Julia Campbell Johnson
I remember myself at ten years old, living in a house with no music. No stereo or record player of any kind, no radio. I didn’t know the names of music stars, did not watch American Bandstand. Never a tune stuck in my head. The closest we got was my father’s whistling, which he did often, though we never knew what tone he would bring.
My parents bought an old piano for my tenth birthday. It was a massive thing, so out of tune the piano tuner said there was nothing he could do. The wood finish was badly scratched – results of another child’s frustration – and some of the keys didn’t work. They put it in the basement, and I would sit on the bench before it, toes brushing the floor, and plunk around with my two index fingers.
They sent me for piano lessons to Mrs. Holmes. She lived in a big, graceful house, something from the pre-war south. It was substantial, and I felt safe there. There were so few places I felt safe. Not at home, and later, not with David.
At her house, I saw only the living room, the parlor where her grand piano sat, and on a few occasions, the tiny bathroom with the lacy towels – a child’s hiding place. Outside the house was yellow, with big, shuttered windows and a wide front porch. Inside, her house was warm, though she always wore a sweater. The furniture was done up in heavy, upholstered flowers. Doilies covered the tables, and on them were framed photographs of her children and grandchildren. In this way I knew about her family. Two young women in bridal gowns, a young man in military dress. Several small children, one per frame. Mostly boys. None, she said, lived near her. And so she gathered us up, those of us who were delivered to her in the afternoons after school to learn to play the piano.
The longer I took lessons, the better I became. Beethoven was my favorite. Mrs. Holmes said I had a special feeling for his music. I understood this, even though none of my friends did. It was a part of myself I couldn’t share with them. I would leave them with their Cokes and Nabs at the drugstore, their softball games and pajama parties, all for my lessons and practice time. As my talent emerged, my parents insisted I play for family and friends. Perhaps this had been their plan all along, their offering for others – proof that they had done well. And though I studied for nearly fifteen years, David never heard me play.
I do not sit on the bench and make the music. It exists by divine order. It crosses barriers of language. It is whisper and bellow, birdsong and thunder, echo of canyon. It is pure. Any rendition makes it imperfect. I strive for perfection, but I am incapable of playing it as it was in the composer’s mind.
My mother always ran late. After my lesson, I would wait on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Holmes’s house – five minutes, ten minutes, maybe more. I could hear the next student already seated at the piano and playing scales, as I looked right and left, anticipating her approach.
I waited like this on most days – taking my place on sidewalks, front porches, parking lots. I waited while the school janitor finished sweeping the floors and the last teacher left. I waited in front of Roses until the other children went home with their mothers. I waited until the downtown lights came on. I waited – conspicuous and longing to disappear into the background. It was like this wherever I went, this desire for invisibility – at home, in church, with the neighbors. It was as if in my own mind I wasn’t present. Grown-ups would converse over me. Other kids would talk to one another while I stood silently in a group. And I was sure my mother didn’t see me on the front porch that frigid day, covered in the dog’s dirty mat for the little warmth it gave, having just escaped my drunken father’s hand. Invisible. So I would stand on Mrs. Holmes’s sidewalk, a girl in concrete shoes, wondering if people in the passing cars knew me. Never knowing if anyone saw me. If David saw me.
I have no childhood memories free of fear. I was fearful if my father was angry or if he was pleased. I felt it on the first day of school, so anguished I wrapped myself around my mother, hoping to be unseen. I was fearful when I pledged allegiance to the flag. I felt it as I tidied the bookshelves during recess while the others played outside. I was fearful when I wore the white go-go boots I’d seen on television, the ones no one else had worn.
I didn’t know I was stunted. If asked, I would have said I was happy. Didn’t my father laugh when he chased me around the house? My emotions, I know now, were irreconcilable. I saw myself through a glass darkly. An enigma. I was my own enigma.
