All the Lovely Things

Harriet Winterer

        Nothing blossoms in dust. Maybe there are some weeds, some dried up bushes waiting to be blown away, but the dust gives nothing of itself; all the lovely things learn to go somewhere else, somewhere they are cherished.

        No one ever really wanted me. A dad who never wanted a daughter, a mom who left on the last bus that the station saw before it closed down, a town that didn’t have enough to give anything away. Yes, there were the good moments, even happy moments, but in the end, there was just dust keeping me there, and everyone knows that roots don’t grow in dry ground.  There’s a boarded up gas station a little down the highway, too small to notice yet bigger than the bounds of time. It closed down a couple years ago, after the owner died and his son finally had no reason to stay. It really says something about a place that its gas station closed, doesn’t it? I mean, this is a town built on a highway, you’d think that we would have enough people coming through to support a tiny fucking gas station. But, that’s just the way this town is. A couple houses sitting on a tiny plot of land that stretches farther than the edge of the world, inhabited only by tumbleweeds waiting for their roots to at last become loose enough to be carried away on a gust of wind.

        The first time I tried to leave I waited for hours; not for lack of cars, even this near ghost town was driven through every hour or so, but because each time the shape of the car emerged from the heat distortion above the road, the person driving became every scary story I’d ever heard: the killer in the woods, the ghost in the basement, the man lurking in the alleyway, all of them waiting to steal me away from the only place I’d ever known. I waited all day, my impulse fading along with the afternoon sunlight.

        The next time I didn’t think about it, didn’t let myself form enough of a plan, a hope, to imagine anything that might come of it. It was windy that day, tumbleweeds crossed my path wherever I went, taunting me with their freedom. So, the next time a big gust of wind blew, I forgot to fight it.

        It was a semi-truck that came to get me, the blue Swift on the side buried in a layer of grey dust. The trucker didn’t say anything, just told me that he wasn’t allowed to take hitchhikers anymore so if I didn’t snitch, he wouldn’t say anything about a missing teenage girl. I shrugged and leaned my head against the window, staring at the infinite horizon. People always talk about how great the world is, how beautiful, but all I could ever see was a pile of dirt. I’ve seen it sometimes in a dream, beauty, when I can feel a cool breeze rippling over me; there’s something calling in the background, like if wind had a form and knew it could devour the world if it wanted. The sky is blue and everything around me is every color but grey—there could be someone waiting for me down wherever that noise is coming from, but maybe there’s not, and that’s okay.

        He told me I had to get out after the sun started going down, so I was left on the side of the highway where a smaller road split off. It was reaching dark, the shadows stretching like fingers reaching to drag me back to the dust I had come from. The smaller road pointed away from those shadows, so that’s where I headed. At the end of the road was an old farmhouse, the wood used to build it grey from unprotected decades under the sun. I was about to see if there was a shed in the back I could sleep in when someone walked onto the porch carrying a broom. I could tell she was old in the stories that followed the creases on her face, but she stood like there wasn’t a current strong enough to pull her away. She looked at me, her dark eyes beckoning me forward. She only gave the porch a few sweeps before going back inside, leaving the door wide open behind her.

        I sat on the side of the highway the next morning, watching as the shadows of the night before receded like waves off a shore, chased by the rising sun. I now had a bag to carry, full of food and clothes that the woman had given to me when I left her house this morning. She hadn’t asked any questions either, only heated up some leftovers in the microwave and pointed me to an empty guest room. There were no dreams that night, just a vast landscape that somehow remained endless without being very big at all.

        No cars had driven past yet, the heat rising off the highway starting to look like the ocean was just over there, waiting for me behind a dip in the road. The car that eventually rose out of the mirage was dull and brown, its windows too dark to see through. It slowed to a stop next to me, a man who could have been either eighteen or thirty five climbing out to grab my bag. He was the first to ask questions: where I was running from; who I was going to; what I was looking for. He seemed worried, glancing over while I mumbled something that seemed logical, giving me water when I told him how thirsty I was and placing a hand on my knee to convey how much he cared.

        His hand followed the sun’s example, rising in the lonely sky above us.

