Your Destination Is on the Left
We’ve been on the road for five hours already, our skin sticking together in Cyrus’ overheated RV. I scoot closer to him on the threadbare pullout couch, where we’re squished between a basket of wrinkled laundry in desperate need of folding, and a precarious stack of books and auto magazines. The exit for Asheville is only a few miles away, and as soon as we step outside, I’ll have to go back to pretending that the way he plays air guitar when he doesn’t think I’m watching, the way he always smells a little bit like motorcycle oil and Woolite, the way he smiles with only half of his mouth . . . I’ll have to pretend that none of that makes me want to roll over and die of happiness.
His brown eyes lock with mine, flooding my body with the sensation of a cold shower on a hot day.
“You’re staring at me, Dessa,” he says. “You know that, right?”
I jerk back in my seat, and my head slams into the low-hanging cabinet behind the couch. The sports equipment inside rattles. “Ouch.”
Cyrus nudges me, his black skin smooth and warm against my winter-paled shoulder. His lips curl into a playful grin. “I didn’t say you had to stop.”
I look out the window before my blush can give me away. As much as I’d like to let our eye contact linger, I have to stick to my number one rule for surviving nomadic life: don’t kiss the gorgeous guy you travel with. It comes right after “don’t get too comfortable in any one place,” and before “always have a stash of extra toilet paper.”
“I was just thinking about the last time we were in Asheville,” I lie. “It’s been a few years. Remember that hot chocolate place, the one with the line that wrapped around the block?”
“Yeah . . .” Cy’s smile fades, and he tugs at the thick leather cuff he wears around his wrist. At first I’m not sure what I said, but then I remember that the day we had hot chocolate in Asheville was the same day I announced to the families—mine, Cy’s, and the McAlisters— that I didn’t want to travel anymore after I got my GED. That I wanted to apply to art school instead. That I wanted to settle down and get to know a place for more than a few weeks.
In other words, High Nomad Treason.
Cy’s quiet for a moment, his eyebrows pulling together. I run my fingers along the hem of my tattered jean shorts, even though what I really want is to cup his face in my hands and tell him not to worry. But saying everything is going to be okay won’t change the way he feels about me leaving, and even his
pack rat RV isn’t crowded enough to excuse touching his face. Especially not with his dad sitting only a few feet away in the driver’s seat.
Cy bumps my knee with his. “Aren’t you supposed to hear back from UCLA soon? They said they’ll announce who got off the wait list in the beginning of May, right?”
I squirm in my seat, which is awkward since we’re sitting so close together. “I guess.”
“Come on, Dess,” he says quietly. “I know you’re bummed, but a few rejections don’t mean anything. You’re a fantastic artist—you’ll get in somewhere.”
I nod, but what Cy doesn’t understand is that it’s not just a few rejections. It’s everywhere else I applied. The only school left is UCLA, which just happens to be my reach school. If they don’t let me in, then that’s it. I’ll finally have proof of the one thing I’ve always feared: that I’m not a real artist. I’m just some nobody with a paintbrush.
But I’m going to get in. I have to.
“We’re here,” Cy’s dad, Jeff, calls from the driver’s seat. He pulls the RV off the freeway at the last possible second, narrowly missing the guardrail. Cyrus leans into the curve, squishing me against the towering pile of books. “Mashed potato!” he yells.
I make a show of pushing him off, and he laughs. Five years of traveling together and he’s still playing the same games we loved when we were twelve.
Jeff pulls into a gas station and parks near the convenience
store. I climb out of the RV, my knees stiff and achy from sitting for so long. “I’ll see you later?” I call back to Cy, who’s now standing in the doorway.
He gives me a frustrated look. “But we just got here.”
“You’re still not finished? That pre-calc is easy.”
“We can’t all be Albert Einstein.”
“You know Einstein was a physicist, right? Not a mathematician?”
“You should have taken the GED with me last year,” he calls after me, but I’m already jogging across the parking lot to join my parents, arms wrapped around myself for warmth. The heater in Cy’s RV only runs on high, so it’s easy to forget about the cool mountain air outside. I probably look like an idiot running around out here in my tried-and-true travel ensemble of a T-shirt and shorts, while everyone else is wearing a sweater and jeans.
My dad is standing at the pump when I reach him, his thick eyebrows pulled together in a frown. “Gas has gotten too expensive,” he grumbles.
The numbers on the pump tick up, up, up, with no signs of stopping. “Yikes.” I look at Dad. “I need help with math.”
He sighs, his eyes still glued to the numbers. “Don’t we all.”
