IF YOU STAY: IF YOU stay, it will kill you. You will wither, shrink, shrivel up like a slug in salt. Your brain will leak out your ears if you hear Braden Jenkins call Owen Meany a faggot one more time, his desk just far enough away to be out of physical reach. Not that you could ever swing for him. But you picture it, over and over, your slender fingers connecting with his moon-surface face. His cheeks are pocked with acne scars, and his rumpled canvas shirt carries the full-mouthed tang of manure. Puffy purple bags hang beneath his small eyes. He milks the dairy cows before school. His family farm neighbors yours. Neighbor is a relative term in flat Jesusland, Kansas, but they live near enough that you once staggered against a bitter plains wind for three miles to knock on the Jenkins’ red door because your mom needed a jump for the old Bronco dead in the snowy drive. You know his Pop is the reason for the little bald spot above his left ear, a shiny pink patch of skin that never grows over. You want to drive your sharp-nailed index finger right into the center of it. But you do nothing, just as your English teacher does nothing, turning away without even a flinch.
If you leave: you will soar like a purple-sheened raven, seeing everything from the highest possible vantage. You will trade your three summers of Dairy Queen earnings for a crumpled bus ticket. You’ve never been east of a freshman volleyball tournament in Derby, but you pop a couple stolen Dramamine and fall asleep with your head swaying on your denim backpack. You wake up before dawn to a Black man humming “Ring of Fire” in the seat across from you. An inky rush of trees blur by under the orange glow of a new sun. These are unfamiliar trees—taller and fuller than the shadeless scrub brush that would pass for the term back home. You count license plates: sixteen Ohio, fourteen Indiana, three Tennessee and one shockingly turquoise New Mexico. The bus lurches off the interstate in Columbus, Ohio for lunch at a Wendy’s. You lick grease and salt from your dirty fingers, letting the humid air wrap itself around you like a lonely cat. Buildings will get taller and cars will divide and multiply like cells, and you take three more Dramamine to get through rush hour outside of Philadelphia. Finally you see the skyline you’ve spent your whole life memorizing from movies and fuzzy episodes of Friends through rabbit ears. You bounce in your seat, too naïve to hide your excitement. You’ll learn to act cool. You’ll learn to smoke cigarettes on brownstone stoops. You’ll learn everything.
If you stay: Betty loves to talk shit. She makes it look good too, little mean words dripping from her frosted pink lips. Eavesdropping on Betty is like biting into birthday cake and finding battery acid. You don’t speak to her for three years, not until the summer before senior year, the summer it rained every day until the fields ran with mud. By then you know her tics, her little routines. She preens after fourth period in the girl’s bathroom by the defunct pool. She uses L’Oréal Paris Magic shampoo, which you only discovered because your mom finally let you drive to the new Target forty miles away. There it was—the lingering smell of Betty in an overly fluorescent makeup aisle. You sniff each colorful bottle until you find the one that matches the wake she leaves behind in the first floor hallway. Your lockers are only two apart. “Hey, Shakespeare,” she says to you one day, out of the blue, because you made the mistake of winning a poetry contest sophomore year. Her blonde hair waterfalls over her bone-white shoulders. She is delicate and nail-hard at the same time, with an ear-piercing frequency of recklessness. “Wanna drive with us tonight?”
Fireworks explode in your head, but you only nod and shut your locker gently.
She doesn’t tell you when or where to be, but she’s in the passenger seat of Rob Carson’s navy Taurus after school. Rob lays on the horn and laughs when you jump and turn and nearly trip over your sandaled feet.
“Why are we taking Miss Princess out to the ball tonight?” Rob jerks the car forward as you buckle your seatbelt in the backseat.
“Because she’s bored.” Betty snaps her gum and you shudder like you’re caught bare-assed at the library. Suddenly you are terrified of what else she might know about you.
Rob drives the tawny roads with abandon, no goal in mind except to repeat big directionless squares around the farmland. He cranks his trashy music so loud that the windows quake with each pulse of distorted synth bass. Betty hands you a warm beer, which you drink so quickly that a thunderous belch escapes your lips.
“Ha!” Rob shrieks. “Princess has some manners!”
