The Bosnian Chick Magnet is warm and clicking against her back, like a sleeping animal. Ava stands with her eyes closed, enjoying the quiet. It’s the only car left at the gas station, which is why she hears the mourning dove calling.
There are always mourning doves at the end of the world.
The thought ignites like a bomb in her brain, so swift and bright that it’s gone by the time the bird falls silent. The sound throws her, spinning, down the years of her own life, as if the dove’s calling the name of another dove somewhere in the past they share, and she’s gone to find it.
Instead, Ava finds Ava, twelve years old, standing in her driveway in Tucson, Arizona, looking up at the sky. The mourning dove is still calling, and now it’s not alone. Its plaintive coo cuts through the treble chatter around it, soft but impossible to miss. For Ava it’s as much a piece of the desert, the city she’s growing up in, as the smell of creosote in the rain, the drone of cicadas, the murderous heat.
She loves it, that’s all, loves every goddamn part of it. She’d never tell anyone – she hides the things she likes much more carefully than her fears and loathings. But she feels a savage, atavistic love for this city, the valley it sprawls in, the miles of scruffy landscape on every side. The sharp-edged mountains are etched in red and black at sunset, the sun is a screaming white ingot in a sky the burnished blue of molten metal, and even ten, twenty years later, she will still be able to close her eyes and draw both from memory.
Whether or not she happens to be grounded, taking the trash out in the evening is the one chore she always wants to do. She makes sure to maintain the appropriate hangdog manner when asked, of course. Mom loves to sneer at what she calls “the teen look,” but any other expression just gets her interrogated, sometimes for hours.
“What’s that face for? Don’t give me that look.”
“Did you just roll your eyes at me?”
“What’s that eyebrow about, huh? Why you making that face?”
“Oh, you thought that was funny, huh?”
“Can you at least try to look like you’re having a nice time?”
No. The truth is, she has tried. She’s tried to construct a face that can survive their scrutiny and still be sweet and charming on command, and she can’t. It will take her years to learn and then to vanish inside that trick.
So instead she finds safety in books, and she learns from history. She reads about how the countries that resist occupation are put down, brain-drained, destroyed, and the ones that bend can survive, by pretending to obey and hiding their culture away inside their secret hearts. This teaches her that there’s no shame in submitting the way she does, in trying to please the people who abuse her. She reads accounts from slaves, how they constructed a face to hide behind, a neutral expression their masters could project whatever they liked upon, and carefully does the same. “The facade,” she calls it when talking to her best friend, the only person who sees her without it.
Settling her features into the facade is simple – a twitch of the nose and mouth that realigns her expression, the kind of thing you’d do to adjust your glasses. It produces a fixed, dead-eyed look that she can sustain through hours of browbeating. There’s no joy in it, and no interest – the best her parents get from her most days is silent, sullen submission. They try – they drag her out of her room regularly, sit her down in the living room, and stare at her with a greedy, demanding eye while she listens to something on the stereo. What frustrates her is that she does like most of their music. She just never, ever likes it enough. She doesn’t think it’s possible to like it enough. It’s as if they expect her to transform after each song, to begin ringing in harmony with it maybe, or change color.
“Well? Weren’t you listening?”
“I guess you think it’s all just bullshit, huh.”
“See if we ever try to include you in anything again, god.”
“Nah, you don’t give a shit, we’re just trying to share something with you, whatever, right? Go be a teenager, go on, go pout in your fucking room. Aren’t you grounded?”
Ava learns what they want, over time. They want the same thing the teachers at school want: “Restate the lesson in your own words.” They want her to rapturously parrot whatever they say, but repeating word-for-word what she’s told gets her slapped – they say she’s mocking them. So she becomes an expert at knowing what to say, capable of an extemporaneous rant that leaves strangers gaping and friends laughing, the girl who can talk any teacher or parent out of a rage – except her own, of course.
She can’t talk to them at all. She feels it all the time, like a timer that begins ticking the moment she enters the visual range of her parents. This timer goes down each second, but it also goes down an extra second for every word she speaks. Sometimes it goes down by chunks and jumps all on its own, for no reason she can see. Sometimes it’s wrong. But it’s always, always there. And when the timer runs out, something bad happens.
They don’t like her face, and they don’t like her silence, but it protects her fragile things – the few things she lives for. A few minutes a day, a place or a sound or a person, that frees her and gives her space. Like the sound of the mourning doves. Like the smell of the creosote bushes after it rains. Like taking the trash out at night.
She carefully closes the screen door behind her – they don’t like slamming doors. She keeps her head down, her shoulders tense, until she clears the back of her mother’s car, which blocks the view of the yard from the living room window. There’s about ten feet of driveway that can’t be seen from the house, and she can see the sky from there. She sets the trash bag down and looks up.
The moon is white and flat like a paper plate, and the night is clear. Ava tastes the air, cooler than the house, sweeter. It feels pure in her mouth, and she takes great gasping breaths for a moment as she lets her shoulders fall from around her ears. Like she’s been drowning for hours. Sometimes tears cross her face. She stares at the moon, or the stars, and listens to the sound of traffic, and thinks about the other world that isn’t this place, a new world where she could be anyone at all, where she could disappear. A world where for just a minute no one is watching and waiting for her to fuck up.
She doesn’t stay out there long. Taking out the trash should take five minutes, and she can stretch it near to ten before anyone will trust their sense of time enough to question it. Turning away from the road, the moonlight, the other world, she twitches her nose and mouth like a rabbit and the walls close around her again. The naked need falls out of her face so quickly it should shatter at her feet. By the time she’s tossed the trash in the dumpster the tears are gone from her face. Her eyes never redden or swell – she’s spent so much time in the mirror with Clear-Eyes, practicing this emptiness, that now she can cry for whole minutes and you’d never know.
She walks back to the house slowly, and takes a deep breath before she goes back in. Someday she won’t have to go back in. It’s a promise she’s been making to herself often, since she was very small. She makes it again as the mourning dove calls her back into the sunshine, into her grown-up body, into the end of April, 2011, where she stands leaning against her car on the border of Kansas and Colorado. Behind her are two states and the city they left yesterday, and her family, who made it clear that this willful flight was the final insult they’d take from their prodigal. You can’t quit, you’re fired!
In front of her is a stretch of hills that rises steadily and never stops until it reaches a sharp-edged, ferocious mountain range, the same one she remembers from a different angle. Living in the plains makes her uncomfortable, agoraphobic, makes it hard to navigate. The light pours down the hills like paintings of very Elysium, and she feels a wild, leaping joy that makes her laugh and cry at the same time. For the first time in twenty-six years, she feels free.
It’s the end of that world. I never have to go back in.
She’s dashing the tears from her eyes when her boyfriend returns, holding out a sandwich.
“Are you okay?”
The dove calls out another spate of tears and she grins, squinting up at him through rainbow splinters of sun in her eyes. “Yeah, I’m good. Thanks. Let’s go – I think we can make Denver before the sun sets, and I want to drive through that view.”