I stare out the window, cursing, my heart racing. What are you supposed to do when a girl you met basically twenty-four hours ago takes your car and hightails it to Montana? Or farther? Do I call the cops? I feel like it’d take them years to get to this hellhole.
I’m drunk off a lack of sleep. With a heavy sigh, I collapse on the bed, hoping a plan will come to me in my dreams. Instead, Arizona comes to me, huddling deep in a olive-drab parka like the one I last saw her in. I’m walking towards her, in the middle of a snowy Howard Johnson’s parking lot. Her hair blows around her face, her eyes cast down towards the asphalt. She vanishes before I can touch her, turns into a flurry of ash, the gray against the white. I wake in cold sweat, grasping at the sheets, saying her name under my breath. My gorgeous Arizona, my darling, my snowswept beauty.
I glance at the old mint-green alarm clock on my nightstand. I’ve slept for eight hours. She could already be in Helena. Hell, Idaho. Wherever she is, she has my car and my beer and my guitar. Fuck. The snowstorm seems to be picking up. I worry she’s fallen into a ditch, skidded off the road, slowly shivering to death.
But I try to block the panic from my brain. I take a shower, ignoring the overly-flowery smell of the soap. For a split second, I realize how easy it would be to drown myself, stick my head in a full sink until I lose the will to breathe. But Arizona would never know. My body would be sent back to Detroit, to rot in the city that never wanted me anyway. Every muscle aches with not knowing what to do.
I dress, go outside before my hair dries. I’ll catch cold, my mother would warn. I haven’t called her since Wisconsin. But I have so many other things to attend to. My hands shaking, I hold out a thumb, squinting against the snow, hoping that, if someone does pick me up, they’re not crazy.
The sky is gray as the flakes fall, slowly but surely. The world is rapidly turning into a black-and-white picture, a memory from generations ago. She’s slowly being burned out of the frame, a family member ex-communicated for saying the wrong thing.
A police car pulls up to me, lights flashing, and I nearly piss myself. Maybe hitching isn’t legal here. Fuck fuck fuck, I don’t have anyone to bail me out. I don’t even have enough money to pay a fine, most likely. The window rolls down. I think about running away, but it’s like my feet at glued to the ground.
You trying to get somewhere, son?the policeman asks.
Please don’t arrest me,I beg.
I’m not arresting you,he assures me. He’s kindly and disgustingly Midwestern, a mustache that belongs on a sitcom dad.I’m just not sure why a skinny punk like you is trying to hitchhike in a snowstorm.
I frown. “Skinny punk”? Is that really the best he has?
I… I, uh…I stammer, glancing down at the ground, as if the curb holds any answers.
Spit it out, boy.
My girlfriend stole my car.It feels so strange to be saying those words aloud.
Well, she can’t be much of a good girlfriend, can she?
I want to yell at him for insulting Arizona. She’s the best twenty-four-hour girlfriend I’ve ever not had sex with. All I can do is bounce up and down in an effort to stave off the cold.
C’mon, man, I need help.
Do you have any idea where she went?
We were going to Helena… I’m not sure if that’s actually where she went, I can really only guess,I say, looking towards the West, the illusory destination we created in our heads.
Look, son, you can’t hitchhike in this state. Not to say North Dakotans don’t sympathize with a weary traveler—
Yeah, okay, whatever. Is there a train station, a bus station, whatever, a fuckin’ bushplane, you can get me to?
The policeman sighs.
I can get you to the Greyhound station, it’s about forty miles away. But I can’t help you past that. And I’m going to search that backpack for drugs.
All I’ve got are cigarettes.
Let’s make sure,he says, getting out of the car. I sigh, hand the bag over. He rifles through it a bit, and declares me clean.Get in.
Thank you,I say, pressing my hands together, as if in prayer.You’re a goddamn lifesaver.
He turns off the flashing lights and rolls up the window as I climb in. I guess crime isn’t too big of a concern here. It’s Sunday, anyway. Seems we’re the only ones not at church. The snow is falling heavier as we pass theLeaving So Soon?sign, but it doesn’t seem to phase him. He’s a seasoned pioneer.
