“That was the turn.”
“No it wasn’t,” I say.
Nicole glares at me from the passenger seat. I pretend not to notice. On either side of us passes a blur of farmland broken up by barbed wire fences and disintegrating houses.
“Avenue 20 ½ was right there and you missed it,” she says. She holds the map like a talisman, her fingers crinkling its edges. More farmland goes by. A woman on the radio is singing.
“Babe,” I try to sound placating without being condescending. It’s not something I’m good at. “The avenues aren’t in order out here. This is the Central Valley, it’s kind of backward.”
“It’s my uncle’s house,” she says. “I think I know where it is.”
On the other side of the windshield: miles and miles of miles and miles.
“I know you think that my entire family is white trash, but you didn’t have to go with me on this trip. You could have stayed home and watched football and done whatever you wanted, but you said—“
“I don’t think your entire family is white trash.”
“—that you wanted to come.”
I can feel her eyes burning into me. Like Lot’s wife, if I look I’ll turn into a pillar of salt right here in the driver’s seat.
“I’m sure that the exit is right around here somewhere,” I say.
“I don’t know. I don’t see a damn thing but fields and dirt.”
The entire valley is nothing but fields and dirt, but I don’t tell her this. Fuel on the fire and all that.
“Does the map show—“
“The map doesn’t show shit,” she says. “You want to look at it?”
“That was my first mistake.”
I could have stayed home. I would have been all by myself for Thanksgiving, but I was fine with that. Nicole, on the other hand, was not. No way could I stay at home alone on a Major Holiday, left to eat take-out turkey and drink beer in front of the television with nothing but the Dallas Cowboys to keep me company. She couldn’t allow that. So, when she invited me to Thanksgiving dinner with her family, what could I say? It’s not good policy to tell your girlfriend that you would just as soon stay at home by yourself as drive three hours away to eat dinner with a room full of strangers.
So now here I am on Rural Route Nowhere looking for an offramp that will put us just north of a maximum security prison. Happy holidays. You learn something new every day. Today, I’m learning what desolation looks like up close.
I watch her as she stares at the map, out the window, back at the map. Wisps of her blonde hair float in the breeze from the cracked window. Her mouth is turned down into a slight frown. She bites her lower lip in frustration and looks up at me from behind dark sunglasses. She is very pretty, and of a type that I find myself hopelessly drawn to: blonde, athletic, and petite. Her looks make it easier to for me deal with the more challenging moments of our relationship. I know that’s not right, but there it is.
“Quit looking at me and watch the road, I don’t want you to crash my car.” She makes it sound like she’s angry, but a smile plays at the corner of her lips when she says this. She knows I appreciate her looks. I know that it’s been a long time since anyone appreciated anything about her.
I look back at the road. Two lanes surrounded by a million acres of farmland, what am I going to crash into?
She loves this car: Honda Accord EX Coupe, V-6 engine, 260 horsepower, leather interior, sunroof, power everything, premium stereo, loaded. Zero-to-sixty in your driveway. I have to keep in mind that her letting me drive it is a sign of how much she cares about me. She trusts me with her automobile. It’s brand new and I am the only other person who has been behind the wheel. She wants me to feel honored, to understand what this means to her. I get what she’s doing, but I still think it’s a bit ridiculous; it’s just a car. A nice one, sure, but still just a car. This is only one of many ways we see life differently. This is only one of many reasons why this relationship won’t last. Why marriage is absolutely out of the question. These unstated truths follow us wherever we go. This car, it’s the first thing she did for herself after her divorce was final.
Me, I’m the second thing.
“What’s that?” she says, peering out the windshield towards the horizon.
I squint into the distance at a green and white road marker. As we get closer I can make out letters and numbers: Next Exit Avenue 20 ½.
Underneath that, in smaller letters: Corchoran State Prison.
As I make the turn my girlfriend is looking right at me, waiting. I feel like I should apologize but I’m not exactly sure what for so I try to be flip but it doesn’t work.
I say, “See, I told you, it’s right there.”
She gives me a look that says, No shit. I might be wrong about that translation, but I doubt it.
I have an afternoon of bad holiday food and Budweiser and Chex Party Mix ahead of me and at the end of it all another three hour drive to get back home. To lie in a bed that isn’t mine next to a beautiful woman that I cannot love the way she needs me to.
