“What Got You Here Will Not Get You To Your Future,” by John Englehardt

John Englehardt

The following is an excerpt from John Englehardt’s novel, Bloomland.

The most unflagging woman you will ever meet enters your life during sophomore year of college, the same time you stop believing in God. What this means is the zealotry that has been ingrained in you—the kind that has involved obsessing over sin and faith and the fact that Jesus should be the only fixed point of reference in the dark room of your life—can be directed at something else now. Her name is Casey. You are watching her square dance in a living room with all the furniture pushed against the walls, slowly realizing that you recognize her as the unabashed-pregnant-teenager character from a university theater production. This makes the disorganized grace of her dancing, her black wavy hair, and the cream-colored skirt she wears (that she will later describe as “kindergarten teacher chic”) seem both familiar and new. When the dance ends, you follow her to the back porch, quietly preparing a compliment on her acting. Everyone is sweating, drinking wine from mason jars, looking past ancient stands of cypress trees and into the scattered stones of a confederate cemetery. Other than telling her your name is Eddie, you won’t remember what exactly you say. But you will remember how unique this moment feels, like two swimmers from separate shores meeting in the open water. The two of you talk and promenade and swing your corners until the only people left at the party are the hosts and an irascible drunk who keeps asking to play the banjo. Then you walk her back to her apartment, where you talk until the sun comes up, hoping to obscure the fact that you are too nervous for falling asleep or going home or kissing—it is an anxiety that, as a well-adjusted adult, you will yearn for but not experience again.

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The next day, you wake up to the sound of something gigantic coming at you. At first it is a faint, squabbling “whoop” sung by a chorus of ghosts, and then it gets louder, becoming a tornado of screams that you worry is the sound of your soul getting sucked out of the world and into a canyon of hell. But then the yells turn into a cheer: “Ozarka Raccoons, go!” You realize it is homecoming weekend. Casey is asleep on the carpet beside the couch. Soon you can hear music blaring from a fraternity down the street, which alternates between glossy Americana and dance club ass worship.

Casey wakes up. “We have to get out of here,” she says.

In terms of identity, you are learning how easy it is to cross from one territory into another. Just last year, you would have gone to church on a day like this one, stood in a sea of khakis and listened to pastor Ronnie Boyd deliver a sermon titled “What Got You Here Will Not Get You To Your Future,” which you will later classify as just another cryptic, pseudo-intellectual way to rant about sin and convince you to hate the choices you’ve made your entire life. Afterward, you would have changed out of your khakis into jeans and a Raccoon T-shirt, got drunk at a tailgate party, and evaluated sorority girls with that normalized tone of scorn/adoration. You even would have cheered when a Jeep drove by parading a flag with a crude drawing of a muscular raccoon sexually dominating University of Alabama’s cartoon elephant, “Big Al.”

But instead you are waking up late, hungover and un-showered. You are riding in the passenger seat with a girl singing along to The Velvet Underground, a girl who keeps bones of dead animals on the dashboard for good luck. At the edge of town, the smell in the air shifts from barbecue sauce to chicken shit. Casey drives past fields of yellow flowers, hot armadillo carcasses, feedmills, burnt mansions, onto dirt roads and over rainwater streambeds. She says she wants to stop by her parents’ property, an organic farm that sounds quaint until you arrive at a wood-paneled double-wide beyond which wild packs of dogs lurk, waiting to take down cattle, and into her parents’ living room/dining room/kitchen, where she is rummaging through drawers looking for their stash of pot.

After you smoke a bowl, Casey takes you to a drive-in at the edge of the shuttered town square. She buys fried pickles and butterscotch shakes, then parks her car on the top of Pension Mountain. Out here, airplane navigation lights lacerate the sky, and she tells you about the owner of Butler Chicken Company, who apparently has a private airport he only uses at sundown.

“Human trafficking?” you ask.

“Definitely,” she says. “But you should be careful with that term. It has been co-opted by people who oppose sex workers in general. You could give me a pickle for a blow job and be arrested for human trafficking.”

