Her back arches, her ribs part, her pulse races, her eyes disappear into the depths of her skull. She hollers, she yells for mercy, she cries to some deity. Her body crashes like brackish water.
Are you okay? (pausing momentarily)
Yes! (thrusting against me)
Are you sure?
Yes! Shut up and don’t stop! (tugging at my waist)
It’s okay just… keep… going!
Okay! (resuming action)
Jaw goes slack, tongue withdraws, hands grasp at air. Body goes limp. La petit mort. I have killed her.
I am scooping up her corpse, I am panicking, calling the police, no wait, I am cutting her up and putting her into trash bags, I am closing her dead dead dead eyes, I am dragging her body from the van in pieces, I am crying by a ditch because she’s gone, so gone, I am—
She breathes and I choke back to reality. Her bones vibrate with aftershock. She looks pleased but I feel compelled to apologize.
I’m sorry. (holding myself)
Are you tired? (looking at her shoulders)
Yeah. (closing her eyes)
Sex is weird. The Pacific moans and coos outside the van. Her eyes shut for real this time, she rolls over and her spine stops its post-coital shuttering. She easily sinks into sleep. I climb to the front seat, quietly turning on the battery. Music starts spinning softly. I scan through hip hop, top 20, classic rock, country, and eventually settle on classical. Bach, maybe.
When I woke up last Thursday morning on my mattress at Tulane, I’d never seen an ocean. Sure I saw the gulf now and then, but the Pacific seemed as far as the Bering, Caspian, Red, Black, Baltic seas. And now salt water bites at my nose, smacks into rocks, eats away at the walls of my van. Pismo beach, the very end of Pier Avenue. A small parking lot near the public bathrooms, just feet from the water. She sighs in her sleep, and I quickly turn off the music for fear of waking her. She’s still again, and I take the opportunity to slip out the door.
My sneakers are cold and moist in the night air, the sand, soaked with tide, indents and changes color under my feet. I touch my lip and taste the salt of her body. The ocean is black, the waves are swollen in the distance, but just puttering at my feet, licking up onto bundles of seaweed and driftwood. My hair feels dirty, my skin greasy with road trip. A wave washes over my foot, freezing through my sock.
I am tearing off my clothes, I am clawing at my chest and rolling in the waves, I am leaping and dancing in the salty water, one with the fish, one with the ice, I am one one one human in one ocean completely alone and maybe there’s someone on the other end and maybe there’s someone touching me through the water and maybe the water is filled with dead bodies and maybe I’m touching one right now and maybe I’ll vomit, maybe I’ll—
A stray headlight gleams in the east. I am still dry, I am still clothed. I turn around, the van is still there and I’ve no doubt she’s still breathing inside. Still-ness pervades the night.
So you sure you wanna come? (stirring my coffee)
Yeah, I got family out in Pismo and I can’t afford to fly. Fucking airlines.
And I don’t creep you out?
Nah, you’re harmless, I can tell. (gnawing on a scone)
I was thinking about making it a slow trip.
I don’t care.
It’ll probably take a week to get there, I really don’t wanna rush it.
That’s fine, really. I just don’t have a lot of cash, you know?
Don’t worry about gas, I’m in it for the company. I was thinking we could pass through Dallas, Santa Fe.(drawing an imaginary map with my fingers)
And the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Vegas.
Doesn’t that cost money? (looking skeptical)
Not to drive through.
I don’t have a license. (looking apologetic)
But can you drive?
I don’t have a license so… (looking bewildered)
Oh, right. So you can’t help with the driving?(quietly disappointed)
I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you. I promise. (smiling suggestively)
When we hit the road, I piled our luggage into the back. Sleeping bags, a couple boxes, my duffel, her backpack. We jumped into the bucket seats and started off. Louisiana disappeared beneath our tires, and as the sun fell into the horizon ahead of us, her palm uncurled to reveal a sandwich bag stuffed with blue and white capsules.
It’s just Adderall, my brother takes it, it’s nothing. It’ll just help with the drive.
