Here we go. He’s going to start talking again.
“As I see it we’ve got two choices. Right now you’ve got a roof over your head, food on the table, and that equals a life in front of you. Otherwise, I don’t know. You end up on the streets.”
Two things are wrong with this statement. If it’s my problem there is no we in this equation he’s computing. And what streets? These streets? If I were a different person, I would think that was endearing. That it betrays innocence of a darker world in which lives don’t just fall apart until someone else picks up the pieces but rather implode or explode into nothingness, oblivion. My husband believes in an orderly progression of disintegration rather than the more ominous choice: death, darkness, the big sleep, skip all the rest and head straight for the lighted exit. That is what we’re talking about, only we’re not taking about it. Like someone we used to know whose name we’ve both forgotten.
He’s talking in a low voice like there’s someone in the car who’s listening. There’s no one in the car listening. For the last ten years I’ve been the only company I can count on. On the other hand I’d really like to get away from me.
This is the problem with cars. You’re trapped. Even though I know this conversation comes from a good place, as he would say, it’s nothing I want to hear.
“Is that the place in the book?” I’m falling back on food or sex. A low building passes, two cars parked in the gravel out front, a paper sign reading taqueria in the window. Smoke billows up from a dilapidated chimney. A patch of the roof has been colored black from the smoke.
But he stares ahead at the Prius in front of us, a car so small it looks as if it came from a cornflakes box.
“Matt I’m starving. Can we take a break?”
I’ve been making my way through various fast food menus. At a certain point on the road it seems pointless to avoid anything fried or served with fries. Confession may be good for the soul but it’s hell on the body.
Matt has read about an old diner. It’s one of those places you’re supposed to stop and have your picture taken devouring a foot-long chili dog or biting into a hamburger the size of a shoebox or kissing the Big Boy that graces the entrance to the parking lot. But it’s up ahead. Everything is up ahead.
This is our first trip as a married couple trying to be married to each other instead of married and in the Army, which is a marriage of three in which you, the uninitiated, are the other woman, the one he comes home to visit once in a while only to leave you again.
He flicks his hand at the blinker and the car glides onto the off ramp. My favorite sign so far was just outside Amarillo: the It’ll Do Motel. I grew up in Texas, insofar as it’s where we lived when I graduated, but once we crossed the border into New Mexico a strange and foreign vista opened up. Even the air feels different. Lighter, sharper, like it could cut glass.
These streets. These streets are a four-lane highway stretching into what is beginning to feel like the oblivion I alone am apparently facing (depending on whose story you listen to). Where to go from here? I think even death is unexpected. What route will you take? What will happen next? Who’s died and lived to tell the tale? That’s the strange thing, it’s easy to forget we’re all facing the same outcome. Death is democratic. The ways of achieving it aren’t. But the destination is the same. What’s different is the route.
On these mean streets Matt is eyeing there’s a homeless man hitching on the median. I assume he’s homeless because he appears to be carrying everything he owns on his back, his pack rolled into a compact spiral. A cardboard sign with Will Work in shaky sharpie flutters in the wake of passing traffic. The un-mowed grass reaches his shins, harboring who knows what variety of chiggers. He’s wearing thick black socks with navy running shoes and his shorts are frayed at the knee. He’s in a red sleeveless T-shirt with exaggerated armholes. It reads Own The Road in gothic script across his skinny concave chest and the sun has worked a deep farmer’s tan on his neck and arms. According to the display on the dashboard it’s 102° on the blacktop.
Matt sees him because as he merges into the right lane I can see him glance in the rearview and I know he’s going to say something about the man. I can tell when he’s thinking because I can see him thinking and it’s a laborious process for the most part. It sure looks that way. Something I’ve learned on the road: I can’t read maps but I can read Matt’s face.
“You don’t want to end up like that. I don’t want you to end up like that. That’s all I’m trying to say.” His voice is quieter but just as firm and secure. Why does my husband’s mind work like this? Probably because he’s spent so much of his life scaring sense into eighteen-year-old recruits. But I’m not one of them.
“Matt, it’s not that simple. I’m not going to end up wandering the shoulder of I-85. That’s just—” what, stupid? The unfinished sentence hangs in the air so I might as well have said it. Silence except for the steady hum of the overworked air conditioner. “I’m assuming you mean this metaphorically, right? Abandon all hope ye who enter, that kind of thing.”
He’s silent. We’re either not speaking now or I’ve distracted him with something he’s not sure he understands.
“God I’m starving. Can’t we find something to eat?”
The car slows to the requisite 35 and the sound of the tires and the highway dies away. I don’t even realize it’s there until it’s gone. We’re heading to Santa Fe then north to Taos where we can stay the night before pushing into Colorado. We’ve taken the long way. It seems like we always do. Though it’s not in the guidebook this place is called Karl’s. Karl’s has no giant dinosaurs, chickens, or young men wearing checkered overalls in the parking lot, which could be good or bad.
