What Separates Us

“Did you finish that book?” she asked, “About the cities?”

I was driving the rental car along a rural state highway. She was in the passenger seat, looking for places to stop and sometimes pointing the DSLR out the window at the moving land.

“The Miéville one, yeah,” I replied, “it was good. These two cities are both in the same place, but they like speak different languages and dress differently, and the people who live in each one subconsciously train themselves not to notice people from the other one.”

“Crazy,” she said. We crested a long hill, and passed a driveway and a sign for a gravel yard.

“Reminds me of that other one you read, where we wake up one morning and the Earth is all divided up like orange slices, and you’re trapped in your own slice and can’t get to any of the others,” her voice sharpened, “Turn in there.”

I pulled off the road and stopped the car by a small building in three tones of pale brick. A side wall had partly collapsed, and to one side a weathered wooden board stood blankly between two posts. She walked around the building, sizing it up, the camera in one hand with its strap loose around her neck. A truck rattled by on the highway.

“We think a lot about separation,” she said, crouching down to one side of the former sign, aiming the camera at the corner of the building. It was the third day of our trip into this particular slice of countryside. We’d go back to her studio after a week or so, and she’d have half a dozen images for her next book, another twenty for her licensing portfolio, and a few hundred that she’d probably license in bulk to the insatiable maw of some big AI.

“Because we feel it,” I ventured, “we don’t want to be separated.”

She nodded and walked to the building, taking some shots with the lens close to certain bricks. Neither of us spoke for awhile. The pale bricks looked clean in the grey light from the cloudy sky, more unfinished than ruined.

A pickup pulled off the road and stopped by the rental car. The man who got out was wearing denim and an orange reflective jacket. “You folks need any help?”

“We’re good,” she replied, looking for a moment away from the building, “just getting some shots of this building.”

The man snorted lightly. “This eyesore? Guy a few years back got the idea to have a restaurant here for some reason, started putting this thing up, ran out of money and disappeared.”

“I like it,” she said, her smile small and disarming. She crouched again and aimed the camera upward.

“Who owns the land now, then?” I asked.

The man shrugged. “Who knows? Lawyers, banks, whoever.”

“And you keep trespassers off?”

He looked maybe a little offended. “Just wondered if you needed help, is all,” he said, and climbed back into his truck The wheels kicked up pebbles as he accelerated back onto the pavement.

Back on the road, we passed signs for McDonald’s (twelve miles ahead at the Interstate), Countywide Surveying, and Flory’s Cafe. She had me slow down so she could get a shot of a white sign with plain black letters reminding us that Jesus Saves.

“Maybe we yearn for union with God,” I said.

“Or just for sex,” she laughed, “our ancestors who didn’t yearn for that connection didn’t have enough kids.”

She had me park in the nearly-deserted parking lot of a low commercial-industrial building between fields and a dark green wood. We ate gas-station sandwiches at a picnic table while she walked between the car and the building, taking a few pictures.

A woman in a sundress, bright on the grey day, came out of the building with a bag lunch and came toward us.

“Taking pictures?”


“For a magazine or something?”

“Something like that.”

“Will you take mine?” She was slightly older, her face either plain or distinctive.

“If you’re okay signing a model release.”

“Uhm, sure!”

“Stand closer to the building, there.”

“Will I be in a magazine?”

“Thanks. Ya never know! Just sign here.”

We stopped for dinner at the Red Line Diner (“Welcome Veterans”). The pork chop was salty, and I spread the watery apple sauce from the plastic cup onto the surface of the meat. It was good that way.

She had an avocado salad.

“There are over fifty Red, Blue, or Green Line Diners in North America,” she said, searching on her phone.

“The lines that separate us,” I suggested.

“Or the bus and railroad lines that bring us together,” she said, “hard to say.”

Earlier we’d driven past an abandoned mall, with an old bus rusting in the weeds of its parking lot, but we hadn’t stopped. “Too cliché,” she’d said at my questioning glance.

It started to rain while we were in the Red Line Diner. People ran in from the parking lot with their jackets held over their heads, and stood in the foyer on the way out, hoping it would stop. Eventually it did, as we were paying the bill.

She noticed a stream flowing rain-swollen behind the diner, and we walked around to it. I sat on a flat stone just clear of the water, and she stood considering.

“Eh,” she finally said, sitting beside me, “too beautiful.”

“How would we tell,” I asked her, “whether our yearning is for God, or human connection, or procreation?”

“How would we?” she said, as though I’d asked her a riddle, and must know the answer.

The stream tumbled by loudly, steep over small stones.

“Well,” I said, “maybe we could see if religious people, or people who get all the sex they want, don’t yearn as much.”

She looked at me, her eyes frank and direct. With one finger behind my jaw, she drew my face to hers. Her lips, closed but soft, pressed mine for a long moment. Everything in me melted.

Then she was leaning back, with a smile.

“Do we stop yearning,” she asked, “when we get what we want?”