MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The hills around the freeway were a dusty yellow, showing wear from months of drought. Winter rain hadn’t settled in yet, and the last few years had been absent any significant storms.
I was not good at having confrontations, so I was fleeing again.
After you’ve driven through Mojave, California, there isn’t much left in the way of towns as you head north. An airplane graveyard sparks up from the dry brush a few miles out, where pickup trucks with DON’T TREAD ON ME stickers drive fast on narrow roads. The kind of roads that lead into vast desert nothingness, punctuated only by rusted, spray-painted freight trains that roll slowly toward one border or another.
Outside Mojave, red rocks spring up before giving back over to flat, dusty land dotted with wind-worn white crosses jutting out at different mile markers by the road, signifying people who didn’t make it home.
This emptiness, of places long past their boom—mining towns and turn-of-the-century company towns—felt comfortable to me. I looked for burned-out ghost towns next to long-shuttered convenience stores, because I liked to think about the limitations of what someone’s imagination could build out here.
I stopped at one such relic on my drive, enticed by a sign that looked newer than anything else alongside the road, announcing FROG BALLS FOR SALE. The store’s glass doors were grimy and locked, the shelves dusty and half filled with faded boxes of Hamburger Helper and milky-hazed jars of what I could only assume were floating frog balls. This ghost town was not all that different from other roadside stops I had made before—it was just missing a burned-out Cadillac out front. Here, freestanding motel bungalows with broken-down doors lined the two-lane road, evidence of a simpler time. One such bungalow had been converted into a bar with a rotting piano inside, with bottles strewn across tables and yellowed American flags serving as both window dressing and curtains to diffuse the light. It was the kind of place that looked like bad things happened there—both when it was up and running, and now.
“Evelyn was not a mistake.”
I repeated this a few times as I walked through the bungalows. Each time, I changed how I emphasized my name. I tried the sentence as a question, too, wondering if a question mark had ever been considered instead of a period. It was a sentence my husband, Bobby, had written on the third page of his journal. I don’t know why I picked it up and flipped through it, but I wasn’t sorry.
Route 395 along the Eastern Sierras is my favorite drive in California, because it is both desolate and alive with people looking for an exit from their lives. I had done it before—alone and not—a number of times and was always charmed by the seeming lawlessness of this stretch of California. On the open road I never saw highway patrol or police of any kind, and I could drive well over the limit until I hit a speed-trap town, where I’d go from ninety to thirty-five before I reached the first stoplight or a lumbering RV slowing things down as the road narrowed from highway to Main Street every forty miles or so.
I always found someone to pace with on my drive—usually a pickup truck or some other loner to align myself with. I wondered where they were going and made up stories about a soldier just home or a rancher heading to his land. Always men, because men always seemed to be going somewhere alone. The women I saw were part of family units: passengers in SUVs or drivers for packs of sporty children. I didn’t often see women like me—women heading to an unknown destination, alone.
On my drive this time, near the turnoff to a gas station, a motorcyclist entered the highway. I could tell immediately it was a woman, the way her leather jacket clung to her slim frame. She and I drove side by side for miles and I made up stories about her: tried to answer what might be in the small pack she had tied at the back of the bike, what color her hair was under her helmet, if we were close in age or not. And where she was going and if there was anything stopping her from riding away from her life forever.
When cars slowed her down, I let her slide in front of me. On the road, as we paced each other, she became my ideal, the kind of person I wanted to be. And before she turned off to the road that led to Death Valley, she looked at me and nodded. My heart soared at this acknowledgment. I slowed to watch her become a black speck disappearing on the horizon and imagined that one day I would be able to find freedom, too.
My phone rang, and I looked at the console to see Bobby’s name. I considered not picking up, but after three rings I punched Accept.
“Did you see my texts?”
I looked down at my phone and saw I had missed six.
“They’re not coming through for some reason.”
“I don’t know why that keeps happening. You need to get your phone checked.”
“What time are you leaving work?”
“I have to stay late. A few more hours at least,” I said.
“Maybe pick up something for us to eat before you do?”
