When James calls and asks, “Would you like to take a drive to the Mississippi River?” I say yes. Mississippi sounds like I miss you mumbled around a mouth and I’ve never seen the river.
James says, “It’s beautiful like Louisiana.”
So what if neither of us have been to Louisiana? We’d both like to go.
On Saturday, I get up early, make my bed. I like the tight edges, the way you have to pull to get back in. Everything clean-cornered.
I miss hearing the sound of feet in another room. Now there’s just a drop of water cascading into the bathroom sink, followed by another, another.
I pray for a flood, hold my breath.
James believes in taking drives like colonics, quiet and regular. Once, he drove all the way from Chicago to the Arctic Ocean because a woman he met on the internet said she’d always wanted to go. It sounded good to James, going that far.
But when he asked her to come, she said no. So he followed the only road in North America that would reach all the way. He drove alone to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.
Arriving at the tundra’s edge, the ugly landscape looked like a pile of dirty socks, scratchy and worn in places. The wind did nothing but sweep across the land, cut against the car where James sat, idling. He said he felt like leaving right away, but having come so far on that woman’s dream, he decided to stay.
Except there were no rooms in town under $200. No one actually lived there; everyone stayed in hotels, temporary rooms. So James took it in: the pulp-gray water, shitty outbuildings, the oil-hard men. Then, nosing the car around, he turned and drove all night back to the interior.
Six weeks ago, waiting for the bus, I watched a group of finches swoop to the street, then flutter back up. The birds hovered, dropping in and out of my line of my sight as they touched down, then scattered, only to touch down again. After the first few cycles of the light—green, yellow, red—I saw their pattern. The second the light turned, they’d drop to the street. On the ground, they’d hunch together; the group of them clustered, wings like a set of black fingered gloves. When the light changed, they’d fling themselves back into the sky.
I watched their rhythm: circle, drop, rise. A pattern is a repeating thing, a measuring out like a drop on the end of a stick: a spreading, a circling. I decided that no matter what he’d say, I’d call these birds a talisman. My hover to their drop down, then their flying away to my emptying out.
James picks me up on the corner near my house. We drive for awhile.
On the edge of the city he says, “How have you been?”
Up until now, we’ve both been quiet. We like to lean into the drive this way. Like novitiates, we wait to hear the bells that signal a change of motion, our devotion shifting at the sound.
“I’ve been ok,” I say.
James nods as if he knows what I mean. “There’s a lot of dust when something ends,” he says.
I spend my time after work taking care of my neighbor’s husband. I’m sitting and watching him while he grows back into a baby, forgetting everything he ever knew. The first time I sat with him, my neighbor, his wife, told me one day she knows he’ll forget how to breathe.
Later when she’d gone and it was just me and him, I tried holding my breath, thinking how to take the next. Do you open your mouth first or pull in at your nose? Does the small movement at the back of the throat start the opening out to air?
The man who left said he didn’t know if he could love me. He told me to stop seeing signs where there was nothing. He said he had doubts.
But, I see signs everywhere.
When I go over to my neighbor’s apartment, her husband stays in the next room, tucked into his hospital bed. I’m only there in case of emergency.
As the sun sets, the apartment gets darker and darker. Rooms turn blue. It reminds me of the bottom of a pool.
When I was a kid, I used to dive down and see how long I could stay underwater, holding my breath. Resting on the concrete, I’d look up to the surface and watch the sunlight sparking white when it hit the water.
In my neighbor’s apartment, when the light goes blue, I get caught up again like that, he and I together, holding our breath.
“Let’s pull off up here. I want to show you something,” James says.
We exit into open fields: soybeans, sorghum, corn. Drive straight through the land until the road curves into a town. The houses have the abandoned look you’d expect from a place in the middle of nowhere. They aren’t empty, but the paint is faded and the yards are worn down to dirt. There are cars in the driveways and children’s toys scattered in yards. It’s clear people live in these houses. Still, the whole town seems to sag.
We pull up to a house on the corner.
“I bought this place,” James says.
I have always wanted to be a person who lives alone in a town where I’m not known, in a state where I have no friends, no family. I have thought that this solitude was what is meant by the word independent: to walk down streets and buy your groceries in stores where the faces are not familiar. To feel your body singular in the sheets, to expand to each edge just to keep yourself company. To speak only to yourself.
In that place, the world would be without movement: no coming, no going. I imagine there would be some comfort in living inside the static on the line.
