I loaded her car with luggage. Liz was still pale and listless, watching me carry the suitcases as she stood at the curb, her hands fidgeting over her chest, breathing into them as if warming them. I shoved the suitcases into the trunk and slammed it closed. When I looked back, Liz had moved into the passenger seat and was wearing a large pale floppy sunhat, her head down, staring into her lap.
Every move, even an advance, is a retreat from somewhere. Baltimore slipped past the car windows; the harbor's high buildings receded in the rearview mirror. I lowered my window so the breeze could blow in. Liz asked me to close my window. When I did, the car grew hushed and hot. She turned on the air conditioning, and it filled the car with the faint scent of rubber.
"Nick," Liz asked, "can you slow down as we cross the bridge?"
"I don't like being that high up," she said, looking straight ahead.
We passed out of Maryland and into Virginia and from Virginia into North Carolina. The large highway turned into a smaller road, and tiny towns flashed by us, towns that seemed like nothing more than gas stations and restaurants, indicated only by their road signs. The grass on either side of the highway was freshly mowed, and lay in yellow and green clumps, while branches and boughs of dense pines and spiral poplars hung over the road like friends waving goodbye. Sunlight turned the green leaves gold. Cows stood still and watched us pass or wandered slowly behind wooden fences. Birds circled. Dead animals littered the roadside, none more apparent than a large deer, peering endlessly as we passed. Forgotten scarecrows gnawed by birds stood forlornly at the ends and edges of fields. The fields were of grass and grain and Liz said they were pretty, all those different shades of green and yellow.
A tunnel led us under the water. We emerged and passed over another bridge and saw scattered factories to our left. "It looks like Baltimore down there," Liz said. She looked away.
In North Carolina we passed polluted ponds, their thick water purple. Stores sold bloodworms and night crawlers, and some sold guns. We crossed bridges over lifeless still rivers. A row of telephone poles had been nearly dislodged and stood swaying, straining the lines that connected them.
We crossed a long and low bridge near the Outer Banks, near Kitty Hawk, that paled Liz even more and halved the speed of the car.
Liz: the reflection in the windshield showed sunlight filling her face, below her dark sunglasses and hat. She kept her hands in her lap and stared forward into the distance. She wore green shorts and a white shirt. She wore a black string necklace with three wooden beads. She wore makeup. She stretched her legs and looked at them unhappily. After hours of silence, she asked if she could drive, and I pulled over and we switched. She told me I looked tired. I didn't think I was, but I fell asleep immediately.
Her parents' timeshare was a water-beaten wood cabin in the middle of a row of houses across from the ocean. Most of the houses here were a blackish brown, the color of wet bark. Kitty Hawk was a quiet community, made up of more locals than tourists this time of year - the locals in torn T-shirts and jean shorts and shoes without socks, or they wore sandals, or they went barefoot. The town seemed to consist of two parallel roads: one was the highway and the other ran next to the water, and was dusted in sand. Liz's parents' house was to the side of that sand-covered road, between it and the ocean. She asked if we could drive some more, before we went inside.
Liz seemed cheered, as if the separation from Maryland, or the appearance of the ocean, had helped distance her from what had happened. She removed her sunhat but not her sunglasses, and her smile beneath the glasses was a slow curve, the curl of a sleeping cat. She stopped the car, slipped off her shoes, crossed the road and bounded over the top of a dune to see the water.
She walked back to the car grinning, stepping nimbly on the hot highway and wiping sand off the bottoms of her feet, but when she saw me sitting in the car she stopped smiling.
"It's beautiful down there," Liz said, pulling the door closed.
We drove back to the main highway. A tall spire glowed from the top of a nearby hill.
"The Wright Brothers Memorial," Liz said.
Strips of stores lined either side of the road. The shops sold T-shirts, hermit crabs, surfing equipment, beach apparel. A few cars roamed the road with us. We drove with the windows down, through the strips of town, and saw purple clouds covering the sky. A storm was coming, and we went back to the house.
To me, it was like struggling to break water's surface. Her chin tilted up and her chest rose as if summoned to the ceiling. Afterward I held her, but I held her without emotion and, after a while, she didn't want to be held. She moved to the other side of the bed and kept her back to me, curled in a little ball, hands tucked between her thighs as if she was in pain. She started crying and I rose.
The house had three stories and this bedroom was on the third, extended from the rest of the house, underneath a sky light that momentarily captured drops of rain like eyes wildly peering in. The skylight showed the swirling, swarming, storm-ravaged sky above. I wandered downstairs for a glass of water from the kitchen. The water was warm and viscid. I was going to make toast, but the toaster was broken so I ate the bread cold.
Photographs of Vietnam filled the family room on the ground level. I unlocked the patio door and went outside to watch the storm. Lightning pierced the sky, leading thunder in their dance. Rain came hard, like small tossed stones. Wolves filled the sea.
The next day the sun rose like God and everything shined. Liz was awake before me, and when I looked out the bedroom window, I saw her walking along the beach, stopping to examine seashells, a splash of light in the morning. I showered, and when I went downstairs she was waiting for me. She wore a tank top and shorts and nothing else.
"You should walk down to the beach," she told me. "Except for a bunch of dead jellyfish, it's really pretty."
