Approaching South

March 9, 2017

Macy got into her car around eleven at night and left Philadelphia. It seemed the one clear-sighted thing she’d done in the past three days. She felt a wave of certainty as she turned the key in the lock of her apartment. She went to the ATM and shoved several hundred dollars’ worth of loose bills into her slouch purse. This conjured the image of a bank robber’s burlap sack, a dollar sign emblazoned on its side. She thought, “Like a thief in the night!” as if she were absconding, and she preferred this image to how she looked at that moment, unwashed, in her sweat suit, the sleeves of which were crusty from wiping her nose.

She’d started with her parents’ home in mind. But as she approached Richmond, Virginia, on I-95 she discovered no urge to stop. It was the middle of the night. She was twenty-five years old, and her childhood bedroom promised no relief from humiliation or heartbreak. She’d kept driving, thinking vaguely of waking up in the South, it being October in Philadelphia, where the fall sky barricaded the sun.

When Macy woke the next day to the sound of knocking on her motel room door, the room was dark, the orange receding toward the horizon though the curtains. She’d slept into the late afternoon.

“What?” she yelled and rolled onto her back. She remembered where she was, the Roadrunner Inn Motel, somewhere in North Carolina, and nearly laughed at herself; it rivaled her dreams in its outlandishness.

“Movies,” a man’s voice replied. “Five bucks apiece.”

Macy opened the door on a middle-aged man holding a fan of DVDs. This was Warren—his T-shirt tucked into his high-waisted blue jeans, lanky and clean-shaven, something boyishly apologetic about him. When she stared at him wordlessly he explained, “There’s only basic cable here. You want something to watch?” She looked closer. He held mostly action films from the '90s, a few romantic comedies, the type of stuff they sell in discount stores.

She was about to tell him that she was not staying, that she was going to return home, but she stopped herself. “Not interested in those,” she said.

He nodded, as if expecting this answer, and dropped the DVDs to his side. He turned to walk away.

“Wait,” she said. She made a “one minute” gesture with her hand. Somewhere on the floor, she’d dropped her purse before collapsing on the motel bed. She sensed him peering in the room behind her. She held up a twenty. “Buy me a bottle of vodka,” she said. “And you can keep the change.”

He plucked the twenty from her hand. “Something wrong with your legs?”

She looked down as if she needed to verify her legs were okay.

It’s fifty-fifty, she thought, as she watched him walk away.

•••

That night, Macy and Warren sat together in the two plastic chairs outside her motel room, which overlooked the empty parking lot. Warren lived in the apartment complex behind the motel. He’d been laid off from a fiberglass factory the year before. He did not seem especially grateful for Macy’s company, or the delivery pizza she shared with him. They drank vodka with Cokes from the vending machine, which Macy mixed in the Styrofoam cups she found next to the coffee maker. An ice bucket was between them on the sidewalk. They sat there, not talking much at first, like two old alcoholics who had already shared all their stories, she drinking at a greater rate than him. She was on her fourth double vodka coke when Warren said, “You drink a lot.”

Macy wondered if he meant it as an admonishment, but his face was pensive, not critical. She laughed. “I do now.” She wanted him to ask, why now?, but he continued to watch the cars queuing at the Taco Bell across the street. “My man,” (my man?) she said. “He left me.”

“And did you drink this much before he left?” he asked.

She admitted, “A little.”

“There you go,” he said and gestured with his cup toward her, as if that were an explanation.

“I’m not an alcoholic,” she said. “He left me for a girl he worked with at the beer store. She sold the cheese. He left me for the cheese girl.”

Macy felt some satisfaction calling her the cheese girl, but if Warren was amused, he didn’t show it. Macy had nothing else on the girl—impossibly young and pretty, a slight Nordic blonde in a fitted raincoat. Macy had trailed her in the car as she walked home to her building with the upbeat gait of a man-stealer. She’d parked outside the girl’s building—she’d just wanted to see it—where Chad had been stealing away to for however long it had been going on. “It just happened,” he’d said, and she’d thought, it’s something that happens to other people, not us.

•••

“You’re better off,” Warren said, half-heartedly.

“I have nothing,” she said, and then felt guilty saying this to Warren, who seemed to have even less than her.

Warren didn’t respond, for which she was grateful.

She and Chad had been together so long, seven years, that she was used to the moon cycles of their love, waxing and waning. This was what had done her in, this belief in the permanence of instability. Now, she didn’t care if she lost her job at the ad agency. She didn’t know why they required a bachelor’s for such mind-numbing work. She tried this out on Warren. “Let them fire me.”

“You’re too old to say that. That’s something a kid says.” Warren looked into the bottom of his cup before taking a drink.

“I’m twenty-five. I’m not a kid.”

“I didn’t say you were.” The tops of his canines were edged with decay.

It was a warm night in North Carolina. She could hear the highway nearby. It sounded like faraway thunder behind the row of lit-up fast food chains. This wasn’t even a place, she wanted to tell him. This was a rest stop. “Do you ever get tired of the highway noise?” she said.

