I have a terrible sense of direction, the place cells in my hippocampus misfiring or not firing, or maybe, not even there. I get lost in towns where I’ve lived for years. Turned around in an instant. Even with a GPS, I need a back-up. A cross-check. Because if there’s a glitch in a meeting of highways that frazzles the GPS system, an outdated map, or an instruction to go north, south, east, west, I’m utterly lost. Folded, paper maps are useless to me, decorative. Printed written directions are necessary, to be read first, before following the GPS. It feels shameful, this inability to take myself from place to place. The panic and fear of being lost. It is childlike, and I am not a child. I am at the very end of Cape Cod, in Provincetown, preparing to drive south. I’m hoping that with a phone GPS, and an outdated mounted GPS, and written directions, I will find Florida. I will make it to Atlantic Center for the Arts, where I’d been in residence many times, been on the staff, and returned over the years to teach in the teen writing program, and to write. And where I am now being welcomed back for a writing retreat.
I’m living in a studio apartment in Provincetown’s West End, given to me for the fall and early winter by friends, Beth and Kiki. I’d been traveling for three years, teaching and living in residency programs across the country, to research and write a book about home. Where is home? What is it?
I print out a TripTik from AAA. But my printer ink is almost gone, and I can’t really see the little maps. Printed Google Maps direction are light too. Hard to see where I’m going. Packed all my paper before printing the directions, but I find flyers Kiki made advertising her body sculpting classes. A former bodybuilder, her black-and-white photo on the flyer is so defined it’s like one of those maps of the human body showing all the muscles. Biceps, triceps, pectorals. Obliques and quadriceps. Usually red-orange in diagrams, the texture of tightly-woven basketry. But here is a living woman being strong. I print my driving directions with Kiki on the opposite side. Lug the printer under one arm down the attic stairs to the long boat-like landing painted robin’s egg blue, another flight of stairs, out the back door of the house. Shimmy it into the back of the jeep, among the books. Slam it shut. Everything fits somehow. High winds, but fair, a seventy-five-degree late June day. A day for arriving, not leaving.
I can’t get the jeep checked out at Pete’s repair shop. A sign on the door: “Family Emergency.” It’s been up since yesterday, says a boy in a garage next door. And Pete’s sciatica has been acting up, the boy says. Well, I had an oil change in Connecticut this month, had the tires checked. Now, I buy a jug of coolant at a convenience store. Try to pour the green liquid into my jeep’s plastic reservoir, just in case. It’s getting hotter, sun high. A man watches in a black SUV parked beside me. Does it matter if it spills?
You need a funnel, he says. But it’ll be okay, it’ll burn off. Where are you going?
Florida? He laughs long and quiet. By yourself? He could see the passenger side full with my red suitcase. He looks toward the back of my jeep. You’ve got a lot of books in there. His speech and laugh seem to not quite end, spooling out as if considering something. I don’t answer. Close the hood. I am driving over a thousand miles by myself. It might be best not to tell strangers everything.
Before I leave, I phone my parents. Stay the first night in the last city in Connecticut, my mom says. But what city is that?
It’s not the last city, but I do stay in Connecticut, finding a hotel after driving only four hours. My first day. It seems extravagant, stopping so soon. But I’m grateful to be here, near Mystic–somewhere familiar. I grocery-shopped here during my residency, visited the seaport museum.
Day two, I head for New York and the Tappan Zee Bridge which I have been told I must find. Though my outdated GPS and my iPhone GPS both insist on the George Washington Bridge. Which means going through NYC. No, no, my parents had said. Whatever you do, don’t do that.
When I phoned a friend to tell her my driving plan, she said, Whatever you do, don’t go on the Bronx Expressway. Hell on earth. I can only find my way with the GPS, can’t improvise. Can’t cross-check the TripTik while driving. It’s a big sign for Tappan Zee, my mom said. But at the last rest stop in Connecticut, a woman behind the counter says, Take exit 21 for Tappan Zee. It’s easy. I do. It does say Tappan Zee and White Plains. But no bridge appears. Just drive and drive until the GPS recalculates me toward the George Washington Bridge, and with horror, I read the sign I am approaching: Bronx Expressway, Hell on earth.
