I missed the storms. The way dark clouds would roll in. The rattle of the shaky windows in that old house with each boom of thunder. We were happy there, once.
It was unlike me to follow a man west, but I had nothing important I was doing and he was so “promising.” They say women are hired on experience and men are hired on promise, and my boyfriends were no exception. He promised me the moon and the scent of eucalyptus and I went.
Santa Cruz offered redwoods and a pedestrian bridge that let me pretend I was on Endor while he was in his office grading an endless stream of papers. The banana slugs were not as cute and charming in real life as their animated mascot but whomst among us is fabulous without the assistance of a designer.
The easygoing weather lulled me into a false sense of security, not just in my snaps in my breezy sundresses but in my heart. I waited for the rumble to come from the earth instead of the sky. All the while, it slept beside me.
It’s hard to say when the turn happened. All I know is how soundly I used to sleep on those nights when the rain pitter-pattered down on the tin roof of the house we rented with our tiny grad student salaries, how securely his arm curled around me while we both read before bedtime. Now our stucco condo stood silent among a dozen others that looked just like it while I stared into the dark as he slept, curled away from me.
He started being mean in tiny, individually insignificant ways. The way he asked what I was doing today. The way he sighed at every household task. The way he narrowed his eyes into slits at my outfit. Imperceptible at first, they piled up like grains of sand until I was buried under a pile of him checking the grocery receipts to scream over the “expensive” oatmeal or berating me for slow response to a text because where was I.
I melted like a sugar cube in the rain.
I found myself walking without knowing where I was going. More than once, a stranger asked me if I was okay because tears streamed down my face. I was used to East Coasters minding their business. I would emerge from a fog, literal or figurative, in a neighborhood I’d never seen and have to GPS my way back. Occasionally I ended up in front of the same lonely tree, wondering if its branches were pointing me in some direction.
I knew in my bones I had to leave, but where would I go? Our old house was gone, new people living their happiness within its rented walls. That life where I thought something better waited for me was past. There was only the nothingness of now.
Then one day, coming home from the lonely tree I no longer needed a map to return from, our neighbor was loading boxes into his old-timey car. I’d seen glimpses when he would be out in the parking lot waxing it, but he otherwise kept it hidden under a car cover. I felt like I’d been let in on a secret.
“Where are you going?” I asked, unable to help myself.
“Away from here,” he said.
I could have left the mature way. I could have initiated a conversation, heard about all the ways I’d grown tiresome. On the other hand, I could have burned the house down on my way out the door.
I threw my things into one backpack and one duffel bag and joined my neighbor – Coleman – as he headed south in that shined-up car to start a new life in Belize. Or Costa Rica. He hadn’t decided yet and had a long drive to think. The sun spangled in glittering triangles atop the waves as we made our way down the coastal highway.
I knew I’d made a mistake by mid-day, his sidelong glances at me a little too eager, thirsty sips in a desert. But I kept up the conversation in that false gaiety of captive females everywhere until we stopped for lunch.
When it was time to get back on the road, I debated grabbing my bags and making a run for it, a desperate dash for the nearest canyon. Like every unknown man, there was no reason to be afraid of him until there was.
Instead, Coleman saw my hesitation and my hands on my bags. “Should’ve known I could have the company of a pretty lady for only so long,” he said: half kindly, half pity for himself, like it was a country song.
He drove away and left me like that, staring down at the asphalt of the parking lot.
My mind was as empty as an art gallery. I didn’t even know where I was until I looked. I hadn’t left a note before leaving home, only my missing things to announce that I’d left of my own free will.
I could have walked to the ocean and kept walking.
I sat on a parking bumper and scrolled for what seemed like an entire afternoon but only amounted to a bit more than an hour. The hostess of the restaurant who served us must have finished her shift because her shadow fell over me as I looked up into the halo of the sun’s glare.
“Ditched your boyfriend, didja?” she asked.
I had even though not the one she meant so I said “yeah,” my face scrunched up from the sun as much from my own poor decisions.
“I’m Jill,” she said. “You need somewhere to stay?” My mouth hung upon; was everyone in California like this? But she laughed and said, “Relax, it’s a mother-in-law unit and you’re gonna venmo me.”
