The best thing about the city was the train home in winter, after she had spent the day behind the circulation desk at the public library. Already dark, so that when the train exited the tunnel, she would sometimes miss the moment. If she was looking, she’d see the bridge in the distance, its lights seeming to spark as the train went over its own bridge, through a series of metal girders that strobed the scene as it passed by.
She liked the names of the stops on the way to and from her house in Kings Park, where she lived with her aunt. Syosset, Cold Spring Harbor. More magical because she never had any reason to get off at those stops, and could envision only faintly the lives of those who disembarked there.
For the hour she spent on the train, while others looked down at their phones or stared into books, she’d watch the backs of buildings, white stucco or stone or crumbling brick. Lighted windows flashed like winking eyes. Sometimes the sills were hung with laundry or cluttered with toys—plastic buckets for building sandcastles, trucks made of primary colors. Some buildings were dark and closed off, even though people must live there. Shades drawn, all quiet. And then there were the obscure advertisements, numbers for lawyers targeted at people already in prison, and the murals that produced in her varying degrees of bafflement and enchantment. Joey Buttafuoco’s face on the side of a building in greyscale, the glass mosaics of fantasy train cars at the Huntington stop—ducks and lobsters and ships on wheels.
When she was twenty-three, Eleanor found her first real love. They met in the city; she told him about the train ride, about its magic, and he laughed, and she knew that she had charmed him. From the start, Clyde had a habit of leaning away from her, or into something else. When they stood on the platform waiting for the subway, he leaned into the tunnel, feet skirting the yellow edge, to look for the light. On street corners, waiting to cross, she had to pull him back so he wouldn’t be swiped by a taxi. In art museums she cleared her throat to remind him not to get too close to the paintings, was always looking over her shoulder for guards. She didn’t like how motherly it made her feel, but she couldn’t help it.
They were married in the fall of her twenty-seventh year, right before they moved to a town on the border between Virginia and West Virginia where her husband had roots, a place he’d always wanted to return to. His father had died, swiftly following his mother, and he wanted to go back to carry on the family business—a factory that produced dog kibble, the second-largest in the eastern U.S.
“I guess I have to move,” she told her aunt at breakfast a few days after the wedding, which had been small and effortless. They hadn’t had a honeymoon yet because Clyde was in West Virginia, sorting out the business. Eleanor thought of her dress hanging limp in her closet underneath its plastic wrapper and wondered what would become of it. Maybe she should give it to a charity shop.
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” her aunt said. “Even if you are married.”
But Eleanor felt she didn’t know what she wanted. She didn’t reveal this to anyone. She loved her aunt, and she loved Clyde, and she felt it made sense to be married. And, feeling she had no reason to object, she felt it made sense to follow him, because he knew what he wanted, where he wanted to be, and because she had no firm desires except to be loved and not to have children, an ideal which Clyde shared.
“Are you sure this is okay?” Clyde asked over and over, as if asking whether it was permissible to wear a large straw hat in public. “We can stay in New York if you want. We really can.”
Eleanor had changed her life before—once, at twenty-one, when she moved in with her aunt to escape her parents’ bickering, and again when, overnight and for no reason, she’d decided to break with her closest friend—and had found it as simple and unemotional as repainting a room.
When her aunt called her to ask her about what it was like, Eleanor didn’t let on that she thought she might be miserable, or that misery might be in store for her, incubating under her skin. She had noticed on the trip down, trailer of possessions in tow, that some of the names were magical here, too, and this made her hopeful. Golden, Falling Spring, Backbone. Maybe they’d be worth seeing.
When they finally settled in, it turned out that she didn’t travel at all, unless it was with her husband—they had only one car. When they did drive, the way the grass at the edge of the road rippled as they whipped by, the hawks perched on utility poles, the spiny cliffs shot with black coal seams, she felt that it escaped her, that, try as she did, she couldn’t hold onto the landscape. It was all too fast, and she felt she had to keep her eye on the edge, where the guardrail met the ravine, or the point ahead where at any moment a truck could whip around the corner, drift into their lane.
And her husband seemed different here, more sure of himself, his square-knuckled hands calm on the wheel. In the city, she always knew how to get them where they needed to go, but here she was no longer the guide, the authority, the one who kept watch. She couldn’t be these things anymore. She still loved him, of course. Perhaps she loved him even more. But she seemed to like herself less and less the longer she lived there.
