Three miles separated the couple’s home from the juncture of the great highways. The woman had once seen the interchange from above. A helicopter ride with, of all people, her priest. They wore headphones with microphones but still had to shout. There was excitement then, the interchange new, and with its cut ribbon came promises. Jobs would return. The priest would repair his lightning-struck steeple. The priest waved his hand as he compared the interchange to the cross; its shape, of course, but more so, its life. Each car a story. Each story as precious as the next to a Lord who’d died for all. The woman, then only a girl of twelve, squinted against the sun. Her focus not on the roads’ intersection, but on the blacktop ribbons that chased the compass until they reached oceans and borders and all the other wonders she’d never seen.
The man and woman were valley people. The coal veins had been gouged before their births. The couple had grown up splashing in cancerous creeks and sitting on the laps of grandfathers who spit blood. Half of Main Street now stood shuttered; the abandoned strip mall infested with rats, a hunting ground for mean-spirited boys and their BB guns. The valley, often cloaked in fog and the incinerator’s belched smoke, a blur to the highway travelers. Twenty-two years had passed since the interchange’s opening. Promise and hope had faded into a trickle of minimum-wage jobs. The priest, lacking the funds to hire a contractor, dead less than a year after the helicopter ride, a fall as he tried to repair his steeple.
The couple approached the strip. Their car alone not made dizzy by the interstates’ graceful ramps and zigzagging bridges. License plates from Michigan, Georgia, Ontario. The couple’s arrival made on a back road slick with fallen leaves. The hundred-year oaks the woman had hiked with her father consumed by the commerce of movement and rest. Six gas stations. Four hotels. Five restaurants. A neon proclamation atop the sprawling truck stop, America’s Crossroads, a nickname that never caught on. Signs on eighty-foot stilts rose into the darkness. Beacons, brand names. Comforting stars to guide the current.
The shock of colored lights washed over the couple’s car, the illumination jarring after the darkness of the hills. “I feel like a fish in an electric sea,” she said. The couple had stayed at least twice in each of the strip’s hotels. Tonight’s — Best Western — her favorite. The thickest towels, terry cloth robes. He coded software, but when he drank, confessed his desire to pen a novel. The woman displayed her gift of kindness as a recess aide at the local elementary school. She wiped tears, applied bandages to scraped knees. In her dreams, she was often lost, bus stations and terminals, signs written in indecipherable languages. She was unsure if she wanted children, but she feared a future without them.
He parked. Hand-in-hand, they hurried across the lot. Behind them, six weeks of cutting corners. He ate bagged lunches. She hunted online bargains. An envelope sat by the coffeemaker, and into it, they slipped singles and fives, an occasional ten. Tiny wishes until the envelope bulged, and if the washing machine didn’t die and the truck’s clutch held, they booked a Saturday night reservation. She smiled as she ran, thinking of the playground and a little girl she adored. Winter’s sting in the drops, a chance of snow by morning. Puddles illuminated in yellow and blue. An eighteen wheeler hunkered in the lot’s shadows. High in its cab, a silhouette, an open door, a woman climbing up. Another type of commerce. The couple reached the overhang. Dry here, drops down her neck. The chill settled close to her bones.
In the lobby, they passed security monitors, mirrors and chrome, her image parceled into a dozen reflecting crumbs. Smiles at the check-in, and the couple called each other Roger and Betty. These were not their real names. They held the elevator for a pair of bridesmaids, young women in pink, ruffling gowns. The doors closed, and the space filled with their scent of their perfume. The bridesmaids spoke in the overlapping giddiness of alcohol and youth — an usher’s handsomeness, the wandering hands of the bride’s drunken cousin. They didn’t acknowledge the couple, a bestowment of invisibility that pleased the woman. The four of them rode the elevator to the top floor. The doors opened, and the couple turned left, the bridesmaids right. The woman stole a final glance. One of the girls stumbled, a misstep in high heels, and their laughter echoed up the hallway. The woman’s wedding a decade ago, a dated hairstyle, her own bridesmaids claimed by motherhood or careers beyond the valley. She slipped her arm through her husband’s. A single rain-streaked window waited at the corridor’s end, the Sunoco’s sign’s sunny yellow. The doors soldiers at attention. She counted — 509, 511, 513…
She slid the card through the lock. A light flickered green. She pushed the handle. “I’m happy to be here, Roger.”
The door shut. A capsule sealed. Everything black until he found the switch. She walked ahead, taking inventory, fingers tracing the dresser and TV. A soft joy found her, the deep breath of reunion. She continued to pace, imagining the room as a riverbed, its visitors the current. In a few hours, all traces of her would be erased, the sink scrubbed, sheets changed. Gone. An antiseptic magic.
In her husband’s bag, two bottles of wine. He worked the corkscrew; she unwrapped a pair of glasses. “My first hotel was Washington. Washington DC.” Her memory little more than a snapshot, a staged moment before a marble statue, the colors faded. Her mother now broken, her father dead. Her husband filled her glass. “I was nine.”
His glass clinked against hers. “Here’s to Betty, all grown up.”
Her, quieter: “Yes.”
The wine warmed her throat. They undressed. She crawled into bed, a further surrender to the current, the sheets crisp and cool. His kiss tasted of wine and mint. They revisited tender spots. They offered each other release. In the flush that followed, she laid her head on his chest and told him about a dog she’d loved, a Chihuahua mix named Jupiter, and the afternoons of dressing it in her baby sister’s clothes.
They huddled in the bathroom. Their naked reflections crowded the mirror. She brushed back her bangs and wondered if she should grow her hair long one last time. They passed a joint, their chins lifted and the smoke rising into the whispering fan. They ordered room service. He answered the door with a towel wrapped around his waist. Her in bed, sheets clutched to her chest, her laughter stifled as her husband fumbled with the tip. Sandwiches and chips — they expected little and were thus not disappointed. The food merely a refueling, a convenience. They shared deserts. They talked, untroubled by the valley’s desperation and the bills they struggled to pay. The woman couldn’t say if she believed in God, but in these hotels, naked on strange beds, waited a confession truer than any she felt in church. She sculpted her desires into words, and in his way, her husband did, too, and they offered each other these imperfect gifts.
“Yes,” he said, “let’s do these things. Let’s not be afraid.”
“Yes,” she echoed.
In touches and invitations, they fell back together. Here was their ritual — the second time different, one conducting, the other silent, willing. In the past, the practice had left her bruised and elated. They’d taken movies and watched them later, their giggles often melting into silence. Her turn tonight. She requested darkness, curtains drawn, a towel blocking the door’s bottom. She retrieved the small flashlight from her bag and set it on the nightstand. She directed his hands, his mouth. She spoke her mind, then spoke from a deeper place. She straddled him. In the dark, they could be anybody. Wedding guests. Business associates. Strangers. Highway travelers who’d never know the name of this valley. She rocked faster, chasing what she needed. She groped for the flashlight. The phone clattered to the floor. The dial tone, then a shrieking beep. She shone the light into his face. The halo jerked with their movements. “Look at me,” she whispered.
He squinted. She knew he was blinded, and she was lost in his darkness. “Don’t stop looking.” He voice watery, then crumbling into the other rhythms churning within her, the interstates’ rumble, her jackrabbity heart.
After, they lay together. She imagined herself in a deep pool, rising from one world into another. He sat up, stretched his back. He joked about getting old. They finished the last swallows of the first bottle, and he opened the second. They returned to the bathroom. The joint’s resiny end sticky on her lips, a toke too deep. She coughed until she cried. He patted her back. “Easy there, day tripper.” They climbed into the other bed and constructed a pillow mountain. He ordered a movie but fell asleep before the second act.
She finished her glass. Then his. When she was done, she reached for the bottle’s slender neck. The movie, with its pretty people and easy problems, didn’t interest her. She hit the remote. In the dark, she listened to the ragged threads of their breath. She shone the flashlight onto his sleeping face. He was peaceful, distant, and she wondered where the roads of their lives would take them. He snatched the covers and rolled over. Snores percolated in his throat.
She pulled back the window curtain and stood naked before the gray glass. Flurries amid the drizzle, flakes colored by lights above and below. She navigated the bottle to her lips. Below, the strip’s hum. She sat, her feet propped on the windowsill. She studied the interstates, a trance of red and white. All here, then gone, lost into the night. She finished the wine. She closed her eyes, and in her head, a spinning. She grinned at the thought of herself as a girl in helicopter, her and her priest high above the earth. The cross, yes, but then the horizon’s call, the gravity of distance, of a world waiting in every direction. She sighed and surrendered herself to the tide.