We went for a drive, and the day smelled like rain. A mist floated to us, sprinkling the car, and the windshield wipers sashayed back and forth. "My dad told me," Liz said, "that the people here are talking about putting up a new lighthouse, or moving the old one to a new spot. I'd like to go see it, but I looked at a map this morning and couldn't find it." We drove past the beach community, down the long highway. Puddles on the road were drying up. We passed stores renting wave runners. "Have you ever been wave running?" Liz asked. "It's fun. You feel so fast, and free."
We drove around some more, and then drove back to the house. It had begun to rain again. Liz sat on the patio. She drank a beer. She let the rain bounce on her and laughed like she was insane as the drops came down. I lay on the couch and listened to the lazy rain. My hand was wrapped around a battered basketball I had found abandoned. I held it on the floor, against the couch. My eyes unfocused as I watched television. I listened for Liz.
I woke and it was night. I went upstairs. Liz was asleep. "I made you dinner," she murmured, after I accidentally woke her. "You slept all day - you must have been so tired." I still was. I felt weary, as if I were walking to the end of my life. I lay inside her warm arms. They opened for me, and I lost myself in dreams.
Kites fluttered above us, their owners expertly holding lines and reins with both hands; they shrugged their shoulders and the kites returned and retreated, swooped and soared, dropped and dragged. Their owners hooted and hollered as if they were the kites themselves. We sat on a dune with our shoes off, too far away to see the ocean, next to each other on the sand. People took turns running down a hill near us, holding hang-gliders over their backs. Looking up at the untouched blue sky made me realize I should look up more often. We miss much in the sea and sky when we constantly look into land.
"Have you ever been hang-gliding?" Liz asked. "I would go, but I'm scared of heights."
She smelled like the sea; she had gone swimming earlier, alone. Her black hair was shiny and wet and lay in a long single trail down her back. Maybe a thousand feet away, we could see the highway and cars rolling over it.
"I'll be sad to leave," Liz said. "Maybe we could stay here forever. Don't people always think, when they go away, that wherever they go is better than where they were? I wonder how many people actually take the chance to live somewhere new, or if they know right away that they're just fooling themselves.
"But I think I could live here. I do," she continued. "We could do whatever we want here, it seems. It would be our own little world again, our new little city. My parents would let us use the beach house until we got settled, and then we'd move to one of the neighborhoods on the other side of town, away from the water, and every night we'd walk down here, to the ocean. We could spend days together on the sand dunes and the beach. Our lives would be so settled and established that even if somebody did get suspicious about me, nobody would care. Nobody would care about what they found.
"Nothing in the real world would matter," she said, "because this would be our world. We would be each other's again. We have everything we need - we ran down here, and when you run from something you take everything you need to live. But I can't change anything and you don't believe me anyway and I know that you're leaving me no matter what."
She showered when we returned. I listened to the water fall as I made dinner. The night was calm, quiet, and cold. I listened to Liz above me, the water squealing off as she soaped herself, shampooed herself (twice), and then the minutes after, when she let the water hit her and stood still and absorbed it. I imagined her drying herself, bent at the waist, the towel flashing between her legs.
I left dinner waiting on two plates in the kitchen, slid the patio door open and walked outside. A few couples holding hands, like lazily drawn M's, were wandering up and down the beach. I heard children playing. I picked up the basketball, swiveled around and took aim at a spot on the wall. The turn-around was easier to hit the farther back I faded.
"You're beautiful to watch, you know."
Liz was leaning against the doorway. She wore a white silk robe, and it barely seemed to touch her body. Her arms were crossed and she was wearing the ring I had bought her long ago. Her hair was draped over her shoulder, purplish in the fading daylight. Her arms and legs shined as if they had just been oiled.
"I'm going to miss watching you play basketball. I'm going to miss that, when you leave."
I moved back and tossed the ball to her. She bounced it gamely but awkwardly, slapping the ball and then turned her back to me, her robe fluttering. Her hips rubbed against mine as I guarded her. She turned to shoot in a close imitation of the way I had, but not exactly, and I caught the ball before it left her hands. I dropped the ball. I caught her hands.
The next day was our last, and we went to the Wright Brothers Memorial. A white and blue water tower encircled with the words Kill Devil Hills was visible in the distance. There were two small barns in which the brothers had lived and worked; stones on three runways marked distances the flights had achieved; the tall monument, an obelisk we had seen from the road when we had first arrived, was atop a long grassy hill spiraled with a cement walkway. We did not ascend. We walked on the flight strips and Liz remarked that the pilots must have been scared. We held hands the way two people who are told to might. "I couldn't imagine doing that," she said. "It'd be scary to do something that's already failed." She released my hand and scratched her heel. "How could you go back?"
We turned, and began to walk away. We headed to the car. "It's just that," Liz said, and we stopped, and I looked into her sunken, sun-hidden, shadowed eyes, "you remind me of being sad, and I don't like feeling this way and I don't want to feel this way. I don't know if I can feel any different around you anymore. We've been through too much, and everything with you and I has to be too much all the time.
"Let's just go," she said. "Let's just go."
We left the grassy hill behind us with its tall monument, its museum and landmarks. Ahead of us was the highway that headed back to Baltimore. On the other side of that highway was the ocean, which I hadn't been to yet, but I could hear the water touching the shore. Liz walked ahead of me. She walked briskly. Her arms swung quickly back and forth. Her head was straight and resolute. She had put on her sunglasses.
I felt a remote sadness as I watched Liz walk ahead of me, fast, growing distant, nothing but a memory.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Ed Aymar. All rights reserved.