There is no sign that says: If you can’t handle it, turn this way. There is nothing to do, but go forward. Or give up, go back. But where, to what? I keep going, straight into it. I hear my friend Nick’s voice: Okay, be scared, but you still have to do it. In front of me, a line of trucks spirals up. A vehicular circle of hell. Panic attack building the higher I go. Purgatory smoke rising, bumper to bumper. It takes my breath. I normally drive in beach towns, not major cities, on expressways. But people do this all the time. Why am I falling apart? The whole way up, down, I make myself breathe. Here’s air, here’s my friend Larry’s calm voice: You can make it. Here’s a prayer, here’s me turning all of this over, with my hands on a black steering wheel flaking hot bits of rubber against my fingertips. Rising up with all the others.
A man stands to the left of all the cars with a cardboard sign. How did he get up here? Did someone drop him off? If I were the person I want to be, I would at least unroll my window, give him my bag of tangerines. Too afraid to take my hands off the wheel.
And then I’m on the George Washington Bridge, a suspension bridge over the Hudson River to New Jersey. A cat’s cradle, riding on the strings. Two weeks before, Harold Olivares jumped from this bridge. I’ll read this in a newspaper when I later do an internet search on the bridge, to understand where I’ve been. He was a forty-nine-year-old man who lived in the Bronx. He left a 1998 Taurus parked at the top of the bridge. It was the same day two tractor trailers hit each other head-on up here and killed one of the truckers. Before or after, Harold Olivares got out of his car, and jumped from these strings. In a movie, the actor Jeremy Irons grabs the girl in the red raincoat before she jumps off the bridge. But Harold fell. The bridge towers 604 feet above the water. Remind myself to keep breathing. As if I am a separate person trying to keep another calm.
Over the long bridge, into the hand of the New Jersey Turnpike, at first just a heaven of flat road, blue sky. Held there, my body calms. I exhale. Peaceful until all the cars jam together. Then the shaking begins. Oh no, only day two on the road. I’m only through Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. My jeep shakes as if the doors will all fly off, hood rise up and clank to the roadside. As if the steering wheel itself will come off in my hands. So that I’ll be driving nothing, as in a make-believe scene in a movie. No no no. Over so soon. Why did I think I could drive this old jeep for twenty hours down the East Coast? My hands shaking, arms shaking, legs shaking. All of me, all I have with me. Surrounded by lanes of bumper to bumper cars. I cross to the far right lane, head for the breakdown lane. Insist my way between other stuck drivers creeping along. And then, it stops. The shaking stops. Released or calmed. The jeep makes its slow way with the others.
I keep going. In the hotel at the exit, I find that Delaware has child baseball teams. Boys everywhere, transfixed before TV screens in the lobby. Expensive rooms. So, I drive on, through Baltimore. Signs say a tunnel is ahead: Fort McHenry. So many weaving roads surrounding it, like another planet. At the toll, I ask, Is the tunnel very long? I’m claustrophobic in tunnels, enclosed spaces. Can’t even drive a car into a car wash. Panic in parking garages, desperate for any window, square of light.
The toll taker laughs gently, No, she says. Windowless, like a tomb, like being buried underground. Not far, not far, I say to comfort the suffocated girl in me. The girl who died. Not far. Is that light, is that sun and sky? Or lighting around the corner? It’s the way out. Breathe breathe breathe. Fort McHenry goes underneath Baltimore Harbor. The tunnel is the lowest point in the Interstate system under water. Underground because it’s underwater. That’s why no windows. They would have looked out on water.
I drive in an underwater tunnel. One and half miles. Lights bedroom dim. At its lowest level, 107 feet below the harbor water surface. I do not know this at the time. Getting late, though not yet dark. Can I make it to Silver Spring? That sounds nice. My dad had said that when I saw a 2 or 4 before 95, it would take me around a big city. I am on a road around Washington, D.C., but crazy and jammed and fast moving. When night falls, the lights confuse me. I keep looking for a hotel sign, not knowing there aren’t any on this road. That I will drive and drive nearly to Fredericksburg, Virginia, before I see a hotel sign. Eight hours of driving. The farthest I’ve ever driven the jeep.
The next day, I have a hard time accelerating on small hills. I’m moving from static to motion, the drivers in their newer cars impatient with me trying to rev back up to fifty-five miles per hour. Overheat needle rises. Is this it? Will my jeep keel over here on the Washington, D.C. Beltway with no emergency lane? Hot, late afternoon. Feeder lanes from the left clog up the fast lane. An accident, motorcycle overturned. Man on the road, another man in a camouflage uniform bends over him. Sirens. An ambulance comes from behind for another accident. By the time we inch our way forward, the injured man is lifted, carried away.
