Midwestern Girl goes to New York City and reminds the protagonist (of course she is not the protagonist) of everything he has left behind. He covets her innocence and despises it. When she gives up and returns home, he is sad, but not surprised.
A flick of your wrist. Midwestern Girl stands alone at a house party. The protagonist smiles at her, as if to say, Cheer up and I notice subtle things, and this reminds the reader that the protagonist is secretly sensitive, no matter what he has done or will do. He and Midwestern Girl never speak and the story leaves her to sip her beer in a corner. In the living room, the protagonist punches his best friend. Will he turn out to be like his father? He ends the night with two strangers. They walk to the East River and throw rocks into the fathomless dark deep.
A knuckle crack. Midwestern Girl walks down the street in a low-cut green blouse. As the protagonist passes, he takes a moment to admire her ample breasts before returning to his main concern, What will happen if I don’t sell these exotic macaws before Ricky demands his money? When it starts to pour, the protagonist ducks into the first door he reaches, only to find he is in a boutique sex shop. A woman is already inside—did she just come in, like him? But no. While his bangs drip into his eyes, her bland beige coat is dry. (Midwestern Girl looks down to see her low-cut top gone, her pants suddenly waist-high and itchy.) It’s sure pouring, he says, and she says, It doesn’t rain here like it does in Ohio. She must be embarrassed, he thinks, to be caught sifting through a bin of purple butt plugs. It’s a gift for my niece’s bachelorette, she says.
This is Midwestern Girl’s life. She bobs for apples. She laughs guilelessly. She is appalled by the price of serve-yourself fro-yo (Six dollars! she exclaims, while the New Yorkers in line behind her roll their eyes at her ignorance and gluttony). She inhabits the edges of scenes and delivers remarks on the weather. She is pretty but never beautiful. She is silent but never mysterious. From time to time, standing at the edge of a crowded room as the story moves away from her, she wonders about the Midwest. She has heard herself say that she misses its squeaky cheese curds, its deep snows, its particular kind of good people. Though she is from there, she has never been.
For reasons at first obscure to Midwestern Girl, you become obsessed with road trips.
A man travels from New York to San Francisco. He stops at an antique mall, where Midwestern Girl convinces him to buy a rusty horseshoe. Every new home needs a little luck, she says, and winks. He gets drunk in Las Vegas and loses it in a bet.
A man travels from New York to Florida. There’s no reason for Midwestern Girl to be in this story, but there she is in Virginia at a rest stop, gas pump in her hand. Iowa, the man says, looking at her car’s tags. You’re a long way from home.
Am I? she wonders.
A man travels from New York to anywhere else, having left behind his wife and her expectations. He meets Midwestern Girl in a bar by the Motel 8. He and Midwestern Girl talk over beers and she restores his faith in humanity with her innocent wit, her no-nonsense advice, and he returns to his wife.
Rewind the scene. The man and Midwestern Girl talk over whiskey and walk back to her room; in the hall, they begin to kiss and she fumbles for her room key. She has been kissed before—it has been clear all night, in her bold eyes and suggestive top—yet she cannot remember it. Does a kiss always taste so half-hearted? She leans into him, traces his jaw with her fingers. She knows he’ll stop even before he places his hand on hers, the door only cracked. You should go back to your wife, she says, but what she wants to say is, Do it again, but mean it.
Rewind the scene. Midwestern Girl is the bartender, and the protagonist barely notices her (though he does spare a moment for those ample breasts). He hits on a woman from Portland who has tattoos and is damaged in a way that creates its own gravity. They go out into the parking lot and throw empty bottles at the stars. Midwestern Girl wipes the bar in a wide circle, over and over and over. She has been almost content to sit at the edge of these stories, but she remembers all the dialogue she’s spoken in this motel bar, the kiss she’s taken, and she resents that Portland Woman will be kissed with enthusiasm, abandon. She wants to go outside and not just to watch them. She wants to see where she is, somewhere more specific than between one place and the next.
The protagonist and Portland Woman come back in and he leaves his wedding ring in the tip jar. Rewind the scene. The protagonist comes back in alone.
Surprised you’re still open, he says to Midwestern Girl. They’re working you too hard.
I’m tired, she says, and she means it.
