We drive across the country when college ends, just us girls. We keep the windows open and the music loud; our hair whips around our heads and our blood pumps to the bass beat. We are so young; this is our first real adventure, for some it’s our first time West of the Mississippi. We are so young. Just five short years from now we will be locked into jobs, relationships, homes. We will think we’re making mistakes all along the way, but we will mistake ourselves into careers, partners, very nice apartments or even houses. But now we live in a car.
We leave the industry of the East behind, and suddenly we see what everyone else has been doing all this time. We drive through the rainforest of West Virginia, the St. Louis Arch. We slide through the corn and soybean fields that make up the heart, the backbone, the vital anatomical metaphor of this country. Flat green falls away and rises into rich hills, crosshatched with the black lines of charred trees, and then flattens out again.
The old measurements lose their relevance. The meaning of a mile is nothing to us. There are no more hours, only time when it is light enough to see and time when it isn’t. We are constantly moving, so that it begins to feel like we’re on a treadmill. We aren’t going anywhere, really. We’re not moving away from anything, either, and we don’t know yet that we want to be. Our phones buzz and beep; families, friends, lovers want to know where we are, what we see now. We don’t know how to say it. If we hold our breath we might be suspended in time and space, hurtling at eighty miles an hour in a large metal box.
Sometimes we want to yank each other’s hair. We want to fight. We see each other so closely that we miss things. When this is done we will love one another in the fashion that only young women can, a thing made infinite, as two mirrors facing each other. We will stare and stare, and love will give way to hate, will give way to self-loathing, and back to love again. Some of us will drift apart after this is done.
We rent a motel room near the coast, a splurge. It doesn’t smell like the coast or look like the coast, but the map says the ocean is near. We drink bottles of bottom shelf wine, pass around a charcuterie plate encased in plastic. We bought it at a failing grocery store—the shelves were mostly barren. We’d never seen that before. How will the people eat? We don’t wonder for long, because we’ll be leaving soon.
We smoke a joint. We play card games. We try to convince each other to take our clothes off and run around outside, and one of us does. The rest of us follow close behind, fully clothed. We holler and cackle, we pant as one, our bodies fly around the shadowed parking lot. We know we are free, but we aren’t stupid, so we protect each other. Silhouettes applaud from balconies as we pass. When we make it back to the room we double bolt the door behind us. But still there is a knock.
“Girls,” the man says. “Let me in. Come on.”
We had stretched the length of the country; we had become humongous. We had forgotten that we are just girls. We solidify in place, like children playing freeze tag. The naked one of us remains naked. If we don’t move, if we don’t make a sound, he won’t know we’re in here.
“I know you’re in there,” he says. “I’m not the cops.” As if that would have made us feel better either way.
He asks again to come in. Our eyes find our pocketknives, lighters, anything. There’s not much. We act as one, in that we do not act at all. We remain frozen until the voice is gone—the bravest among us checks the peephole. We collapse where we stand. The naked one gets dressed. We finish the bottles of wine. We vent our anger, our outrage, and, at the bottom of the bottles, our fear.
We drove all this way to have gone nowhere at all. We are girls in a diorama; things look real enough until a giant eye fills the hole in the sky and everything becomes dark.
The next day we make it to the ocean. Waves break on boulders—large, rough, and imposing. The spray slaps our cheeks and we almost flinch. Most of us have never felt drawn to water like we’re supposed to. We like it, sure, but we’ve learned that every woman should be a mermaid underneath, even though it sometimes doesn’t feel that way.
No one is around but we are afraid to strip our clothes. One of us reaches under her shirt, unhooks her bra and slips the straps off under her sleeves. She hurls it at another one of us. We laugh. And then we are stripping layers, tossing them in the sand, dancing, kicking up debris, until we are all naked.
For a moment we are frozen again. We scan the beach. We are alone together. We must be safe. We must be free. We mustn’t be stupid. Without a word we sprint at the ocean. When we submerge it is frigid, briny; salt gets in our eyes, our nostrils. One of us breathes too early and comes up coughing.
It is so cold. No one wants to leave the water. We can see our clothes on the shore, waiting. But we don’t need them here. We understand now, woman and ocean. The draw. The black surf holds us close. We splash each other. We lie on our backs in silence. It is so cold. We stay longer than we need to, until none of us can feel anything, and well beyond.
Rachel Attias is a writer and outdoor educator from the Hudson River Valley of New York. She has a degree in English from Skidmore College. She currently lives in Jackson, Wyoming, although it is not uncommon for her to live out of a moving car. You can find previously published work online at Nailed Magazine, Cheap Pop, FIVE:2:ONE Magazine, and The Raven’s Perch. She is on Twitter and Instagram at @multi_rachel.