say, my eyes closed.
“So spoiled.” You ring the doorbell before heading carefully down the stairs, and still I can’t pin down the song.
I don’t feel like showering yet, so I just use toilet paper to clean myself up in the attic bathroom before I slip on a fluffy robe Paula left hanging against the door and head downstairs. I find you sitting in the kitchen, a glass of orange juice warming in a sun beam as you flip through a book.
“If I figured out how to make coffee would you want some?”
I piece together tools from the clutter and wait for the water to boil. I approach your back, still curled over your book. I run my hands from the back of your neck to your shoulders and arms, bring my face to your collar to smell you. You turn and give me a hard and fast peck on the top of the head.
“Did that hurt?”
Maybe it did. Is that book so fascinating? You have not looked up from it. On the table in front of you is a piece of folded card stock. “What’s this?” I flip it over so that we both can see the front. “T&E”.
“It was taped to the stove.”
“What does it say?” I ask as I trot across the kitchen. The water has started to rumble, and I have yet to grind the coffee beans.
I have not heard an answer from you, but I imagine another shrug. Raised eyebrows too, maybe. Maybe you did start to say something and I drowned you out with the noise of the grinder. When I come back to the table I read it for myself.
“You read this already?”
“They’re inviting us to temple.”
“Yeah.” Your glass sweats into the blue tablecloth.
“Cool. That’ll be really nice I think.”
And there—that swift shrug again. The kettle starts its low scream.
I pour the piping water over the beans. “Do you want coffee or not.”
I set the french press down on the table with two mugs. Sit down myself. “What’s that book?”
You slap it shut, move it away from us both. “I don’t know, I wasn’t really reading it.”
Now I am deliberately staring at you through the silence. You reach for the press and push the plunger down. I ground the beans too fine, and you push too hard too fast, and steaming black coffee bursts through the top and spills all over.
“Ah fuck!” Your wrist has been burned.
“You okay?” I get up to find a dish towel. “Shit.” The tablecloth will have to be washed, my dabbing does nothing. I hand you the towel and you press it to your wrist and hand. I slowly push the plunger the rest of the way down and pour coffee into our mugs.
“You’re just gonna let this sit like this?”
“It’s fine, I’ll just throw it in with our laundry.” I sip my coffee, my teeth and tongue catching the grit. “Or you can.” I reach for the book. It’s about photography—probably Paula’s. “Why don’t you wanna go?”
The spine is wet.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Okay, yeah. I’m not into the idea.”
I stand up, nearly knocking my chair back. I pick up items from the table and move them one by one to the kitchen counter. “You could just say that.”
“Tif you don’t have to…I’ll do it…”
“Then do it.”
“I’m sorry, okay? I just think it’s weird.”
I ball the wet fabric up in my arms the way I’ve seen nurses change hospital beds, gathering the cloth efficiently against my stomach. “What’s weird, exactly?”
“Well I don’t even get why you’d wanna go, it’s not like you’re religious.”
“It’s not about that.”
“What’s it about then?”
“Jesus, Ev, it’s just a nice thing we can do with them.” Pressing the fabric into me with one hand, I find my mug and feign casual with a careful sip. This relaxes you, I can see it in your shoulders.
“You know if we go you can’t say ‘Jesus’, right?”
I could pour this steaming cup over your head, slowly too. Maybe if I had blown you you’d still be sweet, is that it? Are you so simple? I look down at you, realize my arms have been relieved of the tablecloth, it seems I’ve tried to drown you in it. You struggle to free your face and I don’t wait to see the withering disdain revealed—“What the fuck Tiffany”—I’m already halfway to the back porch then through the screen door into thin air moving through it like a knife toward the mountains.
The vet said it would take our cat three months to recover, but that time came and went and Midnight still moved like his joints were dry. His corner in the living room expanded, pillows, blankets, and quilts all sacrificed for our monument to stoicism. And Midnight slept, slept more than any animal I’ve seen since.
Then one day our hamster got loose, a grouchy ball of fluff whose name I can’t remember. Maybe it was me who let him out, maybe my sister, but once his pink toes touched down he scurried from kitchen to dining room and out of nowhere there was Midnight, a blur of black and then those teeth, so white as though washed just for the occasion, and the hamster between them, gone stone still from shock.
That same day Midnight was thrown back into the approaching winter and his warm den in the living room was deconstructed, one cushion at a time.
Sometimes, if I’m not trying, I can sense something just beyond me. A dream long swept downstream, teased like a glint of light that disappears when you try to track the source. Like condensation on a glass that soaks through cloth, there is an accumulation, on just the other side—of what I can’t begin to imagine. It’s stalled in the process, stymied. Trying desperately to traverse. Sometimes it feels like I’ll drown in it, and yet I can’t find it anywhere.
