Inside the airport, Trina sat in a white rocking chair that had been set up on the side of the ramp, looking out at the tarmac, a coffee in one hand, a Danish with bright red jam and stripes of white icing in the other, her carry-on bag at her feet. Behind her was the hubbub of the terminal, arrivals and departures, announcements calling out flight numbers, transport carts carrying the elderly here and there, a young man wearing a slick blue suit and a pilot’s hat trying to convince passersby to sign up for a special program. A credit card? A travel club? Something. He had not accosted Trina, yet.
She wished she had not had her sister, Penny, drop her off at the airport so early. She still had an hour to kill before her flight to Albuquerque began boarding. The Danish and coffee made a bitter knot in her stomach, and she couldn’t concentrate on the novel she had brought with her, a recommendation from her English teacher at the community college, where she was taking classes toward a distant degree in human services. People had always told her she was a good listener, that she was good at helping other people deal with their problems— but she suspected that that was just because she was quiet, not because she had any special skills. Junot Diaz was the name of the novel’s author, and he wrote in long complicated sentences that made her tired. For the past few years, reading had seemed an absurd and difficult activity, though she had loved to read all her life. Reading had partially defined her. Fiction and nonfiction. Research, new things, new lives. She was always at it. Her daughter and her husband had made fun of her, laughed at how she always had to have a book with her no matter where she went. She had to tote a book with her to the beach, or to family functions, and it wasn’t always, or even usually, a breezy beach read. She had done a lot of research on the Bible and was in the process of learning both ancient Greek and Aramaic so she could read the New Testament in its original, especially the words in red. Until she did that, she knew she would never understand it properly. The words had been funneled through so many different minds before they had come down to her that they had lost some of their meaning. Still, at the moment, she could not read at all, could barely think, was distracted by all that had come to pass in the three years since Davis had died.
At first, it had been hard to accept that Davis was dead, because he had been such a strong man. That was the first thing that had impressed Trina about him. Davis was six foot three, more solid than muscular, confident and brash, and only a little bigoted, which was a miracle, considering where he had grown up. A grown man who still had a little boy inside him, a boy who had been raised in a small town in South Jersey, the pinelands, where, as a newly married couple, they had bought their first home, which turned out to be their only home. Davis had been simple and solid, like his name, and members of Trina’s family—her cousins, her aunt, even her own mother—still did not understand why she had married him. He had been different from her three previous suitors, who had all been college boys, intelligent and ambitious. Two black, one white. She followed them all on social media now and was not jealous at the outsized lives they had carved out for themselves, the large houses and not quite as large second homes, the wives and the second wives. Davis was, or had been, smart enough, though he had never felt any need to prove it, and he was not ambitious at all. He had simply wanted to give her a good life, to provide for her. He was a solid family man—at least she had always thought so. A cross-country trucker who was gone for three or four months out of every year, sometimes more, he earned enough to keep them happy. They didn’t need all that much.
She tried not to remember the day when she got the phone call, but of course, with nothing to do in the airport, she did. That day came to her mind whenever she gave it an idle moment. She wished she could read the novel, get lost in the life of the main character, a boy in a Dominican-American family who loves comic books, but all she could do was relive these painful memories. Davis had been gone for three weeks at that time, on the West Coast. She was used to these periods of life without Davis, had made peace with them, had even come to enjoy them, if she were being honest. She didn’t long for him to leave when he was home—she loved him and, even after all those years, loved spending time with him—but when he left, she settled inside herself in a different way, was truly able to be comfortable. She wondered if everyone was like that, more truly themselves when alone. Some people never got to find out.
She’d been drinking coffee by the back window, looking out across their backyard toward the pinelands. Theirs was a perfectly maintained lawn—they had men come in, a team who tore through the yard in fifteen minutes, riding their lawnmowers, two with weedwhackers, calling out to each other, always busy busy. At the far corner of the lawn was the hummingbird feeder. She had tried to hang it closer to the house, but the hummingbirds never arrived unless she set it up far from the window, so she kept binoculars at the table. Often, long-legged, skittish deer stepped out of the woods onto the lawn. The neighbors hated deer because they ravaged their gardens, but Trina grew only flowers, and the animals were a strange revelation every time she saw them. She suspected they housed the souls of children who had died too soon. She wasn’t sure where she got that idea, from some book on Native American folklore perhaps, but their eyes made her think that. Even fully grown adult deer looked like children to her.
She had been daydreaming. It was early September, the weather crystalline, and she happened to be thinking about Davis when the phone sounded. Sometimes—less often than at the beginning, but still occasionally—she felt a pang of longing for her husband when he was away. Davis did not like to talk on the phone, and when he was away on his cross-country trips, he was utterly away. Rarely, he posted pictures on his Facebook page, and that was the only way she knew what was happening with him, aside from his texts telling her where he was: Utah, Colorado, California. She wanted to talk to him, and when the phone sounded, she wondered if it was him, if he had read her mind from across the country—it had happened before—but the number was unknown, from Idaho. Normally she would have ignored the call, but some horrible premonition made her answer.
