If you had to die, Avoca would probably be a good place to do it. In fact, if you Google “Avoca, Iowa,” the second thing that pops up is “Avoca, Iowa Funeral Home.” But I hadn’t come to Avoca to die. Like most patrons of Motel 6, I was on my way from somewhere to somewhere else, and I needed to sleep, but the ambulance lights flashing outside the double glass doors of the lobby weren’t making me optimistic about my chances.
I’d left my husband nine months before arriving at that Motel 6 in Avoca after nearly a decade of marriage. When summer arrived, I drove by myself through the long, flattened heartland to my mountainous home state of Idaho. I’d taken a summer job working as a ranger issuing permits and giving interpretive talks about “Leave No Trace” wilderness protection methods for the U.S. Forest Service, and I consoled myself with fantasies of rivers and snow-capped mountain peaks as I watched the Iowa sky listlessly pass me by. I was in-between other things. My teaching contract in West Virginia had ended in May, and I had been accepted to a PhD program in Ohio, which started in August. I was at a loss for how to fill the time in the middle, and it seemed fitting somehow to retreat to the wilderness.
I lived and worked in an A-Frame at the end of a long dirt road. Perched just before the wilderness border, my A-Frame was at the base of tall, black rock cliffs that cradled the Salmon River, a river so deep in places that prehistoric fish could survive for a hundred years in dark pools. Yet in other places, the Salmon was wide and shallow with cool, clear water gliding effortlessly over smooth boulders. The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness is nearly 2.4 million acres, the largest wilderness in the lower 48. Full of cold mountain lakes and stark white craggy peaks, it’s one of the last places in the world where the stars are undimmed by electric lights.
My A-frame was at Corn Creek, a backcountry guard station where boaters launched on weeklong permitted river trips through the wilderness. This was also the place where I had worked in my twenties with my friend Jen. Back then, we had experimented with varying degrees of promiscuity because, unlike Henry David Thoreau’s wilderness, we were surrounded by good-looking river guides and outdoorsmen. We had both been dumped by the men we loved in the year before we met, and the allure of casual sex seemed modern and self-assured. And it was. For a while. But about six months after we’d worked there together the first time, Jen got back together with her boyfriend, and they later married and had two children. The satin yellow halter dress I’d worn at her wedding made me look like a wilted daffodil. Two years later at my wedding, she wore a turquoise cocktail dress that I’m sure she hated equally. Jen was a good friend, one of the first people I called when I left my husband at age 34.
“Come home,” she said. So I did.
Jen scheduled me to work with Emily, a tanned woman with a bleached blonde pixie cut, a collection of hooded sweatshirts, a foul mouth, and a laugh that I could hear from across a room. As a fair-skinned redhead with big blue eyes and a fondness for turquoise, I seemed nothing like Emily on the surface. Still, like me, Emily was sad, and I loved her immediately.
A few months earlier, Emily’s husband’s twin brother had died in his sleep of an aneurysm. I couldn’t imagine the loss of a twin. After separating from my husband, I watched a video of twin babies who didn’t seem to know they were outside of the womb. They were in a bath, embracing while the water poured over their tender skin. When one baby turned in the water, the other gently floated alongside him. Watching the video, I cried, remembering the way my husband, Caleb, would spoon his body to mine in bed. The way, when he rolled over, I curved with him, fitting myself to his frame. We had a small bed, only a double. In the first year of our marriage I told him that I hoped we’d never have a bigger bed, that I never wanted to be farther than that from him. In the stillness of our bed, my husband curved his frame to mine like an exoskeleton. When I made the decision to leave him, the soft meat of my body felt exposed. My skin ached for his.
Emily met her husband when she was only sixteen, and her brother-in-law had lived with them for years. He was as close to her as a biological brother, and although she was brassy and funny in a tough-shelled way, when she fell silent—which was rare—I always knew what she was thinking.
As Emily described the loss of her brother-in-law, I knew that I had been lucky. My loved one was still breathing, still alive. We could no longer live together without hurting each other. Leaving him was like giving up a drug. I had to white-knuckle through the nights without him, but I had made the decision. I had been in control.
Emily and Jen decided that, like that first summer when Jen and I worked together, the cure for my sadness would be to get laid. Together, we mulled over my prospects among this new batch of river guides and outdoorsmen. Yoga Dude was a former river-guide-turned-ranger, and he and I shared a tiny A-frame as part of our living arrangement. On a river trip, Jen, Emily, and I reclined in beach chairs with beers while he took his shirt off and stretched on the beach.
“He does have a good body,” Jen said, taking a sip of Coors Lite.
“Yeah, but he likes to rescue bugs,” I said. “He catches them and releases them outside.”
“And he’s always talking about what a ‘nice guy’ he is,” said Emily. “No one who is truly a ‘nice guy’ ever refers to himself that way.”
A month later, Yoga Dude snuck into my bedroom in the A-Frame and stole the spider traps that Jen had set up for me before I moved in. She knew how scared I was of spiders, and the A-frame had a serious poisonous spider issue. I realized Yoga Dude had removed the traps when I brought Emily into my room to kill a Black Widow for me. It disappeared before she could get it, and I couldn’t sleep for the following week.
