Goodbye to the land of sleet and snow. My windshield wipers beat back their cold. I pack my car to the brim while Peter is at work. My little dog Esther sleeps beside me in the passenger seat. I drive west.
I have been: a waitress, a cashier, a receptionist, a caterer, pissed off, hungry, a student, a slut (if you believe my ex, Peter—which you shouldn’t because he’s a liar).
I have never been: happy, a seeker.
Yet California beckons with its warm, yellow light. So goodbye to this. To Long Island. To drunks and bad men. To too many cigarettes. To my mother and father.
Goodbye to all that.
My older sister lives in California, with her husband and toddler. I will meet them there, making my destiny manifest. The paper map crinkles in my lap, telling me where to go and how to arrive.
The concrete and foliage along the highways of Pennsylvania couldn’t interest me less. I see the same thing projected over every mile, just by a different name.
Lo ng Is land
L O N G I S L A N D
In Ohio, a gale sends my car sideways. I bought the Oldsmobile from my father, a man who worked as a sales executive in the city but pinched pennies like a pauper. He ran his thin finger down the Kelley Blue Book listing until he calculated the price. I paid no less, not even by a cent.
He never cut me a break, not even when I was on my own and had nothing. Which is why I moved in with Peter after graduating from high school, class of ’83. Peter made enough as an elevator repairman to afford the rent on our splinter of an apartment. Another thing about Peter was that he liked Bud Light and pot more than he liked me, a fact I knew because when I asked him to cool it on the boozing, he backhanded me and split my lip. For two years, I worked as a caterer serving piles of shrimp and cheese fondue and pigs in a blanket to rich folks in the Hamptons. And for two years, I came home every night to find Peter drinking a beer and watching TV. I ate popcorn for dinner when we were low on cash. I avoided Peter’s wrath, often unsuccessfully.
One day, I catered a party for some asshole with slicked-back hair in Water Mill. He called all us girls “sweetie” and grabbed my ass, but he tipped me $40 in cash. The next day, I went to the pound. That money covered an adoption fee, a collar, some kibble. I hadn’t told Peter I wanted a dog. The dog was for me.
I spotted Esther in a small cage at the end of the corridor. Gumball eyes shining against a poof of brown fur, she quivered as I approached. But when I held her to my chest, her soft head brushed against my skin and she sighed with relief at being treated with tenderness. I burst into tears.
Peter had no patience for her. He lied about being allergic and shouted at her when she barked, and wouldn’t shut up about how I loved that fucking rat of a dog more than him. I knew it was only a matter of time before he hurt her. And so I planned and plotted and saved and, in early spring, we left.
I grip the wheel. I push on.
In Illinois, a man follows me in his red Pontiac. A creep with a mustache poking out below Ray-Bans. I change lanes, he changes lanes. I speed, he speeds.
And so on.
Esther wakes and yawns, her pink tongue a ribbon. She glances at me and growls. I feel a glimpse of fear, but push it back.
“Don’t worry, little girl,” I say. My brain calculates my escape. I need to stop for fuel and food, but not with this motherfucker tailing me. He probably thinks he has me tracked, that he has me scared.
Right where he wants me.
The creep doesn’t know that I’ve been running from assholes like him all my life.
How do you ditch a man? Try to kill him.
I move in tight alongside an 18 wheeler, the Pontiac riding my ass. Box him in. Then hit the brakes hard, so hard I know that if the creep weren’t so focused on my car, he’d hit me. I calculate correctly. He rises to meet my eyes in the rearview. I hit the gas. I do it one more time, to let him know I’m serious. Glimpse at my glovebox, where I’ve stowed a knife. I will him to know that, if he rear-ends me, I’ll cut his dick off. I’ll slash his fucking neck if he gives me the chance. Playing nice with men has, at times, kept me alive, but it won’t get me where I need to be.
The creep pulls off the expressway, flipping me the bird as he goes. I push the tank until it’s almost empty, then gas up and stop for a McDonald’s burger to share with Esther. The fizz of Coca-Cola tastes like victory.
I don’t stop again until Wyoming. I thought it would be ranch land, but the America I rush past all looks the same. A thousand flat copies of itself.
Nothing changes until Utah, where jagged red cliffs rise like hives. A land less tamed than any I’ve seen. The motel doesn’t allow pets, but I sneak Esther in under my sweatshirt.
In the hallway, I pass a strange blonde family, so pale the blood beneath their diaphanous skin makes their palms glow red. There’s a girl, maybe twelve, and a boy at least half her age. Mormons, I guess.
Esther wiggles against me and the children gape, wondering what I’m hiding and who I am. Let them stare. I am their godless future.
I consider stopping in Reno, but it feels too close to my destination. As if pausing will cease my progress entirely, and all my momentum will recoil and ricochet me back home.
The desert’s sameness does not bother me, but rather, beckons as if the opening of oblivion.
At first, California looks just like Nevada, but then unfurls into forest, mountains, small towns. When I get out at a gas station, a hippie bum comes up to ask for change. As he speaks, Esther releases a hot stream of piss which misses his foot, but not by much.
I’ve arrived in California too late for its golden age, some might say. Yet it still feels as if the place were mine for the plucking. Like a fruit I could hold to my mouth until I suck it dry.
“You got anything to spare?” he asks again.
I say no, throw him a smile instead. I need all I can get for myself.
My sister’s home is spare and tidy. I bounce my nephew on my knee and Esther hides under the coffee table. My brother-in-law frowns when he reaches under to pet her and she bares her teeth.
“She doesn’t like strangers,” I say. What I mean to say is: she doesn’t like men.
And why should she?
I look through the classifieds for jobs. Cut my hair short and dye it a shiny black-purple. Peter calls the house. My sister picks up and tells him to get lost. From across the room, I can hear the hum of his voice and, for a moment, the phone narrows the 3,000 miles between us to a sliver. I wait for a sense of uneasiness, but it doesn’t come. He sounds ridiculous, like someone shouting underwater. With a click of the receiver, he’s gone.
“Jesus. How did you miss the red flags with him?” my sister asks.
Her accent has fallen away. I remind myself of how she pronounces her words. Not flayg. Flahg.
“He was a way out,” I say. “A means to an end.” But what end? All my life, I’ve skipped from means to means to means. Whatever it takes to survive.
I finally land a job as a receptionist for a dog groomer, and my sister promises to take me out after work for celebratory drinks. Her husband will watch the kid. At my new job, Esther sleeps at my feet under my desk all day. Still, I feel guilty putting her in the crate for the night. I tell myself I deserve a break for once. Swallow the tightness in my throat as she presses her wet nose against the bars.
I show up. My sister is late. Late turns to later. I drink my vodka soda, let my eyes drift down the bar. My gaze rests on a man. Tall, athletic. I check the shoes—nice, leather.
He looks at me.
I want to be different. I want to—just maybe—be with someone different. And, for the first time, I don’t have to compromise. I could let this man talk to me, or I could go home to Esther and my sister and a life that’s mine. In both scenarios, I could find satisfaction, even joy. In both, I get to choose.
I don’t turn away.
He comes to the stool next to me. “You waiting for a date?” he asks.
“Mind if I join?”
I give him a look that could go either way—inviting or not. I want to see what he picks. He sits.
“Purple hair,” he says. “Very nice.”
“Not purple. Aubergine.” I enunciate every syllable into his open face. Put a hand to his arm. It’s tan and warm, as if he’s trapped some sunlight there. He smiles.
“Do you like dogs?” I ask.
Confusion clouds his expression. “Who doesn’t like dogs?”
I see something in his face. A kindness. An opening.
“They serve food here,” he says. “Want to get a table? Have something to eat?”
A grin splits my face, despite myself. “I’m starving.”
Lexi Pandell is a writer from Oakland, California. Her short stories have been published by WIRED, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Peatsmoke Journal, Otherwheres, and the Berkeley Noir anthology from Akashic Books. She was a 2020 Writing By Writers fellow. She is at work on a novel.