Joyland

The Midwest |

Roads are the Veins of Where I Grew Up

by Lia Elaine Silver

I.

I drove my best friend Ant everywhere in my black Volkswagen Golf that we named Samantha. My birthday was just two days before Ant’s, and we were planning to get our licenses together. Since Ant’s dad couldn’t afford to get her a car, we were planning to always alternate who drove Samantha. And we were planning, after the driver’s test, to celebrate by jumping out of the car and switching drivers at every single red light and stop sign along the way to Gimme Java, where we’d get double shots of espresso in our white chocolate mochas. But on the day of the test, Ant failed maneuverability.

She told me that she might have, subconsciously, failed on purpose.

“All the powerful people are chauffeured,” she’d said as I drove her to school. Her seat was tilted halfway back and she was drinking a can of coke through a straw. I hit my brakes for a red light, and the pop spilled all over her “I Voted for You” t-shirt, which she found on a bench in front of the car lot where her dad worked and which looked like it was handmade with iron-on letters. We got endless stories out of that shirt.

Ant sucked up some pop from the can and then blew it at my cheek. It was lukewarm and smelled so sweet and cancerous. My dad was an oncologist and called pop “liquid poison.” I reached my tongue as far as it could go to the right and tried to lick it off, but I couldn’t reach.

“Here,” I said, and I turned toward her with my lips wide open.

A car behind us beeped, and as I looked at the light, the coke hit my cheek again.

“I tried to get it in your mouth that time!” Ant promised.

I had to pull over into a random driveway, we were laughing so hard.


II.

At sixteen, Ant was four and a half feet tall. Once, when she and I were doing elevator races in the clear elevators at the mall, some mother asked me for my phone number because she thought it looked like I was doing a great job of babysitting. As the mother walked away with her crying kid, Ant yelled, loud enough for half the mall to hear: “If I keep being good, can you sneak me another beer before my mom gets home?”

We laughed about it for the rest of the day, but I think the incident might have bothered Ant more than she let on, because the next week she pierced her nose. She did it herself, without telling me, while she was spending the night at my house. I went to sleep, and when I woke up next to her in my queen sized bed, there was a hoop in her right nostril. I didn’t say anything about it. Commenting would have made the moment less electric.


III.

Ant traced over the veins on my hand with a red marker, and I jerked away, surprising us both. I’d never given my veins much thought before, but they suddenly appeared giant to me, bulging—and frightening in a way that I didn’t yet understand.

“Why are they so bulgy?” I moaned.

“Because they’re veins?”

“I can’t stand them,” I said. Not to look at them, not to have them touched.

“Then let me make them pretty,” Ant said. “Come on.”

I gave her back my hand, because I never wanted to say no to any of Ant’s ideas, because I was curious, always curious, and I didn’t want Ant to stop telling me things.

She finished my hand, and then turned it palm up and went on to my wrist. It felt even weirder on the wrist veins. Really, how had I never been weirded out by veins before this? How had I just ignored them?

I didn’t watch—I couldn’t—but when I opened my eyes, Ant was, of course, right. The veins on my wrist made— “A heart,” I said. They connected to make a spindly, intricate heart.

Then Ant traced the veins on her own wrist.

“Mine make half a heart,” she said.


IV.

On Valentine’s Day of our junior year, I waited in Ant’s roundabout like always, but she never came down for school. I called her cell, texted her, sent her a message on Facebook, and eventually got out of the car and rang the buzzer to her apartment, but no one answered. So I drove a block away to Gimme Java and found her sitting by herself at a big table, without a drink.

“We’re not going to school?” I said.

“If you act like what you’re doing is normal, then what you’re doing is normal,” Ant said.

I tried to look into her eyes while she was saying this, and I could tell her heart was beating really, really fast. Like something rabid.

“Did you know that when people-in-love stare into each other’s eyes, their hearts begin to beat at the same speed?” I said.

I wasn’t trying to say that we were in love. I was just kind of saying: Hey, here’s a cool fact, and maybe if we look into each other’s eyes, we can make it happen too, the thing with our hearts, even though we’re not in love, not in that way.

She wouldn’t look at me for more than a few seconds, though. She was looking at her wrists, trying to get me to look too. So I looked, and—

“What the fuck?” I said.