“I had no idea,” you say, no longer comfortable holding the pickles in your lap. You set them on the dash, stare out into the reddening clouds. At this point, you convince yourself that you might love Casey, though years later, you will look back on this moment and regret how obvious and shallow you were, how the manic beauty you admired in her was just an attempt to possess what you viewed to be your opposite. How labeling her a quirky girl meant you didn’t have to take her seriously.

“Do you think I talk too much?” she says after a long silence, with an edge of hostility.

“Absolutely not,” you respond. And right now, you mean it. She is speaking to you like she just got rescued from a deserted island, like she’s never really been able to share her life with someone, and here you are—finally. And as the flushed hills of autumn peel away into a sunset that’s still wavy with heat, you feel as if your heart will never vacillate again.

In those early days, sometimes you still reach after the disappearing beacon of God. You pray the sinner’s prayer in your sleep. You take long showers after sex, your still-tumescent cock throbbing with guilt. Then you get comfortable enough around Casey to redirect your psychic energy, and instead of brooding over things like The Doctrine of Total Depravity, you put your energy into loving and supporting another person. When Casey decides to cut her hair short, you do it for her. You buy her presents. You edit her English papers. You say, “I don’t care if you don’t shave your armpits.” She says, “Your cum is translucent, like I’m looking at the moon.” When you tell her about the recurring nightmare you have of your father shouting, “Are you or are you not on fire for God, faggot?” she says that’s awful, and you are not a freak, and it is normal—considering all you have been through. Then, at a certain point, you realize how completely you have turned your back on Jesus Christ, replacing him with a girl. You don’t care. The de-numbed and elated mood you’re in with Casey feels like it has been with you all your life. It takes no effort to believe it exists.

Over the course of the next two years, this is how you know your love is sustainable. You will be walking to your poetry seminar and you’ll see Casey alone, through the large magnolia trees that look like freeze-frame explosions, and she will look sad. You will watch from the audience as she plays a partly crippled mental patient in a Sam Shepard play. You will listen as she talks to her sister, and they will laugh at the same time, in the exact same way. These moments give you a seeing-your-elementary-school-teacher-in-the-supermarket feeling. You can’t believe she’s real. Especially not outside the context of your relationship. It will make you think how many aspects of this person are, at this point in your relationship, impossible for you to know. That is love, you think—that’s it.

So you get married, and not because it’s financially practical (it’s not) or because your parents want it (fuck them) or even because it feels right (it doesn’t), but because your feelings are so strong that they scare you. They need to be contained somehow. I still think about you two every time one of my students gets engaged. The cynic in me is honestly happy for them, as I would have been for you, because in the end, what better or worse chance did you and Casey have than the rest of us?

The year before you graduate college, before both of you get rejected by every masters program except the one at Ozarka, you move in together. You live in a small stone house at the edge of campus. One with a metal roof and a basement inhabited by camel crickets. Not much seems to change, except you hang around when Casey has incapacitating migraines, and you find it funny when she smears Bengay all over her face until it is numb. You pick up her prescriptions at the Wal-Mart on campus. You carry her around the house after she breaks her leg painting Juliet’s balcony at the theater and exhaust “break a leg” jokes until she starts slapping you. But you have a few worries. For example, the worry that you and Casey are actually too supportive, and that this supportiveness fosters a kind of instant gratification dynamic, so that the moment you feel a thing you are done feeling it. Or the worry that the same thing is happening with love that it did with God, and at some point you will be standing there, saying to yourself, “Believe in Love. Believe in Love now!” and it will not work. Or the worry that Casey is the only woman you’ve ever had sex with, and that you lost your virginity to her and cried into a pillow without her noticing (because what a stupid thing to cry about) was the first misstep in a long series of emotionally cagey actions that are hiding some kind of True Weakness. But these worries are so faint that they are either completely imagined, or they are so deep-rooted that they can’t be seen from the surface. They might, you admit to yourself, be worries that turn into actual problems down the road, but you are still so young and so near the beginning of the relationship that imagining your future is like thinking of what the Earth will look like when the Sun burns out.

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