I’ve wanted to tell you this story since that first vacation we took in Michigan, seventeen years ago. When your hair was longer, and you asked me why we had to stop at that small diner in Benton Harbor. And in the years since, you always say as we cross the bridge into town how lonely and abandoned everything looks, how even the sun is just a small bright globe of yellow captured in a wide swath of water. And that all the beige cookie cutter houses that line the St. Joseph’s River look like people in an old folks home, waiting to die.
I’ve always pretended that I disagreed with you, and didn’t mind the biting wind off the water bringing tears to my eyes. I told you that I found the small town with red maples on front lawns, quaint. I want you to know that you’ve always been right. Even when the Hemlocks are green, and we are wandering along the beach, looking over the water, Benton Harbor is a sad place: all the boats look like skeletons, the sky is always leaden, it feels like a place that’s been forgotten.
Today, you turned off the air conditioning because I said we should roll down the goddamn windows and save some gas. And you started to explain aerodynamics to me, how rolling down the windows would make our mileage worse. And I said, “For shit’s sake can we just roll down the window for once without a science lesson.”
You pulled a map out of the glove compartment and scanned the counties we were passing through, while I stared out the window at the grey sky above the jack pines and ash trees. Trucks with black bumpers rolled by on the I-94 carrying food, and we were too far north to be in the bread basket, and it seemed like the sloping hills here grew only corn. A hitchhiker stood on the side of the road, a green knapsack between her feet, and I slowed down to make sure it wasn’t the girl I’ve wanted to tell you about.
Drool is collecting on the tip of your hair, the map is held loosely between your fingers and I thought I’d tell you this story that I’ve kept hidden from you all these years. Because you are sleeping, and that’s the only time I’ve felt we could ever connect.
And I mean to start with the diner but I need to explain about my mother first. I’ve always been distracted easily, and that’s why I’ve never gotten anything done, why at forty-three I’m still pushing papers instead of sitting in a big office with a picture of you and our kids on the desk.
My mother did not die of a brain tumor like I told you on our first date. She did not develop a morphine habit that tore our family apart. We did not lean against the metal railing as children, waiting for her to wake. All these years when you’ve asked me why I don’t show more initiative, why I concede to failure so easily, I’ve always told you it was because I lost my mother. That is a lie.
Maybe I’m telling you this because last night, before we loaded the car, and made sure the kids were ready for the babysitter; I almost left. I wanted to say goodbye so I opened the door to our children’s room; a sliver of light fell on their faces. I stood in the doorway and walked into the room, cupped their small faces in my hands, and lay down on the floor beneath the fan.
I dreamed of life on the open road, the miles of empty highway, of what it would feel like to be alone. Their relaxed jaws and long eyelashes reminded me that choices can’t be unmade. I wheeled my suitcase into the living room and turned on the television. I thought about how you’d asked me to take out the trash, and that I’d forgotten, and I didn’t care, but I wasn’t sure if it meant anything.
All these years you’ve been asking me what I write in my journal, I say, “It’s a story about someone I used to know.”
You nod and say, “As long as she’s not too beautiful,” and we laugh. And I wonder if you already know why we always drive through Benton Harbor. I am scared and lonely, and I want to tell you that it will be all right, that I’d never leave you.
Today is the first time I’ve said her name out loud to you, after thirty three stories of her scrawled in my journal. As if writing green eyes and blond hair enough times will make them go away. Green eyes and blond hair. I don’t remember if her eyes were green or hazel, so much depends, it seems, on fallible things, like memory.
You’ve always said that I romanticize love, and that mostly, it’s about washing the dishes when you are aching for sleep. I know that you are right but I wanted both of us to lie about that, because it seemed like it might help. You stir in your sleep, turn your head towards me; a crease forms on your forehead, between two locks of brown hair and roots turning grey.
“I love you,” I say.
I met Brianna outside of Benton Harbor when I was twenty-two. I was driving over on I-94 to visit a friend who lived in South Bend. The sky was an envelope of black clouds and I was singing with the radio; the song was making me cry. I brushed tears from my cheeks as I belted out the last few lyrics because I’d always dreamed of having the pipes to become a tenor, but I was tone deaf as hell, and a shitty singer to boot.