On her wrists were codes written in blood. On one wrist, three small lines in a row with a larger line crossed over them, centered between two ugly, distorted parentheses. On the other wrist, a square with an X going through it. It felt like if I looked hard enough, I’d be able to decipher the key to her unhappiness. But I couldn’t look hard enough, because of the veins.

“When?” I said.

“Last night.”

“Like Beth?” I said. Beth Holmes sliced her wrists last year and almost died. I heard she’d been cutting leading up to that. It was a stupid thing for me to bring up.

“No,” Ant said. “Like me.”

I tried, again, to make our eyes meet. Hers were interesting eyes, we’d once agreed, because they had little flecks of yellow throughout the green. I imagined a dandelion that stayed yellow despite turning soft and fluffy and wish-able, getting blown onto the grass that was her iris. She’d told me that there were hot things exploding in her all the time, and that the yellow flecks were proof of this.

I suddenly felt awkward about having said the heartbeat thing.

Ant got up and walked toward the bathroom, without inviting me to come. Without even inviting her phone to come. There was a text from her dad saying, “Where ya at, girly?”—and a text from her stepmom saying, “You okay?”

I ordered Ant a white chocolate mocha because I wanted to show her—look, the world can be good. In an instant, you can go from crying alone in a bathroom to drinking a gift that is warm and sweet. There is slush on the ground, and our socks will soon be soggy because we are wearing Converses, and a few blocks away is the corner where Pamela Lee was shot to death by her boyfriend last year. But there is also a whole holiday to celebrate love. At school, you probably have way more pink carnations waiting for you in homeroom than I do, each one bought for a dollar from a different person who likes you. Swans have monogamous relationships, and so do vultures. Vultures! If vultures can commit to something for a lifetime, you can commit to life, dear Ant—is what I was trying to show her with the white mocha.


V.

Ant’s birth name was Antoinette Marie. Marie Antoinette in reverse. But her parents, when choosing her name, had never heard of the famous queen of France.

Soon after they named her, everyone would (of course) say, “Antoinette Marie, like the Queen?” and so Ant’s mom started saying “like the Queen, of course!” and she decided she would tell Ant that she was, in fact, named after a Queen.

Yes, until elementary school, Ant believed she was named after royalty. At recess, a group of friends would lift her up from beneath, linking their arms to form a throne, and they would carry her around saying, “All bow to the Queen.”

Then, one day as Ant was being carried, Beth Holmes—Beth Holmes, of all people—whispered, “You know Marie Antoinette was beheaded, right?”

“Like crowned?” Ant said.

“No, like her head was chopped off.”

After school, Ant stormed up to her mom and said, “You named me after a queen who was beheaded?”

“Beheaded?” Ant’s mom said.

And that’s when Ant learned that her name was basically meaningless. It was just a name her parents liked. That’s also when Ant decided to shorten Antoinette. Given her size, kids were bound to start calling her Ant eventually, and so she would be the first.

She would give herself that power.


VI.

In autumn of our junior year, driving in the dark, to a destination I don’t remember—

Ant rolled down her window, so I rolled mine down too, and she turned the music up. The wind on my face was the best kind of cold. It reminded me of when Ant and I went skinny dipping in my neighbors’ pool the night before they drained it.

Oh, the feeling of an open window on a cold night. I don’t know if I believe in a soul, but the way that cold air felt—it was as though I was remembering something more than skinny dipping, something I couldn’t place. I thought: please mind, please, imprint this moment in my memory forever. The only other time I recall thinking this was when riding the bus to school as a kid. Nothing particularly significant was happening. I was just sitting there, driving past the public library, and I wanted to see if I could remember a moment forever if I tried.

Ant put her bare feet up on Samantha’s dash. I’d felt so alive in that car, and I’d assumed Ant felt it too.


VII.

In spring of our junior year, driving in the daylight, to a destination I don’t remember—

We were smoking “dandelions,” our code word for pot, and I was sure both our bodies were buzzing with the understanding of how beautiful this world is, even though it’s also messed up. Without it being messed up, it couldn’t be as beautiful. The air around us had seemed to buzz too, as if confirming the correctness of our unspoken understanding.

