Half the City was replaced with glass and I was having those nightmares where I couldn't remember anyone's last name and so I left.
“Half the City was replaced with glass,” I told Jax as we drove.
“And the dentist has that wall of teeth and he breathed down my neck and told me I could keep one if I wanted, and the ice cream trucks encircled my apartment and jingled nonstop, and the trains all caught fire. And I'm having those nightmares where I can't remember anyone's last name.
“That's why I left.”
“Uh, Greta, couldn't you have waited until I got out of the car?” Jax asked.
The car was his; I'd been driving him to work.
“You have to seize the future where it comes.”
He asked where we would go—to Virginia to stay with my mother, to Pennsylvania where we'd attended college.
I told him we'd expand westward.
I had never been westward.
Jax sulked and so I took his head one-handed into my lap, gathered his long golden hair in my fist and waved it like seaweed, speaking the noise of waves breaking.
He acted like he was above this, but he liked it.
He had asked me to do this often over the course of our friendship, particularly when he was drunk or hungry.
I drove without compass or GPS, following roads as they branched endlessly like a river, like a choose-your-own-adventure novel.
As a child I had marked all the important decisions in these books—whether to go to the lab or the mortuary, whether to take the knife or the whistle—with little pink slips of paper in case I needed to go back.
I never did, though; I always lost interest before the ending.
On the backseat was a five-pound bag of gummy bears and a mask my mother had made from a parabolic mirror, gifted to me at graduation six years ago.
The only CD in Jax's car was called Nebraska.
He had spoken of it often, of finishing through incompleteness, through possibility.
“It was recorded as demos,” he told me, “but never re-recorded.”
It was the imperfection in a Persian rug, the untamed Western states.
Perhaps we would drive, I thought, until we reached Nebraska.
We could build lives upon its emptiness.
“We should have been railroad magnates a hundred years ago,” I told him. “Connecting the world and building mansions and commissioning photographs. Leland Stanford never had these problems.”
“They all murdered, like, a lot of native people,” he said.
“We'd use our influence for good.
“We'd cease the march of manifest destiny with our clever rhetoric, industriousness, attractive steel tracks, and gleaming teeth.”
Jax settled back in his seat, crossed his arms and faked sleep.
“I guess I can be a barista anywhere,” he said, “and you can tutor.”
“I can't tutor anywhere,” I told him.
I was done.
I had tried public school, private school, freelance.
The tutoring center in the City would be my last attempt.
I had dreamed of opening children's minds to the glories of the infinite, the magic of numbers unbounded.
Dreamed of keeping them from having the same fraught experience that I had learning math—formulas, rote mechanics, ingrained sexism.
The tutoring center had promised a better future, promised I could make them “Crazy About Math!!” but had only been more of the same.
This ideal I had worked toward for a decade had been denied and denied and denied and I was ready to give up.
It started to rain.
I put the parabolic mirror mask on to reduce road glare.
The mirror faced inward, reflecting nothing darkly.
My eyes, nose, and mouth jutting from its curved face.
You can make anything into a mask, my mother had told me, as long as you find its balance.
She taught high school art, had gradually worn down the administration to let her and her students weld, lathe, kiln, despite the obvious dangers.
We drove and drove and the landscape rolled by seamlessly.
The same tire shops, the same chicken joints, dog manicurists, bespoke oil salesmen, the same pay-by-the-hour ballrooms.
Only broken by stretches of empty field, and trees, and scummy ditches.
Jax scribbled in a notebook.
“Got some time, figure I might as well write,” he explained.
“No,” I told him.
“We have new lives now.
“We're starting over.
“Okay, well, I'm starting over as a writer again.”
I began to say that this defied the entire myth of the American West which was probably bad luck—but I realized that embracing the myth of the American West was definitely bad luck.
The rain came down like an ocean through a wood-chipper.
I could feel its force pushing the car back, could see it breaking down all the light.
I said, “You know cowboys would create stage shows about their lives?
“They would spread myths about their achievements that way.
“Say they wrestled a bear. Say they shot a hole in the sky.”
Jax was asleep.
“Of course, it's only when everyone else starts telling a story that it becomes true.
“Rubbed smooth, like river stones, by the grit of a million mouths.”
The fact is, I would not have had the courage to do this without him.
It was darker then, and I was tired.
I pulled over and the car filled with swimming-pool light, ripples and waves cast along our bodies.
The roar of rain on glass.
I ate a pound of gummy bears and opened the door.
There was no rain.
I stumbled in my mask out of the car to see where we'd landed, leaving the door open behind me.
Jax's slack-jawed face illumined by dome light, his hair moving in the wind like something alive, the insistent ringing of the car to warn me that I'd left my keys behind.
The sky was matte above me, and violet.
I never trusted weatherpeople, to be honest, because no one ever knows what is to come.
I walked on.
Darkness on three sides.
Not knowing how far I walked but always able to see the glowing interior of my car behind me.
Always able to hear Jax's snores, and the ringing.
I came to a break in the clouds.
A sliver moon like a castoff fingernail high above me.
I saw a thousand metal poles in a grid before me, gleaming dully and dry.
And from the clouds around me, jagged snares of lightning broke off, grabbed the poles, illuminated the field.
I took off the mirror so that I might see better.
In flashes I saw a plaque set into the squingy wet ground and over the course of many strobes I read this:
Here there are the most lightning strikes per year. I have set forth these poles so that they might draw the sky's energy to them, might tie its chaos to the Earth. Catron County, NM 1977.
I looked again at these pointed spires, at the way they pierced the sky and were pierced by it, filled with its light.
I pictured myself clinging to one of these poles, my body filled with the crackling random energy of the sky.
Shivering and wet and calling the heavens' fury to me.
Pictured myself making a house among the invisible polygons they described.
Stretching string between the poles, suggesting walls; making chairs and beds and lives of string.
I wondered at how the lightning finds the highest point, the path of least resistance to the ground.
How this chaotic, untamed power might be calculated, determined, harnessed—and not.
How the field failed, ever at the mercy of chance.
This wild thing only periodically drawn abjectly into the dirt.
A place of balance.
Arms outstretched, I held nothing but the night.
I wondered how I had found my way here, so far from the City.
The streets of glass, the mile-high buildings and chocolate-factory domes.
How quickly the flashes passed, how quickly they were replaced.
I wondered how far the poles stretched—where air stopped and sky began.