The rain was falling, lazy at first, on the windshield. It was like the pitter patter of my lost youth. My little brother died in a car accident when I was six. And I’m sorry that I’ve gotten off track again, I’m telling you the things I want you to hear because from the first time I met you, I knew that you wanted to fix things; so I pretended to be broken. Maybe the reason you’ve failed at mending is because I’ve never told you about that night in Benton Harbor. Lying has become some strange habit that I can’t seem to break. Your mouth is open, and your head is nodding back and forth against the seat.
She appeared on the side of the road, standing in the gravel, in a streak of headlights. It was mid-summer, the rain was warm, and the cicada’s were buzzing in the jack pines. I remember hoping desperately that I did not seem insane.
“Looking for a ride?” I asked, and I was certain that I should have just said, “Hop in,” and that she would think that I was going to cut her into little pieces and mail her across the continental United States.
Rain ran smoothly down her face and hung from her thick top lip. She had blond hair, and skinny white legs. She looked up the road at the stream of headlights coming her way. “As long as you promise not to do anything funny.” She said.
I laughed, which wasn’t funny at all, and I was afraid she’d step back into the night, the pines, and the rain from which she’d appeared. She was beautiful. I remember thinking that if God existed, she would step into my car, and I asked Him if I could have this one thing, on the lonely drive to my mother’s funeral.
“Are you starting to understand?” I ask, you as the car rolls by Paw-Paw and onward on this lonely stretch of road. The rolling hills pillowed softly by the mothering clouds.
She had a distant look in her eyes, like she was from Atlantis, a place my mother had read about to me as a child. I told her that I was driving to my mother’s funeral, and her face grew a bit distant and pinched as if she was smoking a cigarette.
What a strange question for a highway girl to ask someone she had just met. She turned to me, her green eyes so intent, so close, and I wanted to capture the whole of the ocean in a single bottle, to lay it at her feet. I said, “It is not an easy thing, this living.” She smiled and played with the cigarette lighter.
“That’s what I’ve gathered,” She answered, her words, like her, sweet and wet. And as you sigh, and relax into the cushion of the seat, I think that’s all I’ve ever been looking for, the mystery between two people. I met you that next year on the boardwalk, in Ocean City, eating funnel cake in the warm sun, I remember that you already felt like home.
I asked her where she was from. She didn’t answer. “What is your favorite type of food?” she asked, her hair curling in the warm air.
I told her that I loved a good milkshake, and she asked if we could stop because she hadn’t eaten in a millennium. I pulled off the road, onto the Business 94. We crossed into Benton Harbor and stopped at a diner. I parked the car around back, so I could watch her feet kick up rain.
I opened the thick glass door for her: the hostess, and two old men, playing a game of cards looked up from beneath their jowls. And here’s the part that I know you won’t believe, but they saw it too, and if I could find those old men, I would, they would confirm for you that I’m telling the truth. She was an angel.
She was that sort of inexplicably sexy that is felt, rather than seen. She wasn’t some magazine girl; she was a flesh and blood beauty. She had long blond hair with brown roots untouched by the sun, her chest was marginal, her legs long, like some mystery buried beneath miles of ocean. She wore jean shorts that were a little small and a long blue t-shirt fell below her waist. She was the most beautiful thing placed on earth.
And I’ve wanted to tell you this so you know that it’s not your fault. You mumble something in your sleep about not liking strangers, and I smooth your brow.
We sat in our booth and tried to shake off the rain; the two men stopped playing cards and stared. One of them smiled at me, he had a gap between his two front teeth. Even then, I thought of how jealous of me he must have been, and looking back I am jealous of that boy in the booth as well. I put “American Pie” on the jukebox and mumbled along stupidly, and even though I am tone deaf, you have always loved to hear me sing.
“And here’s the strange thing.” I say, as you clench your jaw and your teeth click together, like keys on a type writer. I don’t remember what we talked about. Even if I told you all the words, it wouldn’t make sense. She spoke in the tongue of angels and flipped her hair away from the circles under her eyes, not to be flirtatious, but because it needed to be done. She told me a thousand things by the way she held her fork, so lightly, in her left hand. I’ll tell you it this way instead: she liked the way I folded the napkin in my lap, if given the choice, she would have been born again as a fish because of all that open sea. She told me she’d always thought of the earth as a small place between water and the sky and how said it was to be stuck between places we can never reach.
