We’re in continuous motion, our 21-year-old hearts jumping in time with every bump of the road as we drive south through the summer heat in your Ford truck, no A/C and the windows rolled down. We ride with the arm seat up so I can sit close, kiss your neck, to which you reply yes, yes.
We’re driving from North Carolina to California and only I’m coming back. In a year, once I’ve finished college...but we don’t talk about that now. The summer of 2000 stretches before us, we count our breaths by the dashed lines on the road. You read billboards backwards and forwards, searching for palindromes. I turn up the tape deck and quietly hum or sing: Cat Power, Belle & Sebastian, The White Stripes, Johnny Cash.
We stay the night with a friend in Atlanta, then drive straight through Alabama without stopping.
At the hostel in New Orleans the night air sits thick on our skin as we sink into the rickety loft bed, sweat sliding down our collarbones, armpits, sides, pooling where our bodies form new dimensions in the lamplight on the wall.
In Texas the truck hits tire tred and breaks down. We walk silently down the highway in the gathering night. Tinged with the last bits of red-orange light the tall, dry grass on either side of us whispers of alligators.
On the edge of Texas we camp. The mountains rocky and naked, alien formations. We pitch our tent, dine on ramen and cheap wine. A deer wanders by like an apparition in the dusk. We talk of old loves—examining our separate pasts, their separateness itself an alien phenomenon. “Weird to think about you with other guys,” you say. “That they came and went, that they didn’t stick around.”
July 23rd, my birthday. We spend it in Flagstaff, Arizona, the town where I was born. I lead you in and out of shops, across train tracks, up and down vaguely familiar streets. In a second-hand store you buy me shoes. At telephone poles you linger over ‘For Rent’ fliers, as if we might cancel all plans, set up house. Later we check into a seedy downtown motel and have six o’clock sex in the glow of the TV screen. Our one-year anniversary.
Up the coast of California through mist and wildflowers and the ocean winding blue and distant to our left. Brown freckles bloom along the stretch of your left arm from days of drifting out the window.
Santa Cruz, California. We’re here until we find you a place to live. A couple of nights we sleep in the truck or on the beach. We heat canned soup on your camp stove in the park, throw bread to the ducks. Finally you find a room to rent and we grin at each other as we unload the truck, giddy with relief.
But halfway through a pitcher of beer in an all-night diner we argue about gas money and travel routes. “I'm leaving,”I announce and march out the door. I stumble at the curb and you, having followed me out, grab my arm. I yank it away: “Don't.” At which you throw your hands up—“Fine”—voice loud, eyes wild. I watch you storm off down the street, surprised to see your calm facade crack. I find you two blocks later and we sit on a sidewalk bench: yelling, angry, confused. Eventually words wind down and bodies inch close: quietly, we cling.
And now we’re driving again—to Oakland to stay with a couple you know. They’re moving in a week, to the same mountain town in North Carolina we’ve just left. They want to be somewhere quieter, less crowded, to settle down. They weigh things together and put them in shipping boxes and I watch with jealous, squinting eyes.
In the room of the San Francisco hostel: a sink, a rusted iron bed, and on the wall inside the closet, in black magic marker, a letter: Leslie, I can’t do this anymore, I can’t take care of you. I love you but you’re better off without me…
Through the afternoon we traverse city blocks, not quite knowing where we are. We eat dinner on Haight St., emerge into a world gone strange with mist.
The next day we set out for Olympia. Up, up, up through bright cool air and mountains, and on the cusp of Oregon we stop to camp. The park ranger warns us of bears so we sleep in the truck. Lying in the cramped metal bed I am suddenly furious, begin throwing our belongings one by one over the side. You watch. “Feeling better?” you ask when I pause, having run out of things to throw. Your hand on my side, fingers find the spaces between my ribs. I tear into you, still gasping.
On the Washington shore we camp with your friends, sit silly on the sand with beer bottles clenched between bare knees. You reminisce about when we first met—the first time our hands touched and the amazing energy and that’s when you knew. I’ve never heard you tell this story before.
“I have to pee,”I say.
“Go down and pee where the sea meets the sand like in the Neruda poem,” you say.
And I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about but I march right down to the edge of the water.
Later, after the others have gone to sleep, we get into an argument, intoxicated and nonsensical. “I love you,”you say, spitting it out angrily, heat of the moment. The first time you’ve said it. I stalk off in the sand.
The morning finds us curled together in our tent, naked and apologetic. “I love you,” you say, this time soft, your fingers in my hair.
In Portland we get “married” in the Church of Elvis, the jumbled apartment of a middle-aged woman who collects Elvis paraphernalia. She holds out a bowl of ten-cent vending machine rings for us to choose from, delivers a nonsensical, rapid-fire sermon, declares us man and wife before an audience of nine snickering tourists. We grin goofily as she snaps a Polaroid and honeymoon in the gay bar across the street. Goldfish swim beneath the counter; we hold up our hands and admire how the bands of tin glint in the late afternoon light.
And just like that, our time is up. On the floor of the airport we huddle in each other’s arms. It’s the first time I’ve seen you cry. You try to leave but I won’t let go, make you wait until the last minute: emptying chairs, final boarding call, our salted, swimming kiss.
Truth is, I don’t think of you that often. There were years when I couldn’t stop thinking of you. Years when I held onto the story that you were the one. But that was so long ago. We were so young. So much has happened in the interim.
I’ve just left a café and am heading toward my car when I spot you with the woman who is now your wife less than a block ahead. Funny how things turn out. Separate lives for years in San Francisco and now again in North Carolina. The two of you are lingering at the fence surrounding the old downtown ballpark, watching the tiny figures out on the field. It’s early in the evening, the air warm, the sky the color of salmon. You hook your fingers through the chain links of the fence and lean toward the field, tilting your face toward hers as she says something I can’t hear. Her impossibly long hair swings across her back as she turns to you and smiles. The air is so warm, the sky so damn pink.
I don’t think of you that often. But within spitting distance of this twilit tableau, my 35-year-old-single-woman chest folds like an origami bird. I look down as I approach my car—the old, I-can’t see-you-you-can’t-see-me maneuver. Slowly, I drive home.
Only later do I let myself remember how I loved you in our youth and across multiple state lines. Through the insurmountable distance I can almost feel this: our continuous motion, our hearts so fast and defiant as we drive headlong toward the end.
Rhea DeRose-Weiss currently lives, teaches, and writes in Durham, North Carolina. Her fiction and essays have been published in Fourteen Hills, Carve, and xoJane, among others. You can find her at rheaderoseweiss.com.