A gravel road. His voice weak from bronchitis. We divide a Lucky Strike between breaths. He pushes words into the sunset’s silence.

“I went to homecoming with a girl that wore black combat boots and an orange polyester housedress that wasn’t a costume. Just before I got into drugs. Unrelated. But I can’t get over how she smelled like detergent, the brittle bleach of her hair, the kiss she refused to give back in the Waffle House parking lot.”

My toe itches, distinct pulse and throb of a fire ant bite. Smoke, then scratch.

I like her name, the way he says it. But I’m not sure the way we say things matters in the dark.

The sun is down. The bracelet on my wrist is made from the base of an antler. I imagine the mammal’s name, the first noun in a story.

***

Gravel road with the boy who mud-rides on Sundays. He calls me “a guy’s girl.” Later I will realize this is like being “a writer’s writer” only even worse. Even more lonely. I had to hurt someone to get to this girl whose pocket knife cuts hair in graveyards.

Each bump in the red dirt road sprawls like a Jimmy Page solo.

“You’re a sport,” he assures me.

***

Gravel road with a bottle of Jack. My father remarries an American woman, trained not to raise her voice, not to leave vulgar lipstick marks. She goes into bedrooms and closes the door. A locked click. A house swept clean, dishes ordered—”I’d do anything for a scream sometimes,” you tell him—anything to loosen the oppressive expanse of well-kept silence.

My father descends the stairs of his wine cellar. He knows what to find. “It’s Brazilian.”

His wife manages the house with her silence. Because she doesn’t say mean things, there is nothing to hold against her. No defense against the implications.

“Don’t call me a sport.”

Does loving never risk the limits of a mansion?

I look for boys in the magic of mud splattered across a windshield.

***

Gravel road, my eyes on the derrick. Moving and stopping. This boy and I trying to discern a pattern to the up-down motion, a soluble rhythm.

His mother picks tomatoes four months of the year. One summer equals seasonal labor. She believes in the value of education.

“I’m not a book person,” he admits. “I get caught between the borders of private and public. I’m smart in the house and shy near the blackboard. Have I told you how it feels to see colors that other people are missing? I see colors. The most important things happen in Spanish.”

He asks if he might kiss me. I taste leather and brimstone in the instant before our lips meet; my murmur: si, si.

***

Gravel road with the quarterback who likes European history. Trying things on for a season: sports, hobbies, political bumper stickers. I’m reading Marcel Pagnol and rollerblading. Three months from now, our high school will be named state football champion.

But not yet. In the gravel moment, he needs to know why I date mostly nerds.

“You’re too smart for that,” he leans back into the truck seat, laughing.

He laughs when he talks like nobody’s business. “You’re the smartest person I know, period. Why date below your looks?”

I think of Sartre and who could be uglier. I think of Sartre’s brain as I unbutton my shirt and show him my breasts.

***

Gravel road after road after road. The way nipples harden at high speed. The way a bump chimes like a warning bell inside the willing body. The way you shouldn’t. No him. Not here. Not so far from the safe zones of civilization. Not forsaking protection of playgrounds and well-lit condos.

The highway billboard: we have limits for a reason.

You crave the sharp prick of a turning season. You junk the postcards, the worthy landscapes. You live for the pebbles in your socks, secret rocks, tender cringes, portraits of women that never made it to sepia.

You keep a collection. Relish each boy, their awkward hands, insatiable hungers. But it’s the roads you can’t get over. The ache of old gravel you can’t give up.

Alina Stefanescu

Alina Stefanescu

Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Alabama. As a result, she is fascinated by totalitarianisms. Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the 2016 Brighthorse Prize.
Alina Stefanescu

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