“You stop hearing it, unless you’re listening. When I first moved here, it made me nervous. Sounded like someone coming up on you. But I’ve been here a year and it fades into the background.”

•••

“So, where to?” he asked, chewing ice.

She extended her arms and invited him to look at her again—the sleeves of her sweatshirt pushed up to her elbows. “Do I look like a woman with a plan?”

It was the first time she’d heard him laugh, and she liked his laugh. It reminded her of Chad, the deep sincerity of it. Warren took a beanie out of his pocket and put it on. She decided that he had been handsome once. He was losing his hair, but it was still a deep chestnut color, unlike Macy’s black hair, which exposed a grey dissenter here and there. “Glitter,” Chad had called it.

It occurred to her to ask, “Warren, do you ever sell those DVDs to people?”

“Sometimes,” he shrugged. “My last roommate—I used to own a house and now I have a roommate—anyway, the DVDs were his, but I had to ask him to leave. He was just a kid, and he never paid rent. He left a lot of his things behind. Finally I decided to sell them. It’s a couple extra bucks.”

“Good for you,” she said. “Why not?”

“I tried to help him out, but he had a lot to learn,” he said.

Macy kicked off her sandals. She prodded a clump of grass that sprouted from a crack in the sidewalk. “Were you married?” she asked. “When you had the house and all?”

Warren frowned. “It didn’t take,” he said. “I didn’t know how to be married then.”

Macy took this as an admission of infidelity.

“Yeah, maybe,” she said. “Maybe you just didn’t fight for it. Maybe you gave up.”

Macy had fought. She’d said, “Let’s go to couples therapy. Let’s make it work,” and Chad had blinked at her, at a loss. It was just the look he’d given her when he found her sitting in her car outside his new girlfriend’s house. She hadn’t been there ten minutes when Chad came out of the building and, to Macy’s horror, walked right up to her car. He glanced up the street in embarrassment before he reached her. He squatted next to her car, rested his forearm on the window, and looked at her with concern, a look he’d given her when she was very ill. She was ready to fight, ready to defend herself, but instead of saying, “What are you doing?” he’d said, “Why are you doing this to yourself?”

•••

“If I were you,” Warren said, “I’d go to the beach.”

“I don’t feel much like swimming,” she said. She looked into her empty pack of cigarettes and then out at the street for a gas station. “I didn’t bring my suit.”

Warren pulled his pack out of his shirt pocket and handed it to her. “You said you didn’t bring anything.” She made a face at his Pall Malls but took one any way. “Besides, you can just sit by the ocean. Clear your head. The ocean always helps me clear my head.”

“Where would you go?” she said.

“Florida,” he said. “There’s St. Augustine and the old fort.”

The drunker they got, the more Warren talked, and a slight Southern accent emerged. Macy was losing the ability to talk much. He talked about his children, his ex-wife. The fiberglass factory. “I won a boat,” he told Macy. “They auctioned off a boat last year at the company picnic, and I won it. Never won anything in my life. Thought my luck was turning around and then, laid off, just like that. I had to sell the boat. With that and the unemployment, I do all right. But I loved being on the water. You know who bought it from me?”

Macy shrugged.

“My boss, believe it? Takes my job and then my boat.”

“The fucker,” said Macy.

“I’m a born fisherman. Caught all kinds of fish on that boat. Even sharks.”

“Chad was always afraid of sharks,” she said. “He wouldn’t even swim in the ocean.”

•••

At her parents’ beach house, her father had asked Chad, “Do you know how to swim?”

They were eating dinner on the screened porch. They’d spent a week with her parents that July, and Chad went jogging with her father in the mornings. He shopped for salt water taffy with her mother and sat reading on the beach, but Chad would not swim.

“Chad knows how to swim,” Macy said. “We used to swim all the time in Connecticut.”

“I’ve never liked the feeling of swimming in the ocean. The salt water and all,” Chad said. “Plus I worry, out in the ocean, about what’s out there with me. I have a bit of a shark phobia.”

Her father looked at Chad disbelievingly. “You’re kidding.”

Chad shook his head. “It’s gotten worse over the years,” he said and tucked a piece of hair behind an ear. It had been a long time since he’d told his shark attack story. He’d first told Macy the story years before, when they were in bed. She’d forgotten how it came up. Everyone is afraid of sharks, she’d thought, and though it wasn’t an altogether serious story, that night at the table he’d looked thoughtful and private in his way, and she’d gently touched his elbow. She’d wanted to protect him.

•••

“Can’t do that.” Warren shook his head. “Can’t keep thinking about him. Won’t do you no good to think about him. He’s in the past. You gotta think about the future now.”

She snorted. “My future in St. Augustine?”

“Why not? You go wherever you want now. Master of your own destiny.” He grandly spread his arms to the parking lot as if to say, all this is yours. “Your future as a lifeguard in Florida.”

“My future as a dolphin trainer in Florida,” she replied.

“Go big. A shark trainer in Florida. You know, New Smyrna Beach is the shark attack capital of the world. They need you.”

Macy held out her hand for Warren to give her another cigarette, which he did.

“You’re gonna smoke me out,” he said.

