THREE HUNDRED MILES
In a brief flicker of a moment, Caroline locks eyes with her husband from the far side of the ballroom, across a sea of glittery gold and crimson. The exhaustion and pain is written on his forehead and brow, prematurely hardened as though the past five years together had turned into a hundred. Life was supposed to have just begun—they're barely twenty-three—and yet it feels like they are at the very end. For weeks, they'd only managed to speak through small gestures and glances, ever since she moved out of the house and they'd run out of things to say. She blamed him, but really, they crossed over this line together, turning themselves inside out and stretching as thin as a human could stretch without breaking. Then a few hours ago, she had to hold it all in, walk in arm in arm as husband and wife. Smile for the pictures.
All summer long, there are white weddings, but none like this. Everyone is in love with the illusive Bancrofts, whose roots are almost as deep as the town itself, and so naturally they plan their entire year around tonight's wedding. Hundreds of guests, many of them uninvited, arrive for the golden-laden reception at the top floor of the Tower Club with the Bancroft name imprinted on its front, a steel-glass building with dynamic sharp edges overlooking the rest of Redmonton. The tower dominates the skyline, a black facade out of place on the edge of downtown's shops and bars. Amelia, the seventeen-year-old bride and Ben's youngest sister, is sitting in the corner at her family's table, bored and drinking white grape juice in a crystal champagne flute. On this special occasion, the sky is painted a perfect strawberry pink with marshmallow clouds, as if the heavens and earth moved just for them. The room is draped in gold and white satin, with orchids and peonies and glass crystal beads decorating the tables.
Right at sunset, a small orchestra starts off the reception, filling the room in the rich and elegant tradition of Fauré and Ravel. At the front, standing next to the blushing bride, is Emma, the other sister and former beauty queen, who is the real reason why the room is crowded with starry-eyed guests, squeezing in shoulder to shoulder to get a glimpse. For a few hours, they get the chance to dance, laugh, and drink freely and merrily. They'll soak up the extravagant life of socialites like the Bancrofts before they walk out the door at the end of the night and the harsh reality floods back in again.
It's all part of one grand illusion created over decades, except Caroline is the piece that's out of place. She puts on her best imitation of a Bancroft, only it's not enough; she tries and tries, but her country-like sensibilities will never fade entirely. From head to toe, she's borrowed and assembled all the right parts, though none of it suits her. She is the same girl she's always been with safety pins holding up her bra straps, shopping the discount rack, living off Spam on soda crackers. Caroline is, of course, no Emma, a fact of which she is painfully aware. She is too flawed to be fashionable, from her square hips to her mousy brown hair that burns but never curls. She's wearing a royal-blue polyester dress cut off at the knees and tight like a tube, which squeezes her breasts so hard she can feel it all the way to her sternum. The gold-leaf clip with little rhinestones is digging into her scalp, but it holds her bangs out of her face. The only things she can call her own are the cheap black pearls and pumps with scuffed toes, remnants of her past single existence out of the limelight.
Caroline smiles and nods, waiting until she can get to the bathroom before falling apart. From the moment she enters the stall, she buries her head in the toilet. Of course, the vertigo, the nausea are still there and getting harder to hide. The churning in her stomach—it frightens her to wonder if it was just the cold and squishy tuna tartare, or the tiny thing growing inside, slowly invading her body. She counts out three deep breaths, and after the chewed-up pieces of tuna, chicken, and bread are out of her system, she makes her way back into the madness.
One after the other, they flocked her way, with the same question on their minds. So, when are you having kids? She knew most of these cookie-cutter women, but hardly by name, and tried to avoid the looks on their faces: the hopeful, the envious, the sanctimonious. Being twenty-three means everyone is concerned about her eggs drying up, and they're taking the chance to let her know her body isn't hers anymore. Caroline could feel all the hostility rushing to her face at once, her hands instinctively covering her stomach. Living one lie was hard enough already.