A man travels from New York to Reno and sees Midwestern Girl hitchhiking just west of Omaha. (Her heart soars! What a thing for her to do! The gravel on the side of the road bruises her feet. Why is she wearing flip-flops when she has hiking boots tied to the outside of her oversized pack?) The man pulls over to the side of the two-lane highway and picks her up. (Should she be getting into this car? Her feet insist she will, though she tries to hold them to the hot asphalt.) Once she is buckled in, the car speeding down the road, the man tells her she shouldn’t hitchhike. Doesn’t she know it’s dangerous, especially for a beautiful girl like her? (Is this his way of saying he is a danger, or just the entire rest of the world?) She smiles, coy, and says, Good thing I met you, then. They pass through Lincoln, Kearney, Cozad, North Platte, Ogallala—though the man has driven through this country before, this trip he sees it through her eyes, those eyes that are so bright and hopeful. She becomes less anxious as the hours pass, though she is always aware of him, and for once, as she looks out the window, her look of innocent excitement is not a mask. She has never traveled before, never seen so many miles in every direction. Their conversation is dull. It’s a beautiful day outside, she says, but it isn’t what she wants to say. She wants to say that she enjoys rain as much as sunshine, that she loves when snow obliterates the features of a landscape. She wants to shout her desire for a storm that will pluck trees from the ground like daisies. When the Rockies finally come into view, her breath catches in a tiny hitch. The plains, she says, the plains are gone so suddenly, and for the first time, Midwestern Girl feels the joy of thought and speech colliding, and you feel the singe of her pleasure in your fingertips. You want, for a moment, to linger with her. But she is a small part of the story. The man lets her off in Boulder and watches her in the rearview mirror to see if she’ll turn around. She doesn’t. As she walks, she thinks, Maybe I can get lost here. But with a snap, she’s gone.
A father and son are on their way to a funeral and stop in Nebraska for gas. Midwestern Girl serves them their coffee and they sit at the diner bar to sip it, warming their hands around the mugs. She has ample breasts, yes, but these are pillows, comforting, a place to rest. She says, Oh gee, in an accent no Nebraskan ever used, but that doesn’t matter for the story. The accent is there to make a point. There are still places in America that leave their mark, the father thinks. The kind of mark that can be seen and heard, a type of brand that is purer, better. The father is deeply branded, too, but his scars are inside. They fester. They are unspeakable and dramatic and profoundly interesting. If only he could find the words to express them, they would pour from him like blood from a wound. He does not want to go to the funeral of his old friend and he regrets bringing his son. They were meant to bond, but he sees now they have nothing in common.
The point of view shifts. The son wishes his father weren’t so silent. He wishes his father would confide in him. The son has never heard of this friend who has died, but now they are driving fourteen hours to attend the funeral. When he asks his father for a story about the dead man, the father shakes his head. Why does his father speak so easily to the waitress? The father and Midwestern Girl talk about the weather; funeral weather, they both agree. Then, before he knows it’s happening, the conversation turns to the son.
What this one will never understand, the father says, is that you don’t get to do anything you want.
You sure don’t, Midwestern Girl says. She could not agree more.
The son tries to yell, but he finds himself mute. He tries to stand, but finds he is trapped.
Ha, thinks Midwestern Girl.
I joined the Navy when I was seventeen, the father says. I married a woman I loved and that wasn’t enough to make me happy. I didn’t like being a father because I was always too tired. I have a collection of magazines specifically for men who like plump women in exotic costumes and my son found it one day and has never been able to forget it and every Halloween he sees witches and Hello Kitties and ladybugs and nurses and imagines me bent over the magazine and he can’t get that first image out of his mind, that woman with the enormous breasts in a Sherlock Holmes cap, pipe suggestively between her lips, trench coat gaping open to reveal the bustier underneath.
Rewind the scene.
That road trip with your father was a disaster. You fear you will turn out to be just like him. But no. The son fears he will turn out to be like his father. The protagonist fears he will never escape this diner, not even if he moves a thousand miles away, not even if he starts a new life somewhere sunny, where California Girl will teach him to live for the moment. Her breasts will be small and firm and high. You flick your wrist. You crack your knuckles. But the scene refuses to change. California Girl will not be summoned. The diner has linoleum floors. The far right wall is painted floor to ceiling with a mural of smiling pancakes, hurtling into the air before returning to the red-hot skillet. Never has breakfast struck you with such horror. The woman behind the diner bar is younger than you realized, freckles on her arms, a clip holding up fair but limp hair, and she wears a name tag. Carolyn.
You know, says Carolyn, when his father has gone to the bathroom, you have me all wrong. You think she should smile—isn’t this the moment when the woman smiles?—but she does not. I’m not from here at all. I’m from Minneapolis. This is my summer job. I’m an intern at Saddle Creek Records here in Omaha.
