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As we drove toward the Gulf of Mexico in my wheezing hand-me-down car with a backseat full of unfolded state maps, a sun-bleached atlas, and fast food sacks stuffed with gas station receipts and waxy candy-wrapper origami, we listened to every song we could think of that cued us to yell “drive” or “summer” or “go” long and loud during the chorus. On the interstate, we lowered the car windows and let the wind wrack our heads, hot and thundering, whipping the pages of books and churning my ratted ponytail. We had agreed, even before making a packing list or borrowing a tent, on the basics, and that one had been Lee’s idea: car windows down as much as possible.
When Lee drove, I snapped photos out the window of the road signs as they whizzed by. I fed a Neil Young CD into the stereo when we ran out of raucous traveling songs. Lee smoked and softly sang along. We mauled diner cheeseburgers and dropped quarters into small-town jukeboxes all along the way and ripped rodeo fliers from community bulletin boards as keepsakes in Nashville.
At night, to fight off drowsiness, we talked. Listed the middle names of all our family members, played slapdash versions of Truth or Dare, described our favorite Twilight Zone plots and then invented our own scary stories. “Once upon a time, there was an adult,” went mine; I drew my voice out deep and low and winced as oncoming headlights passed over my face, “and she went to work in an office every single day, and she forgot what it was like to drive fast and go on road trips and eat hot dogs for every meal, and she got married to a boring guy and had two boring kids and was boring for the rest of her boring life.”
“Wow,” said Lee. “Truly chilling.”
While we were grilling hot dogs on our camp-issued grill in Mississippi, the man camping next to us noticed that we didn’t have a lantern (despite our weeks of planning sessions and one massive trip to Walmart, we’d somehow forgotten this one item, which we hated; it made us look unprepared when we were determined to appear the opposite) and invited him to take a spare one he had rattling around in the back of his pickup truck. I could hear them from our site. Then he offered a beer, no way of knowing Lee was nineteen, of course, “and one for your lady,” offering another.
“She’s my sister, actually,” said Lee. Just a few days after leaving, we had agreed on this version of the truth after realizing that the facts—we were friends, just friends, camping in a tent together for two weeks—confused neighborly strangers. A brother and sister explanation never raised eyebrows—most times it did the opposite, made people fold with tenderness—and felt easier to slip into than the real truth anyway. We both read a lot and did a lot of thinking, and I think we both knew that our friendship would last a long time if we didn’t do anything stupid to break it. Brother and sister felt correct: two people who had a special understanding of each other, chugging along side-by-side through the South. When I was around, I liked to jump in and embellish the lie further.
“Twins!” a motherly park ranger had repeated after me in Mississippi, shaking her head, overcome. “What a blessing.”
Lee thanked the man for the lantern and trudged the few feet of gravel road back to our site, holding the cans in the crook of one elbow. I was lying on my back just outside the tent, holding a thick paperback high over my head like a roof, shading my face while I read. The air was gleaming and hot with sunset. “Will I like this?” I asked, squinting up at him as I reached for the can.
Lee had been drinking bad beer since he was fifteen. He told me the taste wasn’t really the point. I shrugged and pulled on the tab and the can hissed and foamed. “Goodbye, cruel world,” I said as I tipped my head back. The taste of aluminum, the salty sweat of my upper lip.
By Birmingham, I’d been driving for most of the day, so Lee offered to fill up the gas tank. I was wearing a sundress and boys’ Goodwill sneakers, chewing on a stick of beef jerky in the parking lot, thinking about how I wanted to get drunk at the Gulf of Mexico. When he walked by to pay inside, I told him so. I’d been thinking about the cheap beer from the day before, but I didn’t know what to buy.
“Depends how you want to feel while you drink it,” Lee said. I loved him for those words. I’d never been drunk before, really, but I could imagine how I wanted to feel exactly: barefoot and grimy and young, sitting in the salty muck of the Gulf, breathing Lee’s cigarette smoke, like I never had to leave.
“Disgusting,” I lisped through a mouthful of jerky.
We went inside together, through the cool rush of the automatic doors, past shelves of brightly wrapped candy to the alcohol section. We walked through aisles of dusty wine bottles, sleek and dark, and I cooed over the names, the dramatic descriptions on the labels. I held up a bottle of bourbon with two hands, framing it like a spokesmodel, and asked Lee what it tasted like. What kind of cocktails you made with it. He said “cocktails” weren’t exactly his specialty. I trailed my fingers along the bottles as I shopped, like a collector at an antiques mart, and asked what was sweet, what was fizzy, what was complicated and mysterious. Asked what was good mixed with Coke, with lemonade, with Red Bull—strolling slowly down the lit, buzzing beverage fridges.
Finally I stopped again in front of the shelf packed with rows of fat whiskey bottles and turned to Lee, holding my shoulders in a half-shrug. “Eh?”
“The right place to feel disgusting.”
