As Ava watches through the train window, the city is reduced to a clean reflection of itself. The early sun glistens equally on gentrified neighborhoods, gritty factories, and toppled gravestones. Cars and pedestrians move purposefully in the distance, without noise. Except for the occasional teenager on his cell, the riders are also quiet, staring out as she does or closing their eyes while they sit straight against the back of the seat, packages balanced on their laps. In the rush of the train is a kind of stillness she knows nowhere else in the city, but also a special sadness, as if the riders, especially the women and the old, are weary of the places they must go and wish to keep traveling on.

    Then the train enters the station and glides to a halt. The doors slide open. She walks down the platform, swallowed into noise and smell and hustle.  She moves onto the sidewalk and past the fruit stands at the corner of Marietta and Techwood, where most mornings a homeless man with a handsomely wild beard is inventing a blues riff. And then she arrives at her office, where the world closes in even more tightly, the latest murders, natural disasters, and political scandals coming in over the wire, where she is world-weary and cynical, where this is commonly thought by her colleagues to be the only attitude to take toward reality.

    Her days often end at night, with a couple of drinks and dinner at Little Sal’s, three blocks from the office. She is usually not alone—they are a tribe of sorts, her news crowd, especially the ones without someone to go home to, which is most of them. Then she is back on the train again, only this time she is one of the riders with a straight spine and closed eyes—she is truly exhausted now, and besides, through the window there are only scattered lights in the darkness, just a dim echo of her morning vision.

She knows herself well enough to admit it: she goes on defense, becomes a warrior at the gates, when outsiders visit her in the city. It’s funny that she thinks of them as outsiders, since they still live in the place where she spent the first 18 years of her life: her mother and father, her aunts and cousins, a few high school friends. The only person she has not looked at this way is her grandmother Dial, who has visited once and was so eagerly childlike in her attention to the life of the city that Ava felt an enormous tenderness for her.  They spent two days taking in all the sights. In other company, Ava would have felt stupid in the Coca-Cola Museum and the Cyclorama, but with Dial it was different. She didn’t criticize. She didn’t observe, however politely, that people act so differently in the city or that the traffic was just unbearable (how did she stand it?) or that there are just so many black folks. And Ava believed her grandmother didn’t really even think these things—she was having too much fun to be provincial.

    So when her cousin Janette calls and leaves a rambling message saying she will be in town for the apparel mart for a long weekend and she’s very nervous because this is the first time—after all, she’s only had this new job at the dress shop about three months—but surely it will be fun anyway because in the evenings they can get together like two young single women and go out on the town, Ava feels her armor click into place. Two young single women, she thinks. Janette is married with two young sons—sweet boys, her mother tells her, though Ava has seen them only twice—and she wants to act young and single, but what does she think Ava is? At thirty-five, perhaps not so young anymore, but she is single. And free.

    So, on Friday morning, she assembles an all-black outfit—not uncommon for her, but this one is particularly cosmopolitan: pencil skirt, strappy slingbacks, tight blouse with just a touch of flounce and more cleavage than usual. She sits next to the window on the train, soaking in her city’s morning glory, feeling keenly how well she will extol its virtues over dinner that night. Then, finally, late in the afternoon, she is on the train to the airport, still, she thinks, looking smashing, though not so giddy anymore. The prospect of dinner with Janette, attractive in the abstract for its qualities of noble battle, now seems like just another dreary struggle to fend off assault.

    Then she is negotiating the crowd at baggage claim, feeling a little foolish in her garb, looking for Janette. It has only been six months since Christmas, so she knows what to expect from her cousin: colorful, well-coordinated blouse and skirt and dainty heels; whitened teeth; diamonds in all the traditional places; a little flip in the ends of her highlighted hair. And when Ava picks her out of the crowd, yes, she is decked out as expected, and she is bouncing on the balls of her feet as she watches suitcases move down the conveyor belt. Ava stands back a moment, suddenly less certain of who to be in this encounter, but then pushes her purse back on her shoulder and walks stiffly toward her cousin.

