After speaking with my grandmother, we left our small town for the slender reed of the highway. The skyline was cloaked in a thin veil of low lying fog through which the faint shapes of beech and ash were sometimes visible, beyond them, were the logging companies and cavernous mines that stretched out beyond the edge of town, pillaging what little was left.
She asked if my grandmother’s seeds were going to work, and I could hear behind the question, the next question, what we’d do if they didn’t, if we’d stay together and sad forever, as one of those long-lived tropical birds, trapped in a cage for fifty-odd years. The truth was that I loved her, and I didn’t know, so I turned up the radio and watched crows fly like buckshot from wire to sky. The headlights of the car were not yet useful, but I switched them on anyway, and we listened to pop music while driving down the highway, over slight hills, undulations of the land. She put her bare feet on the dashboard, and the smell of wood smoke briefly filled the car, reminding us of childhood, about which we’d sometimes debated, each of us trying to claim that we’d had it sadder. She, with the father present, and terrible, I, with the father absent.
We drove through the night—headlights cutting ribbons through the darkness—and switched on a radio station that played country-western through the witching hour, Merle Haggard has never sounded so mournful as at 3 am.
Do you think she’s right?
Grandmother? She’s often right.
Then I was sleeping again.
What if we tried again, instead? She asked.
We’d probably fail again.
Sounds about right, she said.
We drove through the morning, purple-hued mountains appeared on the horizon as streaks of rain from a passing cloud fell on the windshield, and we found ourselves, for the first time in months, talking about the values of the socialist state, like many couples we knew, we’d fallen in love with the way our conversation used to bend and slither as a river through the countryside, from art, to politics, to the strangeness of the human condition. Now, we mostly fought. Neither of us saw much hope in the political process because everyone we knew, including ourselves, was secretly a demagogue, who would try and enforce rigorous values and taxes on people who had no interest them.
We listened to podcasts about cold cases, this or that person murdered, an endless string of podcasts about the dead. It was easy to imagine our car driving over the bodies that had been deposited in the soil decades and centuries ago, a never-ending pile of cold cases, of lives we’d never know, never hear on a podcast, lives like our own.
The problem is that we’re alive. No one cares about us yet enough to do a podcast.
We drove in shifts, pausing to fill up the tank or pee in rest stops.
Does it feel better yet, she asked.
I don’t know that I’d recognize better, I answered.
Better is better, she said. Don’t be obtuse.
It’s what I’m angling for, I answered, smiling.
I used to love you for your sense of humor.
Me too, I said.
We drove through the deserts, mile after mile of red rock, sandstone carved by wind and rain and at night, stars appearing in droves as flocks of light-filled birds.
What did that sign say, I asked.
I think something like, you should look out for strangers today and trust in yourself because trusting yourself is the beginning of love. Typical Aries stuff.
Eventually, we crossed the border and drove into California via a small southern desert town that looked as though it had been abandoned then hastily resettled, large trucks without wheels adorned front yards, sun-bleached plastic play sets appeared sporadically behind chain-link fences as though they had been blown there by a tornado.
If you lived here, you’d be home now, she said, philosophically.
Up the coast, gulls screeched and the Pacific stretched dramatically into the distance, and we talked of whales, of what they thought of, of whether they were lonely in the endless depths. Whales are the loneliest creatures besides the two of us, she said.
And then we were there. We stepped out of the car into a rice field, swathed in a warm orange glow of a rising sun, and in the distance, a pair of cranes bent their necks like ballerinas in a Degas.
This is us, I said, gesturing to the field.
How do we do this, she asked.
Poorly, probably, I answered. Like everything else.
I pulled the packet of seeds from my pockets, and went to work, sowing them into the ground, seed after seed in a long row until our lower backs began to ache. We worked through the morning and into the afternoon—puffs of gunsmoke clouds, murmurations of starlings—and then into an early evening of multitudinous insects, whirring. Finally, the work was done, and we got back in the car.
Months later, when she’d emptied the apartment and moved to another country, I drove back to our field. When I got there, I saw how well the seeds had grown, tall stalks were glimmering in the morning light. And as the wind passed through them, you could hear them weeping. You could hear echoes of the arguments we’d once had, discussions of ex-lovers, mortgages and unborn children. You could hear everything that had passed between us and that we’d emptied into the dew glistening stalks, framed by an orange sky.