It wasn’t as if I thought we’d ever be allowed our very own planet. We were married, but not to each other, and we both knew that there was nothing new in what we were doing. Our stripe of sin had been around as long as opera, the Bible, blood. We were used to snacks, not meals; naps, not full nights of sleep; harried, whispery phone calls instead of conversation so relaxed that silence was not suspiciously interpreted as the arrival of a third and unwelcome party. A space had opened—my husband Phillip was away on business, Ross’s wife and child had gone to visit his in-laws down in Charlotte—and we had claimed it. When Ross told me we were going to Lynchburg for the weekend, I did not tell him I had gone to college there because I wanted what he wanted, a furlough, brief but glorious, from all our sneaking around. I lost myself in memories of Lynchburg, its faded opulence, its kudzu-clogged ravines, and said nothing of its seductive melancholy, the way it existed inside of me like some internal organ that serves no real purpose—say, the spleen—until it ruptures.
But I blew it. Before we’d even left D.C., Ross had said he’d wanted to poke around in thrift shops, antique malls, secondhand bookstores, flea markets. He could feel at home only among the history-laden, the tarnished but still functional. I’d assumed we’d never leave our motel except maybe for takeout and another bottle of wine. Yet we had time to kill, for once—time to undress each other slowly, to sip a precoital cocktail or two—and it seemed luxurious. Endless foreplay: we’d wander the streets, window-shopping the second chances; we’d hold hands and every exchange between us would be a kiss or a caress and Ross would pull me behind a pie safe in some candle-scented antique mall and he’d hug me so hard the blood rushing to his pelvis would mix miraculously, as if transfused, with my own. I am ready, I’d say, let’s go and he’d say not yet and this leisurely lathering would be so different from our standard tearing into each other and once we were back in our room I would tie him up and drive him slowly mad with my tongue, lingering, paying attention to the parts of him—nipples, the underside of his kneecaps, eyelids—I had never had time to notice, and then he’d get to know my body in the same scrupulous way, and it would feel like we’d been assigned our very own zip code, and in that zip code there were no clocks or cell phones humming with the vibrations of spouses wanting to know if we could stop on our way home from our invented errands for milk or juice or a processed fire log, and we could make believe not in marriage—we were already married—but freedom.
“Where would be the Junk District?” said Ross.
Downtown the streets stair-stepped to a river bottom of warehouses and abandoned mills, alongside the ancient, rock-clogged James. The Lower Basin this was called. It was my favorite place in Lynchburg. During college I took long walks there, alone, accompanied by Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” tape-looping in my head and a loneliness so brutally pure I mistook it for desire. I walked there for hours the morning after I lost my virginity to a boy down from Charlottesville who had come to town in the back of a U-Haul filled with ten of his fraternity brothers and a keg of beer. The truck lurched up to our dorm where a bunch of us sat smoking on the veranda, and when the back door was rolled up and the drunk frat boys stumbled blinking out of the boxy darkness, I picked him out because he wore a puka-shell necklace and I wanted at that moment to be made love to by a boy wearing only a necklace of shells. I don’t remember the sex but I do remember the way I slipped my finger between the necklace and the back of his neck while he slammed against me, and I remember the panic in his eyes as I tightened the necklace, as if he was fleetingly aware that sex was not recreation but risk, life and death, religion and taxes. He left as soon as he came. I got up and slipped into my billowing hippie skirt and a tank top and no bra, and I draped several necklaces over my own neck and walked, fingering them, through the moonlit streets down to the muddy James. Trees lost leaves in a breeze. I hugged myself and tried to pierce through the hovering mugginess that was my desire, that was Lynchburg, spaced out over seven hills just like ancient, mythic Rome. I knew that night that no man could ever make me happy. Why wasn’t I terrified? I think I even laughed at my prescience, at my long, lonely vista of sitting off to the side in a roomful of animated people.
“The Lower Basin,” I said.
“The lower who?” said Ross.
“Take a right here. There are a bunch of those places, or used to be, one street up from the river.”
Then it was out, and Ross was asking questions, and he was saying my name a lot. Nicole, why didn’t you tell me you went to college here? I would not have suggested Lynchburg, Nicole, had I known you’d spent so much time here. I leaned across the seat of the car he’d rented for our weekend of rented rooms and maybe even a rented movie to watch in bed, something sultry and French, I hoped, and I stroked the back of his neck because I could, and I told him I knew no one there and had not been back in years and years, and I told him, too, that it did not matter that we did not know everything about each other, we knew enough, the rest would come in time. We had not had a chance to fill in all the blanks. Vast acreage of undiscovered territory lay between us which we traversed with those crudely-hewn shortcuts poets and city planners refer to as “desire lines.” Sidewalks, I wanted to remind Ross, were not our style.
