A Project for Better Journalism chapter
Crimson Letter

True dreams

The night settles around us. The quiet thrum of car tires on the gravel road is felt deep in the souls of our shoes as we cut through the Kansas state border into Oklahoma. I tap my fingers against my thighs as I momentarily glance over to watch you do the same on the steering wheel. Your eyes are still trained hard on the infinite stretch of road in front of you but I’m watching the composed landscape drag by me in a less concentrated manor. There are grassy hills and broken fence posts dotting the horizon line outside my window, the watercolor sunset bleeds into the pigment of your skin as you stretch a pink and yellow stained hand out of the shadows and into the light. You take my hand that is pallid and made of stone and for the first time in a long time I can feel your warmth interlaced between my fingers, it is something along the lines of heavenly and I’m sure if I had asked, you would’ve said the same thing. Hours later, my eyes are beginning to fall with the prospect of sleep that’s drifting back and forth in front of me with a pendulum swing, the last thing I hear is you cursing at the moon and the stars when the car stalled on I-93.

An abrupt slam of the car door is what wakes me. I open my eyes and I am greeted with the empty stare of a car garage that is letting loose plumes of smoke from its wide open mouth doors. Inside the building, the headlights from a pickup truck rotting away at the frame stares back at me. The lights are so bright I can feel it in the back of my skull, I turn to blink away the phosphenes in my eyes and when the purple and white spots have cleared away I can see you leaning against the brick of the building, there is a cigarette suck to your lip and a bare key chain that does acrobats around your fingers. You lean your head against the walls of the garage and your eyes creep up towards the sky, it’s too cloudy to name the moon and the stars but you continue to stare anyway, perhaps asking them to forgive you for the words you spoke to them earlier.

Someone comes out to hand you your keys and you give them a wave as you walk towards me. The car door stays open while you put the keys in the ignition and I can hear you sigh in frustration as the car stalls a few times before finally sputtering to life. Stale heat pours through the vents, an artificial warmth compared to the kind that emits from your pulse. You climb in the car and shut the door behind you as plumes of smoke from the exhaust pipe hems the cold night air outside.

As we drive, one of your hands moves from the steering wheel to the radio dial, your fingers deftly turning it up just so the song is felt throughout the vacancy in the air. Your hand is now tugging through your hair and you look so tired that I have to force myself to look away from you and your weariness for fear I may fall asleep again. I turn my head away from you and nod into the slow dragging melody of the song. As the tempo picks up, your eyes saccade between the road and I. There is a smile that falls faintly across your lips as you are watching me, as your exhaustion momentarily melts away. I turn the dial up and fill our car with noise and your smile reaches your eyes as you watch me twist my arms in swift and ungainly movements towards the roof of the car. You laugh and it sounds sweet and euphonious, a tender incantation against my ears with the driving melody. I am laughing along with you as you start to dance, your head bobbing along just as clumsily as mine. We are teetering on the edge of gaiety as we are belting out, fumbling lyrics through breathless laughter. The bass line tears something in my chest, it grips my shaky heart and vibrates your tar brandished lungs. The song ends and after the desperate notes begin to fade out through our staccato laughter, we let everything settle.

You’re twisting a phone line around your anxious fingers, your voice is tinged with a waning patience. Whoever is on the other end hangs up, you frantically try to call them back but the call won’t go through so you just give up and slam the phone down on the receiver. You turn back around, tell me let’s go, and I comply without hesitance because you are my best friend and I will follow you anywhere.

We are stretched across the arms of a bridge somewhere in Louisiana, your hands are tucked beneath your head as you talk of an ancient Mesopotamian city that was abandoned before it was ever really settled, a city between two rivers with opportunities buried in the river beds for us. I am watching idly as your dreams billow out from your lips and dissipate into the mid December air, watching as you talk about us riding across the country in your car. I dig my elbows into the cold steel of the bridge to keep myself from falling off the edge, tilting my head back so I can swallow down my bitter thoughts, closing my eyes as I listen the canorous swell of the cars stuck in traffic above us.

