What’s round on the ends and high in the middle? Chloe remembers only this. Her first inkling that Ohio even existed. To her, the smell of sugar and sweat, the days bathed in humidity, backlit with pink and yellow light, and measured by how long James Booker held that one eye closed, or that note on a beat-up piano—nearly forever—these were the familiar things. Louisiana knew nothing of Ohio. Surely Ohio knew nothing of Louisiana. But now, years later, she looks up the gray-blue sky, scarred by jet trails and the burden of clouds, and it is the sky of Columbus, not New Orleans. She traces the trails south as if they could send her back home.
Simon draws across her naked back. More trails. She feels his breath against the back of her neck as he asks how long she’s been here. She doesn’t turn around, the sheets up to her chin, and stares straight ahead. There is a skylight above her bed, the bed she invited him into last night. Only now she can’t think of why. He asks too many questions, like this one, which she would rather not answer. “Come on,” he says. “Seriously, how can a person live in a city for nineteen years and not call it home?” Like the clouds above—unmoving white nimbus, filled with promises and air—he rests there against her, persistent, heavy, uninteresting. She wishes for pain perdu, the lost bread of lost lives, simple, sweet, dusted in sugar and berries.
The night before, at the Rumba Café, the crowd streamed back and forth between the bar and the patio and the seats before the small stage. Megan Palmer and the Hopefuls played their second set, and between orders Chloe caught the glint of the bass guitar, Megan’s bow sliding across the strings of her fiddle, a scattering of dancers mostly bouncing to the music. The dark wood of the bar and the pressed iron ceiling, the color of old crawfish shells, made the brightest evening feel like night, and Chloe knew she craved the darkness since she couldn’t have the light off the bayou, the clouds billowing with rose gold. Bartending came easily, so different from her days at Ohio State, and Chloe leaned into the ease of the job, the same job she’d had back home, the Rumba not so different from the Maple Leaf. Like the stretching, lingering notes across the room, Chloe stretched again for the tap, filling another glass with Stella, and hoped she’d know what to do next. The man sitting by himself at the bar stared at her, and she knew that by the end of the night he’d still be there, good-looking and certain and convinced that she’d have him. And because his name was Simon, so simple, so seemingly uncomplicated, and because Megan sang the song that began, “love wishes for confusion,” she knew she’d let him.
At the Wexner Theater Charlie Chaplin swings his cane, smiling at the street girl; Richard Bausch reads from one of his stories, and the main character, a woman, is leaning over a stroller, admiring the baby and weeping; Gus Van Sant is escaping up the stairs as his film, Mala Noche, begins. “You know you love it here,” Simon says. “Just look at all this.” All what? Chloe thinks. She has known all this before. At a party on Audubon Place at the age of seventeen she meets the Panovs; at a college reading at Newcomb she sees Lillian Hellman throw her lit cigarette into a trash can and smoke begin to rise; the Loyola professor she sleeps with in her early twenties screens 16 mm reels of Modern Times and City Lights, the projector’s light streaming over the thin covers of his bed. “Seriously,” Simon says. She wishes to be twenty again, to lie in a bed without the white light of the sky pouring over her, to feel the professor’s hands, to feel things for the first time.
Her apartment lies directly under the Columbus Metropolitan Airport’s flight path. Boeing 737’s, DC-9’s, and MD-80’s rattle her walls. She lies on her back while Simon attempts a batch of lost bread. French toast, he calls it. He is from the heartland and doesn’t understand his mistake, that the French would never call this toast, the importance of words and meanings as lost to him as the sad rusks of baguette he dips in a bowl of beaten eggs and cream and nutmeg. He has burned the first three pieces. Above Chloe, the skylight window. Above the window, the clouds are lifting. Beyond the clouds, tiny winged airplanes. “They look like toys,” she says. But really, she thinks, they look like damselflies, tiny, insubstantial, coming and going. Mostly going. With transparent wings, the bayou at their backs, they whir past, moving in straight lines. Chloe follows them with her eyes, her hand moving, pointing. Her mother catches Chloe’s chin between her fingers and squeezes. “Eat your lunch,” she says, leaning over the picnic table. “You can play after.” There is egg salad made with homemade mayonnaise and sweet pickles. Even under the longleaf pines, it is too hot to eat.
