The girl is from the state where people use their hands to show where they live. This is one of the things that she has always liked about her state—the ability to use her hand as an easy explanation of how to get from point A to point B. There are other things that she likes about the state—the cherries sold in cartons at roadside stands that populate the hilly roads that stretch across the northern end of the state, the sweaty cans of Vernors that sit on the shelves of the family refrigerator, the multiple bodies of water.
Many of the girl’s fondest childhood memories revolve around the water, mostly riding in the bow of her father’s fifteen-foot Chris-Craft in Lake Saint Claire and watching the sun’s reflections follow them. When she glanced back at her father, he kept driving, his eyes hidden behind a pair of aviator sunglasses. Two fingers rested easily on the top curve of the steering wheel. Then, she returned her gaze to the reflections, waiting for the next spray of water to hit her face. Her father docked the boat at a marina near her grandmother’s apartment. When she gets into the front seat of her father’s Cadillac, the sun’s reflections would get lost behind the towering stands of red-bricked buildings before finally disappearing beyond the far edge of the suburban landscape.
Everyone is singing A little bit louder now! A little bit louder now!
Many years later, the girl trades in Vernors for Stroh’s and thinks that she is far too old for riding in the small boat in the large lake with her father. Instead, she manages to pass driver’s ed and gets her driver’s license. She drives a 1976 Ford Bronco along Telegraph Road. A bumper sticker, STROH’S IS LOVE, is placed on its rear bumper. A hanger and duct tape keep the passenger door from falling off. The girl begins to love Stroh’s more than the simple geography of her own hand. And she will think that her friends love her because she knows how to drink fast and drive with one eye shut, and can throw a decent party. During one party, the breakfast table breaks when two kids are dancing on top of it. Fists fly and sheets that double as togas are stained with blood. Someone is getting sick in the upstairs bathroom. Everyone is singing A little bit louder now! A little bit louder now! The girl swaps drunken kisses with the boy who has a girlfriend with long blond hair and a long last name that is hard to pronounce in a dark, cobwebbed corner of the basement. At midnight, the police will be called. The party breaks up—but it will form again in a few months. The girl and the boy will trade kisses again in the corner of the basement. The boy will not break up with the girlfriend with the long last name. When it comes time to graduate, the girl is happy to leave the boy, the school, and the state.
When the girl arrives at the school in another state, she discovers that many of her new friends that she meets during the orientation are from the state with the turnpike and the short, powerful singer who sings about his working-class people. The girl’s new friends drive Saabs and Rabbits and Jettas. They order color-coordinated clothes from catalogs with their fathers’ credit cards. They sing the singer’s songs at the tops of their lungs. They know every word.
When the girl tells her new friends where she is from, they wince and ask again Where? Even though they don’t say it, she knows that they’re thinking boondocks, hicks-ville, in the middle of friggin’ nowhere. They’re thinking swaying cornfields and farmers with tobacco stains in the corners of their weathered mouths. They know nothing about the cherries, the hills, or the diamond-like reflections that used to chase her as a child.
When her friends order Budweiser at the bar that lets them in with their very bad fake IDs, she says I’ll have what you’re having. The girl learns to like Budweiser—and before long, she loves Budweiser the way that she once loved Stroh’s and Vernors. She loves the first sip. She loves the feeling of the long glass neck in between her fingers. She loves the idea of drinking more than one. In the bar, when she is talking to other college freshmen, and sometimes even sophomores and juniors, she no longer uses her hand to illustrate where she is from. Instead, both of her hands are often full: one with a beer and the other with a fistful of day-old popcorn (which she crams into her mouth because she often forgets to eat dinner). In response to the question Where are you from?, she answers Michigan. Other times, she answers The Midwest. If the person—say, the sophomore boy with brown hair and the dimple near his left cheek and the bong stashed in the dark corner of his dorm room—says You mean, Chicago? The girl says, Yeah, Chicago. I’m from Chicago, even though she has only driven through the Midwestern city on her way to somewhere else. She remembered the jagged skyline and the whitecaps on the great body of water and thinking that it didn’t seem like the shoreline and skyline belonged in the same place. The boy says, That’s cool. I hear Chicago is cool, before inviting her back to his room for more than just one bong hit. The girl will wake up in his room very early with a tremendous headache. She will not be able to find her shoes.
The girl takes long weekends with her friends to the state with the turnpike. She quickly learns that there is much more to the state than its many exits and famous singer. Her friends live in large houses with sprawling lawns and long driveways bordered with ancient trees. Rolling hills are dotted with horses. Her friends take her to The Races. They take her to The Shore. They go to The City. Every place they go, they end with shots of tequila in front of them and good reasons for another round. The girl will wake up with many headaches. She will go through many pairs of shoes.