The ride went a lot faster than I thought it would. She didn’t talk much, but I did. I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, and fortunately, I didn’t get pulled over by the cops. We flew past the site of JFK’s death, the great ridges of the canyon, the gleaming ecstasy of sin city. This morning my face broke out like a football player’s back, and we were in California.
Watching the dark waters mating, her name suddenly escapes me. I keep wanting to call her your name. Your skin stays with me. Pale, taut, stretched over a weightless skeleton, your whiteness had slid easily under my fingers. How did we get here? How did this happen? What’s her name? I run through a catalog of misnomers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Ruth, Eve, Esther, Mary. I’ve got nothing. There is no polite way to ask the girl with whom you’ve been traveling a week her name. I wonder if she knows mine, if she even cares. How could that conversation even begin? Hey, travel buddy, by the way I’m Chris, and you are…? And your name is…? And you are…? And I am…?
My pulse is beginning to irritate me and the texture of my face makes me want to vomit. The moon is tucked behind swatches of cloud. Your face materializes in the atmosphere, benevolent and fresh. Your lips blossom, throb with the breeze, shine inverted into the sea.
Four states away pulsed the Tulane chapter of Pike. In my head, it hasn’t changed. The kitchen coated in crusted leftovers; a house of broken windows, filth, insects. A thousand broken bottles painting the floor with shards. The yearly Saturate Party, February 4th of my second semester. On the stained futon mattress in the rec room, your lithe frame sprawled out, skirt in disarray. I could see your panties and it sparked a fire in my gut. White cotton spoke my name, I hallucinated your scent. I shook you and checked your pulse; you were still alive, just asleep, really really deeply asleep. I would have left, I was so ready to leave, go back upstairs to my room alone, jerk off and pass out.
The flame in my belly was still raging, I leaned in, looked closely at your dry lips. Your mouth was chapped and I could see where you’d have wrinkles around your smile someday from smoking. I could see the freckles on your cheeks from summer, I could see the mascara stains under your eyes, I could see your brown roots being birthed from white blonde glory. I cautiously lowered myself onto the futon. My palm grazed your calf without notice. The room was dim, a streetlight poured through the glass, a yellow stain stretched across the ceiling tiles. A broken television in the corner sat on a pile of decrepit board games. I could see everything.
You weren’t in class that week. Rumors echoed that you’d dropped out. But I could see you everywhere I looked. Apparitions of your corpse inundated the campus. Four of you in the library, three of you in the cafeteria, nine of you in the student store, a thousand of you on the soccer field. Hordes of you, lost, dead with nowhere to go.
Nowhere to go but home. In some fucked up way, this journey was all for you.
I found her in the ride share section of New Orleans Craigslist. NORMALISH GIRL NEEDS CHEAP RIDE TO CA. We met the day before we left. She looked like you, if you hadn’t come from money. Her hair was brown, and natural; her clothes were worn and not particularly stylish. She didn’t seem to have any hang-ups about it though; she carried herself like a rich girl.
She didn’t talk much on the ride. Asked me about Tulane a little and then dropped the subject when I kept giving long, fast answers. The Adderall, although effectively keeping me awake, made me uncontrollably chatty. I wanted to tell her everything, but I didn’t want her to leave me. I wanted to tell her about you, explain why San Luis Obispo was so goddamn important. I couldn’t lose her though. Instead of opening up, I maintained control, babbling about anything and everything else. My jaw ached from chatter and the ice cubes I kept crushing between my teeth. It was clear that she felt guilty about the gas thing though. It didn’t matter much to me; I knew she couldn’t pay, and I still brought her along. That was fine. But as we drove, she kept reaching over, touching my knee, ruffling my hair. You just couldn’t leave me alone, in your body or hers.
The sun is edging up from behind my head. How long have I been sitting here? How long have I been awake? My vision is still sharp, but my skull is leaping rock to rock to rock. I jog up and down the beach a little bit and it helps with the restlessness. On my way back to the van, you stumble out the passenger door, groggy and looking disgruntled.
Alright, take me home. (stretching skyward)
You know the way?