You know Minneapolis is in Minnesota, Omaha is in Nebraska, but that doesn’t mean anything, a location only and yet more than a list of miles from everywhere else, a list of places it isn’t. The Dakotas. The Plains. The Prairie. The Badlands. The Driftless Area. You feel the Midwest spread out, form an unfamiliar, unwieldy constellation.
Carolyn drops off your check before you can think of a question to ask her, about music or short-order cooking. She turns away from you, and goes to wait on another customer. Of course, you think, looking around, we are not the only people here.
For a while, you write stories about New York again, but your heart isn’t in it.
The protagonist goes to a party and meets no one. He takes a cab uptown and has an unremarkable experience. The East River is still there, but he feels no wild need to scream into its uncaring face. He walks down the street with no particular destination in mind and sees he is at that sex shop where he once escaped the rain. He goes back inside and the woman is there, still dry. She still says hello and smiles, sifts through that bin of purple butt plugs. But she is not shy. She does not apologize. There is no bachelorette party. She is there to buy a purple butt plug for herself. She doesn’t have a niece. Her only sibling, Jason, died in a car accident when she was ten. The woman’s name is Kara and her mother calls her Kitty.
Carolyn and Kara are gone, made in a flash of light and shed as quickly as a shadow is in darkness. If every woman she’s ever been is given a name, will there be a Midwestern Girl at all?
A man goes to a company picnic in suburban Philadelphia. Midwestern Girl holds hands with the protagonist’s rival, a tall, blond executive. They look into each other’s eyes but don’t speak until the protagonist gets around to eavesdropping. He has tried all afternoon to resist, to talk with his friend in accounting, to gossip with the women in production, but in the end, the couple pulls him into their orbit. Even at this crucial moment, the rival is given no lines of dialogue. Midwestern Girl caresses his forearm, a caress with which the protagonist will torture himself. She is pretty and, at the moment between thought and smile, beautiful. She is silent and mysterious. She opens her lips and says, I want you to take me home and make love to me.
She opens her lips and says, You are twice the man he is.
It’s getting ridiculous.
She opens her lips and says, I have a bachelor’s in physics and I am only using this company as a stepping-stone to a much better, more important job. I will leave every one of you behind.
The protagonist flirts with one of the women from production. The woman from production wishes she could capture the attention of Jason from customer service. The protagonist glances over at Midwestern Girl, this one last time, and to his surprise he finds her looking directly at him, even as she embraces her lover, like she knows exactly what she is doing to him. She flicks her wrist. She cracks her knuckle. She sets the scene.
The protagonist goes to New York City (this she knows—it is what a protagonist must do), but this time, the protagonist is Midwestern Girl. She wears thick eyeliner, a short skirt, a T-shirt that says Eagles may soar, but weasels never get sucked into jet engines. She passes you on the street and strikes up a conversation. Hasn’t she seen you somewhere before? Though neither of you can pinpoint how you know each other, it feels as if you have been friends for years. You tell her you have a girlfriend, as if this will disappoint her, but she only smiles. Midwestern Girl invites you and your sort-of girlfriend out for drinks and soon you are all at a basement bar in Brooklyn, laughing and drinking and flirting. When the bar gets too loud, you suggest Midwestern Girl come back to your apartment, and she agrees. You and your sort-of girlfriend hold hands on the walk. Midwestern Girl feels her arms swing free at her sides. The evening is fresh and sharp, the summer smell of garbage gone with the first frost. Midwestern Girl accepts the glass of wine you offer—Your home is lovely, what a creative use of the space—and then she and you and your sort-of girlfriend have a three-way.
Isn’t that what you hoped? Afterward, when you cannot sleep, you will stare out your window and sip a bourbon, if you are living that kind of story, or a cheap beer, if you are out of bourbon. You’ll think, Midwestern Girl ruined it, with her scruples, her wholesome thighs, those ample breasts that weren’t ample at all, just a trick of padding, optimism, and the late-afternoon light. You’ll think, I don’t want to go back to the woman in my bed. Because Midwestern Girl is already gone. She got off twice and left without saying thank you. It is you, not her, who ruminates. It is you, not her, who wonders whether you lost something unnameable when you reached for two women who both turned out to be strangers.
While you look out the window, Midwestern Girl is at the Greyhound bus station, buying a ticket home. She eats a slice of bad pizza and pulls her knees to her chest as she sits on the broken plastic bucket seat. It is lucky that she is not waiting for a moment of epiphany, but is simply looking forward to the rock of the bus as it rolls down the highway and the feeling of the glass as she rests uncomfortable against its cold pressure.