Torn Map Cities by Mary Cafferty
We were in New York at the same time on New Year’s Eve, 2008. I could feel your presence in my skin, a subtle tug pulling me north like a wind but in reverse. I imagined you in a peacoat. I imagined you in a townhouse. I wasn’t in the Square, too many people. I stood underneath the bridge with my hands in my pockets testing the delicate ice with one scuffed shoe.
New York City. Too bright to ever see any real stars. When the New Year came around, I didn’t even need to check my watch. I already knew it had arrived.
In the morning, you got on a plane, though I got the impression you never really liked to fly. Something about being up that high with no connection to the earth. Not the fear that the plane would fall out of the sky but that it would never land again, that it would just arc with the turning curve of the sky and go on circling forever.
I felt you diminish inside of me and you have been diminishing ever since, the dull flame growing duller, the used up head of a once-lit match. I lost you for good somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. The last thought I had was of you sitting in a reclining airline seat, reading over the safety precautions, wondering how you would fare if you had to jump out over the ocean.
Everything else, I imagined.
The mountains open up in front of me, the subtle parting of the Berkshires always feels like a miracle, like the mountains arc out of the way just in time for the cars to pass through on the road. An act of the earth’s good will. One of the few signs from the earth that says, I want you to be here.
The ghost of you still lingers at the foot of the mountains though you passed through this way hours ago, maybe days, you are thin like a fog dissipating in midday sun. I pull my car into the breakdown lane, put my flashers on. Six in the morning, still dark, still cold, still still. I wait behind the wheel for seven measured minutes and only one vehicle passes me by, a tractor trailer truck, the driver eating a cheeseburger from a McDonald’s bag.
I open the car door and stand on the side of the road, the sparse grass wetting my ankles with its melting frost. I breathe out and the air comes out of me in a cloud and, believe it or not, that’s how I feel you most times, just the cloudy edges of you so delicate, if I tried to breathe, you’d break apart.
I put my hand against the side of the mountain and think about your heart beating in your car when you passed by this same stretch of road, when the mountains swung open for you like a door swings open, swift, all at once, the miracle of perspective.
The mountain is cold against my palm.
I pull my hand away and it is wet.
I get back into my car and start the engine. Christmas carols on the radio in January. A shame.
I don’t know how much you know of things like this, but there’s one lighthouse on the coast you can walk right up to. It’s positioned at the end of a breakwater that sticks out into the slate-gray sea like a bony finger made out of stone. If you knock on the door with a coffee for the lightkeeper, if you remember how he likes it, just so, a mix of French vanilla and hazelnut, he’ll let you in and he’ll lead you up to the light.
If you also bring a coffee for yourself, I know you like yours darker, less sweet, he will lean against the damp railing with you, and you can sip your coffees in comfortable silence, like you’re old friends that have been worn into familiarity like a well-loved map.
At night, you’ll be able to see the path the light takes over the black edge of the water. The masts of ships sticking up out of the harbor like stripped trees.
I sat with the lightkeeper last night; we kept a long watch. I asked him if he had ever seen you and he squinted out across the flat, black water. If you look closely, he said to me, if you really look close, you can see all sorts of ghosts out on the sea.
Your childhood home is on a windy street. I stand in front of the red door with my hand poised but I do not knock. I can feel you here but it’s a different feeling, not a pulling feeling like it is in every other place where you’ve been or where you’re going, but a feeling like you had worn the air of that house like a comfortable pair of jeans.
I put my hand down. The steps creak under my feet, the weathered wood reminds me of the deck of a ship. The morning is cold. I put my hands in my pockets.
I sit still at a bus stop a few blocks down, not too far away. I can still see the house’s frame, the windows looking out from the porch like blank eyes.
You are always ahead or behind or else you’re gone. I regret not walking up to the north side that New Year’s Eve, the time I knew you to be closest. We were moving toward one another like the hands of a clock that would never quite strike twelve. I didn’t think I would find you in your childhood home, sometimes I don’t think I’ll find you ever, but I wanted to take a moment to move in the same spaces you used to move. I feel the firm cold bench underneath me and think, Perhaps you waited for this same bus.