Now she could no longer reconstruct that conversation. Parts of it remained indelible in her mind, while other parts slipped like water through her fingers. The voice on the other end belonged to a woman, a police officer. The officer made her voice deeper than it would have been naturally, to give it an air of authority, but there were edges to it, softness that crept out at moments in the conversation, as if she knew what it was like to both bear and to lose life. Davis had been driving ninety miles an hour down a freeway in southern Idaho when he drove off the road; they weren’t sure why. Mechanical malfunction? An animal darting into the road? Maybe, considering that the crash had occurred at four o’clock in the morning, he had fallen asleep at the wheel. He had been killed instantly, and his body had been airlifted from the crash site. Trina imagined it all in excruciating detail: a freeway in the high desert, a line of cars backed up waiting for the crash to be cleared as the sun rose in the east, a helicopter swooping in, Davis’s big body laid out on a stretcher.
“That can’t be true,” she said, knowing as she said it that it was true. “No, that can’t be Davis.”
“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” the voice on the other end said.
After that call, Trina had sat at the kitchen table, her coffee going cold, and watched the yard for hours. Casey was at school, in seventh grade, and Trina was aware that she had to get up and prepare, somehow, to meet her daughter and inform her about what had happened to her father, that she had to find a way to hold Casey’s rage and sorrow when she couldn’t begin to hold her own. And yes, deer had come out of the pinelands. Two, three, seven, she couldn’t remember how many, but she could remember the horns of one young buck. The horns were covered in velvet and his eyes were wild, open, and innocent. She smiled at the deer, and stood as if to greet him, but as soon as she stood, they scattered, bounding back into the woods.
At the airport, she picked at the Danish, getting her hands sticky with icing. In her daily life Trina was fastidious, but vacations— if that’s what this was— made her come loose from herself a bit. She felt no need to be who she usually was, no need to maintain, and she lifted the Danish to her mouth and slurped at the thick red jam inside, not caring when a small blob fell onto her blouse. She dabbed at it with her napkin and looked through the wall of glass at the airplanes. Many of them were Southwest, brightly colored, blue, orange, and red. There was one Alaska Airlines plane with the gigantic face of an indigenous man covering the back fin. There were men, and a couple women, working on the tarmac, two men loading suitcases onto a ramp, another man inside the plane collecting the baggage and chucking it inside the storage cabin. It was a bizarre world, a world in which so many people took to the air, going so many different places. It was overwhelming. So many, many people, and each one of them could be holding a secret away from everyone they loved. She wondered about the worker grabbing a blue suitcase from the transport car. He had a beard that did not grow in fully around his mouth. His hair was thinning. He looked like a man who liked to laugh and drink, to smoke a cigar now and then. Did he have a family? Had he ever betrayed them? It was best not to think about those things, not to wonder about anything or anyone.
The coffee was cold now, but Trina needed the caffeine, a headache hovering on the horizon. She drank the dregs quickly, wincing against the bitterness. A man in the next white rocking chair was lounging back, wearing a neck pillow, dozing, his bare feet on his duffel bag as if he were on a sandy beach. She couldn’t help but glance down at those bare feet. They were ugly, still bearing the impressions of socks. Although she let herself come loose a bit when she traveled, she couldn’t imagine the kind of temerity required to remove one’s shoes in a public place. It was something only a certain kind of man, almost always white, could get away with. She knew that it was something Davis would have done, too. He would have settled into the white rocking chair as if it were meant just for him. What does it matter, he would have told her. Who cares what other people think? And, in a way, she knew, he was right.
She was lucky to find a seat by the window in the midsection of the plane, where the leg room was more capacious. She didn’t even care when a large man wearing a dark blue suit settled into the seat next to her. As he took off his suit coat and loosened his red tie, she thought about the man with his bare feet in the terminal. These men were so comfortable taking up space, whereas she found herself making herself smaller in almost every situation, accommodating herself to others. She wished they were less oblivious, and she were more free.
Davis had been a hog in bed. He sprawled out, sometimes hitting her with his thick slab of an arm when he turned over. And the snoring! She did not miss his snoring when he was away on his cross-country trips, was finally able to get a good night’s sleep, though, strangely, she missed the snoring now that he was gone, and she would never hear it again. Sometimes the things we hate most linger longest. She would wake in the middle of the night thinking she heard the start of a deep adenoidal rattling, wishing she heard it. She used to hit him on the side, slap him, yell at him to roll over—it was like slapping the body of a beached whale—and he would murmur weak apologies in his sleep. Sometimes, now, she would hear Casey snoring from her room. It was not as robust a snore as her father, but Trina worried. It would get worse as she got older and might cause problems in her romantic life. But why was she worrying about her daughter’s “romantic life,” at this stage?
She worried all the time about Casey, who was going through what she hoped was a phase. She claimed she was “body positive,” which apparently meant she was proud to be fat. She wasn’t fat fat, but she was certainly on her way. The way she was eating, it wouldn’t be long before she was obese. In a way, the weight was a relief to Trina, who had some bulk herself, as if the extra layer would protect her daughter from the predations of horrible men, who were everywhere one looked. She knew nothing could truly hold those men back—not the way one looked, not the one way one acted, not the way one dressed—but at least her daughter wasn’t traditionally beautiful, traditionally desirable. At least men’s eyes mostly passed her over, at least for now. It was horrible that she had to think about these things, but she wasn’t going to pretend that they didn’t exist.
