Gross credit Tracy ShamSo, we’re in a chic, if somewhat anodyne, hotel room, somewhere in the Northeast, and it’s raining outside. Perfect setting for an interview.

If you say so.

 

Why so crabby? You should be happy. This is the kind of situation you live for: you’re exhausted, you’re far from home, and the weather is bad, but you’re warm and dry and have nothing to worry about.

You’re right, of course. But I’m in that right now—I don’t yet have your kind of perspective on the situation. Maybe later, tonight or tomorrow or next week, I’ll look back on today and think, I had it good. At this second, however, I just want to curl up. Except, of course, I’m happy to talk to you!

NYS Route 212

By Tove Danovich

Travel

Traveling in a car is like moving through two worlds at the same time. Inside you are mostly still while flashing past houses, people, and trees at almost unthinkable speeds. Entire towns and lakes vanish within minutes. Right now, we’re going sixty on a road made for half of that. The driver and the road controls our movement—the pull of our bodies away from and toward the window each time we run past a curve, the hum of vibrations that goes up through the seat. When I relax my mouth—which isn’t often because the conversation is funny—my teeth chatter against each other with an involuntary click.

We’re driving through upstate New York, trying to find our way to Woodstock. Matt and I have never been and even though Paul tells us that it’s full of hippies and gift shops it’s a good excuse for a drive. “It really shows you what would have happened if the sixties never died.” Paul bought his first and only pair of Birkenstocks there a few years ago but hasn’t been back since.

With Paul behind the wheel of his car, we get lost on the way and end up doing a big loop away from the town and then back toward it again. A five-minute drive becomes an hour long after taking the wrong road at the turnpike. “You need to get a map,” I tell Paul, and he glowers in response.

But getting a little disoriented transforms into a beautiful detour. We drive beside a lake that reminds me of Tahoe; the water is pure crystal with an island of trees in the center. According to a fire station’s sign, we’re in the town of Lake Hill, a place where the GPS on our phones won’t work. None of us can even tell how lost we are.

It’s seventy-five degrees outside. We roll the windows down and it doesn’t take long for my hair to get tangled from the wind in my face. It rolls over each curl, twisting it around until the hairs rub together and felt themselves into knots. With the windows down I can actually feel the speed. To be fair, I’m not sure I could tell the difference between sixty miles an hour and thirty from the wind alone. Colors blur together outside; individual plants and trees turn into streaks of green and brown and yellow. As we speed up, that swaying back and forth in my seat grows more rhythmical. Inside the car it’s still all hum and sleepiness and vibration. It reminds me of being in the rocking chair at home or out on a boat where the waves slap against the wood with a dull splash. Driving gets into your bones that way.

I can finally look down and see the pavement flashing beneath us, turning into one smooth panel instead of the gravelly asphalt that’s actually there. Water’s running right along the road now and I’m glad to have my seatbelt on. Paul’s road crazy again. His usual gruffness vanishes the longer he’s behind the wheel until he actually seems happy, enthusiastic even. It’s as though the road transforms into a racetrack in front of him—the Cliffside highways of Monte Carlo or the sharp angles of Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps track. Only once or twice have I ever told him to slow down. That doesn’t mean I don’t grip the door when he takes an especially sharp turn. It’s a little too easy to imagine this car crashing, tumbling in sideways somersaults down to the water and against all those sharp rocks.

The water rushes over the stones and natural dams of twigs and branches, turning white as it hits them and then flows back the way we came. It’s only a narrow river but the water’s energy gets more concentrated as the sides close in.

A while later in the drive, we pass through the Catskills. I can hear the waterfalls. It’s the first real melt of the season and all that runoff races from the top of the mountains and turns into a dull roar and spray. I love how the sound of water can tell you what type it is. Ocean waves crash against the rocks in a musical way; there’s a rhythm to the bursts of silence between them. Waterfalls stay at a consistent level of sound, static that gets into your ears whenever you stand too close to them.

