by Winnie Richards
It’s Friday night at the Owasco Drive-In, and the place is crawling with the usual crowd. Pulling over in the field, the scene unfolds before us like a morbid billboard for a variety show that’s never out of season. The evening slides lazily towards night and the wide stage is gearing up for the show. Rising from mud-slicked valley, the cast and crew congregates; cigarettes wagging, beers clinking and Capri suns bursting in their coolers, hauled down from the back of the pickup truck. And above it all, the great white screen, rising like a blank and holy canvas preparing to prophesize to the people the great word of God. Tonight, I think it’s Spiderman, but I could be wrong. Joining the slow-moving crowd of vehicles descending into the valley, I lean my head out the open window of my truck and breathe in deeply the smell of farmland and summer mud. Beside me on the bench seat, Cassie lights a cigarette and leans up against my shoulder. I run my hand through her hair, pulling apart the tangles. “Alice, he’s waving you through,” she says, pointing to the traffic kid who’s directing me towards my spot in the line of cars. “Hey, would you stop at the snack stand?” she says, fishing in her pocket for coins. “I just want some Skittles or something.” “Sure, of course,” I say. “You eat lunch today?” “Didn’t have time, I was running late.” She replies, absently ashing her cigarette on the dashboard. “Get a hotdog then, will you? You need some real food in your stomach.” I say. She scoffs quietly and flicks the cigarette butt onto the floor. Rolling past the ticket booth, Cassie waves to the girl behind the window. The girl is doing her lipstick in the reflection of the cash register screen and barely glances up, but gives us a wave. I can’t remember her name but I recognize her from around. I think her brother fixed the brakes on my old truck a couple years back. Pulling into the field, the full scene comes into focus, in all its grandeur. The Owasco Drive-In: a last bastion of the time before our wasteland became a resort for wealthy city folk hoping to find fulfillment in their dreams of woodland foraging and artisanal barnwood pizza. Each sweaty hick-town corner, one by one successfully deodorized and pasteurized until it resembles an imaginary village scene from a vintage postcard. Nobody’s shading in the opioid addiction and child abuse. This place still does though. Truck after busted truck all loaded up with families and plastic lawn chairs. Thirteen year-olds rolling up on lawn mowers and tractors. The girl at the snack stand has opened the cash register with her acrylic nails ever since she lost the key. Most weekends the movie is something by Marvel, but nobody cares anyway. The drive-in is strictly not about the movies unless you’re under the age of fifteen or you came here by accident. Monroe and Susquehanna counties are the Opioid Kingdoms, sure. But anything special that you can’t get from your own local townie-source you have to wait on ‘till Friday night at the drive-in. Men’s bathroom. Fourth stall to the left. Cassie and I have been together for a couple of years now. She’s the most beautiful person I’ve ever met and sharp as a pin. But mostly I’m just down with the fact that she’s really the only other person in our world who thinks about getting out of the shithole we were born in. We have six months left of high school, then we’ll be gone forever. We’ve got no idea where we’re going, and just about no money between the two of us; but I love her and so that’s really it. We’ve been dreaming of the day we escape since before we were even together. And the thought’s been brewing in my head since I was a little kid. As long as I can remember. There’s no doubt in my mind that once we’re gone, we’ll never see this place again. To me it doesn’t even matter all too much where we go just so long as ‘there’ isn’t here. But Cassie’s got ideas. Pretty damn big ones. It’s one of the reasons I love the shit out of her. She wants to drive across the country in the truck. Watch the sunrise over the Arizona desert. She wants to see the Redwood Forest and the Grand Canyon. She wants to work and save and buy a one-way ticket to Asia and never come back. Neither of us have ever seen the ocean. We’re going to find every place it touches the land. She’s at her best when she talks about the things she wants to see. I want to see them because she wants to see them. I want to see her anywhere; everywhere but here. There’s a hole between the stalls where the toilet paper dispenser used to be. Through it I watch Cassie tie the bandana around the top of her arm. The low yellow light makes her hands look beautiful. Like there’s gold underneath the skin. Fragmented, through the door, she looks like a piece of God. “How was work?” I ask, watching the thick, brownish mixture I’m holding over the flame melt away into itself. I’m using one of the spoons from my mom’s kitchen, with the roses on the handle. That morning I had watched my kid brother eat Fruit Loops with one just like it. The thought makes me laugh and I wish it hadn’t. “Fine,” she sighs. “Sorry, I meant fucking terrible, as usual.” She takes one end of the bandana in her teeth, jerking it hard. It rips and she curses. “Cass, Jesus.” I get up and come around the divide into her stall. Setting the full spoon down on the concrete floor, I kneel beside her and begin adjusting the cloth on her arm. She lets me for a moment, and then snatches it back. “Cass, babe. What’s up?” “It’s too loose,” she