permanence, estrangement, and true love saved for later
There’s a certain liminality to gas stations. It’s worse at night. Gas stations in the day have it too, but to a lesser degree— it’s on the opposite end a hospital is on, but it’s on the same spectrum. Something to do with the permanence of whatever dirt or grime makes an appearance. They clean it right up in hospitals but it festers in a gas station, even though the whole store is bleached to high hell every night. Maybe the hospital is the neutral point, dead center on the scale. Ground zero. In that case, a classroom is opposite from the gas station due to messiness without dirtiness. I don’t think anybody’s got the right to give you the stink eye in a classroom, though.
I’m sandwiched between the drinks and an impressive selection of beef jerky, waiting in line for the bathroom. It’s about 8 a.m., the morning of October 22nd. The cashier, a mid-thirties man with the smoothest skin I’ve ever seen, is looking at me like I’m about to pull a gun on him. It’s unjustified, but understandable. I know who strangers think I am, especially with choppy short hair, slept-in eyeliner, and clothes that never fit me quite right. I have an entire note in my phone of people’s first impressions and descriptions of me. (Icy, sharp, bad news, too smart for your own good, hell in men’s clothes, oh my god of course you’ve got a Scorpio moon and Capricorn sun.) It’s something I’ve gotten used to, I guess, but it doesn’t stop me from pocketing a few candy bars on the way back. Take that, dipshit. Be afraid.
My friend is outside, filling up the gas tank. The car is a cramped hand me down from his brother that makes it impossible to carry anything that isn’t clothes, but it doesn't matter. Someone else hauled our surfboards up yesterday, and neither of us needed much for three days. Underneath the washed-out gold of the morning sun filtering in, Pax looks like he could be some sort of religious icon, a halo of light shining through his bedhead. I almost wish I had a camera.
“We’ve got about an hour and a half,” I say, crawling into the passenger seat. I’ve been to this gas station more times than I can count— a lifetime of road trips up this way has guarenteed that knowledge of location is almost instinctual at this point. Pax, in the driver’s seat, hums in acknowledgement and scrolls through my phone for a playlist.
This time of year there’s almost always a dampness hanging in the air, but the sun is cutting through it today, and the windows are down to let it in despite the cold. I rest my head on the window ledge, turning up the collar of my coat and closing my eyes to the wind. Pax turns up the music and hits the gas.
We sit in the collective solitude of the car, the world flowing past us like water. It’s a familiar and serene togetherness, sequestered away from everything that matters back in the city. An oddly comforting thought sneaks in-- we could wreck the car and disappear or die, and none of our friends or family would realize until Monday. Right now, we exist in an in-between. Liminality always finds us.
The road winds through the woods, devoid of all human life except for us. There’s elk grazing on the side of the road, and they watch us fly past with big, guarded eyes that follow us until I can’t see them anymore. I watch them right back, and Pax watches me, making sure I don’t fall out the window in my earnestness.
“Eyes on the road,” I say, leaning backwards out the window until my shoulders are outside.
“All extremities inside the vehicle,” he replies, pulling me in by my coat, staring at the road to make a point. I settle back into my seat and turn up the volume, humming along to the Smiths. My body is half-numb from the cold. It feels like I’m floating.
I look over to Pax, one hand on the wheel and the other out the window, pink from the cold, bright-eyed and solemn faced. He’s got a streamlined sharpness to him, a brutal sort of elegance. It reminds me of a big cat. Silently, I watch the dappled sunlight ripple over him like he’s part of the car. He could very well be part of the machinery, but he’s also Pax, self-possessed and steady. It’s rare that I’m the more emotional one in a dynamic, but we’re evenly matched on that plane— we share a quiet intensity and impartialness. Twin hidden currents running deep. Internal bleeding.
Ahead of me, the road stretches endless. Wouldn’t that be nice? An endless road? A moment for an eternity? I wouldn’t have to go home. I wouldn’t have to go anywhere. I could just be here. I think about heaven, how they showed it in Supernatural. An eternal Tuesday afternoon. I know that I’d hate that, after a while. I’ve never reacted well to stagnancy, which I suppose is the irony of me wishing Heaven is a permanent impermanence. Maybe what I mean to say is that there is nowhere that I’d rather be.
It doesn’t matter what I mean to say. I’m in a car with a beautiful boy, and he won’t say that he loves me, but he loves me. I can tell. You can see it in his face and hands and the petals I’ve been plucking off of flowers, read it like an omen. The question now is will he or won’t he? The question now is do I or don’t I?
The playlist runs out, and he pulls over to find something else. The driver always picks, but the compromise is that he’s picking something from my music, so it works for both of us.