Mrs. Holmes taught about a dozen students. She had arthritis in her hands, so her fingers were stiff and misshapen. She couldn’t play the pieces she taught us, but sitting close beside me on the bench, close enough that I could feel her sweet breath, she would demonstrate proper technique, praise my touch.
At our annual spring recitals, the students played in order from beginners to the more advanced. Over the years I watched my name move down the list, never thinking I would ever make it to the bottom spot, the last to play, the most accomplished of all.
Much happens when I practice. A lot of it is waiting. I never know when it will happen. But the music knows when to speak, when to breathe. Its tongue is notes. They hover on the page – black marks on white paper. Without me they cannot live.
I can hide inside the music, abandon myself, but I must be still. The music moves in me, through me. The vessel.
Somewhere along that path, in maybe my second or third recital, I walked onstage, took my seat on the bench, positioned it just so, placed my fingers on the keys and began to play. “Für Elise,” by Beethoven. About a third of the way through, my mind went blank. Panicking, I tried twice to continue, but there was nothing. I’d never felt aloneness so completely. I got up and walked off the stage, Mrs. Holmes waiting for me in the wings. She put her hand on my shoulder, said something I couldn’t remember. I cried in my room until I fell asleep. After that, my mother gave me tranquilizers – her little pills – to get me through.
One thing I knew for certain was that when I took my mother’s pills I felt better. It was simple, reliable and absolute. Fear and anxiety vanished. But it never lasted. I worried from one pill to the next. There were moments of gliding interspersed throughout my painful, self-centered life.
When I took my first drink at fifteen, I realized that drinking made it possible for me to do things I couldn’t do otherwise. . . . I’d take a shot, chase it with a little cupful of water. I did this over and over, leaving nothing.
At twelve, I had a steady supply of my mother’s Valium, but my father taught me how to drink. He would bring home a pint bottle of whiskey – he never kept it in the house – and set it on the kitchen counter beside the sink. He’d take a jelly glass from the cabinet, fill it with whiskey and drink it down. Then he’d fill the glass with water and drink that too. He did this over and over. He’d sit in his red chair in the den, where he’d stay until his next drink. He’d sit like that the whole night, calling first my mother, then me for his preaching. He drank the whole pint, leaving nothing.
When I took my first drink at fifteen, I realized that drinking made it possible for me to do things I couldn’t do otherwise. I had arranged to get a pint bottle of gin for a party at Alice Kendall’s house. I drank it straight from a little Dixie cup that I’d stashed beside the sink. I’d take a shot, chase it with a little cupful of water. I did this over and over, leaving nothing.
Defying my anxiety, I was a cheerleader at my high school, which, for a time, usurped music as my great passion. The alcohol and tranquilizers helped me feel comfortable in front of crowds. Cheering was different than music, where the seriousness of the performance made anxiety seem appropriate. It was easier to be frivolous in public. I still played, but I pushed the music aside enough to accommodate my cheering. It was proof I could do all things, be anyone.
I was good at balancing my painful self with my new bubbly personality. And the perky smile was put on so often I mistook it for my own. The more that persona thrived, the easier the lie became. I thought I had everyone fooled – including myself – that I was that happy person my anxiety tried to smother.
The football team, the coaches and cheerleaders rock the school bus, black and orange crepe paper streaming from its side mirrors. An away game in late October. The outskirts of town are grey, but for one scene-stealing bush with crimson flowers. Next door, a man dressed in flannel tends a fire of burning leaves, its smoke spiriting upwards into the gathering darkness. Downtown the lights are coming on. We chant a fight song through the open windows. For those few moments we are invincible. People are out. Will they see us later, on the sidelines, under bright lights? We will never know, whether we win or lose, whether on the way out of town we sing victory songs or sit silently, the buses’ big engines singing for us.
I practiced best when no one else was home. I could use as much feeling as I wanted. When the others were around, I pressed the soft pedal down and held back my passion for the music. After my father had one of his spells, I was forbidden to play. On those days he’d have passed out in the morning, sleeping it off. We knew if we woke him he would still be drunk, and we would get more of what we’d already been through the night before.
