We go to The Old Hat Brewery in Lawton, my Michigan friends and I, and the bartender is this woman with frizzy, brown hair and a wide smile. We order Razz because it's Valentine's Day and while she's pouring these tall glasses of electric red, this man walks in, "drunk local" written all over his face. "Hey Horseshit," he says to the bartender and she says, "Hey Sloppy Joe." Sloppy Joe turns to me. "You should know, I'm a stripper." And Horseshit says, "If you're a stripper, then I'm damn Miss America" and then, "You leave these paying customers alone now." So Sloppy Joe heads to a stool at the end of the bar, reaches up and pulls down a black mug that's hanging over his head. There are black mugs hanging over all of our heads. "I wanna toast," says Sloppy Joe. And he raises his empty mug. Horseshit gets a mug down, the name Horseshit is painted on in white letters, and goes to him.
Trina, Benji and I are talking and I'm telling them how I'm slowly losing my sense of California, my home, after a year here, after I moved with my boyfriend P.J. so he could go to flight school in Kalamazoo. But he's not doing much flying, in the sky anyways. I imagine California as a seductive woman with a hand on her hip. "Honey," she coos. "Don't ever leave me." And most people don't. She treats you so good you don't care about the others—Nevada, Oregon, Arizona. The midwest is a blur—the east coast is New York and nothing else. If California is a woman, then Michigan is a man. "Toughen up, kid," he says. "Stop your crying."
Horseshit pipes in, "Did I hear someone say California?"
Trina points at me. "That's where she's from."
"Where exactly?" Horseshit says.
"Bakersfield, mostly," I say.
"Oh darling," she says. "I gotta pull me up a chair next to you and while I'm at it have a cigarette."
And she does. And she says, "My grandparents went there during the whole dust bowl. My dad's still there, living in a trailer because he lost all his retirement money in a pyramid scheme. You know Lancaster?"
"That's where I was. Hotter than God-knows-what. That dry desert heat is something."
I tell her how, growing up, we lived in our bathing suits, would go to bed wearing them still wet from the sprinklers, or hose, or someone's pool, and sit under the fan and that's how we could sleep.
"I hated it," she says. "I hate California."
I don't mention that I still have my old California license plate in my car at the foot of the passenger seat so I can look at it while I'm driving, or that I have a Merle Haggard record sitting in the backseat because he's a Bakersfield boy. I found it at Poly and Esther's thrift store and I had to buy it. I don't even own a record player.
"When I decided to leave my husband," she says. "I had two choices. Move in with my mom or move to Michigan. And thinking about me and my four kids living with my mom made me want to slit my wrists."
A couple walks in the doors and she gets up. "Gotta get back to work," she says. "Bakersfield, it was nice meeting you."
Later, when we're putting on our hats and coats and scarves to leave, she waves from the bar, looks at me. "You stay warm," she says.
Trina grew up on a farm near the Old Hat and she takes us there to see the horses. We sit on bales of hay while she takes a stocky, chestnut-colored horse named Lethal out of his stall. Lethal, she tells us, is a little over fifteen hands tall, and he's the best to ride without a saddle because of his bowed back. It looks as if someone has taken a giant spoon and pressed it into his spine, right below his shoulders. She has me hold Lethal's bridle while she shows Benji how to check the shoes.
"You want to let him know what you're doing," she says. She runs her hand down Lethal's neck, then down the front leg. "And then you go to the inside," she says. "And lean into him and he'll pick up his foot. See. His hooves are huge." Trina lets Benji try next.
I'm looking into Lethal's eye as Benji approaches. Benji says to him, "I'm going to pick up your foot now." There were horses down the road from my parent's house in Bakersfield, horses and almond orchards. But I've never seen one this close before, never looked one right in the eye, an eye filled with liquid lightning, an eye that says, "If you hurt me, I will kill you."
Benji retraces Trina's hands and Lethal lifts his foot. Then Trina says I have to take a ride. I stand on hay bales and drape myself over the saddle, throw my leg over and sit up. Trina walks us around in a circle in the barn, the other horses watch through the gaping rungs of their stalls. I can't help but think that, even though Lethal could buck me off and crush my skull with one of his hooves, that somehow my weight is adding to the bow in his back.
Benji points to a sled that's hanging up in the barn. "I know what we should do next," he says. After all it's Valentine's Day and we're all tired of February and wanted to get away from the grind of waiting tables at The Roadhouse, and why shouldn't we go sledding? P.J. and I hadn't made plans. I didn't remind him either. He was probably out with his buddy Axel who wears paint-splattered clothes when he's working or not, usually not, and calls me "The Wife." I'm with P.J. but Benji's getting to be more and more my type, but he's been after Trina as long as I've known him, and Trina, she goes on these dates by herself and says she's spending time with Jesus.
We put two sleds into the trunk of my car and I drive the three of us to a golf course Trina knows has steep hills. It's one of those warmer winter nights in Michigan, a merciful break from the blizzard and white-out that swept through a couple of days ago. We go down the hill screaming, a human stack of pancakes, all three piled on one sled. I race Trina, sledding backwards, and beat her to the bottom. Benji tries to sled standing up, surfer style, and falls on his face. And after, worn-out from trudging back up the hill so many times, we sit under a tree and pass around Benji's flask of whiskey. And it's quiet, so quiet. And for once my feet aren't numb. For once, there isn't freezing wind slapping at my face. There's a gentle gust that's moving through the tree's feather-duster branches. Then a light snow starts to fall, like rice at old-time weddings, a ceremony just for us and the fields of white.
I'm driving us home and Trina is singing along to oldies, a song about chapels and bells and never being lonely and then Benji yells, "Stop," and I suddenly see the stop sign and the car coming and I hit the brakes. The brakes lock on ice, and we skid through, the other car just missing us and honking as it passes.
"Shit," says Benji.
"That was close," says Trina.
We've skidded into a bank of snow and I try reverse and feel the wheels sink. I try to go forward and we sink further.
"You got any kitty litter?" says Trina.
I look at her, confused.
"To put under the tires?" she says.
"Looks like we're pushing," says Benji.
Trina takes over the wheel. Benji and I go to the back of the car. And while we're pushing, I'm thinking of how I won't miss digging cars out of the snow or lake effects or wind-chill factors. I'm thinking of the bartender named Horseshit, what things made her leave her husband and try to raise four kids by herself, how life leans into you, or worse, and you have to pick up your feet, move across the country to do what you need to do. How she mustered up everything she had in her to say something more important than what I'm about to say, and what I'm about to say is: California, you're not all you pretend to be. And Michigan, I want a divorce.