One night I walk to a bookstore five blocks from my house. The weather is perfect, cool and dry. The Big Dipper fills the canvas of a clear night. I am on my phone renting equipment for work when I push the door open with my shoulder.
Funny, the things we remember later. Burgundy tank and army green cargo pants. I have twelve dollars in my wallet, and I am definitely not looking for love.
Yet, there you are in faded jeans, your tattoo peeking out from the top of your dark blue button down.
You look up at me from behind the counter. “Wow,” you say.
The interior of the bookstore is so perfect, it feels like the set of a play, an avant-garde film. Titles flow to and from me like a wave of words, carrying me out to a sea where I drown in you. A strong current pulls me. I crest and fall, swell and drift. A tiny ship on an ocean of uncertainty. Books rise from the depths.
“Hi,” I say, self-conscious and totally caught off guard.
“You’re late,” you say.
I laugh. “I didn’t even know you worked here.”
“What took you so long to find me?” Your voice is electric, a cool sizzle of inflection and tone.
Putting a sprinkle of pep in my voice, I say, “I’m here now.”
You tilt your head to the side and smile. I’ve never wanted to have sex with anyone so much in all my life, wedged between Gardening for Dummies and 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
I grab a stuffed animal from a display of Where the Wild Things Are.
You wink, “We have all the wild things in here.”
I grab Max and hold him in the air. “Look,” I say, excited, “He’s back, just in time for dinner.”
“His dinner is still warm,” you say.
Swept up in the wild rumpus, I grab all the Wild Things and squeeze them tight.
“So, where have you been all these years?” you ask.
I don’t know where to begin.
My neighbor Mary is named after the Virgin, and she rides motorcycles and loves Jesus. Her rats are dying of cancer. The first time I met her, I made us grilled cheese sandwiches with brie and Granny Smith apple slices.
“Really?” you say.
I walk deeper into the store, so out of time and place, it could wrinkle any second. My fingertip trails down the spine of Faulkner. I’d like to live in a house haunted by Faulkner, with empty booze bottles and story ideas scratched across the walls. We’d sit down in the dusty, fading light, share a cigarette, and I’d dare him to have sex with the ghost of Emily Dickinson.
“What are you doing,” you ask, reading over my shoulder.
You smell like Hugo Boss and Dutch cigarettes.
“God, you must have memorized this book by now. I remember the summer you found it on the floor in my apartment. All you wanted to do was read As I Lay Dying and Jim Morrison’s poetry.”
And you. I wanted to do you.
The commercial wraps in the middle of the night. I spend an hour laying on an enormous bed, staring at the ceiling, before I walk out of my hotel room. At the very end of the hall a glass door leads to a fire escape. I walk out and look down through the metal grate. Nine floors up and my stomach tightens.
The sun will rise soon.
A blue mist hovers above the streetlights.
There is so much possibility tied up in this moment. So much emotion that I only allow myself to feel when there is no one else around. The night is alive with my thoughts. I can go forever from here. Like this fire escape is a magic carpet into the unexamined obsessions in my mind. The endless loop of you. The endless obsession. Cars honk. A streetlight changes, red to green.
My French Boyfriend is needy, in the throes of an existential crisis. His mother is in a suburb of Paris. Crime has become unbearable, and she fears for her life. I own the house we live in because I inherited it from my grandmother. The French Boyfriend asks me to marry him because, if we’re a real couple, he can do things like move his mother in without putting it to committee vote. I decline.
I text you to meet me across town in a gas station bathroom. The floor is concrete, with a drain in the center. I sit on your lap and we make out. It is disgusting and lurid and hot. Your tongue an ancient tablet that erases all sin. Which I’ve been thinking about since the rats.
A loud truck pulls into the parking lot outside. The doorknob jiggles.
“Come on,” you squeeze my ass.
We drive in separate cars to my favorite restaurant. A little dive owned by a preacher who makes the best omelets in the world. Gouda, avocado, Italian sausage. A piece of heaven.
“You seem lonely,” you say.
“I need more folk music in my life.”
You laugh and lean back, legs falling open, me falling in love.
“I’m not sure how folksy the saxophone is, but that is the extent of my musical talent.”
