Thirteen Ways of Looking

I. From above

There’s a car in the river, the boy repeats, pointing. 

I stand beside B at the window opposite, clutching the sleeve of his denim jacket and gazing out at the county suburbs that sprawl westward six hundred feet below, the houses like spilled pills. It’s my first time inside the Gateway Arch, though I’ve lived in St. Louis for nearly six years. To get to the observation room at the Arch’s inflection point, B and I waited in line and folded our limbs into a tiny white pod and climbed an elevator shaft for four agonizing minutes like bile up a throat. At the top, the air is sticky and stagnant. We are both hungover. The floor curves slightly, and I’ve tacked my gaze to the horizon so I won’t throw up.

B hears the kid before the tourists do and tugs me by the wrist across the observation chamber’s sliver of carpet. We follow the line of his finger. It’s one of those winter days when it’s evening all afternoon, light sprawled across the cloud sheets in a bleary torpor. Snowmounds crowd the water like billows of plastic, the surface stolid as cement. A throb to the right of the old riverboat—there, a sedan’s white skull bobbing beside an ice floe.

No one saw the car enter the water, not even the boy who spotted it first. In the absence of a current, the hull lolls like a slumbering manatee, roughly equidistant from the two bridges that flank the Arch, linking Downtown to Illinois across the Mississippi. The opposite shore is a mirror of this one: a gray tableau of casinos and factories and freeway onramps, though without the art deco office buildings hunkered on narrow one-way streets. Against Downtown’s patchwork of brick and stone and orange cones, the Arch has always struck me as unsuitably elegant, even organic, opalescent as a dragonfly wing. In the right place at the right time, its silver scales reflect the sun setting to the west, as though someone has stretched the sky to a filament and swung it above their head like a jump rope.

Squinting at the bridge, we can make out no broken trusses, no gathering crowds, no indication that the car hurtled into the water from the deck. Just a lone police cruiser idling on the levee, silently strobing blue and red. After a few minutes, the patrol car slowly reverses down the footpath and out of sight.

 

II. Through a camera lens

B and I bug our eyes at one another. He swipes open his phone camera and zooms in as close as he can, so close that the car’s white skull becomes a hieroglyph, then a smear, until it dissolves entirely into a haze of pixels and ice shards.

B submits the picture to a locally crowdsourced Instagram account, essentially a sideshow of St. Louis strangeness. Most of the content is car-related: a Ford Taurus with a silver sheath of tattered duct tape for a rear windshield, captured with its shreds fluttering on the freeway; a maroon Honda pitched nose-down into a parking lot like a seesaw at rest. Beneath our picture of the car in the river, the owner of the account writes, Doesn’t get more St. Louis than that.

 

III. On a map

When I moved to St. Louis from California’s Bay Area for college, I discovered that students rarely took public transit. St. Louis was a city built for cars, not for people—or rather, it was a city that had been built for people and later destroyed for cars, entire neighborhoods razed to clear pathways for the seven interstates that branched westward like bronchial tubes in a single lung. Neighborhoods like Old North, splintered into butterfly-wing slivers by I-70, or Dutchtown to the south, where I-55 charged straight through the front yards of houses left standing like abandoned sentinels, or tombstones.

The interstates all radiated from Downtown on the city’s easternmost edge, which made it easy for the white people who’d fled the city back in the fifties and sixties to commute into work from the burgeoning suburbs way out west. The suburbs where B had grown up, where he still lived when I met him: in the basement of his mom’s new house, or rather in the basement of his mom’s new husband’s new house. In our early days, he commuted into the city every morning, often before dawn, when he was scheduled to open at the coffee shop where I’d asked for his number along with my cappuccino. If he got off before seven in the evenings, he lured me away from my schoolwork to wander beneath the colonnade of ginkgo trees in my neighborhood so he’d miss the evening traffic. When I was busy—or, more accurately, when I was feeling stressed enough to withstand being lured—he went to the pub up the block, where the bartender with the big hair plied him with free drinks until he felt like leaving. Sometimes he stayed so long that I finished my work and met him there. 

