by Shannon L. Bowring
He searches for her along roads that look like scars winding their way through barren landscapes. He shows her picture to dozens of tired waitresses, indifferent tourists, cynical cops who all see the hopeless face of a long-lost memory in the faded Polaroid the man waves at them. “See that mark there, under her right eye? That’s from where she fell off her bike when she was seven. Are you sure you haven’t seen her around here?”
His story is too familiar. He is searching for another lost soul. In a roadside café in Texas, an old man with thick black hair and wind-roughened skin advises him to ease up on the search. “Ain’t gonna find her, son. We’ve all lost girls like that, some time or another. Best just let her go, boy. Get to movin’ on.”
But he only moves on further down the road, desperate to find her. As he drives through the night, down the endless black ribbon of highway, the wind whips through the window, soaring in his ears in a deafening roar. The radio stopped working somewhere in Oklahoma, in the middle of an old Tom Petty song. He’d been thinking of her laughing mouth and slim brown legs when the music suddenly went silent, replaced by an incessant static that filled his brain with confusion. The roar from the wind is easier to hear; it obscures the echo of their last conversation.
Westward, he thinks, westward. That’s where she will be. She’s never seen the Pacific Ocean, and she always talked about seeing it, about running into that blue water and feeling the sea embrace her. She comes from the plains, has always lived among endless, flat lands that stretched as far as the eye could see. She would go to the ocean, he thinks, and so he seeks her there. They will meet by the sea and forgive one another, fall upon the sand and make love to the rhythm of the waves rolling in. Westward, westward.
In Arizona he buys her a turquoise necklace from a wizened brown-faced woman who holds one of his hands in both of hers and places it upon her chest, where he can feel the hummingbird dance of her ancient heartbeat. “You may not find what you are looking for, dear,” she says, “but that is how it goes for most of us.” He kisses the woman on her wrinkled cheek, overcome with tenderness towards her.
Back in the car, roar of wind in his ears, he continues west. He imagines the touch of her fingertips upon his chest, tracing his ribs, trailing down to his hips. The memory of her lips upon his flushed skin makes him press the gas pedal harder as he hurtles on through the night to find her.
He crosses the border into California in a daze, road-weary, exhausted from hunger and thirst. He tells himself it won’t be much longer; he will find her soon, maybe within the next day. The ocean isn’t far now. She will be waiting for him. Maybe she’s gotten a hotel room, or rented a seaside cottage for them to share when he arrives. Maybe she will be wearing that long white skirt he loves so much, the one that swishes around her legs when she walks.
It begins to rain, forcing him to roll up the window. And now the wind-roar is gone, leaving only the hum of the wheels to drown out the memory of their last conversation. It isn’t enough. He can hear it all in his mind. How her voice had shaken with restrained tears, how his had been slurred and angry. He’d screamed at her, blinded and overwhelmed by his own sense of guilt and failure. And then she’d left, and he had waited, like he’d waited all the times before when she’d gone and come back home to him, after he was sober again. He waited for her to walk through the door, crawl onto his lap, kiss him, lead him to the bedroom. He waited for a week, two, six weeks, until finally he realized she wasn’t coming back. Then he had remembered all those times she’d talked about going to the ocean. He’d climbed into his car. Westward, westward, that’s where she would be. Where she had to be. Waiting in a new, unfamiliar place. Waiting to be found.
Now he is nearly there. He is starving; he hasn’t eaten since Arizona. It is 8:00 at night; something will still be open. He spots a roadside bar and stops in, telling himself he is only there to get some buffalo wings and fries before moving on. He enters, feels pulled toward the bar – an old habit, unthinking. As he makes his way across the room, he barely sees the other tables or booths; his sights are fixed upon the rows of glistening glass bottles lined up along the wall behind the bartender. When he orders his food, he asks for a beer –not thinking until it is placed in front of him that he probably shouldn’t be drinking. But one will be fine, one won’t do any harm.
The food comes. He orders a second beer, saying to himself that it is to cool down his mouth from the spiciness of the buffalo sauce. He finishes his meal and orders a scotch on the rocks, unable to think of an excuse this time, unable to care to make one up. A television is playing in the corner and he stares at it as he drinks. A commercial comes on for baby food, and the laughing, dimply-cheeked infant brings to his mind a flash of rage, the dull, aching memory of their last conversation.
It was a Tuesday night. He stumbled into the kitchen, found her sitting at the table. His mouth felt like cotton, tasted like stale cardboard and regret; the sour smell of perspiration lingered on his skin. Through a fog, he noticed the suitcase at her feet. And then she was shaking her head at him, crying, telling him what she’d done. He began to shake – with panic or anger, he didn’t know. He’d wanted it, he told her; he’d thought they had agreed on a plan. “I couldn’t,” she said, “not if you’re always going to be like this.” He refused to listen; his vision was blurry from the last drink he’d gulped down at the bar before taking a taxi home. “I would’ve changed,” he screamed, “I can change, damn it, just give me a chance for Christ’s sake.” But she said she’d given him enough chances; his getting fired was the last straw, no one could raise a child in a life like that. “Drunk, unemployed father,” she said, tears spilling down her face. “I can’t do that to a child, I couldn’t do it alone, so I did what I had to do.”
At the bar, he asks for a second scotch, and then, after only a brief moment of hesitation, a third. He stares into the amber liquid in his glass. Laughter and the sound of chairs sliding against the floor drone in his ears. He orders another, surrendering his car keys over to the bartender. Another memory surfaces in his mind. “I’m going away,” she’d told him, slinging her purse over her shoulder. “Leaving this place for good. I’m tired of seeing all the same damn things day after day. You’re in everything here. Don’t come after me. You’d never even know where to look, anyway.”
The echo of words he has been trying to forget. With each passing mile, the words had grown fainter; each swallow of his poison now submerges the memories more completely. He had almost forgotten the magic to be found in an inch of amber liquid.
He starts on his fifth scotch and thinks maybe the woman in Arizona was right. Maybe no one finds what they’re searching for. Maybe they don’t even know what it is they’re looking for in the first place. Perhaps no one knows where to begin, or when to give up.
Later he finds himself outside without remembering leaving the bar. A chill is in the air. He stares up at the stars and thinks about how they look like tiny pieces of glass scattered across black pavement. He can hear the roar of the ocean in his brain. He turns and begins walking in what he thinks could be the right direction. (Westward, westward.) A murmur in his mind whispers hopeful words – What is lost can be found again. But then another voice, louder – What is lost is gone forever; what is lost can never be reclaimed. He goes forth, seeking her, a long-lost memory, another lost soul.
Shannon L. Bowring is twenty-five years old and lives in Maine. Reading and writing are the greatest loves of her life. She continues to write and submit her work, hoping and believing that one day, she will hold in her hands brand new copies of her own novels and collections of short stories.