I remember when I first dared run my fingers across the flame of a candle, the soft drop of fire leaning with the motion of my hand. My father had shown me the trick. I was careful not to do it around my mother, though, who seemed to worry I might be more flammable than the average child. Blowing out the candles on birthdays, I could hear her from just beyond the glow—careful–careful–careful, Fanny…
But on the last night of Hanukkah, my family would let me light the menorah: first the shamash, with a long match, then the rest by the tall thin candle itself, my mother holding back my mousy hair, always. In my memory these rituals are bathed in this yellow candle light; the shimmering tin wrappers discarded on the living room floor from dreidel games, the nooks and crannies of the house where we searched for the hidden matzah on Passover, even the crisp, earthy smell of peeled potatoes. Still, they were superficial practices for a family with two daughters who would never have a bat-mitzvah, never learn Hebrew, and with time my parents left these earnest traditions behind. I tried some years to bring them back, the bitter radish and the salt water, the cracked pepper in my great grandmother’s latke recipe. But there had been a quality to it all, a sincerity that we lost, and no amount of ceremony seemed to be able to bring it back.
George and Paula’s temple is fresh and clean, modern. Unadorned white sills frame a perfect blue sky. The rabbi is young, maybe my age, and looks at me with amusement or pity. Everyone knows these words but me, and out of the chaos this returns: I was the youngest at the table, the one tasked with reading the question. Sweat on my palms, the anticipation a sick flutter in my throat, I feared I’d mess up the words, and reveal that I didn’t belong. I’d be found out, forced to slip away through the cracked door, my own seat left empty for Elijah. Here in the cool synagogue the rabbi leads us in a song, for all that works in the body, and I sing the few words I can latch on to like an inchworm on a leaf in the breeze, thank you for all that works in the body. A little girl runs around the room, weaving in and out of our legs. You’d think this would make me angry, hearing this, being asked to say thanks for this, but that is because you don’t understand where my anger comes from. It is a question you’d dare not ask. I feel I could rip wide open and survive it. I could turn my body inside out.
After the service ends everyone gathers around the back entrance, twirling key rings around their fingers, the mountains and setting sun reflected in their sunglasses. Evan, I swear to you I can see a heaviness lifting off of their bodies, like steam off the pavement after rain. I shake the hands of whoever Paula sets me in front of, and in this new air we talk about things of little consequence—books read and wild animals spotted, flowers that survived the last cold snap—the effort of the evening left entirely behind, contained safely within the plain white synagogue.
“Should we get home, see if Evan wants to go out for a late dinner?”
The car ride home is different. In this air my words find easy purchase. “Did my parents tell you what happened, with me and Evan in the spring?”
“You mean with his job?”
“No, no. I…I was pregnant.”
“No I didn’t know.”
“He had Tay-Sachs, it turned out. The baby. So we terminated.”
“No, we didn’t know.”
There is silence. There is room for little else. I wonder if you have told anyone, like this. I wonder what words you would use.
Years after the cat’s accident we were shown another x-ray, a new one where out of the old mistiness a milky webbing grew, traveling along the black expanse of his stomach. I thought I saw it slowly spreading there, like hair in water. We put him to sleep, or the vet tech did, Midnight calm and trusting in my father’s arms. My mother, sister and I watched as he went limp, gone from us all at once, slipped through a crack in the firmament. And out of the terrible stillness, a twitch of the paw, violent as a bolt of lightning through the room—just an electrical impulse, the tech said, fast as she could, because I’m sure she saw the wonder in my face, the belief that anything could be regained in this world, that in a moment an infinite distance could be overcome by any animal cunning enough, and illness too would be untangled and flushed out in the journey back to that small, white tile room. After this we stepped outside, into the parking lot and the rest of the world, and went for pancakes. Sitting in a booth, laughter surged out from an unknown place like a pain expelled, cleaning us out.
I’ll tell you the things I remember alone.
I bought a pregnancy test on my way home from work. Before I got to our street I stopped again, took one stick out and threw the rest of the box away in a dumpster. When I got to our apartment, you told me you’d been accepted for the visiting professor position in Montana, and when I hugged you I could hear the wrapper crinkling in my jacket pocket. This is a moment that is only mine.
When I got the result, I slipped the wrapper back over the stick and buried it in the trash. For a week, it was my secret. Something precious all for myself—I wanted to see what that felt like. I told you as you stood in front of the open fridge, looking for a beer. You whispered what, what into the crook of my neck and kissed my cheeks, no way.
“Wait…tell me again.”
“Just, give me the news again,” you said, prying the cap off of the bottle. You threw it back, and I said it again, “Evan, I’m pregnant,” and you made your eyes big and spit the beer in a fan of mist—“WHAT?”
I used to share my dreams with you each morning, because it pained me to have experiences that you were in no way a part of. The pregnancy felt the same, like a space between sleep and waking, a dark, wrestling place whose only job is to resolve itself.
Tomorrow we’ll pack up our things and head north for the final stretch. I’ll tell you I’m sorry. I’ll ask what you’re scared of. I’ll drive and watch the country get green again. We’ve been mixed up, or at least I have, somewhere between the memories that make us up and the grief that wears us down. We’ve been caught in a timeless place, submerged. It’s a river, Evan. And there’s a bank on the other side.
About the author…
Lucy Shapiro is from in the D.C. area, raised in court rooms where her father argued, and the nature center where her mother taught. She has a degree in creative writing from UC Santa Cruz, where she served as Production Manager for Matchbox Magazine. She now lives in Lexington, VA.