“Do you hear that?” I ask.

“Hear what?” you say, oblivious to the sounds above.

You weren’t listening, you were leaning back against the side of the bridge with your knees bent, your heels knocking softly against the edge of the pier, not hearing anything at all. I talk and talk and talk but all of my words get stuck in between the brakes screeching metal against metal as a car halts on the bridge, nearly rear ending the one in front of it.

The steel beams above our heads gleam softly with the reflection of a thousand blinking city lights, they flicker as if to wink at me, reflecting their beady eyes back out onto the water below. You’re still tapping your feet against the pier so I push my knee against yours and the knocking stops, it echoes through the negative space between us and all of a sudden there’s a breathy laugh biting somewhere beneath your tongue. The laughter doesn’t sound like you at all, it sounds like your lungs are filled with the water from the Mississippi river down below. I cannot figure out what is so funny, you are an enigma in sheep’s clothing and I think you like it that way.

I can feel the bridge sway as you collect yourself, up here we are slow and steady, but the bridge feels like it’s going to collapse in a minute; a graveyard of steel and iron left to rust at the bottom of the river. I’m afraid that when we get to LA all we’re going to find is the bones we’d left behind in the runoff.

There’s thick smog that is rising above the tops of the buildings as we drive deeper into southern California. Nothing looks like home anymore, there are no fields or trees, farmland has turned into condos and ranch houses have turned into up and coming neighborhoods. The smog above us swallows us whole and suddenly you can’t see where you’re going anymore. I tell you the fog looks like snow and you say it doesn’t snow in the city of angels.

“I’ve never seen snow before.”

“You won’t see it where we’re going either.”

The phone in your pocket rings but you won’t pick it up, you let it ring and ring and ring until finally you can’t take it anymore and you throw it out the window. I watch as it disappears into the clouds that have descended onto the earth and I wonder if the phone still rings even if nobody is around to hear it.

There’s an old diner that we stop at. You order coffee and toast and I get pancakes because there’s a sign on the door telling me they’re world famous. Everything in this city is globally renowned and the best around. Every pizza restaurant is famed and every person is a celebrity. They all wear gold on their teeth and it flashes evil like the devil when they smile at you on the street.

When we get our food I find out that the pancakes taste just like they do at home, so how famous can they really be?

Soon enough the coffee has gone cold and we’re left to sift through an old conversation while you look out through the condensation rolling down the big window next to you. You decide to go. You leave a tip under your saucer and we run with our hands above our heads to protect us from the rain. I stand outside for a moment too long and I think you’re telling me to get back into the car, but all I can hear is the thunder rolling through the heavy rain clouds above my head as I look out at the city just a few miles away from us. It’s right there in front of me, a large mass of smoke and steel all amassed together in one cluster along the skyline. I am so enamored that I stretch out my finger to touch the buildings that brush against the grey sky, the spires of the skyscrapers poke holes in the clouds so big that the rain turns into a downpour. I close my eyes and let the rain soak into my clothes and into my city clogged pores. You are behind me, coaxing me back into the car, but I can’t hear your pleas above the water droplets hitting the pavement. You’re drowned out by all my thoughts because I’m touching the city with my pointer finger and it’s making the world feel so much smaller. It’s small, too small. I’m afraid I’ll suffocate under all that smog and fame in there.

“Come back to me,” I hear you say. I can feel you moving to stand beside me, watching, feeling, waiting, as you wrap your fingers around my wrists that hover over the horizon line. You pull my hands back down to my sides and my stone cold skin turns to forged iron, to liquid metal heat, under your touch. You are so warm, you’re not like the cold metal of the city because you are human and everything else in there is not.

My eyes are open, I keep steadily breathing beneath you and the overwhelming weight of all that lies ahead of us. Here you are with your hands tethered to me like a string, tying me down to the ground, and on any other day that would be soothing but today it is heart crushing. You are my best friend and normally I would follow you anywhere, but today I cannot because it feels like I’ve already floated back to our small town in Kansas.