“You can play, and I’ll recite poetry. It will seem folksy. I’ll wear fringe and sway.”
The kitchen staff talk to each other on the other side of a thin swinging door.
“Why is this so hard?”
“The folk music?”
“Everything,” I sigh.
I get called to a shoot three states away. Every second I’m not working I text you. Sexting, sexting, we all fall down.
“That’s hot,” you say.
I smile, standing at the craft table, about to eat a pineapple spear. Mary sends a text. One of the rats is dead. I don’t know what to say, so I send her a gourmet food basket from an app on my phone. Sympathy from the socially maladjusted.
After we wrap, I skip the party and drive across three states.
You answer the door wearing a pair of jeans, bare chest, totally commando.
I haven’t slept since yesterday.
Staring at the lock on the door, refusing to make eye contact, you say, “I have someone in the bedroom.”
“Seriously? I can’t believe you.”
“Says the girl who LIVES with a guy. At least my distractions come and go. Yours is trying to move his mother in.”
I roll my eyes. “Why is this always so convoluted?”
“Hold on. Let me find a shirt. I’ll take you to breakfast.”
Holy omelets. We’re so early, the tables are mostly empty.
“How was the shoot?”
“Why is there always a girl? It’s like I have to wade through a sea of girls every time I want to see you.”
“Why do you care?”
Which comes first?
Rats. Rats come first.
Mary is a heap, poured over her kitchen table, cigarette burning. Smoke spirals up, taking the rat’s soul to heaven.
“Raticus,” she says quietly.
“I know,” I inhale. “He was my favorite.”
She looks up, tear-filled eyes.
“They’re all my favorites.”
Mary has food.
I do not.
The French Boyfriend lives on apple pie and handmade sandwiches from a deli down the street. He was talking to his mother in French when I left.
Everything is a French whisper.
C’est une fille egoiste et enfantin.
I hate conjugating verbs in my head. I’m tired of translating my feelings.
Before this, I lived with my grandmother in Midtown. Just the two of us in a big pink stucco house with herbs spilling out of clay pots. She told me the story of how our Cherokee ancestors hid in the woods in Tennessee to avoid death on the Trail of Tears. Told me how they pushed west and tried to blend in. Long haired savages in Sunday clothes. Suddenly, I live in a great big house all by myself. Her warm, rich soul departs. Death is a hole.
Some people try to fill holes.
I leave mine there.
I leave the hole to be alone and fill the rest of my life with work.
That’s okay, because I’m really good at it.
In my spare time, I sigh and think of words and phrases.
I read poetry aloud at night. Carl Sandburg. Maya Angelou.
I see Lenny Kravitz sing and go to a dive bar to play pool with strangers.
One night I drive across town to Café Montmartre. I walk into the side room with the little stage. Thunder rolls from my tongue like the drum of my ancestors. The walls shake with the roar of the crowd.
Along the very back wall, with a towel draped over his shoulder and a tray under one arm, stands the future and not-too-distant French Boyfriend, clapping wildly and whistling with his fingers in his mouth.
Outside my kitchen window, Mary pours a ring of salt around her house. Her hair falls loose, framing her worried eyes. She believes the rats protect her from evil. Now, the rats need a coin to pay the ferryman.
You blow up my phone. “Why can’t you make up your mind?”
This. Again. A decade of back and forth. This. Over and over. I don’t even know what this is anymore. For some reason, in that moment I am reminded of the fact that we have been together off and on for ten years. I am more than a quarter of a century old. Jagged raw lines drawn between each other, connecting dots across a continent, city by city, leaving a trail of people behind us so we can get to this moment. This small piece of divinity that forever casts its light across the edges of this moment, but will disappear and make me wonder how on earth two people can be so drawn together, and always so far apart.
“What is it you want? Do you want to wear my class ring and Varsity jacket?”
“Do you even have a Varsity jacket?”
“Yes. And thank you for asking.”
“How long have we known each other?”
“How old is the earth?”
I roll my eyes. “Depends on which religion you ask.”
“Then let’s create our own.”
“What do we call it?”
“The Equation of Us.”
In my off time, I go to Café Montmartre, because I fancy myself a Beat poet, intellectually unravelling my genetic code in the form of verse, verse, baby.
