Leah Kaminsky: The Freeways Between Us

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The Freeways Between Us

1. Prelude

Mother told us not to believe in ghosts, and so we didn’t–not at first, anyhow, not in that way.  We thought she meant the kind on TV that suddenly materialize in the bathroom mirror, the kind with Unfinished Business and a thirst for suffering.  But when she left–went as far away as possible–it was clear that ghosts were a concept to her, an idea, a memory, at once ephemeral and omnipresent.  “Don’t let me become this,” she was saying, and then she could escape her guilt just like she was escaping us.

But we were young then–when she left us–and absence to a child is not the same as it is to an adult.  Memories gather at the surface like water poured into a pot of dark soil, pooling, pooling, before dropping through to the hard clay floor.  And so her presence was always with us, but buried like the body, not ubiquitous like the spirit.  In the fissures that cracked the soil: gaps for us to fill with visions of our choosing.

Still, we could see how she haunted Father, how he carried her with him wherever he went.  It was his fault she left–he told us so without telling us so­–and his life became an exercise in the avoidance of loss.  He was, to us, a reluctant adventurer, circumnavigating the globe in search of India, and finding instead a land that lacked in easy glories.  And while he was circling his fear but never quite touching it, we were circling him, dodging in and out of sight as our whims so demanded.  Sister more than me­­–gnawing at the boundaries until Father picked them up; moved back a step.

“Do you think it best?” he’d say, thinking, No, then of mother.

“I do, I do.”

A shrug of his shoulders, and the world was ours for testing.

That’s how most of our adventures began, anyhow, or, that’s how they continued.  Sister: concentric circles in the stone quarry’s frigid waters; seesawing elbows above the cross-river guardrail; clouds of cigarette smoke in red brick fissures; thrusting pelvic bones in glossy, wide pupils.

Sister: pushing, pushing.

For the both of us, life began and ended in Father’s car–that grand angel-winged Cadillac, that sputtering, turquoise noise machine.  All the subtlety of a nineteenth century steam engine.

“Climb into the motorboat,” Father would say.  “We’re getting an ice cream.”  Floaters, we were, down I-90 to the Dairy Queen.

It was him, really, that started the whole driving business­.  The car was a magic pill when we were babies, Sister’s hands balled into fists; the landscape of her lungs, rolling with vibrations.  One loop around the block and she’d nestle, thumb in mouth, soft eyelashes curled together, every bit the docile lamb.  The oily purr of the engine, the rhythmic click of the road below: too great for infant contrariness.

Then, when Mother left, I cried too and it was back to the car for loops that kept on growing wider.  One block was a neighborhood was a suburb was a city.  The older we grew, the more trouble Sister found, the further Father drove, until eventually we weren’t looping at all, we were going out to far off destinations, then coming back home again.

Here is where I spent the bulk of my childhood: peering around Father’s plaid-dipped shoulder, watching the gleaming hood part the high traffic seas.  For each of Sister’s actions, an automotive reaction: Sister struck the matches, Father turned the engine; Sister raced the train, Father turned the engine; Sister kissed the neighbor, Father turned the engine.  And there I was, beside her, watching, worrying, complying.

Mother, she waved down I-90, smiled angelic and pure; then disappeared behind the Rockies.  Pooling, pooling, then dropping through.

 

 

2. A Child’s Wonder

Summer, 1992: Massachusetts

In the apartment across the courtyard a naked lady lay face down on her bed.  When the fan on her dresser turned, a flash of white peeked beneath the sail.  Her dimpled buttocks reminded us of the snow-capped hills we’d seen on a rare visit with our grandparents in the Finger Lakes, and the thought made us somehow colder.

Sister sat at the window pressing her lips against the glass, me beside her–nervous.  She loved the shapes that formed in the fog and the way the smooth surface felt against her skin, but mostly how Father detested the marks she left behind, how he’d scrub and scrub with Windex but there was the scar, forever carved, forever taunting.

