We get to be a ripple in the water
We get to be a rock that's thrown
We get to be a boy on the bridge
Standing over the reservoir
- Perfect World - Indigo Girls
36-down was an eight letter word for rueful, remorseful, repentant. Brenda picked up her pen and tapped it against the ceramic handle of her coffee mug.
“I’m not a waitress, Brenda Leigh! You know where the coffee pot is,” her mama said, her voice light and airy but her words biting. Brenda looked up from her crossword puzzle, momentarily bewildered and then shook her head.
“Sorry, mama, no. I was just thinkin’,” she said. Brenda was a fidgety person by nature. Always squirming in her seat, drumming her fingers, clicking frantically the tops of her pens until someone made her stop. Her best friend in undergrad, a tall blonde brainiac named Amelia, had once bought her one of those pens designed for astronauts to take into space. It had been made to look like the American flag - red and blue anodized aluminum with little white stars and you could write with it anywhere. Upside down or underwater or on practically any flat surface. Of course, Brenda never did any of those things and it had been mostly a gag gift, though an expensive one. Amelia had said it was the only pen that might actually outlast a stressed out Brenda during finals.
Brenda had given it to her daddy who had it on his desk in his office still. It wasn’t that Brenda hadn’t appreciated the gift or the gesture but Brenda liked her cheap little pens and didn’t have to feel guilty about chewing up the top of a 24-cent Bic. The pen she held now was already resting against her bottom lip, ripe to be chewed, but she wasn’t thinking about the crossword just then, no, she was still watching her mama angrily scrub clean a muffin tin at the sink.
Mama and daddy had been ticked with her for some time now. Ever since she announced her intention to go back to school.
It had been Amelia’s idea actually. Not another degree, but the idea of going to school out west. They’d both gone to Ole Miss and had become friends while Brenda had worked her way through an Economics degree and Amelia pre-law. They hadn’t had any classes together their first semester but Amelia had lived three doors down from Brenda’s dorm and then the next semester had taken the same Russian language class and then they’d become nearly inseparable for the next three years. After graduation, Brenda had gone to Georgetown and gotten recruited to the CIA and Amelia had gone to law school in Los Angeles.
They were still friends, though not as tight as when they were twenty-years-old, but friends enough to keep in touch. Brenda had mentioned in one of her letters last year that she was thinking about pursuing a second master’s degree, maybe something more practical than slavic languages. The Government had paid for that one but now she’d untangled herself from them to figure out what it was that she really wanted to do. Law, like Amelia? Foreign policy? Education? She could teach, maybe.
Amelia had written her back, expressing support for the idea. Had mentioned there were some great schools out west, where she had settled. Not to discount it because Clay and Willie Rae thought it was all stoned hippies past the Rocky Mountains. Amelia had meant Southern California, probably, because that’s where she was with her husband Al, but once Brenda had started to research, most of the schools she’d applied to were up north.
Her mama, finished with the muffin tin, banged it into the dish rack and started on the big cast iron skillet she’d used to fry the bacon for breakfast.
Now Brenda was three days away from moving practically across country and her parents still were not entirely on board. Her daddy thought it a waste of time and money and her mama never tired of pointing out to her only daughter that by the time she was twenty-seven, she had three kids and a baby on the way and what did Brenda have to show for herself except for a mess of degrees and a good job she’d left behind?
“Mama, leave that big heavy pan. I’ll do it,” Brenda offered.
“What about next week when you aren’t here anymore?” her mama said. “Who’ll do it then, hmm? Me, that’s who, so I may as well get used to it.”
Brenda sighed, picked up her pen and looked back at her puzzle.
Rueful, remorseful, repentant.
She filled it in easily.