“Just get whatever.”
He hung up before I could say anything else. I looked in the rearview. No one was behind me, so I slowed to pull a U-turn and reluctantly headed back to Los Angeles.
I stopped at the grocery store in our neighborhood before I got home, charging the credit card we shared to conserve the money I had in my own account. I didn’t want to tell Bobby that I was no longer employed, because I didn’t want the questions—did I get laid off, did I get fired, was I being impulsive again. Instead, I kept quiet and found places to go during work hours. My former employer was nice enough to give me six weeks of severance, even though I was pretty sure I didn’t deserve it. He liked me. I liked him. It was a no-fault situation. That’s what I told myself, anyway. I sent a thank-you note, because I was nothing if not thoughtful and I wanted him to think I was a good person. I was squirreling away as much severance as I could into my meager savings account—for the future.
When I got home, Bobby wasn’t in our apartment, but I assumed he’d be back soon, so I got to cooking. I made an entire meal and ate it, and he still did not come home. I went to sit on our patio to have a drink, and then another—not to wait for him exactly, and not to get drunk exactly.
Sitting on the patio, taking frequent sips from my glass, I noticed a small bird body quivering in the dusk light. I put my glass down and leaned over to get a closer look. His feet were curled around the rim of my hummingbird feeder, and his small, feathered body convulsed, eyes closed, tongue lurching in and out of his beak.
I hadn’t expected to spend my evening watching a hummingbird die. But I didn’t know he was dying just then. I thought he might have been sleeping, or, foolishly, I thought he was just resting.
There’s a woman to call when you find a hummingbird in distress. I dialed her number while staring at the bird as he swayed forward and back. When I explained the symptoms, and the sway, she told me the bird was dying. She said it was experiencing an excruciating death. She said I could help it along to ease its suffering.
I found a box and a hand-towel and made a bed for him. I cupped my hands around his tiny bird body and was surprised that his feet would not move. I tried to pull at him again, gently, and finally the bird gave in to me. I laid him down on the towel, tucked him in, and took him inside. It was one thing to feed a bird and another to become responsible for its life, or snuffing it out.
Outside, in the dusk light, the hummingbird’s feathers were a dirty brown, but inside each feather shimmered a brilliant magenta and teal. I tried to quantify the size of each feather, anticipating one day telling the story at a dinner party of how I played death doula to a bird, and couldn’t find an appropriate equivalent. Smaller than a snowflake? What would sound good in the retelling? Why had I immediately assumed it to be “he”? I had read that male birds always had superior plumage to females, in order to attract. Males held the power and the beauty.
The name of the woman on the phone was Helen, and I kept saying things like “That’s terrible to hear, Helen,” and “Are you sure he won’t survive, Helen?” and “Oh, that sounds awful, Helen.” I wondered if she thought I had made the bird sick—if she was silently judging me during the call. I worried that I was the cause of his suffering. Helen told me if I was calling her I cared enough to have not been the cause.
She hoped that I cared enough to kill it.
Helen told me to crush up an anti-inflammatory pill and mix it with the simple syrup I made each day for the mass of hummingbirds that would migrate to our feeders. She said to mix in one crushed tablet of my anxiety medication, to let the hummingbird go to sleep. She told me it would be okay, that doing this would not make me a bad person. To make me feel better, she kept saying it was going to die anyway. I found my bottle of Xanax at the bottom of my purse, took one myself, and broke another half pill to crush up and mix with the syrup. I found an eyedropper and took all the steps Helen advised.
The bird did not die right away.
I spent hours with him, dropping the mixture onto his tongue, hoping he would take the sip that would finally dull his pain. The agony was in the waiting. At one point, his feathers stopped shivering with iridescent light. His eyes opened and I hoped he saw me trying to help. I refilled the dropper over and over and finally watched the bird lie down on his side, tucked into the seams of the towel, and breathe easier. Convulse less.
In the aftermath, all I felt was a kind of blankness. I buried him in one of our potted plants on the patio, in the shadow of a succulent.
Copyright © 2020 by Karolina Waclawiak