Still, there was something different today, something vengeful.  The night before we’d been poking around Father’s bed stand, running our fingertips across the wallpaper in search of cracks that might betray a secret door, when Sister hit her head and down came a cascade of paper.  Each piece was framed in Scotch tape and though our personal libraries had yet to expand beyond Goodnight Moon, we could recognize something familiar in the scrawl.

“Secret code,” Sister whispered confidently. “Must be about the passageway.”  I removed a magnifying glass from the top pocket of my elastic-waist Dungarees and handed it to her.  She pressed her lashes against the glass and opened wide, but before she could get anywhere a broad palm swooped in and disappeared with all of the papers.

“Hey!” Sister shouted and sprinted after Father, who reached for the closet door and tucked the papers beneath a Reebok box.  “Hey, hey!”  She beat at his legs with her knuckles.  “Give those back!  Those are ours!”  Father didn’t say anything, just shuffled the contents of the shelf from one side to the next.  I stayed by the bed stand watching, worrying.  Sister shouted until her voice began to break, and Father couldn’t help but soften, arching his gangly body to meet her jaw to jaw. He reached out a thumb and swiped at the pool of mucus gathering on Sister’s upper lip.

“When you’re older, you’ll understand.”

But Sister didn’t want to understand; neither of us did.  She raised her right hand and smacked his cheek, hard enough to leave a mark.  His face darkened beneath the imprint, yet always in his anger there was a softness, like he’d been flipped over and exposed.  He curled her into his arms and sent her straight to our bedroom with the door locked.

He felt bad this morning­-we could tell by the way his shoulders strained his t-shirt-but Sister kept on with her paintings.

I knew Father was standing behind us when the already dense air thickened with moisture.  A second mouth made of sweat had formed above his lips.  I glanced nervously at Sister, waiting for the trouble to come, but then Father’s two grins broadened and he swept Sister up in a different way this time, blowing raspberries on her belly.

“How about a trip to the coast?” he declared.  She smiled reluctantly, and we piled into the Cadillac.

“Windows up!” Father commanded as the car accelerated down I-90, but Sister loved the sound of chaos, the swirl of Starburst wrappers across the seats.

“Cadillac hurricane!” she shouted, and with manual windows, there was nothing Father could do.

How fast we drove on the highway!  How the roads twisted, dipped and soared!   The bridges were dinosaurs, legs thick and iron-girded.  The rotaries were gladiator rings, fighters streaming in and out.  All those people: weaving, honking, moving.  Creatures of the pavement.  A swirl of prepositions: over, through, into, out.

And us: flying!  Speeding!  Shim-shim-shimmying off one ramp and onto the next, until Father braked along the local streets and we dumped into the bay.  Outside those clunky metal doors: the seaside.  We could feel the air welding our t-shirts to our skin; smell the cotton candy, compact and crystalline.  We pounded our fists into the doorframe and smeared day-glo orange Doritos crumbs around the leather until Father pulled the handle and we spilled onto the beach, running into the heat.

Summer, to me, will forever be feet slapping boardwalk, mouths stained popsicle red, limbs flailing.

 

3. Storm Brewing

“Don’t be an ideologue!” Sister shouted and sprinted around the dune where Father couldn’t see us.  Neither of us knew what the word really meant but we’d overheard Father say it angrily into the phone several months before and Sister had used it as a verbal challenge ever since.  Sometimes it was a synonym for wuss; others it meant monster or liar or idiot.  I hated leaving Father on his own along the beach-to see him staring longingly at the surf, to know the mischief Sister would find out of sight.  But when Sister lead, I had to follow.

“Am not!” I cried.

By the time I caught up, she had nearly reached a large but simple New England-style house several meters down the beach.  It seemed a grand and magical anomaly in the salty air, not for its size but for the wide clay pots threaded through its eaves.  Berries twining over edges: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries; little jewels in necklace vines.