Casey had also recently informed Trina that she identified as “Black,” (“Like, Black Black,” she had said), even though she was only fractionally African American and looked more Italian than anything. Trina got it, she did. She’d had her own “black is beautiful” phase, back in her first failed attempt at college, but it had never fit right on her, and she doubted it would fit Casey, either, because Casey, whether she liked it or not, was very much Trina’s daughter. It was best to let her discover these things on her own. The most difficult part of being a parent was letting go. And now that Trina had become that thing she had always hoped to avoid becoming, a single mother, the weight of responsibility rested entirely on her. She had to help her daughter navigate this fraught world entirely alone. Not that Davis would have, or could have, helped anyway. A straight white man could never understand the challenges of a young woman of color in America today.
The man next to her huffed as he disentangled the seatbelt from beneath him. His arms, now that he’d rolled up his sleeves, were hairy and thick, bearing an ostentatious watch with a braided gold band. Was there anything more useless than a watch in this day and age? Davis had never worn a watch a day in his life. He didn’t care about the time—not when he wasn’t on the road. On the road he had to calculate how long it would take to get from this state to that, how many miles he could eat up in how many minutes—his pay depended on it—so when he was home, he let go of time altogether. He would sleep late. He would be awake in the middle of the night watching sports highlights. He would break apart the careful schedule of the household in the most perfect way. She knew that she kept too rigidly to her schedule, and he helped to loosen things up. When Davis was around, they would drink outside on the lawn at two a.m. with neighbors. Sometimes he would wake up at five, before first light, to go fishing. Sometimes he would nap at six in the evening.
Now the life of the house was too regimented. Trina got up at the same time each morning, Casey got up at the same time each morning. Casey had her activities after school, softball on Wednesdays and Fridays, anime club on Thursdays. Church on Sunday. When Trina went to the community college, two evenings a week, her sister Penny would come over. At first, she had “babysat” Casey, but now she came over to “hang out.” Trina was jealous of the relationship her sister had built with her daughter, a relationship that was impossible between a mother and a daughter, who could never “hang out.” Trina’s education had already been a long haul. She had been at it for years, taking a class or two each semester at the community college. She was nearing the end of that road and was scared to think what would happen next. She wasn’t sure she wanted a degree or to move on to a new career. The prospect frightened her. But Davis had left her with more debt than savings, and she had to do something. They were still paying off his rig. She could survive on what she made at the clinic for another few months, but after that….
She wouldn’t allow herself to think about where she was going, but she couldn’t stop thinking about it. It seemed old-fashioned, almost quaint, that she had received a letter in the mail, and that letter had thrown her life into turmoil. It was like something that happened in old novels, but now that it was happening to her: frightening. The death of Davis had been more difficult than anything she had ever been through, but death was not unexpected. It always came as a surprise, and it was always traumatic, but it was also a part of the natural progression of life. Everyone loses someone at some time. But the letter, and the photographs included with the letter, was of a different order. The letter was tucked inside her bag now, nestled between a sandwich she’d bought at the newsstand and the novel she wished she was able to read. She checked to make sure that the letter was safe, as if it were not the most hateful thing in her life, but she refused to pluck it from the bag, refused to read the words written in a neat but hurried hand or to look at the photographs again. The photographs were imprinted in her mind anyway. She saw them even when she didn’t want to see them.
An old woman in flowing pants decorated with bright, bold flowers settled beside the man. She wore a light breezy scarf around her neck. They all looked briefly at each other, smiled the noncommittal smiles of traveling companions, the woman’s face breaking into a million wrinkles. For the next few hours, we will have to bear each other’s existence, smell each other’s food, avoid each other’s elbows, deal. She hoped no one would talk, but when the man and the woman struck up a friendly discussion about where they were going and who they were going to see, she felt jealous of their easy rapport and wished she had turned to the man first and engaged him in conversation. He was, no surprise, traveling on business. His company had something to do with genetic engineering, or genetically modified foods, she could barely follow him. The woman was returning to her home in New Mexico after visiting a daughter who had moved east for college and never returned, which struck the woman as absurd. Why would someone choose the crowded East Coast over the empty, expansive Southwest? They talked about the relative merits of the East Coast and the Southwest for a while, then talked about their families. Trina looked out the window as the plane started to taxi.
To her relief, the man and the woman put an end to their conversation as soon as they took off, the man settling noise-canceling headphones over his ears and closing his eyes, arranging himself on the seat so his bulk pressed against her for a few seconds and made her think of Davis. She had always admired that about her husband, when it hadn’t infuriated her: his comfort with his own outsized body. His ability to be himself, wherever he happened to be. So many people were intent on trying to be someone else, to fit in or to find something better than they already had. Some people didn’t have any idea who they were at all.
