Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2023  Vol. 21  No.3
 print preview

Little America

There are 673 photos in Lauren’s Instagram feed. They’ve begun to blend together in my mind, like the Muybridge film strip of galloping horses, like Lauren’s online presence has become a single life-form, picking up speed.

I encountered my first Lauren photo six months ago—Lauren in front of a prewar Brooklyn apartment window. She sits on one of those built-in wooden benches, whatever they’re called, hands gently crossed. My ex-boyfriend Noah sits next to her. His hand is on her thigh, but there is visible space between them, three inches at least. The lighting is excellent, that perfect twenty minutes before the sun sets. Their heads angle toward one another, but their eyes are locked on the camera. Slim, toothless smiles. Lauren’s caption: “New apartment! #chooselove #secondchance #brooklynisforlovers #ourapartmentisforlovers.” Noah looks a little overworked, sallow, but more vital than I’d like. He’s in a suit; she’s in delicately torn jeans, a black blazer, and black pumps. Her hair is straight and copper and it curls around her neck like a garland. Lauren posts at least once a day. They seem to be having a lovely spring.

But now, on my first day driving back east, I see that her feed has been quiet for six days. I put down my phone, and for a moment, I don’t know where I am. This happens a lot. But then I descend to Earth, to desert heat, plastic lounge chairs, cracked cement. My older sister Brandy and I sit overlooking the drained pool of the Banging Aces Motel in Lovelock, Nevada. Stray cats dip in and out of the shadows of the garbage dumpsters beside the chain-link fence; dried shrub grass lines the pool. Brandy lights another American Spirit. A vegetable seed catalog rests across her lap, and, once the cigarette is lit, she keeps it between her lips while she redoes her ponytail. Her hair is fine and caramel colored, as straight and shiny as a teenager’s, hair from her father who is not my father. When we get back to Michigan, she wants to plant a garden in our mother’s yard. She turns a page of the catalogue and then uses a nail file to scratch inside the hard pink cast on her left wrist.

“Do you think poniente cucumbers or corinto cucumbers?” she asks. She shrugs. “Let’s do both.”

“I like the little ones,” I say.

“They’re both little.”

Twenty years ago, when she was fifteen, she planted her first and last garden. My mother and I didn’t help. She borrowed a rototiller, bought and planted the seeds, carried buckets of water, and pulled weeds. Tomatoes, green beans, corn, peas, cucumbers, squash. It all worked. Dark green leaves, no bugs, a burden of plenitude. Beginner’s luck, we said. Our countertops were covered in produce, we passed bags of it on to friends, neighbors. But she never did another, and she’s never said why. The space became overgrown with weeds and then eventually became part of the lawn again. Now she says she will, in that same spot behind our mother’s modular home.

An argument drifts through an open window of the motel, the phrase “seven rum and cokes” repeated twice in a woman’s voice. If I were Lauren, I might post a heavily filtered photo of this scene. #lovelocknotforlovers. #feralcatshow. Maybe Lauren and Noah are camping somewhere without service. Or maybe they broke up. Maybe in her next photo, she’d have a different well-educated urbanite at her side.

Brandy and I have been in these lounge chairs for over an hour. We both wear cut-off jean shorts, midriff-baring tank tops, and the same red plastic sunglasses from a truck stop. We are too old for these outfits, but we are in Lovelock, Nevada, and it’s ninety-seven degrees at six p.m.

Until a week ago, Brandy lived with her boyfriend, Cody. My mother and I thought it would last six months tops, but they carried on for four years. Last week, she keyed his Toyota Tundra, so he threw her around and broke her wrist and drove out of town. After I called and told her I had to leave San Francisco for a while, she pawned Cody’s PlayStation and his grandfather’s coin collection and bought a ticket to fly out and drive back to Ohio with me. She’s the only one in my family to set foot on California soil in the seven years I lived there.