“We should go,” I hissed, fearing that someone would see, but Sister grabbed my hands and filled them with the spoils.  Then we ran laughing back to Father, red and purple juice stamping our foreheads where we’d knocked into the veil.

It was midday by the time we found him dangling his long legs over the edge of a dock.  Air wavered over the thick planks.  I could sense even then, my face colored with youth, the contradiction in the image-grandeur and fallibility linked arm in arm.  Thick barnacles clung to the dock’s sturdy legs, and colorful boats with names like, “Beauty of the High Seas” and “Nor’easter Sally” were lassoed to its side, but I could see the planks blackening and plopping one by one into the water.  A jester deferring to the king.

“Your mother,” Father said into the rhythm of waves lapping against the beach, and he let the words hang there as if just saying them would unleash destruction.  He licked his lips and tried again.  “Your mother used to love this dock.  She liked to look out over the Atlantic and talk about the first ships to hit the New World, what it was like to explore and discover.  That’s what she’s doing out West-exploring, discovering.”

His words were sentimental, but his face was soaked in disgust.  He didn’t want her alive.  Not in that way.  It’d have been different if she was in jail or something, but how could he memorialize her when she was out there somewhere having a good time?  How could he save her if she didn’t want to be saved?

Sister scrunched up her nose, dissatisfied.  I knew the look.  She was going to challenge him, cry “foul!”  So I pointed my toes towards Europe and held an imaginary teacup beneath her nose.  She frowned at first, then raised a matching pot.

“Oi there mate, a spot of tea?” Sister asked, mixing English accents.  Father countered with French.

“I do-not-know-you, and more important-ly I would-not-care-for-tea.”

“What do you bloody want then?  Would a crumpet do?  You unsavory continentals!”

“Presently?  I cannot ‘ear you over the roaring deliciousness of our superior cuisine.”

Oh, they could be so close the two of them!  How they made each other giggle.  In moments like these, I was no longer tasked with being “good”.  They loved and understood each other, and it was enough for me simply to swing my feet towards Europe and listen to the waves.  Repetition; consistency; routine.

When the wind blew across the sand dunes, the grass rippled like a horse’s mane as it gallops from field to field, East to West.  Freedom.

4. When Tires Squeal

On the East Coast summer, heat doesn’t roll in and roll out; it builds in groaning layers until eventually the air can’t hold it up anymore.  Five minutes pass, maybe ten; the ocean slaps against the dock; electricity crackles through the atmosphere; night falls.  And then?  Downpour.

We sprinted to the car and dove inside, deep puddles collecting on the seats.

“We’ll check into a hotel!” Father shouted over the hammering rain.  But Sister laid a plump hand over Father’s shoulder and looked at him straight.

“Let’s go home,” she said.

He hesitated, studied first her face, then mine, then his own in the mirror, then turned the key in the ignition and pulled the car into drive.

That was Sister: pushing, layering.  That was Father: stepping backwards, breaking.

The wipers sliced frantically across the windshield.  At seventy miles per hour, the rain shattered against the glass, and it felt like we were surrounded.  Father’s knuckles were white around the steering wheel, his lips pursed and working violently over curses.  Streaking yellow hazards mixed with blinking red brake lights on a windshield canvas.  Beneath a bridge: caesura.  Then the shattering.

And Father, oh he was so small as he hunched over the wheel, so small as he bobbed his head with the movement of the wipers.  When the car skidded from left to right, his strong wrists rotated expertly and the tires swerved back on to the road.  Father would save us, steer us safely through the night.

The turn onto I-90 wound up a long hill.  When we reached the top, there was a sudden break and the valley opened up before us.  We could see clouds on either side, dusting the bowls below.  From so far up the rain looked like nothing more than a gentle mist.  On either side, cylindrical bales of hay amassed along the green.  A car on a nearby country road raced for a moment alongside us, trying to keep up, dipping in and out of sight before disappearing in the rearview mirror.  We could see all the way down I-90, through the rolling hills of upstate New York, past rippling seas of golden wheat, over mountains and lakes until there before us was our mother, dangling her feet in the Pacific, frontier dreaming.  She turned to us and sang a lullaby.

