The Talmadge bridge hung halfway between the river and the sky; it sat over the licking waves that carried the larger-than-life steamers into the port, fresh from their oceanic expeditions. Savannah was a city that felt all too big around me, dwarfing my frame as I sat with my knees between my arms on the concrete of the parking lot, leaning against my SUV. It was a creature that glimmered in the heat of August, inhaled hopes and dreams, and exhaled them in a breath that stank of shrimp and motor oil. With each pulse of my heart, it thrummed akin, palpable energy shuddering down the cobblestone streets.
I was small and useless in such a city. More than that, the loneliness came as it always did, sliding its tendrils until they wrapped around me. But they slithered away when she came up behind me in the parking lot and sat beside me. She had a map in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and we touched from shoulder to hip. The contact never failed to make my head spin.
“Where to next?” She asked, splaying the green and blue images out on the concrete. She took a drag before passing it to me, and I watched the saffron smoke rise from her parted lips. She was content to watch the smoke waft in the still air for a moment but then grew impatient and exhaled all at once—the ribbons turned from silk to soft cotton and vanished. I looked down at the map and tried not to wonder how she knew the pain scratched aches into my chest.
“We could go further south, down to Florida, before heading North again in the winter.”
“Or we could spend the Fall up North and then spend the winter in the South.”
I said, “I’ve never seen snow.” She nodded once.
“We’ll spend winter in New York City.”
I tried to imagine seeing the seasons anywhere other than Blueridge. New Years on Broadway, Fourth of July on Miami Beach—all I could collect were images from movies without titles. To imagine myself there was impossible. I knew that even though I was leaving Georgia, I would always belong to it. My voice might lose its accent and my address might change, but the south had burned its label down where I could never reach it. Even waking in that hotel, I had stopped breathing, wondering why the popcorn ceiling of the trailer had smoothed out and why the room smelled like washed sheets instead of dope.
She ran her fingers through my hair. “Where did you go?”
“In my head.”
“You spend a lot of time up there.”
I noticed the cigarette was dwindling, so I took a drag and relished the crackle that fizzed down my throat and into my lungs. I wondered when the smell stopped reminding me of times spent with my father and made me think of her instead.
She wasn’t impatient with my silence. Instead, she began to hum a song I didn’t recognize. Her voice shook the air and filled it like incense, wrapping around me. She leaned on my shoulder and snatched the cigarette out of my hand. They were shaking; she slid her fingers down my palm, tracing the lines, the calluses, the freckles. She tapped each of my fingers, then finally clasped it in her palms.
“You’ll love the rest of the world,” She said.
“I’ve never left Georgia.”
“That’s what makes it fun.”
I couldn’t do it. I didn’t belong anywhere but the mountains of Georgia with their winding roads, farmers' markets, and rolling valleys. I hated how afraid I was, how unwilling to let go of the beast that had swallowed me whole. I hated to think that all this time cowardice was the only thing keeping me away from the rest of my life. She began to hum again, and the vibration spread into my chest, drawing out my fear into the open and laying it out like a map of its own.
“It’s okay to be scared,” She said. I wondered if she had ever known fear like this, fear that had its roots in hate, weaving like a mangrove in my chest, the water rising and rising in my throat until breathing was a distant memory. My chest froze with it, my hands froze, my ears rang, and a static noise buzzed from the tips of my fingers to my muscles to my organs. She was still humming, and the sound was the only thing that kept me on Earth.
“Scared of what’s out there? No. But we all die, either today or tomorrow or the next day. And sometimes it helps me to know that no matter what happens, we all end up in the same place.”
It was a morbid statement. I imagined what my death would be like if I stayed in Georgia. Dying of a drug overdose in my trailer with rain slamming down outside and demonic thunder rolling over the valleys, my heart thrumming out of control until it stopped. Or it would be in a car crash—one moment of distraction before the chaos of death, when the glass shattered, metal warped, and life ended, snuffed out as I drowned in my fear. Or I would succumb to my bad health and rot away, allowing the sickness to spread until there was no way to find what made me me without a road map and a magnifying glass.
I could almost feel it now: my last breath leaving my chest like a willow’s wisp catching the wind and flying off into the mountains as my body relaxed into limpness. And with such a feeling came a realization. I didn’t want to die in Georgia. I couldn’t control where I was born or where I grew up, but where I died, that was at least somewhat in my hands—the only choice I’d ever be able to make.
So I nodded and pretended I didn’t see the way she smiled. She kissed me on the cheek and placed the dwindling embers of the cigarette between her grin. Talking around it, she spoke.
“Let the adventure begin.”