My father almost never drank on recital days and rarely the days before, when he knew I needed to practice. Once I had to go to the recital without him, leaving him home drunk. More likely, though, he would drink the day after, when he would have thought my mother and I needed to be put in our places again. I absolutely couldn’t play on the days he was drunk. It would remind him I was home, and he would call for me. He always called for me, but if I were quiet, I wouldn’t have to go until later in the night.
When I was fifteen I asked for a record player, and my parents consented. It was a square, tan, leather box with a top that came off to expose the turntable. Since we had nothing to play at home, I checked out recordings of classical music from the library and listened to them in my room. Rachmaninoff was my favorite. I listened to it in my bedroom in the dark, over and over, music washing over me, a baptism.
The time came when classical music wasn’t enough. I saved my allowance to buy a small, staticy transistor radio so I could listen at night to the station from Chicago – so far away – the volume turned down low, hiding with Billy Joel under my lavender quilt so no one else could hear.
Time passed, and I became one of Mrs. Holmes’s advanced students. It happened despite my dependence on alcohol and pills. I was faithful to my once-a-week lessons, but my practice time suffered, and I chose to stay more often with friends after school, driving the same mountain roads I would later ride with David. Many days I’d show up for my lesson in my cheerleading uniform, the wool top of which smelled like the blanket I’d held onto as a child. Surely Mrs. Holmes knew she didn’t have my full attention, but she never criticized me for failing to practice enough. My first taste of unconditional love.
The making of music is lonely. I practice alone. I perform alone. Hiding in the practice hall I am alone with my part. But beyond aloneness I find myself. Playing is holy – the music and I, present in the moment with God.
To mark my graduation from Mrs. Holmes’s school, and my placement at the bottom of the list, I gave a recital of all the pieces in my repertoire. I worried for days before, and the day of the recital I was sick with anxiety. My mother gave me a pill, but it hardly helped. I snuck three more from the bottle she kept in her purse. I was still anxious, but not paralyzed. I stayed alert through the recital, after which Mrs. Holmes presented me a book of Beethoven sonatas as a graduation gift. I stood next to her, swaying, holding onto the podium. My friends and relatives had come to hear me play. And I had played well. Once I stepped off stage, though, the Valium took over, overshadowed everything, and I sat, watching, a mere spectator at what would be one of my life’s significant moments.
In my junior year of high school, Becky and Ruth were the new girls in school. Their father was a big shot at the local furniture factory, just moved to town to help his brother run the company. We knew few details about their lives before, so mystery surrounded them.
The girls were popular. I was friends with Ruth. All the girls spent time at her house, where her mother, Anne Mallicoat, made us feel welcome. Mr. Mallicoat insisted we call him Daddy Charlie. He was usually at work, but I knew him best because their family joined the church my mother and I attended. He was the strongest, clearest tenor in the choir.
My mother took me to the First Methodist Church every Sunday. Even as a child I knew to put on my best happy face. In Sunday school I learned the Bible stories and could name all twelve disciples. My mother taught me to sit very still on the hard, wooden seats. She said not to speak at all and to sing the hymns softly so no one else could hear.
I sang in the youth choir, where I was told to sing boldly. One Easter season, the youth and adult choirs sang together. I sang louder than my mother would have liked, and it felt good to know my voice blended with the others. It was a privilege, I thought, to sing in the same choir as Daddy Charlie and at each practice he was nice to me in a way that made me feel grown up.
Daddy Charlie and Anne Mallicoat took over the youth group that met on Sunday nights. They were filled with some sort of spirit, and all the teenagers liked them. They took us on retreats, to the amusement park in Roanoke, on camping trips. They seemed to have an endless supply of energy and ideas.
