I sent my guinea pigs ahead of me with the friend of a friend. He was going to Portland and came to pick them up on Friday afternoon in a corroded green station wagon that was missing a fender. There was barely enough room in the trunk, on account of the mountains of old books, so we had to move half of them to the front seat. We wedged the cage between stacks of Kerouac and Faulkner because I wanted them to feel at home. “The next time we see each other,” I whispered to them before I shut the trunk, “you can tell me all about romanticism.”
My apartment seemed empty now, without the squeaking that usually greeted me upon opening the front door. The absence of furniture made every step louder. No carpet softened the blow of my boots against the warp of the wooden boards; no welcome mat caught the leaf stuck to my heel. I could see dusty outlines on the floor of where the bed, coffee table, armchair had been, and dust motes colliding in the sunlight pouring in from the bare windows. Home, yet not home. Empty.
I was supposed to pick up Will in Savannah on Saturday night before heading out west to the funeral. My bags and the cardboard boxes I hadn’t shipped were piled by the door, waiting to be packed into my car in the morning. I had left only a mug and a hot water kettle plugged in on the counter, for the mugs of tea I would need to fall asleep tonight. It was still only five, but I pulled out a packet of black leaves from a drawer and made myself a cup, steeped too long like my mother used to brew it. I curled up in the window seat, wrapping my fingers around the hot ceramic and pulling my knees to my chest. Women in bright sundresses strolled arm in arm with their beaus on the sidewalk below, the wind and the whistles from passing cars blowing up their skirts. I could almost see the heat waves snaking from the sidewalk up the walls of my apartment building, but I was still cold. I rested my head against the hot glass, cheeks flushing with artificial warmth.
I fell asleep like that, luck being the only thing that stopped my empty cup from falling to the floor.
Looking back at my apartment in the rear view mirror the next morning, I realized that I had left a pot of geraniums on the window sill above the kitchen. I watched it growing smaller as I drove away, barely visibly through the blinding reflection of the sun on the glass. I wished that I had taken it with me, just so I could have another living thing in the front seat next to me. It was a lonely nine hours driving down I-95.
The towering cement sound barriers eventually disappeared as the road unwound from the beige metropolis, the trees turning greener as I drove further south. The stretches of woods broken up by occasional glimpses of farmland turned into acres of farmland interspersed with patches of trees. I dreamt that I could feel the humidity pressing against the front of my car, giving me an excuse to push down on the gas pedal. I wanted to turn off the road and drive into the fields of cotton, leaving a trail of petroleum fumes to mark my path. I didn’t care that I wouldn’t find my way back.
Halfway through South Carolina, green disappeared from the color spectrum for a few minutes, swallowed by the blue of Lake Moultrie. I hadn’t even known that there were lakes this big in South Carolina. I looked for it on my map at the next rest stop as something to do. It was big enough to fill an entire square. For the next two hours, I thought of myself moving millimeter by millimeter across that quadrant.
Before I knew it, I had arrived in Savannah, surprised despite the numerous signs. Porches and roofs erupted with hardly any warning, but I welcomed the change, envying the uncramped legs of the people crowding the sidewalk. I wanted to get out of the car as fast as possible. I called Will on my cell phone to let him know that I had arrived and would be knocking on his door at any moment, but his answering machine picked up. I left a quick message – you can be my Paradise if you’d only pick up the phone – and dug around in my backpack at a stop light for his scrawled address. I remembered him saying his apartment was a few blocks away from Forsyth Park, in the historic district. I pulled over next to a bed and breakfast by the park and left my car there. I started walking in the direction of Habersham Street, and Will.
Savannah was one of the few Southern cities I’d been to, on a vacation with my parents. I’d been around eight or nine. I remembered thinking that voodoo would start pouring out of the cracks on the sidewalk (at the time, I hadn’t known that New Orleans wasn’t the entire lower half of the country) and that alligator tail must have been really hard to chew. Walking along the streets now brought to mind my mother in our hotel room, poring over a tourist map of Savannah for old homes and cemeteries. My dad had teased me about ghosts, but she had promised to hold my hand if I got scared. I dialed Will’s number again.
