The Passenger

by Emma Ensley

Picture our living room in a house that is falling apart on the edge of Chattanooga. Mismatched couches and chairs, furniture pieced together from the sides of roads and donated from older siblings. We aren’t sitting on any of it. We are on the floor, sprawled out, maybe even lying down. It’s early September and classes have just begun. It’s hot and all we have is a fan. You’ve pushed the sleeves of your shirt up past your shoulders.

“Will you tattoo me?”

A strange request, on the day of our breakup. An ask to make permanent what I’ve been trying desperately to dismiss as temporary.

“Like a little rosemary branch? I trust you.”

I think back to the first day of summer, when you asked me to cut your hair. I remember watching, horrified, as chunks of blonde fell into the sink. I look, now, at the uneven layers still growing out in the back and wonder why you would trust me with anything at all.

I walk to the kitchen. There are dried bunches of lavender pinned to the walls. A piece of wood with hooks in it, where our coffee mugs dangle, precariously. A sticky note with the lyrics to “Bills, Bills, Bills” by Destiny’s Child stuck to the refrigerator serving as a reminder to, well, pay our bills.

I open a beer and ask, “Um, will you tell me how?”

You show me, carefully, how to wrap a string around a needle. How to drip the jet-black ink down the string. You point to the back of your arm, the fleshy part above your elbow and say “I promise you won’t hurt me.” How could you promise that when it felt like all I’d been doing was hurting you?

I light the end of a needle on fire before dipping it into the ink, then touch your arm and gently press it into your skin.

“I think you have to go deeper.” I push harder, black ink mixing with sweat and dripping down my hands. They’ll be stained for weeks.

“Like this?” You nod without looking. Biting your lips, eyes forward.

Soon, a small dotted rosemary branch lives on your arm. I’ll see it again, years later, faded and smaller than I remember. I’ll wonder if you look at it and hate me and hate that you let me do that—if you knew the extent to which I wanted to be a part of you forever.

My first tattoo on my first ex-girlfriend.

We’re climbing into the back seat of a friend’s car, at least five of us. I am twenty-two and buzzing, happily, from two beers. This was the first time I met you. Before you cut off your hair. Before you changed your name. Before everything. I remember your bright orange beanie and our legs touching in the back seat.

There was a boy there at the bar, someone from the college ministry, who kept trying to talk to me about the new The National album. I found myself nodding, but keeping an eye on your orange beanie as it bounced from person to person.

People get out of the car one by one, getting dropped off at their doorsteps, but we keep our legs in the same spot, touching, but just barely.

The last two in the car, I watch you get out with a nervous wave goodbye. And then suddenly I am alone.

I’m turning twenty-eight in two days and I’m going to drive halfway across the country for reasons that made sense several months ago when I was heartbroken and devastated, but now, suddenly, don’t.

I actually think I’m doing quite well now, considering. I almost called the whole thing off. I don’t need some grand elaborate gesture and I’m no longer expecting any sort of self-discovery; not really.

I don’t expect to learn anything at all.

When I tell people about my trip, I try not to think about books like Wild and Eat, Pray, Love and how cliché and dramatic the whole thing could sound.

My friend, Hannah, tells me she can’t think of any road trip books written by women. “There’s Baby Driver by Jan Keroac. But maybe that’s it?” I wonder if you know of any, but I don’t ask. We haven’t spoken in months.

I read Abbi Jacobson’s book about her post breakup road trip but immediately lose interest once I realize she isn’t going to tell us who it actually was that broke her heart. Even though we all know it’s Carrie Brownstein.

I make playlists instead. One for every place I’ll stop. Waxahatchee and Jason Isbell for Alabama; Hurray for the Riff Raff for New Orleans. I vow to listen to nothing else but The Dixie Chicks in Texas.

I don’t know what I’ll listen to as I drive through Tennessee. Hopefully nothing that reminds me of you.

We’re loading up your car in the driveway. Your dog has already perched herself in the passenger’s seat, eager to be a part of the adventure. The sun shines bright and hot; it’s the longest day of the year. The beginning of summer, of Cancer season. I’ll be twenty-three in five days.

