Outside my bedroom window, a U-Haul. Through its gaping door, I see an upturned loveseat balanced on a couch. The pulled-out ramp like a bridge between here and the next door, wherever it is. Not twenty minutes ago, a large yellow Penske truck lulled past. It’s that time. End of the month, end of the lease, end of the ease of turning the key.
In my glovebox, I have a garage door opener from the house I lived in in northern New York. I don’t know why I keep it, why I don’t send it back to the landlord, why nobody called asking for it. I often imagine returning to that small town to drive by and press the button, to watch the garage door rise the way it did for the two years I lived there.
Last night I watched Dirty Dancing (again). When I was in high school, almost every girl I knew had the poster of Johnny Castle on a bedroom wall. I cannot watch that movie without thinking of the boy I mourned through every VHS viewing. How I’d pause and rewind every time Baby said, “And most of all, I’m scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you.” What terrified me was that it would be true, that I would leave my small Texas town at seventeen and never feel that way about a boy again.
Last night I hit pause, rewind.
This morning I woke with the song “Please Mr. Please” in my head. Olivia Newton-John singing about a woman in a bar, begging a man not to play B-17.
I got good Kentucky whiskey on the counter
And my friends around to help me ease the pain
‘Til some button-pushing cowboy plays that love song
And here I am just missing you again
When the song came out I was five, and I thought the “button-pushing cowboy” was named Mr. Please. I didn’t hear the plea, the repetition, the begging. What did I know of the tremor that goes through a body when a certain song plays?
This morning I woke to words on the kitchen counter that I wrote last night in the middle of the movie. I worry I drink to exhume the lines I’ve been too afraid to think about writing.
The U-Haul’s gone now. It made me sad earlier to look up and find its door locked. Maybe because I know how much ends when everything’s loaded.
Over the past fifteen years, I’ve left one state for another: Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Oklahoma, New York, Illinois, New Mexico, and now Texas, where I will stay.
It scares me to say, “I’ll stay.”
If I could, I’d always be driving from one hotel to another, spending a night or two, lingering in the pool during the day before lugging my suitcase to the car and heading for the next border.
The boy in high school and I had planned to attend college together, but during one of the nights of our senior year (his urges too electric to wait for me), he lost himself in another girl. He married her months later, but not before driving me to a lake across town. We sat watching the fountain spill into the water for hours, knowing that when we pulled away, we would be leaving the people we had been in the dark.
A few years ago, I went back home and found the park, the lake. I pulled into the lot, and I walked to the water’s edge and snapped one picture after another, perhaps trying to map who I was in that moment—the seventeen-year-old girl or the woman she became. A bit of both, I’d say.
The loss of that boy has lingered through all the other losses, and maybe I leave things behind because I’m trying to lose these traces. I’ve set couches and TVs outside of thrift stores in the middle of the night. I once left the front door of an apartment door open with the bookcase, bed, and loveseat inside. I remember a yard sale—a yearning to empty myself of every candle holder and kitchen chair and lamp in the house, because I wanted to carry nothing of the woman I had been in it when it was time to go. But she’s still here. Right here.
I’ve never written about the high school boy before now, and that’s about all I can muster. I mean, what else to say? I left home dragging my heart behind me, or else it went searching for its own direction.
After many boys, backseats, and makeshift beds, I met a bearded, flannel-sleeved, tool-belt-wearer, who, after four years together, could barely bring himself to look at me the last time I saw him (getting on an elevator).
After he went, I couldn’t sleep in our bed, so I sold it to a friend for eighty bucks. I stayed out the day she came to get it. I couldn’t bear to watch the way I’d lean over to kiss him in the mornings or see the nights he’d tangle his legs around mine and mumble, “Don’t leave,” being carried out the door.
For a long, long time, I’ve slept alone on white sheets, though often I wake and know the bearded man has been there. It happens so often I’ve started keeping a record—the dates, the dreams.
This one takes place on the road in a small town.
I want to say there was a cabin, but I can’t be sure.
I’m living in an apartment on the second floor with large windows.
He seemed to be getting in the truck to go somewhere. I walked back through the snow.
He has driven by, and he’s worried, “Jill, I just drove by your place, and you’ve left.”
I’m searching for a pattern, a map, a key, but so far there’s nothing but the returnings, always the returnings.
Years ago, I stopped throwing away boxes, just stored them in a backyard shed or a garage, knowing I’d use them again. Even now, an unlocked storage closet off my balcony hides stacks of boxes, some of them empty, others with remainders I’m not willing to surrender, like a blue sweatshirt or the drawing a student in an art class charcoaled of me during the years I stood in cold-tile rooms after letting my robe fall to the floor.
I navigate lost loves as if pointing to dots, marking cities I’ll never drive through again. So much uncharted between those boundaries. Like the man I almost married at twenty-four (a wedding dress hangs in the closet of my childhood bedroom). The man I drove from Oklahoma to Mexico with in the middle of the night on our first date. For years after our undoing, we kept up with each other. I let his last phone call go to voicemail, and months later, after his body was found in Houston (he died on a bike trail, his heart), I’d call his number at least once a day until I finally heard the tremorous beeps of disconnection.
I write the men who’ve heard me talk in my sleep.
There’s a small bus center off the highway, where a Greyhound could take me back to all the cities I’ve pulled away from so that I could stand beneath second-floor balconies, peer into kitchen windows, pull into the gravel drive in New York and press that garage door button, or I could stand overlooking the river just off that Colorado road. But something tells me I won’t do that.
Every time I leave a place, I’ve always been done with it.
I’m working to be settled here, to turn away from the distances I carry. I used to spend so much time figuring out how to get the leaving done. The not going, after so many years, has me lost. I’ve become the goings.
Every morning I walk to the 7-Eleven. I’ve started recording the stories I see there: the man who drives a Lexus and begs for a buck or two from anyone pumping gas; the woman asking about the Winston two-pack-special before announcing she just got out of the hospital (pointing to the id bracelet on her arm); the woman on a Saturday morning who bought a large pizza and made it as far as the hood of her car, where she opened the box and started eating; the lines of shuffling feet that weave through the aisles on Powerball days. Such desperation. Always at least one machine with a handwritten Out of Order!!! sign taped to it.
I like to drive to the next town and sit in a corner booth and read and drink wine. To servers and the salt-and-pepper haired manager who stop by my table, I’m only a story: the Chardonnay woman who comes in the middle of the day on Mondays.
The last man I dated was a travel writer who lived on a defunct resort so he could wake mornings, climb the mountain, and ski. One night in bed (the sound of snow sliding off his roof like thunder), he asked me a question, and I sat up, pulled my feet over the edge of the bed to shudder and say, “Don’t bring ghosts into this bed.”
In New York, I spent afternoons writing at my kitchen table, loosened by the wail of the train passing through the woods behind my house. I’d stare out the window, watch slats of snow race across the grayness. Here in Texas, the train’s whistle sings around 4 a.m., and I wake, turn over, and sigh into the rumble.
Last night, another dream:
He’s in his blue truck in a parking lot, and I pull out in a U-Haul and turn on my windshield wipers. Wet snow.
I look in my rearview mirror.
He’s following me.
Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.