My hands start to shake. I need a cigarette, but the only car I’m ever allowed to smoke in is my own. I stare at my lap, knee bouncing.
What’s your name?the officer asks.
Your father’s name?
Yeah,I answer.I’m the fifth, actually. How’d you know?
He shrugs, eyes still focused on the road.
Sometimes you just know, honestly. My son’s the third Nathan. Not sure if he enjoys having someone else’s name.
I think of Arizona, forever tainted by a name she may never be able to get rid of. Somewhere in the darkest corners of my imagination, she’ll be a MacAuliffe, a silver ring on her pale finger, her blue-gray eyes filled with tears.
My family’s just real into tradition, I guess.
His eyes dart between the road and me. He turns off his radio, and my stomach drops. Part of me was hoping he’d get distracted.
You’re not from around here,he observes.
I shake my head.
I’m from Detroit, actually.
Jesus, it’s just a mess over there, isn’t it?
That’s one way to describe it,I said.I got laid off. Figured there might be work somewhere with less people.
And your girlfriend came with you,Nathan finishes.
Yeah. But I don’t really know what she is anymore.
Or what she ever was. Maybe she was just a dream, a waking nightmare. Something I invented to rationalize this entire drive, this entire mistake.
It can be confusing when you’re young,he says wisely.My wife as I, for a long time, we were just friends who refused to admit there was something more. I waited for her. For a long time. But I guess I always knew I was waiting for my wife.
The story is so sickly-sweet I want to punch him in the face. I stare out the window, wondering if my wet hair has started to freeze.
But you’re young,he continues.I doubt you’re worrying about those sorts of things yet.
Yeah, not really,I answer blankly.
Does this girl make you happy?
I pause, biting my lip, wondering if I know or not. Finally, with a sigh, I answer,
She makes me forget why I was unhappy.
Why were you unhappy?
I don’t really wanna talk about it,I answer.
Fucking Erica. It’s all her fault. Everything. If she hadn’t pushed the chair from under her none of this would’ve happened. I wouldn’t be slumped down in the front seat of a North Dakota cop car, counting down the miles. Maybe right now Erica and I would be just waking up, getting ready for work, for school. She’d be putting bread in the toaster, asking me if I wanted grape or strawberry jelly. I’d be kissing her goodbye as she went off to class. I’d be clearing my Internet history so she didn’t know I was looking at engagement rings.
If it weren’t for Erica, I wouldn’t have met Arizona. My stormy Arizona, my undoing with a box of Camel Slims. I hated her, but I would do anything to see her again. My mother always said you’d take a bullet for the ones you love, while wanting to put a bullet in them at the same time.
North Dakota, a blue of gray and white and brown, rushes by. It’s not much farther, the cop tells me. I just grunt in reply.
But eventually, somewhere along this highway they call Enchanted, I tell him (mostly) everything. I tell him about Detroit, about everything falling to pieces. I tell him about Erica. And I tell him, hesitantly, about Arizona. Even with the heat at full blast, I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about her. He just smiles. He knows what he’s hearing.
We ignore the wind, the snow, the abandoned cars at the side of the road. Pioneers don’t stop for anything. We map, we plan, we march.
Finally, we reach the station, and I breathe a sigh of relief. Hesitantly, I reach into my wallet, count my cash, figure how much someone deserves for driving me through what’s basically a blizzard. He holds up a hand to stop me, and reaches into his pocket. Silently, he places two hundred dollars in my hand. My jaw goes slack.
You love this Arizona girl. You buy a bus ticket and you find her and you start a life with her. Be happy, John. You’re a kid who deserves it.
I bite my lip, knowing she deserves happiness more than I do. More than I ever will.
Thank you,I whisper, and he lets me out.
And I better get an invitation to that wedding!he calls as he pulls away, and my chest goes tight with fear, with panic, with possibility.
