FORKS, WASHINGTON, is a town of around four thousand people—a town with two gas stations, one stoplight, a hardware-clothing-grocery store, an auto parts store, and a Subway. Though it was surrounded with Sitka spruce and ponderosa pine, I knew this town—in its way, Forks reminded me of the small towns I grew up around in North Dakota, ones desperate for any tourist money to help support the local economy. While driving through Forks, seeing pictures of the cast from the movie series Twilight, I thought back to the Enchanted Highway of North Dakota, a series of multistory metal sculptures—grasshoppers, northern pike, ring-necked pheasants—that shot south from I-94 to the 150-person town of Regent, where visitors could wrap up their tour of the sculptures by staying in an old school redesigned to look like a medieval castle.
For a summer, I rented a dome house on the Sol Duc River, fifteen miles outside of Forks. The house was a mile off the one highway that traces the perimeter of the peninsula, twenty minutes down the road from the Lake Crescent Lodge, where FDR had stayed on his tour to consider the Olympics as a new national park. The house was nestled among spruce and pine; purple bell-shaped foxglove was painted against the world of green—moss, needles, dewy grass. The Sol Duc gurgled across smooth stones in the distance. Forest plantations dotted the highway.
I had never been to the Olympic Peninsula, a lush world of ferns and cedars, of pine martens and agate-strewn beaches. At thirty-one, I did not know at first that for my summer of recovery from the hangover of five years of activism against the Dakota Access Pipeline and two years after my grandfather’s death, I had chosen to live in the self-proclaimed logging capital of the world.
When I arrived on the peninsula, I savored the scars of long-gone glaciers: the jagged Olympic Mountains jutting against the tarp of the sky. I pressed my nose against pine trees, breathing deeply. Each afternoon, I heard the anemic call of a juvenile bald eagle and its parent. And, each day, while driving to get the mail or on the thirty-mile round-trip to exercise at the gym in Forks, I passed a wooden sign with chiseled words painted in white:
FOREST PLANTATION FIRST HARVEST, 1930’S. SECOND HARVEST, 1984. PLANTED, 1986. NEXT HARVEST, 2036. JOBS GROW WITH TREES
Seventeen years from now, the trees I drove past would be sliced to their bases. 2036—it haunted me. The sign felt like a cautionary letter from the future—seventeen years until the rips of chain saws would echo in this part of the peninsula.
IN FORKS, when I shopped for groceries, I always checked out with a woman named Carol, a small, sixtysomething with a perm who asked me how my writing was going and if I caught any trout.
“You must love it here—far away from people, time to focus. I’m glad you can spend your summer here.”
I was glad. In its own way, Forks was quaint—a kind of throwback to my childhood, a town where children still roamed freely, and where you could still rent DVDs a decade after places like Blockbuster and Family Video had gone bust.
And, each week, I’d drive out to the coast, to Rialto Beach, an agate-strewn mosaic of ocean spray and gulls where I’d find a bone-white spruce on the beach, then hunker down, close my eyes, and listen to the salt water slosh against the sand.
After a while, I’d get up, dust the sand from my legs, grab bunches of washed-up kelp, and hurl it back into the foam. On calm days I’d wade into the ocean, up to my knees, and race against waves as they rushed after me.
Tourists with their dogs ambled up and down the beach and, in the late afternoon sun, I’d watch the kelp loll in the brackish waves. And that’s when I met Sean.
ONE DAY, while leaning back against a tree, a yellow lab bounded toward me. A man in his early thirties in running shorts and a tank top came bounding after her.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, snagging her bright blue leash. “This is Penny—she didn’t shake off on you, did she?”
I laughed as I petted Penny, who now pressed her snout against my cheek and licked my face. She pressed closer to me until I heard the clang of my thermos: I had knocked it over.
“Oh my god, Penny! I’m so sorry,” he said.
I said it was no problem, and I introduced myself. I said he and Penny were welcome to join me, if they liked.
He introduced himself as Sean and when I told him I was visiting the peninsula for the summer, he asked how long of a drive it had been for me to come out west from the East Coast.
“Five days—but I broke it up, and took longer,” I said. “I went to the Chicago Institute of Art to look at Picassos, danced at clubs in Minneapolis, stayed for a few days with family in North Dakota, before staying with friends in Lolo and Yaak, Montana.”
Sean and Penny sank down on the sand next to me. Penny rested her head on Sean’s thigh. He scratched behind her ear.
“You’ve been to the Yaak? I hope you weren’t dressed like that,” he said, looking me up and down.
I scanned myself: Chacos, khakis, a bright blue Patagonia jacket, a wide-brimmed hat.
“Why, I think I was wearing exactly this outfit,” I said.
When Sean laughed, he threw his head back. His shoulders shook.
“There’s only two bars in Yaak,” I said. “There are even Confederate flags flying in that valley. I thought, ‘Christ, we’re nearly to Canada and you’re flying that.’ ”
Sean shook his head. “Don’t I know it. The Yaak is one of the worst places in the country for logging—but now, here, you’re actually in the worst place,” he said.
I soon learned that Sean was spending his summer working for the national park, and in the winter, he was a ski bum.
When I mentioned that some of my first memories were of being on skis, he leaned in. I told him that I was originally from North Dakota.
He cut me off.
“But North Dakota doesn’t have mountains.”
I mentioned how we’d stay with family in Billings to ski at Red Lodge or Bridger Bowl, how some weekends, we’d head south after school on Friday, my parents driving into the night to get us to the Black Hills, six hours south of Center. We’d ski there all day Saturday and Sunday, getting home late Sunday night, and my legs would burn in school the rest of the week. I said how, as a child, I loved roaming through the casinos of Deadwood, imagining Wild Bill Hickok playing poker, or Calamity Jane breaking in, challenging any man to test his marksmanship against her.
“There’d be these large silver dollars that the casinos used,” I said. “I loved whenever my parents would let me keep one.
I also said how, at night, if my sister would chaperone me, Mom and Dad would let me go to one of the arcades to play Pac-Man and how much I loved watching the bumpers blast the steel ball around an Addams Family–themed pinball machine.
Sean told me how he trained in his teens and twenties, trying desperately to qualify for the Olympics. He dislocated his knee at twenty-two and never fully made a comeback. So now, as he said, he was a bum, teaching tykes to make pizza pie slices to slow down while they wobbled on their skis.
“I’ve bummed at Steven’s Pass, Breckenridge, but my favorite is Big Mountain in Whitefish, Montana.”
“Scary place,” I said. “Lots of neo-Nazis.”