At Christmas they arranged for us to decorate the sanctuary. The tree was huge, even in the large room. The guys put up the lights. The girls sorted ornaments. When it was finished, Daddy Charlie turned out the lights and lit the tree. I walked to the back of the room and stood by myself, taking it all in. Quietly Daddy Charlie stepped behind me, moved in as close as possible and slipped his hands inside my loose t-shirt. I stood perfectly still. He moved his hands to my breasts, held them there for a moment. Then just as quietly he stepped away and left me alone in the back of the room.
I kept the secret, but afterward I so dreaded the youth group meetings that I began getting drunk before I went. No one seemed to notice. Especially Daddy Charlie. He avoided me, and I was confused by that. I’d thought he’d been demonstrating affection for me.
One Saturday night Charlie and Anne had a pajama party for all the girls. I went to the kitchen to get a soda – there was no alcohol – and found Charlie in front of the refrigerator. I froze. He approached me with a grin on his face, humming to himself. He reached out and squeezed my breasts, just for a moment, then did a child-like dance step to leave the room. I never went to the Mallicoat’s house again.
When I couldn’t stand going to the youth group anymore, a friend suggested the Presbyterian Church where they had a good youth program. I felt comfortable there. The pastor listened to me, and that gave me courage, as the months passed, to talk to him about my questions and fears. I started attending the Sunday morning services, leaving my mother across the street with the Methodists. Rob Foster, a boy I knew from school, was there with his family – mom, dad and three brothers. They invited me to sit with them. I did, and almost every Sunday after they saved a seat for me.
Rob Foster liked me, and everyone knew it. I liked Rob Foster, but no one knew, not even myself. I didn’t know why he liked me, though there were things I liked about him – his solidness sitting next to me in church, sharing the microphone with him at choir practice, standing so close I could feel his warmth. I liked the sound of his hushed voice as he spoke close to my ear on the bench seat of his car. I liked all those things, but I was so uncomfortable acknowledging them that I blocked those thoughts of him completely.
Rob was not my boyfriend, but we had a few dates. He would drive us to Love Circle – a secluded place on top of a mountain, a place with a panoramic view. We never saw it, though, because we only went there in the dark. I liked going to Love Circle with Rob, though I would later remember it with vague apprehension about the darkness in the car. My real relationship with him was at church, but I spurned him at school, and I drank so I could cope with the dissonance. I never shared these feelings with him or anyone else. I held it in, so closely that I felt nothing at all.
Thanksgiving Day, two hours after dinner. I drive around town, knowing everything is closed, still looking for someone to kill time with until the day is over and I have to go home. Rod Stewart sings “You Wear It Well” on the radio. I ride with the windows rolled down, even though the day is overcast and gloomy. I drive past all my friends’ houses, looking for signs. Nobody. I was born on Thanksgiving Day. Every few years my birthday falls on Thanksgiving and I feel special. Not today, though. But I don’t give up. I reach the railroad tracks, start the circuit over again.
The Christmas of our senior year, Rob invited me to join his family for Christmas Eve. It was intimate, just his parents and three brothers. I tried to hide in Rob’s shadow, where I’d hoped to be invisible. I watched his mother. She made and served the meal, saying little. His father presided over the evening – the gift giving, the prayers, the decision about when Mrs. Foster should serve the meal. I had questions there, but the answers I could not face. What would life with Rob be like? He would ask for meals and ironed shirts and happy babies. Still, he would bring me flowers, kiss me on the neck when he came home for work. He would hold my hand when I was uneasy. He would do these things because he could. Rob was whole, and I was broken.
In the spring of the following year, Rob was driving home – winding mountain roads slick with night drizzle. He said he didn’t remember the accident, just that he had lost consciousness and had come to trapped in his overturned car, aware of a nearby creek flowing down the mountain. He listened to that creek for hours, he said, before he was discovered. My father took me to the hospital to see him. Standing at his bedside, I felt some of those buried feelings poking through. Something in me was changing. But something in him had changed, too. Though he said nothing, I felt a new wall between us, one of his making. I’d thought he’d always be there for me when I wanted him. I didn’t know then, but he was the boy in school I’d cared for. He was the only boy.
One spring my husband and I took a trip through Virginia, through Lexington, where Rob had gone to college. We drove past the old stone and brick buildings, by the paths he would have walked – sometimes alone, sometimes maybe with a girlfriend. Holding hands. And there was the secret from Love Circle – the dark apprehension – buried deeply for so many years. Rob had my father’s hands. It seemed to me that day that all men’s hands look alike. I was close to the truth, though it would take time for me to fully realize it: all men’s hands are not my father’s hands.
The summer after graduation I got my first job at The Southwest Times, a daily newspaper published in my hometown. My father arranged it with the publisher. Still in braces, I was the youngest employee in the place.
I Iiked working. It gave me a measure of independence – a taste of what would come when I was on my own at college. I was good at my job, an accomplishment many of my co-workers would prize. I sometimes wished I was more like them, filled with fewer aspirations and more simplicity. At work, though, they treated me like one of the group, even though I had plans for college and wouldn’t be around very long.
By this time, my best friends had moved away. And there was a whole new group of guys to date and party with. We had little in common, except drinking. Partying was their main pursuit, and that suited me.
The head of the production department at work – Darla – took charge of me the first day. She was divorced. I’d never known anyone who was divorced. She lived in an apartment, which I found alluring and a sure sign she was mature. I visited her sometimes, and I wanted the freedom she had. I put in the back of my mind that I would one day live in an apartment in a city far from there.
Another thing I liked about Darla was that she was over 21 and could drive to the next county and buy alcohol. I spent time at the apartment with her and her children. I thought I could learn a lot about independence by watching her.
I met David that summer. He was in charge of the press, the mass of metal and ink that provided for all our jobs. He didn’t keep regular hours – he came in to check the press at various times to make sure the papers looked as they should. Darla said he had just the right touch.
It was Darla who introduced me to him. He was friendly with her, barely noticed me. He was short for a man, with brown hair, a little grey at the temples. He wore jeans and a cotton shirt, and his hands were dirty with ink. Big hands for a man so short. Even from a distance I could see they were powerful. He was good looking, and when he laughed his eyes crinkled at the edges. Even then I could see his smile was genuine, his face expressive as he talked.
“I’d be happy if he came over to check my gauges,” Darla said with a smile, looking after him. She gave me a wink. “No good, though. Married,” she said.
I wouldn’t have thought twice about him, but every time I saw him walk through the door I remembered the look on Darla’s face. I watched him a good, long time, but he never noticed me. Another year would pass before I discovered the fair, blue of his eyes.
I was terrified of going to college. There was so much I didn’t know. The first thing I did when my parents left me was write a letter to Rob, a letter he didn’t answer. But I made good friends. I majored in music and adored my teacher, Prof. Cole. He was kind, as Mrs. Holmes had been kind. It felt good to be nurtured by a man who was loving. And I liked being part of the music community.
My friends and I liked to drink. And it was with them I first smoked pot – a new horizon. We had a reputation of being girls who liked to party.
It was the year I took a dare to tap-dance on a table in the dining hall – one of my loneliest moments. It was the year I dated a dozen guys, falling for the white-blonde hair. And Hal, who would have been a perfect boyfriend if he hadn’t already had a girlfriend.
It was the year I met Mark, my friend. We would get together sometimes late at night in front of the architecture building, which was on my way home from the music hall. We smoked pot behind one of the building’s dramatic exterior walls.
On one of the coldest nights of the year we met, shared a joint, shivering.
“You work too much,” I said.
“Yep,” he said, sucking on the joint, holding his breath.
We passed it back and forth, stamped our feet as if we could drive the cold away.
“I don’t see how you do it,” I said.
“The real question is why I do it,” he said.
“Why do you?” I said.
“That’s just the question. I don’t have the answer,” he said, and we doubled over, our laughter cutting through the still night.
