You are listening to Weird by Clem Snide, driving through Indianapolis. The sun keeps playing tricks on you and the landscape changes like a slow twirling kaleidoscope, reconfiguring the horizon with sparkly newness the farther west you drive. Indiana sinks behind you, back into itself- into its own drabness, and you’re glad to be rid of all 275 miles. You think about how everything forward comes from nothing. The Chicago beltway; the strip malls of Madison, Wisconsin; Winona, Blue Earth, Luverne.
You are driving and driving, through Minnesota, then into South Dakota, a few bumps, but mostly flat land, miles of green field. Just like when you and Angel took this same road. Out of the blue, right here, the landscape changes. You hit this drop off I-90 and the earth falls away like nothing- it’s right around Oacoma—and you’re left, undone, every time, holding onto the steering wheel for dear life, blown away by the unexpected sweep of a view that’s right there in front of you. You can’t miss it. And so you make your way down and pitch toward the bottom of the hill, and there it is. The river you’ve been waiting for. The spot where you recognize just how much you’ve missed.
You get out of the car and you’re standing at the edge. And you’re looking for god on the hills. In the clouds.
Not really ready. Hoping something out there will save you. That this is the spot where you’re going to let it go. Because all you’ve got are these weird, bulbous pea green yellow bluffs and hills that make no sense. Even the air out by Oacoma is different. And you remember being at this same spot, that’s why you’re here, but not with such exactitude, because you weren’t paying attention the last time. You don’t remember the river being here seven years ago and you certainly don’t remember the bridge. You flew by it and never noticed.
Yes, you flew by it and never noticed because you were listening to the radio and that’s when Angel must have said, “Look, Mom, a river,” and so you did, but not really. And you just said, yes, yes, yes, baby. I see. But you didn’t see anything. You were listening to some song a hundred times, thinking about wanting to smoke cigarettes again and if you would get laid in LA once you got there and other meaningless thoughts that drivers driving long distances think when they’re alone.
But you weren’t alone.
Your son had memorized that spot and even when it was gone, he remembered it and told you about it many times, long after it was gone. He would shout it at you, “Mom! Are you listening?” Yes, yes, yes, baby. I’m listening. But you weren’t listening. You were wrapped up in following your dream to be a poet, you were pinning postcards to your cork board, you were busy chatting online to Paolo from Argentina. You were waiting for Angel to take his nap.
A few days ago you weren’t driving at all. You were sitting. You were standing too. And pacing. You were in the waiting room of Virtua Hospital, waiting to be told if your son would live or die. You were there, but not really there. And you said fuck about a million times into the wide open gray space because you thought you knew the answer. And when the doctors pushed through the double-doors you even thought you knew what they were going to say. They were going to say I’m sorry, Mrs. Monroe, there was nothing we could do. And so you braced yourself, helpless. And you waited. And you asked only one question, of no one in particular, or maybe god: Do I get a second chance? As if confronting god with your mistakes would help you win some points. But there you rested for a while, arms wrapped around yourself, caught between the empty space of questions and answers.
You took Angel out west to celebrate your new life. You were finally free. You left your son’s daddy. And there was this inner-calling to finally know space and distance and movement. And you didn’t want to stop. The farther you went the safer you became inside. Safe from ugly, bad, miserable, lazy, painful muck. You were safe from nights of hiding under bed covers, only to be forced awake. You were safe from burning up with hate each time he slapped a bill, a plate, a child’s toy on top of the counter and said, “Here, you deal with this.” You were safe from the man you wish you never knew and so was your son and so you kept moving. “We’re like Lewis and Clark,” you said, and you tried to sell him on the adventure. You packed up the car with suitcases and plastic bags of gummy worms and gameboys and music, and you drove. And you sang and got cranky and you made a million pee stops, and sometimes you both slept in the same bed because the hotel only had a King. But you loved the warmth of each others’ skin after twelve hours buckled safely into a seat.
When you finally hit Moab, it was then Angel said, “I want to go home.”
