You held the phone in your hand the whole way up US 40. Now, in retrospect, you can’t remember whose car you drove, John’s or Dave’s. You try to remember how close you were to the drive-through window at the Dunkin Donuts, but it’s not coming together. You mostly remember the phone.
It was still early between the two of you, so you felt okay about being on Grindr. Even though you’d just spent two days together in North Carolina on your second date. Morality is a fluid, you told yourself. Maybe repeatedly. Two dates, regardless of quality and duration, wasn’t enough to make you feel like you were entering douchebag territory for looking around. You’re just a tree falling in a forest, you told yourself, and laughed, because you’re that type of person.
You’d fucked a guy in his hotel room in Aberdeen a week and half before, when you first tried the trip to Perryville. Attempt One was not planned. You dropped John and Hank off at BWI, got McDonald’s drive-through in Glen Burnie, then doubled back. You raced the sunset to the trees.
You lost, pulling up to the closed gates in the wet black, headlights cutting weak beams through the mist to an annoyingly quintessential park sign. Yellow painted letters on brown painted wood background. PARK CLOSED AT DARK. Driving toward home, you stopped at a CVS to buy a bottle of water and checked your phone. Message from VISITING.
Hey, what’s up?
not much. watching TV.
Driving through; going to DC.
Thanks, man. You too.
[penis] [penis from different angle]
Nice. No timeline here…
You walked back into the CVS. It’s always a series of exchanges. Money for condoms. Names over text. Greetings at the door. Pleasantries on the edge of the bed. Fluids with the lights off. Awkward grins when it’s over. Sometimes future promises.
He washed your back in the shower, repeatedly tracing the line of your scapula with his thumb. He touched you with something approaching awe, an awe you didn’t feel like you deserved. You loved it, though, his mouth on the nape of your neck, breathing happysad sighs you could barely hear over the water. Drying off, you saw his wedding ring next to the sink. He kissed you desperately at the door and told you his real name, how he was traveling for work with the Army, how he doesn’t normally do this, apologizing, apologizing, apologizing. This was never about me, you thought. And left.
Attempt Two was better conceived. You drove out in the morning, the phone in your right hand and the sky thick with oil pastel blue and sharp angled sheets of winter light. You texted him as you drove, two days after North Carolina.
What are you doing?
Just got to work.
What are you wearing?
You had told him a little bit about the trees when you were in the Outer Banks, conveniently leaving out that you’d found them by googling something facile like WEIRD PLACES IN MARYLAND. You’d done most of the talking on the trip, which you hoped would eventually change, if you kept seeing each other. You never told him, but he was actually the fourth person you’d asked to go, after Dave canceled. Male friend, fuck buddy, female friend, fuck buddy. Not that you didn’t like him; it just seemed like a bit much for a second date. But it also seemed romantic and hopeful. It mostly still does.
Even now, you don’t know what to call that part of Maryland. US 40 past Baltimore is a series of sprints and stops flanked by scrub-swamp, Burger Kings, and tire stores. You couldn’t see much on your first trip up, the dusk folding over you from behind, tire spray and light rain magnifying the low ground light pollution from street lamps and braking cars. Now, under the sun, it looked a world different. Dusty and shabby, the side of the road littered with warehouses and Christmas tree corpses, flashbacks to your winters selling fireworks in Natchez and Vicksburg.
Your phone buzzed twice as you rolled into Harve de Grace, but you didn’t look, dueling a two-tone Civic for passing rights before you hit the bridge. The last year of high school, you’d driven US 40 every Friday night from Topeka to Lawrence to see your friends who were now in college. Armed with mixtapes and a Polaroid camera, you felt OLD, WISE, and ARTISTIC in all beautiful and naive caps.
Where are you?
US40. Almost there. It’s weird to
me that this highway is both here
and in Kansas.
I guess I think roads have souls
and I don’t recognize it out here.
Driving can still feel like emancipation. Crossing the Susquehanna, you felt young. You saw things you’d never seen before, even if it was only the railroad bridge and the river spilling out into the wide beginnings of the bay. Your windows were down, winter air streaming in, heater at full blast. Standard sunny winter day driving protocol.
