The crescent moon rises above a sign for another Days Inn, and we stop in a restaurant off Highway 70 in rural Pennsylvania. The customers in it are all real Americans and their faces make me even more morose—such blameless, sincere countenances, angelic almost, so hopeful, and so damned. They’ll live and die out here in the middle of nowhere. The economy will crash and another empire will rise and someone among them will get cancer soon and because of this their jeans won’t fit them any longer and then they’ll die. Someone among them will have a baby and their jeans will never fit them again. The baby will grow up to be a surgeon or a heroin addict and who will care? Who will know? Who will bear any of them witness?
“Where you folks headed?” the waitress asks. I’m making it obvious we’re just passing through. I have this superficial need to distinguish myself from these other doomed Americans. To notify her, the entire world that I’m still from there, from the city that never sleeps, because if you can make it there …
But we didn’t make it there.
“We’re going to California,” my daughter says in her toddler accent.
“And I bet you’re gonna be a little movie star!” the waitress says to her.
“Sure is,” my husband says. There he goes, sounding like another real American.
The prettiest version of this story ends in California. Those golden hills like first love, the blue Pacific, the light, swooning and slow. But we can’t afford it there either, my husband reminds me. And I remind him, we can’t afford it anywhere. “Pennsylvania is sorta pretty,” I say, our first morning waking up outside the city. I try to imagine the sentence: I live in Pennsylvania now.
“It’s a beautiful country,” my husband says, tapping our car, affectionately nicknamed Rhiannon. Before we even bought it, I saw Rhiannon in a dream. It was overflowing, and colorful clothing flew out of its open windows. In the dream, it appeared less like a station wagon, and more like a gypsy caravan, but I recognized it nevertheless when I first spotted it in the back corner of the dealer’s lot.
“What if we get bored?” I ask.
“New York is boring,” he says.
I want to believe it is true.
America goes on and on alongside me in the passenger window, and whatever remains of its pastoral prettiness has been anesthetized by all these gas stations, these housing developments, the billboards, so many of which are there to remind women that a fetus has a heartbeat. My husband and I begin to play a game where we try to guess what sort of people live in the homes that are visible from the highway. Often our imaginings begin or end with OxyContin. And Jesus. Some of them are even from New York. Some of them had to leave too when the rent got too high.
“God,” I say interrupting the game. “But really, what do these people do all the time?”
“What do you do all the time?” my husband asks. And I look back at my phone even though my eyes are sore. The hills have flattened, and a heavy rain starts to fall, obscuring the road, and all my husband does about it is curse vulgarly, then oh another McDonald’s, and shit, there’s no Coca-Cola at the rest stop, only Pepsi.
I can’t help myself. “Why does Ohio have three major cities that begin with the letter C?” I ask. “Wouldn’t one be enough?”
My husband ignores me, because he loves Cincinnati and everyone in it, these vacant strip malls and all their shuttered storefronts. He is probably thinking of the dream he had last night of the woman who looked just like me and gave great head. Yes, this is how he described it to me this morning in the lot of the Holiday Inn Express or was it the Super 8? But she had a private plane, he clarified. Was I supposed to be consoled that his fantasy girl resembled me or that someone who resembled me could be so rich and so talented at fellatio?
I can almost still touch those nights, those nights when I would keep watch on him from across a crowded party, as a woman touched his shoulder when he was still not my husband, or laughed too closely to his face, and there were the city lights reflecting down on them through some foggy loft window, and I felt aflame. On those nights, the women were always beautiful and always painters or writers and very clever and my husband was so beautiful too, and tall and strange. He had a dark mane of hair, Southern manners, and some money too. There was still some money. Nowhere is as seductive as New York by night and the women in it all dressed in black.
But this morning, when he told me his dream, I felt nothing at all.
“All this space is just so morbid,” I go on, gazing out the window at Ohio.
“What you’re saying makes no sense,” he says.
“Don’t you feel that? How time gets so much heavier out here where there is too much space? Like funereal?”
“No baby,” my husband says, kissing my hair, like he really, really loves me, like he’s not thinking of the dream me but me-me, the one who is beside him now.
“I miss our apartment,” I say.
“Do you really wanna be one of those bitter New Yorkers who die there after never living anywhere else?” he asks. “In your rat den, having run your rat race for decades.”
“But what happens when we don’t have any more money for gas?” I ask him. “When we can’t pay for any more motels? What are we going to do?”
“We’ll live in Rhiannon,” he says as if it’s a joke.