“Bad dream, bad dream, just a bad dream.”  I reached a hand out, tried to wrap her arm in mine before the car nosed back down into the clouds.

“Hey!” Sister shouted and suddenly there was rain flooding through the window.  Her seatbelt had unbuckled and she was tossing Starburst wrappers into the air and laughing wildly.

“Sit down!” Father bellowed.  “Buckle your seatbelt!”

But Sister didn’t care.  Here I thought she’d forgiven him, but this whole day she’d been waiting to extract her revenge.

Really, I tried to pull her down, but my seatbelt kept pulling so I unhooked it and launched myself at her knees.

“Watch it!” Sister cried.

The last things I remember: Father’s hand swiping; the thud of Sister’s head; the squealing of tires; no breath, no breath, no breath.

*******************

We awoke in a tow truck, Sister groaning, Father’s arm in a sling.

“Just some scratches and dings,” he said, and we didn’t know if he meant the car or the people inside of it.  “It’ll be just fine.”  But there was a new crease in his forehead that ran deep and never faded.

By the time we reached the apartment, the clouds were steaming off the pavement, commuting home.  Near the lobby, there was a sudden ringing across the courtyard.

“My ears,” Sister moaned.  “I’m broken.”

But as she said it, an insect lifted from the bushes and disappeared into the dark.  Cicadas.  As if it were just any other summer night.

Mother drives to the Pacific; Mother strips, leaps in.

Winter, 2001: Somewhere Over Michigan

5. Interlude: Numbness of the Torso

It was Sister’s idea to buy the tickets, Sister’s idea to board the plane.

Two separate storm systems had unfolded over the country-one from Canada, one from the Pacific.  On the TV weather maps the country disappeared under a mask of clouds, the dogged tail of Florida the sole evidence of the country’s continued existence.  I said: wait until spring.  I had visions of the wheels spinning off the tarmac, the terminal erupting.  But Sister, she blew dust out of the mouse, hovered the pointer over “purchase,” clicked.

It was our manifest destiny, she said: head west like our mother; dip our toes into the Pacific; frontier dream.  But my eyes?  They kept icing over, black and thin.

I awoke somewhere over the Midwest.  Seat 15F.  The furthest west we’d ever been before was Pennsylvania, yet here we were hovering over the heartland, where the politicians say the real people are.  Despite the recent storms, I had expected amber seas of grain, a patchwork quilt landscape, but the heart of America was frozen solid, a glacial wedge between the coasts.  When the weathermen talk of snow, they use adjectives that mask like “blanket,” and “coat.”  But from so high up, the snow seemed to illuminate the basic geometry of everyday landscape: a border here, an angle there; the parallel lines that mirror our separation, the intersecting lines that bring us together.  Every object reduced to its parts: parallel rivers curving out of sight; the tops of trees clustering for warmth.  A torso made of tundra, limbs disjointed, organs bruised.

When the cabin began to shake, the captain chirped out an airline proverb and tilted the nose of the airplane higher.  He said it like there was some entitlement to a smooth flight stamped into the fine print at the bottom of our boarding passes.

But I didn’t feel entitled; I felt nervous, like any minute I’d be caught and reprimanded.  The higher we climbed, the heavier I felt; the further west, the more numb my extremities.  The East Coast was clawing its way down my vertebrae, talons deep and firmly anchored.

We were nineteen, a single year into our legal adulthood.  Six months had passed since it’d all happened again, just like that summer with Father when we were young: the blood on the pavement, the glass in our skin.  Six months since Sister climbed into the driver’s seat and gunned the engine.