grumbles, fiddling with the knot. I lift the spoon slowly from the floor and grip it between my teeth, drawing up the thick brown liquid. Cassie watches as I turn the syringe and flick the amber tube. She clasps and unclasps her fist, distractedly. She’s watching me closely and not watching me at all. I try to meet her eyes but she won’t let me. “You okay?” “Dude, ask me one more fucking time if I’m okay!” She rips at the bandana again, her vein bulging out of her forearm. “Alright, I’m sorry!” I concede. “Here, gimme your arm.” She thrusts her hand towards me and I can see her tears. I can hear my heart in my ears. I press on the vein. “Cassie …” I whisper. Her eyes are closed, hard. Her lip quivers. The needle wavers just above her skin. “I’m pregnant, Alice.” She opens her eyes and looks directly into mine. She shoves her arm forward, just enough for the needle to enter her skin. My eyes on hers, I empty the vial into her arm. The movie shifts back and forth in front of my eyes, in and out of focus. More of a balloon of dull color than anything tangible. Cassie nods beside me, her head brushing softly against my shoulder. In these strange, sluggish moments, I feel I might be brushing up against understanding the grandeur of what it is that I have, and the way it is incomparable to anything I will ever have again. Things are so fucked up. But this is who we are. It’s who I am. And it’s who I am both absolutely certain – and terrified – I will never escape from being. I could never argue with anyone who told me that we’re broken, because we are. But beauty transcends the boundaries of the here and now, no matter how fucked up. I’d be lying to myself if I even pretended to think for a second that I will ever know beauty as purely as I know it now. The rest is a film reel shot in one take. I don’t sleep except accidentally, for brief lengths of time. Cassie sleeps forever, waking only for a few hours here and there. She goes cold turkey, of course. The baby is probably fucked up enough already. About as fucked as its momma had been seventeen years ago. Cassie says there’s no chance she’s gonna start down that street as well. And I believe her. We’re all fucked up, but Cassie’s head has always been on the right way. In one of the few concrete moments, I’m sitting at the kitchen table in the middle of the afternoon while Cassie sleeps in the next room. I’m sitting here peeling potatoes to put in the oven; one of the only solid foods Cassie’s able to keep down. And I’m just wondering if I should be feeling more fucked up inside about all this? Maybe the daddy is someone I know, maybe he’s not. It could be anyone. I reckon she wouldn’t have known, even if I asked. There’s always been an understanding between us that our love is the realest thing we have, but at the same time this place is complicated. This kind of life is complicated. Things happen and other people happen, but they don’t come between us in the ways that matter. At the end of the day, we’ll leave this all behind, and we won’t even remember the names of the people who came and went during this strange time. But I knew all that, I understood it. This is different. This is something I don’t know at all. All through the week I hold her while she shakes and cries. Hours. So many hours watching the person I know drain away, and agony replace the life behind her eyes. She contorts into a figure so broken and far from herself that one morning, when she wakes from an hour or so of fitful rest and comes to the kitchen to ask me for a glass of water, I swear for a moment I don’t know who she is. She’s asked me a hundred times over the course of these days to make the pain go away. It would break my heart if I didn’t feel half dead inside. I hold her silently, while she heaves and sobs. I comb her hair once she’s quiet. One morning we’re sitting on the porch staring out at the driveway. Fall is coming, and the lawn has seen better days; strewn with car parts, a ragged tarp, a roll of shingles that’s been eaten away by the rain. Rubbing her stomach and staring blankly ahead, Cassie asks me if I would start looking into rentals around town. We’re going to need a place to live. A thousand times I’ve laid under the stars in the bed of my truck with her asleep on my shoulder, playing out in my head all the places we would live. A tiny cliffside home in China, way high up in the clouds. A big silver camper out in the Utah desert. An apartment in the center of Paris, looking out on the damn Eiffel Tower. Sitting there on the crumbling porch steps, she looks smaller and more fragile than I’ve ever thought her to be. Even in the really deep shit, when she was taking bigger doses than anyone we knew, I had never once thought of her as weak. Cassie is the strongest person I know. Watching her hands quiver as she presses back her bangs from her damp forehead, she looks so utterly broken. I don’t recognize her. I tell her I’ll start looking into places tomorrow. The morning is grey, and softer than any I have felt before. The fog holds everything in place. Each piece of the wide valley seems suspended on a string. In that silent, still sleeping dawn, I stand on the sidewalk in the town where I grew up, watching the day roll in like a storm-filled sea. Cassie will be here, but not until six; not for another hour. I’m driving her to an appointment at the Family Planning clinic. Her first one was a week ago. They didn’t let me come into the room with her for the sonogram, but they let her take some pictures away. The baby was doing well. Before we left, they gave her an envelope. She opened it once we were in the car, pulling out a slip of blue paper with the word ‘male’ on it. She was having a boy. Cassie slept all the way home. I wept. This morning I stand on the sidewalk, closing my eyes against the heavy air, and imagining what that little boy will look like. Cassie has this incredible golden-brown hair. Great, wild curls. Wide, brown, Jersey-cow eyes. I pray for the kid’s sake that he turns out looking something like Cass. I pray her arms are soft again when she holds him close. That her voice is not bitter. I pray her milk is sweet. While I drive, the day breaks above me and I skim beneath the fog’s fading wake. I’m at the state border by six. I imagine Cassie standing alone on the corner of Main and Elm, holding her bags to her thin chest. She’s supposed to be moving in with me today. Her mom’s boyfriend is not about to have a baby in the house, and certainly not one by some dyke mother. And he pays the bills. In that moment, the desire to be there with Cassie is overwhelming. I imagine slamming my foot on the break, turning right around, and driving straight back to the only life I know. With her. With that little boy. I would pull up on that curb, she’d slap the shit out of me and I’d deserve it a thousand times over. I would carry the bags. I would carry the bags every day for the rest of my life. I don’t. The early morning air is soft and still, and if I shut my eyes it doesn’t take much to convince myself I never left. I am sitting on the curbside at the back of the La Quinta Motel in the basin of a desert town. It’s been three days, and I’ve covered near on three-thousand miles. I could cover another three-thousand, another ten-thousand, and it wouldn’t put a single grain of distance between me and what I’ve done. What I had to do. I don’t know. Where I’m at now, there’s nothing. But sometimes, in the fight between nothing and something, nothing wins. Just for a second I tasted something. And I knew I had to go. That life stood before me, and for a moment I looked it dead in the eyes. A lifetime in the town I grew up in. Working the same job my dad did. Living every day in the eyes of the town: the dyke mother to a bastard kid. Drinking too much, and learning to hate the girl that I love. sinking deeper into that big mud, every day. Each night, a quiet rehearsal for death. I’ve seen it happen more times than I can count. The great variety show that transcends time and characters. I know the script like the back of my hand. And I know I can’t do it. Anyone could blame me, sure. But I’m pretty damn sure I’d blame myself more. Here I am, either way. Across the parking lot, I can see in the window of the motel breakfast room. An old man in suspenders and a stetson shuffles past the window. He pulls out a chair, pauses, and turns to look out somewhere past me. I turn, and in the distance I can see heat lightning on the horizon. I’m sort of thrown by how flat and dull it is. I guess the man’s gaze had me believing I might see something I know I don’t have the capacity to see anymore. When I turn back, he’s gone. We don’t get to decide the moments when each of us pokes a finger through the screen and sees a glimpse of the real and grey light. I wonder, as I do often, if this is God in our spaces. I don’t believe it is, even though I used to pretend I did. I’ve torn through the paper ceiling. I pray, every moment, for the comfort of its cover again. The sun is low and red, and in the distance I can see dust rising off the desert. I know I’m facing west, as I’ve positioned myself towards the setting sun. I’m watching it now, as it sighs its final breath across the red clay horizon. My home is behind me. Just about three-thousand miles. In the quiet before dusk, I give way to the suicidal act of imagining. I close my eyes. Somewhere in the hazy future, whatever that means, Cassie is sitting on a porch watching a setting sun that looks almost exactly like this one. In a better home with a better friend by her side. A son at the door, letting out the dogs. Never a thought given to the bad people and stuff she didn’t deserve, all faded far behind her. Only the sun ahead. Realistically I think it’s doubtful she will ever see a sun that looks like this one, but I allow myself a moment of imagining she will. There are too many hills there. Or at least, I think there are. I reckon my certainty, even of that, will fade with time. There is so much ahead to fill the spaces where memory falters. Somewhere, I’ll visit mountains capped in snow. Cliffs that rise higher into the sky than you can see. I’ll walk in the deepest, greenest forests. Put my head beneath the ocean waves. I will stand in a thousand places where the seas touch the land. Yet I know in this moment, as sure as anything, I will never think them beautiful. I’ll find cities thronging with more people than I could have ever imagined seeing in one place, and I’ll walk among them. I could search a hundred thousand days, but I will never again know worth. Worth, much like beauty, and very much like love. Things that lie in the East. That lie behind me. I climb into my car, and there I’m warm. The nights are colder here. I watch the sun set through my grimy windshield and the smell of exhaust gathers around me like a close and forgiving fog. When the dark rolls in and the sky dissolves light into absence, I think what I see might be considered beautiful. I allow myself to believe it is. I know that it is not.
Read Issue 16