Time has a way of running memories through the dryer one cycle too many, and sometimes they come out too small, or too stretched, or a bit faded. I can’t say with certainty where the reality of Catalina’s existence succumbs to the chimerical tint of hindsight, but her presence is always there, a fixed statue amongst the swampy fields of memory.
I lived about an hour west of Chicago when my father died, which put me firmly amongst the patchworks of corn and the endless stretches of two-lane roads that bisected them. Driving home after you’ve struck out on your own is a braid of the person you once were, your static recollection of a town that’s moved on without you, and yourself as someone who’s grown to fit a new mold. It’s a twisty sort of chest pain, both familiar and aching in equal measure.
It was early in the summer as I drove home for the funeral, and the corn was still short and green, as if entire acres of grass had simply leapt up a foot or two from the surrounding earth. If my father had died later in the summer or in the autumn, I might never have noticed Catalina.
She meandered down the berm, carving out an unrepentant space for herself. There was an orange flannel wrapped at her waist that flapped at her bare legs in the breeze. It was this small burst of waving orange that first caught my attention, but it was the way she peered over her shoulder at me that drew me. The simplicity of her, the freedom of her movement—the desire to embody her overcame me immediately.
There was no desperation in the way she jutted her thumb out. Pulling over satiated some nostalgic sort of craving, even though I’d grown up in the decades of stranger danger, past the heyday of hitchhiking. With only family I rarely spoke to and the town I didn’t recognize anymore to look forward to, the thought of cobbling together some sort of adventure held a rebellious sort of appeal.
She seemed to bring the countryside into the car with her. She shook out her hair, leaving a sweet, grassy scent around her, and wiped at the sweat that had gathered at the bottom edge of her sunglasses.
There was a casual confidence as she stretched out in the passenger seat of my Civic and described her trip to visit her brother in Montreal. This wasn’t someone who was used to being overlooked or cut off. Watching her, I forced my shoulders back into more of a slouch and dropped one elbow onto the edge of the window.
As I pulled back onto the road, intimately alone with a stranger, I couldn’t pick apart whether I was in love with her or in love with the idea of being her.
When I asked what her name was, she’d already angled herself towards the window, but tossed a smile over her shoulder at me as she said it. “Catalina.”
“Like the salad dressing?” I asked, and immediately regretted it.
We set a two-day schedule of driving, seven hours the first day and ten the next. When I think back on that first day, it’s like diving into a pool on a hot day. Though I can’t recall anything we said, or if we even spoke at all, the memory comes tinted with a weightless glory. Catalina’s presence was so certain, like a glowing jewel next to me. Even now I can look over and see her sitting in the passenger seat, skin glowing, bathed by the sun setting behind her, hair twitching in the air conditioning.
By the time we stopped for dinner, I longed to touch her radiant skin and to be rewarded with the unwavering gaze of her emerald eyes. I wanted to ask her to spend the night in bed together. I wanted to ask her to stay with me for the funeral.
Instead, I said nothing and we reserved two rooms, where I slept pressed to the wall, seeking out any stray breath of hers that might transcend the ruddy brown wallpaper.
The morning passed in much the same way the previous day had: long stretches of pleasurable silence through flat miles of highway. We were flying untouched, weaving with fluidity through double, even triple, hitched trucks, and bypassing billboards with 800 numbers to call for the TRUTH ABOUT JESUS and advertisements for car accident lawyers. None of it permeated our Civic of free release.
Catalina kept her head tossed back against the headrest, angled to watch the world pass with her messy mane of hair smashed into a pillow. The windows were up for the sake of the air conditioning, but her fingers twitched on the edge of the door, as if they were used to dancing in the breeze.
I found myself driving all morning just to prolong her languid lioness existence in my passenger seat.
After stopping for lunch, we found ourselves near a farmer’s market. Catalina didn’t ask, just reached out for my wrist and guided me towards the maze of stalls. Her hand was large and a bit clammy, but I would have followed her anywhere if only she agreed to keep holding on.
“It’s popular,” I said, pressing close amongst the smattering of shoppers. Catalina wanted to buy a nice loaf of homemade bread to bring to her brother, so we wove between stands, considering a loaf here and there. She brought them close to her face to inspect, as if she could smell them through the thin plastic bags, and hummed thoughtfully. They all seemed the same to me, so much so that my memories of each stall feature the same bread loaf, inserted over and over again, to be plucked up, assessed, and politely rejected.
By the time we found a suitable rye, the heat was beginning to get to me. I wiped at the sweat on my face with the collar of my shirt and stared longingly at each lemonade jug we passed.
“We should get going soon,” I said weakly, well aware that I wasn’t capable of anything more assertive than that.
Catalina blinked, as if coming out of an organic breads and jams-induced stupor. I must have cut a truly pathetic image, as her eyes went wide upon glancing back at me. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. Here…” She looked around, gestured for me to stay put, and floated off. That was the way she moved, buoyed on life, without rush regardless of the circumstance.
Okay, I thought, prepared to remain there, in the middle of a pedestrian intersection, being accosted by direct sunlight, until she returned, regardless of when that may be. As I waited, I began to conjure inconveniences we might encounter to prolong our journey. I had, at most, a matter of hours left with Catalina. We’d been driving without a map, how obvious was it that I knew the way by memory? Could we get lost? But there was always the possibility Catalina might hitchhike a ride with someone else if I delayed us too long.