That’s not for now, though.  That’s not for us to think about.  All I can say is that in a state of shock, the human body operates like a single-celled organism.  It reacts to stimuli, contracting, expanding.  There’s no higher processing, no decision-making, no risk evaluation, just a slow shuffling at the nudging of a pipette.

“Halfway,” Sister grinned and pointed into the sun.

 

Winter, 2001: Seattle

6. Terminus

It’s been a month now and though the money we’ve saved won’t last forever, we’re not looking for jobs.  We buy an old yellow Chevy and ride the freeways, noting each pothole and graffitied stop sign with a sense of urgency and purpose.  We know how the roads soar, how they funnel, how they curve.  We know how the wind buffets the car as we drive across the lake, how the bridge divides the water into angry waves and placid surface.  We know the way the tires spin and the car shakes as the roads slicken near the pass, and we know that the word “chains” is more than just an antiquated form of snow tire.  I-5 to 520 to 405 to 90; we ping-pong between the poles and the horizon.

With each loop on the King County racetrack, Sister becomes somehow lighter, freer.  Like Mother before her, Sister has turned her back on the East.  She buys a map of America and traces the tip of her pointer finger across I-90, over plains and mountains and valleys and canyons.  She hesitates over the rolling landscape of New England and taps twice, the corners of her lips upturning with glee.

“How far we’ve come!” she proclaims.  I-90, to Sister, is a line segment with a beginning and an end.  The yawning stadium where the road terminates is also where any memories of our East Coast existence end too.  Seattle, the West Coast, the Pacific: a willed terminus.

I want it to be mine, too.  I sit in the passenger seat and marvel along with Sister.  I thrill when the sun breaks through a sheet of clouds and lights the whole sky pink; when a storm rolls off Elliot Bay; when Coke cans skip down the steep sidewalks and into the Sound; when the city lights and the full moon glow large and phosphorescent over Lake Union’s calm waters.  On clear days, strangers on the street remark, “The mountains are out,” and then go on their way.  We live in a city ringed with mountains, a volcano looming grand and majestic at the bottom of a lake.

This is why Sister turns the car in loops: the drama and passion of the Northwest landscape; the excitement and danger of the roads that defy it.

But defiance, to me, is iron girding built on shifting sands.  Below these city streets: a spider web of fault lines.  One day they’ll rub against each other.  The lake will roll, mountains crumble, bridges sway.  There will be me and Sister, our fingernails digging deep grooves into the pavement; a final skid before the buckling.

When Sister accelerates on I-90 East, I feel my two coasts, at once fused and bisected.  Here is my north, cold and barren; here is my south, fertile and warm.  I am paralleled, mirrored; I am polar, distinct.

“Don’t you love these floating bridges?” Sister asks, but all I can see is the crumbling of pavement.

Thousands of miles away, this road is beginning.

 

7. What It Means to Explore

Sister doesn’t ever say it, but I know she thinks sunsets and rises are too obvious to be beautiful.  Beauty, to Sister, is a kind of grandness that no one else can see-in danger, in thrill, in stepping right up to the boundary and giving it a shove.

But me, I like to rise before the sun so I can catch it in the act.  I sneak out of bed before Sister wakes, walk the city streets in the waning darkness and discover what’s inside.  No soaring, no funneling, no bridging; just my own two feet, circumnavigating the cracked sidewalk.

And oh, the things I see!  All over this city there are metal pigs painted yellow and black and pink and purple.  There are curved blades of grass dipped in dew.  There are crisscrossed trellises with cherry tomatoes strung like jewels.  There are houses like hobbit homes, stuck deep into hills and blanketed with earth.

How my toes point down the sloped streets; how my rubber soles squeak across the pavement; how my breath lingers in the crisp fall air!  I wave to the baristas and their black-eyed addicts.  I dance around delivery trucks, blinking dutifully from the turn lane.  All of this in the cover of darkness, as I seek a place where I can watch the day embark.