“Can be, but you have to know how to act, how to dress.” He laughed as he again looked at my outfit. “It’s why I know the Yaak. I was in a bar one night, passing through camping. Some guys roughed up an out-of-towner just because, just because they could. They asked where I was from when they came back inside the bar. When I said Whitefish, they bought me my next round of bourbon.”
We laughed. I knew that feeling well: altering your personality, learning the local ways of fitting in—or at least trying to, hoping you could dodge any hint of trouble.
As Sean and I continued to talk, I kept noticing how he shifted his hand and gently rubbed Penny under the chin. He had an easy laugh and I wondered, if only for a minute, if Sean might be like me.
EACH DAY AT THE GYM in Forks a large, lumbering twentysomething named Erik manned the front desk. He’d sometimes pass by me as I pretended to exercise, spraying and wiping down the equipment. It took Erik three weeks to say hi to me after I got my gym membership. One day, Erik sprayed a machine next to where I was exercising and asked me where I was from. I told him western North Dakota.
From then on, Erik began talking to me.
Erik shared stories about how local loggers once chased the Hells Angels out of town with their chain saws. “Threw some of those assholes right into the creek,” he said. And I learned how the peninsula was populated with Vietnam veterans. “Some of them live off the grid, back in the woods, grow all of their own food. My dad and I once visited a guy who, after Nam, hid away and didn’t see another person for three years.”
I mostly asked Erik questions while I huffed on the stair climber: how often he got to Seattle, where the best burger was on the peninsula, if there were parts of the national park no one knew about that I should explore.
Because of our conversations, the peninsula changed for me. Forks now looked grittier, and I noticed how the low hills that I could see out of the gym windows were buzzed to different heights.
“That’s to prevent mudslides—they cut the trees in sections instead of all of them in the same year so that the soil stays put. It’s just a bigger version of agriculture,” Erik said.
After the gym, I’d often stop at the Forks Public Library to check my email. One day, while I was reading the obituary for Gloria Vanderbilt online, a pack of four elementary-school boys broke the silence.
“Back that ass up, bitch,” said a boy with fuchsia tube socks. He had a tight-to-the-skin haircut, with a tuft of curls on top looked like swirled frosting.
“Gonna crack that pussy’s back,” said the second boy, who was wearing a blue-and-gray camo sweatshirt.
I looked up from my laptop and stared at them. The third was a blond with a scuffed skateboard. The fourth boy’s backpack bounced off his butt. They slumped into the thin cushioned seats and scrolled on their phones.
“Dude, that ho’s fucking whack.”
His friend giggled.
The man next to me pulled out his ear buds. He watched the boys but didn’t blink.
A Native girl in a periwinkle T-shirt tromped toward the boys, her hair pulled back in a ponytail.
“Bitch, where you been?” asked the first boy.
A larger boy, maybe twelve or thirteen, swaggered in; his denim jeans had a hole in the left leg. His gray baseball cap was pulled close to his eyebrows, and he cradled a lump in his sweatshirt.
Then the third boy shot over to his larger friend. The larger friend looked around. They passed a small white kitten between their sweatshirts. The kitten yawned and I saw the glistening pinkness of its mouth.
The larger boy pivoted and shot out of the door. The pack of boys gathered their things.
“What the fuck—where we goin’, Max?” said the blond boy.
The librarian at the help desk stared out the windows, not turning toward the boys. She clenched and unclenched her jaw.
TWO BLOCKS DOWN the road was a section of a large tree. The sign on it read:
WELCOME TO FORKS. LOGGING CAPITOL OF THE WORLD. THIS SITKA SPRUCE LOG CAME FROM A TREE WHICH WAS 11'8" IN DIAMETER, OR 37'1" IN CIRCUMFERENCE, AND 256’ TALL. THE TREE WAS ALREADY 259 YEARS OLD IN 1776 WHEN THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE WAS SIGNED. SITKA SPRUCE IS NATIVE TO THE FOG BELT OF NORTH AMERICA’S WEST COAST.
The section of tree was mounted like a fish for the town, for all the tourists, to see.
I wondered about the boys, wondered if hard language comes in hard places, places forgotten by cities, places where little precious things die—which later, a friend on the phone informed me, was certainly what happened to the kitten—where death isn’t a noun, but a slow-trickling verb.
FOR A WHILE during our first meeting, Sean, Penny, and I sat and listened to the sonorous sound of the waves washing over the rocks.
When I stood and told Sean I better make my way back to my house to get supper going, he asked if I fly-fished.
I was a bit surprised. Did I look like I fly-fished? Maybe he assumed my Patagonia jacket gave me away.
“Of course,” I said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m out here this summer.”
“Good, then we should set a date to fish together.”
He smiled at me and kept rubbing Penny.
We made plans to meet at the Beaver Post Office, two miles down the road from the dome house I was renting, and then we’d go onto a pool where, Sean assured me, we’d find some trout.
As I walked away from Sean and Penny, I wondered what he meant by “date.” Was it safe to go on dates at the edge of the continent, on a peninsula with only one highway wrapping around its perimeter? Sean was a short man, like me—what would that mean if a larger man came upon us in the woods?
I watched the sand wet and the water recede as I made my way toward my car. When I looked back, Sean was casting kelp into the sea and Penny was bouncing over the waves, into the brackish water. My stomach warmed, and I bent down to pick up an agate to help me remember the moment.
WHEN WE GOT to the pool two days later, after breaking through some brambles and branches, it was a slow, gin-clear hole, fifteen to twenty feet deep. Sean, in a gingham green oxford shirt, rolled up his sleeves and unbuttoned his shirt to his sternum. Upstream was a long, meandering channel that sharply cut against rock; downstream, beyond the pool, the stream bed rose, and gentle riffles flickered in the midmorning light.
To get to the pool, Sean had taken me down what I now saw were company-owned roads—roads we had trespassed on. I had left my Prius at the post office, and we had rumbled past perfectly planted rows of pine in Sean’s Subaru.
“Do you like owning a stick shift?” I asked Sean.
“Of course I do—do you know how to drive one?” he said, smirking.
“Of course I do,” I protested. “I had to learn by driving around the block. I was working a summer for a food supply warehouse and had to run this thing called a rescue mission—small restaurants in western North Dakota ran out of chicken strips or ice cream and I’d have to drive supplies to them.”
“Aren’t you the little hero.” Sean laughed.
I shook my head.
“Anyway—this guy loaded this large F250 with what I had to take on this four-hundred-mile round-trip. When he opened the door, I saw the shaft—”
Sean laughed again.
