The Beaten Path

Elizabeth Ellen

1. She couldn’t make up her mind between Bali and Cozumel. She liked palm trees and desert plants equally. She was studying the photographs on the website he’d sent her a link to: www…There were other places besides Bali and Cozumel. The Borneo Rainforest and Singapore. He was married and unused to making decisions. The last three times she had had to decide: bowling alley, Applebees, her place.

2. In February they had footed the bridge to the mainland. They’d waited weeks for the ice to thicken sufficiently for travel. Discarded pines lay on their sides, as though uprooted by the wind. Occasionally a flashlight caught a left behind shard of tinsel or a tinfoil star. She looked for hers but could not distinguish it from the rest. Untrimmed, each looked like the other. Halfway there she’d flapped her legs and arms back and forth and said, “Look at me. I’m an angel!” She’d turned on her side and scooped out a hollow for her cheek and stayed like that until her cheek turned blue and he told her to get up again.

3. The lobby was full of teenagers and her boots made a loud sloshing noise as they walked down the hall, for which she felt apologetic. She’d worn a bathing suit underneath in place of other garments. She didn’t know how to swim but he told her that didn’t matter. He said she wouldn’t have to put her head under water and she was okay with everything else.

4. There’d been the planned trip to Russia in the summer. A week before she was to leave her stomach had begun to fist at random moments. She’d be sitting in a booth at the mall and a plate of fries felt like knives. She sat in her car in the parking lot and held her stomach and cried until the fries were taken away. She’d sent him a telegram six days later, regretful. She went to Amsterdam instead and ate hashcake and sat in bars where foods were placed in women’s orifices and extracted by tourists and businessmen. On the TV in her hotel they were broadcasting from St. Petersburg. She watched the screen carefully but did not see him.

5. There was no way of telling where they were. In the end she’d refused to decide. He unlocked the door and there were plants of unfamiliar origin and indecipherable species. There was a large button on the wall and he pushed it and said, “Come on. Get in.” He was trailing gloves and a hat behind him and she reached to retrieve them then stopped and stood upright.

6. In Ohio she’d shown him a buckeye tree and picked up a six-pack from the corner bait shop and taken him to Mary Jane’s grave. They’d arrived early, at dusk, in avoidance of local riffraff. The grass was already littered with cigarette butts and bottles and she leaned backwards on the hood of the car, far enough that her skirt rode her thighs. She wanted him to finger her here but he refused. Instead he stood with his hands wrist-deep in his pockets and she gave up leaning and sat cross-legged on the headstone and cracked a beer and he sat down next to her and held a blade of grass to his mouth in a failed attempt at amusing her. All she could think about was his wife back home in the U.P., scraping ice from her windshield, shoveling their walk.

7. The foliage was unknowable and dusty and she bypassed it as she removed her outerwear and stepped forward toward the water. It was night and frigid and steam surrounded her footing as she made her way to him, careful not to allow her submergence to exceed her collarbone. His hand found her elbow and guided her through the waters closer. She laid her head back on the mildewed, blue plastic and studied her surroundings. It bothered her that they did not know their exact location. She was still trying to pinpoint the botany.

8. In the flatbed of his pickup truck they’d sat blanketed, the window to the cab slid open, Alice Cooper narrating the immobile drive. They sat with their backs angled in opposite directions, forearms resting on the bedsides, flicking ashes into the graying slush that sequestered the fields. It was into the palm of his hand she wished to place her head, though he did not know this and she left him unaware.

9. The waters were warming around her and she was tempted to sink lower but refrained and remained upright, remembering her inability to swim. The sky had lightened and spit a handful of snowflakes in their direction and she watched as they alighted on his skin and evaporated quickly amidst his warmth. A part of her feared contact for similar reasons: disappearance, evaporation. Part of her had avoided him thusly in all previous locations. And now, in an unknown locale, she saw the chance to rearrange particles, to offer herself up for submergence. She let go her hold, floated on her back. She took a deep breath and descended. Found the palm of his hand and placed her head into it. She made a hollow for her cheek and looked skyward as tiny bubbles left her nose and mouth and passed by her eyes. Through the water’s lens she thought she could make out Antarctica, though it just as easily could have been Jupiter or Neptune.

Elizabeth Ellen is the author of Before You She Was a Pit Bull (Future Tense) and Sixteen Miles Outside of Phoenix (Rose Metal Press). She is deputy editor of Hobart and lives in Ann Arbor.