It is only natural for me to seek out the tallest bridge in Seattle.  It is Sister’s favorite, and we have driven across it countless times.  It must have been built before the days of pick-up trucks and even bigger SUVs because the lanes are narrow and each time we drive over it I know what it must have been like to race Roman chariots.  Every moment one moment away from that final grazing to send us spinning into the chasm.

But I’m not going over the bridge now; I’m seeking its underbelly.  This, I am sure, is where my kind of adventure lies.  Amongst the inner workings of things, with bolts and graffiti and crisscrosses and arches.  Here, where the bridge is an organism, sturdy, tall, cemented.

And what Sister doesn’t know about her favorite bridge?  There is a sculpture of a troll underneath, peeking his gnarled face out over the road.  Wide eyes and a warty nose, VW Beetle clutched between his fingers, gold plaque with the artist’s description, and brass where the tourists have run their fingers too often.  During the daytime it’s a top destination, but under cover of the early morning darkness, I am alone with the beast and its earthy magic.

I nestle into the troll’s arms and wait for the sun, allow my eyelids to flutter beneath the weight.  I am safe here at the bottom of things; warm and nurtured.  Within the hum of traffic, a lullaby.  Pooling, pooling, then dropping through.

8. Crash

And then the familiar screech of tires, the sound of human life slivering, then fading out.  Someone on the bridge has pressed the gas down too hard, and now we all must suffer.

I turn my eyes against the thought of it, stare upwards at a pair of spider webs glistening in the early morning pink and search for meaning in the image.  The webs are strung perfectly parallel between a pair of iron bars.  Both spiders lie still and curled in the center of each web-mirror images on shining strings.  A slight breeze sighs beneath the bridge and the webs puff outwards for just a moment before relaxing back into place.  In one web, there is a fly, caught in the outer reaches.  But the spider takes no notice; lets it struggle into the light.

Each cell in my body a tectonic plate, moving. There is something clawing, clawing down my body.

How familiar it all feels.  The roar of traffic above me, the wail of the sirens, the steady hum of plot points repeating.

I know this.  I’ve seen this.  I’ve felt this before.

In the rafters, the spiders roll up their webs and head toward the pass.

 

Fall, 2000

9. The Letters

These are the facts:

This is how it happened:

What I mean is:

This is what you have to see:

It’s not Sister’s fault that things happened to us.  It’s not Sister’s fault that Mother left, that Father never stopped grieving.  It’s not Sister’s fault that she loved to drive fast, to flirt with boys she shouldn’t have.  It’s not Sister’s fault, really, it’s not.

(It is, it is, of course it is).

But these–these are the facts.  This is how it happened.  This is what I mean.

We were eighteen when the second crash came.  I had filled out the college applications, put them in the mailbox, but Sister had tossed them into the ditch and stomped out a devil’s dance.  We weren’t the kind of girls who locked themselves away from the world, she said.  We experienced, risked; bought tickets to the West Coast, and learned to hunt.  That’s the kind of girls we were: adventurers like our Mother.

For months, Father pleaded.  Think of your future, your well-being, me.  But Sister was concentric circles in the stone quarry’s frigid waters; seesawing elbows above the cross-river guardrail; clouds of cigarette smoke in red brick fissures; thrusting pelvic bones in glossy, wide pupils.

*******************

It was East Coast cold the night it happened; my breath huddled in clouds for solidarity.  Yet when I opened the front door to our cramped apartment, I was struck by a wave of artificial heat.  In the winter, Sister liked to dial the thermostat to eighty, sunbathe in the glow of a TV screen.