“I told you we should’ve looked at the room before we took it. If I’d have known it was going to smell like a middle school boy’s gym locker, I would’ve slept in the car.” Brandy has always been a master of the nonsensical simile: “That girl looks like a giraffe’s head was welded onto a pine tree” or “I’m sicker than a call girl on a cruise ship.”

I turn back to my feed. Still nothing new from Lauren. Her last post was of the inside of her medicine cabinet. Empty except for five bottles of Kiehl’s face products on one shelf. Caption: “Splurge. #naturalbeauty #aginggracefully.”

“You’re going to get a hunchback if you don’t stop staring at your phone,” says Brandy.

“Can’t wait,” I say.

“Let’s go do something. Let’s get a drink at the Punch Drunk Inn or whatever it’s called.” She points to the casino across the street, glowing greenish yellow in the distance.

“Looks worse in there than out here.”

“You know what? Never mind,” she says. She stands up and pulls down her jean shorts, walks around the empty pool to the metal gate. “You’re not invited.”

“Win big.”

After she’s gone, I cross the parking lot to our room, sit on the king-sized bed, the comforter smelling vaguely of cigars and fur, and send a text to Noah—the seventh in three days. “In Nevada. Driving to Salt Lake City tomorrow with my sister Brandy (remember her?). She’s useless. Won’t drive over mountains or through cities or in rain.” I add emojis—a mountain, a building, a storm cloud. I scroll up to find the last text I got from Noah. One year ago. “Miss you, too. Talk soon,” he said. I toss the phone to the end of the bed where it bounces once, then falls to the floor.

The last hotel room Noah and I stayed in was in St. Augustine, Florida eight years ago. We drove there from Brooklyn for our friend’s wedding. Our friend was Lauren. Our hotel bed was a king, the sheets Egyptian cotton, many threads. The night of Lauren’s reception, we took a bottle of champagne upstairs, ordered nineties porn on the hotel television, and snorted crushed pain killers off the coffee table. The next day when we were driving back north, Noah pulled out in front of a truck as we were leaving a McDonald’s drive-through, and we totaled Noah’s mother’s Saab. In Locust Grove, Georgia, while we waited for the tow truck, I fed canned Vienna sausages to stray cats outside the gas station while Noah did impressions of the Georgia policeman who’d ticketed us: “I don’t know how they do it up North, but down here, we stop before we pull out of a McDonald’s.” We got along even after a car crash.

I shower and walk across the street to the C Punch Inn & Casino. It’s nearly dark now, a desert chill looming. A few women our mother’s age stand sentry, smoking and talking with boys who look only days above teenager.

“It’s running hot in there tonight,” one of the women says.

The casino opens to a bar, tables along the perimeter. On the other side is a room the size of a gymnasium, rows of slots and game tables, mostly empty. I see Brandy perched on one of the high bar stools, smoking and playing keno, tapping on the screen with her left hand, holding a vodka tonic in her casted one. We both have our mother’s bird bones, but Brandy knows how to bend them into a feminine shape, wiles I never bothered to acquire.

“I have news for you,” she says, not looking at me.

“You gambled away my car?”

She turns to me and whispers, “I won eleven hundred dollars.”

“You did? On what?”

“That.” She points to the game room, and I assume she means a slot machine. Her hand shakes with winner’s buzz. “The room went wild.”

“How much did you put in?”

“About sixty bucks.”

Brandy was addicted to heroin for a year or so, but she’s not an addict by nature. She’s content now with alcohol, coffee, and cigarettes. I’ve never believed that once you’ve been addicted to anything, you’re an addict forever. But I could see that if she lived near a casino, Brandy would be fucked.

“Eleven hundred,” I say. “Jesus.”

“What can I say? I was born under a lucky star.”

“That’s a month’s rent at my old apartment.”

“Rent? It’s a steak and lobster dinner! A shopping spree.”

“You want to eat lobster in Lovelock?”

“Don’t be such a snob. They come here alive, you know. In tanks. On semitrucks. Don’t pretend you’re too good for a lobster that took a short trip in the back of a semi. Where do you think everything comes from?”