She teaches a film class at Ohio State. American directors. Van Sant, Cassavetes, Anders, Jarmusch, Bogdanovich, Sayles, Bigelow, Nichols, Kubrick, Lynch, and Coppola. Her students beg for them, then complain at the number of viewings, how much work there is. “Which Coppola?” Simon asks. Chloe is becoming tired of his questions. “Sofia,” she says. He responds, “That’s my girl,” then blinks, his brown eyes filled with morning light, and something else. Secrets? He swallows after he speaks. Chloe wonders who is Simon’s girl, Sofia or her.
Simon has charred half a baguette. “How do you get this stuff to brown without burning?” He isn’t mad, only asking. Chloe wants to say, It’s not that hard. Instead, she says nothing and opens the door. Her dress is waistless and falls just above her knees, like the ones her mother dressed her in for school. And like the mornings before school at her mother’s breakfast table, she has no intention of eating much. Pistachio Vera, the bakery with the best pain au chocolat in German Village, also has skylights. Chloe will watch squares of sun land on her croissant; she will wish for the strawberries her grandmother brought every Sunday. “Wait,” her mother would say. “Wait until everyone is sitting and we’ve said grace.”
Pistachio Vera is green with mid-morning light. Simon leans over the glass case, and the girl behind the counter suggests Parisian macaroons, made of meringue, soft and weightless as breath, every flavor, every hue imaginable. Black raspberry hibiscus, lavender orange honey, lemon ginger and matcha. Chloe finds the assortment pretty, but pointless. Until she tastes one and it disappears over her tongue like no kiss she’s ever known. She imagines a damselfly’s wings might taste as ephemeral, sheer strands of sweetness, gone as soon as they land, as soon as they’ve left you with the sense that you’ve remembered something you’d forgotten. Round on the outside and high in the middle. Something that makes you want to cry.
Here in Columbus, there is the Cup O’ Joe Sweetheart Mocha instead of coffee thick with chicory. Here in Columbus, there are girls that chew gum when they speak to you, the pink mass swelling between their teeth, as they pause and say, “Like, you know?” Here in Columbus, students cross College Avenue outside the crosswalks and courtesy buses slow and let them reach the other side. Here, behind the clouds that rise up out of the river valley, is the Ohio that is round and high. Chloe gazes up over her book at a man who is crossing inside the lines of the crosswalk. Even from a distance, this man, this director, this Gus Van Sant seems kind, and she tries to think of him before Cowboy and Cowgirls and Elephant and Milk. She thinks of Paris, Je T’aime, a film she’s never shown her students, but one that she watches alone, when Simon has gone home and the patch of window above her bed is black without stars or moon or anything. She imagines Gus in her bed, brown-eyed and brotherly, taking a break from his boyfriends, eating from the tin of popcorn her grandmother has sent all the way from Lake Catherine. It is layered with caramel and almonds, and Gus takes handfuls, but eats slowly.
“Maybe we knew each other in another time, another era,” Simon says. “There’s really something special about your look.” Chloe nearly chokes, but the wine is dark red and would stain, so she doesn’t. Simon needs to stop. He is quoting lines from “Le Marais,” the Van Sant moment of the film Chloe doesn’t share. She glares at him and thinks, There is nothing special about my look. Blond and small, she disappears inside afternoons, more cigarette smoke than perfume, ill at ease and clawing her way up to the top of understanding. It’s been weeks since she and Simon have made love. That she does understand.
She is eight years old and a light blue ribbon is falling out of her hair. She wishes for her grandmother’s smile, her mother’s fingers fastened around her chin, the bless-us-oh-Fathers around the Sunday table, laid with lace and potato salad and enormous Gulf shrimp still confined inside their thick, glistening skins. Oysters shells line the driveway, and when the aunts and uncles pull up in their trucks, the shells scatter and sigh under the tires. Twelve years later, Chloe thinks about soul mates. The Loyola professor leans toward her, but she knows he’s not the one. He quotes silent films, his lips moving soundlessly. The nearly twenty years spent upriver cannot save her. She’s naked and falling through the night sky, straight through the skylight and into her own bed.