We drank our milkshakes slowly; the waitress filled my coffee mug twice. We looked outside the window at the rain, streams of headlights on the overpass in the dark. We finished eating, and she clicked her fingernails on the table. I did not ask her where she needed to go, because it was clear that she was staying with me.
I paid the cashier and we stood outside underneath an awning as rain made puddles in the parking lot. I offered her a coat but she shook her head. Her hair looked darker, and she said something, which I didn’t hear, and I offered to get the car.
You lean forward and open your eyes for a moment. “Who are you talking with,” you mumble, your eyes little slits of dreamy happiness.
“Someone I used to know,” I say. Your eyes close and you rest your warm palm on the back of my hand. We drive over smooth roads, and I lower my voice to a whisper. The cows are lowing, and sipping water from the dips between hills. In the distance, the light is orange, caught in the arms of forgiving clouds. I think of how the Midwest is like the ocean, not flat, but a series of rolling hills, like waves.
I wrapped my coat around her body and told her I’d pull the car up from the back lot. She was shivering in the faint light of the doorway.
Remember how I asked you if you had ever loved someone more and you said, “No,” and silenced me with a kiss. I wanted you to ask me too, so I could brush the hair falling from your eyes and tell you this story.
I ran into the slanting rain, keys jingling in my left jean pocket, my fingers moved past my wallet to grip them. I unlocked the door and pulled it quickly shut. I turned the keys and the car wouldn’t start. It was pitch black and the diner was an island of light, too far away to swim too.
The engine made a dull hum in the quiet evening; the cement beneath the striped awning was empty. She wasn’t standing in the faint light coming through the glass. I thought that she must have gone back inside because of the wait. And though I’ve driven back to the diner every year to find her, I think about what she said about the sea, how incredibly vast it is, and that I only know of this small place between two worlds.
I jumped out of the car and ran into the diner. I pushed past a surprised older woman at the front desk and opened the door into the woman’s bathroom. A middle aged lady, brown hair, cut short, like all older women, let out a scream.
“I’m not hear for you,” I said, like I was the angel of Death.
And now that I see that middle-aged woman in memory, I realize that she looks like us, and I think of how many times now I don’t recognize my own face in the mirror; the stranger in possession of my eyes and a strange sunken face.
Nothing. Nowhere. I walked through the sticky-floored restaurant out into the rain.
“Shit,” I said, and that one word spoken in the drizzling rain, next to two old men smoking cigarettes, was the finest poetry ever to come into existence. In truth, that one word had more emotion in it than heights or depths, or last duchesses, or hollow and stuffed men; more than plums in an icebox or Jesus quickening me.
Because angels don’t drift down from heaven but once on a Tuesday evening in a steady rain to watch steam rise from coffee and listen to “American Pie” on the jukebox. They laugh like a thousand little bells and smile mysteriously from across dim rooms. But they don’t wait in the rain for near strangers. They have God to see and wings to grow.
I am leaving the freeway and entering Benton Harbor. A coffee cup lies on the ground in the empty parking lot. Your breath is fogging up the window. The diner is closed, shattered windows, and the remains of booths.
I sit with my fingers on the wheel thinking of how much how much sweeter it could have been. I’d have bought her a CD by Joni Mitchell that we’d both learn to love. The sweet wet words humming through the stereo. The thin reeds of candle smoke that would drift in the room as words tumbled between us; strange and beautiful like a far away violin. I’d have learned exactly how she liked to dance and whether she cheated at cards. We’d turn on the side lamp and listen to the sprinklers on a dry yellow lawn, as we read books by Russian authors with long last names. It’s beautiful, and you know it.
And perhaps she was just some girl on the side of the road in the rain. Maybe I’ve made a myth, from a mystery, and haven’t I been doing that my whole life? My mother did not die of cancer, but she was still dead. It is a hard thing, this living. This has the ring of truth.
You turn towards me and whisper into my ear, “Why did you ever leave that awning?”
And because you are not awake, but slipping in and out of this fictive dream, I say, “Isn’t being an adult giving up the dreams we once loved?”
And perhaps that’s all I’ve meant to say to you since we started on this car ride together, down a lonely highway, past a stretch of beech trees with rain falling from a slate colored sky. Love comes but once on a Tuesday, and it doesn’t wait in the rain.