Everyday feels like Sunday, and more so the farther away we get from the city. But really, it’s the Tuesday after Labor Day. The weekend has ended, summer is over, and the nation is in decline. We can still afford to eat, we just can’t afford the rent in New York. At the Cracker Barrel just past the border in Indiana, I tell my husband to use the other credit card. For the second night in a row, we settle on the country fried steak with three sides: green beans, mac ’n cheese and fried okra. “Yes, we’re all sharing it,” my husband tells the waitress. “That one there’s got a tiny belly.” And then he grabs our daughter’s stomach and she shouts with delight.
An elderly couple sits in the table adjacent to ours. “Why would you order your own when there’s free refills?” The man reprimands his wife. “Make that a Dr Pepper.” Then they do not speak for the rest of the meal. They also do not stare at their phones.
“Caleeefornia,” my daughter tells the waitress when she asks where we’re coming from.
“OOOH,” the waitress says. “They probably ate you up in Hollywood, you sweet thing.”
How interesting. Maybe we aren’t going to California. Maybe we’re already from there. That’s what we’ll say to strangers. But then I think of Prospect Park at dusk, fireflies rising up from the fields, music drifting through the trees. My husband’s hand in mine on a woodland path and we’re wine drunk on some late August night. The word “home” coos across my mind.
I have no memories of the West, but I know there are no fireflies there.
On the porch of the Cracker Barrel, I watch a man and a woman, faces scabby from meth, dig through the trash. I squeeze my daughter’s hand. “That’s not mommy and daddy.”
She screws up her face. “No, you’re my mama and daddy.”
“The other, other card,” I tell my husband again.
“I already heard you,” he says.
So many things return to me now, now that we won’t get it back, now that someone else is dreaming in our bedroom, and someone else is shitting on our toilet, like that night we were coked up, and my husband’s hair was still short and we were leaving his office’s Christmas Party at Cipriani’s, the beautiful one, the one down on Wall Street.
“God, this is really it,” he had said. “This is what freedom feels like.”
I thought so too. The city looked so beautiful, so iconic.
And then he had said, “I lost my job baby. But don’t worry. I’ll get back in. I’ll get back in.”
“I wanna get back in,” I whisper aloud, as we wander through the gaudy merchandise, the candy, the candy toys, the candy apples, the stuffed animals, the Halloween decorations, the Christmas decorations, on our way out of Cracker Barrel.
A friend texts from Paris: regarde le ciel, consoling me with the trite concept that whether you’re in Terre Haute, Indiana, or Montmartre, France, the sky is the sky is the sky. This just makes me want a cigarette. Gas is down to $3.69 again. We fuck in a Motel 6, while the toddler sleeps but I can’t cum cuz of the moan of the highway, all those truckers driving all night long to bring us our Charmin toilet paper, our Nestle drinking water. Why do I feel so much sadder in Springfield, Missouri, than I do in Brooklyn? Am I really a bigger failure here than I am dodging days’ worth of uncollected trash with the stroller down Fulton Street?
For solace, I text all of my friends who have left the city, and they all say the same thing: You’ll soon be relieved. They go on about how relieved they are. They sound like ex-smokers. But I’ll always be a smoker. Besides, we didn’t leave because we wanted to.
“Do you think we’ll go back eventually?” I ask my husband as we drive through the Ozarks, where the clouds have collapsed into the hills, and the hills are a vision in green, but then we leave the Ozarks behind and the landscape becomes forsaken again. I take a picture of the dusk falling over a British Petroleum station.
“After what happened?” he asks. “How could you want to?”
“What happened there could have happened anywhere,” I say. It’s the same old argument. Wherever you run to, there you are. Besides, sometimes I’m not even sure what happened. We talked about leaving. Rather than finding work, we worried over the rent and talked about leaving some more. And then, somehow, we had only one month’s rent left. Our apartment was suddenly empty, and when I looked out the window, all of our beloved furniture was on the curb.
“Don’t you think you need to start over?” my husband asks.
“Me start over? What about you start over?” I ask.
“Don’t do that. Answer a question with a question,” he says.
What happens at some point in Oklahoma is that the sky opens up and the West begins. There is no warning sign, no marker in the road. Suddenly, the earth feels so small beneath what’s above. The billboards grow less persistent, and so do the churches. A sad old man runs a motel with his bulldog. He collects the dirty sheets on a golf cart, the rooms are rife with nostalgia and crickets. The café in town advertises the best chicken fry in the West.