All that water must be working its magic because suddenly the boys both have to pee. They get out of the car and walk into the woods. I trail after them and almost catch up with Paul whose back is towards me. Somewhere in between this sight and the fact that he’s yelling at me not to come any closer, I remember why we stopped the car in the first place. I’m left looking very intently at the scenery, pretending I’d meant to find my way to this spot all along.

Without the rush from being inside a car, the wind is calm in comparison. To look at the plants, I would think the wind was coming from all directions at once. Each tree or shrub moves in a different way. One little plant with seedpods on it splits stalks into two groups as if breaking to let the wind pass through. The largest tree branches groan a few seconds after the breeze is gone. Maybe if I hung colored strings in the air I could actually see the currents and tides of the wind.

Break over, we return to the car. We’d rolled up the dark-tinted windows before parking and now it’s like looking out of cheap sunglasses. On a warm spring day like this one, that invisible wind is the only link between what’s outside the car and in it. Without the air around me, it’s like I’m watching a poor-quality video of the Great Outdoors instead of being here, passing through.

The three of us are all a little off today. I’m hungry although it’s too early for dinner. Where’s a mom who packed sandwiches in the cooler? We’re winding down the mountain now, back the way we came. We pass through towns that are still covered in a foot of snow. The steep roofs of the houses make upside-down V’s; there are so many of them that it begins to look like a row of jagged teeth along the road. In an empty field, I see two dogs playing, kicking up white snow like water rapids. Through the dark glass, the colors are muted and the sky almost looks gray. It’s a little colder outside but I roll down my window one last time and see the colors open up into pale yellows streaks through a sharp blue. The car turns and I start rocking back and forth again in my seat.

Filling In

By Kristen Elde

Memoir

April 2007

“This isn’t spackle, it’s caulk,” he says, rolling his eyes as I hand over the plastic cylinder. But my oversight has brought him relief, clear in the quick release of his breath, the immediacy of his smile. It’s an error he might have predicted, which brings with it some comfort, and neither of us knows how long we have before these sorts of things stop registering.

As I meet his eyes, comfort is exceeded by disorientation. I can’t navigate my misstep. I don’t want it to mean anything, but I can’t help worrying that it’s somehow prophetic. I scan his face for explanation (I knew what I needed; what happened?) and think I read doubt. Quick, recover: “God, dumb. I’ll run back.”

Looking down at his hand: “No, it’s fine–toothpaste should work okay.”

Just over a month ago we’d reached our end, culmination of six years of relationship, a careful history resembling the layout of my new home, its length through the center, its bulk at each end. As of today, this is where I live: a subterranean, windowless unit with warped floors and a troubling echo.

Eventually, I am crouching at one end of the apartment, while he stands at the other.

He had offered to move, even insisting that I be the one to keep our address. Drowsy with grief and vulnerable to suggestion, I’d come close to taking him up on it. But in the end, the walls had driven me out, their glossy gray coat still wet with memories of naked limbs stretching, straining; trim brushes saturated and spilling over with excess pigment; drop cloths made sticky in our haste.

I’m organizing my books, an effort I’ve always found taxing. I’m annoyed, unable to establish a system within the constraints of my new bookcase. There are the obvious distinctions–poetry, fiction, nonfiction, instructional, etc.–but I know from experience that this isn’t enough. The dissimilarity in the books’ dimensions is a problem, because it means that the relief will be jagged, and that some of the volumes won’t fit vertically at all, that they will have to be stacked horizontally. I could always leave them out, but included in this group are several that I have yet to read, and I know that if I tuck them away somewhere, there’s a decent chance I’ll forget about them.

In the end, it’s fiction and poetry up top, nonfiction and graphic novels one down, Norwegian language books and those on writing technique and “selling yourself” on the bottom shelf. Also on the bottom, the dreaded stacks, which I’ll try to ignore just enough.