Virginia is big. I sleep in Chester. I sleep in Lumberton, North Carolina, and Port Wentworth, Georgia. The many miles of uninterrupted driving trigger my dream panic of not being able to control a car. Trigger dissociation. Have to tap the brake to reassure myself I have the power to stop. This isn’t a dream. My limbs work.
I arrive in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Just after dark, I drive through the gate at Atlantic Center for the Arts. Drive the sand path around to the laundry room. Park and walk back into all that green. Everything waiting quietly for my return. The door of a corner unit left unlocked for me, gold key on the bedspread. It smells like the ocean even though the shore is three miles away. A white desk looks out on the woods outside my window, a sixty-nine- acre ecological preserve. I always breathe more easily here, as I do at the beach. These one-room apartments feel large to me, space made for writing, for something new.
Twenty years since I first came here. That sign I saw then: Artists at Work. The feeling that here I am an artist, and my writing is work. That this whole place is here to support our work. It is as if the trees themselves hold me, the atmosphere. I plan to stay a few weeks until I leave for Virginia. (While still in Provincetown, I sent a panicked last-minute application to a residency program in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Before I left for Florida, I received word that a space had miraculously opened up for me. Two months. When the director called to let me know, she said, You must be living right.)
In my room at Atlantic Center, looking at my blue photos of Provincetown makes me feel hollowed out. I wanted to stay. The Cape has always been home, the place where I’m from. Place of my childhood, my family. Though many of my relatives have died or moved away, I keep looking for them. Hear my uncle Dean in the voice of the man behind the fish counter at the Stop & Shop, see my grandmother’s powdery soft face in the lone woman passing me on the winter beach.
That night at the welcome dinner in Atlantic Center’s common room, I tell Jim, ACA’s co-director, about my two-month residency in Virginia. He says, Why don’t you come back after Virginia? Stay here until the new year. Okay, I say.
At my table, I meet the wife of a visiting composer. She tells me that a couple of years ago, she decided to do things she’d always wanted to do. Like fly in a biplane. She’d already gone up in a hot air balloon. As a kid she used to hear the balloons going over her house, with fire whispering, propellent. She wanted to go up too.
How do you land? I ask.
You can’t really plan it, she says. It depends on wind speed, things like that. You could land on a house. We almost landed on the corner of one. But somehow, they kept going and landed in a cornfield. No one had traveled the muddy road in fifteen years. A truck had to bring them out.
You weren’t afraid? I ask. You didn’t freak out?
She says, People who are too afraid think of things like, I’m in a wicker basket. But she didn’t focus on the mechanics. Or on possible disaster scenarios. Instead of thinking what could go wrong, she just let the balloon lift her up. Stayed in the experience, the feeling.
At dinner, her husband says, You have a long history here. Nick, the residency director, says,Kelle is many things to ACA. When I hug Jim, he pulls me closer and says, Don’t halfway hug me. I think of my uncle Dean’s memorial last May on the Cape, my cousin Gretchen turning to me as she left the restaurant: No one knows you like family.
It’s a kind of home, I say to the composer at dinner. They are a kind of family.
Kiki sends me an email to say I can move back into the loft apartment in Provincetown in October. Asks if I can start paying rent then. Last winter, the rent was waived, a gift from Beth and Kiki. I survived on a can of soup a day, noodles, some vegetables. If I made the food as hot and watery as possible, I felt less hungry. They’ve been so generous, their request so reasonable, but I’m still without a job. I can’t pay rent. I’ll have spent the money from a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship grant by then. I have to live as economically as possible, look for work in the new year.
I tell Kiki I’m scared to live in their Provincetown loft this coming winter, scared what it means to spend all my money on rent. Then have no job, no money, no place to live at the end of the land in winter. There is something helpless in that plan, an abdication. As if the chance to write in peace transcends my need to be alive. To take care of my physical self. What kind of work could I find in Provincetown in the winter? I belong in this body. I need to house it. But I’m not done with the book. I still don’t know where home is.
Atlantic Center has welcomed me for twenty years. Maybe it isn’t a kind of home, but a home. If the Cape is my home, and Atlantic Center is my home, maybe there’s another one somewhere. It’s the Fourth of July. Last night was the anniversary of my death.