Dirty, neat, slammed and sweet, the poets come and go from the makeshift stage.
On the rocks. A double. Straight up. On the verge of temptation, my innocence is poured over ice. The blood of me spills onto the page like a botched miscarriage. Sling me, shoot me, pour me over juice. I am the one thing in life that needs no excuse.
“You’re drunk,” you say.
The Uber driver waits at the curb behind me.
“Teeny bit,” I peek through my thumb and index finger, “but my poetry is good.”
“What does that say about you?”
“That I’m difficult and moody, and don’t know what I want. Maybe if I’m whole, I can find you.”
“I’m right here,” you say, exasperated.
“I know. Which never explains why I can’t connect with you.”
“Because everyone has been tricked. It’s not about connecting. It’s about unplugging and learning to love that dark, empty space that consumes every thought.”
Every moment of every second I am coming to this moment that is you and me.
You and me.
A universal notion.
You take my hand and pull me toward your bed, but I don’t want to make love. I want to make sense.
My French Boyfriend’s mother thinks we’re a couple. He thinks we’re a couple.
You are at the bookstore, stocking classics. “Are you just going to stand there and bite your fingernails all day?”
“Why do I have such grown-up problems?”
Your eyes trail up to the ceiling and linger a second before your mouth drops open, mock surprised. “Because you’re a grown up?”
I make a face. “If I don’t go home for a week, that’s rude, right?”
You nod, shoving The Unbearable Lightness of Being onto the shelf. “Rude, and your plants will die.”
“Not the cactus.”
“You should run off and be with me,” you say.
Reality drives me over the edge. It’s a short trip, because I get called to shoot a commercial in Indianapolis.
There’s a flyer in the lobby.
Drum circle. Ancient Art. Everyone welcome.
I duck out of a creative meeting and drive to a field in the country. It’s been a while since I’ve been this far from civilization. Which is odd, since I think civilization kinda sucks. Desolate, end of the world stories make me cry.
Why can’t we just pop into existence in the center of the flux and be like, OMG, this is a total ride?
Until the edges of reality blur and we’re excited by the possibility of the next blip.
I can’t remember the last time I sat in a field and stared up into a night filled with twinkling stars. I must have been eight years old. A Lakota man is on the drum.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.
Because I’m a total mess.
The Lakota lights a fire, calls the Great Spirit, throws a handful of dried herbs into the flames that pop and sizzle. I lay in the warm glow of fire and think about how our love can’t be confined to a house. It is wild, roaming through the streets at night, licking the bottoms of our feet when we least expect it, eating Chinese food with its fingers. Our love drinks straight from the bottle and sleeps late. It hunts, cuddles, and perches in the high noon desert air. It sings with wild coyotes, climbs trees, pees outside, and roars when it’s angry. Our love eats desserts for breakfast and scratches in unmentionable places. Sometimes it howls.
“Listen,” you say.
A box of chocolates is not as appealing as a sip of the scent of you.
One night at the Tornado Room, you lean over, drunk on expensive scotch and say, “They don’t serve redemption at the Last Supper anymore. Let’s dine in Hell.”
I compose a poem on a napkin.
Too much coffee.
Espresso for the soul.
Past too many cigarettes and too many bottles of wine.
Where I see the bottom before I see your face.
I am called into a cramped room at the center.
L.A. Denver. Charleston. Atlanta. New York. Indianapolis. Tupelo. Savannah. Rinse. Repeat.
“How do you know him?” Mary says.
Fade in on my eyes following you through a crowd. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen you. I know who you are. You’re walking across the courtyard outside my World Religions class. When you approach in your long, black trench coat and motorcycle boots, I feel an electric jolt surge through my entire body. We go on a date filled with steaming pots of Sweet and Sour Tofu. I like the way you call me baby, even if the windows of your soul are dirty.
Mary holds up a loaf of caramel chocolate banana bread. She takes a whiff and says, “Did you know more people die of run-ins with vending machines per year than sharks?”
“I did not,” I say.
“Ants kill around thirty people per year. Jellyfish, up to forty. Icicles fall from roofs in Russia and kill a hundred people a year. Falling out of bed kills tons of people.” A sharp knife slices into the loaf. “But vending machines kill thirteen people per year.”
