I call him under the awning of the café that opened on the corner of our street last year. The rain is warm and falls straight, as though from a watering can over an urbanized little garden, and I stand in my own sweat and dial with numb fingers.
“Hello?” He sounds sluggish, barely awake.
“Teddy? It’s – uh,” I pause because it’s been months, and he might have lost my number, forgotten me in a list that includes an Alex T, an Alex O, an Alex M; maybe I had even been deleted, I think despairingly, written off as a lost cause –
“Alex? Holy shit. Are you okay?” He’s alert now, and after a few bursts of static against the receiver, I imagine probably vertical.
“I’m fine.” My stomach unclenches, and I can see the ghostly waxing moon of my face reflected in the window of the café, the patrons within peering at me curiously, gazes flicking away when I catch them. There’s a crater on the moon, I see, in violet and blue.
“I left him, Ted. For good, this time.” I stare out at the rain, the buildings on the other side of the road running like an oil painting. People are hurrying to work through the torrent under sleek umbrellas, one or two even jogging freely in shorts and tank tops, eking out the last benefits of an over-warm summer. Teenagers huddle in a newsstand, squealing when cars fly by and spray puddles in fleeting arcs over their shoes.
“I’m here to collect on that promise.”
There’s a crackling sort of quiet on the other line, and Teddy’s breath comes out like a tide, harsh against my ear. I don’t move the phone, just listen to it with a small smile, wondering if his hair is sticking up straight at the back the way it always used to in the morning.
“Where are you?” Rustling. “We’re coming to get you.” Louder, as though pressing closer. “Are you safe?”
My eyes prick with tears, and when I tilt my head back they just trickle out the corners like the residue of some burst abscess, some noxious leftover of an ugly wound.
The van’s blue paint job is peeling, the rims crusted orange with rust. There’s guano on the windshield, fast food wrappers on the dashboard, and behind the woman hanging halfway out the passenger window, the canvas of an old tent can be seen poking between the front seats. The familiarity nearly sends me into a sobbing fit, and I hold myself together until I see Teddy hop out of the driver’s seat. When he spots me he comes running, and soon both our hair and clothes are plastered together with rainwater, our voices hysterical as we decide to laugh instead of cry.
The equally damp woman finally reaches us with a wide grin, and it takes me a stuttering moment to discern the skinny girl hunched over college textbooks under that mane of dark hair, those glittering eyes.
“You’re not wearing your glasses,” I say stupidly, and then she’s hugging me too. Teddy is watching us with a sober expression, his hands hovering near but not quite on me, in stark contrast to the bearlike sisterly embrace I hadn’t thought to experience again in my lifetime. We hadn’t quite screamed at each other, I knew, but the doors had slammed. The phone had rung out.
“You look great, Angela.”
“That makes one of us,” she says gently, and I swallow a defensive retort, nodding with my hands shoved deep in my pockets.
“It’s been a long night.” I feel rather than see Teddy shift nearer to me, like I’m a celestial body with something new in its orbit, adjusting to my retreats and advances. “Thanks for coming, anyway.” A shyness comes over me in a wave, and I flush. “I honestly thought you’d have forgotten.”
“As if Teddy would allow that,” says Angela fondly. “He’s had a doomsday bag ready for this very occasion for years, right?”
“The deal was we go the second you kick him to the curb,” says Teddy, shrugging. He toes at loose gravel, keeping his tone light. “I know you thought you were joking. I pretended you were too for a while.”
I choke out a laugh, mainly for Angela’s benefit. “I probably was at the time. I never forgot that night though. Speaking of which, where’s -,”
There’s an ear-splitting honk from the van, which is parked rather haphazardly across the road, and Timothy’s face, wreathed in bright red hair, appears out the same window Angela had perched on.
“It’s pissing cats and dogs out here!” He shouts, turning heads halfway down the block. “We going or what?”
I’m squashed in the front bench seat between Teddy, who’s driving, and Angela, who is maintaining a steady narrative about her Lasik surgery as the van speeds up the interstate. Timothy is in the back, interjecting every so often with a remark about Teddy’s speed, Angela’s volume, and my appearance.
“You sure you don’t want my sweatshirt? Like, yeah, it was probably last washed in 2016, but you’re turning blue.” He stammers a little, avoids Teddy’s glare in the rear-view mirror. “I mean -,”
“Bluer?” I say with a heroic stab at levity, but the others are still stiff, far too interested in the endless asphalt. Sighing, I maneuver myself around and climb past Timothy, who has retreated further into the nest of tents and sleeping bags and blankets. He attempts to busy himself with a whittling knife and the stunted embryo of what may be a wooden duck, but I sit directly in his line of sight.