“Who’s Ezra?” Pax asks, looking at the phone like it’s his job. He’s always had that, the devotion that makes everything more intentional. I would like to be someone people devote themselves to.
“Guy in my old Health class who I used to talk shit with. Moved to Florida like halfway through the year, though. Good taste.” I have a playlist of the songs he recommended me. That must be what Pax is looking at.
He’s quiet for a moment, then presses play. “I think he liked you,” Pax says, pulling out of the road side. “It’s all love songs.”
“Not all of them.”
“Then they’re about a girl or trying to fuck a girl.”
I laugh. “Yeah, sure. It doesn’t matter, anyways. He’s in Florida.” He hums in agreement, and I stretch out my legs over his lap, tipping my head out the window again.
The birds sing outside. Faintly, faintly.
The house on the coast is rotting away. It’s been giving way to erosion since its creation in the 1920s, but the owners don’t spend nearly enough time there to upkeep it. It was white, once, but the paint is chipping off and a patchy pale brown from mud. Coniferous trees stand guard around the hill it sits on like sentries. Eventually, the bluff will crumble 100 or so more feet and deposit the house on the sandbar below, but not today. So it sits on the bluff, a seven-bedroom behemoth waiting for guests to come. It’s been waiting for such a long time. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted.
There’s already six other cars outside, parked on the lawn like tossed-aside toys, and Pax squeezes next to a Honda that’s seen better days. Reaching into the backseat, he passes me my backpack.
“I’m gonna find Henry,” he says. Henry is the son of the house’s owners, visibly Apollonic, suprisingly cheerful for someone who listens to Nine Inch Nails, and one of the ringleaders of Rocktober. He’s the Mike in this SLC Punk— he’s the normal one out of the greasy kids in a semi-abandoned house.
I head into the mouth of the house to find the room at the back of the house I usually stay in with Henry’s twin sister, Lydia. I’ve known them for about a decade now. Our mothers worked together when we were all about 5 years old. She’s slyer than him, less lighthearted and more intentional. I can get along with just about anyone, but I’d be lying if I said she wasn’t my favorite twin. Intention is an attractive trait, and she’s got it in spades.
She’s facedown on the bed when I get to the room, hair newly bleached corn silk blonde. It’s an interesting image— the room is terribly decorated, an odd combination of the original beautiful floral vintage green wallpaper and IKEA furniture. She clashes with the room as much as the dresser does. Something discordant and deliberate. Temporal liminality.
Lydia doesn’t look up, but grunts a greeting. I drop my bag on top of the dresser and flop next to her, my back cracking when I exhale. She lifts her head up and rests it on my shoulder.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hi. You going out today?” I saw her surfboard on the way in.
“After lunch, yeah. I had a thing in London and the jetlag is fucking killing me. Wanna nap,” she says, breath hot on the crook of my neck.
“I like the hair,” I say. She hums.
“They’ve got the amps set up in the basement,” she says. A psuedo-band forms every time the whole group is here. They cover old alternative songs, the Cure and Radiohead and the like. It’s always a good time— live music is never a bad thing, especially when it’s decent and your friends are the ones playing it. Pax tends to let his guard down a bit more whenever he gets a guitar in his hands.
“Yeah,” I say. “I know.”
We fall asleep like that, both in jeans and me still in my jacket, curled up together like a reverse Lovers of Valdaro— two living things in an old, dead room.
Two hours, a ham sandwich, and a short walk down the bluff steps later, I’m on the beach, zipping up Lydia’s wetsuit. Some of the others are in the water— I can see Pax and Henry out there, propped up, waiting for a wave. In the distance, a storm is brewing. There won’t be lightning, but it’s going to start coming down hard and fast in about 30 minutes. I can smell it.
The wind is making the waves pick up, and they kiss my neck, cold enough to shock. I can see the boys ahead of me. And then, like water through fingers, time escapes me. I find myself on the beach flanked by Pax and Lydia, who’s draped herself across my shoulders, still suited up and watching the light fade behind the point. It’s 5 p.m. Someone has ordered pizza back at the house. Lydia links the arm that isn’t carrying her board with mine.
“The party’s starting,” she says. I look up the bluff, into the blue. The windows of the house glow orange through the pines. “Did Henry tell you about Sunday night? We’re doing Halloween.”
“He didn’t. I’ll figure something out,” I say. We both know I’ll be digging through her duffle for something costume-y. I’ve got time. There’s always time.
“Pax,” I say, resting my hand on his arm. “We’ll meet you in the basement.” He touches my hand, looking me in the eyes, and heads towards the house. We follow behind him, gear slowing us down, hair in our eyes. Mine has just grown out long enough to get into places it shouldn’t.
