Outside the window of the truck the night goes by in a flat plane of blue-black. Inside, the GPS unit lights the curve of Josh's cheekbone, a green crescent. The GPS says four hours to our motel room in the middle of Ass Nowhere Texas, where we can sleep until almost sun-up. Tomorrow will be a long, hard day.
Josh and I have history. We worked together on a different job one summer a long time ago, when I was twenty and he was 26 or so. I'd been there longer, which technically made me his supervisor. The job ended at the end of the summer, but we stayed in touch. The day after Halloween we kissed. By Thanksgiving we were lovers, although I had a boyfriend already, a sweet Catholic kid who cried and swore suicide any time I broached the possibility of breaking up.
Josh pulls the truck over at a gas station in the middle of darkness. We are nowhere near anything. I'm surprised the gas station is open, but it's not as late as it feels. Inside I pay for a tank of gas and a six-pack of Coors. Back in the cab I pop a cap. It's hot, even with the sun down. Sweat pricks along my hairline and my upper lip. The beer is just cool enough.
Josh and I haven't worked together since that first job. I didn't even know he was still in town til January, when I got stumped by a technical question in the Dayjob Project and sent a message to his old e-mail address. I didn't exactly expect to hear back.
Last I knew he was living in New York. He had called me three or four years ago, to ask if I'd been tested for AIDS lately. "I'm getting tested," he said. "The Health Department called and told me one of my previous partners tested HIV positive. I was hoping it was you, cause we always used condoms. I thought maybe you'd become some kind of junkie whore by now."
"Sorry. Can't help you."
"I'll be in Amarillo next month," he said. That's a really long way from here.
I asked him to call me back when he got the test results. He did. The test was negative. Congratulations, I said. We rang off. That was it.
But he did e-mail me back in January. "I'm in Texas again," he wrote back. "Call me. I'll help you any way I can."
We met for coffee. I saw him the second he walked in, and then he took his sunglasses off and I felt a pang, because he looked older, which he was. I am, too. He never was a handsome man, with that sullen, feral face and cheap swagger like a drugstore cowboy -- jaw a little too thick and mouth a little too tender, as though any second it might quiver like a child's.
I told him what I was doing and he offered himself to me, to work for free, even though he was busy. He's some kind of contractor now, working in the dirt and making all kinds of money. Guy knows how to hustle. I always liked that.
I said, "Are you sure?"
He said, "Sure I'm sure. I want to do it. You can make it up to me later, when you're big-time."
I was glad. When it comes to work, I trust him absolutely. He's good at what he does. So last week I called him up and he said yes and I told him what the score was: we leave at night, wake up at dawn, work an 18-hour day, drive home. And I needed him to drive. He said, "Kick me in the balls why don't you, while you're at it." But I knew he'd come.
The beer is just cool enough and the night goes past the window mile after mile of it, and it feels like we've been driving for days. The air inside the cab is soft with a humidity that the truck's old A/C barely dents and I can smell his sweat. He was the first man I ever loved to fuck. I remember it so well, in memories as precise and precious as souvenir postcards -- his hands around my waist, his sneer of concentration, his body between my legs like a furious machine. I could put my hand across the cab of the truck and it would be like eight years had never happened.
I shake my head to clear it and take another sip of beer. "Pass me one of those, would you?" he says.
I take a look at him and decide that it's OK, he's a big guy. One beer is OK. Or maybe not, but we've always brought out the stupid country kid in each other, the dumb and bored and desperate part that just wants to get fucked up and ruin something.
So much history. Before we ever met we had a history -- the history of Sunday mornings in little country churches in the summer, tiny wooden buildings with no air-conditioning so the sweat weeps down the backs of your knees and the crease of your neck, and someone saying something that's supposed to be important, but the words buzz around your heads like flies and out the open window. You smell the fields, hot dust and drying hay. Those who take pleasure in unrighteousness will be damned, and your ears prick then and you squirm your sweating thighs against the hard pew and you know they're talking now about you and all those unspeakable, exciting things you do, and want to do.
The history of bus-stops outside trailer parks, going to school every day in the wrong clothes, trying to make the walk to the cafeteria take all lunch period so you won't have to talk to anyone, so no one can look at you and there will be no name-calling, no shoving. A history of dads with angry hands, with hands like knots of oak, a history of lying in bed telling yourself you're the best, the best ever, you are fortune's only child and they are all fucking losers, all of them, you are getting out of here and you will show everyone you are the best, the best, the best. Because this is the only way you can go to sleep at night and the only way you can stand to wake up again.