“Maybe you should get a dog,” Simon says. Chloe breathes into the phone’s receiver. She coils a strand of hair around her finger. “A nervous habit young girls should be careful about,” her mother says, looking past the schoolbooks on the kitchen table to the open window. Outside a lilac tree is in bloom and the scent is overpowering. “Your hair is like light,” the professor says, his hand reaching under the table, a waiter pausing near them and then moving on. “Like buttercream,” Simon says, taking a bite of his macaroon. The girls behind the counter at Pistachio Vera all stare at him because he’s worth it. Chloe knows she may be his blond buttercream, his southern thing, sweet between the sheets, but he’s just on loan. “Something small that doesn’t bark too much.” Simon is still a fool, and will soon be back in California where he belongs. Chloe holds the phone away from her ear and is not sorry when the cross-town connection drops.
Chloe wakes up one morning. She is still in Columbus. Or is this all just a dream? Gus is frying up the pain perdu. He winks and pours the coffee. He knows about how easy it is to live in Columbus. Maybe not so exciting, but easy. He prefers Paris, New Orleans, San Francisco. But at the moment, he’s here, and he knows a place that roasts its coffee with chicory. A large brown bag of Louisiana coffee along with a used espresso maker sits on the kitchen counter, and Gus fusses over steamed milk. Chloe’s latte is layered with a design that reminds her of the ferns in her grandmother’s back garden. Chloe stands near a cluster of green, nodding heads and her grandmother says, “I don’t grow them, but they come. Birds eat the seeds, and well, you know, they show up.” Simon is gone for good. Chloe knows she doesn’t belong to him, that the months they spent together were more hollow than filled, that they aren’t soul mates. “It’s time,” he says, weeks earlier. “Time to fly.” She imagines him as an MD-80, cutting a trail across the sky over Columbus and disappearing into the west. After he leaves, she feels as though she is disappearing, too. That’s when Gus shows up. He knows how to take care of a girl, so that she’ll stop disappearing, like smoke, like perfume. Though Gus is a figment of her less-than-dressed mind, Chloe appreciates this. She looks to him for morning coffee, for assurance.
They wind over the Old Delaware Road east-northeast of Columbus, the gray byway ribboning under a breathless sky. It is June and the fields are lush with calf-high corn, wheat thick and waving, low spreading stripes of soybeans. There are no cypress trees standing in flats of brackish bayou water, but llamas mass together under a lone expanse of oaks. Gus points out that they are Swamp Whites, the oaks, and Andean, the llamas. Gus has bought a Ford F-100, which is nearly as old as he is. It is bottle green and Chloe imagines he will use it in his next film. But he says he bought it to take them places. From point A to point B and beyond. The green truck turns up Blue Road, where there is a small farmhouse for sale. Chloe smiles at Gus and shakes her head no. Gravel sings under the tires as Gus puts the truck in reverse, and Chloe longs for the blinding white oyster shell drive of Lake Catherine. She senses that she will wake up soon, that Gus and his truck will disappear and she will be alone again with only nights at the Rumba and days at the university to keep her company.
Schiller Park. The day is a muted blue. Gus is walking the dog, a pug named Lily, across a grassy expanse. She pulls at the leash, and he shouldn’t, but he lets her. She wants to reach the cluster of ferns as quickly as possible. Her place. Chloe sits on a bench and closes her eyes. She thinks of James Booker, that one eye forever closed, light and music pouring from his fingers. “Do you believe in soul mates?” she hears. She thinks it’s her imagination, but it’s a man with a Super-8 camera and he’s filming Gus and Lily. “Sit still and smile,” says her mother. But her grandmother comes into the living room and rattles the walls with her voice. “That’s a moving picture camera. That child doesn’t have to sit still. Better she runs than sits still.” Chloe stands up and, with the grass of Schiller Park all around her, runs toward the lens of the Super-8. “There she goes,” says the professor. “I always knew she’d go far.” She is laughing and running and hears Gus calling and Lily barking. “Butter and light and the right temperature.” Simon holds up the pan, showing off his golden points of lost bread. “That’s all that’s needed.” Chloe runs past the camera, her arms spread open, and the lens zeros in on her and how she moves farther and farther away, a line of light and gossamer, tracking straight through the afternoon and into the rest of her life.