Neither of us bother showering, back in the room. We’re just going to get sweaty again, crowded into a hot room with dozens of other salt-crusted people, moving and making out and fucking and fighting. I watch the muscles in Lydia’s back move as she takes out her braids, leaving tangled waves in the wake of her fingers. She has small hands like my mother does. She’s not wearing a shirt, but neither am I— just the jeans I was wearing earlier. Winging her eyeliner with the precision only practice can teach, she looks at me through the vanity mirror, blinking at me.
I know what she means. I always do.
“I’ll leave if it gets bad,” I say. Lydia slow-blinks again, eyebrows furrowed. She’s concerned. She has every right to be, with how my health has been lately. I look at her. She knows what I mean.
“Okay,” she says, going back to her makeup. “Okay.”
Downstairs is exactly how I remember it being last year, and I weave through the crowd towards the kitchen. Henry grins when he sees me.
“YO,” he yells. “YOU WANT SOMETHING?” The speakers are blasting some Annie Lenox remix at an almost deafening volume. I’m almost surprised that the plaster hasn’t started crumbling with the sheer force of the bass.
I hold out my hand, and he slips something into it. Red solo cup. Nice.
“YOU’RE A WHISKEY GIRL STILL?” I nod. “PERFECT.”
It’s not decent quality. One of the kids here has parents that own a whiskey company, so it must have come from her. I take another swig. It burns on the way down.
Henry reaches across the bar, touching my arm. He leans in so close I can smell the White Claw on his breath. “I think you’re going to get better,” he says earnestly, his eyes like pools in the dark. I put a hand over his, and he straightens again, giving me a smile so large it borders on manic.
“IT’S A FUCKING PARTY, LEE!” he yells. “FUCK OFF AND HAVE FUN!”
So I do.
Lydia’s got her arms around some girl’s neck on the makeshift dancefloor in the parlor, singing along to whatever song is playing, smacking her gum and giggling. She’s high. I make a note to check back in with her in a few hours.
I don’t mind the loudness. I’ll mind it less when I’ve got more alcohol in my system. It's fantastic that in spite of all this— friends in every room, the couple that’s almost fucking in the corner, the blaring music— I can still hear the electricity in the chandelier.
I float from room to room, meeting up with friends here and getting another drink off of someone there. I wonder if butterflies ever get lonely, flitting from one thing to the next. I’m a bit lonely. I’m always the loneliest in a crowded room.
It feels like walking through the city at night, seeing all the glowing orange windows against the superblue darkness. Not loneliness, really— alienation. I’m not alone, I’m on the outside of something. Here’s the life I’ve always longed for, and here I am, outside on the sidewalk. Alone. In the dark.
I need to stop pitying myself. Things were much easier once, before I got sicker and had decisions to make, but I can’t pity myself like this anymore. You’re no tragedy, girl. Don’t pretend like you’ve never had a drink bought for you, or that you’ve never kissed someone on the mouth, or that you’ve never stolen cars and gone joyriding. It’s so hard to live off of wanting, isn’t it? Is desire alone ever enough for you?
I should go to Memphis. God knows I can sing the blues. Dig a hole, find another wounded puppy, stay curled up with them forever. Go to sleep.
Pax finds me on the back porch with the smokers, looking out at the moon over the ocean and having a cigarette, bummed from a girl whose name I don’t know. I was kissing her, but we stopped. I think I’m glad we stopped. I wouldn’t want Pax to see me with someone else, even if we both know it’s happening— it’s no secret that I’ve got a body count to anyone. But he’s never seen it.
It’s a strange thought. I owe him nothing, but I’d like to owe him something, I think.
He sits next to me on the steps, resting a warm hand on the small of my back. It could be cold out here, but I’ve never been good at telling temperature— fucked nerve endings, my parents think. The door to the house is open and acting as our furnace, keeping my sweat from freezing. His breath plumes out, mingling in the half light with my smoke. Another pretty picture. Like an angel, only known because of something acting through it.
He rests a hand on my arm, and I look at him. He’s faded around the edges. Tired. When he gets up, I put out my cigarette and follow him through the house, into a second floor bathroom. Pax doesn’t turn on the light, letting the moon through the window illuminate the room.
He opens one of the drawers, passing me a pair of clippers. He looks at me. That’s all we ever do— look at each other. It’s all we need to do.
Taking off his shirt, he sits in the empty bathtub. It’s the smallest I’ve ever seen him. I sit on the edge of the tub and shave his head, holding his face in my free hand, running my thumb over his cheek, again and again. The party is nothing more than a murmur downstairs, a vibration in the tiles under my feet.