The girl leaves college with a diploma, a few boxes of books, and an old stereo. She mostly feels queasy and puffy. She thought that she might feel something different after four years of higher education. More evolved. The girl flees the campus, her friends, and does her best not to look back. She ends up in the city with the cursed baseball team around a number of bright people. During sherry hour, they sip wine from plastic glasses without even finishing them. They give their computers pet names. They talk a lot about books—and not much about baseball.
A few months later, the girl moves to The City where she used to get drunk with her friends. She lives with her older brother. Instead of drinking booze, he drinks lots of coffee. He teaches the girl everything he knows about drinking coffee. Good coffee. Bad coffee. There’s nothing like a cup of good bad coffee, he often says. The brother also talks about meetings, but the girl thinks that he’s referring to business meetings. She doesn’t realize that he’s referring to a different kind of meeting. A meeting where they talk about different kinds of things. Eventually, because of her brother’s attendance to these meetings, she starts attending the meetings herself and stops drinking. This new startling fact in her life comes as a complete shock. She can’t even begin to understand how all of this has happened.
It doesn’t take long for the girl to realize that she doesn’t have much to talk about with her friends unless she is well lubricated. They don’t have much in common. During one particular moment this becomes evident when the girl is riding in the back seat of one of her friends’ Saabs and the friend stops at a traffic light in the middle of a town in the state with the turnpike. Another car pulls up alongside them. The sedan pulsates with a bass beat as the driver taps his gold-ringed, dark-skinned fingers against the steering wheel. Obviously they’re lost in the wrong neighborhood, the friend who is driving says. A sensation stings at the girl’s chest. She is still too naive to know what is wrong with her friend’s comment, but it won’t take long for her to figure it out. As the two cars turn in opposite directions, the girl stares out the window and says nothing. The friend turns up the volume of a pop song by a singer who is from the girl’s state (but she is not longer keeping tabs of where who is from anymore). The friend sings along with the lyrics. Like a virgin. For the very first time.
The girl goes to more meetings. She goes to double features. She eats popcorn for different reasons. When she isn’t at the movies or meetings, she sits at one of the long tables in the large reading room of the Public Library on Fifth Avenue, hoping that maybe someone she knows might pass through its oversize doors. Meanwhile, the older brother flies around the world and shoots videos of rock stars. He has a new girlfriend who lives in Tokyo. She makes videos of rock stars, too. When he is in other countries or with other women, the girlfriend calls at odd hours of the morning and night. The girl and the girlfriend talk about the brother, the weather, and movies. Their conversations sometimes last for an hour even though the girlfriend’s English isn’t so great. The girl never tells the girlfriend where the brother really is. When she asks Where could he be so early in the morning? The girl just answers He’s out of town. When the brother is in town and not spending the night in other places, they will go out and eat at fancy restaurants. They will order oysters on the half-shell, baked escargot, and three different kinds of liver pâté. They will eat chocolate soufflé and crème brûlée. They will drink many cups of espresso. They will put all of these meals on a credit card. They will do this often: Eat like they’re wealthy city people even though they aren’t wealthy at all.
During this time in The City, the girl meets many people from many places. One of things she will grow to love about The City is that no one is ever lost in the wrong neighborhood. There are too many people and too many neighborhoods for getting lost. When people ask her where she is from, she says Detroit, Michigan. I’m from Michigan. She uses her hand to show exactly where she grew up. Still, the girl doesn’t return to her home state often. Instead, her family will come to her. They will adopt The City as their second home and find many great restaurants for eating and cafés for drinking coffee. The girl begins to believe that she will never leave The City. She has become one of them—a fast-walking city person with a destination always in mind.
After a few years, the girl meets the future husband. They will go to movies together. They will go to the library together. They will talk about books. He will make her laugh. She will forget all about the boys in the dark corners. They will move in together. They will get married. They will try to have kids without success. Their best friend dies from a long illness. The girl grows sad and depressed, but the husband considers other possibilities. He applies to graduate school—and is offered a fellowship in another state that is very far away. When he was a young boy, the husband lived in the state at his grandmother’s house near a city where a charismatic and charming president was killed. She baked poppy-seed bread and sewed curtains for his bedroom. He reassures the girl that it will be fine there. She will like it.
People definitely don’t use their hands here to explain how to get from point A to point B, but within
the first five minutes of every conversation, she always learns where people were from.