In between my stays at Beth and Kiki’s loft last winter and spring, I had that four-month residency, January through April, in Connecticut. I was the sole resident of a historic house with an incredible library. I read and wrote. Snow fell and melted. I was feeling alive, sitting in the yellow room in the house. Harbor out the window. Prior to my poetry reading at the town library, a reporter called on the phone. Had read my memoir. I asked if we could talk about poetry. He ignored my request, wanted to talk about rape and murder. The male reporter mentioned my abduction, gang rape, attempted murder so casually in his article. He made the violence that happened when I was twenty-one years old the focus. As if I needed to be punished for writing about this. As if I wasn’t human because I wrote about this. Not the same as other people. As if I could be shamed into silence. Too late.
Once, a boyfriend’s mother said it was surprising I was still alive. Rape always the taking of something. A yellow field. When I read of my own body taken or of another’s, I’m emptied out. It’s automatic, filling with darkness. If I try to see through my attackers’ eyes, I think I should die. That I am nothing, a thing to be used. When I complained about the article to my contact at the Connecticut residency, she said, We don’t want anything salacious connected to us. Salacious. When rape is salacious, there is nowhere for me to go. When three men suffocated me until I stopped breathing, struggling, was that salacious, too? The newspaper article was printed just prior to my end-of-residency reading at the library. A man from town ran up the aisle to say, We know all about you now, laughing. As if I were a character, an entertainment.
When I was dying, I worried they’d throw my dead body in a dumpster, that I’d be ground up, compacted with garbage, those solid cubes. And no one would ever find me. They’d think perhaps I had run away.
During that Connecticut residency, I read newspaper articles about women who had been raped. And women raped who died. It has to do with making a person not a person, a man doing whatever he likes with the body, anything–he could eat her small finger or just bite right through to bone. Men carry a woman like a doll between them on a bus, in a cab, rape her in public. Last summer, a telephone operator was gang-raped for a month. Then, in August, these men found someone new, a photojournalist in an abandoned mill.
December 16, 2012, a twenty-three-year-old woman who was a physiotherapy intern rode a bus with her friend. Six others on the bus, including the driver, all of whom raped the woman for several hours and beat her friend. They used an iron rod on both of them. Bodies dumped from the moving bus, they were found by passersby. She died two weeks later. Her name was Jyoti Singh. My hand shakes writing that down. Like someone being shaken.
In December the year before, a sixteen-year-old girl was gang-raped. After she told authorities, the same men raped her again and set her on fire. The turquoise cloth that covered her body was mostly folds–her body beneath curled up like a child. A bag of fluids hung above her gurney. Surrounded on all sides by men who watched to see what she would do next. She died.. After her death, doctors learned that she was pregnant. At first, authorities said the girl set herself on fire. But in her dying statement, she said two of the men set her alight.
That spring in Connecticut, after I read these articles about other women raped, I had trouble driving too. My hands felt like they didn’t work, a dead girl’s hands. Remind my muscles I’m not a ghost, not full of darkness. Reattach my hands, my arms. Inflate my flattened lungs. My soul, which never left, turned lights back on. Outside the air smelled like gasoline. The boy in the deli couldn’t hear my voice, leaned closer. I tried to find it. On a drive with the poet Leslie McGrath, who befriended me in Connecticut, I learned the name for this. It’s disassociation, she said. In my search for home, I missed my own body. It’s the place I keep leaving, like a city, a town. As if, after being forced to give it up, I never settled back in.
In the years after I came back to life, I thought, This is all extra time. You can do anything. When I first came here twenty years ago, I’d been alive again for almost nine years; being respected as a writer felt like yet another birth. Where I could be who I most wanted to be, a writer.
This Fourth of July I drive from Atlantic Center to the ocean and walk on the hard sand, watch stars explode around me. I want to let myself be at home in this second life. Let the balloon lift me up. Alive. Breathing.
Kelle Groom is the author of I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl (Simon & Schuster), a Barnes & Noble Discover selection and New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice; and four poetry collections, most recently Spill. An NEA Fellow in Prose and 2020 Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellow in Nonfiction, Groom’s work appears in AGNI, American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, the New Yorker, New York Times, Ploughshares, and Poetry. She is on the faculty of the low-residency MFA Program at Sierra Nevada University, Lake Tahoe, and education director at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. “Interstate” is from her memoir-in-essays manuscript, How to Live.