But instead of dinner, we keep drinking until we get friendly. We end up at a bonfire on the edge of town with the casino women and their teenage lovers. The boys race four-wheelers across the desert into the pitch black. The casino women drink extra hard because we’re here. Everyone’s showing off, but barely speaking to us. I reach for my phone again and again.

“Throw your phone in the fire,” says Brandy, her silhouette bobbing and weaving in front of the flames.

She reaches for it, but I’m too fast. I tuck her under my arm and start walking back toward town.

“Brandy, are we going to die alone?” I ask her.

“Yes,” she says.

One of the teenage boys comes out of the darkness and makes a wall in front of us. We can hardly see his face.

“Where you going?” he says.

“Go fuck yourself!” Brandy spits in his face, then shoves him hard in the chest. We run, holding hands, laughing, not falling, not even coming close to falling. This is why she is a good older sister.


A month ago, the Michelin-starred farm-to-table restaurant in San Francisco where I waited tables for three years closed its doors. Then my landlord decided to sell my building. I had no savings, a car worth less than a grand, and the last time I’d used my English degree was when I taught at a high school in the Bronx with Noah ten years ago.

Noah had blessed my decision to move to San Francisco. He’d started looking for jobs there. By then he’d quit teaching and was working in advertising, making three times what we’d made in New York City public schools.

But during those months I was in San Francisco alone, I met the person we shall not name. He was in a band, and he surfed and had blonde hair that fell over one eye. We went at it, and I kept it from Noah for as long as I could. After three months, I moved into the unnamed one’s apartment in Oakland. Then he started throwing shit around during fights—dishes, flowerpots. He threw my bike off his balcony into the neighbor’s yard. He threw a vodka tonic at my head in front of his friends at the bar. At home one night, he threw me into the coffee table, the floor, the bathroom sink. He threw my phone into the street and sat in front of his apartment door so I couldn’t leave, but I made a run for my car when he went to the bathroom. The next day I called Noah from the pay phone at a Motel 6. He wanted to come there, to call the police or my mother, but I said no. I never told Brandy or my mother anything about it and never would. There needed to be one person in every family who these things don’t happen to.

Noah gave me two thousand dollars so I could move out. I found a place with roommates in the Outer Sunset in San Francisco, four blocks from the ocean, a bridge and a whole city between me and the unnamed one. Once or twice, I still crossed the bridge. I had to. Fighting brings you so close with another person that if you’re not careful, you become one creature.

By the time I disentangled myself, Noah had grown distant. We had dinner a few times a year when he came to the West Coast for work. The unnamed one moved to Portland. I found the restaurant job, new friends who didn’t know either of them. I decided I would try to get Noah back when I was better, when I was a person changed, together, worthy.

He and I talked on the phone every week, then every month, then less. Then after a few months of not speaking to him, I woke up one morning knowing he was with someone else. I don’t believe in mystical things, I barely believe in intuition, but the universe was telling me that whatever tenuous hold I had on him was now gone. Sometimes you veer just a centimeter off course, but that trajectory takes you miles, continents away from the life you were intended to live. Your real self is still back there at the starting block. Sometimes you make bad choices that don’t teach you anything except that you’re the kind of person destined to make bad choices.


The next day, Brandy and I drive silently through the impenetrable swamp of a hangover. She finally takes the wheel a few miles before we reach the white heat of the Bonneville Salt Flats. When we step out, she runs her finger along the ground and puts it to her tongue. “This looks like the world’s largest pile of cocaine molded into a mountain.” She snaps pictures on her phone, one after another.

I’ve done this drive three other times, and I’ve always found the salt flats disappointing. All that white only looks good from far away, like city snow. Earlier, on NPR, we heard that the crust is thinning, four feet thick in the 1960s, now down to just one inch. Too thin to race cars on anymore.

I’ve only got enough money to get me to my mother’s. After Noah found out about me getting tossed around, he told me I should move back to New York and stay with him. I haven’t had any other offers since.

