The sky is just about the only thing that’s worth looking at here. It’s the only thing that changes in the hours, days of interstate. I have never been fond of road trips. I only ever have movement sickness in cars. The immobility and the shape of the seat clashing against my spine induces dull aches in my stomach and twinges behind my eyes.
I watch the patterns sketched by the raindrops striking the windshield, scurrying for a short moment on the glass before being caught by the windshield wipers. A passing sign tells me that I am crossing the Missouri River, but I only see darkness beyond the silver steel bridge. The rain sounds like gunfire now, and the dark sky in an instant turns bone-white with the lightning.
It’s impossible to sleep, so I pry open my laptop in another attempt to do some work. The small print and the bright screen don’t help with the headache.
I have been living scared since I screwed myself over at the end of my junior year. I don’t know what to tell colleges. I can’t explain my new sad GPA away. God, I used to be so ambitious. The essay is one of the only things I have left. But writing about my own life scares me.
His hand slides onto the armrest of my seat, into the white light thrown from my laptop screen. I cave. My right hand leaves the keyboard to meet his. He traces my wrist, my palm, my fingertips before our fingers interlock.
I begin to believe again. That I can pass myself off as a student who’s complicated but worth investing in. I can write about pain without feeling it again because his hand draws it all back out. He has me believing I can take another chance on the girl trying to hide from herself.
The one who now will learn about courage and redemption, I try to convince myself.
I see my home’s cornrows hung upside down on the vast ceiling. I see them in the countless strips of fluorescent light that run to the far wall of the cavernous library. The cornrows that have always connected me to the horizon.
Colorado is different from Kansas. Kansas is flat, suburban, uniform. Colorado is wavy and wrinkled as crumpled silk. We’re enclosed in a ring of great mountains, pink and dotted with trees, looking like a vibrant pointillist painting. It’s like I’m in a movie set, and those distant but massive mountains, dulled along with the sky, are just a backdrop cloth pinned to the stage wall. Everything is unfamiliar and amazing, from the minute buildings to the clean open air to the powder blue sky with its cotton ball clouds. The cobblestone and roof shingles, the towering and steep-angled architecture, the red rock and cluttered blocks. The stylish people walking, their shiny cars. The lush arbory, flowering or evergreen. All of it surrounded by warm sunlight and soft sky and mountain scenery.
I look over at him and a lump of gratitude grows in my throat. We’re fine, I think. We’re beautiful. And I won’t ruin this.
A little bird fluttered to the ground as I watched. It looked like it’s surface was paper-thin. Like you could take it in your hand and fold and crumple it up. Like it weighed nothing at all. And for a while I sat, amused at my own jealousies. All I ever felt was weighed down. Infinitely tired.
Loving him makes me sad. How could I ever keep up with him and his perfection?
I keep thinking, I should have spoken. When he was hurting.
As soon as tears fell, I should have wiped and kissed them away. I should have taken his head in my shoulder and him in my arms and I should have cried with him. In an instant, I should have said I love you back. I wish I could now. Instead, I cried alone in the dark, my own arm locked around myself, my face buried in my own hand.
I always imagined that the first tear that would fall between us would be my own. I pictured soaking his sleeve, his arms comforting me and his face solemn and knowing. I thought I was fragile and he was unbreakable. I never imagined I could hurt him.
I remember his face, beautiful still when it held tears. His eyes, soft blue, green playing in faintly, usually made me lost. In that moment, the blue-green crystals surrounded by colorless droplets were the picture of clarity.
It looks like the entire city is under an ocean of cloudy tap water.
Together we watch the window as it is streaked with rain, over a backdrop of cottony gray. To me, each new streak looks like the lash of a whip, peppering the glass with silver sparks. To him, each is a paint stroke leaving behind a dotted line of colorless pearls.
Marriage is easily on my list of greatest fears. My parents’ fights are another. Not so much a panicky fear, but a hollow one. Fear for my siblings. Fear for my parents. Fear of being broken, deeply.
I didn’t know how their fights affected me, but I remembered each of them vividly. At some point I moved past the fear and became hollow, empty, unfeeling. I always got that way when a fight started up. I’d stare at nothing, say nothing, not move.
When a fight ensued, I’d sit on my bed listening to my parents arguing on the floor below. I knew my younger brother and sister were listening in the next room. My other sister, three years old, not knowing any better, shouted back at my parents, looking to cause some abruptness that shocked them out of their conflict, focused their attention on her. But they went on arguing, reacting awkwardly to my sister’s trying shouts.
When the shouting got incessant, I wanted to steal my sister away from that room, take her upstairs and put her to sleep on my bed. She shouldn’t have to go through what I did.
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t walk right through the palpable tension between my parents, no matter how much I wanted to.
One night I heard an awful noise in the kitchen and the next morning saw a kitchen chair broken, wooden rods splintered, in his rage. Thrown dishes. One day I heard her say with such a finality, “I want a divorce. Today.” I was so young that I believed her, and I prepared myself for the dreadful news the next day. But the marriage went on for several years to come.
Once, a fight broke out at the kitchen table with only me there. I didn’t leave the room like I did when I was a child, though. I mean, it wasn’t like we weren’t there for every second of the argument otherwise. We’d be in our rooms, unable to not listen, a part of the fight every bit as much as they were. The only difference was they couldn’t see us. But they could see me then, and I cruelly sat there, just eating cereal, not budging.
That’s right, I thought, You can’t fight now, can you? Not when I’m here.
It felt good to make them feel awkward. Still, I couldn’t look either of them in the eyes. Maybe I should have. It would have made me have power over them. Not looking them in the eyes meant I was afraid of them.
I didn’t want to live with my parents anymore. I wanted to be independent from them. I wanted to be an adult. Maybe then their fights wouldn’t affect me. Maybe then I could help my younger siblings.
But at the time, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t intervene. I couldn’t help. I couldn’t even talk to them about it. I still can’t talk to them about anything. As each of my siblings grew and had to endure the same thing, I couldn’t help them.
I could only shut myself in my room and wait for it to be over. And the next day, try to pretend like it never happened.
As it grew later, I watched the city slowly become brighter than the sky.
I watched, pitying this man. Short, with skin hanging from his skull, trash and clutter piled up on the tray over his walker, moving four inches at a time. Walker, right foot, left foot, walker, right foot, left foot, all the way down the stretch of sidewalk that I could see. His knuckles were brittle on the handles. It was difficult to see how his frame stood up, even with the support.
What fascinated me in the old man with the walker was the crinkle in his eyes. The light of life and youth that contrasted so to all that surrounded it.
I watched my reflection grow more opaque as the glass in front of me grew dark. I never moved. A building sign threw a reflection against the window, so the words seemed to be perfectly printed on a cloud. A hundred bulbs of light dangled at different heights behind me, reflected in the dark, towering wall of glass in front.
Windows are a bad habit of mine. He is the one who has to pull me back to where my feet are planted, to direct my eyes back to his. Because I am always looking out. I’m never where I am, he says.
I catch every doubt. I notice when his tone is annoyed. I apprehend the distance between us while he gets confused by my sad smile.
I try to mentally lock the feel, the memory of him on my mouth, on my hands, in my hair. I try to fathom why he loves me.
I question myself. I question us. I see monsters that aren’t there. But how I love him.
I see the miraculously undying flame light up his eyes, the blue-green ones, shine in his smile. The spark that my eyes were starting to catch from his.