Mary’s least favorite number. Her ex-boyfriend’s birthday.
“One bag of barbeque potato chips and the next thing you know, you’re in some strange afterlife, staring at a weird little guy holding a clipboard.”
Mary shivers and coffee splashes on the porcelain tile. “What if none of this is real?” she whispers.
You stop in the parking lot of the Elk Inn. “If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?”
“I’d love you forever,” I say. “Love you in and out of time, across centuries, like two people connected by a silken thread. I’d meet you in the alleys of Rome as a prostitute and consume you until you collapsed. Then, meet you in the Coliseum and battle to the death. I’d find you by a campfire in a medieval town and captivate you with my magic tricks. I’d know the sweetness of your skin in a Victorian opium den. I’d look for your eyes in a crowded marketplace, knowing the touch of a thousand years. I’d kiss your fingertips if you arrived as a saint. I’d meet you at the gates of Hell with a passing wink. And you?”
“I’d let you love me,” you say.
The inside of my body feels different. Like I’ve written a message and hidden it for safekeeping but forgotten the language.
This is years later.
You have the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. The tattoo of a winged bird across your chest. A symbol of something between us. You are in a train station in St. Louis, calling my name. I am on my way to photograph a reindeer for an ad. True story.
Your long stride puts you in front of me in seconds. “What are you doing here?”
I abandon everything I could say and go straight for cool. “Waiting for you.”
In the parking lot we sit under a streetlight. The concrete curb warm from a hot day. Balmy air caresses my arms.
“What happened?” I ask. You pause. “Divorce is messy. The glassware didn’t survive. It’s a breakup in more ways than one.”
I am quiet for several minutes, watching the colors flash on the crosswalk sign.
It’s been so long I don’t remember what life was like before you. There is no me without you. A copy of Crime and Punishment is stuffed inside my backpack. A metaphor for the last ten years of my life, where I straddle the fence of romantic indecision.
Other people walk down the sidewalk. The random people. Extras. Underpaid parts in the human drama. Most of them never even get a speaking role.
“Help me find an apartment,” you say.
But first, a little sushi restaurant around the corner. Raw fish wrapped in Shiso leaves.
I try to imagine the rest of my life with you.
You are talking about Lord of War. Your favorite movie. Vitaly. Such a sad character. An arms dealer who can’t stand to see people die.
The loud hum of people talking buzzes like a hive. I look across the table and think I must have loved you forever. Loved you before this. Loved you before I knew love. But maybe I’ve never been more than something to collect. A pretty ring that sparkles in the light. Something you collect but are afraid to love. Because collecting and loving are two very different things.
I slowly begin to remember. I remember the days skipping rocks across a pond in Mississippi where I grew up. I remember dust lingering in the pillars of sunlight cast down through the cool shade of trees, like a chorus of women praying on their knees.
Then that day comes, in a train station in St. Louis. It’s just you and me, and a heavy fog rolling over the river.
“I wonder how you went so far away in the first place.”
You turn to me under the streetlight. “There was some pushing from you for sure.”
I don’t argue. It’s true. I pushed and pushed until we fell off that wall of indecision, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put us back together again.
One night, I drive to the ocean. It isn’t close. It takes me eleven hours to get there. To the edge of the world, where water strikes the shore. I check into a dive motel and fall into an exhausted sleep. I dream I am at this club I used to go to in Florida. Black walls, smoke machine, Trent Reznor blaring from the speakers. After one beer I was too sauced to drive, so I didn’t drink, only danced. The dark corners sunk back away from the caged dance floor. A sort of tragic mess. The ’90s, groove-is-in-the-heart retro thing.
I dream I am there, wearing a brand-new pair of sunglasses, looking out at the bodies that sway and slither in the smoke. I stand watching until I turn away, and there is a gas station in the forest, and you are pumping gas with a baby squirrel on your shoulder, and I yell, “Hey.”
And you turn, smiling, and say, “Come away with me.” And I wake up in a motel on the coast that smells like old carpet. I go get coffee and do some work. I go back to the edge of the water, where sea monsters devour sailors on epic voyages across the world. I’m going to watch the sun rise, stop off at a Waffle House, and have my fries smothered and covered. I’m going to the edge, and I’m going to watch the storm roll in.