The bus never comes. Your mother leaves the house as the cold gray morning begins to lift. She picks up the newspaper from the porch. Her phone rings. She answers it. In the dim light, her face ignites with the suddenness of a candle.
Is it you?
Home is a refrain we can’t help but return to. It is a place that echoes inside of us and, eventually, we answer the echo. The pull of it is too strong to resist. I sit at my mother’s kitchen table, the spot where my father used to sit at the head well worn. Now that he’s died, no one sits in that chair.
My mother asks me what I’m thinking about. The house is quiet. I am allowing it to settle down inside of me, allowing the echo of the emptiness to quiet down my bones. The cat, an old cat with a drawn face, rubs up against my ankles. I tell my mother I am thinking about you.
She remembers little. She remembers a teenaged girl with twigs in her blonde hair. Green eyes, maybe. And then that’s all.
I don’t tell her that I keep having a strange vision of you, lying in a field, your arms spread out like wings, your blonde hair spilling out into the grass. In the background, a glistening cornfield. The stalks bob their heads. In that vision, you smile.
The cat purrs against my leg and the sound brings me back into the kitchen.
Do you think you’ll find her? my mother asks.
I don’t know.
In the winter, the cornfields are ghosts of their summer selves. Under a blanket of new-fallen snow, the yellowed stalks poke upward like discarded bones. Rows and rows, the road leads onward, a leaden ribbon separating the people from the ghosts.
I am losing my grip on you. I thought I might find you here among the corn, among the broken stalks. I thought I would drive my rental car along some winding back road and come upon you, standing in the middle of a field, red hat and green peacoat stark color against a drained landscape. It felt like a real thing. It felt like it had already happened.
Except that as I drive my car along the broken fields, tires crunching through ice and slush, I know it hasn’t happened. I can’t feel you here among the corn and the snow. The sky is too gray to bring you properly to light.
It snows hard here. The cropped fields are punctuated by barns and patches of sparse woods. I pull my car over to the side of the road and watch a fox among the trees.
Overhead, an airplane.
For a brief moment hope flares inside me. But then it dies. You are not there. I wonder if there exists anything on this earth that could bring you to me.
I haven’t felt you close to me in a long time.
It’s become my custom to just get in the car and drive. Moving forward is at least moving. Even if it is only moving toward an inevitable conclusion.
In Nevada, I stop at a roadside diner. I sit at the bar. I order a cup of coffee and a slice of pie. It is three o’clock in the morning. The waitress looks at me with tired eyes. I am the only person in the whole place.
I ask the waitress if she has ever spent a considerable amount of time looking for someone. She looks at me over her glasses and I know before she says, No, not really, that she has never felt the fog, the dim outline, the shape of a shadow the way I have all the time I’ve tried to follow you. I drink my coffee and it goes down warm. I can feel the warmth in the bottom of my stomach. It’s good to feel something real and here.
I want to tell the waitress about you, about how all my life it seems I’ve been trying to find you, following you from one place to the next without ever being able to end up in the same place at the same time. But the feeling. Pulling my skin. Wind in reverse.
I want to tell her that my biggest fear is feeling your life severed quickly. The connection broken, hung up like a telephone. I imagine I’d feel it as a deep pain, like being shot but duller, something that would spider outward until it would be impossible to tell the location of the original hurt.
When I finally return to my car, it feels like a decade has passed. I check my face in the mirror to make sure I haven’t gotten any older. The sky is tinged green and yellow at the edges, a healing bruise. A bird flies up.
Blacker than the lightening darkness, I think for a moment that the bird is a crack in the air itself. That maybe if the crack opened up just a little bit wider, you would ride out on an airplane, whole, here.
Mary Cafferty is an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, though she is constantly dreaming of the big Massachusetts sky. Her work has appeared in various journals in the US, UK, and Canada.