Part 2 – New Liepzig, North Dakota
She pulls away after a lifetime.
I’m sorry, I—I don’t know what came over me, I—
I lean in, kiss her again, allowing her to melt in my arms. Melt she does. We fall asleep on the stiff motel bed, stripped to our underwear, kissing until our eyelids grow too heavy to continue. I just hold her, her stomach against mine, the lace edge of her underwear against my hip. It’s too beautiful a feeling, and I can’t help but wonder how much longer I’ll have it.
We wake, shivering in the cold, and she kisses me again. I’m tempted to touch her chest, but rushing scares me. I think it scares her too. She showers, puts on the same clothes she wore yesterday. Her ass in those jeans, God. She glances out the window.
It’s stopped snowing.
Are the roads plowed?
Looks it. How far can we get together, do you think?
I haven’t been part of awein a long time. Suddenly I think of walking into the bedroom, vomiting on the floor. Panicking into my phone, realizing the onlyweI ever wanted to be in was gone.
I swallow away the memories.
Somewhere in North Dakota, probably.
You drink coffee?she asks.
Tea,I answer.With sugar. Or actually, get chamomile, if they have it. I think I’m getting a cold.
That’s from sleeping in your car,she insists.Take a shower.
I do, for the first time since leaving home, washing the road from me. After I change into fresh boxers, figuring my jeans and shirt aren’tthatdirty, I peek inside Arizona’s bag. Yeah, I know it’s pretty much the number-one rule of dealing with women, you don’t look through their fucking bag, but it’s so small for such a long journey. In her canvas tote bag, there’s nothing but a toothbrush, a ladies’ razor, a few wrapped bars of soap, another sweater, three pairs of panties, her wallet, a copy ofThe Dharma Bums.She really did leave everything behind, and there’s a strange beauty to it.
She comes back with coffee for her, tea for me (they didn’t have chamomile), and a few pastries for each of us. Somehow she just knew I like cherry Danishes. We sit on the bed and eat. Her hair is still slightly damp from the shower. Quietly, I reach out and touch a dark curl. She stares into my eyes, the gray speaking of summer storms. They warm me up, melt the ice hanging over this January, this season, this year.
Do you think they miss you?I ask.
Anyone from home, I guess.
She sighs, takes a sip of coffee from her Styrofoam cup.
I guess it’s how it always is. There’s a hole inside you, and for a while you don’t know how you’ll ever fill it again, and then one day you wake up and it’s gone.It takes a while, but it happens.
I didn’t have a nightmare about her last night,I confess. Arizona just smiles.
Later, as we’re finishing our drinks in the car, she pulls out maps from her coat, of Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana. Opening the North Dakota one, she scans it briefly, and points to a dot in the southwest corner of the state.
New Liepzig,she reads.We’re sleeping there tonight.
She looks to me. I’m sitting in the passenger seat for the first time in what seems like lifetimes.
You have to trust me on this, John.
Hearing her say my name sent chills through me, even with this heavy coat and beanie.
I trust you,I tell her.
She smiles, turns the key in the ignition.
She peels out of the parking lot, far over the speed limit, but once we cross the border into Minnesota (Minnesooooohta, she imitates). I take my hand off the door handle, let my knuckles return to their normal color. Of course she’s a reckless driver. Of course everything about her burns as bright as the sun in the state she was named for. And in my head, I can hear Erica’s voice telling me not to fight it. By lunchtime, we’re in Western Minnesota, and we’re lighting each other’s cigarettes, holding hands across the center console. I’ve almost forgotten this feeling.
We eat McDonald’s for lunch, sitting in the car while she studies the map.
You wanna drive for a while after this?she asks, taking a bite of her last Chicken McNugget. I’m drinking a Red Bull, salvaged from the cooler in my backseat. I can barely keep my eyes open, but it’s not because of her. I want to stay awake, for her.
Yeah,I say.I just gotta wait for this to kick in.
She nods, steals one of my fries off my lap, giggling. We sit in silence for a while, staring out the windshield at the highway, the thick pine forests beyond it. She gets out of the car to throw out her trash, and she snaps a picture with her plastic disposable camera—it had been in her coat pocket, not her bag.
When she comes back, we switch seats, and she asks,
How bad did Detroit get? I mean, you see stuff on the news, but you never really know for sure.
I sigh, take another sip of Red Bull.