To get to his mom’s place, we drove further west than I’d ever been, past my therapist’s office in a Creve Coeur strip mall, past the highway exits for Memphis and Chicago, and over two bull-necked bridges. The roads in the suburbs looked like highways themselves, with high speed limits and numbers instead of names. Then, abruptly, one sharp turn and you’d be there, inside the labyrinth of beige and sage and cream, like leaning on a bookshelf and swiveling into a secret room. Streets had cutesy, delicious names, like Butternut and Wild Cherry, or names memorializing forms of transport long obsolete: Stage Coach Landing, Covered Wagon Trail, Palomino Path. Pickup trucks with huge saw-toothed tires dozed in the driveways. B’s sixteen-year-old stepsister had one, a big black beast I would’ve had to kick my leg nearly chest-high to clamber into. She drove it to school, to her twenty-something-year-old boyfriend’s house, and to work at the Subway down by 364. 

There was a metro, but the red line terminated a full twenty-three minutes by car from B’s new house, and that was without accounting for traffic on I-70. The two short routes—red and blue on the transit map, like the veins on anatomy diagrams—ran almost entirely parallel to one another, bisecting St. Louis horizontally into north and south along the same schism that separated the city into Black and white, impoverished and prosperous. The lines didn’t diverge until they reached West County, and then only narrowly, like a stethoscope. Once a year, on the morning of Mardi Gras, my classmates and I hopped on the blue line towards the baseball stadium and joined the hordes openly chugging Busch Light in Cardinal’s koozies. The rest of the year, like everyone else, we drove.

 

IV. Over your shoulder

One of my happiest memories: we wake groggy and sticky and warm. He takes me out to breakfast in a café that is also a plant nursery. This is new, the morning, experiencing something bright together. I melt as he studies the menu and selects green eggs and ham. He melts as I gasp over the tiny tabby cat that winds its way between my shins; he does, I see him melting; his eyes widen and he reaches across the table for my hand, then releases it. I’ve forgotten my friend’s hat all the way across town at a bar pressed right up against the riverfront, tangled at the heart of two intersecting interstates. Even so, he offers to drive. He rolls the windows down and blasts a band he calls always, though it’s spelled with two V’s, and I love it, the sunny pop-rock fizz of the guitar, the guileless peal of her voice like a bell. The sky is blue and the brick buildings are a red that glows as if from inside. I swear I’m studying the route on the map, but the road looks like a highway and there are three lanes and we’re in one and not the other and suddenly we’re sailing onto the bridge and over the Mississippi, the wind whipping my hair around my face and into my mouth, sticking to my tongue because I’m laughing so hard at him shaking his head at me as we cross into Illinois, the Arch soaring in a silver solar flare behind his head. 

 

V. From a fire escape

But especially the fire escape zigzagging like crooked vertebrae behind the sublet I move into the summer after I graduate. There’s a light mounted above the landing outside the back door that flicks on automatically in the dark and drenches the place in green. At night we huddle beneath the light like caged reptiles, smoking and nursing cans of Stag and gazing out at the giant parking lot behind the building, segmented into smaller parking lots by the strategic placement of dumpsters and telephone poles. The glare patterns the cement in gingham through the encasement fence, squares of light yawning irregularly in places where the iron filaments have been pried apart, as if someone once tried to claw their way out. The light is the same noxious neon of the coolant that leaks from somewhere within the intestines of B’s VW Golf, puddling on the pavement by the front-right wheel. The car keeps dying unexpectedly in the middle of the road, and if parked, it refuses to start unless he pours coolant into a hole under the hood from a jug he keeps in his backseat. When the jug runs out, I pick him up from wherever he’s been stranded, even once after midnight by the freeway onramp, even as he slurs over the phone that he’s fine, he’s walking, he’s good. 

