The Things I Can Control
I watch the mountains fade in the rear view mirror until there is nothing around us but flatland, naked and scorched against the earth, and a big blue sky that seems to almost swallow us whole from above. It is hot in the car, in the middle of June with a broken air conditioner, and sweat trickles down my forehead as we whip along Interstate 80. I wipe it away with my arm, listening to Luke from the driver’s side, spitting sunflower seeds into a gas station cup from our latest stop in Rawlins. I count each time a shell reverberates into the plastic, filling the space between us. He spat in threes, I note ironically, and silently praise him.
“This will be good for you, for us,” he says, reaching across the dash and smoothing out the anxious fingers that have been making tight coils in my hair. I ignore the ache in my scalp and shoot him a flushed smile, embarrassed that I have been caught.
We left our home in Colorado Springs nearly six hours ago, and with each mile I feel the old surge of fear bubble closer and closer beneath my surface, jolting my leg into a nervous bounce or my fingers into a rhythmic drumming along the leather of the car door, all of which I know he hates. I roam my eyes over his face and see the smile harden into a tight line, guilt and shame spreading from deep within my gut to the entirety of my body.
It is my fault we are here after all, on this whirlwind trip in a car and a state we both hate, dehydrated and aching for a cigarette, a change in topography, or something other than a country music station on the radio. I know he’s only doing this for the kids, for me. He loves me, I tell myself, and he’s right. How could he not be? I think about how many times I dropped Samantha and Ellie off late for school, how afraid I was to drive, only taking right-hand turns, tapping the glass of the window twice every time we passed the little grocery store on the corner, then three times at the stop light. I thought about how many times I had to turn around to check that I had not left the stove on, or the curling iron, or the toilet seat up, and on and on and on, finally arriving home and collapsing into bed, crying from the looks of the teachers.
It was after I had laid in bed for days, panicking that the house would burn down because I hadn’t flipped the dial on the thermostat by three degrees and then back again as I did every day, and simultaneously having no will power to flip it, that Luke decided that I needed to get away from everything. It was the stress, he decided. I had so much on my plate, he explained as he pulled up a map of a cross-country road trip. Once I saw the beauty of the world, my problems would seem so small, forgettable, and our little world would be back in order in no time. I would be cured, he said.
He just wants me to get better, I tell myself. Or at the very least, to not be fucked up anymore.
Several days and cheap motel stays pass before we reach our Lake Powell campsite, the clouds overhead lingering while we unpack our provisions and a tent we haven’t used in years on a rock sloping into the shore of the water. After three failed attempts to assemble it, Luke and I give up and lay our sleeping bags on the orange earth beneath us instead, ignoring the threat of rain, too exhausted to care. Luke dozes off to sleep as quickly as he always does, a trait for which I envy him, and I listen to him snore. If I close my eyes, I can pretend we are home again, in the darkness of our own bedroom with the kids asleep down the hall. I am always the last to sleep in my house, afraid that when I finally do fall into unconsciousness, the world will suddenly change around me, that something horrible will happen, and it will be all my fault. I left something on, there is a gas leak I have grown used to, I could go on for days.
Even here the thoughts overwhelm me. I sit up straight from my sleeping bag, the panic setting in. The earth around me is red, orange, fire. Is there a fire? Maybe not here, but what about at home? My heart races, I twist my hair. Oh God, what about my kids? My mother watching them? I begin to pace the edge of the water. Everything else is black, black as the lake before me and the sky above. I need to call them, to hear that they’re okay, that I’m being crazy. I know I’m being crazy, but I can’t stop. Our phones are dead, and I realize there’s no way to charge them. My palms are sweating, the heat is running through my body now. They are choking on the same heat, I know it. Oh God.
I put my toes into the water for relief, telling myself I will count to three before waking Luke and speeding to the closest local police station for help that I somehow know is already too late. The water is terrifying: inky, unknown, and so clear that when I put them under, my toes sit like little pebbles beneath its surface. I count to three, but I don’t move. I submerge my legs, my thighs. I engulf my torso. One, two, three, and down again. Immersing myself more and more completely.
The heat is leaving my body, the pressure of the water holding me, grounding me in reality. I look at Luke again, so fast asleep in a world so different from my own and realize he is wrong. I am not normal. I can’t be cured. I don’t know how to be anything but what I am, lowering myself into the water. There’s something wrong with me. I count to three. I can’t save them, and I can’t save myself. One, two, three. When my hairline goes under, I open my eyes. Here, there is no fire. The only heat around me is that which blazes within my mind, somewhere deep in the recesses of my own brain. When I look up, I see fresh rain disturbing the flat line of the water, sending it in delicate ripples, every droplet a cataclysm that wears away at the strong rock of its shores, slowly.
Underneath, I lose count as I watch them fall and spread in beautiful syncopation.