Someone beeped, and I looked up at the rearview mirror, and for a moment my eyes connected with the man behind me. My thoughts in that moment: Out of everyone who has ever existed, how many of them had I made eye contact with? I was more connected to that man than I was to almost anyone else in history. You are connected to every stranger you pass on the street. And your friends, then—your friends are so connected to you, it’s almost hard to believe that they’re not you.

“Are we the same person?” I asked aloud. I don’t think I’d meant for it to be aloud.

“God, I hope not,” Ant said.

I felt myself pushing on the gas, too hard.

“You hope not?” I said.

“Oh. I meant for your sake. I hope, for your sake, you’re not the same person as me.”

Hadn’t we just been in that electric moment? How could a mood change this quickly?

“But you’re the spunkiest person ever,” I said.

“You’re too normal to understand,” she said.

I pushed the gas even harder.

Why did normal seem like the worst possible thing to be? Every day, didn’t I put on clothes in order to see normal? Answer “good,” when asked how I was, in order to seem normal? I used to have this fantasy of standing up on a desk in the middle of class and starting to dance, but did I ever actually do that? No. Because I wanted to seem normal.

But coming from Ant’s mouth, normal seemed the opposite of electric. It was strip malls and suburbs, instead of vast bodies of water—even though, in reality, water is more normal to the earth than suburbs are. Normal was a person who had no chance of seeing ghosts. Who just saw what was there, instead of what could be there.

The more I thought, the angrier I got, and the faster I drove. It was a way of communicating in silence.

Ant grabbed a paperclip from her backpack and started digging it into the skin on her wrist, in slow, methodical lines. She was outlining her veins, but they looked nothing like a heart this time—not even like half a heart. They looked like a perilous road, full of turns and dips and intersections that made no sense.

Veins are the only part of your insides that you can see from the outside without an opening. They disregard the covering of your skin, reminding you that—with one deep enough cut—your insides can come pouring out.


VIII.

But then there was that time in biology class where I was recoiling from the sight of Mrs. Sak’s bulging neck veins, and she’d actually said: “Who can tell me the function of a vein?” As if she was reading my mind.

But she wasn’t reading my mind. Biology teachers talk about bodies all the time.

“To carry used up blood away from the heart,” Annie Byrd said.

“Arteries carry blood away from the heart,” Mrs. Sak said. “And veins carry blood to the heart. What do you mean by ‘used up’?”

“Like, our bodies took what they needed from the blood.”

“And what do our tissues need from blood?” Mrs. Sak said.

“Oxygen,” someone said. I couldn’t tell who.

“So veins carry deoxygenated blood to the heart,” Mrs. Sak said.

“But, why?” Annie Byrd said. Some teachers loved Annie Byrd and some teachers couldn’t stand her. Mrs. Sak obviously loved her. “Why return blood to the heart if it doesn’t have anything good left in it?”

“So the good can be added back in,” Mrs. Sak said. “So the process can begin anew.”


IX.

The last time I spent the night with Ant, we smoked dandelions and stared at the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling, and they seemed so, so close to us, so gigantic and close, and we kept trying to touch them from the bed, but they were too high up in reality.

Later that night, Ant held out her lighter and made shadow puppets appear on my wall, but I couldn’t tell what types of animals they were supposed to be. They just looked like mangled fingers.


X.

If it hadn’t been for me being taller and having the richer parents and having the license, I don’t think I could have stayed friends with Ant for as long as I did. I would have felt too insignificant.

Even when I was driving, Ant would control the car. She would put her little legs up on Samantha’s dash, and we would play a game where both of us would think of a secret location, and then alternate giving a direction. The winner was the person who got us to her location first.

“Right at the next light.”

“Straight until South Woodland, and then left.”

“Right at the street past the Taco Bell.”

We had to be creative about how we approached it, with just two of us in the car, or we could end up going in circles. Ant always won. She once took us to a candy store, and once to the house she grew up in before her parents got divorced. Often, though, she took us to these random places downtown, in areas that seemed dangerous in their emptiness. In front of a church with broken stained glass, or a playground where all the ladders to the equipment had been sawed off, she would say: “I won.”

How did she even know those places existed? I just now realized she probably had no idea where she was leading us.