The Juniper Bushes – Hannah Allman Kennedy
The drive started out pleasantly. When I left Pittsburgh, I didn’t really know where I was going. I dropped my sister off at the airport, taking her all the way to the gate, because she’s only seventeen and the airport will allow clingy guardians like myself to get a gate pass, if they show their ID and don’t have any outstanding felonies. Eliza would be gone for a whole week to a conference in Los Angeles for high schoolers showing promise in art or animation. She had registered for it all herself, saved up for it by painting living rooms and babysitting children, and was very excited. I realized at once that this would be the first time we would be apart in ten years, since Dad died and it was just the two of us. But I kept this epiphany to myself, because I didn’t want to seem like the worrying older sister/mother she accuses me of being. Instead, I dropped her off at the gate, B15, I think, and hugged her tightly, and said, “Don’t get kidnapped.” And she said, “I never do, Helen.” And I said, “have fun.” And she said, “I always do, Helen.”
Then her plane started boarding, and not to seem like a clingy guardian, I waved nonchalantly and set off through the terminal which is shaped like a big X. I bought a cup of pretzel nuggets and surreptitiously watched her plane taxi down the tarmac and to the runway, then speed down that into the skies. I finished the pretzel nuggets, threw away the cup, and strolled through the duty-free shop, sampling perfumes I couldn’t afford. Then I walked through the little atrium at the very center of the terminal, the one covered with blue tiles, with giant skylights above and mobiles suspended from the ceiling, doing a slow dreamy dance in the air. I went down the escalators and patted the wax figure of George Washington on the nose. I rode the short subway back to the baggage claim, and took the people-mover all the way to the short term parking lot, where I had left the Honda. Then I started driving.
At first, I fully intended to go back into the city and straight home, to beat the afternoon traffic. But the air felt so pleasant—we were having a warm spell, and it felt more like May than March—and the sun was shining, and the wind was blowing huge bolls of white across the blue sky, and I had just washed and fueled the Honda, so I decided to be adventurous and take the freeway south. But a few minutes later it didn’t feel adventurous; it still felt like Pittsburgh in the late winter: brown and gritty and dirty and cramped. So I changed course and headed west, into West Virginia and then Ohio. The land ironed out, open and wide and flat. I needed space, where there were no hills, less trees, where I could see and breathe, unwind and be alone.
It was four hours later, in Cincinnati, that I started to realize I didn’t have a plan. This was when the light for the gas tank came on. I’m not used to not having a plan. For the past ten years, maybe longer, maybe forever, I’ve always had a plan. The thought of not having one was terrifying, like coming to the edge of a deep black pit and not trusting yourself not to lose your balance and fall in. But then, I realized I actually did have a plan. I was just too afraid to admit it.
I was going to Arizona.
I’d only been there once. Arizona. When I was seven. Arizona. Twenty years ago, before Eliza was born. Arizona. Before any of this happened, before I became myself. Arizona. The place, the name, was magic to me.
That time we went to visit Mom’s mom, my grandmother, though she wasn’t very grandmotherly. She was harsh and biting and said exactly what she thought about everybody, and it was never very nice. She lived in a little cottage in Phoenix. The air conditioning was broken, and the place was surrounded by fans. She hated Dad. But during our whole visit Mom laughed and laughed and made all of us cheerful. She took me to see the desert, the red rocks and sand as far as the eye could see, marked with brown-green juniper bushes and saguaros. I had never seen anything like it. The lack of trees, the lack of ever-rolling hills that blocked out the sun and played with the line of the horizon, terrified me. I felt too exposed, too bold, too open. The land forced me not to hide. Mom showed me the little lizards skittering across the sand, how if you looked close enough, the world glittered with pebbles and sand and glass. She took joy in my every discovery. She didn’t act at all like a mother who would leave her husband and two daughters in just a few years, coming back to this same desert in a selfish act of free-spirited abandonment.
So I kept driving. I filled the car with gas again and again, draining my debit card in Tennessee and Missouri and Oklahoma and Texas and New Mexico. The land got so flat, almost boring. I loved and hated it. I listened to music on my phone or on the radio. I reveled in the morning shows, afternoon shows, evening shows, the weird accents and unfamiliar ads and strange weather forecasts. I followed the freeways, mostly, which string all the major and minor cities together like sixteenth notes. I devoured the land hungrily, a bite per mile. And for the first time in ten years, or maybe more, or maybe forever, I wasn’t afraid.