She plots her escape out into the courtyard. Her sticky bare legs become trapped in this white wicker chair, where in one terrible move, she could cut herself on its jagged edges. She takes a small swig of vodka from an Igloo water bottle she smuggled into the party, but it's warm as bathwater by now. It's either that or the gooey orange wedding punch, with all its leftover chunks of brown and spoiled apples. It's close to dark when one of the three lanterns lighting the courtyard starts flickering in a slow rhythm until it blows out. Caroline is glad for the dimmed lighting, which casts enough shadow for her to hide inside until it's safe again. If she can manage to stay hidden a little while longer, she can avoid the watchful eyes inside. It only takes a couple of minutes for her best friends to find her. Eve snatches the bottle out of Caroline's grip and leans back to get that last drip of vodka. She scoots closer so she can rest her tired black boots on her legs. When Eve gets this toasted, she doesn't say a word. Her eyes are closed, and she's relishing her own private joke. She's laughing so hard there are tears streaming down her face.
"What's so funny?" Jennie asks, but loses interest quickly. She's too busy sprawling out on the fake green grass, where she can lay her head down and let the crazy, cruel world spin around her. She carelessly flings her Louis Vuitton golden heels off in the grass while letting out that annoyingly long sigh of hers. On any other night, Caroline would cringe every time she did it—exhaling out slowly, like a song from her lips, but then ending in a loud, obnoxious growl. There's always something, some undeniable force keeping Jennie from the life she deserves, and she can never just hold her feelings in. But she felt relieved to suffer out here in good company.
Since high school, they'd been like this, clinging to each other like survivors on a desert island, realizing that they had become the odd ones out. While more conventional girls knew exactly how their lives would go next, picking out china patterns and spending Saturdays at open houses, somehow Caroline and her friends were exceptional messes, unraveling more as they aged. In fact, they were killing it. If she could simply get the ugly words out loud and be done with them: I'm pregnant. Eve would probably take on the burden of driving the getaway car; Jennie would be the one to cry bitter tears and scream all the impossible things that Caroline felt deep in her heart, but could not bear to say out loud. For all the disasters that came before, they always showed up. How could she tell them? Chances are, they would find themselves spinning, searching for the right thing to say, and failing to comfort each other. On top of everything crumbling in her life, it was too much to worry about how her friends would cope.
Most people say the decision is the hardest part, but that's barely the tip of it. The Hope Clinic is the second one on her list and the farthest Caroline has ever been from home on her own. It was a regular Tuesday, and there hadn't been time to make a plan. There was enough heartache in googling around, trying to find out if there were any clinics where she could get one, which turned out to be only two in the entire state. Ben left for his morning run around eight, uttering "See you later" over his shoulder as he walked out the door. Instead of coffee with Jennie and heading to Emma's house for Junior League, she got in the car and kept on driving. Maybe she'd make it back in time for dinner, and no one would catch on that she'd been gone.
The first place was in the middle of a strip mall, between a GNC and a tots boutique store on the south side of town. The front desk receptionist had stepped away. On the counter, there were a number of pamphlets she started flipping through as she waited. The one that caught her eye had a drawing of a baby with the speech bubble "Women who get abortions have an increased risk of breast cancer. Is it worth it?" The bloodred pamphlet was there to remind women that their baby feels pain, can smile and frown. Caroline scratched her name off the check-in sheet and slipped out unnoticed.
Now that she's getting closer to St. Louis, she's more than two hundred miles east of home. This is the middle of nowhere, a bigger nowhere than Redmonton. There is no one for miles until the street curves to the left and dead-ends at the Hope Clinic. A wall of angry protesters blocks the entrance, a sight more violent than she'd ever seen on television. Men, women, and children are shouting, holding signs with drawings of dead babies and "Her blood is on your hands" written in bold red marker. Baby Hater. Prostitute. Murderer. It's hard not to wear a little of the shame. The words sink deeper into her skin, and she can't remember feeling so vile and dirty as she does right now. Foolishly, she had thought she could become invisible if she wanted to. Caroline wears a disguise of a different kind, hiding behind Ben's old Cardinals baseball cap and a pair of oversize round glasses, which cover most of her forehead down to the cheekbones. Though she is a mess of sweat from the horrible humidity and hormones, she doesn't have any choice but to wear the baggy olive-green parka and sweatpants to hide herself. She's way out in Franklin County, so it's hardly like anyone out here would recognize her. If they could trade places, Eve would walk the straight path inside, flip off the angry men at the front. She had the sort of renegade bravery that Caroline wished for.