“Okay.” I picked up my stuff to scurry after her to her little hatchback. “I’m Alona.”
“I see a lot of girls come through with bad boyfriends but you’re the first I’ve seen ditch him without another ride lined up. Pretty bold.”
I wanted to be the rebel she thought I was, accepted a cigarette from her on the ride home even though I didn’t smoke. She had an undercut and a mermaid tattooed on her forearm and she drove a stick. I was still wearing yoga pants because I hadn’t known I was going anywhere today.
“Where you heading, Alona?”
I had to say something but I had no answer, so I said, “Nowhere.”
I wanted to be the storm. I wanted to roll across a plain and uproot everything in my path. I wanted to be the lightning striking a steeple.
I wrenched my rings off my fingers so hard I left bruises. I floated like a cloud as I wandered new unknown streets like an addict in a haze. I wandered in and out of buildings until I realized my eyes were tired of stucco.
I stayed in Jill’s little bungalow for three days. I didn’t even bother to remember what town I was in. I wondered if she was even real or if I’d imagined her, a signpost on my journey that no one else could see.
Whatever she was, she drove me to the world’s tiniest airport on Tuesday, my same two bags still my only constant companions.
No gremlins appeared on the plane’s wings even though we flew above ominous clouds.
The saddest homecoming, slinking back to my parents’ empty house while they were away at the shore, my presence even unnecessary for cat-sitting as they’d bought one of those automated feeders.
I felt like an intruder as I moved through the rooms I’d grown up in. I’d never done anything the least bit interesting, never thrown a house party or snuck a boy up into my room after they were asleep or skimmed liquor from the kitchen to stash in my room. Now I wanted to stage a burglary, to steal my mother’s jewelry to pawn in order to fund a new life somewhere, to smash shit and blame it on faceless ruffians.
I finally turned my phone back on and had forty-three missed calls from him.
I knew that I was supposed to let him win me back, to let the security of the familiar wash over me like a wave. I felt the pull of that undertow of normalcy as I went through and selected a screenful of messages at a time and hit delete.
I wanted to burn everything down, say it had been electrical, sever the last connections to a life it felt like I’d never lived. I would walk out of the ashes an entirely new being.
Outside, the first patters of rain plinked down on the patio.
I sat in darkened rooms as I watched the storm build up outside. When the lights went out, I lit candles.
I had only my phone for company as I scrolled back, back to what I thought then were happier days. The pictures I’d taken of him when we went hiking. The pictures I took of him while he was sleeping and then texted to him with the caption “you fell asleep.” The times I thought he was sleeping and he caught me with a smile in his eyes. The pictures we’d taken of each other on our road trip west, everything full of unfulfilled promise.
I could see now how the shine of love in the pictures I took was like a flash to avoid seeing the shadows, the way lightning flashes briefly lit the corners of the room before letting everything fall back into darkness.
Running away wasn’t enough, would never be enough. I had to break everything I’d ever known.
I walked outside in the rain pelting down, the trees bending at the waist from the wind. The view had been a disappointment ever since the neighbors bulldozed the orchard next door. Now it was the flat, barren expanse of my heart.
I reached up with a trembling hand and wished I could pull clouds from the sky.
I watched the funnel snake down across the empty orchard, reaching down to touch the ground like a hand curved to caress a lover’s cheek, and opened the door behind me to let it in.
Stephanie King has won the Quarterly West Novella Prize and the Lilith Short Fiction Prize, with stories also appearing in CutBank, Entropy, and Hobart. She received her MFA from Bennington and serves on the board of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. Find her on Mastodon Social here.
Brian C. Moss is an artist, photographer, and teacher. Moss uses various media including collage, computers, drawings, installation, language, photography, and sculpture. His projects ask viewers to question the ways that perception and visual media structure and interrelate all facets of physical and emotional experience. Moss’ varied and wide-ranging practice includes documentary photography, multi-media installations, public art, and collaborative community-based art projects. His work has been widely exhibited across the United States, and he has received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, Rockefeller Foundation, Durfee Foundation, among others.