Three debate trophies in high school, and negotiation training by the United States Federal Government and it still took her most of the summer to convince her father that she didn’t need anyone to drive to California with her. At first both of her parents insisted on going and then she got it down to just her father, but real estate in her car was scarce and two nights before she was due to depart, she got her wish. Her father relented if she promised to stop in Oklahoma and again in Arizona, sleep good solid nights in hotel beds. He even offered to pay for the hotel rooms and then spent the rest of the evening calling around for the best rates and booking her rooms, reading his credit card numbers over the phone loudly.
Brenda hovered in the hallway, fretting.
“He just loves you, is all,” her mama said, coming up behind her.
“I know,” Brenda said. “But it’s too much money.”
“Can’t put a price on your safety, honey,” her mama said. “It’ll make him feel better so you may as well let him do it.”
Brenda nodded, though the guilty feeling, palpable and hot on the back of her neck, didn’t fade.
She’d been feeling guilty about a lot of things lately. Going back to school, moving far away from her parents when she’d just come back to Atlanta in the first place. Leaving the CIA, turning down that job offer from the Washington DC Police Department. It wasn’t the idea of being a police officer, she disliked, it was the way that job was offered to her. It was who. Deputy Chief Pope was a celebrated and decorated officer but the way he talked to her made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. He made her tummy turn - and the nicer he was to her, the worse that fight or flight feeling got. So she’d said no and she’d flown out of there.
Because she’d learned that lesson the hard way. The last thing Brenda Leigh Johnson needed was an authority figure praising her, offering her a job, more money, an alluring life in a new town.
She didn’t sleep well the night before she was supposed to leave.
Part of it was her mattress, narrow and squeaky. Part of it was her jangly nerves about her sense of direction, though the majority of the trip was just driving west on highway 40. It was getting out of Atlanta that made her nervous, and finding her final destination once she got to Los Angeles.
She’d been all set to go to UC Berkeley, had filled out the form to accept and then had instead mailed the one to UCLA last minute instead. She couldn’t say what drew her to Los Angeles when the program at Berkeley had more accolades. Maybe it was the more temperate climate, maybe it was the idea of Amelia being close once more though she knew realistically they’d both have little time to spend together, not like they once had. No movie marathons, no nights at the bar. Amelia had a family, and Brenda, having one Master’s Degree under her belt already, knew exactly how much work was in store for her.
She got up an hour before her alarm, well before anyone else in the house would stir. She took a hot, but fast, shower and then spent some time braiding her hair so it would be manageable during the day. Tight braids, the kind that pulled the skin of her forehead back hard against her skull. Her face looked shiny and tired. For the longest time, she looked school aged, ambiguously so. Depending on her clothes she could be a co-ed or a high schooler or the harried grad student she’d once been. Fresh faced and young, tits pushed up high but believably so.
But these days, she saw time starting to catch up on her face. She rubbed lotion into the skin around her eyes, the dry patch on her forehead. Walked back to her room with her towel around her body tightly. She could see light filtering up the stairs, hear the chug of their old coffee maker coming alive. Her parents never bought new things just because they could. Always waited for things to die first and the coffee maker was big and it was old and it was slow but it made coffee, so it stayed.
Jeans, socks up to her knee. Her soft gray bra, the one that wouldn’t dig into her shoulders and poke her in the ribs with the bent out of shape underwire. A long-sleeved, white shirt and her sweatshirt over that. She’d be too hot, later on, when the sun came up but right now she was worried more about comfort. She could always pull over and dig out a t-shirt later on.
Her mama stood in the kitchen in her white nightgown and her pink, quilted robe. Her hair, mostly white now, stuck up everywhere except the back of her head, where it rested all night against her pillow. Willie Rae greeted her with a smile - it was too early, maybe, for her mother to remember that she was still sad and hurt and out of sorts.
“Pretty girl,” her mother said. “Do you want some coffee?”