She leaned back in the seat and was surprised when, a few hours later, she woke up, climbing out of a dream involving dogs. She had been bitten by a dog when she was five years old, a family basset hound named Milo. She had been playing with Milo’s bone in his dish, and he had gone for her face, almost taking her eye. She didn’t think about dogs at all, when she could avoid it, though nearly everyone in their neighborhood owned one. They were always walking their dogs, and the dogs were always barking at her from behind fences when she took her walks. In the dream she had owned three Great Danes, two black and one spotted black and white, and she had walked them with a sense of pride.
Casey was always nagging her to get a dog, and, following Davis’s death, she had almost caved to the pressure. It had been difficult at first to recalibrate the household, to figure out how they were going to live without him, just the two of them. Why not get a dog? If it would help Casey climb out of her depression, why not? Wasn’t it selfish to keep that quintessential middle-class experience, dog ownership, from her daughter? In the end Trina had pulled herself back from the brink, had let Casey get a guinea pig instead. Mowat was a fat little rodent she kept in a cage in her room. It was not Trina’s favorite thing in the house, but at least she didn’t have to deal with it. Casey was good about keeping its cage clean. She would take it out, put it on her bed and let it crawl all over. It made funny noises and looked drunk all the time, and Trina had to admit that its presence in the house had become a small comfort to her.
Sleepily, she leaned her head against the window and looked out at the cloudscape below them. She could see the shadow of the plane gliding beneath them, another, shadow airplane running parallel to this one. It was all so beautiful, the convolutions of the clouds complex and multidimensional. The man beside her snored, more quietly than Davis would, but steadily, and she realized that maybe the sound of the snoring was what had lulled her to sleep. She didn’t normally like falling asleep during the day; napping threw her rhythm off. She would be grumpy for the rest of the day, but she figured the flight would make her grumpy anyway. And the nap had staved off her headache. She almost wanted the trip to be over already, almost wished she hadn’t bought the plane ticket at all. What was she expecting to gain from the trip anyway?
She was well aware that she was a woman of regular ways, rules, limits and limitations. She was too much to herself, too inside all the time. Maybe it was finally time to break out of all that. Maybe this trip would help her do that. Or maybe it was too late for that. Maybe she was who she was, and maybe she would never be anyone else.
Finally, she picked up the novel and powered through a page or two mechanically before allowing herself to fall fully into the world of Oscar Wao.
Albuquerque Airport was exactly as she had imagined it, the entire place decorated with a Southwestern palette: teals and yellows and oranges on walls that were meant to resemble adobe. Everything felt fake but in a rich way, a different way than the plastic and concrete world of the East, so new to Trina it felt almost real. She waited for her baggage with the other passengers, the businessman and the old woman who had sat next to her on the plane now standing across the belt from her, lost in conversation again. How did people do that, Trina wondered? How did two strangers have so much to talk about? She had never been able to talk to someone so easily; all she could do was listen. Now she felt more isolated than usual. She had a few friends back in South Jersey, along with her sister, but she almost never found herself going beyond the surface with anyone else, had never really communicated, soul to soul, with anyone but Davis. He was the only one who had ever truly known her.
Every semester she would meet fellow students at the community college, and sometimes they would grow friendly with each other, but after the semester, they would go their separate ways and never speak again, maybe nodding in greeting when they passed each other on campus. All except Linda, who had become something of a study partner and, more, a bona fide friend. They met regularly for coffee before going to classes. Sometimes they signed up for the same section so they could help each other get through the semester. She wasn’t sure she would have ever passed the math requirements without Linda’s assistance, and she had helped Linda with her English. Linda was about the same age as Trina, but they had been raised in very different ways. Linda was Puerto Rican, had grown up on the island until she was ten. Like Trina, she had married a white man, but her husband was a biker. He wore a leather jacket and black T-shirts all the time, had an elaborate mustache and innumerable tattoos. He looked dangerous but was, according to all of Linda’s stories, the biggest pussycat in the world.
The Hispanics in the airport were likely not Puerto Rican, but they made Trina think of Linda anyway. Most of the people in the airport were probably Mexican, or the descendants of the Mexicans who had inhabited the land before New Mexico had become part of the United States, when it was still Old Mexico. Maybe they were Aztecs or other indigenous peoples. Mestizos, at least. All she knew was that the composition of people was different here than in South Jersey—which was not all white, not by any stretch of the imagination, but which was heavily segregated, people of color congregating in certain towns or certain areas of town. She felt guilty and silly, fumbling along in her ignorance. Best not to wonder about other people. Best to just let them be.
She got the keys to her rental car from a kind-looking older gentleman with a large birthmark covering most of his neck, then walked out into the sere Southwestern air. It was hotter and drier than she had expected, as if the air itself were different here, as if people here breathed a different atmosphere. She wondered what effect that different air had on them. She felt so dumb, so inexperienced, so green, even at her age. She had seen photographs of the Southwest, of course, but being inside it, walking through it, felt different than she had expected. She felt like she was on the moon as she found her rental car—a small, silver Toyota—and started it up, plugging the address for the hotel into the GPS, trying to keep her heart rate under control. She felt completely alone and at sea, as if she would never return to South Jersey, and she felt ashamed for feeling that way. She was fifty-two years old, for goodness’ sake. A strong, independent woman. Nothing should have been beyond her—though, apparently, even a simple trip to another part of the country threw her off her game. She thought about how Davis had spent so much of his life on the road, moving from one place to another, how even when he was home, he was only ever temporarily there. How different their lives had been. She had been a rooted tree, while he had been a floating spore.
