***Ashley Stimpson is the 3rd place winner of Streetlight’s 2018 Essay/Memoir Contest***
You insist it’s okay to smoke in the rental car, that you’ve done it so many times and never had to pay a cleaning fee. Gently as houseflies, my four left fingers land on the window buttons each time you reveal the Camel Lights from your shirt pocket. Every few hours, I have one too, so you won’t ask if I’m upset. A hot wind shotguns the breath from my lips before I feel even a pang of satisfaction.
The highway south of Dallas is wide and blinding, everything in sight a shade of dirty orange. Restaurants and gas stations line up along the roadside like weary parade-goers, and faraway trees look like coral: bony and bare.
You’re cheerful here; we stop by a motel where they filmed the Wes Anderson movie you love. The dead grass reaches into my sandals and pokes the fleshy part of my feet. I hear myself laugh.
It’s been only a few days since the breakup and, really, not that many more since you arrived in Cincinnati, your overheated car beleaguered with DVDs and black trash bags of clothes. I called a tow truck to drag it all the last 12 miles.
Limping into town seemed like an apt metaphor. I had just abandoned a marriage as if it were a burning high rise, and your conflagrations were white-hot and well-tended. We ignored everyone’s advice and our own better judgment to get to one another. Between us, we would gamble, there must be enough pieces to build something whole. But when you come to stay a fresh and confusing uncertainty settles in along with your things.
On that first night, we stay in an artist’s studio that is really just a shed in a field near the San Marcos River. The red-wing blackbirds are displeased by our arrival and tell us so. Behind the main house we find the water, just weeks after it climbed its banks and claimed some lives; I’ve seen the headlines on discarded newspapers and muted TVs. The current is teal and docile in a way that belies its rage. I want to stare at it all night. But the cheap beer and lawn chairs aren’t here, so we walk back to the shed and one of us plays music from our phone. It sounds tinny and distant.
Your mood shifts; soon you are as far away as the music. I go to bed alone. I dream of falcons and plane crashes, escape and destruction.
The breakup was a farce, some kind of futile tantrum. I guess it was you who decided, but only because you were so tired of my sad and seasick eyes. We tacitly agreed to try again—in the upstairs of that bar? In the front seat of my Honda? We didn’t have to say it. We both understand that this is like a chemical dependency, now. The pleasure has worn off to reveal a frightening, bottomless need.
The reunion feels fraught from the get, like we are a glued-back-together tchotchke we hope no one notices. I am all the time checking our pieces, inspecting our cracks. I wince with each hint of a breeze. I am so on edge that when the teenager at the Del Taco outside San Antonio asks if I want a medium or a large I say a medium, if that’s okay with you. I actually say this aloud but you do not notice. I have become a wisp of myself.
The Alamo shrinks beneath cranes and cowers below neon. I expected a fortress, but this just feels impotent, almost silly. There’s a Coke machine outside. There’s a gift shop filled with gun-nut paraphernalia. My god, we have ruined everything.
I choose the wrong toll road. It’s not going in the wrong direction; it’s got the wrong number of cars on it. As in: too many. You reach for your breast pocket, just barely camouflaging your disdain in a sigh. I roll down the windows. I try not to remember the arrogant proclamations we once reveled in: we’ll never be like that, we’ll never be those people. My baby, we have ruined everything.
I try not to remember before. The heady delusion of a fantasy we forced into existence out of sheer and stupid will. When moments together were a tilt-a-whirl of intimate jokes and heavy gazes. Fingers swimming in curly hair, a veritable jukebox of Our Songs. Strangers would stop to marvel, like our passion was an animal we led around for show. They’d say whew you two and look at the lovebirds! I feel like if I could understand what unnatural force has untethered us I would know all I needed, I could be happy. Maybe I could feel happy again.
In Galveston we rent a yellow bungalow with spruce-green shutters in a neighborhood that makes my chest tight. We settle on a corner bar that’s full of rough people with hard faces, so we sit on the sidewalk in faded plastic chairs. The coastal breeze has brought you back to life and it’s as if your energy siphons all of mine. An equal and opposite reaction. You want to talk big plans, but I have trouble listening. I’m tired of these bars and the way they make my hair smell. I’m tired of worrying about what you’re never going to do and when you’re ever going to do it. I am so tired, darling: I want to scream it. I am diminished, I am done.
On the way back to the rental I have to lean out of the driver’s side and retch, like a prom date gone awry. My throw up tastes like miller lite and the banana I bought with dimes from a convenience store. You rush around the bumper and wedge your hands under my arms. You have to get out of the car you say in the sweetest tone you’ve used in many weeks. Someone might think you are drunk.
(I am not drunk, I would tell them. I am heartbroken.)
By Houston we’re out of cash. The city is all hot concrete and exhaust fumes; it feels claustrophobic and unfriendly. We eat using a gift card one of us got for Christmas and pretend like it’s fun, surrounded by birthday parties and church-fancy families. We have too much time on our hands so we go to a bookstore, a place where silence is a relief and not a challenge. I find you in the autobiography section with tears in your eyes. It is only then that I realize I have tears in my eyes too.
Two years later—one and a half since the last time we speak—Hurricane Harvey will submerge much of Houston and I’ll think about you. I’ll wonder if you remember that bookstore, that drowning feeling we shared long before the water arrived.
Back in Dallas, you’re anticipating withdrawal—when can we travel like this again? It was good for us. I say I don’t know but soon. We move through security like drones. We sit with our shoulders touching at C9. We insert the metal end into the buckle and pull the strap to tighten. Somewhere over forsaken plains, I come apart, mourning all the days we will not spend together. I weep, fiercely like a flooded river, as angrily as a red-wing blackbird. The stranger across the aisle observes me sympathetically but you are asleep.
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