“It’ll be great,” you assure me. “We can be different people in Nashville.” I throw my bag in the back seat and squeeze myself in next to the dog. She reluctantly makes room. “No one knows us there.”

“What if I can’t do it? What if your sister doesn’t like me?” These are separate questions but related. I hope to one day stop caring what anyone thinks. You rearrange your CDs in your car, a broken aux cord dangling between us. We’ll listen to Volcano Choir the whole way there.

You look at me like, come on, and say, “She’ll love you,” and then, “You’ll be fine.”

It’s the same look you give me after we go to the creek and read. Sometimes we go with friends and we act like we, too, are friends. Sometimes we go alone, take off our bathing suits and submerge ourselves in the crisp, clear water. It’s different when no one is around.

It’s the look you give me when we’re back at home, showering, rinsing off the Tennessee river, and you say, “You know that I don’t know what I’m doing either, right?” I think, I do, but I forget. My own experience, my own fears, always floating to the forefront.

We drive as the sunsets, you biting your lips and tapping along to the songs as they swell. When we get to Nashville we’ll go on our very first date.

Tomorrow I’ll kick off the road trip by driving from Asheville to Birmingham and also I am falling in love again. Suddenly, the last thing I want to do is escape the frantic, sleep-deprived, emotional whirlwind that is the first few weeks in a new relationship to sit in my car for twelve days.

I invite her to come along. I ignore my friends who tell me it’s too soon to go on a trip together. You’ve only known each other a couple of weeks, are you crazy? But I don’t listen. I don’t care what they think.

That night Kate reminds me to buy snacks. I wasn’t even planning on bringing any snacks. I imagine twelve days on the road with nothing to eat and feel relieved and certain that she will be a positive addition to this road trip and also possibly to my life.

Somewhere just beyond Birmingham, in route to New Orleans, Kate wonders if she can ask me about you and I say sure.

I don’t know how to explain my years with you in a sentence.

“Luckily,” she says, propping her feet on the dash, “we’ve got time.”

Do people like road trips because there is a definite beginning and an end? A linear structure. Sometimes I cry in cars because and I wonder if it’s the only place I can’t easily distract my mind. I’m just supposed to look ahead and think.

I’ll see the tattoo again—the tiny dotted rosemary branch—years later, walking a few steps behind you at a Nashville farmer’s market. When I notice it, faded and smaller than I remember, I reach out and touch it. You glance back quickly with a nervous smile like, what are you doing. You don’t see the back of your arm as much when it’s your own, I guess.

You live here now, in Nashville, at twenty-six. And I came to visit because, well, I’m not sure why.

I tell my friends it’s because you had an extra concert ticket and because we’ve been texting back and forth enough to assume we could try being friends, now. Plus, I missed your sister and your dog.

Neither of us meant to kiss each other on the dance floor that night. I whisper “dammit” into your ear just seconds before. The DJ starts playing “Oops I Did It Again” by Britney Spears, an anecdote that later becomes our favorite joke. Surely he was doing it to fuck with us.

“That sounds like something from a bad Judd Apatow script,” your sister says, unfazed.

I text Hannah, all, it was so unexpected, imagining her eye-roll as I hit send.

I tell Kate about all the guilt, from after we first broke up. I tell her how when we were in school, you told your mom about me, that I wasn’t just a roommate, and she stopped sending you money. Our home went months without heat. It felt like we were set up to fail. How I used to think, I could’ve been braver but now I allow myself, Everyone else could’ve been less shitty.

Kate says, “Thank you for sharing.” She says, “Of course you both tried again, how could you not.”

Outside of New Orleans, the temperature rises to near 110 degrees. I’ve never known a heat like it.

The seat of my car scalds my bare thighs and pools of sweat form, almost immediately, around them. Texas is next, where I predict not much will change. Kate and I drive with the windows down, still. It blows my hair, precariously, in every direction.

I’ve abandoned my carefully curated playlists to listen to Avril Lavigne’s debut album. Not just to listen, really, but to scream-sing it at my steering wheel, at Highway 10 and at her, too.

We pass a lot of churches, driving through the South.

Do you remember when we first started dating, still keeping it a secret from everyone, and the preacher for the college youth group kept taking me out to lunch? I once lit his cigarette from my own outside-a-concert venue and it felt so intimate that my best friend, Hannah, walked away. She later said, “Maybe don’t talk to him anymore.” But he invited me to speak at a youth event. He said, “You’re different from a lot of the kids that show up.” I felt embarrassed, but he took me to more lunches and sometimes out for beers and would tell me that he was “impressed with my creativity.” Hannah told me she didn’t want to hear about any of it anymore. So I stopped telling her.

All of the girls I knew from college ministry had been your best friends at some point, before I knew them. They stopped talking to you when you kissed a roommate that wasn’t me. It aches me, a bit, to think that someone else has my exact story and that they had it first. Sometimes I wonder if I’d heard it, in passing, and wanted it to be my own. That I made it happen out of some weird blend of curiosity and jealousy.

I wonder how it feels for you to hear that.

Shortly after I see you again in Nashville, after the farmer’s market and the dance club, after the letters back and forth saying, are we really doing this again, yes, I believe we are really doing this again, you visit me. We float, naked, in a mineral bath in North Carolina. We drink from a bottle of champagne, relearning each other.

“I’m gonna baptize you,” you tell me, holding my floating body like a baby. Or like kids in a pool about to submerge their friend for guessing the right noun in a game of categories.

You dunk me like a Baptist. With salt in my eyes and mascara down my cheeks, I said, “This is the most sacrilegious shit I’ve ever done.”

Do you remember doing the hymn in sign language on my bare chest? How we laughed until the tub cleared; holy water down the drain.

I take Polaroids of some of the churches we pass; the ones with funny signs out front. I take photos of the billboards and sometimes the flowers. I’m trying to learn about the south as I drive through it. I am trying to love it here, again.

My dad never went to church but we were baptized together—me, months away from one year old and him, thirty. He was fresh out of heart surgery. A tumor grew right next to his heart, wrapping all the way around it. It was benign, but it scared him enough to stand with his second daughter and claim some sort of faith. He couldn’t even hold me during the ceremony, fresh stitches poking through his button-down.

It wasn’t like Hot Springs; it was just a sprinkle of water on my misshapen head.

As we begin to drive through Tennessee, I’m reminded of you in ways I wasn’t expecting. My playlist has run dry and Spotify is making educated guesses. It doesn’t have the backstory; it doesn’t know who I can’t bear to hear.

“She’s a Lesbian-Jesus-Bro,” you explain to me, gesturing to her at the bar, ordering a Diet Coke. I’m loading up the jukebox with Sheryl Crow and Shania Twain. I’m losing at pool. It was the same bar we’d travelled to from Chattanooga to Nashville at twenty-two. Where I’d met your sister for the first time. Where you’d placed your hand on my leg. The first place I had been “out.” The first real date. Here we are, again, still trying to wrap up the loose ends of…something.

“A what?” I’m unfamiliar with this particular genre of person, but not unfamiliar with her. She’s a singer. Someone whose songs I knew, whose songs had helped me come to terms with my own queerness and its relationship to the South and to religion. The first example I’d ever had of someone who could be all three—gay, Southern and Jesus-loving.

“You’re the girlfriend,” she says, as a fact, with a warm smile. She asks me, “What do you do for a living?” I tell her about designing beer cans—something that people usually find impressive, or at least interesting. I’m not sure I’ve ever said it to a sober person before and I suddenly feel embarrassed. As if I’m a criminal, marketing poison back to the poisoned.

I think, how silly it would be, to ask, “What do you do?” in return, when I’ve got her albums on vinyl displayed in my apartment.

Months later she stopped ordering Diet Cokes at the bar.

What if you had known how to help her without losing yourself entirely, without losing me too?

Out on the stretch of Tennessee highway, I recognize that our road trip will end soon. Kate snaps a Polaroid, ensuring it’s contained—how happy I am to be in this car next to her—singing and sweating.

She lays it down beside another snapshot of us in the New Orleans swimming pool. A queer bar ironically called “The Country Club” that we’d unknowingly stumbled into one afternoon when it got too hot to walk any farther. We slipped into the steaming pool water and she held her hand on my lower back as I floated.

Nervously, I said, “Don’t dunk me.”

And she didn’t. She just kept her hand in place while I levitated.

I still don’t know if I’ve learned anything at all.

Right before we broke up, for good, for forever this time—I spent New Year’s Eve in the passenger seat of your truck, parked outside the Vanderbilt mental hospital. It’s raining and my phone has died. I find a book in the center console—small, palm-sized, and tattered. There’s an inscription inside from a member of a band I’ve never heard of. “Thanks for letting us crash at your place. We’re obsessed with your dog. Hope you enjoy this book! The third story is our favorite.” I read the third story, which I remember thinking was just okay.

I think of all the people who could be inside with her instead of you. Her girlfriend. Her parents. Her manager. They should all be the ones sitting in a cold, sterile waiting room playing UNO and drinking coffee. They should’ve cleaned her apartment, brought her clothing. They should’ve pulled the belt down from the shower. It should be their black eye.

I feel proud to have a partner who is such a loving friend, and upset to have a partner who refuses to draw boundaries with those they love. I recognize that I am likely included in this.

Wet, dying leaves splatter across the windshield. You’ve left the truck running and as the clock nears the two-hour mark, I consider going inside. But what would I even say? “Hello, yes, my girlfriend is here visiting one of your residents and I believe they’ve forgotten about me. Perhaps you checked them in too?” Maybe they would get me next. We’d all three be placed on the same steady rotation of antipsychotics and cafeteria food until everyone felt happy again. It didn’t sound awful.

You appear, at last, holding your jacket above your head at the driver’s side window and struggling to get the key into the door. You climb in, frantically, and let out a sigh.

“How is she, how are you?” This is a phrase I will get used to asking. How is she and what I mean by that is how are you in regards to her. You rarely answer the second part.

There will be cancelled tours. Whole weeks where you were not allowed to see me. Everything, at once, dependent on how is she.

“Were you terribly bored?” you ask with a wince, starting the truck. I shake my head, showing you the book—my finger still marking the end of story three.

We drive silently back to your house and the rain stops but you don’t turn off the windshield wipers. I shudder at each harsh screech.

Sometimes I still feel like I am in your truck, waiting. A lonely passenger, you’re the one in control.

Or riding shotgun from our tiny excuse for a home up to Nashville, where I could practice being brave.

Or in the back of the car touching your leg, a whole other way of life expanding before me, for the very first time.

Kate and I stop for burritos outside of Nashville with only four more hours to go. The cafe is completely empty other than a young girl with face piercings and bleached blonde hair, and some mysterious figure in the back. I only hear a voice.

“You guys are open, right?”

She nods, “yep” and I take a menu. “I hope you like shitty pop music.” She’s messing with her iPhone and Miley Cyrus starts playing, loudly. I laugh. “Yeah, actually.” I like everything.

The manager emerges from the back, wiping her hands with a towel. “Not this again.” She sees Kate and me, the sole customers, and smiles. “Oh, hi there. Sorry for the music.” I open my mouth to assure her that it’s quite all right but the girl with the piercings beats me to it. “She likes it!” I smile, not wanting to pick sides.

I order two breakfast burritos. Scanning their drink display I add, “and a LaCroix.” “Lime or Pamplemousse?” she asks, doing a slight dance as she presses buttons. I say “lime” only because I feel too nervous to say “pamplemousse” out loud, even though she said it and it was fine.

We sit down and as soon as the girl with the piercings disappears into the kitchen, the music changes to Bruce Springsteen—or something that sounds like that. I make eye contact with the manager who winks at me. “There,” she says, “that’s better.”

Do people go on road trips because they like control? Or because they hate it? The night before we left Asheville, I Googled why do people go on road trips and it led me to an article called “The Pros and Cons of Taking a Road Trip.” After several mediocre suggestions, the article warned, even worse, you might break down while on the road.

They meant mechanically, I think.

I place a hand on Kate’s thigh. She’s positioned the Polaroids all around the car, tucked into corners, flapping in the AC breeze. My playlists have run out. Wwe’re almost home. We stop one last time for gas. We get out of the car, stretch our legs and bask, momentarily, in the sun, before switching places for the rest of the way home.

Emma Ensley is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina. She designs beer cans for a living and wrote this piece in her first-ever writing class.