She imagined Davis inside every semi-truck she passed, and she passed several once she was on the freeway outside the airport. Rather, they passed her. They barreled down the freeway without any regard for anyone else, and Trina felt small, small inside the small silver Toyota. Small and vulnerable. All it would take was one sideswipe and her life would be over. The semi-trucks reminded her of how Davis had moved through the world. His lack of fear. His sure-footedness. His almost bullying way with the world. God, she hated him so much. She hated him more than she had ever hated anyone or anything. But she also missed and loved him, too. She wasn’t sure how to deal with what was left of him, the figment that remained inside her mind. It was like a small piece of him had broken off inside her and was growing in strange ways. At one moment, in her mind, he was her loving husband, at the next the cruelest man who had ever lived. At one minute she mourned him and missed his big dumb body next to her, at the next she wished he were alive just so she could kill him again.
The landscape beside the freeway was lunar, too, the mountains dry and brown or tan, the only flora short and hunkered down near the ground. Although only early evening, the moon was already rising beyond one of the mountains; it looked exactly like what it was: a hunk of the earth that had broken free. The moon had never looked so sad to her, like something that yearned to escape the pull of the earth’s gravity but had been unable to for thousands of years.
The hotel she was staying in was a dozen miles outside Albuquerque, off the freeway, surrounded by the usual commercial enterprises one could see anywhere in the country: Target and Outback Steakhouse, a few regional chains, grocery stores and electronics stores. The hotel parking lot was concrete and looked like part of the desert, the Embassy Suites like a barge that had been there since the sea had dried up. She parked in the half-empty lot, checked in, went up to her fourth-floor room in the small elevator, holding herself back from running down the hallway. Once inside, she closed the door, dropped her bags, and stood in the dark smelling the room—a faint whiff of cleaning supplies and bedding—and finally allowed herself to break down and cry. Dark shadows had knotted up inside her chest and were now slowly releasing. She fell onto the bed.
After washing her face, drinking a glass of water, and arranging her things inside the room—it was only a three-day stay, so she hadn’t brought much with her—Trina called Casey. It was barely dark outside, the moon she had seen earlier taking on a glossy sheen, but Casey, who picked up on the sixth ring, would have just come home from her afterschool activities.
“I made it,” she said.
“Oh. Good. How was the flight?”
She could sense her daughter standing in the ranch, could sense her sister Penny sitting behind her at the kitchen table. Her sister was so much more comfortable in her skin—the “cool” sister, the black sheep of the family who did not care what other people thought of her, while Trina had always done what she was supposed to do, had always followed the expected protocols. She imagined Casey had gotten out some snacks and was getting ready to dig in. Trina tried to buy healthy snacks, trail mix, rice cakes, and celery, but somehow the worst snacks kept being smuggled into the house: Pringles and pepperoni. Casey could sit in her bed with her laptop on her lap eating a whole bag of Doritos or a whole box of Cheez Its at one sitting. God, she worried.
“Oh, it was fine.” She could feel the entire country yawning between them.
“What are you even doing there, anyway?”
“I’ll tell you when I get back. I told you that already.”
“Why don’t you just tell me now? What’s the big mystery?”
“I just wanted to call and let you know I made it.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll stop asking.”
A few seconds of fraught silence passed between them on the phone. Sometimes Trina worried that one of these spans of silence would become permanent, that they would never be able to speak to one another again, that they would have no more words, ever. She had carried her daughter inside her body for nine months. Had breastfed her and cared for her, watched her learn to talk and walk, had marveled at her and shown her love all these years. That should have been enough to guarantee continued communication. Shouldn’t it?
“How was school?”
“Fine. Gotta go. Evan is coming over.”
“Oh. Okay. Bye then.”
“Don’t be like that.”
And that was it. The call dropped, and Trina’s heart dropped with it. She felt like she was in a competition every time she talked to her daughter lately, and she was always falling short. Mother of the Year she would never be, not according to her daughter.
She thought about Evan, a boy two grades ahead of Casey, a senior, very tall, with sandy brown hair that fell in front of his eyes. Evan had delicate features. She would have been worried about them spending so much time together, but she was ninety percent sure that Evan was gay. He was an outcast in the small South Jersey town, which was still in many ways mired in the morality of the 1950s, was just waiting for college and his precipitous escape from Buena. He was good for Casey, and Casey was good for him. Trina was glad they had found each other. Her daughter was, despite her many moods, a kind, caring person, and, despite her brusqueness, she was vulnerable and shy and needed the support of a peer.