 

VI. From behind a bar

Any bar. But especially the one on the roof of the hotel, the one with the pocked plaster moon that swivels on a spit driven into the banister on the balcony. Watch it spin. On the street below, the lights on the theater marquee twinkle, and a horn cuts the night as someone runs the red. See the boy push through a flock of boys who look like him in their checkered street shoes and jean jackets, watch him charge at the girl, pick her up and twirl. Discrete clumps of locals orbit one another on the balcony, no matter how cold, while the hotel guests cluster near the bar. Watch them emulsify as the night goes on. See the boy reach across the bar to clink his shot glass against that of the boss man with the tribal tattoos twining down his skinny white forearms; weeks later, spot the boy behind the bar, stocking Stellas and Buds, winking at the girl over the shoulders of the Motown Monday crowd jostling for a beer. See it happen like that, the dissolution of the membrane; the bar gulping people in, sweating them back out, the faces gone liquid, blurring into one. Watch the boss man pour three shots of whiskey after close, one for each of them, which the girl takes even though she shook her head no. On Halloween, see the boy in his baseball shirt, seated at the bar beside the boss man, both of them without a jacket despite the chill. The smattering of locals out on a Thursday night ebbs as the trios of thirty-something single girls in their apathetic cat ears finally give up and head home. The boss man does the same, nodding goodbye as the girl enters and takes his seat. See the boy stumble to his feet, take the girl’s hand, lead her to the elevators; a few minutes later, hear the fumbling clink of the car keys into the lock on the driver’s side. She asks him if he’s sure, if he’s okay, and he replies as though it’s the most obvious thing in the world, Yes, of course, yes

 

VII. From below

St. Louis’ foundation is riddled with holes. Twenty-four thousand feet of limestone caverns, to be precise, tunneling through the earth just three blocks southeast of my apartment in Benton Park, beneath the carcass of the old Lemp Brewery. In the 1800s, as waves of German immigrants to the city brought light beer into vogue, brewers took advantage of the caves’ natural refrigeration to store their kegs below ground. Men got rich. Men like Johann Lemp, among the first to put the caves to use, and the first to make it big; men like Eberhard Anheuser, father of the brewery that fathered Budweiser, whose campus still sprawls on nearly one hundred and fifty acres on the banks of the Mississippi, slender smokestacks puffing like lit cigarettes. St. Louis became a beer town and stayed that way. But the caves fell into disuse after the spread of artificial refrigeration, and once again after the end of Prohibition, and once again after the closure of the private museum that burrowed under the corner of Broadway and Cherokee Street. Finally, in the sixties, the caves surrendered to the freeway. The Highway Department purchased the land above the museum’s cave entrance and imploded several lengths of tunnel to make way for I-55. 

There are still a few select locals with access to the remaining fragments. Beer guys, mostly, like the men who own the brewery on Cherokee and take their friends on short excursions through the belly of the arts district. Then there’s the group of self-taught archaeologists who hike the tunnels to sift through old trash, photographing ink bottles, tires, headlights. They don’t remove the specimens. They document them, leave them to rot, then return to see how they’ve changed over time.

I liked to imagine the abandoned arteries beneath my feet as I trotted toward my favorite café, hanging a left off Jefferson down Cherokee, past the florist and the brass instrument shop and the vintage clothing boutique that smelled like couch cushions, the drone of the cars on 55 mounting steadily behind the tree line. It would be cold below ground, I knew. The air rank, slick. In the glow of an industrial flashlight, the ceiling would vault in an upside-down half-pipe, perspiration plinking from the rough-hewn stone. Debris everywhere; sewage, too. An empty swimming pool belonging to the Lemps, along with a Bavarian theater, a bowling alley, a ballroom. According to a paleontologist who exhumed thousands of fossils from the caves during the construction of the museum, in the cavity that was once the theater, crude floodlights still gather dust. He recalls shuddering as he realized that the floodlights were aimed at the remains of a playset: a rendering of the wall of a cave fashioned out of plaster and wire screen. A cave inside a cave, a story inside a tunnel, an invisible city beneath the visible one, filled with bones.

 

VIII. From a moving car

A year before B and I spotted the car in the river, after I ended things the first time, he sent flowers to the office I worked from on Mondays. The bouquet was stunning: white sprays of wildflowers, sherbet-orange roses blushing pink at the tips, ferns delicate as paintbrushes, portly fronds of eucalyptus. At five o’clock, I buckled myself into the driver’s seat with the vase clenched between my thighs. The ferns’ feathers scratched at the skin of my stomach through my dress. 

One block from my apartment, a red sedan missing its left mirror nearly ran the stop sign. I slammed on my brakes. With the bouquet in a cloud up to my chin, I couldn’t honk—instead, I uttered a hoarse yelp. Screeching, then a soft crunch as my chest crushed the flowerheads against the wheel. The driver paused and decided to let me pass. I waited until I turned the corner to flip him off.

My cheeks burned. I wanted to beat my hands on my steering wheel and scream, Fuck you. Fuck you. I tried to shout it once, but it came out strangled and soft.

Earlier that day, my editor had passed my desk on her way to the bathroom and asked, What are you celebrating? She noted my confusion and jutted her chin in the direction of the bouquet.

Nothing, I stammered. She lingered for a beat, then cocked an eyebrow at my silence and moved on. She’d always been kind to me. I could have told her that there was nothing to celebrate but the crack of his VW crumpling against the bumper of a moving car sounded—and smelled—like fireworks. Or that there was nothing to celebrate but the fact that underneath all the blood, technically, nothing was broken.

 

IX. Numerically

In 2018, the year after I graduated college, St. Louis clocked in ninety-ninth in the category of ‘Driving Safety’ on a list of one hundred U.S. cities. Car parts always littered the road. Hubcaps, blown-out tires, shreds of bumper, smatterings of windshield. I wove around the debris. After the accident, when I passed a car’s snarled skeleton on the highway, I often had to make a swift exit and weep for a few minutes. 

 

X. Allegorically

Coming up over the hump on I-64 West, a great eagle hovers over the highway. On the electric billboard, a pointillistic display of tiny lightbulbs, the eagle has tangled one wing in the maw of a scarlet letter A. It thrashes both wings up and down, up and down. The bird’s head is flung back, beak open wide as though crying out in pain, or triumph, or both. Below the billboard, the word Budweiser is scrawled in lambent red cursive. 

As you sail closer, the burned-out bulbs inside the A make themselves known, freckling its stocky Eiffel-tower legs. A few more die off every year. Someone in the car shouts, Flapping or filling? and you all train your eyes on the bird. If the eagle stills, the A will empty and go dark, then begin to fill with red-orange light from the bottom up, rising toward and past the bird’s naked throat, like water leaking in through the crack beneath a closed door, or beer sloshing into a glass.

You root for the bird. You count the wingbeats. 

The eagle is a hole, a way in. A letter in the alphabet that makes the language of the city. You aren’t from there, but you’ve always been a fast learner. There’s a thrill to it, the learning—the zing of connection, the electric promise of the familiar. But stay for long enough, and the edges of synecdoche blur, then dissolve; the eagle becomes the city itself, trapped in the throes of either ecstasy or suffering, a kind of Sisyphean hysteria. A monument to movement that goes nowhere. 

You have, at distinct points in time, looked at the eagle and found it majestic, impassioned, aggressive, frenzied, terrified. Unconsciously, you read your own life into the city’s signs, layering emblem over emblem until eventually, no matter how you’re looking at the city, you are always looking at the city from a moving car—more specifically, your car, driving B home after he gets off work at the bar, rounding the corner towards his apartment and passing the mangled carcass of his VW. You can see into the car’s flayed chest cavity in your rearview mirror, a tangled mess of tanks and tubing, scorched black. 

 

XI. From a living room window

Or it’s that time when the red hatchback sails past my apartment at two in the afternoon and crashes into the tree on the firehouse lawn. I dash to the window and pause before I look. The front of the red car has snarled itself in the tree bark. Firefighters jog out in twos and threes as the driver’s side door swings open. All I can see is an arm, but the men seem to be laughing, incredulous, relieved. The driver hobbles out of his own accord, and a few hours later the car is disentangled from the oak and dragged off the grass by a tow truck.

Or it’s that time when I’ve fallen asleep curled into an armchair, a book splayed across my lap, and I wake to it, the sudden symphony: the crescendo of the strings, screeching horsehair over steel, building—the moaning cellos, the violas, the shrill violins—until, finally, the resounding boom of the bass drum as the horns blare in harmony, the crashing of the cymbals. Sparkling above the cacophony, the effervescent tinkle of the triangle, light as shattered glass. Then a keening. Ohhh. Ohhh.