    Janette swoops her floral print suitcase off the line and turns with a wide smile just as Ava reaches her. “Ava!” Before Ava can refuse, she leans in to give a graceful half-hug and then launches into a detailed account of her flight on the commuter plane. Ava tries to listen, watching Janette’s peridot earrings dangle and counting the rings on the hands her cousin is moving through the air for emphasis. Then she is lost in the sensation she has had in countless airports around the world, surrounded by so many people so uncertain of one another, trying to get their bearings as boundaries are asserted, revised, forgotten. She feels the layers of stories swirling around them and steers her cousin out of the knotted crowd, even though in Janette’s tale the plane is just circling to land.

    On the train, Ava can breathe again, though Janette continues talking. They sat so long on the ground in Atlanta, she says, but somehow they still made it to the terminal on time. Her boys (by this Ava surmises she means her husband as well as her sons) are just going to have to make do without her for two days—she worries about them, she says, but they’ll go out to eat and her mother will look in on them and hopefully the house will not be a total wreck when she gets back. She keeps this up all the way to the Midtown station, never once looking out the window. She never takes notice of their fellow passengers, either—the usual Friday night mix of wrinkled corporate types and the weary poor—and they studiously ignore her in turn, though this Ava expects. Instead Janette stares at some point in the air just a few feet before her and Ava’s faces, and Ava begins to wonder if her defense of the city will consist of pointing out to Janette that she is in it.

    Janette does not begin to decompress until they are off the train and into Ava’s car. As Ava maneuvers through the leaden traffic, her cousin’s excited prattle slows to a low, even hum and she gazes out at the shops and art galleries and pedestrians melting together in a blur of streetlight. Finally, at the restaurant bar, where they sit waiting on a table, she actually puts her hand on Ava’s arm. Ava recoils slightly, bracing for the first of her cousin’s criticisms. She has already catalogued the available targets: the scoop-necked blouses of the trio of women next to them, the prices on the wine menu, the gay bartender who poured their cabernet, pinky ring flashing.

    “Ava,” says Janette breathlessly, “I have just been so thrilled about this trip. And here I am!” She spreads her hands as if she has just appeared out of thin air and she cannot quite believe it.

    Ava has absolutely no idea what to say. She had heard what Janette said on the phone—that they would be buddies out on the town—but she is not prepared for this unabashed, girlish level of excitement. She fumbles for words but can only come up with, “Well, I hope you enjoy yourself.”

    Janette laughs as if Ava has just given her permission, and her torrent of talk begins again. This time, however, she is completely tuned into her surroundings, lusting after the diminutive purse of a woman walking by and the over-sized chocolate tortes in the dessert case, wondering over the menu when they are at last at their table.  As Ava puts her menu back down, Janette is just getting started. “These chefs,” she says, “Tommy and me, we watch them on the Food Channel. If I tried to use a knife like that, I’d wind up in the emergency room. And all these new-fangled things they come up with. Everything sounds so good, I just don’t know where to start.”

    This goes on through dinner. Ava makes half-hearted efforts to contribute bits and pieces, but it is not really a conversation they are having. Janette is so exhilarated with her naïve vision of life in the city, Ava thinks, that she practically sparkles from it. So Ava does what she has been practicing for years: the din of the restaurant roaring around her, Janette deep into her next effusive observation, she moves under the surface, where everything is reduced to the blur of movement around her and the smooth feel of a wine glass under her fingertips.

    Janette just keeps on talking, never noticing, though this is not the first time she has chattered away against the wall of Ava’s retreat. For her whole life Ava has been too porous. Early on, as she absorbed too much from other people—her mother and father, friends, cousins, aunts, uncles, even strangers on the street—she intuited that their stories might drown out her own. She grew more comfortable with measured stories on the clean pages of books. She learned how to look attentive while her mind was elsewhere. Finally she started writing stories herself. Feeling herself somehow outside of the world, the one whose true talent is to chronicle from the perimeter, has given her the only real security she has ever known, amidst chaotic family gatherings, in the smelly crush of school, and later among weirdly elated soldiers. The only places she has not felt the insistent pressure of other people’s lives have been her grandmother’s farm, where Dial moved with silent purpose in her garden, where hawks crying and calves bawling worked like music on her mind, and in the medieval abbeys she secretly sought out in Europe, hiding from her colleagues her thirst for the empty walkways and gardens inhabited only by ghosts.