Trina had no idea why she was doing this, but she took out the small makeup case she had brought with her, bought specifically for the trip, and started working on her face. Halfway through, she took a skirt and top out of her suitcase and shook them out, ironed them, hung them up, then returned to finish her face. She had not prepared for a night out since before Davis had died. Maybe New Year’s Eve, eight years earlier, was the last time, and she felt foolish now. At one time, when she had been college age, she had done what all young people do: put her face on, gone out clubbing, met men, had fun, danced. Some version of abandon. In Atlantic City, mostly, sometimes in Philadelphia. While her friends had peeled off and slept with strange men in strange apartments, she had always returned alone to her own apartment from those nights with a hollow sense of what she lacked. She would wake in her own bed feeling wrung out, dejected, and eventually she stopped joining those friends on their excursions. After a while, there seemed to be no point.
She had met Davis through a friend at her church. He was a cousin of her church friend who had been using dating apps without any luck, a simple man who didn’t like all the rigamarole that went along with dating, who just wanted someone solid and dependable to spend his life with. He had sounded perfect to Trina. When they went on their first blind date, at a Cuban restaurant in one of the casinos, she had thought he was perfect. He wore a simple button-up shirt, green and blue, in which he looked uncomfortable. He looked like he should have been wearing a ballcap and a T-shirt, and even though (or maybe because) he was nothing like the three men she’d had serious relationships within her life, she had found herself instantly attracted to him. What had they talked about that first date? God, she couldn’t even remember. A little about the cousin who had introduced them, a little about their own lives, a little about their modest, attainable dreams. They were both simple people with simple goals.
When they walked through the casino, he had slid his hand inside hers, and it felt both like the most natural and the most electric thing that had ever happened to her. From there, it had been easy and unremarkable, a simple, uncomplicated love story. Within weeks they were spending every night together, and, when he went away on his cross-country route a few weeks after that, she had missed him with a wild yearning like horses stampeding through her blood. Back then he had texted every day, at least once, letting her know when he passed from one state into the next. Kansas to Colorado, Idaho to Washington. She had pictured him out there moving across the country, a force of nature still somehow connected to her by a flexible but unbreakable invisible cord.
Even that memory of him, during their first date, once so sweet, felt rotten to her now. She could feel rot at its core spreading out, endangering all her memories of him. She put it away inside her, buried it deep.
In the mirror, she looked like a middle-aged woman desperate to be noticed, but she did not care. The skirt, which zipped up the back, was tighter than it had been the last time she had worn it, but it was also, she knew, flattering. She didn’t look half bad, her body was not half bad, and her face, which had always been “cute,” at best, had settled into some version of mature beauty. She hadn’t really thought of herself in this way, as someone who could be evaluated and found either desirable or not, since before she’d met Davis. It felt new to her. Almost exciting. Wondering if someone would notice her, if someone would approach her, a moth to her flame. She felt foolish, but she grabbed the key card and the car keys and hurried out of the room before she could tell herself not to.
The restaurant she had found online was off a dark road in what looked like deep lunar landscape, a few miles off the freeway, an oasis of lights in the middle of the dark desert. A few cars pulled in ahead of her. The edges of the parking lot had been lined with small lantern lights that glowed, flames flickering inside small glass boxes. She knew they couldn’t be real but imagined a woman in the black shirt of a waitress bending down to light a hundred candles. They glowed and wavered like real flames.
She got out of the car, smoothed down her skirt, walked toward the building. She thought of the word hacienda, though she had no idea what that word meant; it just seemed to fit the low, adobe building surrounded by rough wooden fences. It looked like the airport had, exactly as expected, only somehow more real. She had no idea whether it was authentic or not, but she chose to believe that it was. Some farmer must have tried to make his way on this land in the distant past. An old Mexican family or a “settler” from the east. Whoever it was, it couldn’t have been easy.
Dozens of people were crammed inside the restaurant’s lobby, and the sound of Mexican music, a corrido with thumping brass and strummed strings, played loudly, a hubbub through which she had to pass. No one paid her any attention as she made her way to the hostess and gave her name. She had made a reservation online but still had to wait twenty minutes before being seated. While waiting, she ordered a margarita at a small bar and watched the families and couples in the lobby also waiting. She remembered how Davis would get “hangry” around dinnertime, how if they went out to eat and had to wait somewhere he would stand off by himself, stewing. Ruby Tuesdays or The Olive Garden, average middle-class restaurants. He would sulk and pretend he wasn’t. In many ways Davis had been like a large child, which made her smile, briefly.
Three businessmen were lined up next to her at the bar. They hunched, talking loudly over the din, about some business deal or sports game, she assumed. Two of the men were in their early thirties, while the third was probably around sixty. He had a landing strip of hair he had combed back neatly from his forehead. It made him look wolfish. Trina was well aware that he was scoping her out, sometimes in the mirror behind the bar, sometimes moving away from the bar to look, discretely, at her backside. She allowed herself to imagine a tawdry scene, she and the man returning to her hotel room, ripping each other’s clothes off, the buttons popping off his shirt, fucking each other with a kind of concentrated anger. She felt heat rise to her face and chest. She didn’t usually think things like this. She never thought them. Not in her normal life in South Jersey. She was not completely without desire—she wasn’t dead yet—but she didn’t usually give in to fantasy; fantasy seemed to her a male province. The businessman’s body was very different from Davis’s, the only man she had seen naked for more than twenty years. She imagined it was still strong and hard, still, despite his age, muscled. She imagined his penis curving like a scythe, imagined grabbing it in her hand.