But I could not appease him. His disappointment filled the car, and so I feigned hunger, though in the three months since we’d been lovers I had been indifferent to any brand of sustenance save passion. Phillip had noticed. Also he’d commented on the sleeplessness. But so far he had not made much of it, had chalked it up, I assumed, to my well-known, low-grade but chronic dissatisfaction.
“How about you? Are you hungry?”
“I could eat,” he said.
Ross had never really irritated me before—it was too early for that—but I found myself annoyed by his answer. Was he saying that because he was so happy to be someplace where we did not have to hide that nothing else—not food, nor shelter—mattered? Or was he trying to point out that it didn’t really matter what we did, eat or not, we were doomed, it could never last, our days were numbered. I wasn’t accustomed to analyzing words out of his mouth. Our exchanges were blunt, quick, deliberate: Can you get away, yes, when, now, where?
“Well, it’s only six,” I said, trying to hide my irritation. “Let’s walk around awhile.”
We killed an hour down by the river, wandering through the showrooms of the shopworn. And he was right: other people’s castoffs, offered up for sale without explanation or apology, did seem to soothe us, though the anxious energy we always felt when together never fully left us. We touched, we held hands, he hooked a thumb beneath the waistband of my jeans, once he pulled me under a covered bus stop for a slow wet kiss, but our desire did not unfold as slowly and build as intensely as I had imagined.
We ate an absurdly early dinner in a converted warehouse. Rusty tools hung from the high, crumbly walls. “Welcome to the Cotton Mill Cafe,” said the cheery teenaged waitress. She seated us to the side, alone, though the place was vast and nearly empty.
Ross licked his finger and ran it across the groove of mortar between the ancient bricks.
“Antebellum dust,” he said. It felt to me like overkill—a trumpeting of our weekend theme. We were just another in a long line of lovers who thought their love could save them, carve out for them a new and inviolable space, but history was against us.
“Let’s hope the food’s a little fresher,” I said.
Our waitress was also teenaged, which led Ross to wonder, after she’d taken our drink order, if children were not required to attend school in this place he’d chosen for our make-believe. I pointed out the window at the late ashy afternoon blue-blackening into evening. Ross nodded sadly, as if he only wanted these kids to be Absent Without Official Leave too, needed this town and everyone in it to be squelching some huge secret, juggling another life.
It was the kind of fussy establishment one finds in refurbished “historical” districts that manage to both try too hard and fail miserably. Huge croutons took up three-quarters of the limp salad, and a frazzled cook had to come out of the kitchen to open the wine for sweet helpless Courtney, our server, who nearly broke the cork. To make her feel better, I asked if she’d already attended her prom, and while Ross smiled vacantly at the table and sipped his Pinot Grigio, we covered prom dresses, prom themes, rented limousines. I talked proms with Courtney, but I thought of Ross, of how we’d met through work—I was editing some material for the D.C. think tank where he managed publications—and how shockingly sweet and sudden our attraction claimed us. I wasn’t looking for a lover—at least I did not think I was, had never cheated before—but one day Ross and I happened to find ourselves alone in the break room and I said, not really to Ross (for though I had noticed him, sure, had taken note of his shoulders and a few times I had averted my eyes to keep from staring at his own wistful blue ones, I’d never really talked to him), “I’m starving, I’m so hungry, God, I’m hungry,” and Ross was stirring sugar into his tea and said without looking up, but obviously to me, “Same as me.” And that was how it started, and that became our slogan: same as me, we’d say, for after that moment we felt the same: hungry, tired, sated, empty, desirous, anything, everything. In time we shortened it to simply “same,” and said it before we even finished sentences, which rarely needed finishing since it was so clear we felt and thought and wished for same.
We tried not to, Ross and I—we said, We can’t, we said, Let’s don’t and pretend we did, but I knew even before I knew that I would, I knew it was do and pretend you didn’t.
“You’re so good with her,” Ross said when Courtney was out of earshot. I wanted to confess that I was thinking of him the whole time I was engaging her on the subject of proms, but she was right back with our food. We both looked at our plates in shock, as if we couldn’t remember ordering.
“Baby, I love you,” said Ross.
“Okay, I’m ready, too,” I said.
I expected a hotel nearby, downtown, but the room he’d reserved, not knowing Lynchburg, was out by the freeway in a string of fish camps and nail salons. We stopped on the way for some wine which went unopened, as inside the room we fell against each other, stopping only to yank the curtains closed. It wasn’t at all what I’d imagined, but I was the one ripping clothes off—it was me who could not wait, I needed Ross to fill me immediately, even though we had the whole night, another day together, an eternity. But this is what we knew. Our own frenzied rhythm. Once you learn to fuck like that, how can you ever feel as sated when you slow down?
Poor Ross tried to slow it down. He rolled off of me, pulled me atop him, placed his hands on my hipbones and clenched them tightly, as if to govern the pace. But I flexed my thigh muscles to make it harder for him to hold on. I sped up. I needed us back. I needed sweat, delirium, salt, fire. I knew we could not win. I knew I wanted him, that I would never stop wanting him, that coming here with him was a mistake.
Afterward we lay suctioned together by sweat, watching a movie about a supermodel who began using drugs to stay thin and ended up a crazed junkie. I could tell that Ross was fascinated by her rise and fall, but I could not arouse much interest in her story, so sure that our desire would soon enough interrupt us again. Plus, I did not believe any of it. Even in the throes of addiction, the supermodel was stunning. In fact, the sicker she got, the more beautiful she grew. She stormed around her East Village apartment shirtless, snorting coke off the bellies of men and women who were obviously using her, and she them, and it was the worst kind of Hollywood distortion, the loft she lived in too light and enormous, her hair too shiny, her stomach too tight. I nibbled Ross’s earlobe and ran my hand up his inner thigh and when he did not return my touch I thought I knew what he was thinking—we have all night, for the first time in our narrative there was, for us, a dead-certain tomorrow.
I am the one who said it aloud. I am to blame for ruining everything.
“Let’s go somewhere.”
Ross turned to look at me. “Where?”
He said, “You really want to?”
“Because we can.” How could he argue with that? He knew we had come to that town to love each other openly, to take a respite from corrosive secrecy.
I thought we’d go to a bar, and drink bottled beer and dance to a jukebox and shoot pool, which is something I did not know how to do, something Phillip would consider a waste, a pastime of teenagers and drunks. I thought we could blend into that town, trick its weathered citizens into believing we belonged there, or at least with each other. I wanted to try us out, parade us instead of hide out in just another dark, rented room. I put on a tank top and my tightest jeans and even a little makeup. In the parking lot on the way to the car, Ross hooked his arm around my waist so tightly I thought of taking him back to bed. But Lynchburg called to me, and I have never been very good at listening to myself, or maybe that’s the only voice I’ve ever been able to recognize in the general din. Even though it was my idea, I grew anxious again as we drove into town. Ross made jittery small talk about the interrupted fate of the supermodel junkie, but I cut him off with a smile designed to say, who are we kidding, we both know how things end.
We lapsed into silence as the car idled at an interminable stoplight near downtown. It was still so new and unfamiliar, that silence. I know that most would find this pleasurable—the ability to sit in total silence with another person, to communicate without words—but I have witnessed too many older couples in restaurants taking their meals in silence, not really even looking at each other, to want to aspire to such. And yet I could not think of a word to say. The light turned green; the silence ushered us out into the intersection. Would we have made it through if we’d talked, if I had told him again how crazy I was for him?
The pickup T-boned us just behind Ross. We spun a full turn from the force of it, ended up exactly where we’d been, though not at all in the same place. Our cries—if there were any—were muffled by the blooming air bags. Those bags were made of scratchy canvas, and my throat was chafed so raw that for weeks I pancaked on the makeup to hide the abrasions.
In so many ways I was stunned the entire time I spent with Ross. Stunned that I could feel the things I felt for him after having decided that depth of love was not available to me, stunned that I could do such a thing to Phillip, and to myself. But what I felt in the few seconds before I unleashed my seat belt and abandoned Ross in that intersection was a different sort of stunned. A manic quiet accompanied it, nothing like the silence which had steered us into the path of what I would later learn, from the Lynchburg paper, was a pickup driven by an underage drinker. Into this quiet settled the full weight of all my errant choices. Surely this quiet was in me all along, mixed up with everything else—desire, the clinging to secrets and the fear of those secrets becoming public. But there were always so many ways to drown it out. Its current passed through me so quickly I cannot now naively claim it as clarity. Certainly I would never classify it as an epiphany, which I do not believe available to the likes of me, and which I dismiss even in others as a lie bigger than the taut-stomached junkie supermodel and her tasteful Tribeca loft. Nothing passed before my eyes. Instead there was the absence of everything, no shade or tint, no hope or faith or silly willing suspension of disbelief, no lust or need, no seven storied Roman hills outside the window.
Just Lynchburg. Without a word to Ross I unbuckled my seatbelt and slipped into its streets. I have told myself, in the years since, that I left because I knew that had I stayed we would have been caught, that the police would come and start asking questions (even though, really, what would they care who Ross and I were to each other?). I have made myself believe that our accident was no accident, and I have convinced myself that, had I stayed, my bruises, though superficial, would never heal. Phillip, when he found out, would say, Lynchburg? What kind of lover takes you on a romantic getaway to fucking Lynchburg? And I would have to tell him the truth, how Lynchburg was a part of me, and then it would rupture, and I could not give it up, I was not ready to part with it, I would rather leave Ross sitting in shock, cushioned by a bag of air, than abandon that secret chamber of my heart. I would have to tell the truth, for this is what lovers expect, that you tell them everything, give up all of your secrets, and how can we ever strip ourselves so bare, and is there any real hope for us if we don’t?
I ought not to have worried about Lynchburg being ruined for me, for after I left Ross I saw it, felt it, suddenly understood it. People lived there. They suffered and died there. They sold their souls to factories or law firms, they ate garbage food from chain stores or over-spiced shrimp etouffee from the Cotton Mill Cafe. They waited hours for the bus in the February chill or bowed to decorum and let older black men tote their golf bags across the back nine of the country club. But love, too, thrived and survived here. High school sweethearts married sixty-odd years died sweetly, contented, within weeks of each other and were buried a shoulder’s length apart under elms on a high, terraced hill. The drunken boy who ran the red light sang along loudly to a song he shared with his girlfriend, who sat in her lamp-lit room listening to the same song and awaiting his call.
It was no longer just a place where I had been gloriously unhappy in the way a twenty-year-old with a satisfyingly sad song in her head can be. Seeing the city anew, unblemished, ushered into my heart the laid-bare difference between stillness and emptiness. People pass as quickly through this life as that shocking quiet which overtook us in the intersection. How had I not known?
Chafed, convinced I had changed, I fled through the darkness of downtown. A few blocks away, I slowed to a stroll. In just the type of bar I imagined earlier, a dark and beery place with pool tables and stooped drinkers on stools, a bloated lady tending bar took one look at me, at the scrapes on my neck and the redness of my eyes, and—as if she’d seen the likes of me nightly—handed over the phone. I had lied to Ross (what could one lie matter, since we were a lie?). I did know one person in this town. A woman named Becky, who had been my college roommate. She’d married a townie and stayed. I had always pitied her for it, for turning a rented town into permanence, a woods you were supposed to clear-cut into old growth and sacrosanct forest. Because she seemed so stuck, I had not spoken to her in years; I only glanced at her Christmas cards before tossing them into the recycling bin. But she came for me, and she drove me to the bus station and bought me a ticket to Union Station, and she listened to my story. She was the only person I ever told all of it. That she was not surprised by my story—that she found it predictable if not inevitable, the end I had come to—did not bother me at the time. We sat in the station in plastic chairs bolted in a row and drank Sprites, and I described even the sex, the furious beauty of it, and never once did I bother to gauge her reaction, and never once did she stop me to ask if I was curious about Ross, or if and when I planned to let him know that I was okay. She seemed to sense that I was not talking to her, and I adored her for that, and I said so in the note I sent along with the check, though I never heard from her again.
Nor have I ever spoken again to Ross. I never went back to my job—I pretended to Phillip that it was demeaning and that the men in the office were condescending and lecherous, and I let him think that these were the reasons for my recent distraction, and he is so attuned to my moods, and so eager to see me happy that he did not even try to talk me into serving out my notice. I sent an email to my boss, told him I would not be coming back, and asked him not to bother forwarding my last paycheck. Ross kept after me for awhile, but I never returned his calls or answered his letters. In so many ways leaving the way I left made me love him more than if I’d pushed through to the end, which was bound to come soon, maybe even that night, in the bar, or back in our rented room, maybe in the car driving home. I did not want to follow through to that moment when same as me turned into same old, when Ross turned to me with that look on his face smokers make when they are exhaling and are sick of cigarettes and hate themselves for not being able to quit. Yet when I think of all the ways it could have ended, when I am seized, suddenly, by how much I miss him (which even now, five years later, I so often am) I am hard-pressed to come up with a better way to have left. And yet I try. I could have so easily prevented it. I could have loved him slowly that night. I could have feigned interest in the fate of the drug-addled supermodel, small talked over the silence that came upon us in that intersection. No, not Lynchburg, I could have said when he told me where we were going for our lone weekend of freedom. Anywhere but there.
And yet I miss the place most all of the time. I go back there, in my head. My visits are not dreams; they are clear and linear and they come upon me waking. I enter the city in silence, taking care to look both ways at every crossing. I stick to the sidewalks, avoid the desire lines cut by people like me and poor sweet forever-lost-to-me Ross, for I no longer believe in shortcuts. By the Lower Basin I fall to my knees. In the waters of the James, the skyline of the city wavers, beautiful and distorted. And I beg you, Lynchburg, please: you are in my prayers, I pledge allegiance to you nightly, now won’t you please just go away forever and leave me alone?