‘Tappahannock’, by Emily O’Grady


Image by Baileyusa115. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License

We pulled into the Super 8 car park close to midnight. Straight to Virginia from Georgia, stopping only for petrol and slushies and to take photos at the state welcome signs which Lor insisted on whenever we crossed a border, though the novelty had worn off by the time we veered south. The car smelled of greasy burritos and communally stale breath, and I felt as trapped as a child while Lor and Michael bantered on the torn vinyl up front. Michael driving, Lor riding shotgun. I’d set up a pillow fort in the back and pressed my bare feet against the sticky window, drifting in and out of consciousness, listening to the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince audiobook that played through the speakers.

I’d been staying with Lor in Fresno and we were both in between things, so when Michael suggested we drive his car to the East Coast we planned our route to New Jersey, where Michael lived with his grandfather in an eighteenth century Dutch Colonial that has its own Wikipedia page. When Michael fled Fresno years before, he’d left his car and most of his things in his parents’ garage. He wanted the car back in uncommitted way, and his offers to fly Lor and I across the country at the last minute suggested he didn’t care about the car either way. But Fresno was sucking the life out Lor and I and the thought of a gruelling road trip in the height of summer felt romanticised for the both of us, so we drove three thousand kilometres in three days and picked Michael up at the Louis Armstrong airport, staying in New Orleans for a few nights before winding our way up to New Jersey.

The trip was delayed by a week when Lor developed a mysterious medical condition; puckered dents on her hips, as though her flesh had been scooped out with a melon baller. They made me think of needy, sucking mouths. Lor booked in to see a specialist and I spent the week in her spare bedroom in a poor, cheap part of Fresno. She had two dogs that she kept in large metal cages for most hours of the day, and lived with her boyfriend and another roommate, who peroxided a strip of my hair orange and lent me YA novels from her bookshelf.

On the day I arrived from LA, the four of us drove to Yosemite at dusk, where I wandered off and got lost for hours in a moonlit sea of boulders that rolled down the mountain like a wave magicked to stone. After that, I slept for fifteen hours each night, waking deep into the afternoon while Lor was at her nannying job, or at doctor’s appointments, or taking Michael’s car to be serviced. Sometimes I’d visit with people I knew from high school, but mostly I’d walk to Starbucks to use the wi-fi and gnaw on cups of ice. It was over forty degrees every day and the heat in the valley was so dry it scorched my eyeballs as soon as I stepped outside. It was too hot to eat or shower so when I’d get back I’d lie on the couch with the dogs lapping at my sweat, reading trash and working my way through several seasons of Gilmore Girls, feeling as blank as a corpse, as though I were decomposing in the heat.

Once Lor’s hip dents had been treated—lipodystrophy, steroid injections—we filled up an esky with food I wouldn’t eat in ordinary life and left at midday on a Thursday. I’d been packed and ready to go since six, but Lor took ages to leave any place, and it wasn’t until midday that she finally managed to gather herself. I talked my way out of sharing the driving by contemplating my lack of insurance and valid licence, and exploiting the vague trauma lingering from a car accident a few months before. Instead, I ate the whole time, compulsively: three-kilogram buckets of trail mix that left my hands and throat salty and scratched, and string cheese that had dampened to flaccid rubber among the icepacks.

Out of California, we drove through the cactus hills of Arizona and stayed with Lor’s aunt and cousins on a woodland, teal-aired property in Flagstaff. We detoured to the Petrified Forest, and through the clay-orange New Mexico desert before weaving into Texas, where a service station in Texhoma sold half-empty prescriptions on the bare metal shelves, names and addresses and repeats typed on the sides of the canisters. Once we hit Oklahoma we got off the 40 and drove south, clipping the edge of Mississippi.

As we got further away from Fresno, Lor talked about the backwards conservatism of America, and how she planned to move to Scandinavia and live in a commune where everyone raised each other’s children. Lor was comically American, but I didn’t tell her this. She sounded deranged and idiotic but I knew I couldn’t beat her in any sort of argument so I nodded along and asked her questions instead. The rhythm of her articulation was numbing, and after a while I gave up on following the intricacies of her monologue and dissolved into the soothing drone. The further south we got, the more I felt as though we were driving inwards, into the earth, rather than skimming its surface.

I hadn’t seen Lor for almost five years, since I moved back to Australia when I was eighteen. I have a poor track record for maintaining long-distance correspondence, or any kind of correspondence, and our communication had been limited to annual Skype calls and irregular Facebook messages. When we were younger I was the beta to her alpha, and she’d seemed decades older than me. Though her logic was circular, her confidence was astounding, and people would trust her with their lives instantly. She was bright and charming and half-blind; her glasses magnified her pale blues eyes and when she stared directly at you the effect was unnerving.

In contrast, I was detached and wary, and lost my train of thought whenever I looked someone in the eye for too long. When we were neighbours in Fresno, her mother thought I was a bad influence for no particular reason. Her stepfather was similarly hostile, and would berate me for wearing pyjamas during the daytime. He had a handlebar moustache and was permanently stationed in front of the cable, while his immobilised grandmother dozed in a La-Z-Boy behind him, blankets on her lap. At first, the grandmother’s carer Margot was the only one who was nice to me, but in between mine and Lor’s eighteenth birthdays, which fell a week apart in August, the family baked me a cake made of brownies and cream and we all drove to Table Mountain Casino where they didn’t card minors.

