ELIZA IS SITTING ON THE EDGE OF THE CITY, on a hill from which the lights, streaming east toward the river, would’ve been beautiful if there were any. She is sitting and remembering.
She is remembering Daniel at the wheel of a yellow sedan the night they decided to get married, driving ten miles an hour into a stop sign. She is remembering his eyes crinkling in surprise at the impact, his too tall head hitting the rearview mirror.
She is remembering saying to Daniel, You’re drunk, even though she was too drunk to drive herself.
She is remembering Daniel replying, No, just high.
She is remembering Daniel getting out of the car and looking at the pole and then the car and then back at the pole, as if trying to figure out what happened.
She is remembering Daniel saying, You know, you’re right. I did have a beer or two.
She is remembering thinking I know you did, Daniel. Three pilsners. I counted them carefully. Thinking for every one you had, I could have two, the sharp crack of your new can opening an allowance for me.
She is remembering holding a cold can of soda from the vending machine at the body shop against the red welt on his forehead as it slowly turned purple. Holding his hand and kissing him carefully on the eyebrow. Getting a headache in the waiting room from the smell of oil and junk food and paint and the white thrum of the fluorescent lights as she slowly became sober. The shop replacing the window and pounding out the dents in the bumper, only charging them for the window.
The mechanic saying, You’re a cute couple. Too young to die being stupid.
Daniel saying later as they drove home, At what age is it okay to die being stupid?
She is remembering, later, meeting her sister Joan at the airport and taking her to a Mexican restaurant in South Philly where they could be alone for a whole hour, and she could have a margarita without feeling a tightening in her throat. The restaurant having Joan’s name at the door because Joan made a reservation everywhere she went, giving Joan another opportunity to say how much she hated her name, her 1950s housewife, hairspray starlet, dad’s secretary name.
Saying, What’s up with you, Joan? Holding a chip in the salsa verde so long it turned limp.
Joan saying, What’s up with everyone, Eliza. My boss is a prepper who steals creamer and salt packets and silverware from the kitchen for his undisclosed-location apocalypse shelter. I can’t quit my job because there’s no better one, and all I can say is I’m so glad to see my baby sister.
Eliza enjoying — although she was often worried that she looked too young — being the baby sister in this moment. The sister with possibility.
Joan giving Eliza a look when she declined a second margarita. Joan saying, Back at home already in your mind, aren’t you? Imagining what Daniel and Jovie are up to, and what they’ll eat for dinner? Be here, Eliza, be here.
But, really, feeling right there. Floating on the warm alcohol burn in her stomach and the feeling of control, the knowledge that she could turn the drinking on and off like a tap. Thinking, it’s not that I’m addicted but that drinking the correct amount seems impossible. It was either nothing or as much as I could hold. Who wouldn’t want the feeling of having a combustion engine inside your chest, the ability to run barefoot over glass and not feel a thing? But that night, riding the crest without tipping over.
She is remembering Daniel’s parents saying go ahead, have children. If the world is ending, you might as well get the joy of watching someone grow up, of having someone to love so much that a piece of you is always thinking about them no matter where you are. She is remembering being struck by the phrase, A piece of you is always thinking about them no matter where you are.
She is remembering the day she found out she was pregnant. Telling Daniel, You have to stop drinking and smoking, fucking around with our lives. This is real; we’re adults now. Not letting him see the panic, the desire to drink and drink until tasting oblivion but not quite reaching it. Wanting a barrier between her and that possibility.
Daniel saying, Our situations are the containers that shape our lives, as he carried six-packs and office boxes full of bourbon bottles to the curb.
Asking, What does that mean?
It means we’ll figure it out.
Daniel labeling the boxes:
Free, please take!
Good quality. We stopped drinking for our baby.
Save the Earth,
She is remembering Jovie crawling and then standing up and then walking.
Daniel saying, It scares me so much.
What? she’d asked.
Every moment I’m not watching her, and every moment I am watching her.
Saying, A piece of you is always thinking about her no matter where you are—
What about your parents—never mind.
Laying at the bottom of the stairs in the middle of the night after uncounted glasses of bourbon. If she doesn’t count, she can’t be scared by the number. Thinking, no matter where you are. No matter where you are. No matter where you are.
Rain, rain, rain. Joan visiting for Jovie’s fourth birthday. Storm drains clogged with leaves and garbage. Cars splashing water from the street onto their front porch.