I sit on the hood of the car, phone in hand. Today, Lauren is at work, because it is a Tuesday, and unlike me, Lauren has a career. In today’s photo, she holds up a stonewashed jean jacket with a bedazzled heart on the back. Her oval red nails grip the fabric. “Found this gem for only $5!!! #denim #80svintage #girlsjustwannahavefun.” Lauren is a costume designer. She works on TV shows I’ve heard of but never watched. If you scroll to the beginning of Lauren’s 3,568 posts, you will find pictures of her ex-husband, Rob. It’s modern to keep photos of old lovers in the mix. It shows you are above grudges, have only best wishes for everyone you’ve ever dated, slept with, married.

The mountains outside Salt Lake City still have snow on their pointed tips, like the jagged triangle mountains I drew as a child. The stooped woman making our Subway sandwiches tells us there was a blizzard last week, the first time it’s snowed in June in Utah in forty years. By early evening, we reach the Saltair Resort on the Great Salt Lake, which has been turned into a venue for metal concerts. There’s a small gift shop inside, and we press our faces close to the framed photos of the lake that once was a lively and refreshing miniature ocean that lapped against the resort walls. Mormons in one-piece bathing suits smile, splashing and waving at the camera. Now the water is a half mile from its former shore. We leave the building and start to walk toward it before realizing it’s too far and turn around. Hundreds of dead egrets dot the dried lake bed, their corpses preserved in salt, nearly fossilized. #dirtybirds #mormonfun.

“It’s not what I pictured,” Brandy says.

“You mean you pictured an actual lake?” I say.

“This place makes me feel like I dropped acid at a funeral home.”

“The Mormons thought it was the ocean.”

“The ocean?” she says and begins laughing. The laughter overcomes her and soon she is bent over, hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath. “They are so fucking stupid.”

We splurge on a Hilton a few blocks from the Mormon Temple at the edge of Salt Lake’s downtown strip. We delight in our key card, our cavernous bathtub, our two king-sized beds, our fourth-floor view. From our window we can see the Temple, so white it looks like it’s made of paper, like it would disintegrate in a thunderstorm. Brandy wants to stay in and act lavish, sit in the bathtub jets and order Chinese and watch old episodes of America’s Next Top Model, but I’m sprung with coiled up car energy. I decide to go running, something I do three or four times a year.

I head away from downtown and up the nearest hill, phone in hand, a running app charting my course. I find Pulp’s “Common People” in my phone’s music. Soon I’m in a neighborhood of cobblestone streets and old brick houses that look like they belong in Boston, with just the right balance of dilapidation and restoration, rusty Volvos, and overgrown patches of wildflowers. I could live here. Send Brandy home on a plane, find a job at another restaurant, substitute teach maybe.

The Utah State Capitol building suddenly looms, white steps and bright green lawn. I stop running and text Noah a photo. “Where the bad laws are made.”

Maybe I can get a job working for the government. I have no experience, but it’s just Salt Lake City. In a year or so, when my small brick house is filled with antiques and handcrafted pottery and tapestries, Noah will come for a visit (to help him get over his breakup with Lauren). He will be so charmed by my life, by my rare combination of self-sufficiency and espirit libre, that he will move here too. We will start a nonprofit that helps runaways from polygamist cults find housing and learn to make acceptable fashion choices. We will learn to ski. #snowbunnies #snowinlove.

I reach the white steps of the Capitol building and check my feed. Lauren’s latest photo pops up first in my scroll. “Meet the new future Mrs. Heller! #fiance #truelove #putaringonit.” The ring commands the foreground, a diamond the size of a molar, surrounded by other diamonds the size of kitten teeth. Her hair is mussed, the photo must be from early morning. Noah is behind her wearing a black tank top. They are in bed. The photo was posted thirty-five minutes ago and has 138 likes and forty-one comments.

I stumble over to the shade and slide down the trunk of an ancient oak tree. It’s Saturday, there is no one here but a few picnic goers on the lawn. I put my head between my knees, think of ginger ale, ice cubes, coconuts, cold grapes, anything to avoid vomiting. The one that always works—imagining myself being lowered into a frigid bathtub of bubbling club soda.