“Here. An apology for taking so long,” Catalina said, pressing a small plum into my hand. This close, I could see the galaxies of freckles that spilled over her nose and across her cheeks. “Go ahead,” she said when I made no move to eat. She held up a matching plum and took a bite.
They were small plums, barely bigger than a golf ball, but they had a rich purple like the very tips of a crocus flower. I wasn’t aware you could grow plums around the area, but the unexpectedness of it added to my wonder, as though Catalina had reached into another dimension and fetched the ripe fruit just for me to taste. The skin of the fruit gave way, exposing equally dark flesh inside. I licked the juice off my fingers as I went, trying not to let even a single drop slip off to the ground. Catalina finished hers, rolling the pit around in her mouth to scrape the last bits off. I hesitated at my last few bites, overtaken by the impending end of our journey.
To prolong the moment, I said, “My dad died.”
Catalina hummed. “That sucks,” she said around the pit.
“It’s complicated, though.” It was easier to voice this here, in the buzzing afternoon energy of a farmer’s market, than it was when I explained to my few friends why I needed to go home. “He didn’t like me very much.”
Leaning over, Catalina spit the pit out into some dirt. She ran her tongue over her teeth to pull out any last stringy bits. “Well, you’re not required to love the dead.” Yawning, she gestured at me to finish up the last few bites. “Is that what you’re going back for? The funeral?”
“Yes.” I spoke quietly. It wasn’t so much that my father’s death required any great deal of grappling with on my behalf. I wasn’t bothered by her cavalier reception. Rather, I was disappointed that I had nothing more engaging to offer. I wasn’t an interesting person, and my father’s death was the most substantial contribution I had. Naturally someone like her would swat such a pedestrian overture away with ease.
“Well, I hope it’s a nice service,” she said as she wiped her hands on her jeans and began to lead us to the car. I shoved the end of the plum in my mouth and bit too directly into the pit, making my teeth hurt and nearly choking myself, before jogging to catch up.
She offered to drive the last few hours and I, with a stiff back and aching knuckles, agreed. This was a mistake. In the passenger seat, I had nothing to occupy me except the increasingly familiar terrain flying by. Catalina drove quickly, but not unsafely. She passed cars the way a river winds around rocks.
I feared to speak. A stilted conversation would be painful and demeaning to Catalina’s ethereal nature, but it’d be even worse if we struck up some great conversation. The time would really slip through my fingers then. I was frozen in my own passenger seat, unaware how to slow us down, how to catch the afternoon speeding by.
I wanted to be by her side forever. I want to be her forever. I began to draw together poetic scraps of phrases, cobbled together from movies I’d seen and books I’d read. A speech would do it. It’d be the perfect culmination of these two days, which had changed me in ways I couldn’t label. It wasn’t just her beauty, nor her casual grace. It was the magnetic pull she exuded, the eager way the sun caressed her. How could I move through life like that? How could I gain enough confidence to walk down a lonely berm strip in the cornfields and know, without worry or preoccupation, that someone would scoop me up and deliver me?
It was impractical to the point of rudeness to ask her to stay with me for my father’s funeral. I decided instead that I would blow off the funeral and follow her to Canada. We could travel like that together, untethered and uninhibited, until our youth brimmed with stories of our exploits that we could coast upon for the rest of our lives.
High on the vision I’d conjured, I longed to tell Catalina my plan immediately. Excitement was bursting in my chest like a sip of a fresh soda. I wanted to see her smile unfurl in that way of hers, the one that suggested she had been waiting for that very moment and was pleased for its occurrence. But the timing wasn’t right. Catalina had taught me many things already. I knew spontaneity would please her even more. I’d ask right as we arrived, as if the suggestion had only just occurred to me.
Catalina drove us to the bus stop near my hometown, where she said there was a bus that ran up into Canada. In the twilight, the blue at the tips of her hair appeared to be seeping higher as she moved. My fingers trembled at my side. Was it soft?
I climbed out of the car and met her at the trunk where she pulled out her backpack. My throat was dry to the point of pain.
“Thanks for the ride, I really appreciate it,” she said, looping her arms through the straps. My thoughts grew jumbled as my time seeped away. It was just the two of us, surrounded by buildings made featureless in the greying light of evening.
“And sorry about your father, dude. That really sucks.”
“Thank you. Listen, this drive—”
“It’s been really great,” she agreed, smiling. She felt the same. Thank goodness. Of course she understood.
“Yeah,” I said, fighting the urge to grab up her hands in mine. “All of this, it’s really meant a lot to me and—”
“Oh!” Her head jerked around as a bus pulled into the station. “That’s my bus! Thanks for everything.” She slapped the trunk closed and took off across the parking lot in a jog. Over her shoulder, she gave me a brief wave and a blinding smile.
I stood at the trunk until she disappeared up the steps. I sat alone in my car a long time after that.
TORI BISSONETTE (she/her) is a Vermont-transplant currently living in Philadelphia. There she teaches writing and sells ice cream. Presently she’s a editor for Page & Screen Magazine. When she’s not writing, she can be found hiking or cooking. Her work has previously appeared in The Writing Disorder and For Page & Screen Magazine. Connect with her on Twitter @RoseOfTori.