It was nearly ten o’clock, and Father was in the kitchen, bent over the sink.  His sweat-drenched undershirt was more window than screen.  I could see how pale his skin was, how prominent his ribs.  Unlike Sister, I was nonplussed by the changes in our own bodies, felt little need for those long hours spent staring with mixed fascination and distrust into the bathroom mirror.  But Father’s metamorphoses­­ never failed to intrigue me.  How strong and self-assured he seemed when Sister laughed easily; how broad his shoulders, how straight his back; how stencil perfect the image of a man.  How small and beaten when he turned one way and Sister turned the other; how his neck bent into his shoulders into his chest into his knees.  It was more than just withering; it was devolution.  His ears were comically big on either side of his skull.  His muscles were shrunk to their essential strands.  He was nothing more than a boy in his father’s stiff clothes.

(And when the grownup leaves the room­–who then, will take the lead?)

The kitchen sink was a simple basin, yet it gaped like an industrial beast.  I reached my hand out to his shoulder, then drew back, startled by the red bubbling up from his cheek, then splattering into the porcelain and racing toward the drain.

“Father?” I said, but he didn’t answer.

I knew without knowing who had cut him.

And then I was at the door, jiggling the handle, kicking it free from the frame.  Expecting what, I’m not sure.  Havoc, perhaps.  Bookshelves overturned, posters torn, pants dumped on to sweaters on to trophies on to chairs.  I found instead the room as I’d left it­, neat and orderly, everything in its place.  All except a small hole on the upper pane of our single window; red shards like teeth.  Cold air spilling inward.

And strewn across a glass pebble beach, swimsuit matted with blood: Sister.  Shivering into the wind; fingers wrapped around an icicle made of glass.  Small and pathetic, like Father before her.  My heart should have filled with pity at the sight­–that would have been the normal, predictable way of things.  But instead came a great wave of anger.  This after so many months of stillness!  Calm!

The glass crunched beneath my boots.  I envisioned my fingers circled tight around her neck, slamming her windpipe shut like prison doors.  I saw her face pressed hard into tiny shards, my foot pressed sharp into her back.

But just as I approached, she bent her head down, curled her neck into her chest, and held up the stack of letters­­.  I took them in my hand, lowered myself onto the bed, unfolded the first page, and began to read.

Dear Mark,

Today I hiked the canyon near the motel.  I thought of that time in Ithaca where we climbed the waterfall with no shoes on and then we had to walk through the Cornell campus to get back home.  It doesn’t feel so long ago.

 I met another agent.  He said he could help me.  He talked big.  They all talk big.  We’ll see.

Marcy

Dear Mark,

Another job interview today.  Wal Mart.  And of course, they wouldn’t hire me.  Wal Mart.  I have a master’s.  Maybe that’s why.

John and I are going to try swimming the lake today.  We’re moving on to Portland soon.  I hear good things.  Will send an address when we’ve settled some place.

Marcy

Dear Mark,

Saw a magazine article the other day about the governor.  Who didn’t see that one coming?  They’re the same everywhere.

The trees here are amazing.  There’s so much moss.  A lot of rain though to make it happen.  Still deciding if it’s worth it.

Marcy

And they went on like this.  All those years we’d spent filling blank pages with romantic characterizations of a mother we’d never know, and here she was doing it herself.  It was all so mundane.  Never a word about us, never a “how are you.”

Yet what surprised me was that I already seemed to know this.  I already knew that she was ordinary and selfish, that we could trace our fingertips across the map until our nails tapped the Pacific but she wouldn’t be there waiting.

I read each one carefully, like an archeologist cataloguing clues.  When I reached the bottom of the stack, I gathered them back into a neat pile, crossed my arms over my chest, and shivered with Sister into the cold.

*******************

“We’re nearly eighteen,” she said.  “We can do what we want.”  Then she blew dust off a suitcase, tossed in the first things she saw.

“What are you doing in there?” Father called.  But we were already out the window.  His voice was just an imprint on the wind.

In Sister’s hand, a rabbit key chain.  She jiggled the door handle until it popped, then slid inside.

“Get in,” she said, and I could feel the stick of alcohol as my skin folded across the seat.  She turned the key, hit the gas, and pulled out onto the street.