    When Ava realizes her glass is empty, she pulls herself back into the noise of the restaurant and hears that Janette is asking her a question. She hears, too, on her left and right, the volume rising, the intensity of people talking and laughing, forks and knives chiming on plates. “I’m sorry, Janette, I couldn’t hear you.”

    Janette is still smiling over what she has just said, obviously thrilled at contemplating so much freedom in a woman’s life. “I said, do you miss being on the road or are you happy back in Atlanta?”

    Ava stares at the approval in her cousin’s face, completely unprepared to answer. The bedrock of her escape from Mississippi had always been that she was different, that she was unadmired, a girl who bucked the script in a few too many ways. A girl who couldn’t see there was such a thing as being too intelligent or too adventurous. And while she was away at school and then leaving behind every comfort to work in remote countries, Janette was planning an elaborate wedding, quitting college to have her first child, living within the confines of the world as they had grown up knowing it. Living smugly and secure, Ava had always thought.

    Ava twirls her wine glass at the stem and glances around them at the shuffle of busy diners. She cannot admit that she is tired either way, that one place or the other, there are too many people to stumble over. That she knows how to read other lives too well, much better than she does her own. “Atlanta’s a nice break,” she says finally, falling back on her standard line. “Reliable roads, clean water. Easy money.”

    Janette smiles her approval. She glances around, too, but with obvious appreciation.

    Ava looks at her cousin and thinks, impatiently, that it is time to break the spell. “Come on,” she says. “You need to see more of the city.”

Her friend Walt regularly throws large, expansive parties, though Ava does not tell Janette this on the drive to his loft. “He usually has people over on Fridays,” she says nonchalantly, though she knows the place will be teeming with the usual eclectic crowd—grunge types smoking pot, in-town artists and literati, students from the art institute adding new coats of graffiti to one concrete wall. She knows the music will be deafening. She knows how much she herself has grown to dread Walt’s parties, that on any given Friday night, she’d rather lie in bed like an old woman, watching late night TV, than stand around with people as tired as she is but drunk or stoned enough to pretend they’re not.  And she knows that Janette has never been to a party like this one.

    After they climb the shabby stairs up to his door, Walt whisks them in, showy as always, kissing Janette on the cheek and whisking her by the hand around to anyone who seems halfway interested in an introduction. When Ava has a drink in hand, she says hello to a few writers she knows and then drops into a butterfly chair to watch shock spread across her cousin’s face. But she is disappointed: Janette’s smile remains as open as in the restaurant, even when she shakes hands with Dan the metal artist, whose tattoos extend from his neck down under his shirt and out onto the backs of his hands, and even when she chats with Jolie, whose eyebrow stud is connected to the one in her lip with a chain. She moves about earnestly, talking without ceasing, flitting, Ava thinks, like a bird.

    Ava feels the pressure of the music inside her head and sinks, like a burrowing animal, deeper in her chair. The room rolls into a sea of shifting color, and she focuses on an abstract canvas above Walt’s refrigerator until her friends Susan and Dar come over to invite her to the gallery show they’re mounting. She responds and smiles and nods, laughing when they expect her to. She nurses her drink.

    Then very quickly Walt is calling everyone to climb to the roof to watch fireworks over the baseball stadium. Ava glances about for Janette—the route to the roof is a vertical iron ladder with small rounded rungs, not really a smooth ascent for someone in petite, pointy-toed shoes. But there is Janette, already on her way up, guarded from behind by a man Ava has never seen before.  When Ava finally pulls herself onto the roof, the fireworks are beginning. She makes her way to the edge, squeezing into the crowd next to Walt and leaning out over the wall. While others watch the sky, some gasping at the explosions, she watches the light flash and trail away across the crumbling neighborhoods that surround the stadium, low frame houses with dilapidated porches in front of broken sidewalks. She keeps her eyes on the houses even between explosions, imagining the people who live in them and how tired they are, how much they resent the splendor exploding over their quiet beds. Then, in the flashes of light, the houses are brilliant, on fire it seems, not themselves at all.  When the finale begins, Walt lifts his glass to the sky and kisses the women around him, though Ava doesn’t give in to him, just turns her cheek wearily in his direction. That is when she spots Janette down the wall, leaning up toward the face of the man who helped her onto the roof, smiling as if she is expecting something.  Ava turns back to the darkened vision of the city, leaning out into the night air.