“I don’t like Yoga Dude,” I said. “He can keep his Buddhism to himself.”
Then there was Burly Guy, a brawny, cheerful man who still remembered me from a decade earlier. Burly Guy was a rent-a-guide, which meant he would work for any river company who would have him. Most likely, this attitude extended to his personal relationships.
“He was flirting with you. And he remembers you,” Emily said. “You should totally sleep with Burly Guy.”
“Well, he is cute,” I said. “And his largeness makes me feel petite.”
We speculated about how we could make this coupling happen. We finally settled on me just approaching him and saying, “Wanna go?” while cocking my head towards the A-frame.
But when Burly Guy came back the following week, Emily pushed me to actually approach him, and I just couldn’t.
“I don’t think I’m ready,” I said. “I don’t think I want to be with anyone else.” She pushed a little harder, and then I tensed up. “I’m really not ready, okay?”
“Kell,” she said, her face kind. “I didn’t mean to pressure you. I just thought it was what you wanted.”
I didn’t know how to tell her that my true desire was not to be with someone else, but to want to be with someone else, that I still missed my husband every moment.
Emily was religious and thought that God had brought us into each other’s lives, and maybe he had. I had felt so alone before I lived with her that summer. Together, we were united by grief. One night, she dreamed that her husband’s twin appeared to her and told her not to be sad anymore, that everything was going to be okay.
“The dream was so vivid,” she said, starting to cry. “It was as real as if he was there with me. I think it was his spirit.”
“Oh, Em. I’m sure it was,” I said. What I didn’t tell her was that, sometimes, my husband appeared in my dreams—as real as though he was in the room with me—and sometimes, he too, told me not to be sad anymore, that everything was going to be okay. But my husband was alive, living alone across the country and probably drinking excessively. He wouldn’t have made a very good angel.
It wasn’t my husband’s spirit that comforted me in my dreams. It was the ghost of the man I had wanted him to be. When I woke from those dreams, I didn’t feel that everything was going to be okay. Instead, I wanted to close my eyes and go back to the dream.
Even though I knew I wasn’t ready to be with someone else, Emily, Jen, and I still joked about the different men I could have sex with. We enjoyed being crass, and it made me feel better to pretend that I was liberated and free. The best option was probably Bearded Man, another rent-a-guide. He knew Emily and Jen from the river, and I used to casually date him.
“Whaaaat?” Emily shrieked when I told her we had dated years before. “What happened?”
“It was long distance and wasn’t going to work, and then I met Caleb. It was casual enough that I didn’t feel guilty about getting involved with Caleb,” I said.
“Kelly says that Bearded Man is really good in bed,” Jen interrupted me, saying what I had said with a wink.
I remembered long, athletic afternoons with Bearded Man. He had a physicality about him that appealed to me. We’d put on a Prince album, and Prince would finish before we did.
“It’s going to be Bearded Man!” Emily said.
And it was.
I didn’t plan it, but it happened.
Having sex with someone after a decade of marriage was a bit like losing my virginity again. I thought I had accumulated a lot of knowledge throughout my marriage, but it turned out to all be particular to one person. I went fast when he wanted slow. He went slow when I wanted fast. We didn’t know each other’s bodies like we had the first summer we were together.
Still, like losing my virginity, there was a part of me that was just glad to have it out of the way. And I did feel better. The sex abated my sadness a bit, and I thought of my husband a little less often.
But having sex with Bearded Man couldn’t take away the memories of my time with Caleb. Married sex is better than casual sex. At its best, having married sex is like being in a snow globe together, protected by a glass bubble that contains only magic and no troubles. Shortly before the end of my marriage, I’d said to Caleb while we were having sex, “I’ll never love anyone but you.” Thinking about it now, that statement sounds tinny and hollow in my memory, a cliché that I meant with all my heart. But I meant it as both a promise and a plea.
Bearded Man and I saw each other a few more times, and the sex got better, but then I had to leave. My chest deflated when we hugged, my head sinking onto his shoulder, but I was also relieved. I still loved Caleb, and things hadn’t worked out with Bearded Man the first time. It was good that I was leaving.
In August, I packed up my car and my dog, and then started the long drive from Idaho to Ohio. My chest constricted as I drove through the Badlands of South Dakota. The absence of the mountains felt like a physical loss, and when I stopped along the way to Ohio at the Motel 6 in Avoca, Iowa, I wondered if I was making the wrong decision, if I should just turn around and head back home. I checked in and saw my dining options, which consisted of a Taco Johns attached to a gas station and an Iowa chain that specialized in some sort of “meat sandwich.” I missed Emily and Jen, the river, and my husband, most of all.
Still, none of that kept my dog from needing a walk. As I walked him down the hall on his leash, I saw a door propped open with a trash can. The room was in disarray. The covers lay on the floor, and white-sock clad feet poked off the edge of the bed. I got on the elevator and went out to the lobby where those ambulance lights flashed outside. A couple of paramedics pushed by me with a stretcher.