It had been warm at the beach. The place you’d rented on Airbnb had taken your money but didn’t inform you that someone was actually living in the apartment now, so you got a hotel room and babbled your way through the embarrassment. You hated how you kept apologizing, apologizing, apologizing for things that clearly aren’t your fault. That’s just Jewnetics, you told yourself, and laughed, because you’re that type of person.
You slowed into Perryville, flashed on Grindr, switching your phone into your left hand. You drove past the sushi restaurant and turned right towards the park. You thought about how you’d held hands on the beach after sunset, your dog unsettled in the sand, the waves neither small nor big, soft nor loud. Pieces of him were still in your hair, in your teeth. You drove past the library, the IKEA distribution center, and up to the entrance.
You pulled to a stop by the annoyingly quintessential sign and opened the email draft where you’d copied the Wikipedia entry. “The Perryville Tree Engravings are carvings and engravings on more than 100 trees located in Perryville Community Park… The trees were carved by former patients of the nearby Perry Point Veteran’s Medical Center, which was a psychiatric hospital.” Nothing about how to find them when you were in the park. Your phone buzzed. Message from HDGTOP.
hey bud. looking?
Tied up, for now. Maybe in an hour.
lol kinky. hit me up bud. ddf here.
The park was beautiful, you thought, a little arrowhead of land piercing the brownblue bay, the grass green, even in winter. The carvings were clearly visible from the ring road that looped around the perimeter of the peninsula, groves of beech trees crudely lettered, the low contrast of the dull scars and the grey trunks making them harder to read than you’d anticipated. There were hundreds of them. You squinted and angled the car across the two lanes to get closer. They didn’t say what you’d expected.
I LOVE FRANK ROBERTS
JAMES + MEGAN
FUCK NIGGERS SALT LIFE
FOLK DO YOU LIKE FUCK DICK COCK PUSSY IN THE [UNREADABLE] HOW
Fuck, you thought, and stared blankly out the car window, past your shadow in the everslanting light. Fuuuuuuuuuuck dick cock pussy, you thought. The ones you’d come to see had to be in there, somewhere. Trees in a forest, you thought. The places to park were all on the opposite side of the road, and you wondered if you should get out or move on. You waved your hand in a small circle. These are not the carvings you are looking for, you told yourself, and laughed, because you’re that type of person.
On your first date, you’d gotten burgers, then drinks, then went back to your place. You liked him, so you didn’t go too far, because you wanted to seem classy. You weren’t sure when you’d see him next.
Hey. You’re a good egg. Hope
to see you soon.
Hahaha. Who says “good egg?”
Me. Cosplayers. The Rat Pack.
Bad company. But yes. Me too.
You drove past the fuckshit carvings, past the softball fields, past the bathrooms and parked at the tip of the peninsula. You walked down to a dock and took a few photos, then posted one to Instagram. You were following him on there, now, friends on Facebook, too. E-quantified and iLinked. Watching the river-turned-bay, watching the sky, you wondered if he would like your photo, then instantly hated yourself for wanting the validation.
A couple of gulls flew overhead and shit on the dock a few feet away. Fuck you, gulls, you yelled after them. You walked back to the car and your phone buzzed. Message from JIM.
masc and hung?
You followed the ring road back around toward the trees, choosing one of the spots closer to the entrance, in case you needed an easy getaway. The early afternoon light hardened, knife edge contrails in the sky, tree branches projecting shadow puppets onto their neighbors. You walked toward the slightly elevated spine of the peninsula, where the beeches seemed older and the carvings looked more faded. You found them there, next to the ever-present fuckshits and DavidslovesAlisons.
The original carvings were hard to read. The trees were slowly healing themselves, smoothing out the cuneiform cuts. In many cases, they were written over, hashed out, scraped and shaped. You did math in your head, trying to figure out how long ago the first messages were etched. You felt like an archaeologist and the word provenance echoed and echoed in your head. You’d still fuck Harrison Ford, you thought.
You couldn’t tell what most of the carvings actually said until later, looking at the photos you took in your car, bumping up the contrast.
BATTLE OF ARMAGEDDON
CHRIST THERE WAS NO SECOND WORLD WAR
LEAVENWORTH FEDERAL MARYLAND PENITENTIARY
NELSON JONCHOU 1958
You stood and looked at the trees. You stood and looked at the trees and tried to be still. You stood and you looked at the trees and tried to be still and look reverent. You put your phone in your pocket for the first time all day. You listened to everything and nothing and thought about everything and nothing. You breathed small, happysad sighs against the neck of the world.
For three minutes.
An older couple in matching windbreakers weaved through the trees toward you, Springer Spaniels in tow. You hate talking to people in places like this, exchanging nothings, never sure how to extricate yourself from their pleasantries. You hate feeling watched by other people, judged by strangers. You hate Springer Spaniels. You pulled out your phone and took a picture of some moss that you thought was impossibly green. This was never about me, you thought. And left.
The sun stuttered between the trunks of the trees in the staccato way that makes you feel like you’re in a movie or at least that Alanis Morissette video where she plays four characters in a single car. On the drive back from the beach, you told him your favorite karaoke song was You Oughta Know, then sang it for him while he laughed, at least half out of embarrassment.
You drove by the library, then doubled back to use the bathroom and see if they had any books or articles about the carvings. You sat down at a computer after grabbing a book about Lord Baltimore and texted him a few photos.
[picture] [picture] [picture]
Wow. That’s kind of creepy.
I don’t know what I think about any of it.
What do you mean?
As you read his message, your phone buzzed. Message from HDGTOP.
[penis] [penis next to coke can for perspective]
Not a diet drinker?
lol no. you free? wanna sit on this?
Simple answer: Duh. Question,
though: Are you married?
Enquiring minds want to know…
would that be a problem
Yeah. Not my preference.
show me your ass
That’s not exactly an answer.
it’s just sex bud. come by and take
my load. bet you have a hot ass.
Thanks, but barebacking and/or
married is not my scene.
You sat at the computer and shook your head. You opened the book about Lord Baltimore, then closed it. You started typing him another text, then stopped. You wondered if he was looking at his phone, watching the elliptic word bubble form on his screen, hostage to anticipation, to a response that might never come.
On the way out, you stopped at the circulation desk. The woman at the counter had never heard of the trees. She lived in Perryville all her life, she said. The park is less than a mile away, you said. She shrugged. You showed her the pictures on your phone. She shrugged again, and pointed to the book in your hand, then asked who Lord Baltimore was.
It was winter, so the light wouldn’t last. You drove back out toward US 40, and turned into a drive through Dunkin Donuts to get coffee and three egg white flat breads. You wished there were other people in the car so that you could pretend all the sandwiches weren’t just for you. At the drive-through window, you had to drop your phone between your legs to grab the bag and the drink. Just picking up some food for my imaginary friends, you told the woman, and laughed, because you’re that type of person.
You sat in the parking lot and ate one of the sandwiches. You thought about how you would someday write about at least part of this trip, about how carvings covered up by other carvings was such a great metaphor, about how you could use this as an anecdote at parties and on first dates. But under all that, you still felt something. You felt the land and the trees and the sky and the road. You felt YOUNG and FREE and ARTISTIC. And for just one second, you ignored the inevitable, the sad and naive caps.
Your phone buzzed between your legs. Message from VISITING.
back in the area?
You closed Grindr. You opened your texts.
What are you doing tonight?
You were with him for nine months. The final night you spent together, you made sure to cry first, which made him cry, which made you cry more, which made him stop looking you in the eye. You had sloppy, snotty, perfunctory sex because you both knew it would be the last time and he fucked you and fucked you and fucked you but never came. He kissed you desperately at the door. He touched you with something approaching awe, an awe you are learning to think you deserve.
Eight months after you last saw him, you took the early train to New York on a Friday. You sat on the right side of the car, watched the sunrise over Northeast DC, then fell asleep. Sometime after Baltimore, the glare woke you. You blinked your eyes and shaded them with your palm in a way that always makes you feel like a pioneer woman. The Susquehanna spilled into the bay below you, papier-mâché strips of blue and brown and silver. You strained your eyes to see the small arrowhead of land to the south and east, but couldn’t. Your phone buzzed in your hand.
[smiling face kiss emoji]
It’s hard to decide whether you want the trees to heal.