Downstream in Highland Park
My mother’s eyes glistened wetly at us for months after Benny came to Chattanooga. Winter is cold and wet in Tennessee, without the pleasure of snow. It came early that year, cutting fall short just after we unpacked Benny’s things and slid his piano into its new place, under the northwest window in the back room. After Christmas it began to rain. It wouldn’t stop falling. Our house is in a neighborhood called Highland Park, built a hundred years ago so it would be out of reach of the Tennessee River’s then-regular floods. Still, we found ourselves with a basement full of five feet of water. The hot water heater, ironically enough, drowned. That wet look from my mother slowly seems to fill up our lives the same way. We weren’t sure what the casualties might be.
The weekly family dinners I had hoped for seemed to wash out, as did the words between us. I began to speak defensively, an octave higher, like I did as a child. I felt myself cracking and slipping, the way I worried the dirt walls of the basement would but never did. I started to feel myself fill up with my own damp feelings. All my old insecurities began to leak, that only child need to please and perfect. Benny could do all kinds of work. He rebuilt the ball joint of our old, battered truck with a set of borrowed wrenches. He sifted through our compost, plucking out the seeds of jalapenos, butternut squash, apples, turmeric, and ginger, to plant in pots he carefully arranged in the back bathtub of our house. He helped friends and neighbors with their brakes, with cracked ceilings, by hand-building raised garden beds. But he did not have the tools or materials or skill to stop me up. These gaps existed before him, these old questions of what kind of woman to be.
Over the summer, the night before a family trip to the beach, I cracked. The tears leaked. I felt myself finally break and the feelings roil and eddy in me, and no one was out of reach, in Highland Park or otherwise. I caused a scene and retreated home. My father came to check on me, and I told him about my mother’s moist eyes and floating face, the flooded lines of communication.
“I don’t think she’ll be happy for us when we get engaged,” I tell him.
Or was it if. If we get engaged.
Even then, I was letting information slip across the dam between us in small enough amounts that it wouldn’t sweep everyone away. I held back the happiness we felt as if it were a destructive thing. Perhaps we sandbagged my mother’s feelings, never giving her the opportunity let loose all those fears she carried in her throat and eyes for months. Maybe I thought I would wash away under the weight of them. Perhaps she was drowning.
A week before I met Benny, I took a trip to Los Angeles for the first time. One night, I drove from the Pacific Coast down Sunset to Echo Park, the fog chasing me the whole way. And that felt like a metaphor for my experience in LA, chased by a grim fog of everything that had happened up to that point. Another night, I waded into the Pacific near Venice Beach with all my clothes on, under the light of the moon. I felt torn between the desire to go out further into that warm and rippling water and the knowledge that if I did I wasn’t certain to come back. I felt the weight of the tide tug at my legs, and it was a peaceful kind of terror. That was when I knew I needed to choose the things I did not think I could have. That was when I knew it was not only alright, but necessary, to admit my own thirst.
There were many things I wanted. To travel. To write. To screw. I had been alone for two years, working hard, so hard, to be the kind of woman who did not mind being alone. I put in my hours in the nice office with the marble floors and paid for the things I needed, but I had neglected nearly everything beyond the border of necessity. I wanted to read books and hold cats and pierce my nose. I wanted to see Egypt, to write essays, to drink dry wine, to feel again the exquisite blend of emotion brought on by certain songs listened to on certain nights in bed. I wanted to feel hands on my body that would pull at me like the centrifugal force that hugs and hums when your truck hits a hard mountain curve at high speeds. It was no longer sustainable to go along with what was expected. I had run dry on the pursuit of the good title on the resume, the big name in town, the expensive four-inch-heels, the promise I would be a bridesmaid in a relative’s wedding, the occasional hour massage.
And then, when I knew nothing more than the fresh sensation of my own honest want, I met Benny, who promised me nothing more than peace of mind. Over pizza and whiskey we talked about the Mayan ruins he had seen rising out of the jungles of southern Mexico, the things he had built with his hands, the terrestrial secrets of nighttime in the Colorado back country. For the first time, instead of waiting for the levee to break once again, for the waters to rise up to my neck and pull me further from shore, instead of being pushed and pulled by the moon and my own saturated body, I felt my toes drag against solid ground. There was grit there, and solidity.