The address he had given me turned out to be an eggshell blue townhouse with a three levels, all of which had porches. He answered as I began walking up the steps. “I’m here,” I began, before he cut me off with a shouted “Coming!” I heard half of his reply through the phone and the other through the walls, and then quickening footsteps across the wooden floor. He swept the door open and immediately pressed me to his chest.
“Hello to you, too,” I said, patting him mildly on the back. He grabbed me by the shoulders and held me at arm’s length.
“We haven’t seen each other in months,” he said, sandy hair all askew. “Show me some emotion.”
I smiled and leaned into him, burying my face against his collar. “That’s what I’m trying not to do,” I mumbled into his neck.
“What was that?” he said, pulling away. He changed his mind and pulled me closer, ushering me through the door. “Doesn’t matter. You need something solid to eat after your trip. You’re probably crazed with hunger.” He led me into the kitchen, sitting me down at the table and then rummaging around in the refrigerator. “What was it, seven hours?” he said through the door.
“Damn.” Will emerged with a plate piled with cornbread. “Sorry it’s not warm,” he said, “but it’s from the best restaurant in town, and this stuff cold is a hell of a lot better than what you probably ate on the way down.”
“Thanks.” I didn’t mention that I hadn’t actually eaten anything since leaving home. I picked up a fork.
He sat down across from me, steepling his elbows on the table. “So, when do you want to leave tomorrow? I’m all packed.” He smiled. “I even stowed a typewriter in my bag so that we can write a fifty-foot scroll about our adventures.”
I paused before answering, holding up a finger to indicate that I was still chewing. When I had originally called Will a few weeks ago to ask if he would drive to Portland with me, I hadn’t mentioned anything about a funeral. He’d sounded surprised to hear from me at all, and a little cold, which I didn’t understand. I hadn’t wanted to make it seem like I was only calling him after all these months because I was grieving. Which might have been true; I don’t know. But I ended up only telling him that I was moving out there for work and needed a friend to help me move into my new place. Never mind that the place wasn’t new. Never mind that it was the house in which I grew up. The favor was true, even if the reason for it wasn’t.
“How about nine?”
“You’ve got it,” he said, reaching across the table to brush my cheek.
Since On the Road was Will’s favorite book, I thought borrowing from Kerouac would be a good way to convince him to keep me company. I would have done anything for company. If our route happened to correspond to the one taken in the book, only going a little farther north, I figured he would be sold on the trip, even if he wasn’t sold on it being with me. At that moment, he was driving with a cigarette in his hand, muttering, “Burn, burn, burn!” out the window as we sped out of the city into the lazy Southern countryside. I was looking at a map, planning our next few stops.
“So, I meant to ask you when you first called,” Will said nonchalantly. He blew a ring of smoke out the window. “Why did you ask me?”
I put down the map. “What do you mean?”
“You could have taken anyone with you on this trip. Any one of your friends would have gladly helped you move in. Why me?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. Will turned to look at me after a few seconds of silence, scrutinizing my face. His eyebrows were furrowed.
“God, you look so serious,” I said, laughing a little nervously. “That’s why I asked you, because I thought you needed a break from all the jambalaya. That much chili isn’t good for you.”
Will laughed. “You really have no idea how misinformed you are about the South, do you? We’re not even in Louisiana, and that dish isn’t even remotely related to chili.” He shook his head regretfully. “I’m ashamed to be seen with you.”
“Oh, whatever,” I said, waving my hand. “Seriously,” I continued. “I asked you because you’re my friend. Did you think anything changed when I moved to DC?”
“I just thought that after – well, I just thought I’d make sure,” he said, shrugging.
“Of course you’re still my friend.” I shoved him lightly. “Don’t be ridiculous. Even though you can’t exactly help it when you’re blowing smoke rings.”
“So this is how you treat your friends, huh?” he sniffed, but his eyes were smiling, wrinkled at the corners.
“Yeah,” I said, “this is how,” and turned back to the map.
We stopped outside of Tallahassee for lunch, and then switched off driving every few hours after that. By the time we pulled New Orleans for the night, it was well past ten o’clock, and we were too exhausted to bother with going to a restaurant for dinner.
“How do you feel about getting really, really, drunk?” I proposed.
“Great,” he said. “Where’s the nearest liquor store?”
We checked into a hotel in Algiers and dumped our bags in the room. With a little help from some questionable characters on the sidewalk, we managed to find a liquor store nine blocks away from the hotel. After a brief debate inside– “Bourbon or straight whiskey?” “We’re closer to Tennessee: whiskey.” “But Basil Hayden could take Jack Daniel in a knife fight any day.” “They’re both eighty proof, so does it really matter?” – Will left with a bottle of bourbon tucked under his arm, and I with one of whiskey. They stayed unopened for a block.
We stumbled into our room thirty minutes later like we’d already been drinking for hours. “I should have done this weeks ago,” I declared, sitting down on the bed and pulling off my boots. “Fuck tea.”
Will took a long swig from his bottle and sat down on the couch he’d set up earlier as a bed. He kicked off his shoes with undue care. “Only crazy people,” he said, “choose leaves over liquor.” He straightened abruptly and added slowly, “Unless you’re trying to get your shit together, in which case I didn’t mean to offend you.” He raised his hands in appeasement. “Completely respectable goal.”
I laughed at his chivalry and drank some more whiskey. “Not at all. I’m definitely still a fuck up,” I said, and accidentally spilled some liquor on the coverlet to prove it.
Will put down his bottle of Basil’s and crawled over to me on his knees. He took my hands in his and looked up at me, suddenly serious. “You are anything but a fuck up,” he said. “If anything, I’m the fuck up.”
“Oh, so we’re in a fuck up competition now, are we?” I said archly, trying to wrest my hands from his grasp.
He held on stubbornly. “Yes.”
“Well, you’re going to lose this one!”
“Already did,” he said, and gazed forlornly at a point above my shoulder.
I rolled my eyes. “What are you talking abou – ”
“I scared you off. I lost you,” he said, cutting me off. He looked me straight in the eye. “I’m the fuck up. I win.”
I laughed and put my hand against his face. “Oh, silly Will,” I prattled. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, and I’m very drunk right now, but how can you lose something that’s right in front of you?” I tilted my head to make sense of him. But he wasn’t making any sense.
“So,” he said, face slowly brightening, “you meant what you said earlier?”
“Of course,” I said immediately, even though I couldn’t remember what I’d said earlier.
“And you don’t never want to see me again?”
I didn’t know what that meant either, so I guessed. “No.”
That answer seemed to make him very happy, because he suddenly pulled me down on top of him and kissed me. He slid his tongue into my mouth and his hands all over my back, pulling me closer. I was limp in his arms, but I no longer felt drunk.
I couldn’t bring myself to stop him as he rolled me over and began unbuttoning my blouse. As Will moved his mouth against my neck, I neither felt nor thought anything about him, or my mother, or the past few weeks, or what awaited me after another six days of driving.
“Did you ask me to come with you because you love me?” Will asked, mouthing the side of my jaw. I lay there on the ground, and all I felt was the carpet rough against my back.
“Yes,” I said, the lie waiting on my lips for him to kiss. He shuddered and pressed desperately against me. I didn’t want him to stop, because if he did, my heart would start.
Stephanie Bastek is a first year at Reed College, currently pursuing a degree in English and creative writing. She has won the F. Scott Fitzgerald Student Short Story Contest and served as editor-in-chief of Fine Lines literary magazine, winner of a Columbia Scholastic Press Association Gold Crown. Her fiction has appeared in Bethesda magazine.