“What happened?” I asked the night clerk.
“Someone just OD’d,” she said with a shrug. She said it casually, as though people regularly committed suicide at the Avoca Motel 6.
I walked my dog out to a patch of grass, the din of vehicles on the interstate rushing by. The sun was setting, and the Iowa sky—so large—loomed in front of me. Nearly the same red and blue as the color of the ambulance lights swept across the skyline, and it was so heartbreakingly beautiful and so much like a bruise at the same time that I broke down crying in that parking lot. A trucker who had been working on his truck scurried off when I started sobbing.
A couple of years earlier, one of my high school friends had lost both her husband and child in a tragic car accident. Later, a mutual friend sent me a Facebook message and told me to look up “Orchid Leona Sun.”
I typed in the name “Orchid Leona Sun” and saw the face of my friend, who now had blonde hair instead of the brown hair I remembered her having in high school. She’d begun wearing hippy dresses, and she was now a midwife. From what I could gather, she had completely changed her name and her life.
“She seems happy,” I said when our mutual friend asked me what I thought of the change. My friend, who was a counselor, hesitated before replying.
“I don’t think it’s good,” she finally said. “I mean, wherever you go, there you are. You can’t escape your past.” She was right. Our friend had changed her name, her dress, her job, and what seemed like her whole damn life, but there would always be a part of her that was still the person I went to high school with, still the person with brown hair who remembered her lost husband and child, and grieved for them.
I thought of the cliché while I sobbed in the parking lot: Wherever I went, there I was.
There I was. There I was. There I was.
Shortly before I had left Idaho in August, Emily and I had gone down to a beach where we put little floating chairs in the water and watched the sun set together. We talked as though we would never run out of things to say. It was our last night together, and our speech was urgent, as if we knew that we could never return to that moment, to the newness of our friendship, to the magic of that connection, to the commonality of our grief. I told her how the sex had gotten better with Bearded Man after the first time, how he had said, “That’s what I was hoping it would be like.”
I told her about the first night that I had seen Bearded Man again, how I’d sat with him on a dock and looked at the stars. “I don’t remember the last time I saw the Big Dipper,” I told him. “I’m not sure why I stopped looking at the stars.”
He had snorted in disbelief, and I realized how much of myself I had lost in the years of my marriage.
Emily told me about her family, her parents’ divorce and her quiet suffering, her love for her brother-in-law and her worry that she hadn’t been good enough to him while he was alive. She also told me about her feeling that he forgave her. That he was always watching over her with love.
I told her that I didn’t miss my husband anymore, at least not all of the time. “I was like an open wound when I got here,” I said.
“You’re a completely different person now than you were when you arrived,” she said. She paused, then spoke again. “My husband asked me if I’ve told you how much you mean to me right now. You’ve been so important to me this summer. I just want you to know.”
“I know,” I said.
I sat next to her, floating in the water, watching the sun dip behind the canyon, and I tried memorizing everything about that moment. I wanted to always remember the cool dark water of the Salmon River, the warm sand, the smell of pine, the sky so large, canopied with stars. It was the first time that I had felt the potential to be happy again. My husband was nowhere nearby, and he never would be again, but my friend was there. And I was there.
When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher chartered a small plane. So many Idahoans, she said, would never get to ride an airplane. I was thrilled as I boarded the plane. I was the lucky one to ride in the front seat. As we rose into the air, the pilot made a large sweep over the valley, the tiny houses receding into the distance, the dark river slicing through green pastures, flanked by steep mountains. I knew that I would never be the same as I glided in that immensity. It was as though I could see the girl who I had been standing in that valley, waving furiously back at me. It was as though I could say, “Goodbye, sweet girl.”
Eight years later, I dropped out of college my freshman year and spent my refund on an airplane ticket to Europe. As I flew over the shadowy ocean on my way to Amsterdam, I looked down into the depths and thought I saw myself reflected in the water. Five years after that, I gripped the door handle of a two-seater as it sliced up the stark Salmon River canyon in a rush and dropped me off at a tiny dirt airstrip in the remote backcountry. As the plane flew away, and I prepared myself to spend weeks alone in the wilderness for the first time, it was as though I could see the girl I had been flying away in that plane.
Another five years after that, I flew on a plane to my new home in West Virginia where I was meeting my husband, and as the Idaho skyline disappeared behind me into vast reaches of blue, I could see myself disappearing with it. Now, six years later, I stood in Iowa, staring at that wide, open sky, surrounded by nothing but chain restaurants, a potential suicide, and a funeral home. An airplane streaked across the bruised sky leaving a white tail in its wake, and I conjured up that moment in the river with Emily, savoring the details I had willed myself to remember. I saw the woman who I had been cradled in that cool water. I saw her in my memory, as though I was flying above her. And I could finally say to her, “Goodbye, sweet girl.”
KELLY SUNDBERG‘s essays have appeared in Guernica, Quarterly West, The Los Angeles Review, Mid-American Review, PANK, and others. A piece of her work was listed as “Notable” in Best American Essays 2013. She is a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Ohio University where she is also the Managing Editor of Brevity Magazine: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction.