I wrote this while listening to the track “Shatter” off Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville on repeat, because it captures an incredible feeling of American malaise that I will never be able to put right in words. So if you want to read this with a soundtrack, keep this tab open in the background, with the playlist on the bottom right set to loop. Enjoy!
In the heat of summer like an iron on our necks we loaded up the cars with guitars and snacks and drove West for the first time in my life. Drove nearly 1,000 miles without stopping, watched the green Pennsylvania hills smooth out like a furrowed brow into the plains of middle America, hot clear yellow air as far as the eye can see like a throbbing headache over the fields. The weather forecast said Unhealthy Air Quality and my lungs ached and eyes itched. We wore masks into a rest stop, only once in thirteen hours of driving. It is the summer of the plague in America. If we drove fast enough we knew it wouldn’t catch us, not yet, for one more day.
At the eleventh hour the city of Chicago proclaimed itself over the flat horizon like a row of jagged teeth, monoliths in the hazy sky. The Sears tower, great canyon wall of glass, third tallest manmade thing in America, this country so wide and flat we were not even halfway across after screaming 80 all day. The skyscrapers turned their stony colors, grey and darker grey and black, hunching over us like gods in business suits. The tallest things I’ve ever seen. We drove through a forest of un-swaying buildings, our mouths hanging open in awe.
The great lake drew us to her shores at the back end of the day. All the way to the horizon like a sea. The lake changes colors, my new family told me. We used to ride to school every day and discuss the color of the lake. Turquoise on good days, jade green in deep thought, black in anger. The water pulls on the whole city, cure for the headache of summer. I wore dirty clothes for days and went walking the streets at high noon. The lake pulled me to a beach, water the color of the insides of eggshells, same color as the plains, and there were people on the beach. So many people, naked skin slicked with sweat and lakewater. My back itched under my heavy woven shirt, my heavy backpack, breath from my cloth mask fogging my glasses. It is the summer of the plague and I am swaddled in a bubble while this sea of people lives on a beach without me. I saw the virus rising over their heads like a cloud, teenagers in bikinis and baseball caps, drinking beer and throwing frisbees, so many American mouths, noses, lungs. In a sunlit dream I took off my sandals and pulled my pack higher on my back, walked down the searing sand to the water. People on all sides of me, laughing, music from boomboxes, breath shimmering in the throbbing air. More people than I’d seen in months. I got to the water and dipped my toes in, green and murky like pea soup, and so many people throwing their children in, one baptism after another. Plague water. I nearly ran back up the beach, dodging people, running from Plague Lake. Wondering if they got me sick in those few moments—will I infect my family? How many people on that beach will start coughing in a week or two, how many baptized children. Fluid filling their lungs, saltless, like the great lake.
We drove around the suburbs to see my boyfriend’s childhood home. Just a few blocks from the lake, you could feel it everywhere pulling on the air, pulling dusk out of its horizon, sky creeping purple and grey. The houses were big and old with perfect manicured green lawns, children and mothers playing with toys, walking miniature poodles on half-length leashes down the sidewalk. We turned onto the next block and a long-limbed animal was pacing toward us, across the lawns, a coyote with russet fur for camouflage in deep dappled woods. It was huge and muscular and stared us all down for a moment before trotting past. No woods here, only lawns and little dogs and children, the huge houses that had no more right to be here than this coyote whose long legs ate up the sidewalk, until it was swallowed by shadow in the oncoming dark.
My boyfriend’s godmother took us down to the lakeshore where we lay in the grass and ate chips and salsa, geese crying in the distance. At her house in the neighborhood she’d fed us potions she brewed in a cabinet, and we watered the corn and zucchini growing in the allotment out back with brimming buckets of rainwater from the roof. I felt the herbs take hold of me as we worked, all the doubt of this wretched decade curling like a snake hidden in my belly, aching worse and worse. His godmother, a healer, took us down to the lake to lie on the grass so the big water could pull on us all. The snake began to uncurl itself inside me. She told me my future and I leaned into my man’s arms, put my face into his chest, and wept salty tears into his shirt. Any future at all, I thought. She left us there by the lake where we lay together running our hands over each other’s arms as if drugged, and beetles crawled toward us through the grass, smelling the salt on our skin.
In the suburbs the night before we left, a woman started crying behind the rooftops in the dark. We could not find the source of the sound, a wretched squealing, until it took flight, huge brown silent wings nearly invisible in the dark over our heads. Two fledgling great-horned owls landed in a tree, screaming. We followed their voices in the dark but never saw them, until they flew away again, crying through the night. Beyond them the lake sat black and quiet, stretching to the invisible horizon, pulling on us all.