She drank a small cup, sipping it slow. She wanted to down the whole pot but didn’t want to have to stop thirty minutes into her trip to find a bathroom to pee in, or worse. Her daddy got up not long after. They’d packed most of the car the night before, filling up the trunk and the back seat with clothes and shoes and books. The passenger seat had a laundry basket filled with toiletries and towels and other odds and ends. But now her daddy loaded the rest, tucking things in the best he could, wherever there was space. Her mother offered to fix her breakfast but she waved that away, too nervous to eat.
She didn’t want to drag it out. She didn’t want to leave, but she did just want to go. Rip the band-aid off, start putting some miles in before the day got away from her, filled up with teary goodbyes and second guesses instead of open road.
There were teary goodbyes, obviously. Long hugs and her daddy slipping her two hundred dollar bills when her mama was busy wiping her eyes. Then, her mama slipping her a crisp fifty when her daddy was double checking that the trunk was closed up tight.
The last thing in the car, other than herself, was the map and handwritten directions her daddy had prepared for her, with the addresses and the phone numbers of the motels she’s supposed to stay at in her daddy’s slanted scrawl. He’d used the astronaut pen. She recognized the ink.
Her throat felt thick as she drove away, watching them get smaller in the rear view mirror. But she didn’t cry. Leaving was a thing Brenda considered herself an expert in.
She stopped the first night in Norman, a college town, cheaper rates than in the capital. It was just a Motel 6, but it was clean enough when she checked in weary and rumpled and starving half to death, the man behind the counter didn’t leer at her, which wasn’t always the case when she traveled alone. He just gave her a key, pointed toward the glass door to the lobby and said, “Drive left and then park by the fence. You’re up on the second floor.”
She thanked him.
There was a pay phone at the end of the hallway, and when she lugged her bag up and made sure the car was locked up tight with nothing valuable visible through the windows, she dropped a quarter in and called home.
“Brenda?” answered her mother in a worried, warbling tone.
“Yes, mama, it’s me,” Brenda said, equal parts exasperated and grateful. It was quite the burden, all the love her family heaped on her. She didn’t always feel like she deserved it and it made the weight a struggle. “I made it to Oklahoma just fine.”
Brenda allowed a few minutes of chit-chat, her daddy yelling from somewhere in the room and her mother repeating what Brenda had already heard loud and clear. Then another minute and a half of trying to extricate herself from the call, promising to get rest and drive safe, reassuring them that the car hadn’t made any funny sounds, which it hadn’t. Brenda had bought the car new, actually, only a few years back and it was by far the nicest thing she owned, not that it was totally paid off. But she’d been making good money when she’d purchased it and had been out of the country as much as she’d been in it, so mostly the car had sat in her garage. This trip would be the most miles she’d put on it yet.
She hung up the receiver and heard her coin clink down to the bottom of the pay phone, heard a scuffle from below her and froze. Someone was just beneath her, standing outside of a room. She moved quietly to the railing and looked down but couldn’t see anything. Had they been listening to her? Not much to hear, really, but still, it was hard to shake the prickly feeling along the back of her neck.
Then she saw the glowing end of a cigarette arc out and land on the blacktop of the parking lot. She heard the sound of someone going back into their room.
Paranoid, that’s what she was. There was no longer any reason to look around corners, to double back just to make sure, but she still found herself doing it all the time. Even here, in the states, where she was just another American, blonde hair and corn fed. Nothing special anymore.
It’s the way that she wanted it, anyway. Why she’d left. She let herself back into her motel room and pulled on her sweatshirt. Picked up her little purse, a canvas bag that she wore slung across her body. She’d have to go find her own dinner. There were few things in walking distance and she’d drive if her car weren’t full of crap and low on gas. So she walked across the dark parking lot with her hood up and the sleeves of her sweatshirt down at her fingertips.
She bought herself a greasy sack of french fries and a cheeseburger and one of those bright blue slushy drinks that was so sweet her teeth hurt and her blood sang. Sugar could right any manner of wrongs. Walked back to her hotel room with the smell of fries driving her slowly insane and then ate every single scrap of food in the bag before falling asleep with the TV on.