It got bad. I mean, it was always bad, but after the crash, it just became miserable. I worked at a music store, and it was doing well, but all the schools had to cut their music programs to save money, and we just went kaput. People didn’t need to rent instruments, and interest in private lessons basically disappeared. That was a few months ago. I just couldn’t stay. There wasn’t a future for me there.
You didn’t go to college?
I shake my head.
Couldn’t afford it. I thought about going to night school, but what the hell could they do with a twenty-three-year-old with no legitimate talents? I can’t be a motherfucking electrician.
As soon as I say this, I realize we still haven’t revealed our ages to each other. Suddenly I worry I’m chasing jailbait. Fuck.
I’m twenty-one,she says, knowing what I’m thinking.And now you think I’m some sort of child.
No,I defend.Two years really isn’t that much.
But it seems like it is. I still feel so young. So stupid.
You’re not stupid, Arizona.
Saying her name gives me that tingly feeling inside my lungs, as though I’ve forgotten to breathe for a few seconds.
You know, I’ve never had a sip of alcohol in my entire life,she admits, staring at her lap. I crinkle my brow in confusion.
But you’re a chain smoker?
She looks at me, laughs.
And here come the assumptions. Ass of you and me, darling.
No, I’m not making assumptions,I insist.It’s just… I mean, you can drink legally. Are you straightedge or something?
Obviously not,she says, holding up her pack of Camels.But my parents don’t drink at all. There wasn’t a single bottle in the entire house, for as long as I was growing up. And my school had a really hardcore drug-and-alcohol policy. I was never the type of girl who got invited to those parties anyway, even in college. But I guess I was never that interested. I knew the trouble it got people into. I was supposed to go out to a bar for my twenty-first birthday with my friends, but then all the shit about my dad came out. And since then… I just never got the opportunity, I guess.
I state into her eyes. I keep expecting them to look less and less captivating. Familiarity breeds contempt. But it doesn’t work that way. Every time I look I find new colors, tiny brushstrokes like an Impressionist painting. New stories. She seems so much older than twenty-one. When she touches me, it’s as thought the ghost of a pioneers is touching me. The spirit of the forest, the coal hills of West Virginia. An Indian princess in buckskin, guiding me West.
Hold on,I tell her, turning around and reaching into the backseat. I push my duffel bag aside and find it—a six-pack of a shitty IPA that was still in my fridge when I was about to leave. Arizona’s eyes widen.
I take out two bottles, open them with each other’s caps (an old trick from Scout camp—it worked with root beer, and it works with grown-up drinks too), hooking the lids together and pulling. She’s startled by the metal caps zinging off the bottles, soaring into the backseat.
Here.I hand over a bottle.
John,she says, wary.
Just taste it,I tell her.I’m not gonna be mad if you don’t like it. But your first drink is special.
Jesus, you’re making it sound like my period,she says bitterly.And you shouldn’t be having one too! You’re hopped up on Red Bull and you’re about to drive!
A toast,I propose, ignoring her warnings.To pioneers.
To the wilderness,she says, going along with it, tapping her bottle with mine.It tells you who you really are.
I nod, and together, we both take a gulp. She drops out sooner, holding a hand in front of her mouth, swallowing hard.
It’s not very good beer,I say.Sorry.
It’s actually not that bad.
There, for the rest of your life, you can say your first drink was in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in fuckin’ East Jesus Nowhere, Minnesota.
Moorhead,she corrects, looking at the map.And I think I’d rather say my first drink was with John MacAuliffe.
She bites her lip. I put my bottle in the cupholder, and take hers from her fingers, putting it in the same place. In silence, I lean closer, and kiss her. It shouldn’t be meaningful, just a kiss in a piece-of-shit Dodge Neon between two people who are still kind of strangers, but it’s meaningful. Her fingers knot in my hair and my toes curl inside my Chuck Taylors. Through layers of wool and polyester, I touch her chest. She pulls away shuddering.
I’m not sure if I like what this stuff does,she whispers.
You’re afraid of feeling good,I tell her.
Silently, she wipes away a tear. I’ve seen her truth. Venturing as we go the unknown ways, we’re mapping each other’s hearts. It’s terrifying, but then it’s not.
We should get going,she says, but I can tell it hurts to pull away.
Is love feeling the same pain, together?
For a while, we sit in silence. We had been listening to music from my phone—we have the same music taste, just another tiny miracle—but I’m running low on battery. The radio is fuzzy in places, but it comes in. She leans back in her seat, staring at the sky, so bright for January, filled with fluffy white clouds. We pass into North Dakota. It’s long stretches of road, mountains in the distance, and a complete absence of cell phone service. But somehow, I like it. Now I at least have a genuine reason as to why I’ve been ignoring my mother’s calls. It’s strange how she only begins to worry when I leave. For a while, Arizona readsThe Dharma Bumsaloud. It’s like a drug, filling me with a warmth I didn’t know existed.
One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.
I’m not sure yet if I’ve found the right words. But I’ve found the right person to help me find them. The scent of Erica’s perfume, which used to perpetually fill my nostrils, giving me head colds, is fading away.
According to the map, we’re a hundred miles from New Liepzig, and it’s getting dark. We’ve been driving for nearly eight hours, switching at every gas station. We’ve smoked a collective ten cigarettes, eaten a collective two bags of beef jerky and three packs of Starbursts. We’ve taken pictures at stupid roadside attractions—a huge sculpture of a turtle riding a snowmobile, huge metal things along what’s called “The Enchanted Highway.” The wind sweeps her hair across her face, and her laugh floats into the sky, free to roam forever.
Now, as the sky fades from robin’s-egg-blue to cobalt, she says,
I’ve had a few boyfriends. But I’ve only met one person I’ve actually wanted to be my boyfriend.
I glance towards her, feeling that tightening feeling in my lungs again. It spreads to my entire body, filling me with the tremors of an emotion I haven’t felt in so long.
Is that so?I almost choke.
She nods, taps the ash out the window.
But no boy ever dated me because they wanted to be my boyfriend. They wanted to date my friends. They wanted to make themselves look good. They wanted a shot at the other girls in my sorority.
You were in a sorority?It’s hard to imagine her wearing sweater sets and pearls, handing out apple cider before midterms.
Everyone’s in a sorority at Sewanee,she replies.Everyone.
I get it.
I was so excited to graduate,she says, exhaling smoke, looking up.Because I was so determined to find someplace where no one knew, and no one knew my friends. I just wanted to be alone, for the longest time. But these past few months have poved that being alone is never as fun as you think it’ll be.
I know the feeling,I admit.
She finishes her cigarette, tosses it out the window. I ask her to light one of mine for me. She does, and takes a few preliminary puffs.
Just making sure it works,she says with a smile. I crack the window on the driver’s side, start taking drags. Arizona starts playing with the thin silver ring on her right hand—I didn’t notice it until now.
What was your girlfriend’s name?she asks quietly, pressing her knees together.
Was she pretty?
Yes. But sometimes I think she had so much ugliness inside her.
Was she mean?
I shake my head.
No. But killing yourself—it’s kind of an inherently cruel act. She knew what she was doing. She knew the people she was going to hurt.
Maybe when you’re that sad you can’t see straight. You don’t understand anything beyond what’s going to happen to you. You’re so obsessed with this happy place you think you’re going to reach you don’t understand the gap you’re going to leave in the world.
Jesus, maybe I should go to college if I can learn how to talk like that,I say stiffly, unsure if it’s really right to keep talking about her. It’s hard, accepting the fact that the person you love betrayed you in such a selfish way. I want to know it wasn’t because of me. But I can’t know. She’s a person I lost on my journey. I buried her the way I was supposed to, and I can’t go back for her. I have to keep looking westward. I’m a pioneer.
Silence again. But Arizona touches my shoulder, and it somehow says a thousand words.
New Liepzig, North Dakota, is an interesting place. It’s a very small town, but they have at least a half-dozen churches, neon signs that readJESUS SAVES. We don’t even know if there’s a place to sleep here—we would’ve looked it up, but my phone’s dead and there’s no service in this entire goddamn state, it seems like. But tonight, I wouldn’t mind sleeping in my car. I wouldn’t mind Arizona sleeping on my chest, pressing my face into her curls.
Suddenly, she shouts,
Bed and breakfast!
She points to a small cottage on the side of the road, purple with gingerbread trim.
Oh, Christ,I mumble.
Look, this is what they’ve got, and we’re both way too fucking tired to keep driving,she says.Let’s go.
She gets out of the car, throwing her bag onto her shoulder, and I follow, dragging my duffel bag along the ground. It’s only seven-thirty and I feel like I haven’t slept in decades.
