Before I left for Cheyenne, I set my ex-boyfriend on fire. I really wanted to blow his head off, but the lots are cramped in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood and there was no way I could shoot him unless I hung the photograph on the clothesline like a target in a carnival shooting gallery. The symbolism appealed but the possibility of taking out my neighbor's window did not. So I incinerated my ex with my roommate's glittery pink lighter while standing over the turtle-shaped wading pool that belonged to the kids next door. In the end, though, I couldn't bring myself to reduce Alex to ash. We were together for two years and I'd thought I loved him. As the little Bic inferno advanced along the edge of the picture, the paper curling and smoldering, I dropped the photo on the driveway and stomped.
"I'm sorry," I said to Alex's placid, smoke-smudged features. Then I ran over him with my truck.
At heart, Alex wasn't a bad guy; he was just the wrong guy. I didn't know it when we got together junior year at Colorado State, but he's sort of a reverse snob. He didn't seek me out because I'm model-thin or gorgeous or from some fancy bloodline. I'm none of those things. He told me he was drawn to my credibility, which I think meant he liked the idea of dating a poor chick from the middle of nowhere.
Alex had a goatee and the most inoffensive hands I've ever seen. He didn't care much about appearances, but tried to sympathize with my frustration over my fingernails, which are always a paint-crusted mess. For my birthday last year, he gave me a fifty-dollar gift certificate to the Yes, They're Fake nail salon. I chose to ignore the significance of this.
Alex's one-room apartment in Fort Collins doubled as a vault for his sacred vinyl collection-he'd play me original recordings of jazz legends and rare AC/DC bootlegs with geeky enthusiasm that started out charming but ended up annoying the crap out of me. We both liked country music, but he had exacting alt. country standards. Alex thought Hank Williams was God and anything Top Forty was trash. George Strait and Garth Brooks he dismissed as "hat acts." Last year, we had an argument over who was the better songwriter: Steve Earle or Alan Jackson? After a point, all we shared was a love of Johnny Cash, and a nagging sense of disappointment.
But that wasn't the deal breaker. Alex was jealous, jealous of my work in the way you might get over a person. I'd come over and make him peanut butter toast when he was sweating over revisions on his collection of short stories inspired by "Kind of Blue," but if I were ever reluctant to blow off painting to hang out with him, he'd say: "An artist's work is her passion." He relied on the hipster dodge of disguising aggression as wit, and around the sour knot of irony, he spat out the words "work" and "passion" like differing strengths of the same poison.
On May Day, I informed him-calmly, I thought-that I'd rather die a workaholic loner than put up with a guy who broke out in hives whenever he heard Toby Keith. A week later, Alex got a job as a music critic for the local alternative rag, and went public with an earnest archaeology student from Nebraska named Jen who collected obscure Alison Krauss recordings and treated him like her one great discovery.
I wasn't angry immediately after our final spat but as the days ticked by, my feelings changed shape. First came a frantic arc of shortcoming-Was it me? What did I do wrong? Then, long dull spirals of doubt: Will I ever get a relationship right? Am I going to be alone forever? Finally, I augured down to flat-bottomed rage: Alex, you high-handed sack of crap. You knew what I was when you met me.
I still felt that dull burn whenever he crossed my mind. Did I miss him, miss the idea of him, or merely mourn our failure? I couldn't tell, but when my brother-freshly rehabbed on the cusp of thirty-four-summoned me north to help sell Red Hill, the family acreage on the ragged edge of Cheyenne, I knew I'd caught a break.
Only a fool gets lost driving from Denver to Cheyenne. God made it goof-proof. The plains sit directly on your right side, the Rockies, your left. Fire one hundred miles straight up 1-25, undulant grass to starboard and staunch mountain to port, and you're golden.
I rolled down the window on my brother's hand-me-down truck, a big-boned gray Chevy I christened "Count Truckula" with a Bud Light poured over the hood. At 150,000-plus miles, the only thing holding the old hoopty together is luck, but I can't turn up my nose at a free ride. The truck cab filled with hot, hay-scented air. Behind a warty growth of identical mini-mansions in a cul-de-sac that offered residents an unobstructed view of the freeway, I could see a combine working, hay rolls dotting the draught-strafed field. I tugged down the brim on my faded khaki baseball cap and rested my left arm on the driver's side door, humming along with KYGO. Sky the color of flame from an acetylene torch, zero humidity-perfect, baggy blue jeans kind of day. I adjusted the rearview mirror, and checked the cargo out back: one grossly overweight yellow Lab named Homer, his graying muzzle high to the wind; steamer trunk; a folded-up easel; plastic-wrapped canvases; and two duct-taped supermarket boxes packed to the groaning limit with paints, brushes, pencils, and sketchpads. I'd already moved eight times in my life, so by this, my twenty-third summer, I'd learned to travel light.
Colorado melted away as I drove north. When I passed Exit 269A-Alex's exit-I tightened my grip on the wheel. Don't turn. Don't even look. In Weld County, the Front Range dropped to a stutter of low peaks, hazy purple and shades of deep blue in the dwindling afternoon light. Passing Owl Canyon glider port, I knew I was almost to the state line. Soon I'd see the roadside clutter of Wyoming: radio towers, steel sheds selling fireworks, billboards, futuristic turbine windmills with three-point propeller-like blades, and the dust-churning herd that meandered the rolling expanse of the Terry Bison Ranch. This riffraff was just a scare tactic. Within twenty miles, the blight of humanity-consumerism, eco-friendly folly, tourist crud-would cede to the overwhelming abundance of fuck-all. Wyoming is the country's ninth largest and least populated state, with fewer residents than the city of Denver, and more antelope than people.
Up ahead, the Devil's Tower sign marked the border. I thought the old sign was better: a blue cowboy on a bucking bronc, a background of blue mountains, and underneath, a supernatural promise. Wyoming-like no place on earth. Orange sunlight poured over the dun-colored hills. I followed the curve of the first exit, old yellow dog listing westward in the truck bed, clattered down the county road doing seventy-five on knobby tires, and skidded into the dusty parking lot of the Bluffs Ranch rodeo just in time.
Copyright © 2006 by Lily Burana