“Thanks for coming to get me. After dropping everything. I really do appreciate it.”
“Wasn’t even a question,” he says, then startles - seems to realize that when we last spoke like this, we were six drinks in and young enough to make promises we could keep. He offers me a wan smile, for the girl he remembers.
“I heard Teddy knock half his room down before he stormed in to get me up. Angela was already on the phone with him, listing off the stuff we’d need to bring, telling him to call in sick to work. I’m lucky,” he says, leaning back slightly, tossing me the duck. “I’ll only be missed by my fans.”
“The ones who tolerate him,” Teddy amends, and Angela chuckles. Timothy takes pity on my questioning face, rolling his eyes good-naturedly at the others.
“I’m a busker,” he says, elbowing the hulking guitar case behind him, and I experience an unpleasant swooping sensation in my gut. Talent show. School play. Teddy’s mother’s funeral.
“Of course. You play,” I say, my lapse in memory painfully obvious. I take the sweatshirt when he offers it again, and despite the change to Angela’s spare clothes and the heating of the van, my bones are chilled.
“I’ve never been to Missouri,” I say, Angela’s combination of borrowed overalls and plaid making me feel a little too at home in the clapboard house with the whitewashed walls and rickety furniture. Despite this, I find that I like the way the robust denim drapes liberally over my body, hiding what I want hidden, cushioning what aches. It’s not something I’ve been able to do in a long time, but not even thumbscrews would have gotten me to admit that to Angela or her grimace when she saw the state of my arms.
Timothy is leaning over a pair of bollards linking red velvet rope, squinting at a placard. “'Samuel L. Clemens lived in this idyllic country home from the age of seven to eighteen.' Damn. Who said he wrote Huckleberry Finn here?”
“Nobody,” says Teddy, materializing from my left. “I said they have the desk he wrote at, though. That’s pretty cool.”
“I suppose,” muttered Timothy, ignoring Angela’s urging for him to put on one of the straw hats they had available for costumed selfies.
“You and your writers,” I say, quietly enough for the others’ bickering to drown it out, if I let it. “A few diners and the boyhood home of some old guy? This is a Teddy Trip all right.”
Teddy snorts, and I wait for the playful nudge that doesn’t come. He skims past me, sleeve to sleeve, and gestures to a portrait of a big family. “Just trying to keep you interested,” he says. “C’mere, I want to take a picture.”
There’s a polaroid of me shying behind Teddy, dead children looming impassively over us in black and white. From the side, Timothy’s fingers make rabbit ears that don’t quite reach Teddy’s head.
Teddy writes the date at the bottom and hands it to me.
“Something you’ll want to remember,” he says.
I asked them to take me away, but I never said where.
Teddy drives us down the I-44 towards the west coast with what most wouldn’t call wild abandon, but in the minutes and hours and days that are being restored to us I’m starting to see him clearer; there’s a gust behind us, even if he denies it.
“I just want to keep up momentum,” he says, shortly after chiding Timothy for taking over five minutes to pee at the side of the road, and he keeps his word.
Angela takes us through the Myriad Botanical Gardens in Oklahoma City. She twirls loose vines over my shoulders and collects petals in her pockets, pouring them into my cupped hands at the end of the day, when we’re hot and dusty and sprawled in some trailer park. She plaits my hair when we camp and advises me on moisturizing when we’re in a hideous public bathroom, low on mascara, blood sugar, and sense. A man walks in on us as we’re experimenting with lipstick and yelps at my Joker smile, leading to an uncontrollable bout of laughter that draws the boys in a panic.
Timothy howls to the moon at night, throat bobbing as he bawls out some country ballad, expertly strumming, lost in musical apoplexy that I sink into with him when I can. Pinpricks of light in the ceiling of the world and nothing but the chatter of other vacationers, families, and truckers who watch our racket with odd respect, enjoying the show. This is what I imagine when I’m flat on my back and tunelessly singing Dolly Parton, Timothy encouraging me as he fends off Angela’s cackling and Teddy’s pelting of popcorn, peanuts, cigarette butts, my slippers.
Teddy and I sit in the front of the van and he points to places on the map. “Never been there,” he says, over and over, the invitation tacit, distant, giving me room to refuse. He holds my hand when we go to the International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, the wash of color enveloping us until we feel tiny, pressed closer together than we’d been in days (years). He drags us all to the Very Large Array in New Mexico, great sentries of the sky with their heads turned up towards the stars, listening for voices or looking for light in the void. We lie down on blankets and Teddy holds a coffee cup lid in my periphery, asking me if I see any UFOs.