The house James bought is more than run-down. It’s an old mansion that’s been turned into a boarding house, floors divided up into rooms. The grand ceilings cut into pieces.
James shuffles forward through the front door, flips a switch. The front hall lights up in disrepair. There’s black and white tile, but it’s been cracked and pulled apart. A set of stairs go up to the second floor. I can tell they used to be carpeted, but someone pulled up the rug long ago. Sticky residue lines each step.
“I’ve been living here for a few weeks,” James says.
I pause. “You didn’t tell me,” I say.
He leads me back into the kitchen. The room is huge and the appliances old, vintage round edges. The air is cold, still, like the bottom of a well.
He shrugs. “You didn’t call.”
I wish I could take all my memories and put them in the head of my neighbor’s husband. Fill the gaps in his brain with myself. Then he could tell my life back to me. I’d sit at his bedside and he’d tell me stories about the things I’d done. We’d laugh at my mistakes.
It would be like being underwater, shuttered, sound-proof. My life lived at a distance, the laugh-track like a finger underlining the words in a book. Me, just following along.
But when I mute the TV at night, we can’t speak. He and I can only keep company with the sound of his breathing. The steady march of it. He hasn’t forgotten yet.
There is no heat in James’s house. The basement is held up by a set of jacks, giant industrial arms. The backyard slopes down to a stream. In the yard, rainwater collects in pools that turn the grass a murky brown.
James is living in one room, his bed on the floor. He says, “The only station that comes in here is PBS.” I imagine him falling asleep each night to a show about a different place, a different era. The narrative of history like a blanket of other lives he pulls over him.
“Aren’t you lonely here?” I ask.
James looks at me, looks away. “No, I like the quiet.”
Can anyone really believe him?
A few days ago, reading a book I had picked up from the shelf, I started to fold down the corner of a page, but I found it had already been turned down. I would have thought a ghost responsible, but I knew I bent those corners myself. I forgot I’d read the book when I was young.
Turning the pages, I was still myself even after all that space and time. I realized I had followed my own path from the past into the future.
If I had known I was predicting my own life with those bent corners, I would have paid more attention. I can say now: I have met myself both coming and going. Each action now unfurls into the past through a bent corner, a lesson opened in hindsight. A sign.
When we pull away from the house, James turns to me, “If you want, you could stay here. There’s plenty of room.” His eyes meet mine.
I try to picture us sitting in the dark of that oversized house. I think of us saying “Hello?” The only answer: the insect saw of floorboards. I try to picture our bodies keeping warm on the second floor, the TV blaring in the background, rhythmic march of voices, cat-call of cicadas.
When I look away, James stares out the window at the road. Tepid air blows from the heater onto my hands.
“Think about it,” he says.
When he was at the edge of the Arctic, James told me he felt so little he thought he might have died without knowing it.
“I thought maybe I only dreamed I’d reached the coast,” he explained.
At the pier he sat in his car, looking out at the oil rigs in the harbor, their crusty, white lights. He told me, “In that moment, I wanted to hold hands with someone more than I ever have.”
When he told me this, I thought of my neighbor’s husband. His bed like the Arctic Ocean, old memories worked down into the icy folds. If I held his hand, what would happen?
Our palms warming, the click of his breath, a drop of water.
After awhile, James and I come to the Mississippi. At first, it’s hard to notice. It creeps up on the side of the car and I think it’s just another tributary, until I see how the river is getting wider, the current stronger.
James turns the car into a pullout. “Come on, we can go down the bank. You can feel how cold the water is,” he says.
We crawl over the rocks to the edge of the water. “Put your hands in,” James says. He smiles, but I can’t see his teeth.
The one who left me would say that I have become a caricature of myself. That I see what isn’t there. That I pose according to fantasy. But I would tell him I burn like ice left too long on the skin.
I lean over and put my fingertips in the water. James watches. The river’s not yet frozen, but the cold permeates my skin, spreading up to my wrists, a cold ache.
“You should come live with me, you know?” James says quietly. “What do we have to lose?”
I want to turn around and lift my hands to his face, to put the blue on him and watch him flare to red. But, I know the gesture would be false.
Everything at the Mississippi is blue: the water, the sky, my fingertips. Even James is breathing blue, a steady rhythm of air moving in, moving out across the water.
I have seen the old forget that they were young and the young never know they will grow old. I have heard the rattle of a last breath, felt the ice of the Arctic encircle me. Until now, I have given in to the cold of it.
James and I lean into the Mississippi, a glimmer on the surface. We can't forget to breathe.
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