“—and I asked, ‘Is that a manual?’ The guy said it was. ‘Do you know how to drive one?’ he asked me. I shook my head. He told me to hop in. We went around the block, he said I had the hang of it, and sent me on my way. Son of a bitch, you should’ve seen me buck at those four-way stop signs in those small towns.”
Sean laughed again as I shook my head and looked out his window. Suddenly, I felt his hand on my thigh. He squeezed me slightly. I kept looking out my window, at the passing pines. Goose bumps washed across me.
AS WE CONTINUED to rumble down the road, I told Sean this reminded me of living in the oil boom: trespassing to see well sites up close, hoping no one tore down the road to . . . well, to what? In extractive economies anything can happen, people can just “disappear.”
When I told him how I’d leave a note with a twenty-dollar bill on the windshield whenever I trespassed, he laughed.
“I do that, too.”
STANDING IN THE MIDDLE of a trout stream in the West is akin to getting a massage—the glacial water cools your tubes after a day of writing. The wider world fades away as eagles, elk, fishers, and insect hatches come into sharper view, the gentle ten-two motion of shooting a copper John through the air, the tiny fly submerging in riffles or in slack water behind a boulder only to feel the wham of a cutthroat trout—it’s a type of sensual, spiritual experience.
At the pool, Sean said he’d take the lower section.
“This part, where you’ll fish, is usually better.”
The sun cut through the purple clouds and a gleaming line of gold cut up the Sol Duc River.
I began casting, my line folded across the top of the water.
“Get the fly to the far bank and strip it to you,” Sean shouted.
When I looked downstream, Sean had removed his shirt. The suspenders of his waders pressed into his rounded trapeziuses. I shivered as I traced with my eyes the line cutting down from his clavicle, cleaving his chest in half. Sean waved and smiled at me. I shook myself back into the rivered world and waved back. He laughed and cast his line.
To be attracted to another man in a violent place seems akin to a ticking bomb. Logging, strip mining, fracking. The American West is the playground for the country’s obsession with exploitation and destruction, with most extractive economies near Native American reservations. There are increased rates of birth defects, higher rates of cancer. Violent people who mimic the violence done to the land.
And where there’s danger, there’s room for trespassing—and where there’s trespassing, there’s room for mischief.
AS LATE MORNING folded into early afternoon, Sean and I packed up our things—the water was too clear, the trout too discerning. We got skunked. We began to make our way through the remnant of uncut spruce before the rows of pine appeared on our way back to the Subaru.
While walking side by side, Sean’s arm slid against mine. I stopped, looked at him—him with that sly gaze, his shirt still off, my eyes following the vein from his rounded shoulders down his bicep. I got a lump in my throat. My shirt was still on. I had told Sean earlier how I, the ultimate redhead, always get sunburnt while showing my translucent skin, how people at the beach think I’m the White Light at the End of the Tunnel and start walking toward me.
Sean had laughed.
Now, he stepped toward me and pressed me against the cool bark of a spruce. The smell of its needles flared in my nostrils as Sean kissed my neck. My fishing net dug into my back.
“Sean, Sean,” I said, as he pulled away, his hands still clasped around my arms. “My net,” I said, and jerked my head.
We both laughed.
I flung off my wide-brimmed hat, unzipped and tossed off my fly-fishing vest and net, and held Sean’s face in my hands as we continued, the silent forest around us.
A WEEK LATER I was followed.
A man left the gym in Forks with me. He revved his jacked-up black truck as I turned on my Prius.
I had come into Forks at twilight, after another day of fishing with Sean, to exercise. Earlier in the summer I would exercise at noon to avoid the evening rush at the small gym. Spending mornings and afternoons with Sean meant I needed to adjust my exercise schedule. Suddenly, I was surrounded in the gym by unfamiliar faces. Some men exercised in camouflage shirts or changed out of their Carhartt’s in the locker room. Like in all small towns, they knew I wasn’t from there—or that I had recently moved to the area. I’d keep my head down as I quickly changed out of my oxford shirts and dark denim jeans into athletic shorts and shirts. In the gym I wouldn’t make eye contact as I hopped from machine to machine.
As I turned my headlights on and pulled out of the parking lot, the truck followed me. Its brights were on. I turned down the dimly lit side streets in Forks. I backtracked. All the while the truck never lost sight of me. I bit my lower lip, tapped my finger on the steering wheel, shut off the radio. I knew no one in Forks.
I kept turning onto side streets off the main highway, hoping the truck would continue onto the highway and on out of town, letting me drive the fifteen miles back to the dome house in peace.
But the truck didn’t turn onto the highway. It followed me.
I took roundabout ways through town and, at each one, the truck followed.
This was my fear: alone on the peninsula, Sean at work doing campfire talks at the national park, my nearest friends over an hour away in Port Angeles.
I drove out of Forks toward the dome house.
I tried slowing down to let the truck pass me. He’d slow down to stay behind me. If I sped up, I could hear him gun his engine to stay on my tail. Eventually, I set my cruise control at five miles under the speed limit. As cars passed me, I knew it was too dark to signal that I needed help, that I was worried I was being followed, that I might be in danger. The bright headlights burned my eyes. I hunkered close to the steering wheel. My eyes watered.
The miles passed. My palms sweated.
Beaver was the last blip of civilization—the post office, a general store, a lonesome bus stop—before the dome house. I knew I couldn’t go back to the house. The forest-choked road turning down the gravelly hill, off of Highway 101, me slowly lumbering through the dark trees to the house. The neighbors—even if they were home—lived out of sight. I had never met them, had never even seen them.
I pulled off the highway and parked under a large streetlight by the post office. I kept the Prius running and got out of the car. I breathed deeply and stepped toward the truck.
I stepped out of the wash of his bright lights. I could see he was smiling, even laughing. I clenched my fists and started yelling.
“You goddam motherfucker, what in the hell are you doing? Why the fuck are you following me? You’re a certified asshole, do you know that? Fifteen miles with your fucking goddam brights on!”
The man didn’t yell back, didn’t gun his engine. He put his truck in drive, and slowly turned back onto the highway. I could see the ashen profile of the man’s face. He was still laughing.
“You goddam fucking son of a bitch!” I yelled after him.
The taillights illuminated his license plate, and I kept screaming until I couldn’t see the truck anymore. I bent over, my hands on my knees. I heaved under the flooded light of the gravel parking lot.
And then I threw up. My eyes burned.
I stood up, wiped my nose with the back of my hand, locked my hands above my head, and went back to my car. I grabbed my cell phone and left a voice message for Sean, asking him to meet me at the post office once he got off work, that I would stay there and wait for him.