We’ve seen a surprising number of old-fashioned eateries already. My favorites are the drive-ins, a nod to the Sonics of my youth, but Matt likes places that photograph. I’m the one who gets to smile convincingly with my arm around a Big Boy. There’s a postcard affixed to the driver’s side visor of our Jeep showing a desert vista and a cactus, bold yellow letters proclaiming “Welcome to Tucumcari.” We’ve done our part for the American myth.
There’s low music playing in Karl’s, Motown, a blessed relief from mariachi, and I don’t care if the food is good or bad because it is at least 65° inside. I order iced tea and Matt a Diet Coke. The menu is a laminated sea of fried delights. Prices have been marked through with a ballpoint pen, new prices written above. All the new prices are higher. There goes the American dream.
We order the special: double cheeseburger and fries or rings. Matt unwraps his straw. He looks like he’s thinking, which means he’s upset. I want to say something but that won’t help anything. There are some things I can fix but there are an infinite number of things I can only make worse. This I can only make worse.
“I wish I had a paper. I haven’t seen a headline in three days.”
“I don’t have any reception.” My phone stares back displaying no bars and the time. “Maybe there’s a paper on the counter. Try that. Or ask our waitress.”
Matt slides out of the cherry-red booth. Men have a thing for news. It’s never good news. One possibility: there isn’t any.
He returns carrying a fistful of newsprint. He smoothes the wrinkled pages on the Formica tabletop and starts reassembling the puzzle. I anchor one corner for him with my finger.
“Is that today?” I crane my neck to see the date.
“Yesterday.” He folds it back together like an accordion so he can read the front page. USA Today. Something we only get at a Holiday Inn Express when it’s included in the price of the room. Who subscribes to USA Today? He slides the non-news section to me across the table.
“You want your horoscope?” I offer.
“I’d rather not know.” Matt is reading a headline about Iraq.
“More good news?”
“Yeah more of the same.” Matt pushes the paper aside and rubs his face with his hands. He looks at me and sighs. I know: he’s tired. I make him tired.
“Matt I want to explain things to you and I can’t. But I think sometimes we got stuck in the wrong version of our story.”
“You and me got stuck?”
“Everyone maybe. Like my brother when he married Crystal instead of Beth Ann. We all thought he’d made a really awful mistake, even you did. Like he’d willfully chosen the wrong life and it was just all wrong, all the way around. But he married her anyway and even though it seemed like it shouldn’t have happened it did. It’s who he is now, can’t change it. Maybe we wandered into the wrong lives too and we were meant to be the same us just in a different place with different people and maybe we’d be better versions of us.” Matt’s expression is stony. I take a sip. “What would you be if you could be anything?”
“Rich? I don’t know. Me but with less to worry about. You’re saying you shouldn’t have married me.”
“No. No.” I look down at the crumpled newsprint with its disembodied words. “I can’t seem to make the words work when I talk to you. I can’t explain because it’s where we’re different. You’re fine being you. You like you. Everyone likes you Matt. Me, I’m not sure who I am but I’m 99% sure I don’t like her.” At the counter the waitress is setting down tall glasses of tea for two truckers. “And I don’t know how that happened.”
“Did I screw up your life that much?”
“You didn’t do anything, stop.” I’m talking quietly because it’s important to keep talking and not yell or cry, opposite ends of the spectrum I usually hit in conversations with Matt that don’t involve simple things like whether the Jeep is low on gas and what we need from the store.
“It’s just like a game. Would you be a different person if you’d made different choices?”
“Does it matter?”
“It does to me.”
He shrugs. It’s become a kind of language.
“I wouldn’t argue with you. Even if it’s not what I want to hear,” I offer.
“That’s what-if’s and what’s the point?”
“But what if it could help explain what’s happening now. What if there are like fifty different Amy’s and I’m not sure which one I really am?”
“I never know which Amy I’ll wake up with anyway.”
But I can’t explain. Saying something and living it are two very different worlds.
Somewhere in the past is a girl who is Amy Kehoe. If that Amy Kehoe had known this Amy Davis and that it would end up like this she could have made other choices. Married Toby Drew after her senior year winter formal, taken a Greyhound after graduation to Houston or Dallas along with the illegals, bought a one-way ticket to anywhere Southwest flew as long as it had a connecting flight in El Paso.
When she was growing up she was the kind of girl who thought in practicalities, and it was only at the age of thirty-four that she would realize with a certainty that started in her head and ended in her stomach and left her heart feeling empty and sore, like it had beat too long and too fast, that it wasn’t about that at all. It didn’t make a difference. She could be as practical as she wanted. Plan her life with precision. And it would just change shape. The focus would shift like a camera with an automatic lens.
