by Chelsea Biondolillo
He said, Your body is like the Gulf. And I blushed.
All towns start the same, at the edges where the freeway meets them. The billboards always advertise dentists and divorce lawyers—the bastions of new beginnings; the first buildings are reliably gas stations, fast food drive-thrus, and mobile home parks. Later, the heart of the place opens itself up and it is welcoming or it is not.
He meant, of Mexico. It was the largest body of water he’d ever seen. When I strode into it, years before we met, I was stung by jellyfish and bitten by black flies. My body and that Gulf—are you kidding? I never said, later, I hate the Gulf, too. He was trying to be poetic. I was trying to convince myself to stay with him.
Instead, I fled him and his sliding, low-slung deltas. His melting into that shallow, tepid sea, silty ton by ton. I couldn’t be a wife again. I disappeared for two weeks into Denali. I wanted to, but couldn’t stay there.
Alaska is a land of accretion, not dispersion. And I need more, not less. A billion years ago, violent collisions built it acre by acre: a litany of groundscapes became an expanse as micro-continents were shoved into one another by volcanic eruptions and the shifting of tectonic plates. Thrust belts slid from magmatic arcs, and rock bit rock. Archipelagos, mountains, and valleys full of water were left behind. And then, once the collecting had slowed, its stitched patchwork covered the northern half of the globe. It was not cold, then. That came later.
Over coffee she said, You have geographic solutions to your personal problems, and laughed lightly.
That whole first year in the desert, a newlywed (digging down through the strata, now, the layers like colored silt and sand), I missed the sea—it was like an acrid taste in the back of my throat, that longing for rhythm. It’s not you, it’s me, I told myself. To him: I don’t even know who I have been here, I’m sorry. What is the sound the wind makes when it blows through the arms of a saguaro? Which smell stings the nose more, salt or sage? My nightmares regularly featured drowning by sand; I woke coughing.
There are probably still two roses blooming like fools on Laurel Street between Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas. I still got homesick, then. The last flowers I planted in the dirt, anywhere, were those roses and some tulips I got for free in the French Quarter. I was trying to make a go of it, lay down real roots. Right place, right time, said the woman with the wide straw hat, handing me the bulbs, still damp from the soil in her window box.
I drive through Santa Fe—this time an escape route, rather than a lee. I count the shades of adobe, try to predict the street names and fail. I want to remember the mysticism I imagined a decade ago. Instead, I make a note: the last time I was here, I was somebody’s wife. When does a change of scenery become a personality disorder? The DSM, mapless, offers no relief.
Maybe I’ll move to Anchorage, I thought, scraping yellowed orts off the dishes he’d just washed, before putting them in the cupboards. I wanted to have learned from my mistakes; instead they felt like deer paths I would keep walking again and again to and from the water. I said for a second time, I will never marry you. He laughed because it sounded like a joke.
He kept the cactus and the lemon tree; I took the mother-in-law’s tongue. Even our gardens reflect our secret aggressions, now.
In geology, an uncomformity is a missing layer of the Earth’s history. It’s a lack of proof, a century’s worth of centuries blown away, settled under the sea or still floating in a slant of sunlight just this morning, when you woke up late. We know it’s gone, because the layers below are jagged, like a mouth propped open. Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell the chronological order of the sedimentary deposition: there are many ways for the weather to throw rocks around. There are always parts of the story left out.
Galway Kinnell said, “the killing was just one of those things / difficult to pre-visualize–like a cow, / say, getting hit by lightning.”
And over and over I see him on the kitchen floor sobbing about some past lover and me with the words stuck in my mouth for months after, like the skin of a popcorn kernel, this isn’t going to work, either.
On the way out of town, the backs of billboards say nothing. From driveway, to side street, to artery, to on-ramp: departure widens outward, as a crack in stone yawns from torsion.
Chelsea Biondolillo’s prose has appeared in Guernica, Brevity, River Teeth, Shenandoah, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Diagram, and others. She has an MFA from the University of Wyoming in creative writing and environmental studies, and is currently the 2014-15 Olive B. O’Connor nonfiction fellow at Colgate University.