I had no internet reception to look up the Forks police number and, instead, dialed 911. I told the dispatcher that it wasn’t an emergency anymore, but that I needed to be patched through to the Forks police station.
When I described the pickup and license plate to the officer on the phone, he cut me off with a laugh.
“Oh, that’s Terry Johnson. He’s harmless. Iraq War vet, a little loony. He’d never hurt a fly.”
“Then why the fuck did he follow me?” I yelled.
“Probably thought it was just something fun to do.”
My jaw clenched; my arms flexed. “Fun to harass someone?”
The officer chuckled. “It’s okay. Is he still there? I’ll talk to him if he is.”
“No,” I said. “Thanks for your help.” I hung up.
The bitterness welled in my throat, and I threw up again. If anyone drove by on the highway, I didn’t want them to see me. I burned with anger at myself for choosing to come out to a remote part of the world for what I thought would be a restorative summer in the lungs of the world, the rain forest of the Olympic Peninsula—a place where now I found it difficult to breathe.
WHEN SEAN ARRIVED, he ran toward me. He hugged me, patted my head, and made soft cooing sounds. I gripped the back of his soft flannel shirt.
I said we should go to the dome house, and I asked him if he would spend the night.
WHEN WE ARRIVED, and as I unlocked the door, Sean placed his hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry I’m so worked up,” I said, my voice breaking.
“Are you kidding? That’s horrible, what happened—but you’re safe now.”
He rubbed my back.
INSIDE, I SHOWED SEAN the room I slept in.
“Holy shit,” he said. “Is that a mural?”
It was. In my room, the owner had constructed a ten-foot-wide wood and ceramic mural of salmon spawning. The foreground was a wide river that cut to the side, narrowing, giving the mural a sense of depth.
“This is incredible,” said Sean. “ ‘So briefly he roamed the gallery of marvels’—that’s Ted Hughes?”
I nodded. In the low center of the mural, stamped on the body of a spawned salmon, was the line from Hughes’s poem “An October Salmon.”
“Do you know it?” I asked as we left my guestroom and headed upstairs to the open-floor living room, kitchen, and master bedroom.
“Yes. I learned it in college. I was an English major.”
I smiled as I opened the freezer and grabbed my bottle of gin.
“So was I.”
“Of course, you were,” he smiled. “You’re a writer. Do you mind if I make us a fire?” he said, nodding toward the fireplace.
“Go right ahead,” I said as I dropped lime slices in our glasses.
I asked Sean if he’d like to listen to one of my favorite Jim Harrison interviews.
“Sure,” he said as he built a tepee of kindling around wadded newspaper. “He seems a bit outdated to me, but we can listen.”
I turned on some lamps and shut off the overhead lights. I set our drinks on the coffee table.
The fire began to crackle as Scott Carrier, the host of my favorite podcast, “Home of the Brave,” and Jim Harrison began to fill the room.
Sean scooted over and sat next to me. We listened and slowly sipped our cocktails. I began to nod off, my head slumped across Sean’s shoulder.
TOWARD THE END of the summer, I met my friend Colleen, who worked outside of Port Angeles at an environmental educational nonprofit, at the Lake Crescent Lodge for an afternoon of beers.
Inside the lodge there was a blazing fire in the large, cavernous fireplace. Mission chairs and large leather sofas dotted the lobby, while at the end stood a small bar, the bartenders smiling and flitting among customers. I dodged between passing tourists, hopped up to the bar, waited for Colleen, and imagined FDR rolling through here, singing his praises about the splendor of the Olympics.
Colleen arrived around one. She hugged me so hard I coughed.
“I’ve been worried about you,” she said.
I had told her about my being followed weeks earlier—and, since then, an imprisoned person had escaped for three days from the Olympic Corrections Center, twenty-five miles south of Forks.
“I know,” I said. “I’ve started to feel uneasy at night out at the dome house. The other day, walking back from fishing to the house, I thought I saw a person—it was just the heat—but I’m worried I’m getting a little paranoid.”
We ordered our beers and settled into an afternoon of the sun slipping through the side windows, admiring the shimmering aquamarine water of Lake Crescent.
A blond Liberace, complete with large rings on each finger, was our bartender. We nicknamed him Lavender Lemonade because of the drink special that day, which made him blush. Colleen and I learned that he was working this summer at the lodge through a connection of Susan, from whom he rented a room in Taos. Susan herself, another bartender at the lodge, waved and came over to shake hands.
“We both work at northern national parks in the summer to get out of the heat of New Mexico,” said Lavender Lemonade.
“And then we bartend in Taos in the winter—have y’all been?” asked Susan.
Colleen and I shook our heads and listened as Susan regaled us with a litany of reasons we just had to come and visit.
While Susan chatted away, Lavender and I would catch each other’s eyes and smile.
Later, when Susan and Lavender left us alone, Colleen began to talk about being nearly thirty and being dissatisfied with work. A decade of EMT and outdoor educational work left her feeling uprooted and exhausted. For the past several years Colleen had ping-ponged between Washington, Maine, and Minneapolis–St. Paul for jobs.
“What if you picked a city and said, ‘I’m going to move here and figure it out’?” I asked. “Where would you go?”
She said Minneapolis.
Throughout the afternoon, Colleen and I concocted a plan—which she would later go on to execute—to get her to Minneapolis.
“Hey, Lavender Lemonade,” Colleen said.
Lavender skittered our way and smiled.
“Have you ever been to Minneapolis?”
Lavender shook his head. “But I hear it’s a great place for the arts . . . and good food.”
“Yes,” I said. “And for dancing.”
He smiled and went back to another set of customers.
“I think you should leave Lavender Lemonade your number.”
“Oh, come on,” Colleen teased. “He’s cute, and it’d be fun. Imagine: a little gay fling where FDR slept.”
“Is that supposed to be a turn-on?” I asked.
We sipped our beers before she summoned Lavender again.
“Do you live in Port Angeles?”
I kicked Colleen under the bar.
“Oh, no—they give us housing here around from the lodge. Quaint, a little tight, but it’s okay for the summer.”
Lavender left to refill other customers’ drinks.
Colleen took a sip of her beer and smirked.
LATER THAT NIGHT, after parting ways with Colleen and going back to the dome house for supper, I came back to Lake Crescent, its deep aquamarine water now black, flickered silver from the moon as I drove along Highway 101. I had left my phone number on the back of our receipt. Lavender had texted me and invited me to a bonfire some of the staff were having.