Joan saying, This weather, this fucking weather. Can’t let it decide what you do.
Setting up lunch at the rotting picnic table in their backyard covered with a giant umbrella. Shoes sinking into the porous ground.
Joan laughing, saying fuck it! and then slapping a hand over her mouth. Sorry, Eliza, sorry, Jovie! Jovie jumping with two feet to create the biggest splash. Four sets of shirts and pants bunched together over the shower rod like soggy, deflated humans.
The next day, hearing that the airport runways were covered in two feet of water. The lowest point in the city, practically below sea level. The Delaware could overtake it without even trying.
Joan saying, Who planned this? What idiots.
The airport delaying and delaying. Eliza coming home from work to find puzzles half-completed and dinner partly made, the sink full of dishes, Joan still in her pajamas. Jovie having so much fun she fell asleep in her clothes every night.
A week later, finding Joan in the kitchen, standing in the cool glow of the refrigerator. It was in the mid-90s and swampy, and their air conditioner was deemed non-essential by the city since there was no one under the age of 3 or over the age of 65 in the house.
Saying, You okay, Joanie?
Joan saying, Yes. The cool air just feels good on my skin.
Don’t leave it open too long.
Okay. Hey, what if I just stayed here?
What if I just stayed here. I like being here with you. Here is as good a place as any.
As good a place as any for what?
For everything. For being hot and going to the grocery store and playing with Jovie on the carpet.
Thinking, Is that what life is? How tedious it sounds.
Don’t worry. The airports will reopen soon.
Wishing she had said to Joan, Then stay.
Three weeks later, hearing on the radio that the airports were opening. Leaving immediately from work, no explanation to her supervisor, who was sitting in one of the pleather waiting room chairs reading a novel. The internet had been down all week, no one had worked for days, but everyone who had kids still came in, hoping for a paycheck. And silence.
Taking Joan to the airport and staying with her for five hours as they got her tickets, checked her bag, waded through security. When they got near the front, saying, Here you are.
Joan saying, Yes, goodbye. Love you, too. Joan taking a folded envelope out of her pocket and handing it to Eliza. Joan saying, We’ll meet there if we ever need it.
On the outside of the envelope, in Joan’s loose handwriting, the address of their grandparents’ house in the Poconos. On the inside, a set of keys.
Saying, But we don’t even own it anymore.
The new owners live in the city and never go out there. They didn’t even change the locks.
Kissing, hugging, Joan going off through the airport doors.
Bringing new boxes of liquor into the apartment. Arguing with Daniel in whispers. Saying, If the world is ending, I need something, give me this, give me this. I can control it.
Daniel saying, Fine, but I won’t touch it, I can’t touch it, I won’t be your reason.
Saying, Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine.
Dosing out the bottles carefully. No more than a drink a day, evenings only. Weeks of tentative, joyous success before evenings became afternoons became lunch. One becoming two becoming four becoming six becoming eight.
Their yellow sedan driving into the stoop outside their apartment. Thinking who did that, was that me? How surprising it was. That was what she felt most, surprise.
The worst snowstorm in the city’s history. Losing power and heat, snow so thick all they could see was white out the windows. Not even a scented candle for light. Going to the bathroom at three in the morning and finding Jovie in her coat and boots, standing on a stool to get a better look through the open window, her torso halfway out like she’d already started to fall. Grabbing Jovie by the shoulders and pulling her away from the window, then shutting it with a slam. Picking Jovie up and carrying her back to her room while she cried and kicked.
Saying, Never, ever, ever open those windows.
I wasn’t going to go out; I just wanted to look! I was just looking!
Snot shining around Jovie’s mouth and on her chin, dripping down onto her coat.
Putting Jovie in bed in her coat and boots, throwing the blankets over her, holding down her kicking legs. Thinking, I will love you no matter what you do, no matter where you are, but don’t do that, stay safe for me, stay safe.
Staying there, like a weighted blanket, until Jovie fell asleep, and then finishing a bottle of gin and hoping her hands would stop shaking. Thinking, what if I’d been too drunk then? What if I saw her fall or accidentally pushed her out and forgot about it until the next morning? What if the next time the car hits her instead of the porch?
Remembering when Daniel grew out his beard, running his brush-bristle cheeks up and down her thighs. Daniel, Daniel, Daniel.
Receiving Joan’s letter. The letter saying, Come now. We’re here already. I was having nightmares of bridges collapsing and being stuck a few states away from you. Jim is here. Just come out and see what you think, if it could work. Come now. The postmark three weeks old.
