Joyland

PNW |

Livestream

by Elle Nash

edited by Kait Heacock

I made plans to drive to my parents’ house in Bend, Oregon, a dirty white clapboard on the corner of a street with no name and miles of wired fence. First, I drive through Nebraska and then I drive through Colorado and then Wyoming and Montana. Between Denver and Bozeman there is nothing, a big nothing. The sky is filament above me.

Bozeman is my stop for the night. Main Street is a slip off the highway and a slip back on and in any other moment the town would be gone in an instant. I get out at a rest stop and look at the sky, the impossible sky, which hangs higher than it seems in other places, as if the glass that makes the atmosphere keeps the clouds further away from the ground. Everything around tinged pale yellow from the setting sun. A man at the rest stop takes a second glance and I wipe soured milk from the sides of my mouth, dust crumbs from my abdomen. I think of myself as a single mother already, conscious of my youth, of how pregnant my young body looks. I am only slightly showing now. In my car, remnants of the trip: crusted coffee cups, food trash, a bottle of vitamins on the seat, a duffel bag with the insides spilling out.

In the parking lot of an Australian steakhouse franchise, I turn off the car and the heat wraps around me like sheet plastic. Other cars pull in, people amble towards the entrance.

The hostess is my age, shoulder length brown hair, wide hips, smooth skin. She taps her pen against a clipboard as she asks if anyone else will be joining me and I say no. She keeps tapping and looks down at a map of the restaurant. My lips are chapped; I bring my hand to my mouth again. I imagine the feel of her lips parting as the tips of my fingers graze against dried lip skin. Some part of me wants to ask her for a job application. The foyer is air-conditioned and I rub my shoulders pink.

She sits me at a booth and gives me a large, laminated menu. I watch as the lint on the back of her black trousers sashays away. I fantasize about what it would be like to stay in Bozeman, to live her life, I wonder if it is better or different than mine, if she is dating anyone. If her parents are nice. If she thinks about the future.

Of course she does all of these things. I take a sip of ice water, my hand wet with condensation, and think about who I have left behind: a man I thought I loved. I wear a ring on my finger, but we haven’t married. I am supposed to be planning a wedding. I am supposed to be in love. I am supposed to stop lying about how I pay the bills. Instead I leave the apartment in the middle of the night, I turn my phone on airplane mode just to disappear off the grid for a few hours. I wake up in the bed of an ex who burns me mixed CDs before placing a white envelope into my purse. In bed, the ex pats my belly, not knowing who resides beneath.

I trace my hands over the sweaty plastic of the menu, touching perfect beef, a fluffed mashed potato, a wedge of moist cheesecake. Slats of light glare across my table, shift and then disappear. A waitress walks away from the window directly in front of me, the chain waving from touch. The outline of an industrial park is a burned shadow in the blinds.

My future now stands before me like a city of tall buildings. Everything is already built. There is no changing the location of skyscrapers. I can see them in the distance. One building is the birth process, the pain and fear of the unknown; one building is a career path; one building is a job with no upward mobility; one building is retirement and savings; one is my relationship with ________.

One building is a mortgage, yet another terrifying building is the health of my aging parents, the decreasing lucidity of my mother. The tallest building is the child itself, as it will become the singular responsibility that will define my life.

I order perfect beef with a forty-four ounce caramel-colored diet soda and a baked potato with butter, sour cream, bacon. I drink down the complimentary glass of water. I stare at my cell phone, navigate to one social media site after another, post updates about scheduling a livestream. The waitress brings my meal and smiles at me with lipstick on her teeth and I smile back wishing I could be her friend, wishing I could rent a hotel room here and never leave.

I could do whatever I wanted, but I don’t.

I sit my cell phone up against the frosted glass of soda, camera pointed on my meal, the little red light on the screen flashing, numbers counting up to one minute, then one minute and a half, then two minutes, then two and a half minutes.

Meal is such a disgusting word to describe the act of eating.

I eat cubes of steak, the potato next, then broccoli, washed down with another glass of water, pause the video, drink the diet soda, and leave cash on the table.

The restroom door is heavy and the lacquer is tacky against my hands, fluorescent light reflected on the beige tiles inside, a geometric row of stalls. The lights flicker like a fly beating its wings and it is as though I can see and I cannot see at the same time. Like a dream. I lock the door behind me in the stall, having to lift and place the door shut. I place my cell phone on the stainless steel receptacle for sanitary napkins and tampons and un-pause the livestream. I look at the camera without speaking, smile and remember the porn star I watched the night before at a motel in Colorado Springs, how she got choke-fucked in the face by some nameless, disposable pair of legs with a dick attached, her mascara smeared into the creases of her eyes, and every time she vomited (did she have a gag reflect still after all of that?), the useless pair of legs would produce an arm that swept up all of the spit and vomit and slapped it onto her face. Her pigtails torn and pulled, she sat there, a moment of hesitation before placing her fake nail to her mouth, California bright teeth glaring as her lips split into a smile. I smile for the camera this way, push fingers down my throat, reach for the reflex.

The sound of a cartoon coin being collected rings from the phone. I am getting tipped. Every tip nets fifty cents to a couple of dollars. I have to push harder and harder into my throat, the reflex dying from overuse, leaving teeth marks on my knuckles, the two fingers flailing harder inside the spitty cave of my throat.

I look from the toilet to the phone and bloodshot eyes meet me, my hand fisting my mouth, chats floating in and out of existence. More tips ring. Everything kicks and I push harder, and it kicks, empty, like a hiccup, and I push harder, my abdomen squeezing, and I wonder about the fetus inside, if it feels hugged and warm, and then everything comes up in hard, square chunks, the broccoli raw and confetti like, the potatoes in solid lumps, sticking to everything. My eyes sparkle and blink. More anonymous tips. More tips. More tips.

I think of ______.

The single ply toilet paper crumbs from my fists like sunburn skin. I turn off the livestream, and stand up to wash my hands. When I open the bathroom door, the hostess is standing at the sink, but seems surprised, as if she hadn’t known I was there. I imagine her waiting for me, leaning against the wall, listening to the retching sounds and cartoon coin drops pinging every few seconds. She dries her hands and leaves the bathroom without making eye contact. I walk to my car and check my account and tally the tips, but it is not enough to score a room for the night. Back on the road a storm threatens to burst and I find a truck stop somewhere between Bozeman and Idaho Springs. I park the car on the dark side of the gas station, the clouds flickering above, thunder a distant gurgle. I press my hands into my stomach, the bulb of growth inside me, and feel as empty as the sky.