Your face is on fire and Betty laughs in the front seat, her thin shoulders shaking. “I like it. She’s got pipes.” Betty turns around and winks at you, so quick and confident and straight-out-of-a-movie that you are paralyzed against the soda-stained cloth seat.
The three of you kill a case of beer. When Rob finally pulls over and Betty talks you through your first cigarette, giggling while you choke haplessly on the hood of his car, you think maybe you’ve never been this happy in your whole life. And when Rob takes Betty’s face in his hands and smashes his wet lips against hers, you freeze. He makes it look violent. The first star of the evening pops up over the Garrison’s corn silo, and you rearrange your face and act like this was the plan all along.
If you leave: you scratch your cornea putting on fuchsia Chromaflakes in the dim bathroom. Your roommate Jesamyn walks you to CityMD on the corner, taking swigs from the silver flask meant to last you through a night of sneaking into clubs. Jesamyn plays with your hair and promises to bedazzle the eyepatch you need to wear for 24 hours. She offers to help pay for the doctor’s visit, since gluing glitter to your eyelids was her idea. You’ve become sisters, forged in the fire of savage barista jobs and getting lost in Fulton Station and barely making rent. You can’t afford school, but you get a job at the Starbucks across from Washington Square. Through concentrated effort, you slowly befriend the black-clad NYU students who seem like they’d be writers, so self-serious when ordering their Americanos and triple cappuccinos. You plan to lie and say that you’re a student too, but they never ask. They think you’re cute, with your flattened vowels and “The Wizard of Oz” origins. They call you Dorothy. One day you show up to work with your dark hair in pigtails. If they can be a parody of themselves, why can’t you? You start slipping them free shots and in turn they bring you books: Middlesex and Cloud Atlas and The Idiot.
You don’t end up smoking on brownstone stoops because your other roommate Jonathan, a charge nurse at Elmhurst, “has seen too many damn holes in people’s throats.” The three of you snuggle on the ratty couch at home in Cypress Hills and watch The Bachelor and drink champagne so cheap it’s probably just hustled white grape juice. The bachelor in question is a farmer from Iowa, and you watch your roommates’ eyes tear up with laughter at the Hollywood version of the life you didn’t choose. You think of your mother, playing bridge with her friends and letting the hamburger meat brown a little too long in the pan. Suddenly your head aches.
But here no one questions the ever-growing stack of books by your frameless mattress, or when you buy a beater guitar and start learning chord shapes from a flaxen-haired theater student named Belle. No one raises an eyebrow when you start showing up to parties together. She wears white tank tops, even in the winter. You buy a lot of flannel from the Salvation Army. She cries easily, and her sentimentality annoys you. In your uncharitable moments, you believe she is weak, like a fluffy baby bird. But she has something that you don’t: she will grab your hand anytime she feels like it, anywhere in the city, without a second thought. Her smile breaks right through you, like sun boring through clouds, and you can’t help but smile back. Isn’t this easy? she seems to ask with her every move, and mercifully she never pays attention long enough to hear you say no.
If you stay: you fuck up. You go to the gay bar with Celeste. She’s been begging for weeks.
“You’re not from here. You don’t get it.” You have no intention of ever going, but Celeste has her ways. She is beautiful, masculine in her stateliness, but you never tell her anything you like about her. You feel guilty for all the things you can’t say, so you cave and wear Carhartt’s and a scowl all the way into town. You push open a banged-up door and pay five dollars for two shots and two beers under the neon glow of a Budweiser sign. A cold draft seeps through the cinder block walls. Despite yourself, you start to have a good time. Celeste plays Shania Twain on the old-school jukebox and people trickle through the door, laughing and bickering. You throw back tequila like it’s Kool-Aid and dance on the hay-strewn concrete floor until your feet throb. Celeste moves like water against you. You feel others’ eyes on her. You bite her ear and she yelps, grinning.
When you wake up the next morning in your childhood bed, mouth dry as snakeskin, your parents are waiting for you in the kitchen.
“Did you know?” your mother screams at your father. He says nothing. He won’t look at you. You manage to choke out who told you. Blue-flowered tiles swim in your vision. You stand up to wash the dishes, to have anything else to look at. You scrub a plate so hard it shatters in your hand. Blood runs into the drain, lipstick red.
“Luke Parker was working at Blue Cowboy … said he saw you and some … some tall girl ….”