Inside, she walks up to the desk, trying to get us a room. A huge white cat jumps off an armchair and weaves between my legs. I freeze—I’ve never been much of an animal person, even though I’m not allergic. Arizona giggles.
She likes you.
The owner apologizes and moves the cat out of my way.
There’s a program about tomorrow’s church services in your room,she says with a smile.Welcome to New Liepzig, and God bless.
Arizona giggles again, grabbing my hand as we walk up the stairs. She’s switched her ring; it’s on her left hand now. The owner thinks we’re married.
The room is less frilly than I feared, thankfully. A flowered bedspread and matching curtains, wrapped soaps in the bathroom. She sighs, unzips her coat, sits on the bed.
I’m exhausted,she says, falling back onto the mattress.But hey, only nine more hours.
I bite my lip, walk further into the room, dropping my bag on the carpet. I can see the curve of her breasts under my sweater, and everything inside me pulses.
I sit next to her on the bed, nervous, shaking underneath my warm clothing. She’s consumed me.
I was thinking, maybe… like, when we get to Helena, maybe we could…
Yes?She sits up, looks me in the eye.
I was thinking, maybe we could… get an apartment together.
It’s almost painful to say. It’s the type of thing you say when you’re a thousand miles from home and all you’ve got are a few bottles of beer and a few cigarettes and no money and a damn good ability at fucking everything up.
I like that idea.
She moves closer, places a hand on my thigh, moves it higher as she leans in.
It would be nice to have someone to come home to,she whispers.
Silently, I reach beneath her sweater, as she straddles my hips and unzips my coat, takes off my beanie. She kisses me, long and deep, but not controlling. I respond to her, whisper her name. She kicks off her combat boots, I unbutton her jeans, and we collide, and I can’t help but feel this pulling inside of me, knowing that not too long ago I was doing things like this with a girl who’s now well on her way to becoming bones in a box.
What I’m doing is wrong. Running away from my problems, talking to strangers in Howard Johnsons’ in motherfucking Wisconsin, undressing said stranger in a North Dakota bed-and-breakfast. I shouldn’t be planning to live with this stranger for the next—the last—chapter of my life. I loved Erica. I loved Erica until she tied the slipknot, until she kicked the chair out.
Arizona pulls away.
Are you okay?she asks, her hands traveling towards my hips.
Yeah,I answer.Just… distracted.
She rolls onto her side, propping her chin in her hands.
About what?she eggs.
I just… I don’t know, I’m just wondering if it’s right to do this now. I mean, my girlfriend did just die. I mean, it was six months ago, but you’re more than a rebound to me. And right now it just feels like that.
She presses her lips into a fine line.
Oh. Okay then.
She gets off the bed, reaches towards her jeans, wriggling into them.
Don’t what?she asks, glaring over her shoulder at me.John, Erica’s dead. And it wasn’t fucking your fault. You need to get over that. And you don’t ask a girl to move in with you and then tell, whoops, she’s just a rebound.
That’s not what I said.
That’s fucking exactly what you said!
I’m sorry, I’ve just never done this before.
She pulls on her boots, reaches for her coat.
Well, I think I know why Erica did what she did,Arizona snaps.
You don’t even know what you’re saying,I hiss, sitting up.
I trusted you!she says with narrowed eyes.You’d think, after all the shit we both went through, you’d fucking understand that.
Arizona, I still want to be with you, I just think we might be taking it too fast.I think we can be there someday. You’re beautiful.
She puts on her coat, grabs her bag.
Where the hell are you going to go?I ask as she walks towards the door.You’re in the fucking middle of nowhere.
She pauses, reaches into her jeans pocket, and pulls out my car keys. My heart stops.
I can go anywhere I want,she says, nearly whispering.
Give me my fucking keys, Arizona.
No,she replied.You fucked me over, so I’m fucking you right back. Learn how to hitch.
You don’t get to defend yourself anymore,she replies, and the door slams behind her.
I’m numb. I don’t have the power to leave, to run after her, to even get off the bed. She’s left me stranded in the cold, no firewood, no food. I’m far from the wagon train, and maybe they’ll never find me out here. From the window, I see her peel out of the gravel parking lot, driving into the night. She’s gone, and it’s because of me. I’m mad at Erica, but more mad at myself.
I want the strength I had a night ago. I want it to come, and I want to feel that, for the first time in six months, I didn’t fuck everything up.
I’m going to get to Helena if it kills me. We must march, my darlings.