We are not talking, nor is there music playing. The only sound is the whirring overhead: one fan per end, per each of us. I am not feeling the old pressure to carry us, or to consent to be carried, but I don’t know how much of this has to do with the hallway that obscures him from me, my hang-up with the books, his makeshift spackling…

I don’t feel bad, having him help me out. He’s made it clear he wants to be involved, not because he feels he owes me anything, but because it’s his nature to step in, because he cares for me, because, maybe, he would like to see me a little bit stuck. “I want to be a part of your new place”: It’s the sort of thing you might expect someone in his position to say, and I like the sound of it. As if everything is going according to plan. Besides, part of me likes the idea of being a little bit stuck, and the idea of him wanting me to be.

We cross paths several times over the next couple of hours, though we remain for the most part absorbed in our respective tasks. I move between boxes, manning the placement of towels, clothes, utensils. He’s still going to town on the walls, filling holes large and small, some gaping with the loss of heavy screws, others as negligible as the thumb-tacked poster/calendar/to-do list that once hid them. Glancing over at him intermittently, I think of past starts, fresh addresses, and I retrace my footsteps, my family’s footsteps, opening, closing, opening doors that would reveal so much more a year out than they ever did when I lived behind them.

I reach for a hanger, sliding onto it a dress I’d bought the day before we split. It’s a frilly turquoise thing, and I feel embarrassed looking at it. But the fan above has become a lawnmower pushed along by a neighbor, the sensible hum of its motor reaching around the side of our house and into the backyard, where my brother and I are on our backs in the grass, pointing out mythical creatures as they shape-shift worlds above us.

It’s time to stop. We’re both exhausted, drooping beneath the day’s physical demands, as well as, in my case, an independence that only makes me uneasy, that I want to be able to sleep off. The plan (still with the plans) is for him to spend the night, the first night, here with me. I’d been the one to bring this up, getting it out of the way as soon as I had a move-in date. Once confirmed, I’d felt immediately better, confident we were going about things systematically. Plus, I’d wanted him to know what I would be like in bed from now on: the views I would have, where my feet would go, the last thing I’d see, on my back, looking up, before I dreamed. And then there was the long, horizontal hug to look forward to, our last before everything went vertical.

We give it a shot: parting the sheets, bending into each other, easily naked. But, sensitive to the storm of dust particles we’d kicked up earlier, he can’t get comfortable. An hour in, the sneezing still hasn’t lifted and he decides to sleep at home instead, saying he’ll return the following night for a make-up. Okay. I’m surprised at the ease I feel in putting this step off, a willingness to give up tonight for tomorrow. Dressed, he kisses me on the mouth and walks for a long time down the hallway, so long that I, approaching sleep with the ease of a newborn, just barely manage to hear the door close behind him.

The next morning, a Saturday, I am sitting on my new sofa, bare legs crossed, knees just clearing the edges of the center cushion. Without music or TV or a second voice to bring out my own, the whole scene feels suspiciously Zen, and while in theory I like this, in practice it’s, I decide, a total sham. I tell myself to get up and make some noise, dance around, cry, whatever. I settle on breakfast, and the sounds that come with preparing it.

Back on the couch, now with a nice loud bowl of granola, something on the opposing wall catches my attention. A dried glob of Peppermint Crest, with tiny raised points where fingertips, his, had failed to brush it smooth. How am I supposed to paint over this shit? I watch my irritation grow in proportion to the number of instances I see around me: dozens of little white crowns, jutting into the room’s center, imposing a topography I am not pleased with. I’m pissed, actually, and I can’t help but think of this as an act of sabotage.

Even so, an understood thing about maps is that they’re always changing, expected to go with the flow, to adapt in the aftermath of war, peace, discovery, plate tectonics. And so, razor blade in hand, I take to the walls, slicing into the hardened gum, chipping away at it as drifts of bleached slivers collect around the baseboard. Before long I’m in a groove, leveling toothpaste with real acuity, hills to plains, with none of the jagged cuts of an hour ago. I am completely sober, but I feel the way I do after a couple glasses of wine: permeable, willing, warm behind the eyes. I angle too sharply into the next crown, withdrawing my hand to reveal a good-sized recess, which I don’t fill, but leave behind as a reminder of what I have yet to chart.