Your parents don’t kick you out, but they don’t say a single word to you for weeks. Silence fills the house like sarin gas. You go full-time at the dental office, answering phones and organizing patient files. Celeste calls and texts and emails in a torrent of confusion and hurt feelings until suddenly she doesn’t. Relief feels even worse. Becoming a ghost is heavier than you imagined.
If you leave: you’re still not very good at guitar, but it gives you a place to put your words. No one looks up from their phone when you shiver in front of a germy microphone for the first time in the crowded corner of a Queens coffee shop. You get through your one song, fucking up the D7 every time it comes around, even though you played it perfectly three hours ago to a beaming Jesamyn. You’re a terrible hack, whose idea was this? But the second it’s over and one guy in the back gives you a few flaccid claps, you boomerang right back around into planning the next one. Open mics give you somewhere to go midweek, somewhere other than green-frocked hell and your tic-tac box apartment, so you keep showing up. You find friends, beautifully weird friends that feel like a fresh box of oil paints. You can’t sleep at night anymore. Sometimes you stare at the plaster ceiling until four in the morning, the fleet of above-ground trains shivering your window as they rattle by. You remember the man humming “Ring of Fire.” If you hadn’t climbed on that diesel horse a few years ago, you’d still be drawing with lead pencils on paper bags.
If you stay: you’ll “bloom where you’re planted,” a menacing phrase that has haunted you since childhood. The quip is so revered in your home that it’s embroidered and framed by the front door, next to little green fuzzy yarn shrubs and a pleasantly stitched red house. You’re the target, centered and shot at each time you step outside.
Only later, after enough shifts at the dental office to pack your things in a few U-Haul boxes and take an apartment at Tanglewood Heights down the road, do you wonder if maybe you had it wrong. Maybe it was an invitation. Maybe it was a plea. Maybe it was never about you. All four of your grandparents’ headstones are within six miles of the house. Your mom still puts her hair in rollers each night and pours herself a fingernail’s worth of rum to last through her favorite network cop dramas. You talk about the weather and the crop season and the ravaging drought. You pack your inner world tightly inside, bubble-wrapped and triple duct-taped, but sometimes you get sucked into the cop shows too, and you paint your toenails purple on the edge of the faux-velvet sofa. On moving day, your mother’s parting words to you are “pay your rent on time.” But she hands you a week’s worth of food in stacked Tupperware containers. Instead of a couch or a dining table or forks, you buy a scratched black guitar from the pawn shop. You sit cross-legged on your empty carpeted floor and play until your fingers bleed. Being alone feels like breathing.
If you leave: “She doesn’t get it! Like, maybe if she tried harder I could understand, but she just watches Netflix all night and then wonders why she can’t keep up on any of the bridges. Like she thinks if she knows the chorus, then she’s good for the whole song. Jesus. It’s maddening.” You slam your beer on the table and a riptide of foam leaves your hand wet and sticky. You’re deeply drunk. You’re at the Bitch Bar. Not it’s real name, but the indigo-lit spot on 14th where you and Jesamyn meet once a week or so to catch up. She lives in Bed Stuy with some coworkers. She’s nodding in all the right spots, but her dark eyes are fixed on her plum-colored nails tapping against the table.
“Moral of the story,” you say with an imaginary wave of a conductor’s baton, “don’t sleep with your bass player. Even if she looks like Natalie Portman.”
“Yeah, okay.” Jesamyn digs in her pocket and lays her credit card on a dry cocktail napkin. Your head is pleasantly stuffed with tissue paper.
“What’s that for?”
“I’m gonna go.”
“Go? We just got here. What’s wrong with you tonight? You’re being weird.”
Toweringly skinny girls in tight black dresses tottle around the dance floor. You snort because they look like little girls who raided their mom’s stash of stilettos. Are we all that small? Every inebriated thought feels extremely important, extracted from sage depths typically off-limits to your sober self.
“You’re blitzed. And you’re a fucking asshole.”
You blink, surprised and somewhat titillated by the sudden confrontation.
“I’m still into Carmen, Jesus. I just wanted to vent a little.” Taking the Lord’s name in vain never gets old for you, a little sugar bomb of freedom every time. Sorry, mom, you think, raising a mental middle finger. You kill off the remnants of your beer.