One foot, then the other. Her heart is pounding like a drum in her ears. She can feel the men closing in around her. A few more steps closer to the sliding doors, and a man spits on her shoulder. Several are shouting at the same time but never in unison, so in a good way it's hard to separate out the rantings. Inside the building, where it's meant to be safe, her heartbeat is pulsing hard in her ears. She didn't think this far ahead. Every dollar to her name, and it might not be enough money. Whether she's four, ten, or twenty weeks into the pregnancy, she hasn't the faintest idea. While Emma is making headlines over hosting the hospital charity ball, Caroline may just make her own: Local woman gives birth, didn't know she was pregnant. When she got around to taking the test, there was nothing magical about it, not how she might have imagined from the movies (unless squatting over a dirty toilet inside a 24-hour Walmart bathroom counts). Four different pregnancy tests marked with plus signs, and then the night ended in tears and chocolate doughnut holes.
"What should I do?" Caroline whispers over the phone. Every minute waiting is agonizing, as she sits alone in the exam room. The air is icy inside the room, especially when she's awkwardly wearing the stupid paper gown and nothing else. She hugs her knees to her chest for warmth, like a small child, waiting for someone to rub her back and tell her she's okay.
"Do you want me to tell you it's okay to come home?" Eve said. Dammit. Caroline gets the chills, the burning fever, the prickly pins on her arms all over again.
The door opens and a middle-aged redhead in a white lab coat walks in. Caroline sits on her shaking hands, but it's not helping. Some of the doctor's words are coming out fine, but the rest aren't making a bit of sense. What she manages to extract is, apparently, she can't get an abortion here because some new Missouri law says she has to wait twenty-four hours. Meaning, she would have to walk out that door and do this all over again tomorrow.
"Can't you just give me the pill?" The vomit is coming back around.
That's when the doctor looks up from her computer screen for the first time, sighing. She calls her "young lady," the same way her mother-in-law does.
* * *
A few months back, Caroline sensed it in her bones, that feeling of suddenly aging overnight. It seemed she was constantly making up for all the tiny mistakes she'd made since becoming a Bancroft. She said yes to everything. Cooking classes, yoga, joining a book club, but nothing helped. It was boring, someone else's fantasy, one that took either a much simpler or more ostentatious girl to pull off. The more she shoved herself forward into the life she was meant to be enjoying, the more she became this shell, with her insides scooped out. "I need you to think like an adult right now" was something she got used to hearing from her mother-in-law, a joke and an insult rolled into one. Sometimes they were harmless slips, like showing up late or leaving early from dinner parties she hated, while other times it was her impatience with family business matters. The first and greatest offense was her choice to elope, closely followed by her failure to talk Ben out of quitting college. Being an adult seems to require a greater capacity for making yourself as uncomfortable as possible.
She was constantly tired, and the red rings and bags under her eyes weren't going away, hard as she tried to cover up with concealer. Her mother-in-law, of course, was giving her night cream for Christmas, clipping articles about cold tea bags, lemons, and other home remedies. For a few months, she obsessively saw specialists, checked her breasts and neck every morning in the bathroom. The idea that they'd find some ailment to excuse her deficiencies—a dysfunctional thyroid, anemia, even cancer—would earn her some points. Then one bizarre night, Ben came home with a bottle of champagne. He spoke not a single word, left the unopened bottle on the kitchen counter, tormenting her. What did they possibly have to celebrate?