I met him at the lodge, under a large Roosevelt elk head mounted above the hissing fire. We walked outside, past the bright white veranda, and I looked west at the deep, glittering glacial lake. I thought of him, President Roosevelt, in that moment when I looked over the lake, taking a drag off his long cigarette, content with his itch for conservation. The water mottled with moonlight; the curtain of night was cut with pines high atop the ridges. I could hear children skipping stones in the distance.
We got to the bonfire, where ten or so people were singing along to a guitar player. They passed around a bottle of bourbon.
“Hey, you!” hollered Susan, who gave two big thumbs-up to Lavender Lemonade, who had changed out of his work clothes into a hoodie, a small lock of blond hair flowing across his forehead. Susan gave us a big wink.
Lavender looked at the ground. “You want to go sit by the lake instead?” he asked.
I told him I did.
We crunched across pine needles that gave way to a pebbled shore, where Lavender, earlier, had apparently laid a blanket and left a small cooler.
It seemed a bit much, but I was leaving the peninsula in a week, and Sean and I knew whatever we were doing was ending. What did I expect, anyway, by coming back to Lake Crescent?
“I brought some of that special lavender lemonade since you didn’t get to try any today,” he said.
We sat down, cracking open the mason jars he presented. The herbaceous punch washed across my tongue.
Lavender Lemonade told me he had worked in the national park system for a decade, that he had been to lodges in Glacier, Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Estes Park—but that, so far, Olympic was his favorite.
“I feel safer here,” he said. He stared across the lake. “The people who come to Olympic are nicer, more appreciative. It’s a journey to get out onto the peninsula, so we don’t get as many tourists, as many crazy families, as Yellowstone or Yosemite.”
He asked me why I was out here.
I told him that I was working on my writing, spending a summer in solitude before returning to teach out east.
“You certainly came as far as you could,” he laughed.
I mentioned how I had lived in the oil boom. I described the buttes of the badlands, the smell of the sage, the yolk-yellow breasts of the sage grouse. How if you sat long enough, waited for the golden hour, then the entire sweep of the badlands surged into a riot of reds and purples and golds. I told him how there were ponderosa pines tucked into the southwestern pocket of North Dakota, but that they looked shrimpy compared with the ones here, in the rain forest of the Olympics.
“It sounds beautiful,” said Lavender.
“I guess I like a little danger in my life,” I said, “living in logging country, in oil booms—”
Lavender Lemonade leaned in and cut me off by kissing me.
When we stopped, he asked if I wanted to go back to his bunkhouse.
“Susan said she’s going to sleep at a friend’s tonight anyway. She said it’s all right.”
We gathered the blanket and cooler, and walked away from the shimmering lake, back through the pines, and into the cedar-scented bunkhouse.
THE NEXT MORNING, I rolled over and woke to the smell of cigarette smoke. Susan had slipped into the bunkhouse; she held her finger up to her mouth, grabbed a bottle of shampoo, and snuck back out through the door. I poked Lavender Lemonade’s shoulder.
“Good morning,” he said, smiling, his eyes still closed. “Last night was fun, wasn’t it?”
“It was,” I said.
I felt his warmth as I nestled next to him. I kissed the side of his cheek and pulled him toward me. I was leaving soon—leaving the Sitka spruce and whatever romance smoldered with Sean. I knew I was part of the economy of the West: take something, anything you can—coal, pine trees, parts of your life never fully realized—and leave. It was the history of the West.
It was my history, too.
AFTER MY SUMMER STAY in the Olympics and my encounter with Lavender Lemonade and summer with Sean, I traveled to Colorado for a conference on literature of the American West in Estes Park. On a late September night, I wandered into a local dive bar where academics sang karaoke. I squinted through the purplish haze, the bar counter far in the distance. Off to the side, on a red-lit stage, a man with a butt cut wailed away to “Free Ride.”
I spotted my new friend Josh, whom I had met hours before at a conference, a beer in hand, smiling at me.
Earlier in the day, during the question-and-answer portion of the panel I was on, a woman told me, after hearing me read a piece about North Dakota, that one of her graduate students, here at the conference, was from there. This wasn’t the first time I had been told that I should meet someone’s friend/student/partner/aunt/cousin twice removed because they, too, were from North Dakota.
I suppose it’s so rare, such an oddity, to know one person from the least-visited state in the country that, met with the spectacle of another, there’s no stopping the bubbling desire to make introductions.
It doesn’t shock me that I am often the only person people know from North Dakota, a state with well under a million residents, because it’s so difficult to get out of there. Residents of the state will often chime their favorite mantra: the cold keeps the riffraff out.
So, when someone offers to introduce me to a person they know from North Dakota, I politely feign interest and move on.
AFTER THE QUESTION-AND-ANSWER session, I sunned in an Adirondack chair next to my friend Kathleen, a philosopher and one of the keynote speakers at the conference. I hadn’t seen Kathleen, a woman old enough to be my mother, in a long time. Four years earlier, we toured around North Dakota together with other contributors, promoting our fracking anthology. I had taken Kathleen to the columnar junipers, where Jakub and I had camped years before.
Kathleen and I had ambled through the juniper, winding our way between the bentonite bluffs, which were scratched with the names of previous visitors.
Now, sitting in the sun, high in the Rockies, Kathleen and I reminisced about our time touring around North Dakota. We asked each other how the writing was going.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a man, close in age to me, lumbering in boots, and dressed in black. He was hulking, and he had shortbread-colored hair tussled atop his head.
As he swaggered by, I tried not to stare, stammering back into my conversation with Kathleen. I regained my composure by pointing at the herd of elk in the distance.
Even then, in that fleeting moment, I hurried to crush the lingering hint of attraction. I was, after all, in the West.
Growing up, while watching professional wrestling with neighbor boys, I’d pretended to be attracted to the female valets—Sable or Ms. Elizabeth, who accompanied Macho Man Randy Savage—when really it was the oiled men in their short shorts that made me silently squirm.
I grew up in the world of men with bodies like the man who swaggered by Kathleen and me—large bodies built by fixing fence posts, hurling hay bales high into barn lofts, breaking in horses. There was no need to curl dumbbells in gyms where I came from. The men I knew had bodies built by necessity—barrel chests, hands the size of hubcaps, prairie-hard thighs wedged into tight Wranglers. That’s how the man dressed in black looked—like the men I first gazed at in middle school, the type of bodies I knew it was risky to be attracted to. There’s so much strength in those bodies, as well as the ability to hurt me if they knew what I secretly thought about them.
THAT EVENING AT DINNER, the lumbering man in black plopped down beside me, telling me his old teacher had said that I was from North Dakota and that he needed to meet me. He leaned in as he spoke. I leaned away, at first. I moved closer to my cadre of friends. I knew North Dakota men, knew I should keep my distance to stay safe.
He said his name was Josh, that he was from Park River, a town in the opposite corner for the state from Center. Park River was in the eastern part of North Dakota, a place where there was enough water, more trees. The world there was lush. Josh told me that he taught Native American literature at a small Catholic university in Connecticut.
LATER, IN THE BAR, Josh and I didn’t stop yammering. While Josh faced the stage to watch the butt cut academic sing his next song, “Walk This Way,” I turned toward the bar to make it easier for us to talk in each other’s ears. I nodded as Josh’s breath warmed my ear. He’d then turn his head away and wait for me to reply.
At some point I made a grave error. After a few rounds of close, back-and-forth conversation, I felt comfortable with Josh—here was another man who had gotten out, who was a writer and teacher, like me. Someone my age, some unicorn of a human I wish I had known in childhood. At some point during our conversation, I raised my hand and pressed on Josh’s bicep, a sign, some type of acknowledgment that I agreed with whatever it was he said.
Suddenly, I came back to myself. I remembered hurtling through the air, slamming against the brick wall in Dickinson. I remembered the one thing I wasn’t allowed to do in the American West: touch other men.
I scanned the bar I didn’t know, where I stood next to a man I had just met.
Josh told me about the breakup with his ex-girlfriend, which forced him to flee back to North Dakota, as I scanned the room and tried to recover from what I worried was a fatal error. Had anyone seen what I did?
Josh kept talking.
It wasn’t him I was worried about, it was the men I didn’t know, the ones who could punch me, smash my glasses when I stepped out of the bar, the ones I might not notice keeping an eye on me—those were the ones who sent an icy chill down my neck.
ON A PHONE CALL months later with Josh, I asked if he remembered my touching his arm. He said he did.
I told him how scared I was in that moment, how I worried my action was going to cause trouble, how we were just across the state line from where Matthew Shepard got assaulted after visiting a bar, beaten on the backroads of Laramie, hanged on a fence. In the morning, cars passing by thought he was a scarecrow, his body mangled, barely breathing.
Matthew, of course, was—still is—a scarecrow. His bloodied body is a semaphore, a signal to gay people: this will happen to you, too, if you come here.
Josh told me how he could weep. I told him how much I’d like to act like the composer Leonard Bernstein, a hero of mine, a flamboyant man who hugged and kissed everyone. A man whose children, before he met the Pope, said, “The ring, Dad! Remember—you kiss the ring, not the Pope!” I wanted to be that open with others, be able to express myself without fear.
Spare emotions fester in a landscape where the only way capitalism has made sense of the American West is to fence it in, break it into 160-acre parcels, frack, mine, dam, and cut it to a stubble.
As I listened to Josh, I went back in memory to Center, back to the bars, wood paneled and filled with blue cigarette smoke. Old women playing pull tabs, maybe some young men racking pool balls, a few old-time miners sipping Lord Calvert along the mahogany bar. Their belt buckles glistening in the low light, Hank Williams piping through the speakers.
It’s a familiar scene in the West, a quiet, easy scene. A safe scene.
Until it isn’t.
I VISITED JOSH a few months later at his home in Connecticut. Over two days—from the time we sipped our morning coffee at his dining room table until we brushed our teeth for bed—we traded stories from North Dakota.
Josh told me about being a truck driver, about working in a cubicle in Fargo after graduate school, about growing up poor, about going to bonfires in high school, getting into fistfights with friends.
“With your friends?” I asked. “How’d that happen?”
“We just—I don’t know. We just sat there; the room would get quiet. Then there’d be this tension. And we’d just wail on each other.”
In some small part of me I found that violence alluring. I had never gotten into a fight, had never been hit or had thrown a punch, but I romanticized what that would be like—whether my small frame was sturdy against the hulking men I knew from my childhood.
But Josh didn’t intimidate me, not in that way, not in a bodily way. He had done his PhD on missing and murdered indigenous men. He lit up when I told him about painting with pastels in the wheat field behind my childhood home. We swapped stories about reading Louise Erdrich’s books.
“Oh man,” he said, “I can still remember the first time I read her story ‘The Red Convertible.’ There was this little old woman who had moved back to Park River and opened a bookstore. My mom told me she was selling off everything in her store and that I should go and take a look. I got to talking to this old lady and she handed me that collection and said I should read the title story—the book was on her, I could have it for free. I drove out of Park River, pulled over into a field, and read that opening paragraph and was knocked out. Someone got me.”
I told Josh about making sugar kuchen with Grandma Hatzenbihler, learning to polka with my mom, and about how I felt like I could breathe easier when I left North Dakota for college.
“I’m so glad you got out,” he said.
I swallowed and felt a bit embarrassed about how easily it came out of me, my admission that I felt safer away from home.
We stared at each other. We knew the weight of not getting out, of not escaping, of being trapped. We had seen it. High-school classmates pregnant. Few colleges or universities to attend. Minimum-wage jobs in small towns. Limited hospitals. No professional sports teams or orchestras.
The pressure to stay home.
The pressure to stay home.
“But I miss home,” I said to him. “I miss that landscape.”
“I do, too,” he said.
It was the first time I had opened up so deeply to another man from North Dakota. The type of men I knew growing up shared Josh’s body, but their tenderness—if they had any—was hidden, tucked away in some private part of themselves. Josh’s eyes flared whenever he got excited over one of my stories; his head snapped back as he cackled over a joke. He didn’t pull away if I bumped into him while we were tugged along by his Catahoula leopard dog, Libby.
BY THE TIME I left his house, my voice was hoarse.
Inside my car, I opened a pack of throat lozenges, and as I put one in my mouth, I thought about how happy I was: I had lost my voice, not out of fear or being silenced, but by finding a friend who knew where I came from, and had felt what I had felt. And that was a type of healing from a place where I had spent so much of my private life hiding who I was, of living in fear.
MONTHS LATER, the pickup doors screeched as Logan and I got out to go visit the North Dakota Heritage Center. Logan, then thirteen, wore shorts every day, his legs exposed to the ice-tinged wind. The Heritage Center, expanded since I was his age, now welcomed us with large cannonballs—circular formations of mudstone swirled together at the meeting of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers, south of Bismarck—and a modern glass rectangular entryway. Inside, we gazed at great prehistoric sloths, taller than both of us, baby pteranodon perched atop a wall; a portrait of Sitting Bull slashed in half by the butt of a Winchester rifle; and agates, quartz, and amethyst glistening behind Plexiglas. I rolled around the lump in my throat, told myself not yet not yet not yet.
I remember, too, coming to the Heritage Center as a child, smelling the same container of bison shit that everyone thinks won’t smell anymore, curling my nose when I opened the lid, inhaling something akin to a boys’ locker room. With classmates, I looked at tar-paper shack and sod house recreations—the homes of our ancestors. The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara exhibits were shoved in the corner, tucked out of view, which, in middle school, was how I felt.
After an hour or two of wandering, Logan and I left and hopped in his parents’ blue Ford truck and drove back to their house.
The words came.
“Buddy, I think you know this already, but I want to tell you something.”
In typical thirteen-year-old fashion, my nephew stared straight ahead and played it cool.
“You know I’m gay, right?” I blurted.
He continued to stare ahead and sighed.
“Yes, Uncle Taylor.”
And me, the teacher that I am, shoved my foot further into my mouth and asked this stupid question: “And what does that mean to you?”
I saw him roll his eyes.
“It means that you’re attracted to someone of the same gender, Uncle Taylor.”
For Logan, times had clearly changed, and his mother and father had helped and encouraged his enlightened sensibility. My nephew already knew who I was—at thirteen, he had the language I had yearned for, the grasp of a world I always felt was out of reach for me. And here he was, all twenty years younger than me, and the world felt changed. I felt seen.
“And what do you think about that?” I continued, praying to God my nephew—who sang in choir, who pitched in baseball, who played tackle football and defense in hockey, my nephew who still let me tickle him, who just was learning the intricacies of sarcasm, who still slept with a stuffed orca called Whaley and a small powder blue blanket called Blankie—I prayed he wouldn’t reject me.
“I think it’s fine, Uncle Taylor,” he said in the newfound bass voice. And then, after a pause: “Uncle Taylor, what’s your favorite pasta?”
I smiled. “Tortellini, obviously. Only peasants like anything else.”
Logan laughed. We drove on.
My grip loosened on the wheel—or was it the world? It was such a small, passing moment, which is where many of our monumental shifts happen. It is not the grand stage, but the quiet kitchen, the silent dining room, the bedrooms, the drives home where gayness—my gayness—reveals itself. Drag shows are spectacles. Television shows provide a comforting illusion that life progresses, that we no longer need to live in fear.
But we do. We do live in fear.
MONTHS AFTER COMING out to Logan, I was back in North Dakota, again teaching creative writing—this time in Mott, a small town of seven hundred in the southwestern corner of the state. People from around the world travel to Mott to hunt for ring-necked pheasants; it’s known as the pheasant capital of North Dakota. There’s one school, a main street with a few restaurants (the Pheasant Café and Lounge, Bottoms Up Bar and Grill, Scorpion’s Bar and Grill), Hot Dogs Pet Grooming, and the Commercial Bank of Mott. The town is subsumed in a camel-colored world of wheat and dry buttes as the Cannonball River squiggles against its southern edge.
In late October, when harvested wheat fields, trimmed to a stubble, prickled gold in the slant light, I brought my second-oldest nephew, Noah, along. I taught my workshop in a building that served both as city hall and the Mott Public Library. While I taught, Noah played on one of the two computers in the library.
The workshop was filled with retired women—I only ever get women in my creative-writing workshops in North Dakota. But, this day, there was also a high-school junior named Desiree.
Desiree wore glasses, her blond hair pulled behind her black sweatshirt. She had the day off from school because of a statewide teacher convention and, instead of doing whatever high-school students do for fun in Mott, was attending my workshop.
I knew her, at least in some faraway corner of my mind. I was she—a person hungry for something I wasn’t getting in my small town, even if I didn’t know what that something was.
With those women, while circled around a shiny cherry table in the local library, I felt like I was back in Center, back in those painting classes, back in the car with my mother, barreling toward saxophone lessons in Bismarck. I felt the hunger flowing from Desiree. I had it, too.
In the workshop, we read a short piece of nonfiction by a writer from Minnesota who returns to her hometown twenty years after leaving. She takes the reader through a litany of memories—who slept with whom, where she worked, how she loved listening to Metallica and Skid Row.
But when everyone laughed and related to the story, as they always do with this piece, an eerie silence filled the workshop because of the final sentence of the first paragraph: “Pastor Dan wasn’t out of the closet yet.”
I continued reading on. “We were Laura Ingalls, but wilder.” The women resumed their chuckling, reminded of the noted author who wrote the Little House on the Prairie series of children’s books.
Later, when we broke down the piece, everyone avoided the sentence about Pastor Dan. When I brought it up, Desiree looked at me. I knew that look. I know that look. The look of praying to God no one knows what you know, of not being found out, of knowing there’s no way you can stay home and survive.
AFTER THE WORKSHOP, the sun slid toward the burning horizon as my nephew and I shot back toward Bismarck. At eleven, Noah had become my elementary-school-aged research assistant. Earlier that year, he had accompanied me to the spot where the Dakota Access Pipeline slipped under the Missouri River, near Standing Rock; we then traveled to Sitting Bull’s grave, before swinging north to trace the river to the bend where Sakakawea met Lewis and Clark at Fort Mandan.
Full on French fries, chicken nuggets, and deep-fried fleischkuekle, Noah and I rumbled along and watched the wash of North Dakota prairie crackle amber, sienna, orange, and sage. The buttes and bluffs were velvety as the horizon behind us simmered before sweeping into a deep indigo. We played I Spy and Would You Rather. I quizzed Noah who, earlier in the year, learned North Dakota history in school.
As we edged closer to Bismarck, while fidgeting with his Batmobile, Noah asked, “Uncle Taylor, why don’t you have a wife?”
“I’m not going to have a wife,” I replied.
“That must be lonely,” he said.
I peeked over at him. He was looking down, focused on his Batmobile.
“It’s not that lonely because I have a lot of friends,” I said.
“Uncle Taylor, do you date women?”
“No.” I gripped the slick steering wheel and rolled my knuckles back and forth.
“Do you date men?”
I looked west toward the stippled sunset before refocusing on driving.
There was a silence, if only for a half second—that silence that any gay person knows, the silence between acceptance and exile, where tension brews, tears flow, where breath quickens; the silence that births us from the chrysalis of what people thought we were into who we really are; the silence of a quiet door opening or closing.
“You’re gay!” he shouted in a tone that took me back to eighth grade, back to the school hallway where I kept my head down. It was a slam, a knockdown, said with enough energy and surprise, tinged with that underlying euphemism: you’re different from me.
I turned my head away from the quiet highway, looked him directly in the eye: “That’s right—I’m gay, Noah.”
He didn’t expect it. He looked at me, then returned to the Batmobile, his small fingers shifted along the car’s shiny black body.
“Uncle Taylor, would you rather eat only Chinese food or only cheesecake?”
WHEN WE RETURNED to Bismarck, Noah asked me if I’d like to play Super Nintendo. We mashed our small gray and purple controllers as we battled each other in Streetfighter. We laughed as we spun and hopped around corners on battle mode, shooting green and red turtle shells at each other while playing Mario Kart.
Sometimes, when we finished a round, Noah stared at me. His eyes widened a bit behind his glasses, and I wondered what that meant, what that look meant, what he thought, if I was being planted somewhere else in his mind, placed in some faraway corner.
Later, we sat on the couch and watched cartoons together as stars glinted in the night sky.
Slowly, bit by inching bit, Noah snuggled up next to me before resting his head on my chest.
A FEW DAYS LATER, on a bright cobalt day in October, my sister and I hopped in her large red truck and rolled ourselves north out of Bismarck on Highway 83. Cirrus clouds streaked the sky, and a light wind flicked the few remaining leaves on the trees. The previous week buckets of snow had whitened the still green lawns in Bismarck—now, breaking out of the city, the hills rose and the coulees fell. Breathing space.
A few miles out of town we turned right, passed a billboard, one still standing from childhood. Painted blue with a heartbeat line it read, ABORTION STOPS A BEATING HEART.
We passed new houses in a new development—black, white, steel gray. We curved around the road and eventually turned left.
Ahead was an unfinished house, wrapped in lime Tyvek polyethylene, which slowly disappeared as it was swallowed up in the claret-colored siding.
“There it is,” said Tanya, “Mom and Dad’s house.”
They had asked Tanya to take pictures of the siding. They had sold the lake house but were still living at the lake, renting a small house while their new home was being finished. A massive four-stall garage reached out to the unfinished driveway. Plywood planks led from the road toward the house—one plank shot off to the left toward a Spiffy Biffy, a brand of portable toilet.
Tanya reached across from the driver’s seat to snap pictures. I leaned farther back so I wasn’t in the frame. I hadn’t told them I was back home, back visiting the nephews. I no longer tell them I’m home, tell them I’m traveling through, ask them to meet me.
I stared at my parents’ house, what would become their home—a home I feared I would never enter.
TO LIVE IN EXILE is to be separated, unwelcomed, burdened. Burdened by the weight of history, by the weight of memories, by the weight of what was said or what wasn’t said.
Before growing upward, prairie grasses shoot down their roots—they test the soil conditions to see whether this place, this spot, is the right home for them. With each visit to North Dakota, to home, I test the conditions, send down my roots, and find that there is no place for me.
The weight of sharing this, of holding my feelings like a burning ember against my sternum, is too much. I am transplanted. I am displaced. I yearn for home and yet, when licking my finger, testing to see which way the tempest of memories blows, I find I am caught in a whirlwind of emotion that reasserts itself: You have no home here.
My heart remains in western North Dakota, among the clouds that billow on humid July days. It is in the silver sage that scents the prairie. It is in the splayed body of a pronghorn antelope as it shuffles under rusty barbed wire fences.
THEN, IN FRONT of my parents’ home, I contemplated texting my father. Father, my father, whose voice I’ve inherited, who seemed like Hulk Hogan in childhood, who had heavy eyes from the graveyard shift, whose anger always seemed to smolder at the surface—my father, from what I heard through the grapevine, was mellowing with age.
I had mentioned this—my idea of texting Dad—while having coffee with Aunt Shelia a few days earlier.
“That would cause you to have another seizure, Taylor,” she said. “You can’t do that.”
A month before coming to North Dakota, on the trip to Colorado where I met Josh, I had my first diabetic seizure in twelve years. My first seizure since spending summers living with my parents in college. My first seizure since living openly as a gay man. The first one since dropping out of seminary, moving around the country. The first seizure since living alone. The seizure, a reminder that my body is bound to my mother’s diabetic body. There is no escape, no denial that with each finger prick to check my blood sugar, my mother, too, pricks her finger, our disease, our shared bond across distance.
I’d like to write that I do not think about her, that I do not think about them, my parents—but how can I, when each sharp prick reminds me of the pain I feel in my body. Or when I unconsciously find myself rubbing my maimed thumb, a type of unconscious worrying over the nub, the missing appendage, the life that could have been, a type of loss built of amputation and scar tissue.
ON HALLMARK CARDS we slurp down the clichéd phrase that Time heals all wounds. But I’ve found that wounds fester, scar tissue builds. Shoulders sink with the silence on birthdays, Christmas eves, in quiet moments when memories slip in like small streams into the larger river of myself. The memories disrupt the current of my life and bring me back to my origin, a place rooted in love and pain.
In so many ways, I thought on this last trip to my parents’ house that I had killed off the part of me that yearned for them, that it had withered on the vine of my body. But how can a person live with a dead relationship when the family members are still alive? I had had this conversation with my sister before—how, if I were a worse person, I would just default on my student loans, and my parents’ credit (since they were my cosigners) would plunge with mine, the last link between us. It would be a type of revenge for their never saying “We’re sorry. We love you because you’re gay. We were wrong.”
AFTER TANYA AND I finished visiting their house, I slipped away to a bluff overlooking the Missouri River. Indian grass shot through the snow drifts, cut copper against a carpet of white. The grass shivered in the wind. I pulled my scarf tighter around my neck and gazed out at the river, reflected blue from the sky. It came from the north and flowed south. Across the river, buttes carved a sharp profile against the sky, and I closed my eyes: I saw the sweep of prairie roll before me, before the prairie was ripped apart by draglines, before pumpjacks pulled oil from a landscape deep below the surface of stippled grass. I saw the time before Lewis and Clark plowed against the strong current of the river, sweeping before me, in their keel boat, before they met Sakakawea in a fire-licked earth lodge. Before the Mandan bricked the river bottom in their large earthen homes, before the massive glacier shaped three rivers into the vast Missouri River Valley. Before North Dakota was a salty, shallow sea filled with trilobites that fell to the ancient seabed, were dusted with sand and, slowly, over time, transfigured into oil.
Before the stories I now know were possible.
It is biblical, how my memory of home swirls into a tempest, knocks me out with the weight of everything I now know. I cannot let go of home. The mantle of stories streams across the horizon.