WE SPENT A SUMMER on the road between your home and mine. I was living with my parents in Denver, and you were living with your parents in Oak Creek. You had just graduated, and we would never again live five minutes apart in Boulder. That was the summer I fell in love with you to Mason Jennings and long mountain drives. That was the summer we ate each other alive and devoured each other in love and tears and homemade moonshine and the smell of mountain pine trees.
You had a tattoo of a tree on the back of your shoulder. You said it was a tree on the side of the road near your house, a solitary tree in an empty field that had been there since your childhood, and it was meant to remind you where you came from. I glimpsed that tree for the first time that summer, after kissing the tree on your shoulder for four months. When we rounded the corner, there it was, just exactly the same, and I wanted to hide my misty eyes from you in a long glance out the car window.
I never could have imagined that, one day, I wouldn’t remember which shoulder. I thought I had kissed it too many times to forget. But you were a traveler like me. I kissed your tree too many times because I knew it was only a matter of time before we ran away and new countries and new people would make me forget which shoulder I’d been kissing.
Four years later, I no longer have to skip Mason Jennings on shuffle. “Fighter Girl” sounds like four-hour drives between your house and mine, taking the Silverthorne exit for beer and a new direction into the wide valleys and still lakes on either side of Highway 9. That song is my jean shorts and your scruffy beard and the sunburn on my window-side arm. It’s bare feet and slouching low in the passenger seat with my legs out the window and a beer in my hand and feeling too isolated to worry if it mattered.
It’s kissing your neck as you drove, it’s your wandering hands, and pulling over because we just couldn’t wait and it was getting dark and no one was around for at least 20 miles in either direction. It’s laughing like children at the sight of each other’s nakedness in the glare of the headlights.
We said it was the night that sex saved our lives. Less than a mile down the road, you had to hit the brakes for a moose lingering in the road in the expanding twilight. Had I still been kissing your neck, had your hands still been wandering over my legs, that moose would have come crashing through the windshield of your tiny Subaru.
I sat with my knees pulled up to my chest through Yampa and you sang along to the music, off key. Always off key. My heart used to swell when you sang off key. In July, it was the afternoon you arrived early and let yourself in when my parents were fighting. It was coming up the stairs and finding you unexpectedly, our wide eyes meeting for the first time in weeks, and pushing you out the front door in embarrassment. It was hugging you like it’d been years and climbing into your car without looking back. On the road with your hand on my knee, we felt smug that we had nothing to fight about and all we needed to feel happy was the music and each other.
Later in the summer, it was the night you had to pull over and slam your fists on the steering wheel and I had to get out and slam the door and slam mine on the hood for good measure. I walked down the gravel road until I slipped out of view of the headlights. It was the night you cried and I crouched like a frog and picked at the pebbles in the road, feeling helpless. It was the night we arrived home to your house and your parents looked up from their books to see our puffy eyes. I lay down to sleep in the guestroom but the end of the night found me back in your bed, back in your arms, with all of the fight in me left on the gravel roads, in guestroom pillows.
In September, it was the early frost that made your deck slick as we packed the car for another drive down the mountain. You piled blankets on top of me in the passenger seat. They smelled like you and I remember it because it’s the only time I’ve ever been able to fall asleep in the car. I was groggy and I remember being half awake and noticing how the sunrise was playing a strange reflection on the windshield.
“It looks like there are two skies.” You tilted your head trying to see it from my angle, and said you saw it, too. That was the last time we made the drive together. We saw Mason in concert in late November. And then we ran away to different continents where other girls kissed your tree and other boys touched my knee and there was only one sky.
That summer, I was 20 and I loved you in a car on the road between your home and mine.