In addition to the perpetual ghost of moisture, the Southern air was imbued with a palpable stickiness. At the end of day’s drive through it, Della could feel traces of it on her skin, clothes, the steering wheel, and the car’s interior where she rested her left arm against the mostly-open window. Her air conditioner had quit back in Tennessee, so the only relief was an open window, a method that delivered a daily coating of air pollution. The cure for that was a long shower, but the Motel 6 in Charleston, South Carolina had failed her on all accounts, including hot water. Thus she remained smeared in Southern patina, her sense of filthiness enhanced by the stale only-smoking-rooms-left odor emanating from the room’s fixtures to permeate her hair. Della was hunched on the bed – the room’s single chair occupied beneath the door handle, lest the deadbolt prove as ineffective as the shower – staring into the middle distance, her attention flickering between the episode of Law & Order: SVU on channel 19 and the made-for-TV drama taking place between a man and a woman outside her window. Della assumed they were fellow denizens of the Motel 6, though why they had opted to have their argument outside her window instead of in their own room was beyond her. Maybe they found their room as dingy, depressing, and foul-smelling as she found hers.
The curtain was pulled across the window, so Della couldn’t see either of them, but she’d begun to form a mental picture based on the subject of debate, which was the man’s recent release from prison, and the woman’s rather pointed opinions on the inevitability of his return. Della shivered, visually confirmed the placement of the chair beneath the door handle – a move with no practical assurance of heightened security other than anecdotal evidence from 1950s-era detective movies – and turned up the volume on channel 19. Not because she found the exploits of New York City’s Special Victims Unit particularly riveting at the moment, but in the hopes that it would create an illusion that she wasn’t alone in her hotel room, just in case any recent parolees – or anyone else waylaid at the purgatorial Motel 6 this holiday weekend – happened to be eavesdropping on her. She reflected that her current setting, with its nicotine-stained walls and myriad mystery stains, had all the makings of a special victims crime scene, and began to mentally dialogue the episode that would one day be drawn from her true-life story.
“Breaks your heart,” Detective Stabler tossed over his shoulder as he rifled through her meager vanity case. “My daughter’s about her age.”
“You think it was just a case of wrong place, wrong time?” Detective Benson crouched by the bed, bagging bits of DNA from the scattered bedding. “The lab is going to have a hell of a time sorting this out; there must be six different types of hair here.”
“A crime of opportunity – the perp sees her getting out of the car alone, sees the out-of-state plates, and figured he had a free pass. What else could it be?” Stabler emerged from the bathroom. “No drugs; nothing doing in there.”
Benson stood, shrugging. “Maybe it was personal…a crime of passion. The lock wasn’t forced; maybe she let the perp in.”
“Or maybe the lock never worked – look at the position of the chair, there,” Stabler crossed to the door. “Like it was kicked out of the way.”
“I guess she didn’t know that only works in movies,” Benson muttered reflectively.
“This was no crime of passion,” Stabler broke in. “The night clerk said she checked in solo. A girl traveling on her own like that is an easy target. The real question is, what was she running from, to put herself at this kind of risk?” A quick, meaningful pan of Della’s dead body, stopping at her fixed, vacant expression. Cut to commercial.
* * *
The day before she went on the road, Della sat at a table with Jake and Cassie, members of the Detroit art collective she was trying to edge her way into. Jake had bright red hair capping mixed Irish-Italian features, a construction worker build, and a calm drawl that made Della want to kiss him every once in awhile and punch him rest of the time. Over coffee and crepes too decadent and delicate against the urban decay all around them, Jake told them about a woman who had come by the gallery that day to pick up a piece she’d bought at the last opening.
“People need people,” is what she said to Jake. She’d told him that she was sad she’d never had kids when she was young; that she wished she’d gotten all knocked up when she was 23 and irresponsible, because now she was 50 and all alone and no one cared. “No one cares about me,” she’d said to Jake, and now Jake said it to them.
Della had listened quietly, eyes narrowed. She couldn’t imagine why the woman would have told Jake this sad, sad tale, but she knew Jake was telling it to bother her and to scare Cassie. Jake didn’t care if Della didn’t want kids – he just liked to razz her – but he was in love with Cassie, and needed to convince her that having kids was important so he could continue to convince himself that Cassie was the perfect girl to fit in his life picture. He expected Della to argue now, thus prompting Cassie to disagree with her – as Cassie inevitably did on all counts – but Della didn’t rise to the bait. Just as Jake sat back and smiled across the table at her tense silence, Dante arrived and sat down with his infant son, turned 8 weeks on Friday. The kid screamed. He screamed and screamed and cried; long, loud cries, making his tiny body rigid with the force of his misery. They all sat there, but Della and Cassie sat there in particular, weighing the sad prophecy of the art maven against the sheer agony of each scream, tugging at deep female reflexes inside them. Della had watched Jake’s maniac smile fade in the face of Dante’s awkward new-parent dance, trying to look like he was having a good time with this irreversible, screaming little life choice he’d made. As soon as Dante got up and walked the baby out of earshot, it was Cassie who broke.
“Never,” she said. “Never, ever, ever.” Jake looked crestfallen. At least Dante won’t be alone, Della wanted to say, but it seemed too cruel, too obvious.
Later she thought: I want to be alone. I am tired of people. The walls of the living room in the apartment Cassie and Jake shared seemed to be closing in, and she cried silently into a pillow so they who did not care about her particularly one way or the other wouldn’t know how sad and lost she felt. She thought: I only feel alienated and sad in relation to other people. When I’m on my own, calling my own shots, I feel OK – at least in charge of my life. It’s just these interactions with other humans that erode my self-worth. It’s too much sacrifice. How bad can being alone be?
She’d risen in the night, packed her things and sneaked out of Cassie and Jake’s quiet, love-frustrated apartment. She’d driven halfway through Ohio before she realized what she’d done. By then, in the half-moon light playing across the highway, it had seemed clear enough that she was never going to be a part of a collective. She was never going to be a part of anything.
* * *
It was a strange sensation at first, but over the weeks Della had become accustomed to the necessity of orienting herself immediately upon waking. She no longer had the cursory moment of, “Where am I?” – her brain, broken into the routine, merely started up and instantly locked down on any locational information. Today she came electrically awake at 6 am, unsure what had roused her, but entirely aware of Charleston on all sides and already adrenaline-flooded at the prospect. The chair was still in place, she was marginally rested enough to continue, and the hour was ideal to make an escape from the Motel 6 without encountering any of her neighbors. Della performed an accelerated version of her by now automatic packing ritual, and evacuated the scene of the non-crime.
“Was everything OK?” The morning clerk was young and clearly lacked any authority to grant refunds, so Della didn’t bother to mention the lack of hot water and jarring ambience.
“I’m surprised you’d even ask,” she said, softening the complaint with a rueful smile that she hoped said she understood that Taneesha was not directly responsible for the shortcomings of her minimum-wage paying place of employment. Della didn’t bother to wait for the girl’s canned apology, just turned to wearily embark on the day’s itinerary.
She was averaging 400 miles a day, sometimes as much as 700, but it was hard to consider that “making good time.” You could only “make good time” if you were going somewhere, and since Della had no particular destination, it was impossible to tell if she was closing in on it, or still had miles to go. She was heading out of the South, up the East Coast; soon she would break into Virginia.
Before she’d set out on the road, before the art collective, before anything, when her life was hollow but still basically normal, Della made a trip to Richmond, Virginia. To be precisely accurate, Della woke up at 1 am, dressed and took the subway to Penn Station, and boarded a train to Richmond, VA. She sat up through the night in an over-air-conditioned coach car, wishing she’d taken a minute out of her fugue to pack a sweater and a music player, and disembarked in Richmond at 10:30 am. She went to the Edgar Allen Poe Museum, had a cup of coffee at a decrepit diner in the downtown area, and found the bookstore that currently employed the guy she’d dated, long-distance, two years hence. He wasn’t working, but when she stumbled into the section labeled “Dave’s picks” it sent a shot through her stomach like she’d seen him across a crowded room. After perusing his recommendations, she walked to the public library, sweet-talked her way onto one of the computers, and emailed her ex-boyfriend. As she took the tour of the Capitol, she totally ignored the tour guide’s helpful insights into the design, function and history of the building, in favor of playing their climactic reunion sequence from a teenage romantic comedy in the style of John Hughes.
“Excuse me,” Della said, walking up behind Dave, sorting books on a low shelf. “I wonder if you could make a recommendation.”
Dave looked up from knee level, the span of a breaths passing as he took in her presence, inscrutable. Then he slowly rose to stand before her. “Yes, I can make a recommendation,” he said, putting his arms around her. Then he kissed her. End credits.
An hour later, she sweet-talked her way back onto the computer at the public library to find a reply from her ex-boyfriend, declining to meet her. End credits.
It occurred to her suddenly that every romantic comedy she’d ever seen were all part of a giant media conspiracy, possibly organized by John Hughes, created to warp her idea of the possible. She bought newly released commemorative Edgar Allen Poe stamps at the downtown post office, sent her ex-boyfriend a “Virginia is for Lovers” postcard that she’d purchased at his bookstore and edited on the front to say, “Virginia is^n’t for Lovers.” On the back she wrote, “Leave my loneliness unbroken,” posted it, and got on a five-o-clock train back to New York City. It occurred to her that if life wasn’t going to end like a John Hughes movie, then she had based her romantic ideals on a false premise. Her story, it seemed would come to a different end. Now she switched highways in North Carolina, designing an impromptu arc that skirted Virginia entirely. She came to rest that night in Asheville and, having settled into the calm haven of an underbooked Best Western, she forced herself to contemplate her missing period.
It was late. Very late. She imagined her period as a bus, and a bunch of angry people standing around her labia, impatiently checking their watches and shaking their heads at each other. Della was certain she hadn’t had sex in over 4 months, but all of a sudden she felt not-so-certain. She called the front desk and asked for directions to the nearest drug store. She wandered through the aisles, distracted, thinking about the night she’d spent in New Orleans, about six weeks ago. The French Quarter was just the sort of place she normally loved – naturally attracted, as she was, to places where the past maintained a toehold in the present – but even as she’d settled in the bijou Bed & Breakfast on the far south end of the quarter, she could feel an emotional abyss drawing open beneath her.
She had gone out, of course. One couldn’t spend their first visit to New Orleans cowering in a hotel room in the crushing grip of existential angst. As she made her way towards Bourbon St, she could already sense her mistake. Here was a place for happy drunks, loud revelers, cheap and easy encounters, not a lone misfit traveler seeking a soul-connection with a new city. She could feel the weight of her expression as though it were carved into the flesh, solemn in a place of requisite gaiety. She could feel her eyes staring out, dead, at the people who tried to meet them, then quickly stepped out of her way, this wrong person, this sober figure in the midst of a collective drunken stupor. Della strode ahead woodenly, not caring.
She felt the certainty, then. She would die and she didn’t care. Perhaps that was the true purpose of the journey, and New Orleans was merely the place she had come to die. Her camera bag was slightly open, an invitation. She was not dressed provocatively, but not defensively, and clearly alone. An invitation. She walked along steadily, blind to her surroundings. More than an invitation; a challenge. She knew and she did not care. Perhaps she lacked the strength to kill herself, Della thought, but she would not fight if someone came to do it for her. She hoped, abstractly, that it wouldn’t hurt too much. Even that was not enough to quicken her. She walked into a bar.
She’d picked the bar on the basis of it being the first one without offensively loud music spilling out onto the street or people writhing on the dance floor in a clumsy impression of good times. Once she’d settled at the bar, she realized she’d stumbled upon the place where the locals that worked on Bourbon Street went for their first off-the-clock drink. Fine. She ordered a whiskey rocks and stared towards the middle distance across the bar, which was arranged in a large square fencing in an island of bottles in the center, surrounded by a moat of space for the two bartenders to circle like attendant sharks to the patrons seated on every side.
There at the bar, she thought about her trip so far – then just two weeks out from Cassie and Jake’s place – the drive across the country that she’d imagined since being a little girl. The trip she’d put off for so many years because she’d always hoped, without admitting it to herself, that one day there would be someone to share it with. The trip she’d begged Dave to take with her, when he was still in the picture. And he had declined, saying it was too expensive (though she offered to pay), saying it was too sudden (though there was no set date), saying anything to distract from his fear in leaving his place of safety, even temporarily. These were the only men who had ever loved her, possessed of that complete rigidity, the controlling nature, the stubborn insistence on sticking to only those experiences that were predictable. What did they see in her – wild, inconstant, and ever on-the-move? A challenge, perhaps. A bird with wings in need of clipping. She’d gotten the message, dumped the boyfriend, quit her job, and flown the coop.
And yet. Her months away had taken her everywhere, but she fit nowhere. For the most part, she was an oddity: the lone traveler at monuments and state parks filled with families, the lone diner at restaurants filled with couples, the lone drinker at bars filled with friends. Every once in awhile, she’d seen another – a woman, alone, sometimes with a camera, sometimes with a shopping bag, but always with the same carefully composed expression, set with the determination to reduce her loneliness into merely being alone. Being alone didn’t bother her, normally, but the unending litany of unfamiliar places brought it into sharper relief. Everywhere were people who had people. She had no one. She would continue to have no one unless she changed her agenda. Della knew what it meant to go back to that life, to be with a man. It meant never getting to do anything her way again. She blinked back self-pity as the bartender dropped off her drink and peered at her.
“You OK, honey?” She nodded, unable to vocalize, and brushed absently at her cheek where a renegade tear had broken free. She sipped her drink and tipped and waited for the sharktender to move along to the next customer. Once she had, there was no need to check the slow flow of tears as they came; she dropped her chin to make them less obvious and continued to cycle mentally towards her inevitable conclusion.
“You’ breaking the rules.” An older man with dark hair and Cajun coloring was standing at her elbow.
“What rules?” She didn’t look at him long, or bother to keep the wobble out of her voice. Unlike the bartender, this man had made the choice to invade her misery; she felt no obligation to try and conceal it from him.
“A pretty girl like you cannot look so sad. Not here.” He was charming. She was too detached from her environment to feel the effects of his charm, but was still somehow fully aware of it. He smiled and turned it up a notch. “Let me buy you a drink.”
“If you like.”
He bought her more than one drink. By some arrangement with the bartender, who clearly recognized him, she had nothing more to do than drain her glass before a new one appeared before her. She hadn’t eaten anything, and by the fifth whiskey rocks, was predictably and perilously intoxicated. To the man’s credit, he had disappeared once she stopped crying. Some kind of New Orleans booze fairy, she told herself, upholding the standard of Bourbon St. revelry. One crying girl might ruin the whole party. To her own credit, she got on her feet and out the door after the fifth free drink.
The walk back to the hotel was a fisheye view, carnival mirror sequence. People no longer seemed intimidated by her. She woke up in her hotel room, one shoe on, evidence she’d been sick in the bathroom, but no memory of it. What else had she forgotten?
* * *
On a long stretch of Delaware coastline, riding the thin four-lane strip that lies between the Intercoastal and the Atlantic Ocean, Della spotted a turtle stranded on its back in moving traffic. Three miles earlier, she’d passed a sign that warned of turtles crossing and found the notion amusing, but seeing in action was horrifying enough to bring her to a sudden full-stop by the side of the road. She abandoned her car still idling, and ran back to the creature in peril. Driven as she was by the nameless imperative to save the turtle, she charged into sparse traffic with little consideration, and found herself facing down the outraged driver of a Sentra that had come to a near-smoking halt, only inches away from her. Another case of assisted suicide? Della snatched up the turtle, wiggling haplessly but unharmed, and held it in front of her in a silent appeal. It didn’t know, she wanted to say to the driver of the Sentra, but her voice was stuck beneath the accumulation of sand and adrenaline and futility. When instinct draws us towards the road, do any of us know what we’re walking into?
That night, in an off-season beach motel, the period came. She’d been having them, one a month for 16 years, but she’d never had one like this. Relief mingled with revulsion at the density of her release, thick enough that she could feel it coming out of her. She sat for hours, grateful, disgusted. Finally, as she pressed the handle, the clusters became ragged membranes caught in the tornado of flushing water, lifted and swirling blood wraiths, exorcised from her body and fleeing into some dark underworld. It was gone, she told herself, staring into her reflection as she washed her hands. Maybe that darkness was gone too, bled out of her. Maybe now the space inside wasn’t emptiness; it was room for growth, for hope.