She is remembering considering telling Daniel. Considering telling Daniel, except, except.
Thinking it’s just an experiment.
Thinking he will say No, if he says anything.
Thinking he will probably not even say No—he has said hardly anything to me since I brought the boxes back—but if he did say something, he will say It’s best to be with people. He believes in the city, maybe in a way that only someone from a small town can. He believes in the power of the city to sustain itself, to keep going through sheer will, to sustain its permanence. He gets upset when bars and shops he’s never been in close down. The city that’s been here since before the declaration, before Washington was even born, he’d said once. There were always people everywhere in this country, she’d said. Just not white people. Right, he’d said. Fair.
Thinking maybe they will do better without me, without someone who can’t be trusted to remember what she did the day before, who likes giving in and taking the drink, making a night out of it. Who prefers a string of disconnected days to long, steady hours preparing food and learning how to sew and making candles out of animal fat.
Thinking, but maybe I can become that person. Do I want that?
Writing, A piece of me will always be thinking about her, no matter where I am, on a notecard and putting it on the kitchen table. Thinking about changing it to say, “thinking about you,” but deciding against it. Taking the boxes out the sidewalk. Writing,
Please take. Drink responsibly.
Mourning the earth, your neighbor.
Deciding to leave them the car, walking to the train station, and then walking three hours to the house. Joan welcoming her as if she’d just come back from a run, nodding towards her old room and saying, You’ll be in there, of course. Where are Jovie and Daniel?
Saying, Not coming, I don’t think. Maybe later. Not answering any other questions about Jovie.
She is remembering learning from Jim about foraging edible plants and tying knots in fishing line for hooks, braiding rope out of old plastic bags and long grass and bits of wool. Jim the boy scout, Jim the man’s man she could never take seriously, Jim, the man who wanted to be a father so badly and will probably never be. Sifting flour and counting cans of vegetables. Stripping pine branches and bark off cut logs and leaving them to dry. To burn well, they must be dry.
The first week, then two weeks, then four weeks. Joan stopping her questions about Jovie, about Daniel, and in a way that being a blessing. The long hours of the sober day, the sober morning, the sober afternoon, the sober night. Quietness and stillness unlike any she could remember as if she’d slipped outside the whole world or misremembered that another world had ever existed.
She is remembering stacking wood, reading books about septic systems and well water, digging latrine trenches, boiling jars to sterilize them, ripping old bedding and clothes into bandages. Going on long walks to map the immediate perimeter and scout nearby houses.
Saying What if it’s not enough, Joan?
Thinking what if, after all the work, the necessities of life carefully prepared, what she really missed was something that she could not find or make, like her friends or Jovie’s school or her old neighborhood, its nineteenth-century rowhouses that had been built along the trolley lines, the gnarled trees that grew around poles and power lines.
A car pluming dust down the driveway. Thinking, Daniel and Jovie, Daniel and Jovie, Daniel and Jovie. Instead, a college friend of Joan’s arriving with the dust. The friend telling stories of the city. A dangerous place. Full of crime and starved animals.
Asking the friend, How many people are still there?
Him responding, Who bothers to count?
What about the parks, the museums, the rivers?
Who cares about them? Buildings are rotting, and people are being killed by roof collapses, fires, lead paint, asbestos insulation, contaminated water, waist-deep floods. They started turning off the electricity after sunset to conserve resources. Some people still work during the day, and then at night there’s nothing to do but sleep.
Asking, did you come from there?
The friend saying, No, I wouldn’t go near that place. Haven’t been in years.
Joan saying, We’re safe up here. The floods can’t reach us; the mountain air is clean, and the well still works.
Coming back from the toilet, seeing Joan and the friend in the forest, fucking desperately, almost cruelly. Hiding herself belly down in the thick forest loam, spongy and sharp as an old mattress, unable to look away. Joan holding a pine tree in her hands, completely naked. Joan’s skin covered in red splotches. Wanting to move, to close her eyes, but being unable to translate that desire from brain to muscles. She does not know anymore where her life ends, and the lives of others start around her. And there is something fascinating about their bodies, about their sounds. They are not like the animals that live in the forest; they are loud and obtrusive, their skin and clothes cut like neon through the carefully laced background of green-yellow leaves, mottled trunks, fermenting forest soup. And in the underbrush, Eliza, like a deer, spending so much time alone has made her timid, rooted in place by the sound of human footsteps. Thinking where is the line, how do animals know when to stay still and when to run?
