July 6, 2015 | ,

Sweet Virginia

"Overlooking the Columbia River at Corbett, near the Cascade Locks on the Lewis and Clark Trail 05/1973" by David Falconer

It seems to me that much of my life can be reiterated with a few sentiments and phrases. There have not been many extraordinary circumstances—the only exception being a short two years that meant to me everything life could be.

One day, I was born and given the name Lucy. I was raised in my parents’ house in Sutton, West Virginia. I grew up playing with pink-tulle dolls in rooms of ivory curtains that framed small windows, and one day, I read from bright painted books and then I read chapters from precious novels and then I read about the history and birth of nations. I made a dear friend who was born Clarissa. As a young girl, she was timid and desperately polite indoors, but when we were outside, she’d run about unreserved. There’s an image in my head: the two of us out in the street and the sun setting and the road could have ran through it—Clarissa kept running. I called to her, and she kept running into the orange blaze of the sky straight into the sun. My mother said she would grow up to be the sweetheart of the town, but of course, that’s not how she and I grew up, now was it?

In high school, my homeroom teacher was the track coach who drank frothy protein-shakes from plastic Gatorade bottles. It was rumored he was sleeping with a senior, Tiffany Ames. Even if it was true, she was eighteen, so it didn’t matter much. Dreamed-to-be-debutantes amongst my peers chittered about pink champagne and boys. The girls pulled at their shirts around their pouting bellies and crossed-to-uncross their legs uncomfortably in class. They stood in clusters around the closed campus of browning grass leaning over text messages while I sat quietly and tried to decipher anomalous pages of the New York Times art section. Clarissa would sit next to me eating a bruised red apple in her ripped jeans while writing out dense prose in her journal.

In the classroom, politics and history became the same subject. At night, my father watched the news. In a small square screen, well-staged suits argued. The longer I watched, the more I imagined the screen on the television shrinking as their heads ballooned to the black edges. My father sat in his armchair with sinking cushions, and the worst he did was grumble, nothing to be done.

Every Sunday, I walked with my mother to church. While we sat in the pews, the heat rose up towards the rafters and steeple, and I’d tug at my pant legs tightening with sweat as my knees knocked the wooden pew in front. Evenings when my mother felt she could not cook because of her lightheadedness, I prepared dinner and brought it up to her room. I sat at the edge of her bed balancing a plate on my thigh and smiled at her while she talked. My mother had beautiful green eyes and a pale complexion. Leaning back against her pillows, she asked about my day: Clementine, she said, have another serving, your legs are too thin. I shook my head and placed the food on her plate.

Clarissa and I read Rolling Stone in her attic with a flashlight or sitting on the bench behind the gas station. Clarissa’s parents didn’t permit the magazine in their home. We grew out our nails, and I made Clarissa buy bright pink polishes from the Dollar General. In surrounding towns, we tested our fake IDs and drank PBRs in friends’ basements. From his chair, my father raised his eyebrows. One evening, he watched an investigation about Purity Balls. I looked up from my seat on the living room carpet, sitting cross-legged, to see my father watching me. So, he said, is that what I should have done with you?

It was nighttime when the moon was bright in the sky, and the rhythmic, wild sound of the summer peepers wafted through the open window of Clarissa’s bathroom. In the hot air, Clarissa lifted a pair of tarnished silver scissors to my hair. As brown wisps floated in front of my face, I looked up at the tiny yellow crucifix that hung next to the mirror, and I wondered when sacrifice would end.

The next morning, Clarissa stood in front of her parents with her arms crossed and hip reclined to the side. She lifted her cigarette to her lips, inhaled and exhaled slowly. The grey smokiness floated in front of her face as her mother pointed an accusing finger. I stood in the doorway watching. Her father looked at me from across the room.

It reminded me of the time Clarissa and I were eight and her mother screamed at us for cutting the roses in her garden, even though we had the intent of wearing them as woven crowns. How can you be pure and good if you do such terrible things? she yelled, knocking the roses off the table with a vicious fist. Petals and thorns scattered and curled across the icy linoleum. I looked down at my bare feet and wiggled my toes. For a moment, the only sound was her mother’s flat nails tapping the table.

