Away is always beautiful, the color is right, the lighting is perfect. It is always the perfect distance from where you are. That’s why the inclination is to run to it, to run away. You don’t take your time; when you get your chance you run.
I think I was born to leave. There have always seemed to be some kind of forces pulling me away from our little town, ever since sitting on the front stoop of our tiny first house and asking every person passing by where he or she was going.
In second grade I liked playing the part of the dramatic child by sitting on the edge of our rickety-wooden playground, legs dangling, while the other kids chased each other and flipped off swings and accosted the family of bunny rabbits that lived under the bridge. I’d sit out there on the edge and spend all of recess staring out past the corn at the deep green hills that rolled on and on. I remember feeling pulled toward something out there—something I couldn’t see but could feel deep in my eight-year-old bones. And then, of course, Andrew Page would tap my shoulder and ask if he could take a turn and any sense I had of being a special little snowflake deflated immediately.
I think the real fantasies of actually leaving started when we moved into the big white house on the edge of town. There was a field back beyond the yard that grew crops in rotation: corn, corn, soybeans, corn. I was nine when we settled there and I started dreaming of packing a bag of tuna sandwiches and walking into those tall, mysterious stalks to somewhere far away. I didn’t know where I would go; I just wanted to start walking. Our cat Minnie once slipped out the basement door and got to live my dream, but she only came back three days later weighing five pounds less and matted with dirt and fleas.
As life got meaner all I thought about more and more was leaving, escaping. There began the obsession with airports, airplanes, hot air balloons, helicopters, those BW vans with mattresses in the back; birds that could fly and birds that couldn’t; flight attendants; the travel channel and on occasion the food network if Rachel Ray went anywhere interesting. Streaked across the sky geese flew south in the fall and part of me went with them.
I don’t know how it started but I know that by the end there was no doubt in my mind it was the place I needed to leave, the place and all its people. But even cursing the invisible bars of the town it was impossible to stay angry at something as beautiful as Black Earth. In the summer everything flushed green and the country had a heartbeat that made the leaves on the trees pick up and come back down with the wind. I’ve spent days trying to think up the right words to describe the color that the sun turns just before it dips down behind the hills, but there are no words to put you right where I’ve been. It’s the kind of light that’ll fill your whole body enough to make it feel like any second you might float up and away. Just before you do, though, something sour always yanks you down at the ankles: the inborn and almost imperceptible hate that permeates the soil.
It isn’t loud, this hate. It grows up with the corn and spreads smooth between the layers of bread and butter at dinner. This hate’s old as the iron train tracks that have run through town since the beginning, when anyone here still had hope. You can taste it rusty like blood under your tongue, like tornadoes picking up barns in August, angry like the pastor locked up for hitting his babies with a wooden mallet whenever they cried during services. It’s bitter and fresh in some places, like “fag” written on your best friend’s locker and families fighting over money they all know is gone. It’s hate so deep that the town has been slowly destroying itself for years like an immune system confused. I will see Black Earth die in my lifetime, just like they told us we would when we were little and couldn’t see the cracks in our perfect pretty world.
The tricky part is seeing past the good, heart-swelling parts: driving up to the farm after school and hurling hay out of the back of a pick up truck while the maintenance boys drive around to the different horse pastures; Sundays on our 12-foot fishing boat; weeknights catching crawdads in the creek. Days that made you feel proud at the end of them, tired and a little dirty and filled up full with crisp fresh air.
The photograph I love most in this world is of my third grade class, the fourteen-or-so of us all hanging on the monkey bars in front of a blue blue sky—blue so deep I can still taste it on my tongue. In the picture we are perfect in overalls and toothy smiles, squinting from the brightness of the day. I don’t even remember Mrs. Taylor taking the picture, but in my mind she looks through the disposable lens and knows that she’s caught us in that tiny clear rectangle forever just for an instant—an instant that’s come to speak for so many lost years. I do not know how to reconcile forgetting the texture of whole years of my life, instead substituting in a flat word like “happy” and hoping it’s true.
An instant in time, her finger pressing down. I can relive it over and over even if she is dead. She is pressing down the button and we are smiling because we really are happy and the sun feels warm and sweet like honey and nothing can ever be wrong. Not in that instant.
She pressed down and the camera clicked. Years went by and everything changed and she sent the photo to me in an envelope with my name on it. Then she went home to Virginia and lay in a bed until cancer ate her up and death took all of her memories of us with her. Less and less remains.
I loved that town and I think that’s what broke my heart the most—that it didn’t want me by the time I had grown old enough to understand it. I tried to keep on loving it, but it hurt to wake up and it hurt to look at the faces and it hurt not to understand why a place I loved hated me. No one could understand why on God’s green earth I would ever want to leave this town that was so small it didn’t even show up on the channel five weather radar.
So for the last few years I had to stay there I resolved to leaving in all the ways a person can while still standing in the room. I left them all inside my mind, said goodbye to friends and family without them even noticing. I became the empty girl they thought me to be, smiling at the right times and screaming in the backyard later on. In my head I held pictures of far away places that I would run to as soon as my sentence was up and I was free. No one knew.
Towards the end, on one of those dark January afternoons when no one has the heart to turn the lights on so early, I was in the middle of a period when I hardly left my bed for weeks unless I had to. I lie in there with my door closed and cried for all the places I wasn’t, and the one that I was. Just then I had come down to get a glass of water. My dad leaned up against the counter next to me. I saw in his eyes that he was worried, he and my mom both were, that any second now I might do something drastic. They weren’t wrong; those days I felt like breaking everything in the house, or shaving my head, or running somewhere far away and leaving them forever, but my heart was too tired for any action. Two hands clutching the countertop, he told me “we can take a trip.” They were empty, useless, loving words. We both knew there was no trip; there was no money, no time. He said it because he was afraid. I filled my glass, and didn’t look at him when I told him “Sure, let’s take a trip.”
I stuck out that year of fill-in-the-bubble tests and presentations on the benefits of pursuing careers in finance and/or orthodontia from a guidance counselor who believed in spraying his clothes with Febreze instead of washing them and I figured out how to run away without breaking any rules. So I ran away to Vermont with all the paper work in order.
The satisfaction of leaving was entirely as wonderful as I imagined it would be all those years—to drive away from that town and not know when I’d see it again was something I’d been waiting for in some ways for my entire life. It helped that the place I chose to escape to was special in that it would take me in wholly and I could start again completely new.
When I go back I’m always surprised that no one in the grocery store stops me, amazed at how I’ve changed, how different I look from everyone else there. No one even gives the sideways glances I always expected; no sign hangs above my head flashing in neon “THE GIRL WHO LEFT.” Occasionally a neighbor will ask me how Virginia is and I’ll tell her that Vermont is beautiful, but by then she’s always stopped listening.
Something else happened, though, after I left Black Earth: I stopped loving airports. They are romantic until you’re standing at the gate, looking at people you love and feeling like a criminal for leaving. The magic of the in-between has been lost on me now that I have anchors on either end. I don’t know which end to call home. When I close my eyes I am still the girl stuck in front of the blue blue sky, legs hanging down with a bandana in my hair, stuck forever in that sunny day, looking out at nothing.
Eyes open, here is a whole different world, the one I chose. No matter how long I keep my eyes shut that other world is gone. I have the picture and a few others and the memories of growing up in wide-open spaces drenched in warm sun. I go back there in my mind but can’t stay too long, or else the hate seeps through and ruins everything.
This world, now, is finally a place that doesn’t hurt to stay. I will leave it but for more loving reasons. I got out of the place I was meant to and the rest of the world is empty of the invisible bars Black Earth held around it that I fought against for so many years. I will leave this place just like I left Black Earth but the difference is that here there is nothing to forgive.
Young and Loaded
We made it to Florida and it’ muggy as all fucking hell. The bugs ain’t helping either but we got to keep the windows in the truck down all night long, it’s so hot. Having to piss woke me up. Cheyenne’s lying half on top of me but when I gotta piss I gotta piss and I just push her off. She doesn’t even wake up; her mouth just hangs wide open and drools all on the backseat. Real nice. I grab the gun from the glove box before getting out just ‘cuz this park&ride isn’t like a real friendly-seeming place.
The guy we lifted the truck from in Georgia had the gun sitting in here like it was just for us or something. It’s a pretty gun, too—one of those .357 Magnums—not any of that BB gun shit for going at squirrels.
I push it in my back pocket and walk a little ways away from the truck to the grass. The goddamn bugs are buzzing so loud it’s like they’re inside my head, the stupid things. I’m pissing on the grass and they’re everywhere, and the air’s so thick I can’t hardly breathe, and I think maybe Florida’s not so great. We won’t be staying here long anyway.
“What’re you doin’?” Cheyenne yells from the truck like I’m not allowed to piss without her knowing. I can’t hardly see her except the messed-up blond hair all over her head.
“I’m taking a piss, that ok?” She starts walking over. I zip my pants up and light a cigarette.
“I just got scared when you weren’t in there,” she says.
“I wasn’t gonna wake you up. Settle down, woman.” She scrunches up her smile in the dark. I know she likes when I call her woman ‘cuz she’s only thirteen and no one calls her that.
This whole plan was her own idea. I had a court appointment coming up that I was gonna skip anyway, and then she said we should just go, get out of Kentucky, and I said yeah okay. We were both sick of getting shit from everyone about me being old and she being young, like it’s some kind of horrible thing. I never met a thirteen-year-old like Cheyenne, though. When I saw her standing outside school waiting for her ride home, looking at her phone and swinging her legs turning all around, all I thought was “I want that.”
Now she’s reaching out for me to give her a drag and with her makeup all smeared she doesn’t look like much. The smoke comes out of her mouth and it’s so hot, the air and ground and everything feels wet and like it weighs a million pounds.
“Is there any more beer?” She asks.
“Nah, it’s gone. Tomorrow I’ll find somebody to get us some.” She hands me back the cigarette, almost out now. Then neither of us says anything for a while, and all we can hear is the bugs. We’re both just looking out at nothing in the dark.
“You love me, Dalton?” she asks out of nowhere.
“Sure, baby come’re,” I say and grab her ass. She laughs a little but pulls away.
“Seriously! You love me, right?”
I tell her, “I stole us a truck, and did three Walmarts and a gas station with you. What’dya think, I’m gonna bail?” I can still see the stupid look on all the cashiers’ faces, scanning people’s Mountain Dew and cheese balls and hot pockets like nothing in the world could ever be wrong. Not one of them looked over at us; we were just a couple a’ kids. A couple of smart motherfucking kids. But she’s still looking at me all sad, so I say, “Yeah I love you.”
“I love you too,” she says and kisses me on the lips. We both smell like sweat from not showering for a couple of days.
We make out all the way back to the truck and stretch across the seats together. I start undoing my pants. She says, “I’m tired.” I say, “But I love you,” and she smiles and says “okay,” real soft. The blankets and our clothes are all soggy and fucking her is a good enough reason to have run away. We can just keep running and stealing and fucking and drinking and smoking forever, I wouldn’t mind that.
A little while later the bugs seem to get quieter.
“If you breathe slower you don’t get so hot,” she says.
Then she’s asleep again, and I’m trying to breathe slow and think about where we’ll go next. I start drifting off when I see the lights coming closer—flashing red, white, and blue and looking like American flags somebody set on fire.