        The next time I blinked, I got lost for a second in that warm sticky darkness behind my eyelids. It took a moment to free myself, and when I opened my eyes I was still in the car, but instead of flat dirt around us there was an ocean everywhere I looked—I could see it in the way the wind moved over the rolling hills of tall grass. We had been in the car just for a second, what had happened to make the sun now seem so low in the sky, even though no time had passed at all? He was quiet, but his hand remained in a grip on my thigh in a way that made me feel like I was his, that pinned me to the seat even though my mind kept wanting to lift up, up, up. He noticed me studying this development and turned his head to look at me in a way that told me we now shared something incredibly special, something that now tied us together. No one had ever looked at me like that before, like I was important. I knew something about this was wrong, that something reminded me of stories I’d heard about girls getting in cars with strange men, but that part of my brain was floating just out of earshot, and instead all I wanted to do was sit here where it was warm with this man who might love me now. I wouldn’t be one to know what it feels like to be loved, but maybe it feels like this, like floating in warm water, drifting with his current.

        I don’t remember the next few days that I spent with him, only images like shadows that disappeared when I tried to look at them. There was a motel with neon red light coming through half closed blinds, its bars landing on a bed with all the sheets pushed off one end. There were times I looked at him and remembered that I didn’t know him, but he only pushed my hair behind my ear and gave me some more water, telling me everything was okay. There were waitresses at roadside diners who followed me into the bathroom to stab me with sharp words, to ask over and over again if I was okay, if I needed them to call someone. They just didn’t understand. Didn’t understand that I now knew what it was to be loved, to be wanted. There were bruises I would look down and see sometimes, along my arms, around my neck, down the inside of my legs, proving the strength with which he coveted me. No matter where we went, I remember his eyes wanting me, devouring me. Maybe all my memory is dark for a reason, maybe I don’t want to remember it, but I remember how good it felt to be craved.

        I had woken up one morning in an empty motel room. I didn’t know where, or how I got there, or who I used to be. I remembered a shape, his face only a blur though as if he were a painting someone had run a hand down before it was dry. I lay there for maybe hours, maybe days, remembering how to be mine again. I knew what had happened by the soreness I felt within myself, like I was a rag and he had wrung me of anything that made me something then dropped me, left me lying as he walked away. Now I was dried out, just a bit of dust.

        When I at last found the strength to lift myself out of the bed on unsteady legs, I stared into the mirror under those white lights that showed everything and I couldn’t see anyone. When I looked hard I could maybe see the place in the air where someone used to be, a bit of space showing the outline of a memory.

        I stayed in that room for decades, for eons, until I had lived a life of empty spaces and died and been reborn as maybe something. Until I could shower off the sweat and rinse my mouth of the taste and cleanse my skin of the bruises. Until I could wait outside on the side of the highway for a car, taking me from the corpse of that empty person and bringing me somewhere with full skies and full rooms and full people.

        When the next car opened its green door the noise almost knocked me over. It was almost the sound of my dreams, light and uncaring and bursting with life. It was a family, a mom and a dad and three brothers and a youngest sister who loved each other so strongly, stronger than the sun when it beat down on pavement at noon even while they argued and shouted and wrestled for control of the radio. The tsunami of emotion muffled slightly with a look from the mom, and she told me that they were going about six hours away if I wanted to join them. If you can make it that long without tossing one of these out the window, she said, with another look as the sound starts to rise again. I could only nod and climb in the backseat with the girl, who politely shook my hand and introduced herself as Serah before returning to ordering her brothers on which songs to play and whose turn it was to pick in “I Spy”.

        I watched her then, how she so effortlessly navigated the clashing tides of her family without ever doubting her place in it, how she glowed with her love for them each time she told them to shut up, how full she was of every moment of life that she’s lived. There she sat, buckled in tightly and lit up by the kind of happiness you never realize you have. The happiness of belonging. Could this have been me? If my mom was ready, if my dad cared. If I didn’t try to grow in dust. I could have been the little girl sitting in the back seat who never realized just how much she had. Who saw beauty everywhere without ever looking for it, who loved the world just because she could.