When darkness came that first night, in Tennessee, I was not afraid. I pulled over and locked the car and snuggled in the backseat with the fleece blanket I keep back there, just in case. It helped that I had an overnight kit in the trunk, just in case. Always having a plan helped me this time, when I didn’t have a plan. I brushed my teeth with water from a bottle I bought at a Kroger gas station. I slept so soundly that night, and I woke up so pleasantly crisp and cozy. I drove to a nearby diner where the ladies still wore turquoise cotton aprons and lace collars, and served me 50-cent coffee that tasted slightly sour but somehow very good. I had a greasy breakfast, refusing the Grits Special, or whatever it was, in favor of bacon and biscuits and scrambled eggs covered with a magical kind of sheen.
The next night I wasn’t afraid either, somewhere in Oklahoma, in the parking lot of a church out in the middle of nowhere. I slept in the backseat again, a deep, dreamless sleep. It was dreamless, I think, because the whole journey felt like a dream, a long one, just wild enough to be a dream and just feasible enough to be real. The sunsets and rises, the colors, the people, the landscapes, were all set in a surreal haze, both too colorful and too desaturated, like a Technicolor movie on bad film. And I was in a dream too, a trance, a sleep. I saw everything and remembered nothing, so far inside my own mind and memory that I couldn’t think or do; I could only be.
Finally, the sign. A blue field, a gold star, with red and yellow stripes emanating from it like a sunrise. Arizona. The Grand Canyon State Welcomes You. I never saw this sign the first time I was here; we flew from Pittsburgh into Phoenix. It was a clean transition, a sterile one, unmarked by dirt and sweat and an extra thousand miles on the car. But still, this sign stuck in my mind. Arizona Welcomes You. Maybe this really was a dream, or perhaps I went back in time. Maybe I could still fix everything. Maybe I was not the girl who left Pittsburgh, but the girl who finally made it to Arizona.
I pulled off to the little visitor’s center. It wasn’t much, just a gravel trail leading around juniper bushes and a permanent porta-potty (perma-potty?) and a plaque instructing us to watch out for rattlesnakes and Gila monsters. I followed the trail around the bushes. I rubbed juniper berries between my fingers and inhaled the sharp, spicy, piney scent on my fingertips. The path curled up and over a little hill, between saguaro cacti and agave. I followed it, still feeling dreamy, led by fate. It was early in the afternoon, and the light was playful, colorful, peeking out between cracks in the clouds, not burning or blinding.
I made the crest of the hill, and saw that the path dipped down again, to follow the rim of a little canyon, maybe a wash. The earth fell away little by little until it dropped off dramatically, and I was looking out for miles and miles and miles, over taupe and red stripes dotted with dull green.
“Hello!” I yelled. “Hi! Haha!” My voice caught on the wind and floated down, and dipped and warbled. Then it came back, like a boomerang, and hit me in the face.
You’re alone. There’s no one here.
I touched my hand to my nose. The smell of juniper.
You came all this way, and there’s no one here.
Arizona. The magic word, the magic place. Arizona. I want to be someone else. Arizona. Not the girl I am now, not the girl I became. Arizona. The girl I almost was. Arizona.
For years, I had this funny picture in my head. I’d drive to Arizona, and on the red and blue sign with the star, Grand Canyon State, there would be another, smaller sign, a sticky note maybe, that said, Helen O’Brien, your mom is over here. There would be an arrow pointing to her, standing there, smiling, smelling like lavender and lipstick and maybe juniper berries. And I would have found her then. Arizona. I would have brought her home. Arizona. I would be the girl who fixed everything, the girl who had a plan.
What a damn idiot I am.
I grabbed a handful of juniper and pulled it, snapping it off the tree. I threw it into the canyon, the deep dark pit. It floated down, weakly. I grabbed a stone by my foot, the size of a wallet, and hurled it over the side too, and then another, and then another, heavier and heavier ones. I kicked up the dirt, kicked the glittering pebbles and sand and glass over the edge. I tore out patches of cacti. My hands bled. I screamed and screamed, and it echoed over the miles of desert, until the screams came back to me and hit me in the face, over and over again.
Welcome to Arizona.
Three days later I’m at the Pittsburgh airport again, Gate B23, I think. Eliza comes out, looking tired but happy. She tells me about Los Angeles, the conference, the movie star she thinks she saw. We make our way back through the airport, the atrium, George Washington, the subway, the parking lot.
“How was your week?” she asks.
“It was nice,” I say, shifting the Honda into gear. There’s an extra two thousand miles on the odometer, and the car is not clean anymore.
Hannah Allman Kennedy grew up among the oil ghost towns of Venango County, Pennsylvania. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Carlow University, and her B.A. in writing from Geneva College. Hannah is a freelance writer, editor, and web designer. Her work has appeared in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine and The Watershed Journal. She lives in Pittsburgh.