She woke up again late, after midnight, and stumbled into the bathroom only to see that her drink had stained her entire mouth blue.
She laughed at her reflection, her hands flat on the countertop as she leaned in to see.
It was too long of a drive and she didn’t make it to Arizona. She’d overslept, for one, and got a late start and then by the time she hit hour ten, she felt like the safest thing would be to stop. So she did, pushing herself to get to Gallup and then nervously driving around until she found a motel that looked not too scary.
“You have any vacancies?” she asked when she got into the lobby of a Best Western. The man behind the counter had just laughed at the notion being full. She pushed her credit card across the counter - the only thing she’d paid for so far was gas a food and she was trying not to spend the cash her parents had slipped her. Just in case a tire blew or something worse.
She asked for a room on the ground floor, thinking about that cigarette butt arcing out into the night.
She felt dusty and grimy - had spent a good chunk of the last part of her drive with the windows down. The air on her face helped to keep her awake and she’d also bought a bottle of coke and a bag of gummy bears. Something more difficult to get down than chocolate, something she had to work at.
The room was smaller than the last one, clean enough though not sparkling by any means. But the door locked and had not a chain, but one of those thick bars that wouldn’t snap right away when someone tried to kick in the door. She pushed it closed and meant to lie down for just a minute.
Of course when she woke up she was starving. Still dirty. It was late enough that having a shower before venturing out wasn’t going to make much difference so she did that, standing in the dingy tub and resting her arms against the tiled wall and her head against her arms. The water never got quite hot enough.
She dried off with the scratchy towel and had to work for awhile at getting a hair brush through her wet hair. She’d used the cheap shampoo and conditioner the motel provided and she was going to pay for it now. Dried out, frizzy, broken hair.
What would be open this time of night? Probably nothing. Maybe a bar still had a kitchen open but she didn’t feel up to that, so she pulled her bag to her and dug out quarters from the bottom. a few crumpled one dollar bills from her wallet and pulled on her pants and her sweatshirt. Every motel, even crappy ones, had a vending machine somewhere. She found it by the ice machine. A Pepsi vending machine and a food one. She bought a bag of cookies, a chocolate bar, a bag of potato chips, and a can of cherry Pepsi. The food she could shove in the pocket of her sweatshirt, the can was cold enough that she pulled down her sleeve and carried it back to her room with the can cradled in her protected hand. It was a bit of a balancing act to unlock the door with her bounty, but inside, she turned on the weather channel and thought about her daddy while she ate the chips, turned on the late news while she ate the cookies, and the infomercial that came after it while she savored the chocolate.
The caffeine in the Pepsi wasn’t enough to keep her awake.
Even crossing the state line into California, her life seemed small. She’d had the same five cassette tapes to accompany her on her journey and as she approached civilization, she was so happy to switch back to the radio. Even staticy, the commercials were a comfort because it was something different. She’s had second thoughts the whole drive, since the moment she’d left Atlanta. Was this the right thing to do? More school and more debt. No one would be paying for this degree and she wasn’t even sure what she wanted to do besides help people in a more meaningful, less shadowy way.
She liked to have a plan, to have all the answers before she started something and this was not that. Still, maybe it would be good for her, embarking into the unknown. She could just go to class, learn something, figure it out as she went. But it was nerve-wracking, too. She didn’t even really have a destination past the school. She’d set herself back several hours by stopping in Gallup and had called the residential office to say she’d be arriving later.
She got turned around once she got into the city, pulling over to study a map and then trying again, finally coming across the edge of the campus by dumb luck and found the correct building only because she’d asked someone, calling out of the window and they’d pointed and given her pretty good directions.
She was supposed to live on campus, in a tiny graduate student apartment but standing in the office, there was an undergrad who passed her a voucher with a shrug.
“Stuff fills up fast,” he said. “It’s university policy to put up overflow students in a motel for a week while they make other arrangements.”