Inside, I buy a ticket for a bus to Helena, a bus that’s not due to leave for another three hours. Sighing, I head to the newsstand, pick up some magazines and some snacks. Outside, leaning against the cold cinder-block wall of the terminal, I smoke a cigarette. It doesn’t have the same taste it usually does. I look at the pack and realize they’re hers, her Camel cigarettes. She’s somewhere in America with my Marlboros. But I take comfort in knowing she touched them. It keeps me from fearing the worst, if only for a few blissful moments in the midst of a storm.
For a while, I think about calling my mother to assure I’m alive, but the ghosts I left behind in Detroit come rushing through the line as soon as I dial the number, and I remember why everyone wanted me gone. In a world of spirits, I feel Arizona’s the only one left with substance. I keep thinking about Nathan, how he said I loved her.
It was never this scary with Erica, and I’m starting to realize that might’ve been the problem. Only true love can be terrifying.
I feel the ghosts inside me, twisting around my organs, trying to force me to turn around, give up, go back to Michigan. But I hear Arizona’s voice in my head, telling me to keep marching, like the poem says. Sitting on a bench in the terminal, I run my hands over the worn fabric cover, turn toO Pioneers!. I read it in silence, not even realizing I’m smiling.
I know I look like hell. Grizzled, unshaven, exhausted by this trek. Eventually, I become immune to the stares. I just keep reading, keep counting down the minutes until I have another chance. Still there’s a nagging pull in my stomach, a worry I’m just chasing illusions.
A young mother with a baby boards the bus after me, sitting a row in front of me.
I hope you don’t mind,she says softly.I just get worried if I’m not sitting near someone.
Don’t worry about it,I tell her, slapping the air dismissively. I look down at her baby, asleep in its carrier.Is it a boy or a girl?
She’s a girl,the mother replied.Elizabeth Grace.
Beautiful,I replied.You’re headed to Helena?
Yes. Home. We were visiting Grandma.You live there?
I shook my head.
I’ve never been. I’m trying to find work.
The woman smiles.
There are quite a few places hiring. I’m sure you’ll find something. It’s a beautiful city.
Her daughter squirms a bit in her sleep, blows a spit bubble. Cooing, she wipes it away and adjusts the fleece blanket wrapped around the infant.
You look like you’ve been traveling for a while,she says.
A few days, yeah,I answer.It hasn’t exactly gone the way I wanted it to.
She releases the smallest of half-smiles.
But isn’t that’s the magic in it?
She turns back around, rifling through a diaper bag, and I lean back against my seat. Her words echo inside me as the bus pulls out onto the road, as North Dakota shrinks away and music from my headphones fills my mind. There’s still a magic in despair, a wonder in potential. The lyrics push me forward, my fingers tracing the edge of her cigarette pack. She’s my crutch now.
We cross into Montana, and in my mind, I applaud. The storm has passed. It’s growing blindingly bright, summer sun in winter, farmers staring out at their frost-covered fields, waiting for the warmth.
After hours, the sky is darkening and we’re growing closer. A church steeple rises in the distance, out of low buildings and bare-boned trees. Helena.Almost there,the mother whispers to her sleeping daughter. She hasn’t cried once on the entire journey.
I lean my head against the window, the cold glass soothing the headache forever pounding under my school. Thinking of Arizona’s dark brown curls, her slate-blue eyes, the color of a galaxy where satellites disappear. If she’s not in Helena, my journey’s not over. But I’m starting to realize that no journey is ever complete. Even if I stayed in Detroit my whole life, I’d still be exploring, still be discovering. I’m a pioneer determined to blaze a trail to a life that sucks a little less.
With a grunt, the bus pulled into the terminal, and it was a relief to stand up, stretch my legs and back. The woman gathered her bags and her baby, went out ahead of me. I handed the bus driver a ten. How much is helping you reach the rest of your life worth?
I got off the bus, taking my first inhales of that big sky they always talk about. And it was big, they weren’t joking. The small gap between the bus and the terminal was a dusky, rich blue, the first stars starting to twinkle. There was never a view like this in Detroit. So many times I begged Erica to come to the Upper Peninsula with me, to stay in a cabin and count the constellations. She always refused. Busy busy busy.
I want to inhale Montana’s fumes, inject it into my veins. It’s that potent, that beautiful, even in small doses. I’m not even out of the bus station yet, and already I’m surveying my new home, a pioneer trying to figure out what would grow best where.