Trina’s name was called, and she carried her margarita away from the bar, relieved to be called away from her dirty imagination. She wasn’t sure what had come over her. Satan was real. She had not been tempted by him in years. She had always done the right thing, the proper thing, the thing she was supposed to, sinned in only the most venial ways. But now... look where it had landed her. Look at what she was doing. The problem came in trusting people, in trusting anyone. That had been her cardinal sin. It turned out that she had been worried about the wrong things all her life.
Later, in the hotel bed, full from her pork adovada, the best Mexican meal she’d ever eaten, the spiciness of the red salsa clearing her sinuses, and tipsy from two oversized margaritas, she went at herself in a way she had not in years, desperately, with vigor, working herself up and over the edge again and again, not caring if anyone in the adjoining rooms heard her. She imagined the businessman, imagined giving him exactly what he wanted, and anything he wanted, and taking what she wanted. She felt the wetness on her fingers and on the bed and the thrumming of blood in her veins.
Afterwards, she felt ashamed but told herself not to feel that way. There was nothing to be ashamed of. It was what the body wanted, and sometimes one had to give in. She fell asleep without washing her face, smelling of rich food and herself.
She woke at four a.m. and took a long shower, letting the hot water run off her body. She felt like someone else, or like she could become someone else, so easily. It had been years since she had left South Jersey. Davis had traveled so much for work that he didn’t like to go away on vacations. Three years ago, she had convinced him to travel to Montreal with her. She wasn’t sure why Montreal—maybe because it was as close to Paris as she would ever get, and she had always wanted to go to Paris. Silly pretensions.
Davis had slept in one morning while, in the early dawn, she had walked to St. Joseph’s Oratory. There were 283 stairs at the oratory, and if you prayed on each step, you were almost guaranteed to get what you prayed for. She remembered watching all the pilgrims walking slowly and seriously up the stone steps, even at this hour, almost exclusively women. What were they all praying for? Life? Love? To her surprise, she found that she didn’t really want anything. She wanted her daughter Casey to avoid the pitfalls of the modern world, drugs and the predations of men, wanted her to be safe and happy, but she didn’t want anything for herself. She realized, with a shock, that she was perfectly content with her life. The building glowed in the red light of the sunrise before it dulled to gray stone again. She had walked around it, eschewing the stairs. She had prayed for Casey, but only in the most everyday way.
She had walked inside the church itself. It was magnificent but also somehow… false. Overly showy, in the same way the words of the King James translation of the Bible were beautiful but somehow false. They hid the Truth inside their surface beauty. She had been working on learning Aramaic for years, so she could understand the actual words of Jesus Christ. She could mouth those words now but couldn’t hear them the way they would have been spoken. It seemed important to hear them the way He would have said them. A truth would be denied to her until then. Trina had always been a believer. Her parents had taken her to church in Vineland every Sunday, and, unlike her sister, she had never doubted. Her faith was part of her life, more real to her than any other marker of identity.
When she came back to the hotel room from the Oratory in Montreal, Davis had just been getting up, tangled in the bedding, what remained of his hair waving on top of his head, and she had thought of cartoons of Baby Huey she had seen when she was a child. She had laughed at him and hugged him to her chest, and he had looked stunned. Now, she wondered what he had been thinking then, if he had been wishing he were somewhere else.
After she showered and dressed, in a plain black T-shirt, a brown cardigan, and blue jeans, it was still too early to go down to get breakfast and start her day, so she read some of the novel. On the plane, she had finally gotten into it, had been able to care for the characters, the brusque narrator, Yunior, and the poor fat boy Oscar Wao in North Jersey. Their lives were very different from any life she had ever known, but she was able to put herself in their position. She was more like Oscar than Yunior, she supposed.
At the earliest possible time, 6 a.m., she went down to the hotel restaurant and ate tomatillo scrambled eggs and thick-sliced applewood bacon. She had already eaten more and worse during this trip than she had in years, but the food was delicious, and she wasn’t going to deprive herself. She was the only one in the restaurant, aside from the servers, who stood near the door to the kitchen with faces that looked Toltec to Trina. She felt foolish for thinking that. She appreciated how attentive they were, filling her coffee when it was halfway gone.
By the time she had finished her meal, two families were in the restaurant, and it felt normal to walk out into the morning. The air had the vibrant quality of ozone to it, as if she were in another, higher layer of the atmosphere. She felt like she could simply drive down the road and keep going—maybe to Santa Fe, maybe all the way to Utah and Arches National Park, which she had always wanted to see, maybe up into Canada. She could leave her life altogether and start a new one. She was sure that her sister would take care of Casey if she were to disappear, would ensure Casey grew into a fine young woman, and she imagined a scene in twenty years, her daughter coming to find her across the country. Wouldn’t that be something if she turned out to be the true black sheep.