“Gotta start somewhere,” I said, and picked the cheapest one. Lee touched my wrist and guided the bottle back onto the shelf.
“This is a special occasion,” he said. He rooted in his wallet and handed me a ten-dollar bill. “I’ll put in. Let’s get the real stuff.”
At the counter, I chattered through the transaction, suddenly nervous that the clerk would look to Lee for ID, too—I read the names of cigarettes out loud, asking Lee if he’d tried this or that, Gold and Ultra and Lites. Laughed hard at plastic keychains chattering together, blaring bitter jokes about wine and wives. The clerk didn’t ask either of us for ID. Outside on the pavement, I lugged the plastic bag with the whiskey into the back seat with one hand and it slid over the layer of park maps and paperbacks. I pushed the receipt deep into the glove compartment. I loved the idea of finding little bits of our trip in the months to come, when I was off looking at strange apartments or driving to job interviews. Then I unfolded the map on the roof of the car while Lee plunked into the driver’s seat. I bent down, peering at him, clapped my hands for punctuation and said, “Saltwater. Let’s find it.”
Once we drove within thirty miles of the Gulf of Mexico, a mist descended on everything, warm and wet. My camera lens clouded. Then came the tourist attractions blinking from the side of the highway, neon and shrill, souvenirs and seafood. And soon I shrieked, reached with one hand to throttle Lee’s shoulder as he drove—there was the shimmering water drowning the landscape, and the sunset streaming pink and red above it.
It was dark by the time we pulled up to our campsite. The car rattled from the effort as it cooled, and the lantern only spat out enough light to make us laugh and to attract wildly buzzing insects. I set up our tent while Lee unpacked our sleeping bag rolls and the grilling supplies, grimy with grease and cheap charcoal. The hot dogs charred in the darkness. I sat down at the picnic table and Lee sat across from me, the lantern between us, the bugs diving and circling.
I couldn’t believe we were really there—the saltwater so close we could sleepwalk into it—and said so, hugging my knees from my side of the knobby table, and Lee agreed with a grin. We sat for a moment in the pocket of silence, the rare absence of conversation, craning our necks to squint at the shadowy tops of palm trees above us. Then we picked up our blackened food and bit in. Ketchup dripped on our paper plates.
“We live here now,” I said.
“I like our house,” he said. I snorted into my food. “And our backyard is pretty good.” The Gulf jangled with noise, frogs chirping and insects creaking and singing. Who knew what else. There was a sign posted at the shadowy edge of our campsite, where the ground melted into black water: BEWARE OF CROCODILES. I pointed at it and we cracked up, imagining waking up to a crocodile sleeping between us, having brought its own sleeping bag; crawling out of the tent in the dewy morning to a crocodile standing on its stumpy back legs, cooking breakfast, trilling I made coff-eeeee!
“Or a crocodile passed out with an empty bottle of whiskey in its paws,” Lee said.
“Paws,” I said. “Right, crocodiles probably have paws. God, I kinda want to open that whiskey now.”
“We have to wait,” he said. “It’s for the Gulf. We’re so close, we can’t blow it now.”
“What if we went to the beach now?” I said. I couldn’t tell if I was joking, but when Lee asked me if I was, I said no.
“You do understand it’s pretty likely that we’ll die this way,” Lee said. We were high-stepping our way down the murky shoreline from our campsite in tall rubber boots my dad had made us pack. Lee was ahead of me. I had my index finger hooked in his back jeans pocket and the whiskey bottle jostling heavy in my backpack. The ground sucked at our feet like a giant mouth. I watched the globe of the flashlight float ahead of us. I could close my eyes and see just as much as I could with them open.
“I’m okay with that,” I said.
“Our bodies could just float out to sea,” he said.
“Get eaten by whales.”
“Or rescued by dolphins.”
There was no gate, like we thought there might be. We crouched at the edge of the beach where it opened up, wide and public in the dark, studded with lifeguard stands and beach chair kiosks. “Don’t move,” I said to Lee, and leaned on him while I bent one leg and pulled off my boot. Somewhere far off in my mind, I was aware of making excuses to touch him.
“This is good,” he said. “If someone sees us and we get caught, this is your defense—the flamingo.”
“Except we won’t get caught,” I said. I knew this was true as much as I knew my own name, that if there was a God, he wouldn’t allow us to get caught. We were meant to be here, roaming the cooling sand, as much as the noisy water or the yawn of sky; we were just as much a part of the plan.
I took Lee’s hand.
“We’re on our honeymoon,” I said. “If we get caught. We won’t get caught, but if we do. We just got married and we’re on our honeymoon and we’re two young people in love that no cop would ever send to jail.”
“And we had no idea that walking the beach after dark was illegal,” Lee said. His hand felt big in mine. “Two dumb young people in love.”
“We won’t get caught,” I said again.