The summer before I moved to California, Noah and I went with Lauren to her father’s house near the ocean on Long Island. Noah was driving. I sat in the back with Lauren’s Boston terrier. We were talking about how Lauren’s boyfriend Rob had just proposed on a rowboat in the lake in Central Park.

“He actually got down on one knee? On a boat?” I asked. I was hungover and feeling contrary.

“He did,” said Lauren.

“I didn’t know people did that anymore,” I said. “I thought people just decided to get married, like as a unit.”

“I used to feel that way,” said Lauren, “but when it actually happened . . . I don’t know. It’s silly, but it made me really happy.”

Just then, as we hit some slow traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, I realized I had to throw up. I tried rolling down the window, but the child-safety lock was too much, so I vomited on the floor of Lauren’s Toyota Avalon, her terrier licking the side of my ear.

At a gas station at the eastern edge of Queens, Lauren dealt with the car while I threw up again in the moldy bathroom. When I came out, Noah handed me a seltzer and an ice pack, brushed my hair back from my forehead.

“She starts talking about getting engaged, and within seconds, you’re puking all over yourself,” he said.

“He proposed in a boat?” I asked. “I just assumed we were all a little more civilized.”

Lauren was Noah’s friend. They’d gone to the same private, New England college, and now the New York alumni met up for monthly drinks in their work clothes. Lauren and her friends wore their tailored white button-up shirts and knee-high boots like they’d been dressing that way since they were toddlers. My teacher clothes always felt like they were wearing me. But not Lauren with her straight red ponytail as thick as my forearm, exfoliated skin, diamond studs. She even made snorting cocaine look professional.

Noah and I were still teachers then. We managed to live in New York on $45,000 a year. Our dress pants were usually covered in chalk. We wanted to be poets, or at least teach some high schoolers to be poets. At our first faculty meeting, we started with an icebreaker where all the new teachers had to pull three random items out of our bag and describe them to the group. Noah volunteered to go first. He pulled out a folder that said “Student Homework” on it. “It’s empty,” he said. “But I’m hopeful.”

We were both useless in the classroom: unstructured, terrible at discipline, uninspired, and uninspiring. I quit in the middle of year one and started waiting tables. Noah made it through one year, and then his cousin helped him get a job in advertising. Within eight months, he became a person who paced in front of windows while talking on his cell phone. A few months ago, I found his bio on the firm’s website. They describe him as “driven and ambitious” and “only comfortable when he’s uncomfortable.”

He told me that he didn’t care what he did for work, as long as he felt like he was good at it. I told him I thought advertising was vapid, beneath him, down the door from creative but not anywhere close to meaningful. He told me that instead of living in a constant state of turmoil about how I wasn’t writing enough, I could give up writing. At the time, this felt like the cruelest thing anyone could say to me. Now I see that he was trying to teach me how to be happy, something that came naturally to people like him and Lauren, something that was baked into their very genes.


In Salt Lake City, I manage to walk from the tree to the shaded steps of the Capitol. I wrap my arms around a white column, press my cheek to its cold stone. The running app chirps in its robot voice: “Keep going! Only one more mile!” I don’t recall committing to any particular distance. I chuck my phone over the steps and onto the lawn. A young couple picnicking in the grass look my way, puzzled.

“Sorry,” I yell. I walk over and grab it. Indestructible. I find a drinking fountain, splash water on my face, and walk back to the hotel. When I reach the room, Brandy is on the bed, wrapped in a plush white bath towel, surrounded by plastic gift shop bags.

“What took you so long?” she says. “I walked over to the Mormon Temple.” She shows me her purchases one by one. Mormon Temple refrigerator magnet. Mormon Temple night light. United States Scratch Off Temple Poster, where you can keep track of your visits to the eighty-eight temples scattered across our great nation. She takes a penny, scratches off Salt Lake City, revealing a quarter-sized watercolor print of the structure. She holds the poster. “Our next road trip.”

