We used to bathe naked in pools of rainwater under the interstate and act like it meant something. If I sat still long enough it almost felt like Australia, with the water warm and the southern sun pressed into my neck. The traffic from the highway above morphed into conch shell waves. I could feel my heritage leaning in on me and I knew I had to leave. Times change, people follow, and before long she was bandying about insults like they meant something. She called me selfish, so I left her in a cloud of dirt at a Utah truck stop, and the image I had of her calling out through tears and dust faded as I crossed county lines.
I’ve heard my parents talk about the golden days in their relationship, the early phase where they were on best behaviour. But what they failed to mention – through hazy recollections of two eyes locked, electric kisses and a bond that held them like yin to yang – is that in the early days of any relationship you’re literally the furthest away from the real you that you’ll ever be. Once the show’s over and the lights come up - once love and all those other terms people throw around like they mean something – once it all fades out and you’re in the bathroom with your partner brushing your teeth, naked, you start to realize you’re both the same pieces of shit you were before you met. There’s something in that; something I remembered when I left that girl in Utah. I remembered it when I left them all: the Spanish girl from years back, the Mexican, the Peruvian, Parisian, Austrian, and that one Australian. Sometimes I think back and miss the way it all felt. But I know it’s not real, so I’m not coming home.
‘I can’t believe you just left her there! Here I was thinking I’d found mister right, Marcus the angel Aussie – Pffft – That’s a lie.’
She gives a coy smile from the passenger seat, slaps my arm with a playful sting and fills the car with a kind of force. I’m reminded all over again why I approached that American girl. It’s still early, and hard to say where we’ll end up. Lana and I have been driving since Seattle, carving a path through British Columbia. This impalpable sense of place, this, never knowing where we’re going or to what end - it calms me as we glide across the hard bitumen just below.
Outside, soft morning light becomes a watercolour fever dream where things lose their hard edge. The highway is lined by tall pines that shake when the wind blows through their canopy, through the open windows of the car and onto our still bodies. There’s a temperate pang to the air in Canada, but I’m still warm from my last cigarette and don’t think Lana’s passive – ‘It’s a bit chilly isn’t it’ – warrants my discomfort. I realise neither of us has said anything in the last five minutes and I wonder if my story still hangs heavy in the air, or if she’s chewing her nails over the argument we had at the gas station over how many packs a day is normal. She locks eyes with me, flashes a smile like I’m her waiter with the check, and runs a hand through her oily blonde hair. I wish I hadn’t answered the question. ‘What about you then, tell me about your last relationship?’
‘Oh it was a long time ago, hard to remember.’
I take my eyes off the rolling asphalt for a moment to let her know I’m not buying what she’s selling. She fingers the base of her chin and traces a line over its edge.
‘I used to date this guy back in Seattle, before you and I met – jealous type – that’s about all.’
‘Well what happened? Why did you break up?’
A switch flips, she freezes up. No more is she the attaché of American gall that I’d come to know - that I’d come to fall for – she’d turned to someone completely different. She was a girl with a past that followed her like shadow to body does under the light of a hot sun.
‘We were out at this bar one night. I didn’t like going because I know how it is for a girl at a bar sometimes. It was my boyfriend’s birthday though, so yeah. We went home that night and he said to me, did you know that guy at the bar? I said no, that’s just how it is for a girl sometimes, people just assume things if you’re by yourself at a bar.’
She pauses. Goosebumps now on her throat, I regret asking.
‘So he goes to the kitchen after I tell him this, like it’s nothing. He comes back with this Jose’ Cuervo bottle and smashes it over my face...’
We round a corner and the first light of morning starts shining behind Lana’s head. It lights up her stray hairs like some tangled blonde halo, and I’m thinking about the way she looks naked when I spot a small fishhook scar from her jowl to chin that I hadn’t noticed before.
‘…and it was quick, but before the glass shattered I saw him through it. You know how you look through the bottom of binoculars as a kid? It was kind of like that.’
I motion for a cigarette and she does what she’s told.
‘You did the right thing breaking up with him, that’s fucking horrible.’
‘He broke up with me. I did know he was the jealous type. I knew that, and he was. So it wasn’t surprising, it just hurt.’
‘You didn’t call it off? I didn’t take you for a pushover Lana.’
Before I’ve even finished saying it, I know I’m out of line. She squirms the sides of her mouth, chews her nails like she did through our argument at the gas station, then, a re-composure. Her smile’s so forced I can almost see the ventriloquist strings. I hit the gas and there’s a brief moment of catharsis. When I throw my cigarette out the window the embers skitter across the road until they’re almost nothing at all, and if a car drove by at that moment they’d never even know I’d been smoking.
Further, we slow down with the traffic; piece ourselves in to the static mass all trying to drive uphill at once. On the left shoulder, a mountain face cascades by the road with such immensity that at first glance it looks like it’s leaning in to take me. To the right, a crystal clear lake laps close by the pine line. It’s a huge expanse with a surface so still you could rest a coin on it. I find lakes this side of the world something of an oddity. They seem endless without time to realise, when in truth, they are separated in a sort of solitude from the rest of the world’s water. It’s a far cry from the Pacific expanse I grew up close to; an ocean that forever colours my sense of space and brevity.
It’s a symptom of the Australian condition to grow up dwarfed by things you cannot control. We used to have Christmas dinner by the beach, my family and I. We’d eat seafood by the moonlight and my father would say to us, ‘Kids, the world is your oyster.’ That was the way we were raised, to seek happiness at all costs and live the life our parents worked for. When I think back about Australia and that one girl, I wonder if she does the same for me. I wonder if she ever stares out to the Pacific some nights and cries when she realises just how far things can exist outside of our control.
