The Saturday Rumpus Essay: Everything We Ever Needed


I always dreamed some man would take me to the big city on the back of a small motorcycle. This was how it was always done in songs. The man was the goal; the city was the goal, and the motorcycle was a thin delicate hyphen connecting this place where I was born.

It was not the maroon minivan handed down by parents, who had driven it for decades, with upholstery that had sopped up soggy noses and oatmeal. It was not my daddy’s blue Mazda pickup truck, that, at seventeen, I borrowed to drive to a protest in Knoxville while he was at the office. I had listened to Freakwater cassettes the whole way, thinking it was so fine to be out on the road for the day. I was always home for dinner, and I filled the tank back up carefully, to just under three-fourths.

I didn’t escape in the big red Dodge I accidentally smashed into the front porch—I was nervously trying to escape the scene of my first breakup, from the first boy I ever slept with.

It was with him I’d fantasized about an apartment in Harlem or Morningside Heights, because young women with ambition were supposed to move to New York, and that became his dream, too, because he didn’t know what else to do. Our fantasy did not involve soggy noses or spilled oatmeal. It involved impressive careers and regular dinner parties, with good dishes, and each of us wearing smart sweaters.

I never made it to New York and we never made it down the aisle and I hear he lives in Las Vegas now, where the roads cut straight through the desert in neat gridlock lines that make following directions easy. Instead, I stayed in Tennessee, where the roads switchback up mountains and kudzu obscures the view, and you never know what weather is on the way because the topography keeps you from seeing too far ahead in any one direction.

I only know a storm is coming when I sit on the porch and it blows in from over the funeral home across the street, from down off the plateau, and, minutes before the sheets of water blow down, you can see the clouds build up and drop from greater heights. You can see the water vapor in them grow heavy.

I almost moved up there two years ago, up to a small town on the plateau ruled by a large church—one of those obscure Southern evangelical sects that does not believe in sex, and does believe in guilt—in a dry county, where the students of the local Christian college smoke cigarettes, just off campus, in a playground lined with damp mulch that hides the butts and odor.

I almost moved there for a man who needed to be forgiven for imagining his god differently than he had as a child, who needed to be forgiven for being so many things. He judged me for not judging him. I wanted to fit myself into his small town, into his close-knit world of college friends, and so I regularly fit myself into his yellow sports car and we drove up the highway to his place and spent Sundays in the small room in a little strip mall where his church was located, styled as a refuge for Christians who did not fit into other sects, who felt violated by the way their fellow faithful prayed.

He wanted a motorcycle, and he said he wanted to go back to Denver. Later, he moved to London and then San Francisco. Somehow he and I never went out of town, except just once for the weekend to Knoxville, and, it was not as good a day as it was when I drove up alone to protest Mt. Olive pickles. Knoxville is not as big or interesting as Nashville or Atlanta, which were places he explicitly refused to visit with me, though he often went on his own.

There was the winter I spent with a man who still occupied a large Queen Anne house once shared with his ex-wife. He wrote me a poem, inviting me in to this house, where we drank gin until the rooms seemed very small and dark. Once, he handed me scraps of her old undershirts to wipe down the windows with club soda as I helped him prepare the house for a potential buyer. Those few short months I felt suspended in a fragile hyphen, extending from his married life to whatever came next, all that which I knew, deep down, would not include me.

That winter he kissed me under stars that promised snow, and his bed made me forget that I had ever wanted to leave, that I had ever longed for anything else. In springtime, though, we hiked the mountains ringing the city and the trails that lace the top of the next line of mountains north of home, and he had to admit to me that this was the furthest we would ever go. For years, I stayed where he set me down like a dog that knows only one home.

They had come here from Ohio together. She left him after a trip to Arizona. Eventually they each left the city where their marriage had ended—she to Connecticut, in a newish blue car, and he to California, in a shabby white sedan that he had been driving since before their first apartment together. Now they live in the lands of blizzards and wildfires, opposite as ever. These days I’m still in my hometown, and I still drag my truck up and a down those kudzu-lined hills, and I still watch sunsets waiting for the colors to peak around the edges of the mountains and the clouds.

I wait for summer storms to scream down off the plateau as I sit on the porch and drink bourbon, because that is what the kind of Southerner I want to be does.

I tried to love work the way I love the feeling of a dry, rough hand cupping mine. I tried to feel the concussive beat of my heels on concrete like the heartbeat of a lover.

I tried to forget again that I once meant to leave, that on a few occasions I had actually felt transported by love. I felt the mountains held my body, and, for a time, it seemed that loving the place was loving myself—this double love negated the need of it from anywhere or anyone else.

Two springs ago, I boarded a flight to Texas and watched out the window as the plane cleared the ridges that were once filled with men in blue and grey. We flew over mud and rivers and earth, and the landscape lightened. There were no storms. I met a man in Dallas, and he did not like the big city. He was a country boy who grew up in a town named for money—a place where horses outnumber the streetlights, and the horizon is broken up by lakes so large.

When the summer heat was at its peak, we packed his things into a trailer and our truck, and we drove long, flat roads into Texarkana that suspended over the Louisiana bayous. He wanted to be with me in the hills, in a town just the right size for our ambitions, where we would feel as cradled at night by the hills as we do by the blankets piled on our bed.

We do not have to fit ourselves in to this space, nor are we swallowed up by it. Here we can stand close enough to see one another. Here there are seasons and storms, and we do not know what lies ahead because the hairpin turn in the road lets us know only as much as we need.

The thunder rumbles and we are just in time to collect our things from the lawn and run inside. The train whistle lets us know when it is autumn, and we have just a few weeks until everything becomes crisp and crackling. We haul logs home in our pickup truck to burn at night while the dog keeps watch. We have so many stories at our backs, and we are surrounded by graveyards, but here in the center there is light, and parked on the street is the engine, and nearby the four walls and the doors we have everything we need.


Photographs provided courtesy of author.

Meghan O'Dea is a writer, editor, and reluctant Southerner crafting a life in the foothills of Appalachia. More from this author →