I walk to the window and press my hands against the glass.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asks.

I sit down next to her and show her Lauren’s post.

She takes a moment; I can tell she’s reading it twice. “OK,” she says. “Who are these people?”

“My friend Lauren. And Noah. My ex-boyfriend. You met him.”

“I did? When?”

He spent one Christmas with us. It was three days after Brandy came home from rehab with a boyfriend fifteen years her senior. She doesn’t remember Noah because of pills and Bud Light. A year later, when Brandy was finally sober, I saw a news clipping in her room. That boyfriend had died. After robbing a gas station, he ran from the police and wrapped his Honda around a tree.

“I think I’d remember,” she says.

“It doesn’t matter.”

She sighs. “You’re way prettier than her.”

“I can’t decide whether I want to kill them or kill myself.”



She leads me back to the bed, sits me down, kneels down in front of me, and puts her hands on my knees. “Close your eyes,” she says.


“Do it.”

I close them.

“Picture me and this guy, Noel or whatever his name is, tied to the railroad tracks. You’re standing in the middle, exactly in the middle, between the two of us. You’ve only got time to get to one of us before the train runs us both over and cuts us into bits. So, who do you save?”

I can picture it—the tan, the black train, the white steam. Mouths covered in tape, a knife in my hand.

“Neither,” I say.

“I’m serious,” she says. “Who?”

“You,” I say. “Always you.”

“Exactly,” she says. “You can open your eyes now.” She stands, goes to the window, tries to slide it open before she sees that it’s sealed shut. “You might hesitate a little, but if it really came down to it, you’d save me, not him. That’s because you don’t really love him. If you did, you’d pick him over any of us.”

“So, you’d save me over Cody?”

“If Cody was tied to the tracks, I’d hop in the train and drive over him myself.”

I lay back on the bed, stare at the ceiling. I went to Noah’s family’s house for Thanksgiving once, took the crowded Metro-North from Brooklyn with him and all the hordes of tristate natives. At the end of the night, after eating and drinking and trying to match their aggressive friendliness, I was alone with his parents at their kitchen table. I admired them. They were liberal, well-read, funny, toned.

I regaled them with stories of my hardscrabble upbringing, exaggerated slightly for effect. Stories of how Brandy had been arrested for stealing a bike from our neighbor’s garage. How our Aunt Toni got into fights, actual fist fights, with both women and men, in bars, in parking lots, in someone’s front yard at the trailer park. How our mother had to work nights at a laundromat while Brandy and I slept at the neighbors until two in the morning.

Noah was asleep and I was drunk and so I engaged in some hyperbole. Brandy hadn’t been arrested; she’d been caught by the owner and embarrassed. My aunt had been in one fight. Our mother worked at the laundromat for a year and then finished school and became a social worker. She’d never left us at the neighbors past ten. I thought it’d make them impressed with me. With how far I’d come, all on my own, instead of seeing me as a liability.

“David,” Noah’s mother said, touching his father’s arm. “That’s what they meant by the ‘rural poor’. On NPR yesterday.”

His father nodded, caught my eye. I could see he was embarrassed but wouldn’t confront her.

“I see,” he said.


Brandy makes us stay in the hotel until noon so we can get our money’s worth. Even after we start driving, we make terrible time. At Rawlins, Wyoming, she insists we follow the signs for the Frontier Prison Museum. I’m expecting something quaint and wooden, but it’s a real prison that functioned until 1981, with barbed wire fences and hundreds of cell blocks stacked like cold concrete Legos. The guide tells us that over 13,000 dangerous criminals were housed here, fourteen of them executed. Brandy stands in front of the electric chair after the rest of the tour group has departed for the solitary confinement dungeons. I picture Lauren and Noah visiting this place. #sad #eyeforaneye #oldsparky.

“How would you want to go out?” she asks. “If you were on death row, I mean?”

“I’d hang myself with my bed sheets before they got to me,” I say. “Wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.”

