She’d known ever since she was tall enough to look herself in the mirror that she was going to leave. She would repeat it to herself, standing so close to the mirror that her lashes brushed her reflection: she would find a way out. This small town would not become the same prison it had become for her father, and she would never turn to the same bottle.
“I’m going to go out west” she told anybody who would listen, carrying her high school diploma in her purse as proof that she was no longer bound to stay.
The first time she noticed Ben was when she was busing home from work, her nametag pinned to the front of her striped shirt. The words “Carol’s Diner” was stamped across her visor, and a few strands of her red hair hung loosely around her face.
He swung himself into the seat next to her, and her eyes took in the khakis, the blue button-down shirt, his hair cropped into an extreme undercut and swept to the left. He held out his hand. She shook it and said, “Ellie.”
His voice was deep, and held within it a faint southern twang that spoke of things beyond the sleepy rain of the little town. He was passing through for a little while, to travel and explore the northeast before he moved out west to become an architect.
“I’m going to build skyscrapers,” he told her.
“I’m going west, too,” she said, and he smiled at her. His teeth gleamed brilliant white. She smiled back, mouth closed, hiding the coffee stains on her front teeth. Her lipstick cracked.
“Why are you headed out there?” He asked.
“Everything in this town is so small,” she said. “I want to go somewhere big, somewhere that gives me the space to become big, too.”
Ellie had been coming to the same stream since she was a child, when she and her mother would skip stones across the water during the summer. When Ellie was eight, they had stood on rocks in the middle of the stream for hours, trying to catch the butterflies that flew above the water. Her mother managed to catch a beautiful speckled butterfly in her hands, but all Ellie caught was a small brown beetle. The two of them had skipped home, covered in mud and thrilled to have caught anything at all, but her dad had taken her dress immediately and scrubbed the mud out with bleach, so that every spot that had been sprayed with brown became a blanched white instead, standing out against the dark pink cloth. When he saw the beetle sitting in the jar beside her bed, he carried it outside and let it out on the doorstep.
Ben and Ellie were sitting on the shore, under a footbridge. Ellie picked at her cuticles, staring at the water. There was a tea stain on the front of her uniform, from an angry customer who handed his mug back to her a little too aggressively. Ben was wearing jeans, and they looked inflexible, like they had yet to be broken in. His hair was lying slightly flatter, although his cow-lick still forced it to stand straight and bend at the tops, like a seed sprout. One of his hands was holding a cigarette to his mouth, the other was sitting behind Ellie’s back. He handed her the cigarette and she inhaled. Fighting the urge to cough, she imagined the smoke going into her lungs and making them bigger, inside the shell of her stiff and starched shirt.
“I should go home,” she said, and small puffs of cigarette smoke came out as she spoke.
He brushed the ash off her chest, his hand straying close to her breast, and her heart jumped. “Stay,” He said. “Why do you live with your dad anyway? Aren’t you old enough to get out on your own?”
“I’m saving money,” she said. She picked up a leaf and tried to throw it out onto a rock. It twirled and landed in the water. She picked up another leaf, and threw it, missing again.
“Right, right,” he said. “But you’ve been doing that. Why haven’t you just gone for it?”
Ellie looked at her palms. “I guess I just want to wait until I’m ready to make the most of it, you know? I want to be ready to find myself out there.”
Ben shifted his weight to look at her. “Let me ask you. Have you been out west?”
Ellie shook her head. Another leaf.
“Well, I have,” He said. “And let me tell you, there isn’t a whole lot out there. What would you do out there, anyway? To make it out west, you gotta be somebody.”
“And you’re somebody?” She asked, turning to face him.
“Not yet, I’m not. I mean somebody important. You have to be willing to be a name, to be noticed. You can’t just sit back and expect it to come to you. That’s why I’m going to build the biggest buildings you’ve ever seen, and then everybody will know who I am.”
Ellie did not want to point out that the people who work in the tallest buildings do not ever think about the people who built them.
“I’ve thought about being an actress,” she said. “I think you can become an actress even if you don’t have any training.”
Ben laughed, not unkindly. “Looks like yours, you could be an actress,” he said. He reached a hand up and lightly ran it through her auburn hair, ruffling the curls. “I’d go to see you in a movie just to watch you.”
“You know what I think?” He asked. A gust of wind swelled from downstream, blowing the rest of the leaves around them and sending Ellie’s hair swirling around her face.
Ben reached up and brushed her hair back out of her face, and before she could pause or freeze that moment, their lips met, and her heart toppled forward.
“I think you should come with me,” he said, his forehead pressed against hers.
Later that night, when Ellie got home, her father was sprawled out on the couch, with one foot still on the ground, and his arm dangling over the side. The old couch had begun to sag in the exact places where his limbs draped off every night. The small, brown room was lit only by the glow of the television screen. It played an infomercial for whitening strips. Ellie reached down and clicked the TV off. She reached under the couch, her hand feeling the threads in the carpet until her knuckle hit the glass bottle, which clinked against another. When she’d pulled the third one out, he stirred.