She lit the cigarette.

“Wrong end,” he said.

“What?” she said and inhaled a mouthful of foul plastic smoke from the burning filter. “Goddammit.”

She threw the cigarette down, and he stomped on it. “That’s a sign, you know,” she said, unsure of what she meant. She steadied herself on the plastic armrest before she stood up, and Warren rose instinctively to offer a guiding shoulder.

“Jello legs,” she said. “It’s terminal.” She wrapped an arm around his chest and was surprised at the sturdiness beneath his flannel shirt.

After an unsuccessful jab at the door’s card reader, Macy handed Warren her card key. The room smelled stale with smoke and air freshener.

“You’re putting me to bed, Warren!” she said. “Like a dad.”

“It’s been a while,” he said.

He walked her to the bed, careful with his hands as he eased her down backwards. She looked up at him.

It was the kind of drunk that made her feel as if she were underwater—the dull roar of the ocean in her mind, the sea change of her equilibrium. She hoped she would wake up far away from herself.

•••

“When I was working in San Louis Obispo,” Chad had said. “A great white shark killed a woman.”

Chad set his fork down, and Macy smiled at her parents who were a unit on the other side of the table, the armrests of their chairs touching.

“This woman used to swim every day, but this is the Pacific and it’s cold, so she wore a wetsuit.” He tried to say this delicately, “She was a big lady who swam for her daily exercise, and she liked to swim with the seals. Sharks eat seals,” he said matter-of-factly. “And when this shark saw them—the grey woman swimming with the seals—he went for the biggest seal. The lifeguards saw her go under, and some of them started to run for the water. The head lifeguard stopped them.” Chad threw up his hands to gesture like the lifeguard. “He said, ‘No, you can’t. You have to wait until she gets away from the shark.’”

“Jesus,” her father said.

“The next day, I watched them change the sign that said, ‘1 days since the last attack.’” He picked up his beer. “I just think sometimes, I’ll always be the largest seal.’”

Her father smiled. Macy wrapped an arm around Chad and rested her hand on his shoulder.

“And you said you’d never swim again?” her mother asked.

“No,” Chad said, “I was already scared, but this helped.”

•••

Warren’s Pall Malls were on the night stand when Macy woke, and she finished the pack before she crossed the South Carolina state line. She kept driving, bleary-eyed and nauseous, until she reached New Smyrna Beach, Florida.

At the public entrance to New Smyrna Beach, a wooden sign read: “Dangerous Sea Life. Swim with Caution.” It made Macy smile. The city was too desperate for tourists to openly admit that “sea life” meant sharks. Tourist season was over, however, and the beach was empty save for a few couples passing by in jogging attire.

She called her mother, and as soon as her mother said “Hello?” she started to cry into the phone, which sent her mother into a panic: “Macy, what’s wrong? Have you been in an accident?” She sat on the empty beach, plucking at the beach grass and winding it between her fingers. She had an hour or so left of sunlight. She was fine except for when the wind blew.

“Where are you?” her mother said. “It’s so windy.”

“I’m at the beach.” Macy dug her feet into the sand.

“Where?”

“Florida.”

“Why are you in Florida?”

“I wanted to see the ocean,” she said.

“Why didn’t you come home?”

“I missed the exit,” Macy said.

Warren was right; the ocean did clear your head, the sound of the waves combing the sand. The Atlantic was its familiar stormy blue, though the hue made it seem more alive, with more potential for harm. There were only puppy waves, as they were called in Virginia Beach, but Macy saw a lone surfer straddling his board in the distance. His wetsuit indicated, perhaps, why he was alone. She wished she’d bought a postcard for Chad from New Smyrna Beach that read The Shark Attack Capital of the World, if they made such postcards.

The water was cold, the shooting, pin-prickling cold of sticking an arm in an ice chest. She stood in it up to her calves, waiting for the numbness to seep in. She walked forward and felt the ice creep up her legs, not numbing, but aching. The surfer had gone, so she was alone. Macy had been on her high school swim team, so she knew the only way to warm herself was to swim and not to stop swimming for a good ten minutes. She couldn’t will herself to move farther than thigh-deep. She whipped her head around and watched the water for moving shadows. She thought about her high school swim coach, a well-tanned, robust man. He was a nameless but deeply kind man in her memory, and in truth, his image had melded with Warren’s. She pictured Warren at a swim meet as he paced alongside of the pool, in step with his swimmers. He would crouch with one hand gripping the pool’s edge, the tendons in his neck straining as he yelled, “Kick! Kick! Kick!” but, truly, he was saying, “Try harder,” in his way, “and all this is yours.”

She dove, the ache swelling to her head, ringing in her ears, as she swam with all her might away from the shore. Her arms were stronger than she remembered, her legs steeled from the frigid water. She pulled herself forward, breathing to the side. She let the waves fall over her and felt her body buoy up to the surface as the waves passed—a familiar feeling, like being a child again. She kept her eyes tightly shut, and pulled away from the coast toward the line where the sky met the ocean—allowing herself to be swallowed and feeling the great depth of freedom greet her from below.