In loops we went, up I-90 and back again.  How fast we drove on the highway.  The bridges were beasts, legs thorned with unsightly bolts.  The rotaries were death pits, sites for spinning tires and flipping cabs.  Where did all those people come from?  Weaving, honking, moving?  All of us in on it together, this delusion of statistical denial.

If summer is the sound of scampering, autumn is a mass of wet leaves clinging to our tires, hazard lights streaking red across the sky.

It was Sister’s fault-when the tires shook, when the body shimmied.  Father always said not to drive fast on the freeway.  Why, then, did he drive so fast that night too?

I could see it happening before it happened.  I could see the metal folding, I could feel his shoulder’s hunch.  I could hear our family scream as we collided into one.  Because this is how it happened.  This is what I mean.

The only preposition that matters?  Into, into, into.

This is how it happened.  This is what I mean.

The pounding!  The pounding!  The pounding of rain against the glass!

 

 

Summer, 2002

10. Train Tracks

Six months since we’ve moved to Seattle.  We’re both working now in the same coffee shop on the same shift doing the same things.  We still live in the same apartment, still sleep in the same bed.  We still lap around King County in our old yellow Chevy; still drive across bridges, through mountains, to the pass, turn around.   I no longer wake before Sister to roam the city streets.  I only soar, funnel, curve.

But every once in awhile I’ll think I hear a cicada and my heart lurches eastward.  It’s just a bird, but for an instant, my eyes travel down I-90, seek an East Coast beginning, before I turn my toes towards the coffee shop and hurry along the sidewalk.

One day at work, a high schooler who wears too much lipstick tells Sister about a beach where the kids go to drink and burn bonfires.  When we arrive, there’s a horde of pitbulls let off their leashes, and stumbling girls in spaghetti strap tank tops, breasts on display.  The guys throw a football and take bets on who’s going to get what from which girls while we all pretend not to hear.  As Sister throws her sweater into the fire and watches it burn, I walk alone down the beach.

The sun is cresting the mountains and the beach has a golden gleam.  But for the over-eager barking of teenaged hormones, the world glows magically.  It’s low tide, and the retreating waters have revealed a chain of pools filled with colorful creatures I’ve never seen live before.  Purple starfish, stretched across the sand; greyish geoduck, oozing across a rock.  Seagulls dive bomb into the water, and tiny birds chase the waves.

Around the curve, eight wooden legs, descend in two rows into the water.  Each one is a jagged stump, covered in seaweed and masked in a swarm of gnats.  The legs are wide at their base, and I can see in my mind what it used to be: wide planks; docked boats; silhouetted figures, legs dangling over the water.  I can see the planks blackening, plopping one by one into the water.

In the distance: the hum of boats commuting between islands; the swish of a seaplane skimming across the water; the churning of motor blades; the thrum of progress.  I can hear a train bending around the curve and I wonder in which direction its headed.

I dig my heel into the sand; turn.  Sister has her arm around a boy, a joint between her lips.  She exhales, giggles, rubs her hand along his belt.

SisterSister.

I unzip my jacket, let it fall to the sand.  Take one last look at Sister, the mountains.  Begin to run.

“Where are you going?” Sister shouts.  “I have the keys!”

But I will run and I will run until the fog rolls off my body like I’m San Francisco Bay.  I will run and I will run until my skin melts my bones into sand.  I will run and I will run until I can peer down I-90 and know deep within my heart that out there, somewhere, this road is beginning.

 

 

Leah Kaminsky is originally from Ithaca, New York and now resides in Austin, Texas. She explored the world from Delhi to Bangkok before she settled for several years in Seattle to receive her MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, and to launch a writing instruction business. Now in Texas, she hopes to focus more exclusively on her creative career. She was nominated for inclusion in Best New American Voices, 2008, has placed several humor articles on The Rumpus and has twice placed in the top twenty-five for Glimmer Train short fiction contests.

 

 

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