I live here.
Right. (looking at the earth)
You wanna get some goodbye-breakfast or something first?
Right. You oughta eat anyway. (looking suddenly motherly)
I’ll be fine. Let’s go.
She points me down surface streets, guiding the behemoth van through tiny lanes and avenues. We pull up to a modest brown house on a suburban block, one story with a small front yard full of dead grass. There’s a palm tree in the back, looking over the roof.
Well, this is it.
Thanks for the, uh, ride.
Thanks for the conversation…
(Laughing) Yeah. Right. See ya when I see ya.
She hops out, scoops her things up from the back, and waves goodbye. She leaves and shuts the door behind her hard. I still don’t know her name.
I stop at an Arco station for directions to your home town. San Luis is a real short trip compared to the journey thus far. Thirteen miles later, I’m cruising down Tank Farm looking for any street that seems like a place you could’ve lived. Before we met, before hazing at Pike, before college. I’m so close I can almost feel you here, curled up in the passenger seat, tossing out directions effortlessly. I’m approaching what I believe to be the turn, easing into the right lane, turn signal flashing, when I see you. Sprawled on the sidewalk, face up, passed out. I quickly pull over, jump from my seat and run towards your body. I can see those white cotton panties still, reaching out like an invitation. But your skin is so sick, so gray, your eyes so vacant.
I’m sorry! (pulling at your limbs) I’m so sorry!
It’s okay. (opening your beautiful eyes)
No it’s not! You’re dead! I hurt you! I killed you!
I’m okay. (rising to your feet)
You’re not! (screaming, weeping) I’m a criminal!
You’re a kid. (taking my hand)
I’m a rapist!
I fucked you while you slept.
So how did I get here? Why am I here? Why won’t you leave me alone?
I don’t know. Maybe you needed to see me again.
But you look so sick.
You didn’t kill me. I’m at home, right now. I’m with my parents. I’m safe.
But look at you, your skin; I kept seeing you, I kept hearing you, I—
It’s over. Let go. What’s done is done.
I can’t let go! How can this be forgotten? What were you worth? How can I repay you?
I am screaming for no one, I am rolling on the sidewalk, gnashing my teeth and pulling at my hair, I am leaping in front of cars and no one is stopping, brakes are not screeching, children are not traumatized, everyone is laughing and I am crashing and I am being pulled under the wheels and the blood is everywhere and the blood is everything and the blood is thick and red and touches everything, I am drowning in the bloody Pacific, I am filled with your living death, everything is touching me and I am paying for your life with my own; my chest tightens, I’m slipping, I’m gliding under the blood, I’m falling—
A red SUV honks. Apparently I am standing in the middle of the road. Disoriented, I jog back to my van. I scan the sidewalk for your body, but you’re nowhere to be found. I climb back into the van, press my head against the steering wheel. I just need to stop spinning, this is just me coming down. I am talking myself out of a week’s worth of amphetamines. What now? Where now?
I never knew your address, your family, and certainly not your last name. I couldn’t have found you even if I’d wanted to. You were young and beautiful, and I broke you. Maybe you don’t even know what I’ve done, or who I am. Maybe you woke up the next morning confused and hungover and went home, showered up, and forgot everything.
The van starts easily, slips out of park, slips around the corner, slips onto the freeway, and slips towards the sunset. I don’t have to touch the gas, the wheel, the brake. Something stronger is at work here. The gravity of chance tugs at my limbs and draws me closer, inviting me to try breathing again.
The Denny’s is, as most Denny’s are, poorly lit. Darkness lays across San Luis Obispo like a wet towel, heavy and moist. The meal clinks onto the table, Moons-Over-My-Hammy. For the first time in days, food is an appealing option. I’m quieter than I have been, stiller. My ice remains in its glass, uncrunched, to melt in peace. These hands stop their shaking long enough to begin. Half an egg sandwich approaches my lips. My jaw creaks in anticipation.
For a second, I see a drop of blood forming at the crust, preparing to burst through its surface tension and pool onto the sticky white plate below. I bite through the bread anyway.
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