beautiful mud

this story was written (and still is) for ap. hopefully she can forgive me for making her wait for years before i got around to putting it up somewhere where she could get to it. there was a good reason for that, though: i had to wait for a day when it was raining. —sm

 

south africa 2008. this is a full storm system here, you can see rain falling at one part of it.

 

 

We fly down the highway, two merry angels of motion. It’s sixty-five degrees outside and raining dread sheets of water onto the windshield. We feel as though we are driving through a waterfall that will not let up its bucket shower. Modest Mouse is playing in the radio and, just as in the songs we listen to silently, there’s So Much Beauty in Dirt and Gravity Rides Everything today, hitching a ride along with us in the backseat. You slow down our death-defying driving, seeing lights wavering in the distance, and I laugh at you. You’re still wearing your bug-eyed sunglasses on the top of your head from earlier. The glasses seem to be from an alternate world, a sunshine one opposite to our current aquatic state.

We haven’t decided where we’re going yet; I’ve tossed the map into the back with our half-full duffle bags and jam-packed purses. So far the directions to choose from on this road are straight and forward. Nothing is narrow about it, though, or our minds.

You say we could be on the road to redemption.

I say maybe. Maybe it’s the road to Hell.

You don’t believe in Hell, you point out, but I remind you there’s a town in Kansas called Hell. People like to send their tax returns from there. I think they should replace the ‘jail’ square on monopoly boards with ‘hell’. That way it would say “Go directly to Hell. Do not pass ‘Go’. Do not collect two hundred dollars.” We agree that this would be a lot more poignant, but you think that it might cause more children to become drug addicts at an early age. Whatever, might as well try it –––Monopoly says I’m going to Hell anyway.

The windows and mirrors keep fogging up; you play with the air but it doesn’t work and we have to pull the SUV over to the side of the road so we can wipe them clear with old napkins from fast food restaurants we can’t remember eating at. When we finish, we throw the crumpled napkins on the floor in the back with the rest of our garbage, reminders of the past several miles, and vow to grab a plastic bag at our next stop to clean up. We pull back onto the highway and speed back up, opening our windows a crack so we can smell the damp cedar of the rain in the passing groves. It reminds me of high school, standing under the marquee, waiting for my parents to come get me. On those rainy days the school had been barren; sometimes I would wait for hours for my parents to arrive, and all I could do was hang close to the comforting brick arms of the building and watch flood waters break the street.

We’ve decided on new names for ourselves. You’ve become Natalia, Spanish sun goddess, deep-breathing and full of life. You’re an odd mix-breed of sunflower, part Hispanic Princess, part Nouveau Socialite Queen. I’m Guinevere, cold weather sprite and lightning connoisseur, part time crash-test dummy. You’re a sunflower and I’m hosta. We both often get depressed. Maybe it’s because of the way we were raised, both daughters of distraught parents, genetically cursed. I was never very good at gardening.

The rain’s let up by half, so now it’s just a normal shower, and we can see the white-gray color of the sky. You think it looks like marble with its angry, thundercloud veins throbbing. I’d agree except for the pillow effect; they are still clouds. Clouds in anger are like cats in heat; the claws are hidden until that last moment.

I try to clean up some; I’m getting stiff in my seat and you’re tired of driving, but it’s still raining and there’s nowhere to stop and switch and stretch. The dashboard is already clean, just a little dusty, and there’s condensation on the vents. I turn the heat up to watch the droplets evaporate. When I worked as a waitress, I would place ice cubes under the heat lamps on the line, partly to see the ice dissolve and disappear, partly to annoy the cooks. It had been a job with unfriendly hours, but the cooks and the other employees made up for it by good-naturedly tolerating my idle amusements and pranks.

Passing time here is different though. Every thought is a philosophy not taken seriously. I pick up the crumbled papers from under my flip-flops and shove them in the back; I’m sitting barefoot with my feet under me. You don’t signal to change lanes, but that’s okay because we haven’t seen any other cars in the past several minutes.

I ask you if you think its possible that we could be driving over the edge of the world.

You say yes, but wouldn’t there be signs for it?

We’re not running away. You say we’re running to, but to what we haven’t decided yet. We tried pointing to random spots on one of the maps, but we were using a world map and there aren’t exactly any direct roads to Lima, Peru. Plus, our tires would probably need more air to do the water parts.

But we are in a sense running away, I argue. We’re running away from all the little bits. All the pens and pencils, all of the dust motes, all of the soggy newspapers and burnt cups of coffee.

All of the drama, you add.

