I drove across the Wabash River to my friend Lesha’s attic apartment. It must have been April or early May. It was midafternoon, and the plan was to get stoned with her next-door neighbor and then drive to Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area to watch the migrating Sand Hill Cranes. Our first year of graduate school was coming to a close.
Lesha was a poet. I was enthralled with short fiction, but both of us were burnt out and missing home. We were in search of wonder, hence passing a bowl. We had to do so quickly before another friend joined us. This friend was smart and artistic, but also straight-laced and raised by deeply religious parents.
When she arrived she had on a dress shirt, a long lion tamer’s tuxedo jacket that I later bought from her for $2.00. She had no idea we were stoned, although we all piled into Lesha’s red car slowly and awkwardly, moving trash as needed, trying hard to act normal. When we pulled up to the red light on our way out of town, we came even with a police car. We held our breath. “Shit,” Lesha murmured.
Our sober friend asked, “What?”
“Ah, nothing,” Lesha said with her Arkansas drawl. We all looked straight ahead until the cop turned off, and I felt guilty, my eyes concealed behind sunglasses.
In an hour’s time, we stopped at a darkened restaurant. On the wood sided wall I sat closest to was a photograph of James Dean, kneeling with his high school basketball team. It was him, but before—before acting and fame and being caught like a fly in amber on those celluloid frames. I wanted to press my face up to the glass and kiss him, his young teenaged face, and I would feel this way again, a good year later at Graceland, two days after Lesha’s wedding, outside at the stone marker commemorating Elvis’ twin brother, Jesse—struck by our human frailty, the urge to soar away from where we are so defined. From home.
And knowing the home of my body was just a body. A frail body. My grandfather was slowly dying of lung cancer. Now, I looked at this young kid, before he was Hollywood James Dean, back when he was a boy in Indiana, knowing his outcome, and felt a dry sob lodge in my throat. We ate, unimpressed by food I can’t even remember now.
We left the restaurant. We drove to the DNR, following a rural paved road, trees cascading over and above. It was what my husband called the pink hour. The number of cars surprised us. I did not know what to expect, and when we clamored out of the car, we heard the cranes before we saw them. Their purring, whirring call that rose and fell in the same manner of cicadas. We took the ramp up to the look out. Only our sober, well-dressed friend had brought binoculars. I didn’t need them. I was struck still by the number of them in the low wetland, some on one leg, their wings fully extended and flapping, others rising in flight seemingly as packs. The light fell over them like a silk sheet, and we were quiet, watching them, listening. I leaned against the railing, forgot about the twenty or so people looking through binoculars.
In mere weeks, Lesha would return to Arkansas, and I would return to Illinois, following the route I could drive in my sleep, sometimes thought maybe I had, return to my husband, the bed we shared. I had driven home most weekends, my first year, but I knew that next year, I wouldn’t do it as much. I wanted to root myself in the program, in my work. I was tired of living in two worlds and wanted to know intimately, beyond the classroom, the one I spent all week in. Lesha would hate Indiana’s winters too much, and the following year would be the last she spent living there.
Later still, we’d share our MFA thesis reading celebrating program completion, and I’d be at her wedding. Two years after graduation, she’d fly to Illinois, six months pregnant, to hold my infant daughter. We would find ways to call out to one another in the decade and a half after grad school. We were rooted in the same way to place—through the twisted roots of our families, the complications of the loves we’d bound ourselves to, discovering what commitment really meant, what motherhood actually required, how to whittle a space in it all where we could speak honestly the things that we couldn’t tell anyone that inhabited the state we actually lived in.
But in the moment, she simply stood beside me, silent, and we took it in together: the scarlet heads of the cranes aflame, the ferociously beating wings, how they all seemed to sing in one strange, alien voice of the wonder we would try to find words for, that we prayed wasn’t lost on us.
Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University. Her most recent work is forthcoming or appearing in Per Contra Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Watershed Review, and Text Magazine. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack. When she isn’t writing, reading, or teaching, she can be found walking her beloved dog, Banjo, or engaging in literacy activism and radical optimism. She can be found at barbaraharroun.com.