As Ohio sank into us, we’d watched the hills go from too-flat green to calico, then bare. Bicoastal but both jonesing ocean and heartland-sick, Piper and I painted our fingernails like seafoam. We headed south to get brined.
We brought our dogs. I realized only afterward that they matched our hair colors and ourselves–hers a gregarious golden retriever mix; mine a tentative black greyhound. We walked along the beach barefoot at forty degrees, willing and waiting it into warmth. We talked about what home is–hers, roadkill moose salvaged to feed the hungry; mine, iguanas strung lazily across highways that glimmered like stovetops. What you take for granted, what’s not always there–Disney summers, bathing suit tops in the grocery store. What never seems to remain on return.
She saw her first cockroach in the campground showers and asked me to confirm what it was. She told me there are no ants in Alaska.
Look, she said, when the waves rolled in. That’s how sand is made. You are from the ocean. You are.
I remember when he told me he was allergic to ants. Anaphylaxis discovered at six after a bite to the wrist. Such a funny, small thing to fell a man, to make him more at home inside of walls.
He asked me to marry him in a Walgreens parking lot in Orlando. We’d run out for condoms, got caught up talking in the car. The song was “Very Busy People.” He didn’t have a ring, but I told him if he asked me I’d say yes. I can’t remember when I changed my mind.
She asked me why I was making it harder, said that if she had a man at home making ninety grand a year, she wouldn’t be weathering Midwestern winters. The Carolina trees weren’t red for us, but bare, then green as we travelled eastward. Summer town with no summer in it, all storefronts filled with wakeboards and inner tubes, all ice cream stands, but closed. We watched the sunset on the sound with our coats on. We dug our toes into 40-degree sand and pretended. It was abandoned and cheap.
We talked about the cosmic nature of dreams, how they come true but not like you expect. Like hyper-déjà vu, but in the smallest things: having seen the exact color of that comforter, heard that exact sequence of words. Dreamt the way the onion shed in its drawer, just so. Dreams of places you’d never been well before you knew you were going to them. The subsequent feeling of being in the right place at the right time. All things round, like how songs had always followed he and I. “Madness” and “Ho Hey” and “Stubborn Love”–well, it’s easy to feel synchronistic if you pick top forties for your own.
But it’s true that when we parked the rental cargo van I’d driven down through the mountains on the street where we used to live to fuck in the back, “Madness” came on the radio, and neither of us had heard it since we’d last seen each other, months ago.
Weird coincidences. All of his exes, he told me, had driven box-shaped cars; his most recent, Amanda, an Element like mine, even. Just a different color. One day he asked me on a scale from one to ten how much I loved him, and I said “twenty-seven.” He started: that’s the answer she’d always given. We twitched in our sleep the same way. The body knows.
Piper taught me about road trips. You learn how to live out of a cooler, she said. Use the block ice and not the cubes. Don’t put the cheese in the bottom.
I-95 lifeline, traveling alone and southward in the sun. I told her about how I would always pass over it and think: if I just turn right and head north and keep going, I could go to Maine instead of high school. I told her how overjoyed I’d been when I passed it on the way east to meet her on the coast. It was foreign to her. Alaska keeps you in, she said. Nowhere to go. At least without a commitment.
I knew it was trouble as soon as he said her name. Ashley. The new girl at work. Another A, and me sandwiched there in the middle no matter how he denied it. I felt it in my body–the way his voice lilted. No one else would have heard it, but five years had etched him into my synapses. I scoffed and he leapt to her defense. The body knows.
I called him from a broken-down Dairy Queen across the street from the Carolina campground, bleary and running on Piper’s coffee. This really happened. It was permanently closed.
I called from the walk-up window, asked him to marry me while looking in at the speckled fallen ceiling. It looked like pockmarked Styrofoam. There was a hand-written SORRY sign in the window. He said, that sounds like fun. He wouldn’t budge; the wind wouldn’t let up. I picked him up a stone. When I got home, my mother told me there were sharks in the water all the way down from the outer banks, where I’d been, to St. Augustine. Sharks following. The weather’d kept us out of the water anyway.
I left a morning before I’d planned to drive myself all the way down through the sandswirl salt green, the air like hunger, and the motion. I drove down to get burned, to bear my pale limbs and smile open-armed into the sun. I-95 lifeline, the sky criss-crossed with flight lines. Home is something you beg for.
I begged him.