A knife slip while chopping root vegetables just to see. Just to test that she’s still here. Seeing the slit in her hand slowly unfurl before the blood wells. Silly. Two weeks later, scraping along the jagged rocks by the lake. A week after that thrusting her hand into boiling water. Thinking maybe it is better if I’d seen what happened in the city. Thinking maybe I’d rather be dead in the city than safe in the mountains. Thinking, two years. God, how could it have been two years?
It was not the thought of any one person that compelled her to wake, to slip a children’s mountain bike out of the shed, to pack the extra inner tubes in her backpack even though she was not sure they were the right size. It was simply the feeling that she was floating away from the rest of the world, from Daniel and Jovie and even Joan and Jim, from the mountains and the trees and the small, two-bedroom cabin. She was losing clarity. Her mood was unpredictable; she rarely knew what day of the week it was. The feeling of boundaries was gone, between her and her environment, between thoughts that were reasonable and those that were dangerous, between missing Jovie and Daniel and remembering why she had come in the first place. She felt like something left too long in water, on the border of dissolving.
She was worried about having enough to drink and eat, about getting tired and not being able to finish in one day, about being attacked. But mostly about something going wrong with the bike and being stuck a hundred miles away from the city. When she left, she knew she could not go back.
Riding the bike was life-giving. The air was cool and calm, and it made a sound when it whizzed around her head that she’d forgotten about. It lapped at her ears. For so long, the sounds she’d known were animal or human. But these sounds, the wind and mechanical whirr, these reminded her of the old world. Speed. Machinery on pavement. Early morning city streets slick with rain. She almost smelled coffee and plastic trash bags, car exhaust and dog urine.
She knew the highways were her best chance. Flat and straight, and hopefully not too potholed. Much better than cycling through back roads, damaging the bike, and getting lost. It took all day, with only a few breaks to eat and pee, but she didn’t tire. By the time she was approaching the city, it was getting dark.
And now she is on the hill with her bike, sitting and remembering and deciding. Deciding what to say to Daniel if she goes back to their old apartment and he’s still there. What do you say to someone who you’ve betrayed like that?
She walks east into the city, rolling the bike along with her. She’s unfamiliar with approaching from this direction, through Cobbs Creek Park at the west end of the city and onto Baltimore Avenue. She expected chaos or silence. Blackened buildings, or perhaps cult signs painted onto walls. She expected fences and death, emptiness and hungry stray dogs. She didn’t expect sweet night air, the droning whine of cicadas. Murmurs of conversations and shouts, live music. She thinks, People are spread out here, all the way to the river’s dark edge and over that to the Delaware and over that to the sea. The city feels unbelievably large, each block a little universe. She passes friends and couples walking, people walking alone. A few bicycles click down the middle of the street, moving slowly to navigate the cratered asphalt, the protruding metal of the trolley tracks, straight and taught as guitar strings. She is used to this darkness. It is the darkness of the country, the sticky, tangible darkness that your eyes can turn to a navigable gray-blue if you stay in it long enough. A darkness clear enough for moonlight to cut through and guide your feet. Usually Eliza would walk quickly down a dark street like this, listening for footsteps behind her. But she has the bike, she can always ride away. She is slowed by the sounds, the sensation, immersed in it like liquid, that there are thousands of other people around her.
She is thinking, what if they’ve moved; what if Daniel is in love with someone else? Thinking, I don’t care, I came back for Jovie and Daniel and even our neighbors, in whatever way I can have them.
She is walking to the front door of the apartment with a plan. A plan to say, No matter where I was, a piece of me was always thinking of you. The two of you. Always, always. But thinking that was not, is not, enough.
Daniel opening the door.
Robert Sorrell Bynum is a bi short story writer who grew up in the Midwest but became an adult in Philadelphia. In the city, he was a member of the Kelly Writers House Writers Workshop for 5 years where he first wrote and workshopped his Marguerite McGlinn Prize story “Here is as Good a Place as Any.” His nonfiction, journalism, and book reviews have been published in the South Side Weekly, Mosaic: Art and Literary Journal, and Philly lit mag The Cleaver. Robert pushes the boundaries of realism in his fiction while still being deeply engaged in the dynamics, nuances, and politics of the present. He is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he lives with his partner, Elizabeth.