“Are you coming to breakfast with me tomorrow?” He asked. His eyes were gummy, and she could see him struggling to bring her black and white shirt into focus.
“No,” Ellie said. In the pocket of her apron, she reached to feel the tip money, holding the coarse bills between her fingertips.
Ellie and her father went every week to Carol’s Diner for Sunday brunch. She would sit across from him, looking at her reflection in her sunglasses, while her father massaged his temples and drank cup after cup of black coffee. They never talked about the bottles in the dumpster.
She licked her lips, and she could still taste Ben’s minty gum, mixed with the cigarette smoke and the smell of his musty pine-tree car freshener. She pulled herself up straighter, although she didn’t feel as tall as usual.
“I said no, because I don’t want to come,” she said. Her father rubbed his eye, which made a wet, goopy sound. Her fingers rubbed the money together. She imagined that the bills were wings on a moth that was going to carry her out of the small one-story house and back to Ben. It was all pressing down on her; the bottles, the diner, the same stream she had visited since she was a child. “I’m going to leave,” she said, and she tasted the words for the first time, no longer only Ben’s but hers now, too.
Her father stood. He was still taller than her. Ellie worried for a minute that he might break at the knees and fall into her. His eyes were narrowed. His speech was becoming crisper with every word he spoke. “I’ve never been the one standing in your way.”
They stayed up late, lying on the floor of Ben’s apartment with the atlas in front of them. Ellie was on her back, running her fingers through the old green carpeting. Ben was on his stomach next to her, smoking and drawing on the map with a sharpie, plotting their route. Every time he moved, she caught another whiff of the smoke.
“California is going to be so incredible,” Ben said. The sharpie squeaked on the paper.
“My mother lived in California,” Ellie said. It was the first time she had mentioned her mother to Ben at all.
“Really? What part?”
“Sacramento, I think,” Ellie said. “Is that close to Los Angeles?”
Ben popped the top off his beer. “Not at all, that’s up north. We are going to be in the south. We are so far south that if you drive down the coast, in two hours you are in Mexico.”
Ellie liked the way he said Mexico. It sounded foreign in his mouth, the way he pulled his lips apart for the beginning of the word, and held the “O” between them at the end.
“I’ve never been to Mexico,” Ellie said.
“Me either. But we could go. Do you want a sip?”
“No,” Ellie said, more forcefully than she’d intended. “I don’t drink,” she added, her voice low. The sharpie squeaked across the map, as Ben moved them across the states with his pen. With his thick black lines covering the roads, it didn’t even look far.
“My mom said she loved California,” Ellie said.
“When did you last see her?”
Ben was counting the states they would pass through, tapping each one with the back of his sharpie. “I was eight,” Ellie said. “She just moved. Dad never said a word.”
When she left, she had slipped a note under Ellie’s door saying that she would call every weekend to catch up, but after a few months, she had stopped calling.
“What happened to her?”
“She was sick, I think,” Ellie said. The last time she had spoken to her mom, she had said something about how she felt like she was wasting away. Ellie remembered it vividly. Her mother had gone missing, and when the police had called her father, they told him she was gone from her apartment. All of the windows had been left open, and the place was rapidly becoming infested with bugs.
When Ellie learned she was gone, she had walked to bathroom with scissors and chopped off locks of her hair, seeing how it felt to lose parts of herself without any pain. She ran her fingers through her hair now, remembering how light it had felt.
“I’m nervous,” she said quietly.
Ben stopped tapping the map. “About what?”
“I’m actually doing this,” she said. “I’m actually moving.” Looking at Ben’s map, it didn’t seem so far.
Ben’s car was small and red and jarred Ellie’s teeth every time it hit a dip. They bounced down the dirt road away from Ellie’s house for the last time. She caught sight of her father in the mirror, standing on the porch, but his expression was too far away to see. She fidgeted with the dial of the radio. Most of the stations were static.
Ben was humming quietly to himself. In the back of their car, their suitcases were piled on top of one another. Four were Ben’s, one was Ellie’s. She had left most of her things at home, telling Ben that she really didn’t need most of the memories attached to them. She took the note that her mother had written her, along with a picture, and tucked it into her wallet between the bills. Between their suitcases was the atlas.
While Ben drove, Ellie flipped through her book on acting techniques, skimming the page with unfocused eyes. While Ellie drove, Ben made sketches. He would tear them out of his notebook, crumpling them and dropping them on the floor. Eventually, though, he stopped making the broad sweeping strokes that Ellie had come to associate with his blueprints.
“What are you drawing now?” She asked, glancing at the book out of the corner of her eye.
“You,” he said. “Your features look great in this light.” He sketched her lips with light, careful strokes, all of the lines as gentle and delicate as the brush of Ellie’s eyelashes on his cheeks. She wondered if he could see the creases of worry that had pressed them together. She wondered if he was drawing those, too.