Behind me are miles and miles of miles and miles.
He has nice hands.
It’s one of the first things I noticed about him when we met. Masculine. Clean. I have this thing for hands. Sometimes, when he’s not looking, I watch them on my car’s steering wheel while he drives. I think of how they feel on my face, my hips. It’s strange, riding in the passenger seat of my own car, but I trust Jay. I want him to know that. I want him to know that I take what we’re doing very seriously.
I’m glad he decided to go with me for the holiday, even if he can’t follow directions for shit. I think he’s nervous. He makes these stupid jokes when he gets nervous.
I’m nervous too.
The only other man I ever introduced to my family was Sean, my ex-husband. They didn’t like him. I was upset for so long because I thought they were wrong. Then I was upset because they were right.
Almost everything my family warned me about getting married to Sean was true, I was just too young to listen to them. I spent four years living on a Marine base with someone who wanted me to be his mother more than his wife before I realized what I’d gotten myself into. Sean was always on ship or overseas, so I had to get a job and take care of our house and pay all the bills myself. It forced me to be independent. I’d only graduated from high school the year before. I spent all of my time working while it seemed that every other enlisted wife went down to Jacksonville or the Enlisted Club to pick up on Jarheads. I already had one Marine in my life, I didn’t need another. The number of wives at Camp Lejeune who remained faithful during a deployment was about the same as the number of men who did while they were overseas: very small.
My husband wasn’t one of them.
Jay is so different. He’s divorced too, so we both understand where the other one is coming from. It’s nice, sometimes. His ex walked out on him but he’s never given me the details, not even her name. I’m not sure that I want to know them. I do know that sometimes he still hurts. When we’re driving, a song will come on the radio and he’ll change the station for no reason. If we go downtown to eat, he’ll refuse to take me to certain restaurants. When I ask, he’ll tell me that he didn’t like the service the last time he went there, or that the food was bad, but I know it’s because of her. Because they used to go there together.
I’ve never met her.
I hate her.
Unlike Sean, Jay actually listens to me when I talk about what I want to do with my life. He’s so focused on the future, it’s great. My ex couldn’t hold down a job for more than a month after he got out of the Corps. When I confronted him, he told me that he couldn’t adapt to civilian life. He told me he was having post traumatic stress from the war. He told me that the other women didn’t mean anything.
I told him I was leaving.
I didn’t want to be someone’s mom anymore, I wanted to be me. A woman. Myself. The way I am with Jay.
Nicole told me once that she liked to watch me sleep.
“It’s the breathing,” she said. “In and out; you look so peaceful.”
Sometimes I think about her sitting in bed, watching over me while I sleep. Wondering what I’m dreaming about. Keeping me safe with her prayers.
It’s almost enough to make me love her.
When I was married I used to watch my wife sleep. I worked nights and when I came home it was always after midnight and she’d already gone to bed. I used to take my shoes off in the living room so that I wouldn’t wake her when I crossed the hardwood floors into the bedroom. I would stand there, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, watching her breathe. Then I would take off my clothes and climb into bed, wrap my arms around her, and fall to sleep as she pressed her body against me in some unconscious act of love.
In those moments when we made love, when my face was buried in her hair and the whole world became her breath, her skin, her sweat, I secretly prayed for death. Afterwards, tangled in sheets and staring at the ceiling, I would wish for it, right there, right at that moment, because I knew that the happiness I felt was temporary and that soon, it would be gone.
Later, when I knew that my wife was lying in bed with someone else, I wondered if he ever felt the same way. I wondered if she made her new man happy the way she had me, and if it was too much for him to take, like it was for me. If her breath, skin and sweat meant as much to him as they did to me.
I wondered if she would leave him too.
It’s almost noon when we finally arrive at my uncle’s house. It’s a little later than my mom wanted but I don’t care. After driving for three hours she should just be glad that I show up at all. I feel like I’m going to church with this sweater on but it’s nice and it makes me look successful. Jay bought it for me for my birthday on his way home from work last month. He’s always getting me gifts, he likes to do that. I’ve gotten more flowers in the eight months we’ve been together than I have in my entire life. He said that he saw the sweater at the mall and remembered that I told him I wanted to start dressing more professional at work. I read that in order achieve great things in life you need to be able to visualize them happening to you, so I do a lot of visualization. I picture where I want to be, where I’m going. I don’t want to work in a call center for the rest of my life.