A month later, we were backpacking in a place viscerally named Fiery Gizzard when I fell off a cliff on our way back to camp. I felt the pull not of an eager, questioning tide, but the brute force of gravity, and the texture of rock and roots and a rain of gravel. I felt my bone work against the earth, and I felt his hands catch me. He pulled me back up to the trail, now a story up from where I’d landed. He walked me down to the creek at the bottom of the gorge and plunged my swelling arm into that cold, crackling mountain water, even as our feet stayed on the shore.
Nine months after the basement flooded, we still didn’t have hot water. We could have replaced the heater if we’d forgone a few adventures, but we wanted to explore together, to learn about one another by learning new streets and alleys, by driving unfamiliar back roads in rented cars. We rolled in to New Orleans at midnight chased by swamp fog fumbling into the city off the bayous. We pulled up to a neighborhood dive with strong Sazeracs and a big brass funk band, and we wandered along the levees for nearly a week. On our way out of town we drove through the Ninth Ward and looked at what all that water had done, and what was left ten years later. Benny climbed through an abandoned house still standing, and there were all the old toys and relics of some other life laid out exactly where they’d been left.
We drove through what was once slave country to Texas and stopped on the side of the road to touch the broken stalks of sugarcane fields. We camped on the edge of Toledo Bend on the border between Louisiana and Texas and tried to catch fish. In Dallas, the Trinity River was wet and glistening under the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and Woodall Rodgers Freeway span, engorged from storm cells we dodged as we drove west and north. Everywhere we went, the water was safely contained behind concrete walls and dredged channels, in appropriate quantities, in appropriate places. A muted threat, a necessary reservoir.
Benny and I like to play a game called Where to Live in the Anthropocene. We look at projections of temperature and sea level rises, shifts in weather patterns, property values, the laws on the books about living off grid. We are trying to decide where we should settle down. We discuss this more than any other aspect of the future, more than our wedding colors or the names of our hypothetical children. We know these things may or may not happen, will take forms that are dependent on factors we can’t study. We focus on the future we can forecast. After knocking back a few beers and examining topographical maps, reading think pieces, pursuing scientific studies, we make a list of places where we could buy land and fill it with dogs, goats, aging relatives, possible babies. These places promise somewhere to grow old; they give us a shape to pour our dreams into. The specifics of geography matter little except in what they convey; geography has become the language through which we learn about one another.
Thirty thousand feet above West Texas, small towns that look like constellations, with long straight roads lined in lights that end in a dipper of clustered buildings and indoor running water. Flying over the mountains between lush costal California and the desert, on the way home from a trip to Hawaii and San Diego, I think about sharp divides. I think about the ones you can see and the ones you can’t.
We hop over the Mississippi at dusk between San Antonio and Atlanta, so quick for something so large, and from above you can see all the mud in the water, and suddenly the land is lush and green and winding, without the logic to it of those desert star towns and geometric roads. Benny touches my arm and points out the window at what must be rural Alabama.
“It’s beautiful,” he says, trying to guess what I’m thinking.
“No, it’s not.” I tell him.
I’ve been silently crying off and on since our flight left San Diego.
Down below, in all that verdant disorder and winding water and streaked roads, I don’t see an oasis. I see an impressionistic painting of a messy history. I cry because this is the place where just a couple weeks ago Benny couldn’t buy a bottle of soda without the clerk at the gas station leading him to the kitchen aisle and called him “Espan-cholo” in a mock Mexican accent. I cry because when we travel I don’t have to worry about finding myself startled-deer-still by some all-too-familiar face. I cry over a bad few years, as if returning to this place means returning to that time, waiting for something to wash me away.
We make plans. A few weeks ago the parishes around Baton Rouge flooded for the first time in hundreds of years. Cedar Rapids is verging on a sequel to the five-hundred-year flood of 2008. Here, our garden is dry. We water it every day from the garden hose. My mother’s eyes are slowly draining, as she sees that our work has never stopped, that this new era abides. September is as steadily hot and sunny as last year’s October was cold and searing. The weather is tidal, as is calamity. You can know a place intimately, as intimately as the topography of your own body, and it can be rendered unrecognizable by even the faintest shimmer of water covering the land. You can try to study where the glacier will slide and when it will melt, but in the end it is wiser to count on the flood than to rely on the levee. There are no safe places to pick. What heals may also hurt. Our tongues work the phrase “Lord willing, and the creek don’t rise.” We learn to float, to read the level of the water and the weight of the clouds. We learn to practice the art of thirst.