On my way towards the exit, past the newsstand and the ticket windows, I pass a woman sitting on the floor, strumming a guitar. A typical sight in public transportation, the open case in front of her, pocket change and a few bills tossed inside by strangers. It seems normal, until I recognize the way her hair twists, until I catch a glimpse of her eyes. I freeze where I’m walking, nearly causing a man with a luggage cart to collide with me. Quickly, I apologize and turn around, bolting towards the girl, my heart racing.
Her head turns towards me, her face still obscured by her hair, frizzed with travel and fatigue. She’s pale, dark circles under her eyes, but contrary to my fear, she doesn’t run away. Overcome, I collapse to my knees, ignoring the pain, pushing the hair out of her eyes and pleading with any holy being that it’s her.
Arizona,I whisper, seeing her eyes glitter. We haven’t been apart for more than twelve hours but it’s like I hadn’t seen her in years.When the fuck did you learn how to play guitar?
When I was thirteen,she answers.No one said you had to know everything about me.
I exhale, relief and laughter in one.
Jesus Christ,I say.I… I didn’t even know what to think. There was a fucking snowstorm! You could’ve fucking died!
She bites her lip.
There’s something you should know.
What?My heart starts to climb up my throat.
Your… your car was stolen.
The sky comes crashing down inside of me. One of the last things I had to call my own, gone.
I stopped for lunch, and when I came back out it was gone. I had all our stuff, though. Honestly, all that was still in there was the beer.
But they have my fucking CAR, Arizona!I hiss, my face inches from hers. I wanted to shake her. I want to be told it was all a nightmare, really, more than anything.
Look, I reported it to the police, okay? Like every force in Montana is looking for it. Calm down, okay? We both made it here in one piece.
Are you still mad at me?I ask with a hung head.
She places a hand underneath my chin, tilts my face up. We don’t even register the people walking past us.
John, It’s the past. You always knew it was,she says. Chills dart down my spine at the sound of my name, from her lips.That’s why you’re here.
You wanted to make sure I remembered it was in the past too.
I let out a long breath, gazed into her eyes, held her hands across my guitar. We’re young and we’re stupid and we’ve got four bucks in change. But somehow the pioneers made an entire fucking country off of that. Who’s to say we can’t too?
Do you want to look for an apartment?I ask.
She smiles, puts a hand against my cheek, rugged with stubble.
Later,she replies.There’s something I want to show you.
Already it’s pitch-black when we get outside. Seeing her again has made winter disappear, at least in my head. I’m lugging my duffel and my backpack, she has my guitar and her tote bag. We’re tired, weary of the road, but high off finally being here. Here, where no one knows us or what we’ve done or what we didn’t see. Here, where no one cares that I didn’t even realize my girlfriend was planning her own. No one cares that she didn’t know what her father was doing in her own basement. Here, where everything truly is new.
She leads me down the street, towards a gold-domed building. We are in the capital, I keep forgetting. Probably because of the blinking yellow lights and the sleepy sidestreets. Somehow I get the feeling this is all there is for miles. And I don’t mind it, because I have her. I don’t even care where I strand myself, as long as she’s with me. She holds my hand, pulling me along. I’m breathless with the feeling of her fingers against me. We’re too delirious for gloves; I feel mine still bulging in my pockets.
In front of the capital building, there’s a grassy field, completely deserted even though it’s not that late. Late for Montana, perhaps. I don’t even know what time zone we’re in. Gently, Arizona puts down my guitar case and her bag, and with a joyous giggle, collapses onto the dead grass, rolling onto her back with a smile that rivals a celestial body.
You can see so many stars here. Stars that no one else gets to see. I knew you’d like that.
I press my lips together, forcing the tears away, and lie down next to her. The sky sparkles with floods of stars, scattered across the black.
Suddenly, we’re holding hands. I don’t even know what’s happened in the past three days, but highway hypnosis seems like a good way to live, if only for now.
We smoke each other’s cigarettes into the night, not caring if we freeze to death, and perhaps it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced.