BY TEO RIVERA
The road curls up the mouth of the mountain pass and tightens. The other cars, knowing something, migrate right in one simultaneous motion, hugging the cliff and leaving a long, abandoned ribbon of asphalt for her own personal ascent. Snow begins to fall, a thin babble on the windshield. The road curves. Curves without guardrails, even when interrupted in sheer vertical drop. Even if a single pool of ice catches one of the wheels and the car shrieks toward the edge of the curve, the road curves without guardrails and there would be nothing then between the car and a few halting moments of gravity before impact. The road curves and she, Ada, curves with it, surviving, continuing forward. Some frozen gravel scatters under her seat, fists, hers, tense on rubber. Survival is imminent. The car hitches forward and sears down a sudden dip before straining momentum with its counterforce up another, tighter, rise. Survival is in the cards. Potholes slick with oil punctuate the scarring road, which screams its guts open in one long, tragic pose as she the car’s driver thuds over it, winding curve after curve after curve.
In split-second looks up from the the immediate front of the car, Ada discovers a team of sleeping children in the backseat of a gray minivan; finds, behind tinted Jeep glass, a tattooed arm twitching with music and someone’s bare feet on the dash; a single, beautiful woman in a sari nodding slowly, eyes forward, seemingly unterrified. Years pass between curves. What had she been thinking about? Wind blows dirty slush with the powder snow which freezes to the dash a beige screen. Anything? She tightens her whole body onto the gas pedal, the brake pedal, the gas.
It was this, what had been on her mind this whole drive, the question: where was Paola now? Paola who could have warded off the snow in a single phrase, or trilling laugh, or in fluid motion—reaching across the wide car for some water, pressing the dash with the tips of her long fingers as though holding the whole mechanism in place. Could have deconstructed the curves somehow. Taken a video of the perfect white mountains as the car approached, overtook, and proceeded past them. She would have summoned the geological histories of this place, situating it after all on planet earth, in this reality, with all of the same makeup and texture as the one they’ve shared, in which there exists an Ada and a Paola. But now?
Now a tunnel: suddenly, banked in sheer mountain face, a tunnel appears from nowhere and the cars before her fall into it. The tunnel lights stream green, tunnel darkness a refutation of the sunlight pouring in through the exit: dim lights rushing, forward, behind her, lights, another, the portal at the end widening, and now: the canyon opens into clear insurmountable land, nothing between her and the red rocks whole miles away downhill, open air blasting the earth all around. Close edges all give way to space; it all happened so quickly. Here was where the earth collected the color red by the trillions of grains of sand and stored it in dry heat. Here was the road reduced to an ochre line on the widening, forever widening horizon. Now, she drives through expanse, attempting to breathe.
Car metal expands in heat; the windows crackle. She plies the first few layers of shirts off her chest and tosses them onto the growing pile in the back. Removes her salt-beaten snow boots. Her socks, her muddy pants. Whole civilizations of gnats collapse upon her transparent forward thrust. She bathes her new skin in obscene, open sky. Paola would have laughed. The trees all falling forward, the air, the road. Paola who left, who knows where.
The mountains have shifted orange. From a rest stop, her body suddenly immobile but witness to a phantom pull, she watches a single gust of wind track particles across the valley. Years continue to pass, though nothing could spring out of the snow and send the car careening off into fog. Hawks trace circles far overhead, somehow real. In the same world as me, she thinks, but isn’t convinced.
The earth must have expanded. She’s been driving for decades by now, centuries—the light spilling up from under the horizon self-perpetuates as she mounts foothill after foothill, sloping down and back up each rise like a drop of mercury. At the edges of the furthest possible periphery, sparse outer layers of a town emerge from the dust. To the north, reflecting the sun, the mountains fold into blankets.
The car slows, its descent final, as the town’s cement and imported trees describe space all around, dividing the wild earth into squares. The car slows and stale wind ceases rushing through the cracked windows, encasing her in a silence she didn’t realize until that moment she’d been lacking. The sight of human bodies maneuvering crosswalks, headed into banks and pushing strollers, elicits a nearly physical response, though they thankfully remain beyond the confines of the car, quite possibly the only location she can be sure at this moment exists. Is it day or night.
Then, she sees Paola. Or, no, it couldn’t possibly be her, but someone, a single, immobile figure at the curb in front of a dilapidated smoke shop, gazing forward and twirling a poster, an ad for the store behind her, some awful phrase, the poor woman—who must have been standing out in the sun all day, burnt to nothing underneath all of her frayed, impossibly white hair—just standing there, rotating the sign in perfect, tapered circles. The car slows. She slows and stares, no idea as to why, obviously that’s not her; still, something’s happening here, something about this person, something wrong, her hair too gratuitous for her face, itself blank, oddly small, her skin one identical sheen from the neck down her glossy legs, the sign spinning in circles, perfect circles, and the look of absolute death as she faces the street, immobile, her features horribly immobile—Ada slows to a near-halt—refusing even to acknowledge the mammoth car bearing down upon her, eyes to nothing, frail skirt blowing in the dust, the sign spinning, her mouth pursed into a frozen pout, and, no, and her shirt slipping off at the breast, her elbows wagging in quarter vibrations for every complete circle and then—
Ada’s whole body collapses forward upon the steering wheel, her vision blurring and the car barreling down the street, up a curb and diagonal into a parking space, static. Not a person. She can only just gather her breath. A doll. A mannequin, hitched at the waste onto a handcart, an extension cord running down its ankle into the smoke shop, not breathing, no pulse, back to the mountains, a formation of plastic, but still, a face, a pair of eyes staring out at the physical world, at whatever’s really out there, whatever space exists between her single body and death, whatever the light hits, because now she’ll never be sure, now, in a world of dolls spinning posters, arms describing circles into the air endlessly and for nothing.
Teo Rivera co-edits killing fields journal and makes loud music with the band Dominant Culture. His work can be found or is forthcoming in Enclave and ICHNOS.