Then I’ll leave.
And drive inland.
Past the mountains that haunt me and hold me.
And then I’ll really wake up.
But until then, the sound of Cuban music pumps and pulsates like a heart from the open door of a restaurant. A distant, wild delirium mingles with the streets, the sea spray. Vivid rainbow colors twirl around my head. Women speaking Spanish group together, bodies merging, solid, ethereal. The women dance, and my soul pleads: teach me how to rumba.
Driving is therapy. The crisp night air lulls me into an imaginary world. I go down deep, inside myself, when going down isn’t easy and there is all this stuff to remember like God is watching, and wash your hands, and peanuts will kill you, and where do all the wildflowers go in winter? I have other questions. I wonder about things. I wonder why Alabama doesn’t have the lottery because gambling is a sin. It seems weird that God wouldn’t allow gambling, since this entire existence is such a gamble. I figure it’s best to go ahead and start placing bets. I mean, what can it hurt. That’s a fact, not a question. Maybe gambling is illegal, but playing the odds is about as legit as I can get.
I am looking for the promise of a new life.
A cute little bookstore just opened a few blocks away. When I have time, I will pop over.
Mary wears a leather jacket with an archangel on the back, and she’s on a total health kick. “Listen,” she slurps banana smoothie through a paper straw, “I have to go out of town for a day. Will you babysit the rats?”
“I don’t really like children,” I say.
She laughs, lighting a cigarette.
One rat is huge. I call him King of the Rats. He doesn’t mind. Standing on his hind legs, he makes cute gestures with his hands. “You’re smarter than you let on,” I whisper.
He clicks his teeth and holds out his furry hands. I give him a raisin and read Ginsburg’s poem Howl out loud. He loves it. He’s a Beat Rat and doesn’t know it.
You show up at my door. A hot, blue-eyed booty call that smells like Dutch cigarettes and temptation. A pile of confusion tumbles into my bed.
“What should I do?”
“Travel back in time and never get married.”
“Thanks. Where’s Frenchie?”
“Do you love him?”
“I love the way he thinks eating ketchup from little packets is disgusting.”
“Why do we circle each other like sharks?” you whisper.
I push up from my futon and pull on my jeans. “Because we’re sharks.”
“Imagine living two hundred million years.”
“Sounds exhausting,” Mary says.
“You’re the only person I know who is opposed to immortality.”
“Look,” she spoons apple sauce into a dish for the King of Rats. “Most people fantasize about living forever. I’m grateful if I make it to next Tuesday.”
Until it’s the past.
Then becomes the future.
Round and round in a big loop. Like time is an endless loop that always goes back to you.
So on and so forth.
A Mongol in Chinatown offers to read my fortune. Fragrant shrimp, spring rolls, larb, and sweet rice with mango fill a bag in my arms.
“How much,” I ask.
I feel like he’s some angel dropped on my path to reveal a greater truth. “Okay,” I say.
He points up a narrow wooden staircase nestled in-between two windows.
I ascend to his room at the top.
I’ve been descending for so long, I’ve forgotten what it feels like to rise.
“Is this okay?” I ask, pointing to a chair.
“There are people who want to see you happy,” he says. “People no longer in this world.”
“What world are they in?”
The room is small, a table lamp in the corner, warm, and it smells like frankincense. Little tapestries hang on the walls. Scenes of children playing in villages, Egyptian hieroglyphs, crude, bright yellow and blue.
“You are going through a difficult time. It will end soon, but it is complicated. Then, golden times will come.”
He tells me about my past, present, future. Too much to go into here.
“There is a man,” he says, “with blue eyes who you will marry.”
“What if he’s already married?”
“You will see. Find the elk.”
“Can you see my grandmother?”
“Does she call you ‘honey bunny’?”
Electric chills run the length of my entire body. “Yes.”
“Then I can see her.”
“Ask her what she did with her wedding ring. I was never able to find it.”
The Mongol is silent a moment, eyes raised to the ceiling. Finally, he lowers his eyes to meet mine. “A funeral worker stole it. It’s in a box upstairs in an apartment at 107 East Andover.”