We stepped from the shore, out of the tall grass, onto the open stretch of sand. I heard nothing but the rush and swallow of the water, the buzzing of the city down the road. No other people in sight. Lee switched off the flashlight and we walked in the blue moonlight. We kept holding hands and we didn’t say anything. After a few minutes, Lee crouched in the sand. “Let’s sit,” he said. He let go of my hand and tugged at my arm like a diver on a rope, two quick pulls to let me know all was well in the depths. I sat next to him and heaved my backpack into my lap. I unscrewed the whiskey bottle with the damp hem of my dress. We smelled like swamp, like wetness and moss and seaweed. We smelled like mermaids. I took a drink of the whiskey before passing the bottle to Lee; one swallow made me sputter and shiver. Goosebumps prickled all over me. Lee laughed and I bumped him with my shoulder. He took a drink, too.
“I wish we really could live here,” I said. “Or at least never leave.” I’d promised my parents that when we got home I’d actually start the process of finding a post-college job. I could see my whole life unspooling in front of me: college to prepare for a job, then a job, an office that would file me down like a river rock and wring the life out of me, this life, the wet Gulf air and ashy grill grit in my hair and the car-window brightness bringing out freckles on my arms like shadows in a photo developing in a chemical bath. I had spent so many hours trying to find what I wanted, but whenever I thought I’d found it, whenever the bell rang deep inside of me, the context didn’t make any sense: country songs on the interstate, the sunshine smell inside my elbows, sitting in the damp sand of the Gulf with my ass wet, slugging whiskey with Lee. As much as I loved those moments, none of them added up to a plan, and I was pressed against a deadline; life demanded a plan. I wanted to change that about life, not just mine but the whole thing, living, being alive: why couldn’t I stay in the places I loved best?
Lee passed the bottle back to me, and when he did, I turned my face and kissed him. He put his hand on my hair. My lips burned from the whiskey and the pressure of his mouth on mine. Even as it was happening, I was thinking: now Lee and I have kissed. I was thinking: this will never happen again. It was a kiss like a punctuation mark, an ellipsis full of longing; I wish we really could live here… I could hear it repeating; I wish we could stay. A kiss that wanted to say more than I could say myself, full of more words than I knew how to pronounce.
I pulled my mouth away from Lee’s and together we made a small version of the sound of the Gulf, the suction of the water breaking at the shore.
We stared at our feet for a few moments, half-buried in the clumping sand. Lee asked if I was crying, turning his face to see mine in the dim light, and I said I might have been. My armpits stung with new sweat.
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” he said, in a voice that sounded different from Lee, far away and smaller—like Lee, I thought, mind spinning from the whiskey, if Lee was being swallowed by a whale.
I told him what I was thinking. How sad I felt about the way life worked, always pushing us forward, letting everyone die, everything be lost. Stupid things to be sad about, irreversible, unchangeable things. “I’m a little drunk,” I said. I never drank.
Lee was quiet. He lowered himself onto his back in the sand with his arms up above his head, his whole body open. He pointed up above us, into the sky, the mouth of outer space. “Somewhere out there,” he said, “are billions of universes. More than billions. Enough universes to make billions of you.” He’d read a book about it. In some universes, all the rules would be changed enough that I’d never have to give anything up or say goodbye to anyone. In at least one universe, my life really would be to sit in the sand of the Gulf at night, drinking whiskey with him. I got one night that would never end, that would be my whole life, and I’d be alive forever there. That was science, he said. Proven and real. Somewhere, this was the world.
I didn’t know if it was true. But I held the idea inside me. Like an egg safe in a nest. I laid on my back next to Lee, both of us with our arms above our heads like we were jumping, falling, diving through deep water, trying to sink as fast as we could to the bottom. He lit a cigarette and hummed Neil Young: I was thinkin’ of you and me. I was thinkin’ bout you and me. He’d cut his teeth on those songs when he learned to play guitar.
“Cool honeymoon,” I said. I didn’t want him to think I was sad anymore.
“’Til we get eaten by alligators,” he said, and I screamed “CROCODILES!” and then we laughed so loud that he stuck his cigarette in the sand and put both of his big hands over my mouth, telling me the troops were coming, the sharks would hear us, we were about to get eaten, go to prison, get dragged out to sea. His fingers tasted like tobacco and dirt. The sky spun. The stars spat and gleamed and burned out.
Rain falling on the tent woke us, the noise spreading, insistent and sharp as applause. We gathered our pillows, Lee crouched to roll our sleeping bags, and then we ran to the picnic table, holding our bundles above our heads. We slumped against each other, side-by-side in the blue light of very early morning, our cold bare feet on the benches, looking down at matted patches of marshmallow and sour spilled beer. We’d forgotten to put out the lantern; it buzzed next to us, still hauling in bugs. I thought about going back to the Gulf in the daytime, in the light of the whole world, the lifeguards and seagulls; I pictured us walking onto the beach full of our secrets, Lee and me cannonballing into the saltwater among all the whales and crocodiles and seaweed and bobbing up again, clean and buoyant.