So yes, it might have made a difference if she’d chosen any of the other lives she’d contemplated, but she didn’t. And besides, hindsight always yields to some emotions while eliding or erasing others. Memories flicker, recalling glimpses of feeling. A moment of happiness, the seeming eternity of heartache. The intricate mathematics that tick away in the human heart wreaking all kinds of disaster and mediocrity and occasionally revealing something true and lasting. But the present is the film we view the past through.
Amy worked hard, studied hard, and after seven high schools in four years she graduated on time and finally got off the military ride. She’d been born in Texas and by some miracle made it back for her senior year. She went as far as Alpine for four years at Sul Ross, a college no one outside Texas has ever heard of, where she majored in Communications and minored in English. She avoided early childhood education because two of her aunts were teachers and it was a fate she was hoping to avoid. She graduated with three student loans, two maxed-out credit cards, and absolutely no qualifications save the four afternoons a week she worked at the campus bookstore. So she got her teaching certification after all and made plans to get her masters at Tech but by that time her parents and brother and three sisters had moved on to Georgia, North Carolina, California, and Virginia. And she was on her own. It’s funny, but in all her plans she’d never planned to be alone.
Sentimentality doesn’t come easily to her. Even at thirty-four she isn’t comfortable with feeling anything other than in control. And connecting the dull ache in her chest with the sentimentalizing she’s done about the past takes ages. Months of wandering from the PX to the Wal-Mart to the dry cleaners and home only to realize she’d forgotten she’d gone out for milk and sugar and bread. Hours of mindlessly changing the channels on the TV instead of grading papers, until she was hopelessly behind again. If she kept it all balanced it should work. That wasn’t a plan that was common sense. So why wasn’t it working? Did she need therapy? Medication? A vacation?
It wasn’t an all-at-once thing. Not something she figured out like those puzzles where if you stare long enough and hard enough it turns out the Mona Lisa was smiling at you the whole time. She can’t put her finger on it but it was like the changing of the seasons. One day she woke up and it was spring. It had been for weeks. One morning she woke up and realized it hadn’t worked out like she thought. It was that simple. Then there was a grieving process as old ideas died and new realizations stepped into the light.
She thought about El Paso’s flat openness and remembered how when the West Texas wind blew she’d find a fine line of dust under the front door of their base housing. How it would manage to work its way between the window panes and under the doors and into your lungs and there wasn’t any avoiding it any more than there was a way of avoiding this.
Toby Drew never asked her to marry him, she’d never boarded a Greyhound bus in her life, and at eighteen she hadn’t had the money to catch a one-way flight anywhere. She had survived an Army childhood and once she was free of it she married a soldier and started it all over again. The moving and the waiting. The threat of the American flag folded into a triangle, pride of place on the mantle. Then she located the tightness in her chest and realized it wasn’t asthma. She was broken, inside. She had expended every ounce of her soul trying to change her life only to end up with the same kind of life just a little different.
And things she thought were so simple turned out to have hidden motivations. She had decided on teaching in part because she knew there would always be teaching jobs anywhere she went. It was a holdover, an inheritance of her own transient and rootless childhood. Pack light, don’t get attached, take only what you can carry. But she hadn’t realized that until now. She hadn’t realized at the time that the decisions she made that would add up to the calculations that would make her this Amy in this life were made out of fear. Even marrying Matt. Fear she would never see him again when what she should have been afraid of was the damage she’d do to him. Not a roadside bomb not a random grenade not even friendly fire. Her, Amy.
The man sitting across from me is silent. We’re the only couple at Karl’s and the counter is half full with regulars, all ignoring each other. From the open kitchen comes the steady sound of metal on metal. Forks, knives, spoons, plates tossed into the sink. The fry of the griddle.
“I just—I could have married Toby Drew, I could have left Texas, gone to school somewhere else, I don’t know, chosen real estate or something where you don’t have to be good with numbers. I thought I’d just fallen into teaching because I needed a job, good benefits, combat pay.”
He doesn’t smile like I thought he might.
“But maybe I chose it because I was afraid of not choosing it. I was afraid of doing all those other things. And that’s, you know, hard to understand now.”
“Who’s Toby Drew?”
“No one. Just some guy I went to my high school formal with. Look at us right now. If someone asked us how we met and why we chose each other out of all the other possibilities we’d have two different stories. They wouldn’t be the same and they might not even come close.”
His jaw tightens. There is a little less oxygen left at our table. He still thinks this is about something else. He still thinks I’m telling him I don’t love him anymore.
“If you don’t believe me then tell me who you think I am.”
“It sounds like you know. You’re the girl who just told me she had fifty personalities and maybe she should have married a redneck named Toby.”
“I have no idea who I am. That’s the point. These last few months I’ve been hoping you did because I sure as hell don’t.”