“Oh, fuck off. Not to Carmen. To me. You have no idea, do you.” It’s not a question. Jesamyn’s record-disc eyes start to shine. “Why do you think I moved out? Really?”
Your eyes narrow in effort. What had she said? A good deal on a place … closer to work ….
“Better view of the skyline,” you mutter. Bitterness creeps into the space between the two of you like a bay fog. Tears spill over Jesamyn’s thick eyelashes. She is dazzling. You’ve always known that.
“I fucking love you, okay?” But Jesamyn says it like a dirge. You think maybe for a nanosecond that this time could be different. There must be a crack in the stone for her somewhere. You’ve been through so much together. She is your very favorite person. But you trust her so completely that the look on her face reveals the end of the story: I love you is no different than goodbye.
If you stay: your edges have softened like butter left on the counter. You wake up at five on Sunday morning. You re-tune your guitar four times before the first service. The tiny church office is an incinerator. You strip off your puffy coat and blink rapidly, trying to induce moisture back into your eyes.
You play each worship song lightly, fingers dancing over the frets. You pay half-attention to the service, letting the pastor’s words float pleasantly over you like summer clouds. Your neck is always tense, but there’s a fireside warmth here that you don’t mind holding your hands up to. When the service is over, you pack up your guitar and find Mary waiting for you by the front door, chatting pleasantries with Earl McNair. You put a hand on her shoulder and she smiles. Earl nods, not unkindly, but he walks away quickly with a heavy plough step. You swallow a little dime of panic, but Mary is the bloodrush after a deep massage. She settles you down. In return, you make her laugh and feed her undercooked spaghetti and sing old punk songs together in the apartment you still pay for on time. You let her drag you to charity events around town, including a now-infamous Russian Roulette bake sale that included exactly one weed brownie. Mary organizes a flagship Pride parade, and you sleep in restless fits for weeks leading up to the date. But when the day comes it’s a perfect June afternoon, honey-colored and breezy, and there’s no parade, just a lovely group hang in the small park downtown. There is laughter and Sheryl Crow songs, hummus and stone-ground wheat crackers. There is a tincture of healing in shared understanding. Even born with flatland dust in your mouth, you can still spit it out and sing.
If you leave: a different bus this time. No ticket required, just years of underpaid shows and hellacious tenacity from your management team. You’re opening for a dude band, Dawes wannabees, but they’re fun and talented and rowdy. They are boys on the playground, shoving and farting and cackling, but you are one of them now.
The shows are magic—white-hot stage lights and attentive audiences and bad cables and cold Pilot coffee. You’re in a masterclass of road life. You soak up every moment, gifted with the rare occurrence of knowing how special something is while it’s still happening.
You should have been prepared, but somehow it sneaks up on you. The Kansas City Folk Festival. An impossibly blue summer day of kids chewing salted pretzels big as their face and sweat dripping down your back as you chug a lager in the artist tent. You’re talking fast, hopped up on espresso, when your eye catches a big farmer’s hand waving from the street. Your dad’s bald head gleams in the sunshine. You wave back. Happiness crashes into anxiety, percolating with your over-caffeination in a nauseating boil. You talk to your folks once a month, but they’ve never seen you play. You don’t know if they saw the press you received for making Rolling Stone’s list of “Five Best New Queer Country Artists.” They’re going to hear your quasi-hit single “Kate,” written three days after you met your current girlfriend. And even if they’ve already heard the song, now you’re going to have to get through the regrettably detailed lyrics while trying not to make eye contact.
But a few hours later, when the opening riff begins and the sun has lowered to a cooled amber glow, you actually search for their faces in the crowd. You stare at their impervious Midwestern expressions as each note rips from your mouth. You take the slight upturn of your father’s mouth and your mother’s better-than-usual posture as possible evidence of parental pride. They decline your invitation to visit in the artist tent after your set, but before they make the four-hour drive home, your dad claps a hand on your shoulder and says, “Well … good job, kiddo.”
Later you crawl into your swaying bunk as the bus heaves towards Denver. Tomorrow you’ll sing somewhere new.
Lucciana Costa is a musician and writer who splits her time between Nashville, TN, and Killington, VT. She and her partner are the musical duo King Margo. She is currently working on her first novel, and snowboarding, hiking, and rock climbing as much as possible.