    When everyone else is off the roof, Ava climbs down and searches for Janette. She finds her leaning against a column, a fresh drink in her hand, laughing at something the man is saying close to her ear. Ava stands in front of them, waiting to be noticed, looking down into her empty glass.

    “Ava, there you are! I’ve been looking for you.” Janette puts her hand on the young man’s arm. “Ava, this is Roland. He’s been telling me all about his summer in Belize.” She leans toward Ava and says in a half whisper, “He’s a writer and a scuba diver.” She laughs through the last two words like they are an inside joke.

    Ava looks at Roland, who looks back at her. He is wearing a vintage bowling shirt and black Converses. Ava recognizes the look, including his droopy eyelids and the day’s growth of stubble on his face. She fakes a smile in his direction and then turns back to Janette. “I’m worried that you’ll be tired tomorrow morning.”

    Janette checks her watch. “Midnight!” She smiles and looks longingly up at Roland. “Guess I have to turn back into a pumpkin.”

    As Roland leans in to kiss her on the cheek, Walt swoops in and circles one hand around Janette’s waist while lifting his glass in Ava’s direction. “Here’s to the wild belles of Mississippi,” he says.

    While Janette beams, Ava steps back slightly, disgusted to be caught in the net of Walt’s generalization—she and Janette grouped together in this way, the same kind of women, the same fable. Walt won’t let Ava get away, though—he moves to her next, embracing her like they are about to waltz, pressing himself against her as if she is a blank slate on which he can write whatever tale he invents in the folds of his inebriated mind.

    “I’m not a belle, Walt,” she yells through the music.

    “Of course not,” he says, smiling down into her face, and then he kisses her quick and hard on the lips and is off across the room again.

    “What a mess he is!” says Janette as she pulls Ava by the hand toward the door, half turning back to wave goodbye to Roland. Then, as they are stumbling down the stairs in the dark and moving toward the car, Janette begins her chatter again. In her version, it was a party to be remembered—glittering characters and conversations, not seedy or shocking.

    When they reach the hotel, Janette turns toward Ava. “You know what I tell my friends back home?” she says. “I tell them that when I grow up, I want to be single and live in Atlanta, just like my cousin.” Then Janette lets out a self-pitying laugh, but Ava is not sure if it is real.

Ava is lying in bed the next morning, awake but still, when Janette calls. She has been imagining their conversation, certain that Janette will be full of regrets, covering for her behavior by apologizing for drinking too much or complaining that she should have gotten more sleep.

    Instead, Janette gabs happily: she has such great stories to tell her co-workers about her night out on the town with her cousin, she knows they will give her a hard time for flirting so much, she can’t wait to come back again.

    After listening for what seems like a long time and then mumbling her goodbye, Ava lies still a moment longer. She could return to sleep, but she knows it would not be peaceful. If she listens hard enough, she can hear the hum of traffic building on the street. She rises, slides on clothes, grabs her keys and wallet. She gets into her car and drives with the window down, the cool morning air dense with the scents of her immense village, its exhaust and cooking, its jumbled, stewing human smells. The long ribbon of her freedom unfurls before her, gray asphalt going to places she does not know how to imagine.

Kim Whitehead's story "The Split," first published by, was selected for Best of the Web 2008 (Dzanc Books). Her fiction has also appeared in storySouth, The Distillery, and Third Reader. She lives with her husband and son in Columbus, Mississippi, where she teaches at Mississippi University for Women.

Back to Freight Stories No. 3


Kim Whitehead

The Visit