“Other arrangements,” she echoed, too exhausted to be mad. “What does that mean exactly?”
“Come back tomorrow,” he said. “My boss will be here from eight to five and he will have answers.”
“And where is this?” she asked, flapping the voucher at him.
“Oh, it’s like three blocks from here, I think,” the boy said, shrugging. “Like… north?”
“Write down the address,” she said. “Written directions, please.”
He sighed, as if terribly put upon. Pushed back from his desk and stood up. “Let me ask.”
The motel was close, though she still had to go around the block because she drove right past it the first time. Someone honked at her, maybe because she was going too slow, maybe because she still had Virginia license plates. Maybe people in California just liked to honk. She saw the motel sign again and flipped on her turn signal, parked in the temporary spot near the lobby doors and shut off the engine. She gave herself a few moments to collect and assess and try not to be too mad at the situation. That kid at the desk didn’t seem like he knew anything at all. She’ll get everything sorted out in the morning.
Anyway, what was one more night in a motel after two thousand miles?
Brenda made the man explain it three times. What it came down to was this: they always overbooked graduate dorms because generally there were a few students who dropped out at the last minute and financially it made more sense to overbook than have empty rooms. Except this year, no one had and since Brenda had waited so long saying yes to UCLA, half sure she was going to Berkeley, she was at the bottom of the barrel.
“We give you a week to make other plans,” the man said.
“Other plans?” she screeched. “I had plans! You’re the one who made them fall through!”
“I understand our system can be complicated-”
“You think it’s my failure to comprehend your system?” she said, using her fingers to make air quotes. “You think that’s the problem here?”
“Look, I have been in California for about twenty minutes and I’m really not equipped to go house huntin' on my own so either you find me the school housing that was assured to me or you produce a better option,” she demanded.
He pushed his glasses up to rub the bridge of his nose. He had on a plastic nametag that said Paul.
“We have a list,” he said finally. “We usually only give it out to postdoctoral students and foreign exchange students but because of this… unique circumstance, I think it’s a good solution to offer you.”
“What list?” she asked.
“It’s a list of faculty that are willing to take in students. Rent out rooms in their houses for a semester or two. It’s meant to be short term but it should be long enough to get you into student housing. I can’t help with outside apartment rentals, so this is all I have.”
Brenda narrowed her eyes at him. “Gimme the list.”
She had to deal with one thing at a time, so she jammed the list in her bag and made her way to the registrar's building so she could stand in line for several hours and negotiate her way through signing up for classes. By the time she was done with that, she was half starving and had to find herself a late lunch before trying to buy books. It wasn’t until she got back to the motel and had moved the most valuable things out of her car into the motel room that she even remembered the list.
She’d purposefully called her parents when she knew they’d be out and left a cheerful sounding message, vague on the details, and promised to call again real soon once she was more settled. She’d lie to them if she had too, but she didn’t like to do it. She could put things off for as long as possible but she wasn’t going to tell them about this motel, about the overflow situation in the student housing, about how she’d signed up for four classes and spent all that cash they’d slipped her in one swoop on textbooks. About feeling totally, helplessly adrift.
But she’d made this life, these choices and she wasn’t going to give up during the first week. It couldn’t be any harder than moving out of her parent’s house the first time, harder than the weeks of endless training at the CIA, harder than finding herself in a foreign country with a fake name and a list of impossible goals.
She ran herself a hot bath and dug the list out of her bag, smoothing the wrinkles on the little wooden desk. There were only about twelve names on the entire thing and it took her just a few moments to realize there were only two names on the list that were female. Something about moving into the house of a stranger who was also a man just seemed untenable.
One of the names had a phone number attached, the other only had her office number and office hours attached. That settled that then. She’d call the number in the morning, and if that didn’t pan out, she’d go stake out the office of this Professor Sharon Raydor and see what she could find.