I sit in a strange, stunned silence.
“That is all I have for you,” he says. “I’ll walk you out.”
That night, I sit in my car and tell you how I feel. I tell you because I know there is no going back. The windows are open, so I whisper. It is late autumn. I hear Mary praying. Lightning flashes in the sky. The King of Rats comes to me in a dream and says, “You may ask all the questions you want. You may ask a lifetime of questions, but you may only know the answer in the exact moment when you are ready.”
That morning when I wake from the dream, I know the answer.
Mary scoops peanut butter from the jar with a stalk of celery. “You’re suggesting what?”
“That we go and see.”
“That we break in?”
“That we figure out a way to get in.”
“I have to pray about this. Come back later.”
Asking Mary to break the law is too much. Friendship has its limits. I go alone. The building is a little run down and dark. My phone buzzes and scares the absolute crap out of me. I look at the screen. It can wait. I have to focus. There aren’t many times in life when two roads so clearly lie ahead. If the Mongol is right, then upstairs, my prize awaits. It’s right there. Simple as that. Get it, or don’t. Breaking in is the snag. I’ve never broken into anything before.
The ring won’t bring her back. That’s not the point. I walk into the building. A girl stands at the mailboxes jiggling a key.
“Hey,” I say boldly, “have you seen the guy in 107 today?”
“Frankie Nunez? Yeah, he worked last night. I think he’s upstairs sleeping.”
Frankie stole my grandmother’s ring, and now I know his name. Childish nursery rhymes fill my brain.
“Cool,” I say, turning to leave, “I’ll send him a text.”
“Right on,” comes the girls voice behind me.
And that is how easy it is. Too easy, really.
Frankie works at the funeral home, but moonlights as a DJ.
I’ve just hit the midpoint for a commercial I’ve been producing for a famous car brand. The head of marketing is extremely pleased with the product and offers to throw us a wrap party. Enter Frankie Spinz Nunez.
Here’s my thinking. If Mr. Spinz is booked for an event, then I know exactly where he’ll be, and for exactly how long.
Mary stares at me over the top of her glasses. “I’m going this time.”
“Did Jesus give me the thumbs up?” Because I’m kinda excited about that revelation.
“Let’s just say the Lord and I understand each other.”
My French Boyfriend is moody and sullen, so he doesn’t notice when I disappear for a few hours. You and I read books together in the living room. Your apartment is strangely absent of women. None drop by. No photos or phone numbers are lying anywhere, no dinging notifications.
I look up from my copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. “Why do you like me?”
Without missing a beat, you look up and say, “Because you aren’t like the others.”
“That is such a line.”
“Based on what?”
“Everything we’ve been through together.”
There is a long pause to consider the validity of such statements.
“By the way,” you say, looking back down at the page. “I hate your French boyfriend. I call him and hang up on him sometimes.”
“That’s very childish.”
“I agree. Having a French boyfriend to make me jealous is exceptionally childish.”
I am called, last minute, to finish a project. The director’s wife is having a baby. It’s the love of his life. I don’t have a life, so I’m tapped to finish the project. I work thirty-eight hours. My fellow union workers go home after eight. When I’m rendering my final cut, I go home and sleep fifteen hours. Because I can’t find my car keys, I walk to the cute little bookstore a few blocks away.
And there you are. Standing behind the counter. Stacks of John Grisham rising up like columns of ancient temples.
You look up and say, “Wow.”
And every single second of my life has added up to this moment like a Mayan calendar that points to you.
My heavenly precession.
My gateway into a secret garden.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you.
A long time since the train station.
The candlelit tables.
Jasmine-scented nights book-ended by dust floating down to tabletops.
That crazy little carriage ride in Gettysburg.
Since all the fleeting moments we made contact but didn’t connect.
Since forever and maybe and now and who knows.
The hall is dark, but Mary has a tool. Fidgeting with the lock, she manages to get the door open. “This is why you buy a deadbolt,” she says, closing the door quietly.