She hung on the words as he said them, afraid to get her hopes up again. He was done. No more working for his dad, no more family photo shoots for The Redmontonian, no more suffocating dinner parties in Castle Heights. Fuck it all! For the first time since they were foolishly eighteen, there was only Ben and Caroline and no one else. They would finally start building a life together, and make no mistake, it happened to be as hasty and reckless as their quickie marriage. No more accepting money from his parents, which she knew would create a larger debt, leaving no chance they could ever get free. In one weekend, they moved out of his parents' mansion into a starter house, a true treasure with all its peeling walls, broken closet doors, and leaky pipes. The kitchen had a horrible smell, like a dead rodent stuck between the walls. So many things they had to get used to, but this wretched house became the only thing that was truly theirs, and that meant it was beautiful.
"We could go anywhere! Do whatever we want." Ben's eyes were wild as he spoke. He took both her hands in his, so he could be sure she knew he meant it.
"What are you going to do for work? What about your parents?" Caroline had to let it all wash over her. So surreal.
"Fuck 'em. I'm sick of it! We should go where we want, do whatever we feel like. Where do you want to go? New York? Chicago? Miami?"
"I can't believe...are you serious?" Caroline is practically screaming back at him, stuck in disbelief. This can't be real. "Miami? We never travel anywhere, now you want to move across the country?"
They had a second chance to start over. She was marking the days on her calendar, and when Ben came home at night, she'd listen intently, not wanting to miss the very moment he would tell his parents that they'd be moving far away. What mattered was not where they'd go, but that it happen as soon as possible. The air conditioner broke, followed by the leaky dishwasher and the cracked water heater. It was unbearable to sit inside, so she took to folding laundry and reading outside on the back porch, but kept putting off telling him. A smile broke out on her face, a real one, and it wouldn't go away. Whatever it took, she would endure all of it until they'd quit this place. The agony of sitting at his family's dinner table holding in this secret, smiling and saying yes all the while. She was bursting at the seams, affectionate, even loving, as if they were discovering each other all over again. Her hand found its way back to his, and she felt almost free. There was a game they started to play, the "what ifs." What if I could take art classes in New York? What if we lived in Chicago, had a place with a terrace by the river, where we could see the fireworks? How strange it was, at first, that they were talking about the most impossible things. Caroline had spent her whole life here; how could she know what it'd be like anywhere else?
Then there came another bizarre day. Ben came home, kissed and held his wife one minute longer because he had to break the bad news. She put on her favorite sundress and joined her arm with his as they made the journey over to their last dinner together with his family. "I've decided to quit." He let it ring loud and loose at the table. He had to let go of her hand and look away from Caroline in order to say the rest. "I'm going to be a fireman instead."
* * *
The road gets a little rough to take past the Illinois border. Tomorrow morning, she has an appointment at the Women's Choice Clinic, hopefully her very last stop. What if I never go back? She's only a few hours shy of Chicago, if she keeps on driving east with a heavy foot on the gas. Somehow, no matter how far she could run or hide, she would probably keep spinning in the same tired circles. It's a fantasy, the mirage that most people get stuck in, but she knows enough to see what's real and what's not, and what's possible with only one change of clothes and one hundred bucks in her bank account.
Caroline tries sleeping in her car, but she can't stop seeing visions of bloody babies, and bald men spitting and kicking her, when she closes her eyes. For dinner, she eats the chocolate-chip granola bar from the bottom of her purse, squished flat but kind of edible. Her phone is lighting up with all the missed calls and texts, only one of them is from Ben: When are you coming home? The hot tears are burning the corners of her eyes; she lays her head down to stop the spinning agony.
Angie Walls is a short story writer, novelist, and screenwriter who grew up in Springfield, Missouri, near the Ozarks. Many of her stories explore contemporary themes of identity, isolation, and helplessness in the Midwest. She is the award-winning screenwriter and director behind "Redmonton," a new web series inspired by her hometown, and has published stories in various journals including Cutthroat, Halfway Down the Stairs, The Helix, and The Griffin. In 2016, she will be releasing a new book of short stories, Anywhere But Here. To learn more, visit her website at AuthorAngieWalls.com.