Tonight it snows. A dusting of white covers the large drill field where the cadets march. It separates the dorms on one side from the buildings where classes meet. Street lights encircle us, show off the snow in their auras. We are singers, walking home after a late rehearsal. The campus lights blink once, twice, then out completely. For a moment the campus is lost in darkness. We walk on. A lone tenor starts the “Hallelujah Chorus,” the piece we are working on. Everyone falls in, words we know by heart, sung in four parts, the only sound in the whole, still place.
That spring the girls and I opened our windows wide and blasted Beach Boys so loudly that everyone on our end of campus heard it. Blankets were brought outside, girls and guys barefoot, making a show of studying. I watched from my window, cool spring breeze on my face, wishing I had a quilt.
Back home for the summer, I got my old job at the paper. I spent evenings drinking with Darla or by myself. David was still around the newspaper. He came and went on the same schedule as he’d had the previous summer, but this year he hung around more. He would talk to me in the production area, follow me into the dark room where the type was developed. He looked at me, at the length of me, more brazen than any guy I’d ever known. He flirted with me openly, always with that look in his clear, blue eyes. It was a look of confident pursuit and expected conquest.
Generally I didn’t spend time with guys who didn’t drink, but there was something about David. His voice, a lover’s voice. Not like the boys’ voices I was used to. It was not so much what he said, but how he said it. The first night I went with him he offered me a joint. I saw the way the summer would unfold. We spent those weeks sitting in his truck, deep in the woods. We were a brushfire.
Mountains all around us, cradling us. But for the crickets, we made the only sounds we heard. Then, too,
the rainy nights when a curtain of water would drape
the truck, when all we could hear were the pocks and splashes on top of it.
We would meet in out-of-the-way spots, and I’d climb into his truck. It had a top over the bed and always smelled musty. He would spread out blankets for us. We drove the backroads until we found a quiet spot tucked back in the mountains. David knew every secluded spot. He removed my clothes. Piece by piece he’d lay them carefully aside, all the while talking to me in that low, quiet voice. Words I had heard but could never speak.
It was always quiet where we went, way out past the stirring of town. Mountains all around us, cradling us. But for the crickets, we made the only sounds we heard. Then, too, the rainy nights when a curtain of water would drape the truck, when all we could hear were the pocks and splashes on top of it.
On starry nights, when the moon was full, I could make out the wrinkles by his eyes. If he felt guilt over the betrayal of his wife, it was not apparent to me. And I felt no guilt, failing to see how daring I’d become.
My father came home for lunch almost every day that summer. He had a store in town, and we met at home, where I would make us lunch. I had an idea that my father enjoyed this time together. Mostly, though he seemed distracted. We didn’t talk much. Still, I went every day. One Friday he told me he’d be late. I was making sandwiches when I heard a car door shut. Must’ve finished sooner than he’d thought. But when I turned around to greet him, it was David that I saw.
“Don’t talk,” he said.
“I was expecting…” I said.
He put his finger to his lips to hush me, a smile of intention on his face. I panicked – my father could come home any minute.
David walked toward me, slowly, as if in a trance, until he was standing close to me. He took my face in his hands, tilted my head to one side, staring into my eyes. I thought he would kiss me, but he pressed harder against my head. He held me like this for a moment, then let go of my face. He walked me backward to the sofa, unzipped my jeans and pulled them down just enough. The noise of the zipper was the only sound. A breeze came through the opened window. Now he kissed me, so hard his stubble scratched me. He pushed me down, unbuckled his pants, the heavy buckle shining, the thing I remember most. He unzipped and pulled down his pants, and pressed me down on the sofa where we lay until he was finished, until we heard my father speaking to a neighbor. I pulled myself out from under him, still speechless, straightened myself. He did the same, deftly, as if he’d practiced, and left by the back door just as my father came in the front. I met my father in the hallway, heart still pounding, knees shaking. He took his plate to the table, distracted by the morning paper, much of which I had typeset myself.