        I drove with them until they reached where they turned off of the highway, heading to a camping spot two hours down a dirt road. They asked me a million times if they could call anyone, if I needed anything, anything at all. They eventually left me with a backpack of trail mix and fifty bucks that I gave up on saying no to. I watched the back window as they drove away, the silhouette of Serah’s head leaning over the back of the seat as she frantically waved goodbye the last thing to get lost behind the trees as they drove around a bend.

        That’s when I noticed the trees. They were everywhere. There seemed to be every shade of green imagined and the brown of the tree trunk was the truest brown I had ever seen, no hint of grey anywhere. Even the dirt was richer, pulsing with life that I could feel around me. It was the opposite of where I had gotten into the car, surrounded by empty plains—now I could barely stand against the fullness of what was around me. Maybe it felt that way somewhere inside of me, too. Like that dusty compartment in me had started to fill a little.

        I wandered the forest for a while, feeling the honest roughness of bark, the impossible smoothness of a pine needle. I listened to the birds, saw them darting between treetops. Of course I’d seen pictures of forests in the old defaced textbooks at school, heard the call of an owl in a documentary I once watched for a research project. It was just color on paper, though, pixels on a screen. This was real. This was a log I could sit on, this was a creek I could put my hand in and feel each water drop racing past, going somewhere with every bit of themselves for the sole purpose of existing.

        I slept outside that night, the stars that used to be lonely, so high up by themselves, now shining even brighter as they danced with the tree branches reaching forever upwards to meet them.

        I woke up that next morning smelling like the wildest kind of beauty. The sky was blooming with a million types of orange that seemed to hold a dream. I lay there for a while, not for the inability to get up like it had been before, but because the world seemed to be waiting for something that wasn’t quite ready. So, I will wait too. I got up and roamed for a while, still just trying to comprehend the amount of color that I didn’t realize the world could hold. I wasn’t too far away from the highway, I could hear wheels on the pavement blowing past this Eden they didn’t seem to realize was everywhere around them. Maybe some of them were going exactly where I needed to go, but for right now it would be okay just to sit here a little while longer, learning how it felt to be rooted. Eventually I made my way to the highway, dawdling as I tried to fill my backpack with moments before I left it behind me. The smell of oozing sap, the sound of a distant creek, how with each breath flowers blossomed within my lungs.

        The car was orange this time, the same color as the sunrise. It was a girl, about my age, maybe a little older. She was like the sunrise too: when she looked at me, ducking her head a little so she could meet my eyes through the window as she pulled onto the shoulder of the highway, every dream I haven’t yet imagined lay in her eyes.

        She told me that her name was Talia, that she was chasing freedom.

        As she talked, I found freedom in the rhythm of her voice.

        She said she didn’t want to go to college, didn’t want to do what people weren’t told anymore because it was so expected, so as her friends packed their lives up and moved behind the closed door of a closed building on a closed campus in a closed world, she went to find the opposite. I dream sometimes, she told me, that there’s a place where someone might wait for me—that doesn’t really matter though, if there’s not, because there’s every color around me and I could devour the world if I wanted.

        I told her where I came from, flat and dry and grey, how when the wind picked up you could hardly see or breathe for all the dust around you, dampening you, suffocating you. There was no grey in her, just green as deep as an ocean and orange as shameless as the sun. Sometimes we pulled over to hike to a waterfall we’d spotted among mountains miles away or to chase the brightest butterfly we had ever seen through a meadow, and she would surround me: her eyes in the jewel-toned flowers, her laughter in the song of rivers and birds, her touch in the grass that caressed skin as we lay in a field contemplating the stars. We drove for days without anywhere to be other than together, our laughter and fingers and legs and stories entangling as we wove them. She rebuilt me, swept out all my dusty places and filled them with loveliness, then knocked down all my walls and made me lovely. As I watched, the world became beautiful because of her.