And he was right. You’d gone too far. The landscape was like a soul, pulling you in, once you reached the canyons. The deeper you went, the less you knew of yourself. And that’s what you wanted. You wanted to not know and you thought the desert would do it. Near Moab, the land gives you this second chance. You see these hills and valleys of empty, orange rocks. You see negative space in the blue sky, and in the horizon you see Windows and Towers and the Devil’s Garden. And you can’t help but feel the tug and lure of something you don’t really understand.
But you promised Angel you’d turn around, and so you did. And you said goodbye to the promise of California and red rocks and getting laid and being reborn and all that crap. And you kind of found yourself too. But you didn’t realize it then. And besides, you did it in an ordinary, unremarkable way, the way most mothers do—in their daily sacrifices to their child, in the mundane, in the hours spent making lunches, cleaning clothes, tying shoes. This going West thing that you thought would change you– didn’t. And so you and Angel went back to New Jersey and back to the man you wish you never knew.
But a few days ago you weren’t making any sacrifices like you did back then—or at least you didn’t think you were. You were pacing and worn and praying while an officer told you that your son had been in a car accident. His seventeen-year-old lungs had been crushed by the dashboard, doing the best they could, expanding and contracting surreptitiously under the cracked ribs of his strong, youthful chest. You had your flash: you yelled at him that morning to take out the trash. But it was more than that. He wouldn’t get off the computer. You were angry about that too. At times, you had to dig deep into his character to find something you loved, and you hated yourself for that. You wanted to remember the parts of him that you loved when he was little. The little guy who craved the open road or playing with legos or smiling up at you while you wiped jelly off his face. Just hours before you had had it with him, actually. Fucking teenagers, you said. And regretfully, you told him so. You didn’t normally do that. But you were fed up. And sometimes, it happens. You forget the boy when you start to see the man. You told him, I’m sick of this shit. What about me? Are you going to be twenty and still expect me to clean up after you? Look at your room? It’s disgusting. Clean it, for Christ’s sake. And he kind of laughed at you under his breath. His usual. You saw him do it, and by this point, you knew to pick your battles. You should have picked your battle. But, instead, you turned to him and said the only thing a mother can say to a son she thinks will have a lifetime to forgive her: it’s your fault I’m still here, you said.
And that was your mistake.
You saw his mannish posture wilt. His face lost its playfulness. You fumbled under his gaze the same way you did with his father. You hated that feeling. It made you feel less of a person. It made you doubt yourself. So, you tried to dissipate the wave of emotions that would have ensued, the only way you knew how.
You sent him to the store for bread.
But, when the doctors came in, pushing their way through the double-doors, you were staring the truth right between the eyes and you thought you were right. But hoping against all hope that you were wrong because you’ve never loved anything more than that boy. You thought they’d say, I’m sorry, Mrs. Monroe, there was nothing we could do. Becasue it would have been a punishment. And by all accounts, you should have been punished. The world works that way. In the movies at least. The kid runs out the door after a fight with his mom and gets killed, and she lives with the guilt the rest of her life.
Isn’t that the way of life?
But you were wrong. He would make it. And as the doctors lead you to his bedside, you wrap the boy in your arms. You think, foolishly, that everything will be OK. But he’s no longer a boy. It’s a man, not a boy who will force a lifetime of amending upon you.
So, you’re standing at this river in Oacoma, South Dakota. The Lakota name for the “space between.” Just you and your thoughts and you remember the day you took your son out here. You’re looking over a bluff with a seventy-foot drop. The source, the sink. Yes, yes, yes, you see it now—the railroad bridge, throwing shadows over the big Missouri, pulling at you, gratuitously, to see it for the first time. Like the only route off a battlefield that’s burning to the ground. It speaks and says, here’s your ticket forward. And it’s at that moment you ask a question. This time you ask it of God. Am I forgiven? But there’s a quiet in the west Easterners do not know. There’s an expanse of land so wide, questions go unanswered. Besides, you know the answer. You know that the only god out there who’s listening is the one who can’t save you from yourself.