The waitress has magenta hair and a country voice, is a student at Hinton High, and she doesn’t fuss over my daughter at all, cuz she’s dreaming of New York, not kids. “Oh my god,” she says, “I wanna go there so, so bad.” She dreams the way you dreamt, and I dreamt, of getting out of her shithole town that’s so much prettier than she can see. What can I tell her about all that as she serves us the best chicken fry I’ve ever had, the gravy voluptuous, the side of corn a little too sweet, the sunset, through the diner window, almost religious—what can I tell her about New York that won’t break her heart?
I say, “Good luck!” and leave her a tip we can’t afford.
The next day we drive on and from Oklahoma there is nothing for the earth to do but lose all its green. This is where the aliens love most. The desert is more beautiful than everything preceding it, but so much more depressing, all those untiring shrubs trying to thrive in a soil that desires only death. I’m still thinking of the waitress with magenta hair, because she reminds me of another girl with blue tresses, delivering pizzas stoned, counting the days until she had saved enough money for her very first flight to New York City—the flight I never returned from.
“It feels better out here,” I lie to my husband.
“This is what Americans have always felt when they went west,” he says.
“What’s that?” I ask.
What’s terrifying to me is that he looks so happy when he says it. He always looks too happy when he meditates on freedom. Hasn’t he learned by now, it doesn’t exist? I press my hand against the glass of Rhiannon. The sun is suddenly so overbearing, all over me, even though the windows are all closed.
“Why’d you go to New York in the first place?” I ask.
“I was running away,” he says. “I ran away to New York.”
And I realize it’s true. I ran away there, too. We all were runaways, everyone who ever came to New York. I’m suddenly weeping. And my husband doesn’t say anything, just takes my hand.
“It doesn’t matter what happened back there. You’re a real artist,” he says. “You don’t need New York.”
But what if I do? There isn’t a sign in the road that signals the beginning or end of the West, but there is a red ridge rising out of the state of New Mexico, beyond which all rainfall flows into the Pacific. At the Continental Divide is a museum, and our daughter is screaming for ice cream, and a tightness rises in my chest, a feeling about time—a rage at its forward-moving linearity—about how I’ll never get New York back, but really about how I’ll never get back those years when I was childless and drunk and way too young to concern myself with failure.
What did I do with all that time? What I did was talk a lot about being an artist with a lot of other people who talked about being artists rather than make art. And when I finally made something, something I believed was true and beautiful, no one cared. Sentimental, the only review called it.
“Chiara,” my husband shouts. I realize he’s been standing right outside Rhiannon with our daughter, and where have I been? Lost in time and space. He motions for me to roll down the window and gestures behind him. “This family … this man lost his wallet.”
Pulled up beside us in this deserted museum parking lot, where the rainfall parts ways to either the Atlantic or Pacific, in a station wagon, older, and sadder, and more beaten up than ours, is a family: a man, a woman, and a little girl with pigtails, sucking on a pacifier. “They need some money for gas,” my husband says. “The man, he lost his wallet.”
The man holds up a string of jewels, gold colored, but not gold. “You like pretty things?” He smiles, bearing a mouthful of missing teeth. “Anything you like. You just give us cash for the gas.”
We’re gonna just be gypsies for a while, is what I had said to my best friend from art school on the steps of her $3 million brownstone. Gypsies aren’t called gypsies anymore, you know that right? is what she said in response.
In my purse, I find a 20 and three singles, and I hand my husband the latter.
“Here,” my husband says to the man. “This is all the cash we have plus the 2 I already gave you.”
The Romani man looks at us, bitterly. He had expected more, but he hands my husband the bracelet anyways. “It will give you good fortune. Prosperity,” he says.
“That’s mine!” Our toddler cries, and everyone laughs. A few miles past the divide, she tears it apart, then throws it out the car window into the dust.
Somehow, we’ve made it nearly to Phoenix. Just in time for our approach, the AC fritzes out and my daughter’s face turns crimson even with all the windows rolled down. We feed her ice chips and speed 20 miles above the limit and nothing we do makes it feel any cooler inside Rhiannon.
Hours pass like this, with the sun imperious and nowhere to stop. Everything is just desert, and desert, and desert, and the haunting cactus which line the mountains are all burnt black from another summer’s fire, and we’re screaming at each other, my husband and I, and our daughter is crying, and I’m afraid we might actually die. I’m castigating him for never getting back in, calling him an impotent, feckless man and he’s blaming me for wasting all his money on better paintbrushes to make up for a “void of vision.” He’s never said anything like that before, he’s always called me a real artist, a true artist, he’s always been the only one to believe in me, and we’re fighting for so long, we hardly notice dusk fall, and that suddenly there is a breeze, and that our daughter’s face has returned to its normal hue. If we were to stop, and I were to have a canvas before me, I might aspire to capture a palette such as this, a rendering of twilight more beautiful than I have ever, ever seen. And I wonder, who can keep a record of all this beauty?