The first thing that the girl notices is that there is very little water in the state. It will be a long drive to any large body of water. After they have lived there for a few months, the girl will hear about beaches that are located on the southeastern edge of the state. Vast expanses of hard-packed sand with seaweed and crushed cans and twisted-up plastic bags. These are not the beaches that she knows.
People definitely don’t use their hands here to explain how to get from point A to point B, but within the first five minutes of every conversation, she always learns where people were from. Many of them are from the state—and they love their state deeply. Its distinctive outline almost pulses, like a heartbeat, through their pearl-snap shirts as they talk about their hometown and how many generations of their family have lived there. They tell stories about real-estate developers, sheriffs, and high school football coaches. They tell stories about fires, floods, and droughts. They tell stories of the teenage son who shot his father and then was sent off to a juvenile prison for eight years. Beyond the stories, their histories rest deeply in their voices, a lilting undercurrent that moves underneath every single word. There are more stories about broken-up ranches and broken-up families and the best barbecue in town. The girl learns to eat brisket between folded slices of white bread soaked with sauce. She drinks a lot of iced tea.
Despite all of these stories and pretty good food, the girl cries often. Everywhere she drives, tears stream down her cheeks. She gets lost amid the tears, the overpasses, and the frontage roads. She will get on the highway going in the wrong direction. When people from the state give her directions, they will say It’s just down the road, darlin’. You can’t miss it, but they really mean to say is It’s ten miles away, through two traffic lights, and then take a left. And she will get lost again. Eventually, the girl will find her way to the grocery store, the shopping mall, and the gas station. The girl will find a strange comfort in the fluorescent-lit aisles of warehouse-sized stores. She will find a few friends who don’t mind her constant comparisons between here and there.
The girl returns to the state with its several bodies of water more frequently. She sits in the passenger seat as her mother drives along the road that hugs the shore overlooking Lake Saint Claire. A rust-colored freighter lumbers through the gray waters. I drive along the lake at least once a day, the mother says as she stares straight-ahead. It’s the one thing that keeps me from going crazy. Further down the shoreline, the girl can see the faint silhouette of the apartment complex where the grandmother used to live. The square roofs of the dull buildings look like a series of steps leading up into the flat gray sky. The grandmother is dead now; she was moved into an assisted-living arrangement after she started to fall and was no longer able to drive herself to church every day. For five years, the father paid the monthly bills for the facility, but rarely visited the grandmother because he was always out of town. He sold his Chris-Craft a long time ago.
I think deep down he hated her, the mother says. Why would anyone do that to their own mother? He never went to visit her. The girl closes her eyes for a second and tries to imagine that she is still on the boat with her father. She can feel the bounce of the bow in her chest, the spray of water against her face. She will open her eyes and the mother will be pulling into her driveway. Dead leaves fill the flowerbeds, and crusts of soot-tinted snow cling to the edges of the sidewalks. The girl will go upstairs and pack her bag and board the airplane to the other state. The husband will pick her up at the airport and greet her with a strong hug. She will be glad to be back and will realize that there isn’t much different between here and there, point A and point B, or C and D for that matter. It’s all right there wherever she goes.
S. Kirk Walsh has been published in the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Times Literary Supplement, among other print and online publications. Currently, Walsh is completing a novel titled Flight Patterns. She is co-founder of Austin Bat Cave, a writing and tutoring center for kids. She lives in Austin, Texas.
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín.
The author’s sixth novel follows a young Irish woman named Eilis Lacey, who moves from a small town in southwest Ireland to Brooklyn during the years that followed World War II. With simplicity and mastery, Tóibín taps into quiet stirrings of grief and longing during unexpected moments. Surprisingly, this novel transforms into something of a suspenseful page-turner by its conclusion.
Nox by Anne Carson.
This book-length elegy takes the shape of an accordion-like construction, which neatly folds into a two-and-a-half-inch box. The pages are filled with Carson’s collages of images, drawings, letters, and other fragments that distill into a moving tribute to her estranged brother who died in Copenhagen, Germany, in 2000.
Mary and O’Neill by Justin Cronin.
Published in 2001, this series of eight interconnected long short stories trace the lives of one young couple over the period of two decades. I often find myself returning to these beautifully written stories again and again for inspiration and reading pleasure.
The Waves by Virginia Woolf.
A friend of mine gave me this novel for my twenty-third birthday, but I didn’t end up reading it until a couple of years later when I was taking a course called the Craft of Fiction with E.L. Doctorow in graduate school. Woolf’s exquisite language and her intricate, interior portrayals of six characters broke open a world for me in a way that it’s hard to explain. It was like that I was hearing language for the very first time.
Homepage photo via Flickr by Pranav Singh