Sean gets the idea like he gets all his ideas, big, out of nowhere. They’re making apple pie. The night before, Sean couldn’t sleep and painted his kitchen heinous orange, street-cone orange, and the whole loft reeks with fumes. A Fistful of Dollars is on, muted, and the soundtrack comes instead from the cassette player balanced on the precarious shelf above the sink—another insomniac project, and one day the whole thing will come crashing down into the piles of perpetually dirty dishes below. For the moment, though, it’s holding, and the mix tape Sarah made for Sean’s last birthday crackles to life. Sean throws his whole great presence up from his seat, half-peeled apple in one hand and paring knife in the other.
This is my favorite Eagles song! he roars, as if she didn’t know, as if she hadn’t put the song on this mix for that reason. The floor is littered with curls of apple peels, crushing to pulps under the heels of his boots. Sean is too big for the kitchen, he’s too big for everything, a giant ricocheting around the tiny orange kitchen wailing out the solo with his knife and apple.
Sarah is, for the moment, so in love with him, though she knows the feeling will pass. But that’s how this starts, and they roll out the dough with a half-empty bottle of Yellowtail, stealing sips in between, throwing flour and ignoring the recipe.
Later, on the couch, stuffed with terrible pie (too much maple syrup, too much cayenne pepper) and two more bottles of wine, after a few joints and a jolt of amphetamines to counteract the weed, they’re sprawled on the couch, and Clint is still doing his thing onscreen.
Let’s drive to Vegas and get married, Sean says, after a while. Her cheek is pressed to his chest, next to the bear claw pendant tucked into his shirt, and she’s shaking. She can’t tell if it’s the cold or the drugs.
Sarah doesn’t say she has to be around in case they call her in on Monday. It’s that time of year when everyone is getting sick, from the weather and the daily beating of life, and any given school has a long list of potential substitutes to call; Sarah’s only a name and number on that list, they don’t need her as much as she needs them. But she also needs a break, from this apartment and from thinking about how broke they are, how broke they will still be even if Sean could manage to keep a day job or if she got more than a couple substituting jobs a week. He is restless. They both are. Sarah can recognize it in his hands, they seek out the steel strings of his guitars with desperation, not confidence. He yanks and twists each one looking for release, and it does not come. His unease unsettles her. The road will settle them both.
“Okay,” she says.
They climb in the truck bleary-eyed. Sean’s hair is getting too long, he keeps wiping it out of his eyes with one big hand, the dirty curls tumbling nearly to the collar of his shirt. Sarah rolls down the window and lights a cigarette from the pack smashed up on the dash, next to the glued wolf figurine. A dreamcatcher spins under the rear view mirror, fragmenting the pattern of sunrise spreading up her thighs.
It’s quiet while they roll out of town. It’s still surprising how quiet Austin is, even after two years. She sees it mostly at night, rollicking through venues and dive bars and fighting through packs of hipsters smoking on sidewalks, and then it doesn’t seem so different from Brooklyn. Sean is a metropolitan ex-pat, too, moved from Brooklyn to find something more real. To find front porches and dust, rattlesnakes, bourbon whiskey passed around a table of good friends in a backyard on long summer nights. Instead, they found each other. It happened to be the first year in Austin for both of them, both moved from Brooklyn.
She asked for a cigarette, he was wearing sunglasses though it was nearing midnight, and she put hers on, too. He was outside to hide from a girl. She’d been hiding from her then-boyfriend for two weeks. She made him laugh, even though a year later she can’t remember how. She just remembers his laugh—big and wild and black as his beard.
He had a flask in his pocket filled with cheap whiskey, he invited her back to his apartment and they sat facing each other in dilapidated armchairs in their sunglasses listening to Born to Run on repeat. They were old friends immediately, and in love only a few minutes after that.
It began because of the music. That's what kept them together even at first, the morning after. She rolled herself out of bed before Sean was awake. Sarah had never been able to sleep well in someone else's bed; her jeans reeked of spilled beer and cigarette smoke, and she planned to get out as quickly as possible, to get home and pass out properly, but her shirt was lost somewhere in the violence of his room. So she stole one of his, it hung to her knees like a dress, and didn't bother yet with her boots. The morning was breaking gray and wet and cold, Austin in early March, and she smoked on the back porch with the sliding door open, one eye on his lair, skittish, wide-eyed with too little sleep. He never emerged. Instead, eventually, she heard the deep static of an old beloved record, and when she slid back in he was sitting in the midst of their mess of bed covers sorting through a box of vinyl, cigarette between his teeth.