On weekends I take Jay to different car dealerships. Last Saturday I sat in a new Mercedes sedan parked on the showroom floor. I took my shoes off and ran my bare feet over the pedals, against the soft carpet. I looked at my hands on the wheel. Red nails, white skin, soft leather. I breathed deeply, savoring the mixture of my perfume and new car smell, the way the gear shift felt in my hand. A salesman asked me if I wanted to talk about financing, but I’m sure he was just being polite. I told him “Not yet.” I was just visualizing, but it’s not something you talk about with salespeople.
I look over at Jay in his button down and khakis. “You look good.”
His outfit was my idea. Jay wanted to wear a coat and tie but I told him that holidays with my family were strictly Budweiser, not champagne. I don’t think my uncle even owns a tie.
“You can go inside if you want,” I say. “My mom’s here already.”
“I’ll wait for you.”
“I’m going to finish my cigarette. My uncle doesn’t let people smoke in his house.”
Jay looks at the door to the house for a moment before turning back to me.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I’m good.”
I finish smoking and crush the butt out on the gravel driveway. We get the pies we brought out of the back of the car and I check my hair one more time in the reflection from the window. Jay and I look at each other, take deep breaths, and go inside.
A few weeks ago I drove by my old house downtown. The house my wife and I…my ex-wife and I…the house I used to live in when I was married. Since my separation I’ve noticed how divorce changes language, making me find new ways to describe the life I used to have. The house was on my way home from the office and I just found myself in front of it. No. That’s not true. The house and my office are both downtown, but my route to the freeway doesn’t go anywhere near it. I just went there that evening. I parked across the street in front of the print shop and stared at my old address. A For Rent sign hung in the window. After she left, I sold it and we split what little money was made. I didn’t want to keep it; I couldn’t look at the walls anymore.
I got out of the car and walked up the stairs to the porch, the hollow impact of my footsteps sounding exactly like they did when I used to come home to that place every night. I looked up at the high, A-frame roof and remembered stringing Christmas lights the year before. I remembered my wife telling me not to break my neck, and me laughing because she was the one who’d bought all those icicle lights for me to hang in the first place. I walked to the front door, still bright red from when I’d painted it last summer. I reached out, started to turn the doorknob and froze, my fingertips caressing the cold brass. I could remember hanging my coat up in the foyer. Taking my shoes off so that I wouldn’t track leaves all over the hardwood floors. I closed my eyes and pictured the way my wife used to hunch over the dining room table, her nursing textbooks scattered all around her, eyes squinting behind her glasses as she made furious notes in the margins. I remembered how I used to go to her, lean down, kiss the freckles on the back of her neck under her black ponytail and wrap my arms around her from behind. I could smell her hair, the scent of the lotion she used on her skin, the fabric softener on her sweater. I stood on my old porch like that for a few moments, hoping, somehow, that I could open the door and find her there, still sitting at the table with her notes, waiting.
After I left the house I stopped at the mall and bought Nicole a sweater. It was her birthday. I gave it to her as soon as I got home and she never asked where I’d been, or why my eyes were red.
I haven’t been in my uncle’s kitchen for five minutes when I hear him boom my name from the other room. I put my pie down on the counter and almost get turned around before he wraps his huge arms around me and lifts me off the linoleum floor.
“C’mere, Nic,” he says, squeezing the air out of me. “My God, it’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”
He puts me back on my feet and Jay reaches a hand out to steady me before I stumble in my heels. He’s still as strong as ever, even though he’s been retired for five years now. “Yeah, Uncle Stu,” I say. “I haven’t been down here since right after you stopped working at the prison.”
Stu stares at Jay. He takes in Jay’s shoulder-length hair, the button down shirt, the nice shoes.
“Uncle Stu,” I say. “This is my boyfriend, Jason.”
Jay sticks his hand out.
“Nice to meet you.”
Stu slowly pulls his huge hand from the pocket of jeans older than I am and shakes Jay’s hand. It’s a quick shake, and although Jay works out regularly there’s a quick moment of concern on his face when my uncle grabs him. Stu takes his hand back, rubs it over his shaved head and motions to the fridge.
“You need a beer, Jason?”
“Sure,” he says, which is the only right answer in this house. If he had asked what kind of beer there might have been trouble. Stu hands Jay a Bud and leads him into the living room with the other men. My mother and her sister are at the snack table.
“Mom,” I say, kissing her cheek. “Aunt Beth. Wow, look at all that food. Did you make that parfait?”
My mother looks over at Jay before resting her eyes on me. She smiles, but only with her mouth.
Stu looks like a drill instructor straight out of Central Casting. No hair, huge chest, looks pissed off even when he’s smiling, which is never at me. He points me towards the couch and a pair of men who look remarkably like Stu minus about forty years. The first gives my hand a quick shake and says “Troy” as I sit between them. He jerks his chin towards the person on my left, “My brother, Tom,” then, “It’s third and goal on the five and fucking Detroit’s trying to score.” I take a long pull off of my beer and put the bottle on the table next to an issue of American Rifleman. I look at Troy and Tom in their matching Cowboys jerseys and jeans, their father in a quilted red flannel shirt. I picture how stupid I must look to them in my pressed chinos, dark blue shirt, and leather shoes. I take another drink and look across the room for Nicole. I can see her in the dining room, surrounded by older women, eating snacks, laughing.
Occasionally, one of the women looks in my direction and smiles, and then goes back to talking with Nicole. These women, I hope they’re giving her approving comments about me. I have never met anyone as concerned about what their family thought of them as my girlfriend. She sees me looking at her and smiles, brushes a lock of hair out of her green eyes, and goes back to her conversation.
Detroit scores and all three men groan in unison.
“The hell with this,” Stu says, standing. “I’m gonna get another beer. Jason?”
I look up at him.
“Uh, no, thanks,” I say. “I’m okay.”
“You sure?” Stu looks at me for a moment, waiting.
“I’ve got to get some more out of the garage, why don’t you give me a hand?”
I follow him outside to the detached garage. It’s gigantic. The main door is wide open and there’s a large SUV inside with a Harley Davidson parked next to it. A sailboat sits on a trailer in the driveway under a gray tarp. On the floor in the back corner of the garage, next to a weight bench and a refrigerator, are several cases of Budweiser long necks.
“Nice,” I say.
“Thanks. Lots of overtime.”
I’m making my way back to the beer when I notice a set of ancient shelves covered with tools and sailing books. There’s a vaguely triangular object on a stand next to an old wooden globe. Stu sees me looking at it and walks over.
“Do you know what that is?”
“No,” I say.
“You ever do any sailing?”
“No,” I say. “Not unless you count drinking beers on a catamaran on Folsom Lake.”
“I try to get out in the summer,” he says. “Hook the boat up to my truck and make the trip to San Francisco. It’s one of my favorite things to do.”
“Nicole never told me you liked to sail.”
“Before I came to Corchoran I was a C.O. at San Quentin,” he rubs his scalp. “I used to go out on the Bay every weekend.”
“So,” I say. “Isn’t this used for navigation or something like that?”
“It’s a sextant,” he says, handing it to me. It has a weight to it that I wasn’t expecting. “Sailors used them to find their way across the ocean when there were no landmarks. They used the sun, the stars, to keep from getting lost, to know where they were.”
“You use this on your boat?”
“No.” Stu takes the sextant from me and returns it to the shelf. “I just like the way it looks, the history of it. I use a GPS when I go out.”
I walk over to the beer and put my hands on a case. I make a move to pick it up but Stu is still by the shelves.
“You know, ever since her parents got divorced when she was a little girl, I’ve been like a father to Nicole.” I can see his breath when he speaks. Looking past the gravel driveway I see rolling hills and a thin fog just now starting to burn off in the early afternoon sunlight. Split rail fencing lines the countryside and the nearest neighbor must be at least a half mile away. I feel like I’m on the moon.
“I knew Sean, her ex,” he says.
“Yeah, I’ve heard stories about him.”
“Well, he wasn’t the brightest boy, but he tried to do the right thing.”
Nicole told me this story before I moved in at the start of the summer. She’d gotten pregnant right after high school, married the Marine boyfriend, moved to North Carolina. She lost the baby early on, convinced herself that she really loved this guy, tried to make it work. When it didn’t, she came back to California and started over again.