        She got tired of it faster than I did. Not of me, of the drunken bliss that we felt as we bathed in each other’s light, but of the shadows that bayed at our heels louder the farther we got from her home. She called her parents as I waited inside the car. She stood at the edge of the outlook we’d pulled into on the side of the highway with her back turned, just far enough for me to hear her relief when they picked up, her desperation when she told them she missed them. I knew she would leave before she did, I knew as soon as she came back to tell me that they hadn’t forgotten about her. I almost laughed at how impossible it would be to forget her.

        She left me a few days later, camped a little off the highway. The early morning light washed out the colors which had seemed so vivid the night before. I wasn’t sure what to do; only heartbeats ago we had been whispering promises of forever, now the only whispers I could hear were of the wind over dry leaves. I eventually fell back asleep, back into where her arms reached out to catch me in my memories. In my dreams she could still grab my hand over the console and sing along to her favorite song, could still twirl me under maple trees. That’s where I wanted to live, in a vague world inside my head, because now that was the only place we existed together. She had told me she loved me before she left, her voice now echoing around every corner I turned in my thoughts. I didn’t say it back though. I couldn’t lie to her. The last time I thought I knew what love was I was so unbelievably wrong, how could I possibly know anything now? And besides, I didn’t think love was supposed to hurt so much.

        I stayed at that campsite for a few days, off the highway at the base of a series of hills that rolled themselves into mountains. I took as long as I could stand it, etching the last time I saw her into every fissure of myself. It was impossible to leave, but I couldn’t stay here any longer, burning in her setting sun. I would paint myself in her colors, then I would try again to find the freedom I found in her rip tide.

        I had only been waiting on the highway pavement for a little while before the next ride came along, a blue SUV that looked as if it could be on its way to pick up a kid from baseball practice. The lady driving it was faded, 50’s maybe, grey hair, quiet blue eyes, a quick smile. She didn’t say much, except to ask where I was headed in a voice as faded as the rest of her. Wherever you’re going, I told her. I couldn’t tell anymore which direction the sun rose, where I came from, if I was going.

        I wouldn’t have remembered this ride, still lost in Talia’s fog, but the car turned heavily around a bend at the bottom of a mountain pass and I heard a clink from behind me. A glance revealed that the floor of the backseat had been lost, overcome by a green and blue sea of glass beer bottles, rolling gently with the movement of the car. The lady didn’t seem to notice the sound, but stayed slightly leaned over the wheel, lips pursed, blankly staring at the road ahead. I didn’t want to ask her to let me out, only to keep staring out the window until the world and my thoughts became too blurry to see. So, I let the ocean behind us evaporate into the haze.

        A glimpse of a green river far below us pulled me back to earth. At this point we were at the highest point of the pass, trees to the left, a cliff plunging forever downward to the right. It should have been beautiful.

        I turned to the lady, about to ask how far to where she was going, but said nothing when I saw the tears rolling down her cheek, under her chin, into the collar of her shirt. She saw me looking, turned her head to the side so we could both pretend I didn’t see her wipe them away.

        I started to wish I could think of something else, anything but how she wasn’t there. This lady might work as a distraction, I guess. “Are you... good?”

        “Yes, yes sorry I’m sorry, don’t... yeah I’m fine— sorry. I’m sorry.”

        “Umm, okay? Sorry for asking—”

        “It’s just,” she looked at me now, a glazed stare from red eyes. “You, with your youth. Freedom. I’m no one, not important. I’m sorry, you don’t want to hear this. I’m okay, thanks.” She was quiet for a moment, then the sobs suddenly broke from her like waves crashing on a rock in an ocean that had looked like glass just a moment before. “I don’t... nothing, nothing, didn’t even notice, didn’t even notice. And then to act surprised? Like they didn’t want this to happen? Like I’m nothing. Like I’m fucking nothing. I’m not though, I’m not though right? Even nothing is something even nothing is fucking something.” She jerked her head to look at me as she screamed that last word, the steering wheel turning with her toward the sheer cliff face.

        Our eyes met as the car broke through the barrier. Somehow our hands did as well, mine in her clammy one as we fell, arcing through the air like the spray of an ocean I would never get to see. In that moment, as our eyes and hands met in this world too full of beauty and dust to notice us, the lovely little things, we understood each other.

        And I loved her.