Or it’s that time when I’m heading to the kitchen for an afternoon snack when the symphony crescendos and crashes in an instant, over so quickly it feels almost ecstatic, and I rush to each window, working my way across the living room from right to left. On my third try, I see them, a gold four-door and a big white truck hauling a small trailer of wood behind it. A woman spills out of the front seat of the gold sedan, hobbles a few steps, sinks to the ground, and begins to wail. She is pregnant. I don’t have a fucking stop sign, she says. I don’t have a fucking stop sign. Over and over. I see Neighbor Jonathan standing on the sidewalk already, punching numbers into his phone. A young, baby-faced transplant, like me. He is barefoot. I can’t help thinking that he looks like a Hollister model in his cobalt blue polo shirt, his distressed bootcut jeans. His smooth pink toes. Once again, the firefighters look both ways then jog across the street. One of them carries a large black bag. They kneel at the woman’s feet. 

Or it’s that time I’m reading on the couch after midnight and, like the whirr of a cricket from the trees, I hear a dial tone. It’s the inside of a phone ringing, the outgoing call, too loud to be far and too faint to be close. Brrrr. Brrrr. Brrrr. Out the window, I see brake lights across the street, the car’s hot exhale in the dark. Then a woman’s voice. Hello? The gargle of her reaches me as if through water. You good?

 

XII. Metaphorically

The city is a body broken. That’s the title of one of my favorite poems. In the poem, you lie in bed with the speaker. You face away from each other, light falling thick across the mussed sheets. Your body—yes, yours—a victim of erosion, turns bone. She jumps from a bridge and breaks a foot. Bedridden, she blames the sores that coat her mouth, though it’s her foot that’s swollen. I can’t help imagining the speaker as a girl my age: reckless, stubborn, trying. Distracting herself from her problems with her own problems, the way I pinch my thigh to steal pain from the burn on my arm. Or how, after the crash, I worry the torn flap of tissue behind my upper lip with the tip of my tongue to keep my mind inside my mouth. Or how a city destroyed for cars transforms a bridge to a pedestrian pathway, how it sends a wrecking ball to revitalize, layering roads on top of roads on top of the graves of invisible houses, willing the ghosts home. 

Or how, for a while at least, B stops driving. Then he stops driving after drinking. But he never stops drinking. We drink less, but we never stop drinking.

The city is a body broken. Really, two bodies broken: one, eroded bone, the other, flesh rubbed raw. Which of us has become the natural disaster? she wonders in the poem. I can’t decide if she means the question rhetorically, if there’s a correct answer, or an answer at all.

 

XIII. From the audience

The boys are grieving in front of us, and we are grieving in front of them, below them. It’s November, a year after the accident and a year before the car sinks into the Mississippi. Everyone is here, so it’s noticeable that the boy we’re grieving is not, the boy who played guitar for the band and died in another car crash two weeks ago on the interstate, going west. I never met him. I don’t even think he and B were close. But B is close to people the boy was close to, people I’m close to now, too, and I feel the absence in the room, the humid sorrow passed like a cough. That’s how it is here, I’ve learned. We keep the world small so more is shared. While the lead singer makes a solemn speech, I fidget and sip my drink too fast. 

When he finally strikes the strings of his electric guitar, the crowd begins to heave and roil, an impulse sent rippling neuron-quick through the crush of bodies from the stage to the door. I take a giant step back until my spine presses into the bar to avoid the shoulders crushing shoulders, pitching forward and around and back, channels of force and movement and ecstasy and anguish that collide and overlap like surface waves. B whirls at the heart of the pack. On stage, the drummer stops playing, but for a few minutes no one notices beneath the beat of their feet on the floorboards. Then the song breaks into quiet, the guitar picking its way up and down a minor chord; the drummer sobs into his elbow, his drumsticks clutched in one hand. We watch as the seconds tick down, as his shoulders shake and B takes a step toward him, a hand outstretched, but at the last breath before the breakdown he raises the sticks above his head and brings them down in a great crash upon the cymbals and we go wild, screaming his scream for him. I think about the cacophony reverberating in the empty caverns beneath our feet. I think about the man who once shouted Goonies never say die from the cave below at a group of kids in this very room. We surge forward, so close to the stage we almost suck the singer into the fray, more edges dissolving, more molecules careening, spinning with the centrifugal force of children with their hands clasped tight, and for the first time tonight, I think this anguish could be mine.