But that wasn’t Trina. Even imagining it felt silly. No, Trina was solid and dependable. Trina always did the expected. Trina had been married to the same man for fifteen years, and not once had she been tempted to cheat on him or leave him. Not once had she suspected him. She had spent her life believing in Jesus Christ as her savior. She decorated the way she was supposed to for Christmas, and she gave things up for Lent. Maybe, she thought now, she had only done those things because she had never dared not to. She had never done anything that would shake her faith. Had never truly been tested.
In Old Town Albuquerque, most of the people in the park at this time of morning were homeless. They sat hunched inside blankets with wrinkled faces. It was very cold, but already the cold had the glow of warmth to it. She found free parking easily on a side street, directly in the sun, and for a few minutes she leaned back, closed her eyes, and let the sun find her face. She didn’t sleep but dozed, not thinking of anything but letting images pass behind her eyes. Images of her daughter and her husband. She remembered playing board games, eating dinner, sitting down as a family to watch some dumb movie that Davis loved. His favorite movie had been Die Hard, and he and Casey would watch the movie at least once a year, near Christmas, saying the lines along with the characters. Trina would watch with them for about fifteen minutes before growing weary of the movie and its predictable tension and going into the bedroom, to watch something else or to read one of her books or, more often than not, to do homework. She would keep the door open, and she would look out into the living room now and then to see their faces in the blue glow of the television screen, smiling, laughing. How perfect that had seemed. The perfect picture of domesticity.
She got out of the car and walked the few blocks of Old Town. As the morning progressed, more people emerged on the sidewalks. Vendors of Southwestern jewelry. Buskers with guitars, one Indian man in a poncho playing a flute and selling CDs. People walking scruffy dogs. All the buildings were low and adobe, half-fake and half-real, and she felt content walking here and there, stopping often to sit on a bench to listen and watch the people around her. Food was grilled on wood grills and sold at stands.
There was a small public garden she walked through, slowly, contemplatively. The indigenous plants were spiky, strange, and beautiful, unlike any plants she had ever seen before. She saw birds she had never seen before, too, birds that resembled some of the birds on the East Coast, giant blue jays and differently colored cardinals, and she saw hummingbirds and butterflies. Things were either bigger or smaller here than they were out East, and always more brilliantly colored.
She walked to antique stores off the main drag and listened to the voices around her. She heard mostly English and Spanish, sometimes mixed, sometimes separate. It was all so fascinating and beautiful, but she felt like it was all falling into an empty hole inside her. There was no one to share it with. Not that Davis would have found any of it interesting. It would have been something he had already seen. He would have walked through Old Town with her, but he would have made it known that he was bored, would have waited outside shops for her, hands in his pockets. Still, having Davis beside her, seeing it with him, would have made it different. More special.
She had plugged the address into the GPS in the silver Toyota, but, no, she was not ready to go yet. She would never be ready to go. There was no reason she had to do this. The envelope that had been in her bag now sat on the passenger’s seat beside her, the address in the corner written in a neat, small hand, a hand that was so tight and neat it looked strained. She couldn’t remember the last time she had addressed an envelope. She would not take out the letter or the photographs, would not look at them, maybe never again.
There was no reason she had to drive to the address. No one, not even her sister, knew about the letter. She did not have to acknowledge its existence. She could easily tear up the letter, toss it in a trashcan on the streets of Old Town Albuquerque, and never think about it again. Go on and live her life as if she had never received the letter. The truth of Davis’s life, his other life, his secret life, had leaked out inside her, had poisoned her thoughts about him, but it didn’t have to have that effect on anyone else. Casey, in particularly, could be spared.
She found herself putting the car in drive and following the instructions of the voice on the GPS. In five hundred feet turn left onto South Street. Your destination is seventeen minutes away. She drove out of Old Town, across railroad tracks, into another section of the city, a section that was obviously rougher, not meant for tourists. Grates covered windows and front doors here. An old woman sat outside her door in a white shift and a black hoodie, her bare feet swollen. A young man with long hair and a mustache shuffled down the sidewalk, obviously a junkie, his eyes slits. There was a kind of ramshackle beauty to the neighborhood, as if God had taken something beautiful in his fist, shaken it up and thrown it across the dirt.
On the outskirts of town, she came to suburban developments, some with signs outside announcing the name of the development, a few gated. She followed the voice that told her to turn right and found herself on a street of low adobe houses. Some had scruffy lawns and others had yards of desert and desert plants, landscaped simply but tastefully. She couldn’t help but notice how similar it was to her own neighborhood in Buena, the ranchers with their well-maintained lawns. There, the pinelands backed up to the yards. Here, the desert.
She felt as if she were floating as she walked up the walkway to a one-story adobe house. Simple, tasteful decorations were in the windows. The woman who answered the door was about ten years younger than she was, taller, fuller. She was white, wearing sweatpants and an old T-shirt. At first, she had no idea who Trina was, but Trina watched the realization dawn on her. Behind her, her children, Davis’s children, sat at a table playing a boardgame. They looked over at this woman at their front door, their faces still full of joy. She realized that these children were the half-siblings of Casey, but that they were nothing to her.
She felt something crumple and fall inside her.