After leaving Clarissa in the living room with her parents, I went home for dinner, and I held my mother’s hand while we bowed our heads. I looked up and smiled at her over the barbequed chicken and cucumber-dill salad. I squeezed her hand tenderly, and I told her that I would always love her. She smiled at me and her head dropped down a little while she took a bite from her modest plate, and I recognized that there was acceptance in her nod.

I went upstairs to my bedroom and threw a few items into a duffel bag. I didn’t sleep much that night, and I watched through my window as the shadows melted slowly into the pastels of dim dawn. I must have nodded off because I awoke early to the soft sound of Clarissa’s idling engine in front of my house.

I gathered my things. I knew, in the room next to mine, my mother slept in white blankets wrapped like a small child with my father next to her. As I stepped out of my room into the hallway, I could have slowly cracked her door—peered inside and seen her safe in the shade with the curtains drawn. I thought for a moment I could pick her up, wrapped in those blankets, and carry her with me. Yet, I didn’t.

I walked down the stairs with light feet and out the door with my single bag. As I crossed my yard, the heel of my foot flattened the spring grass. I did not turn around to look at my home as I threw my bag in the trunk. I refused to pause when I climbed into the front seat even though I longed to see my mother’s eyes watching from the window.

Clarissa didn’t speak as she drove slowly down the empty roads and past the run-down homes of our town. I watched the houses and the trees as they began to break away to give us sky. Climbing the highway’s onramp, Clarissa hit the gas pedal and the car was enveloped in speed, a yahoo riveted from our vocals. When the sky did come, it opened up like a rupture of space; it curled like the globe of the world in clear blue and towering white clouds. Wind billowed in my ears, and a flood swept up the world behind me as the car accelerated forward—

In the front seat of the car, I sat amongst torn maps with Post-Its, scratched notes, and neon highlights that connected and split like veins. Maps once looked over, forgotten, and saved for years in planning. In the back seat sat brown bags of groceries. A bag of peanuts dropped against a bottle of whiskey and Clarissa’s journal.

We talked excitedly about the plans we now began to pursue. No one, we said, had courage like us. No one had the love of life we held, and when we returned, if we wished to return, they would all be awed by the way we had lived. For that is what we searched for—a new way to live.

California. It was almost like a chant the way the word fell from Clarissa’s lips. Her cousin lived in an apartment in Los Angeles where we could stay. I could get in-state tuition at the state university after a year. I nodded excitedly as we watched the clouds of Virginia float away. There was no rush. We could cross the whole country back and forth, up and down, before we needed to get there—this country we loved but had seen so little of.

When Clarissa was tired of driving, I eagerly switched. Dusk came heavy over the hills when we passed the Virginia state line, and it dawned upon us: we had traveled further than we’d ever been. Clarissa leaned forward in the passenger-seat as we sped past a flash of bright blue sign, Kentucky: The Bluegrass State. She scrambled through the grocery bags in the backseat and pulled out an emerald green champagne bottle. I don’t see no bluegrass! She laughed and nudged me with her elbow. She ignited the car with sparkly spritz of the sweet drink.

I had marked all the state parks on our maps, and by nighttime, we decided to rest there. To our relief, the parking lot was empty. We sat on the trunk of the car drinking the champagne and eating our cheese sticks before they went bad in the heat. Clarissa sat in the car and wrote furiously in her red leather book with a flashlight while I felt the breeze and the silence lying on top of the car’s hood.

I did not sleep well that night. Before that night, I had never realized how empty, obscure, darkness could be. At six A.M., a police officer tapped at our window. Disgruntled, I argued and then sobbed while Clarissa rubbed my back. The officer took pity on us. He checked our IDs. When he knew we were over eighteen, he gave us twelve dollars and pointed us in the direction of town. I thanked him repeatedly while Clarissa turned on the engine and drove away.

The sun had fully risen by the time we reached the gas station. In the parking lot, we counted our cash. We filled the car with gas and ran over to a diner with the cop’s money. We ate eagerly the little food we managed to afford and drank bottomless cups of coffee. An hour down the road, we pulled off into the woods and promised each other never to drink that much coffee again.

I counted the towns: Dalby, Flanders, Independence, and Sharon; Granite, Wyoming; and Cane, Arizona. Then it didn’t matter. The whole country melted into one. At first, our course was determined and structured. But then our routes began to slip. Maps were accidently picked up with car-trash. Hours of open roads and changing weather melted time into an imitation of a dream.

We met lonely men, generous bus drivers, petrified college students, disgruntled lawyers, and abandoned parents whose children left long before us. These pairs were more willing to feed us, house us, let us wash dirt from our skin in warm showers, and then slip twenties in our hands. Please, they would say, take the money for gas or food, get where you need to go and stay there.

We didn’t obey them—not yet. We met girls our age that envied our audacity. You just left? They would stare at us with wonder. Life can be how you want it to be, Clarissa would whisper hoarsely to them in dim bars. It’s the great American secret. We met boys our age, some who applauded our initiative and others who thought they could take advantage of our vivacity. Two months in, I insisted on spending three days with an old woman named Mallory, whose son had left her alone in an RV with her Jack Russell, Bingo. A Philadelphian businessman bought us dinner and said, Money is power, and—he tossed the plastic toothpick from his drink onto the restaurant’s floor—and, freedom is a lie. He then raised his eyebrows and smiled devilishly at us, Now you two look like pop stars.

One week, we stayed with a housewife on her lake house near Chicago. My husband is out on business, she told us while wiping oatmeal from her daughter’s face with a wet cloth. She smiled knowingly at us: You two understand the power of blue eyes. She served us Diet Coke with endless ice on her patio. She was tall and had blonde hair. She spent the afternoon rolling on molly, and we left because she had a gun collection in her basement. Before we drove away, she tried to put her daughter in our backseat.

Sleep was a restless chore. Cops would often wake us by knocking on the window. They scolded us for being stupid and alone. We slept in yellow-lit laundromats while our few possessions twirled and banged in clunky machines. There were times when no showers or hospitality were offered. We were tempted to follow men to motel rooms for running water. Strangers tapped at our car windows while we slept in deserted parking lots of scattered shopping carts. Some nights I awoke to the sound of clicking and fiddling at the locked door handle. Eventually, we kept the keys in the ignition.

The best nights had warm weather and clear skies—when the stars announced the dark sky with shimmer and gold, and I promise you this: I could not have been more in sight of heaven than on these nights of uninterrupted sky. There are wilderness coasts in Maine and giant sequoias in the West. Cathedral Mountain rises from the valley, and snow melts away towards the humid South. These vistas of the land, the mountain peaks, the flatlands, the rolling hills, and the wheat-grass—they were what reminded me of beauty again. Those moments recalled something larger at work in this world, and I did not know what it was, but I felt it again.

Our money would all but vanish. There were other ways we’d survive by meager means: I would get a waitress job and quit after two weeks; we could wash in public restrooms; collect bottles and returns; couch-hop. Really, the car gave us the sanctuary we needed. It was so strange to me that our vehicle of freedom was also an anchor to rest our minds. I often speculated if other such real-life places existed in the world. I wondered if I had to hunt for them, but as our trip grew weary, I wondered if you could create them.

While I saw a great many moving vistas, mountains of grandeur, lakes of eternal glass—my heart resonated with another kind of landscape. Stretches of empty land of brown dirt and homes with collapsed roofs so that the rafters stuck out like broken bones. I saw the smog of cities as it blurred away the sight of the sky. I walked cautiously on the earth around the hydrofracking site, where I heard hidden-cracking beneath my feet. The small-town diner lit at night with one illuminating light in the reflecting sheen of the rain. Golden arches curved across the land and haloed every gas station. I heard the bare trees shiver above me as I stood overlooking the glass grey lake of New Hampshire the morning before we drove south for heat. The morning fog lay above the darkness of the water.

On occasion, we went into bars for an evening, and I devoured the liquor with dehydrated eyes. I would fall asleep in the front seat of the car while Clarissa managed to pay for our drinks and food. Strange men would try to pick me up. Many times, Clarissa pulled me away. She would grab my wrist and whisper angrily, You can’t trust everyone, okay? When she did so successfully, I would rush to the bathroom in a state of chaos and lock the stall. In angry scrawl, I would frequently write: Death to the name Lucy—all that is virtue. I threw up all over my white dress that my mother had sewn with lace along the neckline.

Some nights, Clarissa sat alone on the hood of the car drinking whiskey, and I did not dare disturb her. One evening on the edge of northern Texas, I shut myself away in a library for some peace. Hours passed without hearing from Clarissa. I began searching all over the town. People did not greet me kindly as a stranger, and because they knew of my foreignness, they knew I searched for Clarissa. I was eventually pointed to the police station, and after a few hours, I managed to get her out. She got into a fight at the bar of a steakhouse. Clarissa was the instigator, they told me, and she started throwing her fists at a woman. The sheriff pulled me aside and said, I suggest you leave this area.

Instigator? Clarissa cried to me with fat, frustrated tears. That other woman waved a knife at me, we had a difference of opinion, and she pulled a knife.

What was the difference? I asked.

Clarissa did not answer.

What was the difference? I demanded.

Something about abortion. And she turned her head towards the window.

That night, I pulled out my hidden envelope of cash and bought us a motel room in New Mexico. After taking a long shower for her nerves, Clarissa wrapped the bottom of her wet hair with a coarse towel while I rolled myself into the motel’s white bedding. She looked at me without any expression and said, You know, I once believed this country was for everyone. We slept for a whole day at the motel. At an adjacent restaurant, we bribed the cooks with cigarettes and blue eyes to give us the leftover food.

In Seattle, I hopped around the street collecting change while Clarissa read poetry from her journal. An old man came up to us and spat at our feet. Look at the youth of our world, he grumbled while his slouching shoulders walked away. In the soft rain of Seattle, I split a tuna fish sandwich with Clarissa, and we ate it off a Time magazine. Smeared in yellowing mayonnaise, the heading read: Is the American Dream Dead? When we finished reading, I dropped the magazine in the trash.

In Melby, Minnesota, the car sputtered and then coughed black smoke. A car-mechanic named Jeffery fixed it and then bought us dinner after Clarissa half-jokingly offered to pay him in song. I ate two cheeseburgers and almost fell asleep at the table. He told us how he had paid himself through two years of community college just so he could learn how to properly paint a landscape in oil. He must have felt sympathetic for us because he offered to let us use his home for the night. He gave us the key and stayed at a friend’s so that we would feel comfortable. The first time I laid my head on his pillow, I sighed and felt a soothing, distant relief.

I stayed with Jeffery, and every day, Clarissa picked up the car keys and shook them in my face. Eventually, I no longer heard their sound. I thought I could be happy in his small house away from town—perhaps not gloriously, but simply. It was a small one-story house in a quiet wooded place. We landed there during the summer, and when we first arrived, the three of us would sit on his porch drinking and listening to the Stones on an old record player. When Clarissa went to bed, Jeffery and I sat outside talking the length of the night. I would wake up in the morning with slight dew on my face and my head on his shoulder. The record spun in silence.

Two weeks into our stay, he looked at me and said, I think I love you now, Lucy. The next day, Clarissa left. She was gone with the car. I sobbed in Jeffery’s arms, and he didn’t know how to console me. He looked at me nervously when we sat at his kitchen table, and I hardly touched the food. It was getting cold outside, and I knew I needed to be somewhere warmer. I could no longer sit outside at night in my short sleeves to watch the stars. I’m missing it, I would cry to him. That’s the problem, because it’s not just me, but both of us, both of us are missing it.

Six weeks later, on an early Sunday morning, I stood in Jeffery’s kitchen overcome by insomnia. I cleaned the kitchen once, then twice; and on the third, I heard Clarissa’s car roll down the hill. I ran out to the car while I thought Jeffery slept. This time, I stopped at the passenger door to look back. I saw him standing in the doorway, his hand resting on the metal frame. I had to look this time because it would have been unjust to leave without the weight of that memory. Before leaving the kitchen, I had placed two hundred dollars in my pocket from the cookie jar where Jeffery hid his cash. Clarissa sped out of the state that day with the snow chasing us out. Its heavy wetness covered the car tracks behind us, as if to cover the shame of our sins.

The road is long. It stretches out before you like a curving wire, like a running fence. Was it Arizona or California? It must have been deep in the West. Our money was gone, but this time it was all gone. Jeffery’s cash had gotten us to this point, but we were greedy. All we had left was a bag of peanuts, and I cracked their salted bodies and dropped the hollow shells on the floor of the car. Clarissa drove unsteadily. I need to nap, she said. We pulled over on the side of the road around two P.M., but I could not rest. My mind existed like a tight wire. Sitting in the front of the car, between Clarissa and I, was her brilliant red journal like a desert flower. Its covers wrapped like petals around a fragile, cool center. I realized I had never read a single page. While Clarissa slept, I carefully lifted the journal, broke the petals:

The road never raised me, but it is where I grew into life. If the horizon is heaven, then we must compromise with a suitable place to rest. Until our day comes—for the road is no place fo—. (12/13)

Morning; There’s light in the sky.

All I wanted was to get far away and see the world. I wanted the light to fly across the car window, and the wind to sweep across the crystalline sky. I wanted pure, white peaks, and deep purple hills against dissolving skies of color, and I wanted to see the shadows of swift clouds move across open plains. All I wanted was my mind to be free. (7/4)

As the words went on, the script became tighter, sideways, as if coming together as a blue blur. I shut the journal, placed it between us, and closed my eyes.

Even with the windows down, the car was unbearable with heat. We kept moving. I was frightened when Clarissa said to me with tightened teeth: Lucy, the car is almost on empty. We passed a solitary Air Stream, abandoned and burnt out. I held tightly to the wheel as we drove a flat solitary road in the desert. The land stretched out and turned grey as the turquoise sky dimmed into darkness.

We stopped at the first gas station we saw. It was adjacent to a bar built of dark wood, and a phone booth sat out front by the door. It was almost completely dark now. We parked here, and I walked over to the payphone. Clarissa searched the trunk for stray dollars. When I opened the glass phone booth, the door made a scratching sound like grating guitars, and a flood of hot air swelled outward. I picked up the black phone. I stood there silently holding the phone and staring at the numbers. My feet were tired. I had forgotten my mother’s phone number.

Clarissa and I walked into the bar. Inside was dimly lit. To our left was a long wooden bar, and to our right clusters of people leaned in close over their bottleneck drinks. We sat down. An old man with a sun-spotted face and wispy hair came over. Two whiskey sours, Clarissa said. Hanging above the bar was a framed map of the west coast. Squinting my eyes, I read Los Angeles next to a black, flat star. Huh, I said. Not long after our drinks were set in front of us, two men came up. What are you two drinking? they asked. The one closest to me had a flat nose and dark mustache.

I couldn’t say how much later, but I stood in the middle of the room’s open floor with his hands set at my waist and the lights turned blue. The walls and ceiling turned around me as if on a pinwheel. Singing blues has been getting old. The room was smoky or he had a smoky smell. I closed my eyes, and my head swayed like the hull of a heavy ship. I looked up and Clarissa was gone. My stomach turned. Where are you from? The man whispered deeply into my ear. And I didn’t know. I shoved his hand away and walked outside into the open air.

Photo: “Overlooking the Columbia River at Corbett, near the Cascade Locks on the Lewis and Clark Trail 05/1973” by David Falconer

Zinnia Smith is a writer and painter. She received her BA from St. Lawrence University and her MFA from Stony Brook University. She interned at Yankee Magazine and has received the Clayton V. Fowler Art History Writing Award for multiple art-historical essays. Her work has been published in the Southhampton Review, Slab, East, and Peach …

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