We search every nook, every drawer, every cushion. I cannot find the ring anywhere. I don’t even know what I’m doing. On a wild chase for closure because some guy in a room that smelled like Frankincense told me I’d find the answer. Answers aren’t that easy. I check my phone. Forty-five minutes have passed. The place isn’t that big. Mary looks at me with a pinched expression and takes a seat on his bed. She bolts upright like she sat on a tack.
“Are you okay?” I whisper.
“Raticus,” she says, flipping the mattress up. “He used to hide things in the coils of my mattress.”
“What?” I walk over quickly. Sheets slide off, and we knock a clock off the nightstand.
“Hurry,” I say, worried about the noise.
Then, like a beacon of light from another world, I see the faded turquoise velvet box, rammed up in a coil, with cash in a bandana.
“How much did you pay the Mongol?”
Mary pulls the jewelry box out, handing it over. “That was a steal.”
I stand a second, unsure. When destiny is in the palm of my hand, I waver, just a little. It’s a weird sensation, like a song I know by heart the first time I hear it. I’ve never really wanted anything, except to prove miracles exist. Not to others. Just to myself. I’ve laid awake dreaming of the moment.
“Open the box,” Mary whispers.
I do. There it is. A sapphire ring, glittering even in the moonlight.
I say a quick prayer to Raticus, and we descend back down the stairwell. I drive straight to your place.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers blare from the speakers as we cross the Continental Divide.
I don’t know what to say, but I turn the radio down and say it anyway. “We’re not supposed to worry about what everyone thinks and chase imaginary things into dark places that don’t even exist. We’re supposed to take it easy, and drive all night, and love rats, and drink espresso in the middle of the night because we’re hopeless and fucked up and totally perfect.”
“What brought this on?”
“You. And that turn back there.”
Exhausted, I turn into the parking lot of the Elk Inn at the Montana border. I fall into the bed and fall into your arms. “When we get married,” I say, “I’m going to lean forward and flip off the camera like Johnny Cash.”
I pull my grandmother’s ring out of my pocket. I’ve been carrying it for days.
“Will you?” I say.
“Will I what?”
I dangle from the threads of my own existence. The moment moves down through the limbs of my body. I look up into your startling blue eyes, and I know this is the moment. This is where I ask or walk away. “Will you marry me?”
“Yes,” you say.
Our kiss is like a song. Like a human heart speeding up when the body is aroused. Rhythm. The moment when two things merge perfectly. We blend. We mix. In a world of downloads, we become a vinyl disk and spin under the electric laser light of a Milky Way swirling to the edge of the universe. Outside, a paper moon rises. In the deep night of winter, I lay awake, listening to the silence of a chilled landscape. I’ve been a lot of different people, but I’ve never been any of them. Until now.
We are in the middle of nowhere. The walls are forest green and there is a maroon border. Plaid squares on the carpet. I listen to the silence. I listen to the sky. I think about canned potatoes, Chinese noodles, refried beans and lentils, tiny lamps shaped like pigs, cracked mirrors, old perfume bottles with crusty golden liquid around the edges.
Twirls of smoke rise from the unfiltered cigarette in the ashtray. I wait for the twirls to form words or shapes, twist into an arrow, point the way. Thunder rolls across the landscape and you wake from sleep, one arm slung over the edge of the bed. You look like Morrison and Adonis and Marc Anthony, all rolled into one. I like the way you call me baby even though the windows of your soul are dirty, streaked with the fingerprints of flawed gods, whisky rhyming men full of swagger. With this, I drift off and dream about the last days of winter, about this new life I flirted with from a distance, back when all of my days were nights. I drift off thinking about how I would have never guessed any of this, and yet you guessed it all.
Lis Anna-Langston was raised along the winding current of the Mississippi River on a steady diet of dog-eared books. She is a Parents’ Choice Gold and a Moonbeam Book Award winner. Twice nominated for the Pushcart award, her work has been published in The Merrimack Review, Emrys Journal, The MacGuffin, Sand Hill Review and dozens of other literary journals. She draws badly, sings loudly, loves ketchup, starry skies and stories with happy endings, aliens. Her new book hits shelves in October 2020. You can learn more about her at www.lisannalangston.com
read next: Robert Farnsworth, “Dog Ears“
“all of my days were nights” appeared in TLR: Contents May Shift (Summer, 2020)