“She’s told me a little bit,” I say.
“Uh huh,” he says. “She told me you met at the courthouse, but she didn’t tell me how. What happened?”
“Oh, well, she had jury duty.”
“Right, I know that,” Stu walks over to me, opens two beers, hands me one; we’re going to be out here for a while. “But what were you doing there?”
“Oh, I’m there a lot,” I say. “I work with attorneys, for the county.”
Stu takes a drink, sets the bottle down. “Hmm, doing what kind of work?”
“Criminal law,” I say. “I’m an investigator for the Public Defender’s office.”
“Must pay pretty nice,” he says. “I hope so, for what you have to do.”
“No, it’s not like that,” I say. “I interview clients most of the time, run paperwork around, that sort of thing. I go to law school at night. I’m not rich or anything.”
“Still, that’s a nice sweater you got Nic.”
“Yeah, well, it was her birthday.”
“And the watch?”
I try to remember why I gave her the watch. I can’t.
“It was just something I thought she’d like.”
He looks out the open door at something on the horizon. Windmill? Cow? He stares for what seems like a long time.
“Her mother tells me you bring her flowers, too.”
I finish my beer. “Yeah, so, I like to give Nicole gifts, is there something wrong with that? I would have thought that you would be thrilled that your niece is dating someone with a good job who treats her well. I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”
“Easy kid, easy,” Stu rubs his hands together. “I’m not saying anything. I just wanted to get a look at you.”
“Well, I guess you have.”
“Jay, men give gifts to women for two reasons.”
“Either they love them and want them to be happy, want to show the woman how much they love her,” he says.
“Or, they’re compensating for something that’s missing in the relationship.”
He hands me a case of beer, picks another one up, and starts back to the house.
“And you’re telling me this because…?” I say.
“Just trying to figure out which one you are.”
I can hear our footsteps on the gravel as we walk back. I’ve lived in a city for so long that I’ve forgotten just how remote you can still get in the world, and the things you notice when there’s nothing to distract you.
At the door, Stu stops for a moment, turns to look at me before going inside.
“She loves you,” he says.
“She told you that?”
He turns away to open the door. “She doesn’t have to.”
Everyone gives me their opinion on Jay as soon as he goes into the living room with Uncle Stu. My aunt starts before I even sit down.
“He’s cute Nicole,” she says. “How long have you two been going out?”
“He needs a haircut,” my mother says.
My aunt dismisses her statement with a wave of her hand. She’s four years older than Mom but you’d never know it by looking at her. Aunt Beth is at least forty pounds lighter and has lines in her face from smiling instead of frowning, this despite raising three boys. I am the only girl in our family.
“Who cares about his hair, what does he do for a living?”
“He’s an investigator for the county,” I say.
“Oh, he’s a cop?”
“No, he’s a civilian. He does investigations for the Public Defender’s office,” I say. “Interviews, paperwork, he doesn’t carry a gun or anything.”
“Oh, well, that’s nice, I suppose,” she says. “Can you make a career out of that?”
“He’s going to law school at night.”
This statement gets the predicted reaction from my aunt. She tells me to snatch him up quick. My mother reminds her that we’ve only been dating for eight months. My aunt is nonplussed. They go back and forth while I sit there.
My aunt: “When are you going to get a ring Nicole?”
My mother: “He’s divorced.”
My aunt: “Well, so, that doesn’t mean anything.”
My mother: “Recently…divorced.”
My aunt pauses to refill her wine glass and I quickly hold out mine as well. If they’re going to go down this route I need all the help I can get.
“How recently?” My aunt says.
I take a big swallow of White Zinfandel before answering. “Actually,” I say. “It’s not final yet.”
It’s a long time before anyone speaks. Then, finally, from my aunt, “Oh, so he’s separated.”
“Yes, he’s legally separated,” I say. “Everything’s been filed, it’s just not final yet, that’s all.”
My aunt takes another drink, then I do, then my mother. They stare at me from across the table.
“Well,” my aunt says. “That’s nice. He seems nice.”
“Beth, you need help with that turkey?” Mom says, and they both get up from the table and go to the kitchen, leaving me with a half bottle of wine and too many questions I don’t have the answers to.