No painting, no photograph is a sufficient antidote to all our suffering, the unassailable fact of our ending, and what is a memory but a scrap of sand on the wild, transient beach.
So, we don’t stop there.
Los Angeles finally appears on the green highway signs once Phoenix is behind us. It ignites in me something electric, like the way I used to feel on those New York nights having conquered all the other women in black, and we emerged together, my future husband and I, from some metallic bathroom, high, falsely prosperous, having just made love. I won’t ever sever this cord I have to calamitous romance.
“Let’s just try it,” I plead.
“Do you know that gas there is up to $7 a gallon?” he asks. I ignore him.
Just before the border to California, still, endlessly in the desert, we stop at last for the night. The receptionist at the La Quinta Inn vows to us that one day he will be so rich, he’ll buy a penthouse overlooking all of Manhattan. We say nothing. We say, “Good luck!”
My daughter has trouble falling sleep because of the heat, because of us, and so I sing to her as I haven’t since she was an infant. Apparently, there is only one tune I know by heart and so I hum it over and over again. It takes me a minute to realize it is “Amazing Grace.” There is a tap tap tap at the windows as her eyes finally close: the gentleness of rain. Just outside of our room, my husband paces on the sidewalk with a cigarette. When I join him, for the first time in a long time, he draws me in to him and we just hug. The rain ends, it ends so soon in the desert, and it’s a sin, because it doesn’t smell this good anywhere else.
“OK. We’ll go to California,” he says. “Let’s get it out of our system.”
We leave the La Quinta before dawn because we must evade the desert sun and soon afterward, we pass the California state sign, blue with golden flowers, the copas de ora. But I don’t see any cups of gold, only more desert. And in this desert, even the shrubs and saguaro fall away. I think of New York, its aroma of trash, its traffic lights bending to the invisible Atlantic’s wind, its mad soundscape. As the desert morning blasts in through Rhiannon, I think of my last vision of the city—that day, only days ago, when we left by way of the Lincoln Tunnel and by happenstance, passed by the westside studio of an old friend, the one who died of an overdose, the one who had risen to great success in his 20s and fallen from glory by 35. So young, so young, the one I loved, and had wanted to be, and then very quickly, didn’t want to be. It was still graffitied on his studio door, the tag-line: I love my life. I know it’s still there: my sick, darling city.
“Lost Angeles,” my daughter says, as we sit in traffic at the edge of Los Angeles’ city limits. The desert has changed here, the hills are golden, it’s true, and dressed in trees. It’s pretty, it’s prettier than I ever thought it would be, and I feel good. But the famous traffic goes on and on, and with the windows open, we feel sick, not from the heat, but from the smog. Hours pass like this. Our daughter cries, we bicker, we reconcile, and then at last, the highway abruptly announces its end. We can smell the ocean. After parking Rhiannon, we emerge at the end of the road. But we still can’t see it because on the boardwalk, there is a camp and it stretches this way and that, and so instead of the Pacific, our view is of a city of blue tents, all that remains for so many lost angels.
“Where’s Hollywood?” our daughter asks. We spin round and round, scouring the hills, but can’t find the sign anywhere to show to her.
“What happened?” I ask my husband. “I mean what really happened?”
I return again to our last day in New York, when Rhiannon was finally packed and parked on the block outside of our now, former apartment, when our neighbor, the one whose last name we never knew despite having seen each other daily for a decade, peeked inside the car, and just said, “All right.” Everything we owned, everything we own, piled around us. Then she hugged me. “Turn your head to the left so you can feel my heart.” And I did not hesitate, and I did feel it, her heartbeat against my chest. “See you when you get back home,” she said, releasing me. And I turned away, because I didn’t want her to see me sob, realizing I would never see her again.
“Did we run away?” I ask my husband. “Did we run away from home?”
“Come on,” he says. Our daughter is up on his shoulders. “Let’s go see what we came all the way here for.”
“Ocean!” she cries. “There it is!”
And there it is, how sweet the sound.
Hannah Lillith Assadi is the author of Sonora, which received the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and The Stars Are Not Yet Bells, a New Yorker and NPR best book of 2022.