Our legs are dangling over the edge of the Grand Canyon when I say I want to go to the end of the world.
“Metaphorical or literal?”
“Both,” I say, then shake myself. “No. Figurative. You know I haven’t been back to Palo Alto since I dropped out?”
Teddy glances back to where Angela is unpacking sandwiches, arguing with Timothy over the whereabouts of his hip flask. Teddy takes a swig from it and passes it to me. I copy the movement, failing to contain my amusement.
“College wasn’t all that.”
“Sure it was. You passed the bar. Angie is actually curating for galleries.” I flick a pebble five thousand feet down, wishing I had something bigger. I wanted an impact. “I want to go back. See my ghost.”
In the sunlight, Teddy’s nose and cheeks are faintly pinker than the rest of him, his hair lifting on the breeze. I go to reach for his Polaroid camera, the desire to freeze this very second overpowering, but he’s faster. He catches my hand, holds it apart from him like an injured animal.
“It wasn’t your fault. You know -”
“You don’t have to say that,” I say sharply. “I know what happened. I was the one who stayed.” I reclaim my hand in a single jerky motion, getting to my feet, and Teddy lurches forward. His eyes flicker to my right, wide and dark and with no small amount of genuine fear. Angela and Timothy are watching me, silent and unmoving.
My heel skids slightly. I step gingerly away from the edge of the chasm, a dull, pulsing ache in my chest returning for the first time in weeks.
“Let’s go,” I say.
We reach California after half a day of driving, only stopping for toilet breaks or fast food in greasy wax paper. Teddy doesn’t say much, I say even less. Angela takes up the slack, for the most part, pointing to different personal landmarks as we roll into San Jose around dusk, ragged clouds beginning to creep over the city.
“Oh, I threw up by that bar. Tim, do you remember Jessica? She stopped me getting into a fight in that alley.”
That’s where he told me I was worthless, I think, as we pass a grimy pub. That’s where I got my first fracture, as the Stanford campus flashes by. That’s where I tried to call you, Teddy, and you didn’t pick up.
Ocean Beach isn’t the closest, but it’s remote enough. When we climb out of the van, ripe and sore from the long drive, I head directly for the rocky shore, leaving the others behind me. I ignore the crunching footsteps in my wake, eyes resolutely on the misty horizon, the faint orange glow of traffic across the bridge.
I end up shivering on a jutting boulder with the sea six feet below me. The air is cool on my face, my dirty hair.
“I love you.”
He inches around me, waits until I open my eyes so I can see he’s standing between me and the crashing waves.
“I came here so many times,” I say flatly. “So many times. I didn’t know why at the time, really. I think I wanted to clear my head. I know now I was considering my options.”
I brush past him and sit on the rock, waiting until he sinks down next to me in an inverted mockery of our nearly tangled legs at the Grand Canyon. Seawater sprays our faces and churns in white foam underneath us.
“A lot of people gave up on me. Not you. You kept that promise, all these years, even if it was selfish as hell of me to ask it.”
“You wanted out,” says Teddy, profile limned with city lights. “Anyone could see that. Of course I was going to help you.”
Slowly, I raise my hand and run it through his hair, bringing our noses so close that his exhale tickles my lips. We’re fourteen, seventeen, twenty-one, and this is the first time I see the hesitation in his stance, the warmth rising in his neck. He’s afraid to touch me, is so sure I’ll splinter like cheap glass under the slightest applied pressure.
I kiss his cheek chastely, the relief an intoxication. “Thank you for answering the phone, Teddy.” I release him, sitting back but keeping him in view. “This was the best two weeks of my life.”
“I meant what I said.” He’s urgent, suddenly, the heat of him flush against my side. “Whatever you need -,”
“You,” I say, grinning. “Them,” I add, because I can see the beacon of Timothy’s red hair even in the dark of the beach, hiking down the rocks towards us, blankets and beer and flashlights under his and Angela’s arms. There’s a part of me, even now, that itches to scramble away from all of this, to run all the way back to the comfortably rough state of the world. There I knew the rules, how to operate. Flinching was as natural as breathing, as regular as my hummingbird’s heartbeat.
I steel myself, bathe in the jaunty catcalls of my friends. My friends.
“There’s a long road ahead,” I say, and I take Teddy’s hand this time. I’m truly glad that he wants to be here - that I want to be here.
“I’d like to take it with you.”