We can agree fully on that one. There is far less drama between two than among multitudes. The complaining, the confrontations, the conflicts all superimposed upon us by the outside world were eating us up; rotting away our innards until we realized that if we didn’t do something soon, all that would be left would be sullen husks, fragmented shells of who we once were. We tried first to rectify it with coffee, meeting first monthly, then weekly, drinking in our sorrows and joy with tea and cappuccinos. I would read tarot cards, you would flip through my oracle book for answers, and we both almost always ordered the same type of cookie – white chocolate pecan.

But after a while we agreed that that wasn’t working quite right. There were still holes in our lives, still moments that were either unaccounted for or inaccurately recalled. So we started going for walks after coffee. We would walk through the park, matching our pace to our conversation, and sit on the stone step feet of the giant horse statue. We tried to fix things, or at least tried to comfort. But even the safe seat on our steps was ruptured when one of the parks local degenerates decided in his lunacy to harass us and follow us in stumbling, stalker style out of the park. For weeks afterward I looked over my shoulder, certain I would find his carrot colored hair bobbing above shoulders in a crowd. You weren’t so shaken. Or if you were, at least you didn’t show it.

I was at another doctor’s appointment yesterday, trying to figure out if there was some way I was dying young without realizing it. People who consciously have shorter life spans tend to live fuller lives. They tend to try to finish their novels. I didn’t like the doctor very much, and I told you that later when we got a cup of tea in our usual shop. He was funny, but condescending. I felt as though I was five years old again and could do nothing right. Of course, I wasn’t dying, only getting my sinuses checked out because I have chronic sinus infections. I don’t think I ever asked you if you have chronic sinus infections. Wouldn’t that be ironic? It would be ironic like the fact that we both have dark hair or could both be Greek princesses if we were Greek. Ironic like the way we both look at the world in similar ways.

When we went for tea yesterday, I told you about the doctor. He wore a bow tie, I said, and slicked his hair back like a ringmaster from a circus. He was balding, but the hair he did have was long. How can anyone in his office take him seriously with hair like that and a bow tie?

I don’t know, you said. Maybe it’s just his style. Or maybe he gets dressed too early in the morning, before the sun’s come up.

I said if I was dying I would probably have finished my story right now. It could be published. We could have a couple extra thousand in our pockets, could pay off our bills, and get the really expensive teas and coffees at the bottom of the menu.

But you pointed out I couldn’t die of a sinus infection. It would have to be a truly horrible infection, one that ripped my face apart and would force me to have plastic surgery. But even then I might not die and my health insurance might not cover it. We laughed because we knew the whole thing was ridiculous and we knew I wouldn’t write until it rained again. Neither of us would feel right until it stormed. It had been a heat wave up until today. The land had been as dry as toast, the air soggy with humidity. We could barely see in the afternoon light; the glare was so strong off windshields I was sure cars would soon start bursting into flame.

Screw it, you told me. Let’s go.

Okay, I said. Where?

Doesn’t matter. You said it was time we finally got started with our lives, stop hiding in the wings. Stop waiting for some sign to tell us to start living, and to give up all the baggage we had been toting to and from classes. We could be unconventional. We got into your fading SUV, with its dirty windshield and dust exfoliated exterior and that’s when it started to rain.

Now we’re fleeing down the highway and the gas tank is nearing empty, so we take the next turn off to fill up. We both get out of the car, me still barefoot and you smiling at the rain dribbling off the edge of the gas station’s roof. The pavement is warm under my feet. I stand at its edge, tempting the wind and the rain while you pump gas. I think I’m standing on the edge of the world, and all that’s past the edge is more mud and rocks with small spikes of grass poking up through the earthy mixture.

You bum twenty bucks off me for gas and I spend a little extra on chips and sodas. It’s all the same, anyway. We’re going to the same place even if we’re not sure where that destination is. We use the bathroom and you threaten to make me wear sunglasses with you for the rest of eternity. It’s not much of a threat, as far as threats go. I wipe my feet clean and put on my shoes and we switch drivers.

We get back onto the highway and now we are once more the merry angels of motion, going down the highway at speeds that should not be tested in the rain. The rain has found its full force once more, so we have to be careful even though we’re moving along. You read what I’ve written and sometimes you laugh. I tell you I hope that’s a good sign and you say it is. The outside world has become increasingly indistinct until the colors are swirling around into each other in the rain like a Van Gogh picture. Only the verdant shades of the trees and plants along the highway are clear, but those greens are crisp against the gray world. Lightning flashes for the first time in the distance, a tri-fingered claw on the horizon, but we are safe in our metal case. Cars are the safest places to be in storms. The lightning illuminates the sky again, lighting the underbellies of the clouds.

We think we can see heaven and decide to change direction.