By the time Lor and I got to New Orleans I’d become catatonic. When Michael lumbered out of the domestic terminal, Lor got out of the car and bounced into his arms in a cringe-worthy display. I stayed where I was and after Michael folded his oafish limbs into the backseat he squeezed my shoulders and shouted my name and then asked me to put the chair forward. He was intimidating in his size—six foot seven and solid—and the smartest person I’d ever met. Weeks later, when we went to the Museum of Natural History we spent an hour in each exhibition room, where Michael went on and on about the Pacific Islands and the Patricia Emerald and Saurischian dinosaurs, which was vaguely condescending but also appreciated. One afternoon we went to a supermarket looking for hummus, and it was a particular thrill when I was able to explain to him what skate was while we ambled by the fish counter.

He and Lor met a decade earlier, home-schooled and on the same Academic Decathlon team. Michael was in and out of hospital when he and Lor were together, and more so since they’d broken up. The first time, he’d been shivved in a knife fight, and the second time he had a minor stroke. Even then he only wore suits, polyester getups in foul colours, and underneath his dress shirts, grubby arm warmers with thumbholes he’d cut out himself. Lor had told me the arm warmers were to cover the lewd tattoos he’d gotten done in high school, and that she’d never seen him without them in the decade they’d known each other.

Michael was vague about what he did, and I don’t think he did anything. He mentioned a call centre, and a hasty engagement that had since been called off. Michael’s family was obscenely wealthy. When we were on the road he paid for all our meals, and then reimbursed me the cost of petrol and highway motels from before Lor and I met up with him. It made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t have a lot money, and in exchange he treated me as an amusing novelty, in much the same way that Lor had years earlier. You’re not a real person, Lor would say. I had encouraged it when I was seventeen and such declarations made me feel mystical, but it had become frustrating as an adult and also inescapable, as though I had unknowingly solidified my role without realising its seeping effects.

In New Orleans, Michael had pre-booked a haunted hotel in the French Quarter and after drinking sugary cocktails on Bourbon Street we went back to our room. As Lor sat on the end of her bed her nose started to bleed, thick and slow as lava. I had forgotten her phobia, and the sight of the spherical drop on her kneecap was alarming and made me laugh for the first time in days. But Lor locked herself in the bathroom for an hour and cried and cried. She told Michael and me that we weren’t nurturing people through the gap in the door.

By the time we got to our motel in Tappahannock I was fuzzy from the monstrous cans of warm Budweiser we’d bought from a supermarket and the musky heat of my backseat cocoon. I ate my burrito on the maroon bedspread, satiny as scales, while Lor and Michael fussed and flirted. I brushed my teeth and got changed, sprawling my things along the carpet. When Lor went to pull back her bedspread, she gave out a yelp. On the sheet was a brown bug, smaller than the head of a tack. Lor yelped again, and then flicked the bug onto the ground, shaking out the sheets. She called the reception and asked to be placed in another room. The car park was hardly full, but they told her they were booked out.

Lor went down to the reception and Michael and I watched TV. When she came back she was furious. I watched her scurry around, Michael agreeing with everything she said. They felt like strangers, like I was a stranger, and how strange it was that the three of us had come together in this small, sad room. After an hour on the phone, trying to get a discount on another room in another motel, Lor decided we would leave and went back down to the reception for a refund. I was tired and irritated and packed my dirty clothes into my backpack. I said nothing, and sat on the bed and waited. Lor and Michael fumbled around with their suitcases and then sat down and had a drink, went to the bathroom and changed the channel on the TV that levitated below the ceiling, and brushed their teeth. Repeat.

When the door knocked no one made a move to answer it. When it knocked again Lor opened the door. There were two cops, meaty looking and near-identical, standing under the fluorescent hall light. They glanced behind Lor into the room, at the mess that was in the slow process of being cleaned, and told us we were trespassing and asked to see our IDs. I got my licence out of my wallet and Lor did the same. Michael sat on the bed and told us not to hand them over. I ignored him and gave my ID to the cop closest to the door. He was confused by the glittering Queensland license, looking at me and then the licence, back to me again. He asked me to step outside. He asked me for my passport and asked me what I was doing here, and if I was on drugs. I told him I was on holidays and that I wasn’t on drugs, and he continued to be confused.

The cops told Michael to come outside while Lor and I lugged everything through the door. He followed them into the hallway, but refused to give the cops his ID. Michael was a good head taller than either of them and stood his ground, even when one of them had his baton raised above his head, jaw clenched, ready to strike. Michael’s face was blank and dripping sweat. People came from their rooms to watch. Later, when I’d retell the story, I’d mimicking the cops “ID or gaol!” mantra in a neanderthalic drawl, but in the moment I was definitely about to vomit and definitely sure I was going to be deported.

Lor talked him down. Michael showed them his ID and we sat in the car in silence while Michael breathed like a bull and Lor stroked his knee. We’d planned to spend the morning in Washington, D.C., but instead, we shot through the city while it was still dark, the monuments eerie and blue like a museum after hours.

Emily O'Grady is a PhD candidate at QUT. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Westerly, Mascara Literary Review, and Award Winning Australian Writing.