‘Did you know the number of Australian expats is increasing with each decade?’ Lana says, or I think she says, when her words break through my thoughts. The gridlock stretches on around the bend as far as I can see with each vehicle nuzzled bumper to bumper; all blocked from reaching their final destination by others trying to reach theirs. The sun rises higher. People squint when rear-view mirrors, iPhones and ticking watch faces fire sunbeams at unsuspecting passengers. I’ve been looking at Lana’s scar the last five minutes now with the light; that fishhook mark I’d never noticed. She presses a button on her phone and it plays a song I used to know. I’m back in the bar where we first locked eyes; back in America, where I saw a smooth, mirror-like face, radiating a sort of force with pride. Now she’s off key when she hums the chorus and looks me in the eyes for approval.
‘Can you turn it off, it’s too redneck for me.’ I reach to do it myself anyway.
‘I’m sorry Marcus, I should have asked.’
I adjust the rear-view mirror to see how far back the traffic goes, and for a moment I catch us both in frame; Lana and I, me and the girl from Utah, me and the Spaniard, me and the Mexican, the Peruvian & I, Parisian & I, Austrian & I, and that one Australian whose presence I can almost feel when I close my eyes. We are married, two kids fast asleep upstairs, and we’re brushing our teeth in the ensuite mirror. Ten minutes earlier I yelled at her for leaving hair on the soap and she slaps her own wrist a little too hard when she apologizes. We are naked; we don’t shave anymore; I don’t suck in my stomach when I take my shirt off; she only wears matching underwear for work; we only hold hands when the kids are near. We keep doing these to each other over and over because this is where we live now, and forever.
‘I’m going to bum a cigarette, see what’s going on up ahead.’
‘That’s a few too many for today, isn’t it?’
I don’t even pause to tell Lana that it’s my right to poison my insides if I want. I just start walking away.
The sun, now dead centre of the sky, lights up every inch of my body in white heat. Down the aisles of cars, I pass mini vans and sedans with mattresses ratchet strapped to roofs; luxury 4x4’s with barely enough wherewithal to cross a puddle of rainwater; hatchbacks full to the brim with no space for fresh breath. I walk through the centre of it all while each driver sits and realises they aren’t getting where they want anytime soon. Around the bend, a rusted Camaro sits idling with two guys smoking by the hood; one tall, one short, both about my age. The taller of the two wears a Canucks cap, the shorter one wears jeans too big for him but acts like he doesn’t know it. The short one taps his buddy when he sees me approaching and they both smile like they know me.
After my how ‘bout it, the Canuck responds in a rounded vowel accent, ‘Tell you what; I’ll give you a cig on one condition.’ I immediately regret asking. ‘See my buddy and I saw you and that pretty girl at the gas station; saw you arguing in there – look, I don’t want to seem out of line, but can I give her my phone number.’
We stood there a few seconds not saying much, which was enough. If I wasn’t so shocked by his brazen attitude I would have turned to leave. The short one shuffles around snickering, points his finger over to where the car is round the mountain and gives a wave. ‘Now hold up buddy, before you ask, she can refuse the damn thing. From what I saw, it just seemed like you guys were on your way out. You never know, in ten years over dinner she could be saying, honey, remember how we met on the highway.’
There’s a myriad of things I could say to the guy, notably, that he doesn’t really know me, or her, and never will; that he can’t just take her from me like he owns her. But I say neither of these things once he lights the cigarette and hands it to me. I suck down the smoke I was promised, and watch him round the mountain bend as he yells out, ‘You never know!’ Once I’ve finished the short one says, ‘You don’t think she’ll mind? I give him a look and he continues. ‘She was standing right over there while we spoke - I waved. She had her arms crossed like she was waiting for you.’
I quickly pace back to the car, through the aisles of others, now inching their way forward around me. Whatever was causing the blockage has alleviated and one by one people return to their vehicles. The Canuck jogs past in the opposite direction to the Camaro and nods, ‘Good luck.’ Finally, the car comes into sight. Lana’s in the driver’s seat with her arms wrapped over the wheel, head down. She must have heard our deal for the cigarette. How dumb that Canuck was to think he’d have a shot. A traffic jam is no place for romance. She raises her head and we lock eyes for what seems a lifetime through the glass. There are tears streaming down her face, right over her scarred chin. I wonder if she ever looks at that scar of hers and cries because she can never leave it behind. Over and over she’s got to wake up and see herself in the mirror with that mark. Over and over she sees a bad man because it’s part of who she is now.
Cars beep and signal us to move on. I can’t change whether or not she puts her foot on that gas and drives far away, if she isn’t the strong woman I thought she was, if that one girl from Australia said I’m a self-indulgent prick or how far the Pacific goes on and on into the horizon. All I can do is sit here, very still, and hope she leaves; for the both of us. I hope she sees that scar for the warning it is, not the memory it could be.
Once the traffic is gone and the road is empty, I strip down naked and wade into the centre of the lake. It’s freezing and I’m out of breath when I get to the centre. It’s the first time I’ve noticed how shot my lungs are. When I lie on my back and close my eyes it almost feels like Australia, with the sun high in the air and an endless body of water at my back. I don’t know when I’ll come home, maybe soon. Australia is a hard place to love sometimes, but I’m trying.
Liam Lowth is a writer from Brisbane, Australia. His work has previously appeared in Tincture Journal, Writer's Edit, and Arbiter. He is currently working on a short novel, and begins teaching a screenwriters class this February in Calgary, Canada