by Josh Boardman
Snow Road shot through the hilly countryside like an arrow with no fletching, curving around pastures down into emerald ravines and looping back around through the eighth-mile long main streets of little towns nobody knew the names of but the few dozen people who went there to work or to drink. Snow Road led to nowhere, as far as we knew, but we did know that once you drove out from our suburb and into the country, once you got past the mile-wide gridding of narrow, gravelly roads flanked by corn fields, vineyards, animal farms, and soccer fields, no matter where you came from, there was a slanted dirt intersection, unmarked. This was Snow Road, and we drove along it to smoke in the car or to listen to music or just to drive away from home for a while. Any way about it, Snow Road led to nowhere, so if you were looking to kill time, that was the place to go.
It was getting back home that was the problem. Because of all the serpentines and dips and doubling back, you lost your sense of direction. Especially at night. Of course, night was always the time to go for a drive. You didn’t have the sun to guide you, just some vague idea as to where you were in relation to the lake, maybe the North Star, but Snow Road curled through a lot of forest. And I learned quickly that the whole idea of moss growing on the North side of a tree wasn’t really true, pulling to the side of the road and groping blindly around the bark of the trees.
Once you got older and only came home for the holidays, you never had to sneak around to smoke your cigarettes, because your father had picked it up again and you could smoke in the house, and it felt bad to run the gas down in your car with those high prices. You usually just went to bed early, anyway, as you worked “nine to five” in the city, which really meant eight to nine. You only had time for rent and sleep. Even at home.
But there was still Snow Road out there, cold and reflective even on the heaviest of summer days, and staying in with your father chain-smoking his cigarettes on the sofa all night was depressing. You only called me late in the day, always clear out of the blue, never any warning as to which holidays you’d be home or for how long, no regard as to whether I had plans or not, because they’re the sort of plans I could just reschedule for any other night I’m decaying in this town, right? It was annoying, and of course I felt taken for granted, but you were my best friend. You always had the stories that made me laugh, like about that boyfriend of yours who flicked the head of his penis before he’d have sex with you, and I loved you. There were the depressing laughs too, but that’s what we were always good at: accepting our own shortcomings and making a comedy of them.
So the evening you called me, of course I was surprised. That was the nature of our relationship since you moved. I was at the bar, do you know that? I was already four drinks in with another pitcher on the way. It was shaping up to be a pretty fun night. And then you called me so of course I paid my tab and of course I drove to your house to pick you up and of course I was so excited to see you. I had been drinking already, after all. I think you may look better every time I see you, too; you’re getting older, and you always looked good, don’t get me wrong, but age fits you like a fresh pair of gloves. You were wearing a shirt that made me think you ought to be called something like Agnes or Dolores, and I told you that, I think. But you didn’t laugh like you usually do. It was softer, heavy-hearted. You just wanted to drive.
And so I drove. I followed our old habit and drove out into the country, past the narrow gridded roads with flat fields dark and chirping with the night bugs, past the intersection when the asphalt turns to gravel, and finally onto that slanted unmarked dirt road. I forgot how dark it is out there, away from any street lamps or porch lights, when the only light is the sliver of moon peeking through the interstices of the canopy and the bouncing headlights of the car. I couldn’t see fifteen feet ahead of us, and the forest formed opaque walls to either side of us like a twisting hallway. It was quiet the whole time in the car, just the air gushing through your cracked window and the puckered sounds of you sucking your cigarette, the orange flare crackling on your lips.
I had to start the conversation, to get you talking past your yeses and your nos when I asked if you liked your new job, if you were still together with the flicking guy, whether you’d seen anybody since, or if you even felt ready to see anybody else. Your head was down with the full locks of hair hanging flat on either side of your face, and you just nodded a little, your lips trying to find the shape of the words you had to say, though I remember the same words for me being shaped like some abstract idea a person can’t really perceive, and they quivered pushing out the closest approximation they could form.
It didn’t seem so horrible to me; I’d already gone through the same thing, but when I was younger, when they say it’s supposed to hurt more. I tried to tell you that it only affects you by proxy. That for me, my father had taken the full weight of it, sparing myself much of the associated depression. I had the stupid idea that this sadness was somehow quantitative, that people can take their own shares of it so long as it’s all vouched for. I don’t know how I thought this would help you. I’ve always known that you’re more sympathetic or sentimental or whatever it is that you are, maybe just susceptible but I don’t want to condescend to you, and I didn’t help or couldn’t help however much I wanted to and you must have sensed this helplessness and pitied me because you stopped crying and started nodding hastily. You wanted to stop talking about it. Your tears scared me: I’d never seen you cry before. I considered you stronger than me.
Remember the time you came to my house after school to bake cookies? After you left, my mother said that you were beautiful as a supermodel. This was one of the last truly nice things she ever said about anybody. Since the divorce, it’s all felt stilted, like she’s trying to win me. And my friends at school said, “Baking cookies? If baking cookies means sucking dick!” I laughed and avoided the question, although that was probably worse for the way you used to get around back then. Not that any of it was bad. You’re so much better off for it, in a weird sort of way. It aged you quickly, and I’ve said that age fits you well.
You wanted to stop talking about it, or at least said you did (which was good enough for me), but conversation wouldn’t come any longer and all the talk that did come was padded. We were deep into Snow Road at this point, all the cross streets had signs that said “No outlet” or some number of miles leading to towns I’d never heard of, and of course I’d completely lost my bearing in relation to the lake. We were lost, or as lost as you always are on Snow Road, so I pulled to the side of the road to try again for the old moss trick that never actually worked. You waited in the car while I walked out to the rows of trees containing such a depth of nothingness black that even with my arms fully stretched in front of me I felt naked. I started to feel up the leathery bark of the trees, searching with my fingers for that soft fuzz of North, but those closest to the road were all birch and dry to the touch. I pushed my shoulders deeper into that constricting dark outside the reach of the headlights. I couldn’t even imagine you behind me anymore. The trees bowed around me and tied themselves in square knots. None of the trunks had any sort of moss on them at all. I kept rubbing my fingers around each of them, but on Snow Road, even during the summer, everything is dry. My feet crunched beneath my weight like into a snow drift after a spring snow. And the trees whirled around me; some animal scampered away in the ferns, scared from my approach; dammit if I still couldn’t find a single goddamned tree with moss on its trunk; but finally when I was blind and the sounds of the forest had gotten to me you called me back, your voice actually making me jump—can you believe it?—and you all but reached your arms into that dark place and fished me out.
I didn’t find any moss and we had to drive around for another hour before we found a cross street that wasn’t Snow Road itself. We found the highway and made it back. But that isn’t what mattered to me—more was that your face was tight and your voice was tired. Your age wasn’t fitting you. And only I could have helped you to zip it up, but I was still too young and too stupid to realize.
Josh Boardman is a Michigan native living in Brooklyn.