He had taken her on a tour of the plant because she’d asked, out of politeness, to see it. Sometimes when the wind was right, the meaty smell of dog food drifted over the area, the same way that the smell of manure chokes a cattle-farming town. The smell became tangible inside the factory. In the light that slanted down from impossibly high windows, Eleanor saw it floating like dust, puffing up in little clouds from where the laborers, mostly men, supervised machines that sent kibble like brown pebbles down conveyor belts and filled paper bags, sewed them shut with heavy white string. Although she smiled at them, the men looked at her without any emotion—not with dislike, or lust, or friendliness, not with any feeling at all.
“I feel bad for them,” she said when they were back in the car.
He started the car and backed out of his spot quickly and smoothly—now he seemed practiced in everything.
“You don’t have to worry,” he said. “We take care of them.”
She believed him. He had, of course, considered it all before he’d decided to come, and had determined that to carry on his family business would be the just, correct thing. If he sold the factory to an outsider, he’d explained, who could predict what sort of man would take over. In his New York apartment, lounging on the IKEA furniture they’d left behind when they moved, she had nodded along with his arguments, reassuring him, until he’d made up his mind, and here they were.
Their house made her feel empty. One of those old houses people would think they were lucky to have, untouched by overzealous 1970s renovation, but the hardwood floors felt cold and stiff to her and always had grit between the boards. She didn’t like the incandescent chandeliers and lamps. She wanted bright, clean fluorescents. She knew her tastes were vulgar: she ate sandwiches with a lot of Italian meats and copious amounts of mayonnaise. She knew—she could be logical about it—but that didn’t change how she felt.
Since they’d moved there, there’d been the empty feeling, but also somehow a heaviness. Every inch of her more solid than before. Moving through the house, she felt she had to drag herself. Up the stairs after her morning tea to take a shower and dress. Down to the cellar to look for something she hadn’t yet unpacked. Once she went down and opened a box of books to find the pages spotted with rat urine, feces rattling around as she shifted it out of the back door. She worried about hantavirus. She worried about her husband at work, coming down from his office to talk to the packagers, leaning too close and getting his tie stuck in some mysterious machinery and being ground to a pulp.
Eleanor took the car to the Save-A-Lot on the last Saturday of autumn, nearly at the edge of winter. She used her phone’s GPS. She was embarrassed to ask Clyde for directions. She should know the way by now.
She got lost. In the curling brown canopy of the woods, on the roads that curved tightly between sharp hills, she took a wrong turn and ended up on a cracked and broken bit of local highway that turned into gravel and then dirt. She lost cell reception and her phone stopped guiding her. The autumn light made her sweat inside the heavy, rattling Buick.
Eventually she came to a gate with a sign warning away trespassers. An empty green pickup truck was parked just beyond the gate. While she tried to turn around on the narrow road, she kept glancing up the blocked driveway, afraid that at any moment someone would come swaggering down with a Winchester slung over his shoulder to ward her off.
The longer she drove, the darker it got. Deer with knobby knees took velvet steps in the sunken ditches where the grass had grown stiff and brown. She rolled the windows down. In the spring and summer, there would be the sound of crickets and katydids, the creak of frogs in creeks echoing out of the woods. Now there was silence except for the sound of air rushing by. Out here, in the county, houses were few, although sometimes one or two could be glimpsed from the vantage point of the high road, down in the valley, aglow. The scent of wood smoke was lifted up to her by the wind. She passed gouged-out places in the hills, wounds of red soil where, during the day, trucks laden with logs would thrust their chrome faces out into the road. Finally, after at least an hour of aimless driving, she passed a place she knew, a place where the rocky outcropping looked stained white, and she knew that the turn to their house was soon.
“You were gone for a long time. Did you get the milk?” Clyde asked.
“I forgot,” she said and shuffled around the kitchen, pretending to put away groceries that she hadn’t actually bought.
In the early days of their relationship, they went to the movies. They made a point to see bad films: action movies with half-baked plots, horror with shoddy effects, dramas that aimed high but suffered from a fatal casting mistake. They never argued about what to see. The choice was always obvious. If more than one suited them, they’d just see them both on the same day, one right after the other if possible, or with a break for dinner in between. They both liked the movie theater hot dogs, which were overdone and wrinkly. They both liked Milk Duds, even though they had both, on separate occasions, pulled out a filling while eating them.