I spent Christmas alone the day that I was 20, and I remember nothing about the day except gray light through the windoe and the absolute peace of absolute solitude, so light and free, like I could float away. Three days later, Josh and I caught the train to El Paso in the middle of an ice storm. We crossed the border in Juarez and spent the day drinking 25 cent beers, and the night in the Hotel Rio where for hours we lay awake and listened to women and children crying and laughing through the wooden walls. We took the bus down to Chihuahua and then the train again -- Divisidero, Bahuichivo, Creel. We were headed to the beach, La Paz, for New Years, but then some bad things happened. I fell off a horse and hit my head hard enough to forget where I was for thirty minutes, and spent the night drinking Mexican Benedryl in our bed in the hostel, praying that it would keep my brain from swelling up, praying that I would not die in this strange country with this strange man, so far from home and from anyone who loved me. Two days later we read the map wrong, got off the train at the wrong stop, and spent a lost few days hitch-hiking between tiny mountain towns with our high-school Spanish, two dumb-ass gringos on a half-doomed vision quests.
I pop the tab on another beer with a gentle hiss and hand it to him. "Beautiful," he says. "We should have gotten married."
That was never close to happening. I always knew when we got back to the border it was over. I figured he knew it, too. Once, as the bus drew back towards Juarez, I tried to bring it up. It was dark, like this, and we were almost sleeping. I turned my head towards him on the seat and he was watching me, his face inches from my face. He smiled at me, mouth drawn up sweet and wry. He said, "Your hair smells like cotton candy."
I said, "When we get back to town, it won't be like this. I still have a boyfriend. Of course. You know."
His face changed so fast it took my breath away. He looked at me with what seemed like the purest hate, eyes like two wide black holes. "Why did you say that?" His voice was a low hiss. "Everything was perfect for a minute and you ruined it. Why did you have to say anything?"
"I'm sorry," I said. I felt awful, and alone, the ruiner of perfect things. "Just stay with me to the border and you can leave. I can get the rest of the way by myself."
"What are you, retarded? Don't even say anything else, OK? Just shut up. Shut the fuck up."
Silence. Our history is the history of loneliness.
We got over it. By the time we crossed into El Paso we were compadres again. And for a few weeks after that everything was like it had been. We drove around in his truck, made up reasons to get out of the city and onto the back roads, like motion was our natural element.
But finally we stopped. Nothing happened. I just stopped calling him. We had plans to go to Galveston for Mardi Gras, but I never called. He left one message on my answering machine, annoyed and bitter and final. I wouldn't hear from again till he called me from New York.
I stayed absent-mindedly with the Catholic boy for another year. Josh turned out to be the first of the long, long line of boys I cheated with. It was like something had snapped in me, some component in the mechanism of my self-control. I lived in a universe of suspended consequences, until in the end I broke up with that sweet boy anyway, and told him everything, and saw his face smash like an egg.
History is collective. You have to share it with someone, or it's just a story. And that feeling, when someone knows your history, really knows it, that sense of being so instantly and so deeply recognized, is a lot like love, or maybe it is some kind of love.
That first time we kissed, I remember that as clear as anything I ever have remembered. Late on rainy afternoon, sitting on the bed in the bedroom that was also his kitchen, my cheek pressed against the window and the coolness of the drops running down. It was fall and in my memory everything smells like dark, wet leaves. His hand at my waist and his face so close to mine, I feel the heat from him, I smell him, and he says, "Let's just kiss. That's all I want. Just kiss me. Please. One time."
Liar. His lips tasted like salt.
Our history was the history of flight, from home and everything that felt like home. The history of love and hate and love that feels like hate, and pain squeezed down inside so tightly and so long that it becomes a diamond, hard and bright.
I could have left that Catholic boy for you. In the end I left him anyway, and in the end he didn't kill himself. It all still would have ended like it did. It never would have ended any other way. But I could reach my hand across the cab tonight, snake down between your thighs and it would be like eight years never happened, and like you never left and like I never found a better man, a man who is not a game I could never win.
I had to leave you to keep you. You know that.
We roll into the tiny town in the middle of nowhere, a little cluster of lights in the darkness. We pull into that motel parking lot. You kill the engine and for a second the silence is fierce, but I already know what will happen, which is nothing. We'll take turns undressing in the bathroom and lie down in the separate beds, turn the lights out and turn our backs on each other like two nuns. Our self-control is excellent these days. Congratulations.
You might as well be inside of me. You're in my skin as much as you ever were. For two or three mornings I will wake up twisted in my sheets and sick to the stomach, wanting your body like a drug. I will scrub you off my skin for days, the way I used to do.