We wanted to look at the stars but this was the wrong place. We were right in the middle of his father’s land—cornfields all around and his father’s truck idling in the driveway a hundred yards away, front lights casting a fuzzy circle on the silo, rear lights illuminating the truck’s huffing exhaust. It wasn’t moving but the beast was awake and watching our lights before it made any decisions. We pulled into the driveway to turn around and then our car stalled, half on the road and half off, so that we were balanced like in an action film where the heroes and villains get trapped in the same car which hangs perilously over a precipice.
“This would be the perfect place to get stuck,” I said.
“Yeah,” he told me, “my dad has half a dozen cars we could borrow.”
For a minute, I couldn’t tell who was the hero and who was the villain. But the engine turned over and we backed out and drove twenty minutes to G_____.
We stopped at a park to see the stars but the clouds had rolled over the town. So instead we looked at the playground and the gray sky instead.
“We used to come here as kids and slide down that slide, which kind of sucks.” He was walking an awkward ten feet behind me, trying not to blow smoke anywhere near my face. “And roll down the hill. You can’t really see the bottom from the top and a lot of times there would be puddles there. We’d hit them and try to stand up but it’s impossible. The ground’s uneven so we’d just keep falling down, over and over, and laughing our asses off. Our aunts would watch, laughing too.”
I turned away from the hill, too cold to stay still, and walked across the lot to a maple which had had turned so golden that the sod around it glowed. I exposed a bit of ground with my foot so that I could get to the dirt more easily, and began to push my toe into the earth. I rushed to pierce the skin when I heard him getting closer.
“That’s a playhouse, right there. Sometimes my grandparents come back from that place and they’re just so happy.” He flicks the rest of his cigarette away from the leaves and we get back in the car.
All week he came home after the sun had set, when all the colors had been sucked out, leaving only turquoise and black and white. And then we’d go out. For the first five days I saw Iowa only at night. It’s not lit up like Boston or New York, it’s not pink and picture-ready. It’s not like being inside of city inside of a hangar, like Brooklyn. It’s not like being cradled in two conifer-covered hands pressed up to a purple sky, like Colorado. It’s not like being on the set for a movie about a futuristic factory, like Providence. It’s not like being at a buzzy and warm-wet porch-party, like Austin. It’s more like when you drive from here to there.
It is dark and you can only estimate the shapes of buildings when there are lamps on– between the yellow rectangles there is a wall. If you keep going to the right or left and don’t find another rectangle, well, then at some point the house must have ended.
A month earlier he had flown to Boston and I had given him only nights. Over dinner he looks tired and I mention it. Actually he looks horrible and I mention he looks tired. Over burgers, he tells me that he just finished radiation but wasn’t going to tell me because the cancer is gone and a year from now it will just be something that happened to his body. He is a person who believes things like: radiation can be over, the past becomes irrelevant, if one is strong, radiation can be over and the past becomes irrelevant, if the past is not over it is because you are not strong. I don’t believe any of these things but I believe other things, and I believe them strongly enough that I stay with him.
We drive around cities like that—looking at sets of windows hovering one or two stories above the farmland, above the sidewalk, above some distant dirt, and he tells me about them. His grandparents’ house and then their farm hands’. His father’s house and then his mother’s. Where he went to elementary school and middle school and high school and where his mother did and where his grandfather did, and the hospital where he was born. Where his high school counselor lives who he says is a lesbian but really actually a man who just couldn’t bear to come out. Where he used to live before he moved to L.A. and where he used to live just a few months ago. This sequence of illuminated rectangles.
I try to make a mental map. Over Mexican food, in the middle of the trip, I realize for the first time that he wants me to catalog all of this because it might be relevant. He is passing along the facts.
A month earlier at the next dinner, this time pasta, we are in the restaurant across from my apartment and I can see that my lights are on. He tells me about how a year before the cancer he was raped and impregnated. And then he got an abortion and HPV and then some cervical cancer. He tells me he is having kidney problems. It is his last night in town and I sleep with the lights on. Then he leaves and I don’t sleep at all until he comes back a few weeks later.
He drives us to a park with a gazebo across from a Church of Christ. He lists all of his girlfriends and everything that everyone of them ever did to hurt him. Then he tells me how he hurt them. He talks about everyone who’s ever been suicidal and about Kurt Cobain and when he can buy the car of his dreams. He points, “This used to be a high school, my grandma went here. But then they tore it down because they had turned it into a middle school and then they built a new high school and turned the old high school into the new middle school.” I can barely follow this. I see a time-elapse film of construction workers raising the building, changing the signs, razing the building. The whole night is like this: rapid motion history lessons from people in heavy-duty clothing.
He comes back to Boston for two days and looks worse. It is clear that he is not taking care of himself. If he is taking care of himself, something else is overtaking the care. I agree to fly back with him to help. The night before we leave he tells me that the cancer is back, that it’s spread to his kidneys, that they’re removing one kidney, that it’s stage 2 or stage 4 but they don’t know which.
The first time we go out during the day, I realize how many mortuaries there are. One every few blocks or maybe we’re driving in circles but there’s always one close by. The rest of the town is alienating in its familiarity. It looks just like the rest of rundown suburban America except that the chains are all different from the ones I’m used to. The shapes and colors of the buildings are familiar but instead of the store names I expect, there are others—ones I’ve never heard before which sound like parodies. It’s like being trapped in a movie which is trying to evoke America without copyright enfringement.
“I’m going to have to quit again, which fucking sucks. And my oncologist is going to kill me.” He says this the first day I arrive and tells me it’s just one cigarette a day. But I tell him I don’t mind and he starts up full-force.
We eat dinner at a restaurant. He sleeps most of the time. He gets home and smokes weed and sleeps most of the time. He wakes up and we drive into the black and turquoise night. He sleeps most of the time. When he is awake we eat dinner at restaurants and he tells me the whole story of his life in a list. In several parallel lists that make his life sound more terrible than it could possibly have felt. He says he is ready to put this life behind him and move on and finally do the stuff he wants to do. We spent a lot of time talking about using and not using heroin—which means we spent a lot of time not using heroin. And then we spent a lot of time talking about using and not using methadone.
His family doesn’t know. He warns me because his cousin is coming to get a haircut and is going to use the wrong name and the wrong pronouns and bring a puppy. The cousin brings a puppy and a girlfriend and uses the wrong name and wrong pronouns. It is disorienting only because the cousin is saying “Becky” which strangers haven’t called me since I was 7. But, of course, he isn’t using it on me. “He doesn’t know anything,” he tells me. None of them do. When I go, he will be alone again, in the apartment, at night.
“I don’t know why he insists on leaving this,” he put away the hair clippers and waves a ten dollar bill that his cousin had set on the counter, “I used to hold him when he was a baby.”