At Fort Cody Trading Post in North Platte, Nebraska, a few hours later, Brandy sends Cody a photo of her standing in front of a two-headed calf in a glass case. “It’s real!” she writes. She shows it to me before she sends it.

“You’re talking to Cody?”

She shrugs. “We’re incommunicado.”

“That means not talking.”

“Oh,” she said. “What means talking a little bit?”

The Trading Post is filled with a half-dozen glass cases holding Buffalo Bill ephemera—his saddle, knife, posters from his Wild West show, photos from the Native Americans he used to employ at the show, who he hired to dance in buckskin and chant around a fake teepee. “Real Live Indians!” the sign said.

Brandy’s watching the miniature Wild West show, hundreds of tiny replicas hand-painted in the 1950s, a twenty-foot display behind a glass case. The figurines dance, chop wood, shake hands. The horses rear up and down, over and over.

I go outside and sit on the cement, a shady spot between the fake stagecoach and the fake teepee. Maybe I could move here, I think. Nebraska. Teach at the high school. Coach the debate team. No, the cross-country team. Cheer them on through cold, rainy 5k runs through the woods and the vast yellow light of the hills. I am always comforted by that moment of the drive when the land turns from West to Midwest, grass instead of rocks, trees shaped like broccoli. Perhaps I could live right on the border. I’ll date the football coach even though he’s married. He will have a mustache and know how to change the oil on my car.

Lauren hasn’t posted again, but she’s responded to every single comment on the engagement photo. “Thank you I love you!” she writes.

Brandy comes out and sits next to me and rests her cast on my knee.

“Did Noah write you back yet?”


“Maybe when you drop me off in Ohio, you should just keep driving to New York. Show up at his door.”

I want to ask her why we have to keep driving at all, that this seems like as good a place as any, with its expansive sky, its legendary taxidermy, its simplified version of history. I want to ask her who taught us to trust all our worst impulses, to aim our lives toward loneliness and struggle, while people like Lauren and Noah seek out peace, stability, oversized leather armchairs, navy blazers. We walk back to the car arm in arm.

A few minutes into our drive she is staring into her phone with her headphones on, laughing.

“What?” I ask her.

She takes off one earbud. “Nothing.”

“What’s funny?”

“Cody just sent me a funny video. A dog doing yoga.”

“I thought he was going to throw all your clothes out into the yard?”

She shrugs. “He didn’t.”

Brandy’s having cramps, so we decide to stop around six outside of Elk Mountain, Wyoming. In an entire day, we managed to drive only 250 miles. We decide on a Motel 6 to conserve funds. Her funds. Mine are beyond attempts at conservation. I take a walk on the loamy dirt path that follows the highway outside the motel. A few stately brown cows lift their heads from behind barbed wire. I walk to the fence and offer one a Lay’s potato chip, taking a photo as he curls his wide gray mouth around it. I try to send it to Noah, but I don’t have cell service. I go to Lauren’s feed, but it won’t load. All blank squares.

In the hazy distance, there’s a stand of trailers, and across the highway, a few houses rising up a dusty hill. Maybe no one in these hills has Internet. Maybe no one gets enough cell service to peruse the feeds of their ex-lover’s new lovers.

The next morning, we eat plastic-wrapped muffins and truck stop machine cappuccinos before setting off. Inside a bathroom stall in the Little America truck stop, I resend my cow potato chip photo to Noah. Underneath it, I type, “Congrats on the engagement!” but I erase it. “Call me please!” I erase that as well. “Why-oming,” I write finally. But I don’t send.

I will get a job in my hometown. I will see myself as a person with a job. Brandy and I will plant the garden. We will see ourselves as women who grow vegetables.

Lauren has posted a second engagement photo, black and white, just her and the ring this time. A close-lipped smile, shining eyes. The face of a winner. 180 likes, seventy-one comments. No caption, no hashtag.

When I get back in the car, Brandy’s eyes are closed, her head leaning on a balled-up sweatshirt, her phone in her lap. “I expected it to be prettier,” she says, not looking up.

“What?” I ask.


return to top