For the entire summer, I worked, went with David and played my piano. In this way it passed and soon it was time to go back to school. I assumed our affair would pass as well. I was still interested in Hal, and I expected to start seeing him again in the fall.
But I didn’t see Hal back at school. I waited for his call, but it never came. I partied like it didn’t matter, but inside I was devastated. I told no one. Then, after a couple of weeks, David called. I turned him down, hoping I’d finally hear from Hal. Still he didn’t call. Left alone that Saturday night, I accepted an invitation to dinner from some kids in my dorm. I wasn’t close with any of them, but we all had something in common – alone on Saturday night, with our Big Macs and our sodas.
The next week David called again. This time I said yes, and we planned to be together on Saturday. Things fell right into place – the driving, the pot, the sex. Everything about me had changed. For my friends, though, nothing was different. For all their talk of wild nights, they were in some ways still innocent. And now I was not. I had left them marking time, waiting for what they’d dreamed about.
I kept my affair with David to myself. I introduced him to no one. I was embarrassed by him for his small town ways, for his improper grammar and the tattoo on his forearm. So every time he came, I waited until I saw his truck, then ran outside to meet him.
After I got the ring I finally told them about David.
Beth turned it this way and that, studying like a jeweler. “What the…” she said.
“Not real,” Margaret said. “No way that’s real.”
“Check it out on the mirror,” Beth said, and Margaret snatched it out of her hand and took it to the mirror, scraped it against the smooth surface, leaving a mark.
“Those suckers are real,” Beth said. She grabbed it back from Margaret.
She put it on her finger, held her hand out to look at it. “What does this mean exactly,” she said.
I had no answer. I’d been too shocked to ask, and he offered the ring with no proposal. “Something for . . . anyway, I wanted you to have it,” he’d said. I decided to wear it when I was with him, keep it in my jewelry box the rest of the time.
I am depressed, and everyone around me knows it. No one speaks of it, though, since they don’t know how to name it or what to do about it. The doctor has prescribed anti-depressants, but they don’t bring relief. I confide in my roommate, who looks up to me. I share with her the bottle of Southern Comfort hidden behind my nightstand. But she doesn’t know what to do, so I show her how to mix it with Coke. She hiccups and giggles. I am glad she looks up to me. There is a lot I can teach her.
One weekend during the winter, David invited me to go away with him. He would pick me up at my dorm, as usual, and we would drive to Indiana – a place I’d never been – where David had plans to meet some of his West Virginia buddies. I packed a suitcase with a few things I thought would be appropriate for whatever we might do there. We were in his truck, headed north, when he filled me in on the details. We’d be picking up some duffel bags filled with several hundred pounds of pot to take back to West Virginia. What would happen to it there I didn’t know. He didn’t offer more of an explanation than that, and I didn’t ask any questions.
The trip up was uneventful. We stopped twice to use the restrooms at truck stops. There was no time, he explained, for dinner. Instead we bought sodas and snacks for the rest of the drive up. Once we got to the pick-up spot, David got out of the truck and went around behind it to speak to his friends. They loaded the truck’s bed, and David was back behind the wheel in just a few minutes.
The drive home was tense. Now, he explained, we didn’t want to do anything to draw attention to ourselves. We stopped once about halfway home at a small service station in a remote spot away from the highway. Fewer people, fewer problems, he said. My hands were shaking. I knew I had to hurry. The ladies’ room looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned in days. The faucet dripped, depositing a tear-shaped stain on the white sink. And the mirror was cracked. Standing before it, the fissure separated my face in two. On the toilet tank were some beads – the kind used to make a pop-together necklace. They’d been painted silver, but the color was chipped, leaving sparkled flecks everywhere. I imagined a woman or a girl – I didn’t know which – tugging at the necklace until it snapped.
Julia Campbell Johnson received an MFA in creative writing from American University. Her poems have appeared in Southern Poetry Review, Poet Lore, and Potomac Review, among others. Her chapbook, The Tea of the Unforeseen Berry, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2008. She is a Fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.