It all started with the waiting. Amy’s best talent was patience. She had been a patient student who trained hard for track meets and studied hard for spelling tests and tried and failed algebra until she finally passed with a D+. She got a job at Pizza Hut to save up for her first car. She took SAT prep on Saturday mornings before work and counted down the weeks to graduation. When the day came she drove out of El Paso and away from Fort Bliss toward the future. It was bound to be out there, somewhere.
It turned out the road would lead to another four years of working and studying and waiting. And it proved to be a reliable pattern. School, more school, student teaching, then first-year teaching, then counting down the days of the years on the school calendar. The only unexpected thing that happened to her was Matthew Davis. She fell in love with a soldier. To an outsider it would be just another pattern she’d been blind to. A self-fulfilling prophecy. She had spent her early life trying to get away from the Army and the only happiness she could find was with the same life. Now, ten years later, she loved him but she hated him. It was complicated. And it wasn’t his fault. That was the worst part, not being able to blame him. She had no one to blame but herself.
When she was little, her father would come home twice a year, fall and spring, a big man with a sunburned neck who had once been athletic but was now growing fat eating too many carbohydrates. There weren’t a lot of fresh fruits and green vegetables in the places he was stationed. He came back into their lives for a couple of weeks before leaving again for another life in another world fighting a continuous war, real or imagined. A man with two lives. Growing up she’d waited half a year for a whole family so she thought she could wait for the future for as long as it took. She could wait to be the Amy she was meant to be. She could tough it out and be an Army wife just as she’d been an Army daughter. What could be more natural? And wouldn’t she some day feel like she’d chosen the right life?
Revelation was unexpected. It happened one morning in the shower. Matt was in his ninth month of deployment. Amy had been standing under the water rinsing her hair, letting the water flow down her long spine. She pulled back the shower curtain and reached for the towel on the back of the door and heard a voice. It was a quiet steady voice in her head that sounded like the only truly sane voice she’d ever heard. God didn’t seem to think there was anything strange about addressing her while she stood in the steamy bathtub with the tiles sweating and the drain gurgling, trying to cover herself with a fraying towel. He didn’t bother with introductions or stop to ask if she believed he was real. Both seemed beside the point. God’s voice sounded not unlike the voice she’d always heard in her head. But it was calm and unwavering and he knew exactly what he wanted to say. So very unlike the voice she’d always heard in her head.
“Wake up Amy.”
“What do you mean?” she whispered. But it was no good. That was it. The line was dead. The message had been delivered. It left a lot out.
She stood in the bathtub until all the steam evaporated and left her skin pale and chilled. She hadn’t been inside church since the day she was married. But God’s like that, he doesn’t bother with the formalities when he wants to talk.
She knew what the message meant: Matt was going to die. Soon. Perhaps was already dead. She called in sick and took the week off. In her mind she knew she should be planning for a funeral but all she could do was sit and cry. They had both been practical about his job and they both knew the risks. She hadn’t been in denial like some wives or husbands. The revelation, as she thought of it, had an immediate effect and it was like a dam bursting. Raw emotion flowed over her and for the first time in her life she didn’t even care about doing anything practical. In fact she thought she’d like to never be practical again.
And things weren’t the same after that. She seemed to wander to school in a daze. She didn’t think much of the glass or three she waited for every afternoon. She forgot things. Even students’ names. It was a struggle, more of a struggle than usual, to keep up with the lesson plans and the grading. She fell behind scheduling parent conferences. She avoided the lounge and drank cold coffee alone in her classroom with the door closed, so unlike Mrs. Davis. Even her name sounded foreign to her. Mrs. Davis, who was that? Twelve-year-old voices reminded her she was still Matt Davis’s wife as far as anybody knew and not his widow.
Weeks later she realized something was happening to her. She wasn’t herself, but who was she? Amy Kehoe? Amy Davis? An Army brat and an Army wife and a sixth-grade teacher?
She tried to accept the fact that Matt was at work and it was just another day in Kandahar wearing body armor and riding in a tank. But how could she? It wasn’t normal and the sooner she accepted that the better. She wanted to scream the house down and for some reason she wanted to hit her solemn-faced mother, not the real Susan Kehoe but the Susan Kehoe she remembered sailing around eight-year-old Amy’s house as if nothing in their lives was any different with an absent father and yet another move with yet another assignment. Self-sufficient was how her father still described her mother. But her mother wasn’t self-sufficient. She hadn’t worked a day in her life. She was proud of being an Army wife and relied on her kids to be the little soldiers who cooked and cleaned and kept everything running. Inevitable and natural as it was to most people it took Amy Davis thirty-four years to hate her parents. Another revelation to add to the list.
The fear of Matt’s death diminished but never receded. She had no peace for the next three months, no peace until he stepped off the airplane and really no peace until days later when the physicality of his return finally registered. They were breathing the same air again just like nothing had changed, but if course it had, for both of them. There are some canyons words cannot bridge.