“It’s so easy to be with you,” they said to each other, and it was. Being together was still easy. That wasn’t the problem. Eleanor’s misery came from herself, but not in a way she could control. She couldn’t find a place for it. It seemed to her that all her life she had been happy and at ease, and even on the occasions when she wasn’t, she had always been able to assign meaning to her sadness. Of course there were reasons that she should be unsettled. She missed her aunt, her old home, her city. This made sense. It was the deeper thing that she couldn’t reckon with, a magnificent aura of doubt that thrummed around and through her. It occurred to her that she would never be able to decide between lives, that she would never truly choose to be here, and this frightened her more than death on the winding back roads, or the tall slender trees that might crush their house in a storm.
Eleanor still believed that she could be happy there, so on the next Saturday she drove to the local library, which was situated between a courthouse and some other municipal building in the town itself, an area which amounted to less than a square mile in all. There was an odd assortment of businesses and services crammed into these few blocks: a community swimming pool, a funeral home, a florist, a Christian bookstore, a few sad restaurants she couldn’t imagine visiting.
She was pleased that she didn’t get lost on the way to the library, but when she asked if there were any openings, the woman at the desk said they already had reached their two employee maximum. They had limited hours—10-2, Wednesday through Saturday—and didn’t need, and couldn’t afford, more help than that.
It would be all right, she told the woman, she’d look for something else.
“There’s not much available around here,” the librarian said. Her obvious pity made the back of Eleanor’s neck hot. She looked around at the peeling carpet, the ugly shelves made not of real wood but of metal and some kind of composite material covered in wood-grain laminate and realized she would have been ashamed to work there anyway. She felt no guilt at this thought, only anger at the woman’s sympathy. If she could only see Eleanor’s old library, the crystal chandelier that hung in its lobby, its gothic arches, the rich nut-brown of its cherry shelving.
That night she fell asleep reading a sci-fi novel, and while she slept she dreamt of traveling at infinite speeds. In her dream, she was crying, and she woke surprised to find that her face was dry. She remembered the stars hurtling past her, the cloudy nebula she flew through, the flashes behind her eyes from exposure to cosmic radiation. You can never go home, the scientists had told her as they strapped her into her seat, like parents strapping a child into a carnival ride. She nodded. Yes, never going home.
She woke in the dark, hot all over. She stepped outside. On the porch, the air moved her sleepy body, the kind of wind you can almost lean into. It made the tall pines sway like skyscrapers that are built less rigidly, the ones meant to withstand storms by moving with the wind. Soon she would need to take off the garbage that sat on the porch in bags picked at by raccoons and other creatures.
In the woods behind the house there was a great stone like a gray altar, and she wanted to go to it now, to feel its cool face bruising her knees as she climbed up to its flat top, but she went back inside. Clyde woke when she lay back down and moved close to her and held her, and she cried. He must have felt it in her shoulders because he sat up and turned on the light.
“What happened?” he said.
She turned away. She knew how she would look, red and slimy like a tomato that has split on the vine.
“I want to go home,” she said.
Over the weekend, Clyde took her on a hike up a nearby mountain. Eleanor hadn’t moved her body much in the past months, and found herself nearly sick with the three-hour exertion. They stopped every hour or so and nibbled at hard-boiled eggs and carrots, both of which felt like they stuck in Eleanor’s throat no matter how much water she drank to push them down. Along the trail, they met a goat with a bell on its collar. The goat jangled and bleated as it followed them and licked salt from their calves.
At the top of the mountain, they lay on a flat outcrop and looked down at the valley. A tree glowed red here and there, but most were bare and gray. The land below seemed to roll away from them, billowing upward into other mountains on the horizon. The scale of it made her dizzy and something stole over her, a euphoria both pleasurable and frightening. What if, Eleanor thought, the whole rock that they lay on cleaved from the side of the mountain, and they tumbled down, down to be broken on the earth below? She turned over and hung her head over the edge so that the sky was below her. What if she fell into the sky? Would she be able to latch onto one of the trees as she flew and climb her way back to the ground?
Isabella Martin holds an MFA from Johns Hopkins University, where she currently teaches creative writing.