That night in the hotel room I ask you, “How can this be the city of angels if there is no heaven?”

I hear you sigh and ask in return, “Do you want to be here or not?” Your eyes are stuck to the white ridges in the paint on the ceiling, thumbs drumming on your chest and you say, “We’ve been talking about this for years and now it’s like you’d rather be back there with them again.” You stop talking for a moment like you’re deciding whether or not you should tell me what you’re thinking (you always do). “They won’t stop calling me, your family, they want you back home.”

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“Because I wanted you here with me.”

I’m not angry at you but I wish I’d known, I wish I had been given a choice. I followed you all the way out here but I’m still not sure this is where I want to be. I wish you’d allowed me to make that decision.

“I’ve never been given a choice before,” I say, meeting up with your eyes on the ceiling. Together we trace patterns in the paint and I’ve made a bird, I think you’re seeing someone’s face that you once knew.

“I think it’s time you made one then,” you say.

“Okay,” I reply.

The noises in the city are too loud, the country is too quiet, and I have never seen snow. I don’t sleep at all that night.

You’re still asleep when I leave that morning. I don’t stay long enough to watch the sunset because I don’t want to get attached to this hollow city or to you. I don’t want to wake up to see your half asleep smile pull across your lips, I don’t want to hear you tell me goodmorning or hear you beg me to stay. I want this to be my decision, want it to be my choice. I don’t want to be fueled by guilt or a forest fire of bias ignited by the spark of your sad smile when I say goodbye.

I hoist my bag up around my shoulders and there’s a note and a set of keys on the table that says, “take the car if you need it -with love always, your friend.”

I pocket the note, fold it up so it doesn’t crumple up in my bag and take the keys with me. I look back and see that you’re still asleep with the covers wrapped around your shoulders. I can see the rise and fall of your chest beneath the blanket and I know you will be the only thing with a pulse in this heartless city. You will do great things and so will I, but this bridge we lay across is only big enough for one person, this ancient city in ruins was meant to inhabit only one ruler, we cannot do this together.

I drive away from the gold plated smiles and the world famous everythings. I drive until the skyscrapers turn into mountains and the smog gives way to grassy hills again. There is an ache in my chest when I cross the border from Oklahoma to Kansas and all I feel is that same dread born in towns and cities that I don’t want to be in. The bird from the ceiling erupts from the cheap hotel plaster ceiling as I drive past my childhood home. The white paneling and the grey shutters of the house move past me in a blur; it’s what I imagine flying to feel like. I’m watching the grassy hills of the south turn into the ice cold veins of Minnesota, snow begins to hit my windshield and it’s so much better than the smog. I roll down the windows and stretch my hand out to feel the cold against my skin and I am convinced heaven really does exist. Heaven exists and it’s right here buried deep in the snow banks by Lake Superior.

I get out and sit on the hood of your car. I let the engine run, keeping it warm for me. For the first time in my life I am free. The cold that strings my heat brandished lungs is a breath of fresh air, and as I look out at the lake —it’s shimmering liquid eyes all placid and calm unlike the wrathful gaze of the Mississippi river— I know I will have a lifetime of it to inhale. I will have years to sit here and just breathe, I will breathe and breathe until one day I’ll wake up and realize I have never seen the beach. I’ll get in my car and I’ll go to where the snow has broken down into thousands of grains of sand. I’ll go to where there’s salt in the wind and my nose doesn’t turn red everytime I step outside. I’ll follow the footprints that look like the ones back in Minnesota, with the snow all compact around somebody’s winter boots. I’ll follow these bare footprints to the edge of the water and maybe I’ll find you standing there. We will hear the sounds of the ocean crashing against the shore and it’ll remind me of the dull clatter of dishes back at the diner I worked at and maybe to you it’ll sound more like the roar of an applause in LA.

Paths collided; maybe I’ll find that there is a heaven at the edge of the water. You smile down at me and I think maybe wherever I find heaven, it’ll always be my choice.

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