Their apartment was small, cramped and very hot. Ellie put her suitcase down in the entryway and walked the perimeter, running her hands along the walls. Occasionally, her fingers snagged on a piece of peeling wallpaper, which made a crisp sound like the crunch of a leaf. Ben pulled the rest of the suitcases inside. Everything in the room seemed fuzzy, as though the musty air outside had found permanent residence in their home. She flicked the light switch, and a bare bulb overhead flickered on. Ben piled their suitcases in the corner.
“It’s not much,” Ben said. “And we’ll have to go buy furniture, and probably some kind of decoration too. And it’s pretty polluted.” He exhaled out a puff of cigarette smoke.
“It’s perfect,” Ellie said. Somehow, in this new place, he seemed taller than she remembered. His head almost brushed the doorframe as he came into the bedroom. She stood on her toes to kiss him, and he ran his hands through her curls.
“Are you eating enough?” Ben asked over dinner a few weeks later. Ellie was looking at a monologue, her lips moving slowly as she recited the words. The plate of ravioli sat untouched in front of her.
“What?” She asked, not looking up.
He took her hand. “Are you eating enough?” She was drumming her fingers on the table, and he ran his fingers over the tendons on the back of her palm.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said. “Can you help me memorize this?”
“Ellie,” Ben said. She looked up. “Eat something.”
“I have my audition tomorrow.” She said earnestly. “Please help me memorize this.”
Ben took the page and looked it over. “All of this memorized by tomorrow?” He asked. Ellie nodded.
“I have to get back to work,” he said, scratching his arm and looking back down. “Please just eat something.”
Ellie snatched the paper back. “Fine, I’ll just work on it myself,” she said.
“Did you not look at it before?”
“Of course I did,” she snapped. She could see a frown forming between his eyebrows. “It’s just a lot of pressure.”
Ben had gone back to sketching. He moved the ruler around on the paper, drawing quick lines and erasing them just as fast. “What did you expect? You wanted a big city. Los Angeles comes with pressure.” He tore another page out, threw it against the wall.
Ellie put her head down on the table. “I just didn’t expect it to be like this,” she said. She heard his pencil on the paper, the familiar large, sweeping strokes. She heard the scratch of his lighter. And she heard when he popped off the top off a bottle, and took a thick drink. Her mind flicked to the dumpster behind their building. She turned her chin to look at him.
“Why do you keep ripping those out?”
“Not good enough,” Ben said. Ellie put her head back down on her arms, those words echoing in her mind.
“Our bed isn’t much softer than the ground,” Ellie said, rolling over to face him. He propped his face up on his elbow.
“I thought you liked the firm mattress,” he said. “You picked it.”
“I did, but now it’s making me sore,” she said. She pulled her knees up and leaned into him, taking his hand under the covers. He pulled her in close. She was so small, he could easily curl her into his chest. “I don’t know. I feel like this city is just too big. It’s eating me alive.”
Ellie nodded. “I don’t feel free.”
Her comment was met with a huff of air. “You stand out to me,” He said. “But you’ve got to work harder.”
“Never mind,” she said. After Ben was snoring, she laid flat on her back and looked out the window at the moon. She imagined her father, sprawled on his back on the couch, passed out in the light of the same moon. “It’s just that nobody calls me back,” She said out loud.
“Hm?” Ben said, blinking.
“All of these auditions, and nobody calls me back. If they called me back, maybe I’d get somewhere. I just thought it would be easier.”
“There’s nothing stopping you,” he said. “You can do whatever you want. You see how hard I work.”
She could see the moon reflected in his eyes as he blinked at her. He pressed his face into the pillow and closed them. “Go to sleep, Ellie.”
Her clothes were sagging off of her when Ben picked her up from her audition the next day. Her arms were folded over her body, and her bones stuck out at odd angles through the flowing garments. “How did it go?” He asked.
She curled her knees up to her chest. The seatbelt was too high to cross over her shoulder. “They’re not going to call,” she said. “How about you?”
“They’re breaking ground on my project on Monday,” he said.
“Congratulations,” She said. She was shivering.
When they got home, Ben threw the car into park and helped Ellie out of the car. Halfway to the door, she collapsed. She was hardly the size of a child. Ben picked her up and carried her, curled into a tiny ball, inside and to their bed. He wrapped her in blankets and brought her soup, which sat on the bedside table until it got cold.
“Is tomorrow Sunday?” She asked. “I think I might try the diner on the corner.”
Ben looked up from his sketchbook and blinked. “Why?”
“My dad would want me to,” she said sleepily. “I’d like to tell him about it.”
Ben tucked another pillow under her head. “Stop this,” he said, and he couldn’t hide the touch of frustration in his voice. “Please just go to sleep.”
Her body barely made an impression on the bed. When he eased himself under the covers next to her, she didn’t stir. He was afraid to touch her.
When Ben woke up, Ellie was gone, but all of the windows in their apartment were open. He stood, brewed a cup of coffee, and sat down, waiting by the phone for her to call. A beetle crawled in the window.