When I’m done, he kisses me on the forehead and throws his discarded hair into the trash, and we go back downstairs. One of the members of the psuedo-band spots us and heads over. It’s almost midnight. They must be starting soon.
“HEY,” Connor yells. “WE GOTTA GET GOING.” He grabs the both of us by our arms and pushes through the crowd. He’s a big guy— a drummer and a linebacker, over 6 foot and at least 200 pounds. He parts the way for us like Moses in the Red Sea.
The basement is warmer than the main house, despite having dirt floors. It’s got to be a health hazard for thic many people to be down here. It’s a health hazard to be playing a show down here, frankly— God only knows how many times I’ve caught a clump of dirt in the eye down here from the bassline rattling the ceiling. Nobody cares, though. None of us are particular hung up on being healthy.
Pax and Connor push their way to the little wood-floored area that forms the “stage”. The other two guys are already tuning up. I push my way to the front, grabbing Lydia’s arm. She’s as close to the stage as she can get without being in the way— it’s guarenteed that she used her elbows to get there.
“Hey,” she says, pupils dialated in the dark.
Pax strums a chord, pauses, fiddles with the amp. He plays another, and this time the guitar ricochets through the basement. With a few whispers, they ease into a rendition of Creep, much to the delight of the crowd, who surges forward at the first chucks.
From there, it’s another blur, lost in an ocean of people, elbows in my ribs and hands in my face. It’s never supposed to be a mosh pit, but it always ends up that way. So I lose time— one song bleeds into another, one accidental slap turns into a caress. On the stage Pax glows like a star, flinging himself around with reckless abandon. This is the way it is. This is the way it’s always been.
Oh, can’t you see how the years gone and to come spiral around us all? Can’t you see that there’s a way to escape time?
People start going home around 3 a.m. The music gets shut off, bottles get thrown in the recycling, and cars pull out, leaving nothing but tire tracks on the grass.
Lydia and I are in the bathroom attached to our room, sitting in the bathtub. The window is open. It’s cold out, I can see that now, mostly in the way her nipples are hard despite me curled up against her and the water being so hot the mirror is completely obscured. She has one hand on my waist, the other running through my hair. We don’t turn on the lights. I rest my head on her chest, feeling her breathe, bones shifting under me.
“Do you think we’re strange?” I say. It feels wrong to disrupt the silence.
“For most people, probably. We’re just right for us.” She’s looking down on me, breath coming across my shoulders instead of my face. I don’t know anyone else that bathes with a friend, especially not nude, but here we are. I hum my agreement, and she tugs on my hair. “Hey.”
I look up at her. The light through the window makes her seem half-there, like a ghost. “Everybody wants you,” she says.
I only realize I’m crying when she swipes a finger under my eye. Her hand continues to move through my hair. “Everybody wants you,” she says again.
She held me for so long in that dark. Inconsolable. Inconsolable.
Sunday comes with the soft yellow clarity that you can only find on Sunday mornings and late afternoon in the fall. Somewhere far away, my grandmother is sitting in church and praying for me— my health, my soul, to be saved. I’m a little beyond redemption, but that’s okay. I’ve never seen being saved as anything more than being condemned with a different name.
The sun warps through the old glass, rippling in strange ways on the carpet and our skin. Lydia’s got her thigh between mine, pale and stubbled, sweat from the sunlight sticking us together. She’s still asleep. She’s always been able to sleep for longer than I have. I can feel her heartbeat from where my hand is on her neck, slow and steady.
It’s almost 11 a.m. My head hurts like a motherfucker. Nothing cures a hangover like freezing cold water— a time-tested theory that’s almost family tradition, at this point. I came home drunk once and when I woke up, my father dragged me to the beach and wouldn’t take me home until I’d been underwater for at least five seconds.
I can hear the waves outside of the warmth of the room. It sounds like a beckoning. Lydia drags a hand across her eyes. “What time is it?”
“Fuck,” she says, hand over her forehead. She had a lot more in her system than I did, and I’m sure she’s feeling it now.
We sit in the silence, unwilling to leave but knowing we have to. The others will come looking. Neither of us are shy about nudity, but it’s different to the others. People would make assumptions if they found us together, since neither of us are the types to actually make it to a bed with our hookups, much less stay the night. We didn’t fuck, but that doesn’t matter. We're too old to get away with that, anymore.
Lydia gets up, digging through her drawers and tossing an old Rolling Stones shirt at me. It’s my shirt, one that went missing a few years back. It still smells a bit like me.
Swimsuits, jeans, t-shirts get thrown on. I braid her hair for her at the little breakfast table in the kitchen, and we both eat as much greasy bacon and toast as we can. Put on our wetsuits in the mudroom. Go outside, into the cold air. Re-wax my surfboard, down the stairs, onto the beach, where a few of the others are sitting.
Pax looks strange in the light of the morning without hair to soften him. Harder. More tired. It’s not a bad look, and I run a hand over the fuzz, sitting next to him. He’s clammy and wet, breathing hard. He must have just come in.
“How is it?” I ask.
“Choppy,” he relies, shifting closer. “Have you eaten?”
We listen to the waves for a little while. Lydia heads out without me, and we both watch as she pukes after paddling out, then catches a wave in to lay down next to me.
“I’m going to take a motherfucking nap,” she says, laying facefirst on the cold sand. Clouds gather in the distance. I run my hand over her hair.
“I’m going to head out. I don’t think I’ll be long, though.” Getting up, I grab my board and make for the ocean, paddling up to Henry, who looks a little bit green around the gills.
“That was motherfucking gnarly,” he says, staring at the water like it’s offended him.
“She’s hungover,” I say.
“Yeah, I guessed. She fucking blew chunks, Lee,” he shoots back. I know he’s woried, but would be less funny if he wasn’t already starting to laugh.
I look at him. “Shut the fuck up,” he says, falling off his board when a wave rolls under him.
We go in around 2 p.m. for lunch, Pax and Lydia still on the beach. It takes twenty minutes for us to get out of our suits and back into normal clothes, and another half hour to get to some kitschy diner off the highway, the four of us devouring burgers like it’s our job.
I know there’s other people in the house, other friends of Henry and Lydia’s, but they’re all doing their own thing. It’s nice. Quieter than it’s ever been in the house. The diner is near empty and has a jukebox, and Henry twirls me around to Sinatra while the others finish their milkshakes. He steps on my feet as I laugh and try to teach him how to swing dance.
We keep the windows down on the car ride back, playing INXS as loud as Henry’s shitty stereo system will let us. When we get back into the water this time, Lydia doesn’t puke, and we eat the breakfast leftovers as a snack when we finally get out, hands and feet pruning.
It’s a good day. It’s a really good day.
Sunday’s party starts a little later. People start showing up around 8 p.m., decked out in all sorts of costumes— vampires and ghosts, easy shit to throw together. Lydia spends almost thirty minutes putting frosted blue eyeshadow and thick eyeliner on me. We’re dressed similarly, both in tennis skirts (Lydia’s) and crop tops (also Lydia’s). The idea was 2000s cheerleaders, but the 2000s part is mainly lost. I’m not going to complain about having someone gently touch my face for half an hour, though.
We get downstairs around 9:30, going in different directions— me to the alcohol, her to whoever’s dealing. Last time I did something that wasn’t weed, I ended up at the bottom of a swimming pool with a chipped tooth, the very tip of my tongue bitten off, and a cut on my chin that makes dimple when I smile, even today. I tend to stay away from the harder stuff, nowadays. I’ve got enough things missing from me.
Time blurs into nothing, dancing and fucking my way to midnight, saying hello to people I hadn’t seen for a year as I wait for the band to start. Loneliness follows me like a lost dog no matter what I do— no amount of kisses on the cheek or hugs or idle conversations can put it down. Poor little thing. Who do you belong to?
When Lydia finds me and drags me to the basement, we elbow our way to the front again, and the band kicks off with a cover of Rhiannon that the crowd sways to, voices harmonizing in the basement like a church choir, prayers to a long forgotten god. They're on fire, tonight-- burning up with passion, throwing themselves into it for hours.
Pax drops to his knees in front of me, finishing off a cover of The Killers like that, staring me in the eyes.
I love you, he mouths, drowned out by the roar of the crowd. He stands up, grabbing the microphone. “Holly,” he says. “I love you.” The crowd whoops. They don’t know us, vultures hungry for any sort of anything.
Slowly, he gets back down on his knees. One knee. There’s a ring in the palm of his hand. Opal ring. He looks at me, eyes wide and clear, so hopeful and desperate he rings with it. He’s glowing. He’s fucking glowing, glowing in this dark, rotting place. How could he do this?
“I want to marry you,” he says into the mic again, tone even and measured. Everybody wants you. It echoes in my mind.
I lower myself to my knees, holding his face in both of my hands, resting my forehead against his. He closes his eyes.
He rests the hand not on the mic on my cheek, fingers in my hairline. We hold onto each other, hiding from the storm around us.
“Oh, Pax,” I say. “What are we going to do now?”