A few weeks ago I finally looked at a group of photos taken last Christmas with a camera I no longer owned. It was a small file. Twenty-four pictures on a flash drive that I’d buried in a drawer and tried to forget about. It was the last Christmas I spent with my wife before she left. I was going to throw it away. I should have. I told myself that there might be some pictures of friends that I’d want to keep, that it was stupid to just toss it without seeing what was on it first. I plugged the drive into my laptop at the office and opened up the files. There she was, smiling at me from the computer screen, dressed for Christmas Eve Mass in dark green velvet, wearing the necklace I’d bought her during the weekend we spent in Nevada City after Thanksgiving. I was surprised at the details my memory had missed: the shade of her lipstick, how dark her hair was, the pale cream of her skin. I put the flash drive in the glove box of my car, drove home, and forgot about it for a couple of weeks until the night Nicole brought up spending Thanksgiving with her. Until she asked me where we wanted to go for our first Christmas together. The next day when I got to work I took the drive out of my car and stomped on it. Tiny pieces exploded like shrapnel beneath my feet while I clenched my fists, fingernails leaving bloody half moons in my palms.
The turkey is overcooked and dry, my mom forgot marshmallows for the sweet potatoes, and from the reaction of my cousins in the living room Dallas is getting their ass kicked by whoever they’re playing. But it’s my family, and for the first time in my life I feel like I’ve got something to show them. I’ve got a career that’s about to take off, I’m starting college next semester, and I’ve got a boyfriend who has a future and treats me nice and wants to take care of me.
We met at jury duty. I was outside smoking by the main entrance and he was walking in with some attorneys. He was wearing a dark suit and as he walked past me he took his sunglasses off and looked me right in the eye. Later that day, after the jury was released for lunch, I saw him in the hallway downstairs. He walked up to me and said, “Hi, I’m Jay, what are you doing for lunch?” Just like that. I’ve never met anyone so confident in my entire life. He was so self-assured it took my breath away. He took me to lunch and we’ve been together ever since.
I ran into my ex the other day. I was at Home Depot to buy some paint, Jay and I are fixing up my condo, and there he was, Sean, with his shaved head and his tattoos, unloading freight onto the floor. We talked for a little while, then I bought my paint and went home. I told him that I was living with someone now and that I was happier than I had ever been in my life. Sean told me that he knew me better than anyone else ever would because we were married. He said that no one I ever went out with would know me like he did. He said that it’s only natural. He’s wrong. Sean knows who he was married to, yes, but that’s not me. It was never really me. I don’t think he knows me at all. I don’t think he realizes that, to me, he has become a stranger on the street. Someone I would pass by without bothering to look at on my way to somewhere better.
When I met Nicole I had been falling for so long that I didn’t think there was a bottom. I had reached a point where my loneliness had taken on shape and form until I no longer remembered what my life was like without it. She came into my life and made me remember that I hadn’t always been that way. She is beautiful and warm and loves me and all she wants is for me to love her back more than anything else in this world. She deserves this. But I did that before with someone else, and it almost killed me when it ended. I have learned not to give anything away that I can’t stand to lose.
I watch her as she sleeps in the passenger seat, her shoes on the floor, seat reclined as far as it will go. I find my way out of desolation and back to Highway 99 North, away from Merced County and rolling hills and farmland and Level III prisons. Away from Nicole’s family, who, unlike mine, seem to actually enjoy each other’s company. My hand is still sore from shaking goodbye to Stu. After our conversation in the garage the only words he said to me were when we were leaving.
“You’re going take care of her, right, Jay?”
It wasn’t really a question.
Nicole looks over at me, eyes half closed, and says, “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” I say, but I don’t know what that means anymore.
I’m ready for a new life. I’m ready to love someone again and there is so much about Jay that I really like, that I really need. But sometimes, when he looks at me, I know he’s seeing someone else. I know, deep down, that we’re just playing house, and that someday we’ll both be able to admit it. I think about how far I’ve come, and how far I still have to go, but it’s all too much right now. I’m so tired.
She closes her eyes. I turn the radio down until I can hear her breathing, deep, slow. In and out. In and out. I watch this woman who loves me, and think about the one who doesn’t. This woman I don’t deserve, and the one I can’t forget. While she lays there dreaming I look back to the road, at the sky. It’s overcast, and the fog is rolling in.
Photo by Simon Lieschke