It took some persuading, but I managed to convince her to have a drink with me on Friday. I was nothing but apologetic. She didn’t know why I was apologizing, but I know I did something wrong three months ago and I had to say I was sorry. I was just too good of a liar for her to have realized it, and she was too smart to see me when I had to move back to Los Angeles. I never had the chance to fess up. As the drinks wound down, I said we should do something on Sunday. I had to leave Monday anyways. She agreed.
I dust off my sports coat, put the keys in the ignition and let the engine idle for a few minutes. I drive on North Avenue to Ashland and make a right and let the old car sputter in place. I call and say, “I’m here,” and hang up the phone. She takes several minutes to come downstairs, and I take advantage of the graded tint on my sunglasses to hide my stare. It’s a slow shuffle towards the car. Adrianna looks agitated. I have never picked her up in a car before. Her brown hair is messier than usual. I still compliment her on it when she opens the door. I smile. Adrianna blushes with no color in her cheeks. She gets in the front seat, throws her handbag in the back, and I peel out towards the highway.
Adrianna reclines on the seat. “It’s gonna be a little ways, isn’t it?” Her perfume creeps in – notes of lily of the valley, tangerine, and rose pepper that always work on me. I accidentally fall at ease. “Maybe,” I reply, and the smirk sticks on my face without my realizing it. She gazes over and her blue eyes try to meet mine but I focus on the road. I want to save that litmus test for later. The highway is relatively clear as we burn through south Chicago and reach Indiana before I can even start a conversation with her.
I steal a glance to see if she’s smiling. When my brown eyes meet her blue eyes, I lose what little control I had in the drive. “Okay, you have a choice,” I say. “I always give you choices, so here’s another one. We can go to a farm in southern Indiana and pick apples or to an Amish inn and store on a lake in your home state, Michigan. I haven’t been to either place. When was the last time you left Chicago?” She shrugs, taps me on the shoulder, and points to the east. I know we’re going to Michigan, but I have to figure out how to get there. I stay on the expressway and follow the signs to Detroit, knowing I’m not going to Detroit.
“Roger, why do you always ask me what to do?” she asks. Her saccharine voice resonates in my head. My ears are sensitive to musical tones, and her voice hits notes like a hammered dulcimer.
“Because I want to do what you want to do,” I say.
“But you come up with all these ideas,” she says. “All of them.”
“I want you to make the choice. I like your decision making.”
“But you came up with all these ideas,” she says. I can’t respond, so I turn up the mp3 player and roll down my window. I play every cheesy song I can find.
I turn inland and start passing country lanes with plain names. Browntown, Elm Valley, Snow Hill, Sparta, Portland. I even find Michigan Avenue in Michigan. My goal was to do the whole drive from memory. No maps. I keep the car fast enough to prevent her from distracting herself the entire drive. I don’t want to be found by a map or a cop, really. I can tell that’s pissing her off, but I’m enjoying it. I don’t know if I’m just enjoying driving fast or pissing her off, anymore. Probably both.
St. Johns, Mt. Pleasant, Greenville, Northview, Rockford, Maple Island…the names don’t even matter anymore. Chicago is far enough away, and our car is the comet reaching the apex of its elliptical orbit. I keep looking for the gravitational point that might send us home. It appears to be one more plain-named street away. Adrianna says nothing. She never changes the music. My songs keep playing, and she just watches the road, humming along with tracks I don’t think she knows, or if she does, only heard on the five dates we had.
I hope this is all the driving I have to do tonight. I see an open area that leads to a trail through the woods and fifteen cars holding fifteen families parked around it. Adrianna looks at me quizzically. I smile back and avoid her eyes.
“We’re going here?” she asks.
“It’s not what you expect, Adi.”
“Really,” she says, agitated.
“You know I wouldn’t drive to nowhere for nothing.”
“But I know you’d drive to nowhere to get time with me.” I wonder why we didn’t talk this much on the drive.
“I didn’t want time with you, Adi. I wanted to go somewhere with you. You can trust me, you know.” I don’t know if she needed that reminder or if I did.
“I know I can, Roger. But why are we here?”
“For the best treehouse within five hundred miles of here. I didn’t spoil you enough in Chicago, and, well, I’m in L.A. now.”
“All you did was spoil me.” She stretched and hit me in the head as she reached out. “Sorry.”
“No you’re not.” I smile. I decide to take the litmus test and try to meet her eyes. Her eyes are a soft, cornflower blue, and I fall at ease again and let her read my face. She shakes her head and breaks the communion.
“Okay, let’s go.” She puts her hand on my arm on top of the arm rest and pushes off, opening the door, flinging her tiny body out of the car. I grab my coat and a bag with the bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in it. My legs creak out of the car and the soft, wet ground acts like a sponge to my rigid body. I triangulate my right arm on my hip and motion for her to put her arm through it. She obliges. We walk through the young families to the path, out of place, out of style, and out of care. I just hope this works.
Rain starts to seep down through the forest canopy, but not strong enough to matter. Adrianna doesn’t notice and has a giddy smile on her face. I think she’s immune to these kinds of things. Once again, I let my guard drop. All I hear is the light pitter-patter of the rain, our steps cradled by the soft ground.
Down the trail, I see the entrance to something that appears to be stairs into the forest, leading somewhere elevated above the ground and the nearby lake. I figure this is where we are going. It’s made out of wood and looks like a Tolkienesque hut, but I realize it’s just some Amish or Scandinavian-influenced invention to survive above the marshland. I can’t say it’s pretty, but there’s an allure to surviving in the middle of nowhere. I’m still egotistical. I still think I’m from somewhere. The path takes the long way. It’s made for tourists.
I shuffle her towards the staircase and hold her hand until she reaches the top of the stairs. She pretends to fart in my face and giggles. We enter an upstairs foyer with a huge staircase leading upwards, possibly three stories into a mess of trees. I smell food from upstairs, but I resist the urge to sprint towards it. The walls are a white teak that I have never seen before. Rooms fan out on either side and the door frames are large enough to move machinery through. Curiosity takes over and I walk to the room on the left, and she follows. A gigantic loom sits in front of of us with barrels of yarn on either side of it, pouring over the loom onto the ground. There are six of them in the rooms, none being used now, all with cloth in various states of completion. I don’t really care where she is, but I assume she’s behind me.
I city-walk into the next room and see wood shavings across the ground. Cabinets, chairs and tables appear to be made here with a certain continental design. I guess it is of a Germanic design, passed down through generations of woodworkers. I run my hand on a birch table and try to let a splinter puncture my hand. It doesn’t. I want blood on my hand. The room empties out into a large chamber that has stairs to the spongy ground. Gigantic doors are slightly ajar to the outside. It has to be a loading dock, built years ago, repaired endlessly to perfection.
“Have you ever been to a place like this?” Her voice calls from some corner in the room. I turn my head a little and look at her out of one eye.
“Hell no. I mean…No. I don’t know. I don’t know Amish from Yiddish.”
“Well, this is that real Amish. This is Mennonite Amish…you know what that is?” she asks.
“Men of might and fish? What? I got no effing idea.” She doesn’t find that as funny as I do.
“It’s a real strict Amish order…we can’t really cuss here.”
“That’s good, cause you know I’m super religious.”
“I thought you didn’t care about religion at all.”
“I’m kinda Jewish and kinda Christian, remember?”
“You’re neither and you’re both at the same time, quit confusing yourself.” She punches me in the shoulder and I pretend to wince.
“When I get married I want it to be in a church, stomp on the glass, and say ‘Chutzpah.’ Duh.”
“You’re never getting married, Roger.”
“Not on your watch, right?” I try to wink.
“Not until you get what you’re looking for first.”
“I’m not looking for anything.” She laughs at that. I grab her hand and drag her out of the room, moving her like a rag doll. She laughs. I smack my hand on the doors trying to get some blood on my hands but everything is too smooth, too worn, too sanded for safety. We start walking up the stairs which stop at the second floor. There’s a room that is perforated by trees with very little actually in it. I wander into the maze of branches and she walks behind me, cautiously. I try again to get some fucking blood on my hands but this entire building is safer than my apartment.
“I figured out when things went wrong between us, Adi.” I say, finally finding a sharp point on a tree and pressing my finger on it. Nothing.
“When?” She probably knows the answer.
“We were in bed. You said there were certain things you’d only do when you’re in a relationship with someone. You smiled at me. I didn’t know what to say back.”
“You think that’s when things went downhill?”
“Well you broke up with me four days later. I never got to talk about me leaving.”
“You didn’t need to. I got it.” She pulls my arm between two branches and we’re less than a foot apart.
“No, I don’t think you do.”
“Roger, I get it,” she says again. “I got it the first time. You talk a lot about everything. You don’t need to say things to be heard.”
“What if… what if I hadn’t made my mind up about me leaving?”
“But you had.”
“I guess.” I kick some sawdust and watch it float in the air.
“You had, everyone you know knew you had, your friends said you were dreaming of that day. Rog, I coulda kept you here if I wanted to. But you had to find what you were looking for.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t want to say it.”
“I’m dumb, you know this.” I buy time and hope for an explanation that’s not the one I am expecting to hear.
“It’s not something we want to talk about, okay? That’s why we haven’t talked since then.” I get it.
“I get it.” I look into her eyes and try to see if there’s something I’m missing, but this time the litmus test comes back acidic. Her cornflower blue eyes have a grayer tint in them and beg for privacy, burning like a chemical fire. I grab her hand and it is limp and her breathing is faster. I can feel her veins pulsing quicker and I don’t know the right thing to do except the polite thing to do, the trained response. “Come on, toughie, let’s get dinner upstairs.”
She stares at the ground for a second, trapped in her own thoughts. I can’t say anything to shake her mind out of it, and I know a kiss would feel forced and a hug would feel cheap so I have to resist the obvious wrong answers even if they feel right. I offer her my other hand. She reluctantly takes it, and I feel her sigh. She blushes, this time with color, and shakes off the trance. I pull her to my side and put my arm around her while she presses her face partially into my chest, channeling relief and frustration at the same time. I’m used to being people being frustrated at me.
We walk upstairs, where it smells like venison. It’s a pungent smell, with the menus detailing the various ways venison can be consumed. Venison chili, venison steaks, salad with venison, rabbit risotto and as much hearty food as I can possibly get my hands on. How can a stove get up here? The windows overlook the lake, and I’ve never been more impressed with lakes and, now upstairs, how great venison and rabbit can smell. Blackberries seep into my nasal passages and my inhibitions are gone, my senses overload with hunger…
“What do you smell?” she asks.
“I smell onions, meat searing on a pan, blackberries, and my hunger going away real fast,” I say. With that response, she jumps into the closest seat, grabs a utensil in each fist, and makes a robotic, demanding face. I don’t mind the table she’s picked and I follow suit, banging my fists on the table in mock demand for food. A teenage waiter comes up to ask us for our order. She orders something small and I order nearly double the amount of food, knowing she will pick from my plate and demand soufflé. The red wine is poured and I settle down for another litmus test. I catch her eye.
“Why do you look into my eyes like that?” she asks softly, expecting a serious answer.
“Because they’ve been in my dreams and I want to make sure I got the color right.”
“Not exactly. See, I know a few girls with eyes that shift colors. In light or shadows they would take on grey tints or sometimes a green hue. Yours don’t. Yours just get… bluer. More blue.” I play with my fork and steak knife as she relaxes into my gaze. “Bluish. More bluish. Bluisher.”
“Maybe their eyes aren’t really blue.”
“Or maybe I need to figure out a way to get your eyes out of my dream.”
“Why are they in your dream anyways? What am I doing in your dream?” Her look is angry, maybe appalled at my desperation but betraying a hope for sexual tension. She rubs my leg with her foot under the table. My hand drops my knife and it falls harmlessly on the table.
“Believe me, I wish they were sex dreams. You’re with me at a concert. You’re on a boat with me. You smile a lot and then something terrible always happens.”
“No, to me. You’re always fine, Adrianna. I mean…you’ve always been hot. You know this. You…are in each dream long enough to be a part of it but short enough to never be a part of the action. Inevitably, I end up fighting someone or have to take a trip to save the world and the dream ends mid–” and I karate chop the air. Food arrives and we both stare at it for a second. “I guess that’s why I want to spend time with you today.”
“How is this any different from your dream then, Roger?”
“It isn’t.” I swallow a huge chunk of rabbit to give myself a break from explanations. “I guess I’d trade a weekend of my life for a part of the dream to be real. For me, it’s not just sex, you know. We could both be having sex with tons of different people in our cities. That’s cheap. I’d go into debt for another moment like the ones we had. If you kept me here, would I even have a dream?”
“That’s all we’ve had, Roger.” And we eat the rest of our meals until the soufflé comes out and make a spectacle out of it.
I hold her hands and make forgettable talk and forgettable smiles and forgettable jokes, each one worse than the next. I drive us back and songs blare out the windows. She falls asleep. When we get to North Avenue, I don’t get out of the car. She smiles at me and reaches over and kisses my cheek. I hand her the bottle of wine in the back of the car and wave. I take the car straight to the rental location at O’Hare and sleep in it for 4 hours. I catch my flight and can’t sleep the whole way home. When I arrive at LAX, Jessica is waiting in the car. We fly up the 110 to the downtown apartment so I can change before dinner with her parents off lower Sunset. We make it to dinner on time, but I can only drink coffee. Her dad wants me to drink beer, but I feel like a zombie. I tell her father my trip was fine but Seattle is nothing like Chicago with his daughter, and it’s great to have her in L.A. He’s pleased and toasts. I can’t wait to go to sleep.
Photograph by Flickr user “jimflix!,” used under a Creative Commons license.
Alec Rojas had brief stints in Chicago and Nashville before returning back to his hometown of Los Angeles. He works for a law firm in the city and contributes to both thefoxisblack.com and laimyours.com.