I just had an idea for a song, he said, his black eyes glinting up at her for just a moment. But I think Neil Young already wrote it, and now I can’t find my copy of Zuma.
She stole the cigarette from his mouth and climbed back in bed, and he abandoned his hunt and dove for her instead.
Breakfast is a couple hundred miles west, outside of San Angelo. A Mexican joint open 24 hours, whitewashed adobe crouched in the brush and a young waitress with wide hips. Sean watches her ass wobble as she swings from the table to the kitchen. Sarah doesn’t mind. They eat $2 enchiladas, and linger.
So, Vegas, Sarah says finally, with a half-grin lurking in the corners of her lips.
Sean raises his hand for a high-five, and says, Fuck yeah, motherfucker. Are you ready to be Mrs. Burton?
High-fives are on their list of things to bring back, a collection of forgotten gestures and the unspoken theme is, the cheesier the better. The wink, the whistle, bandanas tied around one boot, the sax solo.
Sarah slaps his palm with hers and says, I want a prenup. When I leave you, I’m taking the Phil Collins poster and your Wilco vinyls.
He says, yeah right, no one touches the Phil poster, but signs the scrap of paper she tears from her napkin anyway, after she agrees to let him keep the dartboard. They’re both feeling better. The cheese has soaked up their hangovers, and the sun has warmed the dry earth to hard packed dust under their feet. She tucks the signed paper into the pocket of her jeans. It will, she guarantees him as she swings up the high step into the truck, hold up in court, no doubt.
The truck, named Cheval one night in burst of romanticization, is an old Chevy. Sean bought it with cash from a loan he’ll never be able to repay, ripped out the crammed back bench and nailed down a sleeping bag instead. Now the canyon behind the seats is a wasteland of rumpled, unwashed blankets—sheets browning with the grit of thousands of miles of road. The old blue paint rusts at every seam, bleeding copper orange and green, and the right side of the truck bed is crumpled inwards, a permanent battle scar from a side-swiping minivan on the New Jersey turnpike.
That accident happened last year. Sean was driving the miles alone—the rest of the band had packed gear and camaraderie into a cramped U-Haul for the drive, but Sean needed his solitude. He made it from Jersey back to Texas with a splintered wrist, let it swell to twice its size before he called Sarah and said, I think I should go to the emergency room. Come with me.
He put it off because with a cast, he couldn’t play, but with the pain he couldn’t play, either. Sarah knows, too, he put it off because he didn’t want to go alone.
They sat in the sterile purgatory for four hours, watching the inaudible news on battered televisions above. Some celebrity had died too young—neither Sean nor Sarah could name a single movie the deceased had made, so they mostly ignored it. After the waiting room, into a cubicle they were ushered by a young dark nurse. Sean flirted in his way, and the nurse didn’t get it—
Is this the final frontier? he asked with his perpetual smirk, the one he gets when he’s feeling clever. Are we the last of the Mohicans?
What? said the nurse, wrapping the blood pressure band around his huge arm.
Are we done waiting?
It wasn’t the final frontier. They spent another two hours waiting alone in the room, until the nurse wandered in again, looking half-surprised to find the cell occupied at all. She wandered out, forgot them, and returned eventually with the casting plaster looking just as surprised.
Sean wanted to know if he could have his hand free. He played guitar for his living, and couldn’t lose nine weeks for something so inane as a broken bone.
What kind of music do you play? asked the nurse. She was too old for her tan, and a faded mottled dove was tattooed on the inside of her wrist. It sagged on the drooping skin, where once it must have been stretched delicate and paper-tight.
Mostly sad country music. You know, he answered, looking at Sarah for reassurance.
And the nurse leaped into action while she wound the wet plaster around his arm, rattling out stories of her glorious youth, protests and black hands decaled in windows. Sean should get started, she declared, on his Big Project—Sean was 23, and that was ancient. Gram Parsons had died at 23, think about it.
Didn’t Gram die at 27? Sarah asked when they were alone again, helping Sean slide the sleeve of his jacket over the new cast. They grinned, and wandered out into the darkness in search of a drink.