To Carry a Stone
I miss the smell of her hair. Greasy and warm, archaic, like something discovered, smelling of dirt or bones or first love. Her hair is like silk, satin, some smooth ribbon, soft and gentle as it falls from behind her ear. She tucks it back again, and what I would do to tuck it for her. To feel it slip behind her ear, hold my palm against her neck, and smile as she lifts her eyes. It’s late summer of 2016 and I’m thirty-one years old. I haven’t drunk a drop or done drugs in over two years. It’s not bad really.
I left Amanda or lost her, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. But I got my driver’s license back and I got this room and I’m going to school again in the fall. I’m really trying to do my best, I’m trying to do things different.
My room is in the basement of an old building just off campus in Oshkosh. Built in the style of Spanish Renaissance, it’s made from old stones and light-colored mostly tan brick. It is three stories tall and has apartments that run from six to eight-hundred dollars. That’s more than I can afford but the ad I saw said, “Ask us about our sleeping rooms.” So I did—three hundred for a big room with a rug in the middle and a fridge, a bed, a dresser, couch, chair, table, more chairs. I lost a lot of things on the way to sobriety, so here I am, plus a desk and a hot plate and a bookcase and I think it’s a pretty good deal.
There’s a slick, rich floor underneath the rug, some fancy cement from Italy full of chips and colors. Two of the walls are just plaster, and on the other side of one is this lady who’s always in bed. It’s right against the wall and I can hear her there, all the time, and I can’t help but wonder if this has always been her life.
There’s a toilet and a shower in the hallway, and a slop-sink down in the laundry room where I can wash my plate and my cup and my pan. That’s all fine with me except that I have to go by this other lady’s room to get there. Her name is Kim. She stands behind her door and swears at me or about me as if she were talking to someone else.
“That goddamn kid, in and out, Jesus Christ. What the fuck,” she says.
I guess she’s used to Debbie who hardly goes out in the hallway. When she does and I see her there, not in her bed but standing up, wide-eyed like she’s looking real hard at something behind me. She’s friendly.
“Hi Debbie,” I say.
“Hey,” she says. And then her eyes kind of bug out and she smiles so her teeth show.
But Kim’s not like that at all, she hurries to get back in her room and I never get the chance to try to be nice. I don’t want to live here anymore so I put in a notice and I got a different apartment that I move to next month. In the meantime, I’m going west with some buddies and we leave tomorrow morning so I guess Kim will always think I’m bad.
Four crows are on a telephone pole as we head to the border of the state. The clouds are layered like an oil painting, blue to white and back again. A silo stands up against the fields and sometimes it seems that if I blink or sneeze this could all crack apart, like a wooden frame falling to the floor. The paint-crusted canvas would be left flapping stiffly in the breeze. I think about the smell of her hair again, and the feel of it under my nose as I kiss her forehead and her freckles burn beneath my lips.
A little stream runs under the highway like a bead of sweat down her back. It’s easy to miss. The pine trees are lined up and skinny to the top. I anticipate that the waterways will widen as we go west and maybe some magic will be revealed. As we get toward the Mississippi, the scrappy bushes turn to thick ferns and the trees fill out but when we finally cross the river, I see that it’s just a bunch of water.
When it’s my turn to drive, everyone goes to sleep and I’m left with nothing but thoughts. It’s after midnight, it has been storming for hours, and there’s construction on the road. We rented a car that is big and fast and heavy—it’s nothing like my loose old minivan at home. It makes me nervous, and so do the rivers of rain around me, running through the ditches. The traffic barrels and cut up concrete that narrow the lane make me nervous too. Lightning flashes, now so far in the distance of the night that it lights up stretches of fields farther than I thought I could see.
I try to remember the last time I saw her. I think it was in the doorway of her grandmother’s house after she left rehab. We didn’t know what to say so we stared at each other. And then I held her, my hand against the thin cotton of that yellow dress, sweat sticking it to the small of her back, fitting her to me.
When the sun comes up, I see that things have changed. Hills are all around me, small bumps on the horizon turn into large rocks and plateaus. Sometimes I see these dead trees, black and broken. I can’t look away and when the car hits the shoulder of the road again, my friend wakes up to find me steering with my knee and hanging out the window, trying to take pictures.
On the far side of the state, we stop and camp near a great wide river. It’s shallow and I walk into it, my pants pulled up to my calves. I find a flat stone under the surface, smooth and soft like the palm of her hand. It calls out to me and I pluck it from the water and put it in my pocket, like a little secret. I fish a dollar from my pants and leave it at the bottom of the river under a larger rock. An offering to something, an exchange maybe.
In the morning we find out that Brandon lost his wallet sometime last night. He thinks it was when we stopped for firewood. Everything about this trip depends on his credit cards. Brandon calls the local sheriff and I roll my eyes. The chances of someone finding and returning his wallet seem one in a million. It’s unlikely that we’ll find it either, but we look anyway and discover a twenty dollar bill in the grass near the on-ramp. Taking this as a sign, we spend hours walking up and down the highway, him on one side, me on the other. I keep going across the bridge, hundreds of feet above the river we camped next to. I can see the rocks in the shallow water, they look like grains of sand so far below me now. I don’t want to do this anymore. They look so soft. I take off my hat and hold it over my face and breathe in, deeply. Just the smell of hair makes me think of her. Brandon comes running up the highway, his cellphone in his hand. The sheriff called. Someone found his wallet. One in a million.
I’m happy to be in the back seat again. The mountains are incredible and it feels like the earth has opened up. Every road is the edge of a plate, on the edge of a table, and I can’t tell if my hands are shaking or just my heart. We won’t be here long. I remember now, the last time I saw her. We were naked together, on the couch in her new apartment. She was lying on top of me and we were sweaty and sad to see each other again. Then, standing in the doorway, was the man she left me for.
“What the fuck is this,” he said.
I got up and scurried into the bathroom. I must have taken my clothes because I don’t remember worrying about that, just putting them on monotonously, like I’d done this before. I had done this before, been naked alone in someone else’s house, hiding, while she tried to explain it all away while her lives intersected. Standing alone, embarrassed, frightened, thinking. Thinking now what? I went into the living room and I stood between them. He was still in the doorway, blocking me.
“I don’t suppose it would make me feel any better to hit you?” he said.
I thought about that, thought about my answer. “I don’t know,” I said. “That’s up to you.”
We’re staying in a hotel that was built in the ‘70s and the gal at the front desk acts like that was a long time ago. I think this is the best bed I’ve ever slept in and I don’t want to leave it. The sheets are thick and cool, the comforter calm and heavy. They lay over me like darkness and I feel so safe. Before we left on this trip, I met someone new. When I get back home, I’m going to go out with her because I’ve decided to open up. I can talk myself into anything. We have a lot in common, but she’s much younger than me and quietly hopeful. Maybe she’s got a past too. Maybe we’ve all got stones in our pockets.