The door to our RV opens behind us, and Mom steps out. She blinks and throws up a hand to shield her eyes from the
sun. Her silver rings shine in the light. “Dessa? What are you doing here?”
“I live here, remember?” I knock my knuckles against the side of the RV. “Plus I have homework.”
Mom waves this off, her stack of bracelets jangling. “The school year’s basically over and you’ve already applied to colleges. Go have fun.”
I know a lot of parents are strict about homework, but my parents haven’t been in years. They didn’t have to be. If anything, they had the opposite problem. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to refuse to join them on yet another hike through the woods, or into some random neighborhood to try what Mom promised would be the best vegan mofongo you’ve ever had. It was hard to turn stuff down—well, the hikes anyway—but I had to stay on top of my homeschool work. No way was I letting something like biology homework get in the way of finally going to college.
Across the parking lot, Cy stretches and waves.
“I guess I could take a little time off,” I say. “Dad, help me with my math later?”
He’s moved from frowning at the pump to frowning at his receipt. “Mmm.”
“I’m changing, then I’ll go,” I say.
Mom tightens the shawl around her shoulders, as if she only just noticed it was cold, and steps to the side so I can squeeze past her. I jump the two steps up into the RV, nod to my ten-year-old
brother, Rodney, who’s sitting in the middle of the floor playing with his Game Boy, and grab a hoodie and a pair of old jeans I find in the clean laundry bag hanging on the back of the bathroom door. I don’t have to look to know exactly which pair I’ve grabbed. When you travel like we do, you wear the same thing over and over, because there’s not enough space for anyone to have more than two or three pairs of pants. I’m used to it now, but I missed my double closet when we first started traveling.
“Will you guys be here for a while?” I ask once I’m back outside, having quickly changed clothes in my parents’ bedroom. Aka the only bedroom.
“A few hours,” Dad says. “I’m going to park the RV against the fence over there and take a nap, and the McAlisters are bringing their girls over to that jungle gym.” He jerks his chin toward a playground across the street. It looks dingy and depressing, even from far away. There are swings missing from the set, and the monkey bars look distinctly crooked.
“Should I take the twins on a walk instead?” I ask, glancing over at the third RV in our caravan, then back at the death trap we’re all pretending is a playground.
“You worry too much,” Mom says, handing me a large canvas tote bag. “Do me a favor and pick up the ingredients for spanakopita.”
“But only if you find a farmer’s market.”
“And Dessa, make sure the spinach hasn’t been frozen. Ask them—”
“Before I buy it. I know.”
I kiss my mom on the cheek and walk to Cy’s RV. I just hope the McAlisters remembered to get the girls a tetanus shot.
When I reach Cy, he’s leaning against the door, arms crossed over his chest, his face tilted up to the sun. “I’m thinking hot chocolate,” he says, not opening his eyes. “What about you?”
• • •
The Chocolate Lounge is one of the most popular spots in downtown Asheville. It’s full of squishy leather armchairs, worn wood tables, and tons of people devouring every kind of chocolate under the sun. It’s the kind of place where I can imagine hanging out with friends after school. We’d do homework, talk about guys . . . the kind of normal stuff people do in high school. Or at least, what I assume they do. I stopped going to normal school the summer after seventh grade, so the only experience I have with high school life comes from movies.
The line starts halfway down the block, but it only takes about ten minutes before we’re standing inside. I squint at the chalkboard menu, scanning the options. There are five kinds of cake, a dozen different truffles, three kinds of brownie, a bunch of cookies and tarts, chocolate mousse, something called pot de crème . . . and that’s all in addition to a never-ending list of hot chocolates. Cyrus and I turn to each other and grin. There’s no way we’re not each trying at least two things.
The line moves forward.
“Did you ever hear back about that internship you were talking about a few months ago?” Cy asks.
“With Fiona Velarde, the artist in Santa Fe? I wrote the essay but I never sent it in.”
“Why not? You could’ve gotten it.”
I shrug. “She probably got a ton of applications from people with way more experience than me. There’s no way she’d pick someone whose formal art education stopped in seventh grade.”
“Oh, come on,” Cy says. “You take all those online classes. They totally count.”
“They’re only okay.”
The line moves again. I stand on my tiptoes and peer up at the board. Maybe I’ll try a fancy hot chocolate. Or a little cake. I tap my foot with impatience.
“You should have applied,” Cy says. “You never know.”
“With any luck I’ll be leaving for college soon anyway.”
The family in front of us finishes, and Cy steps up to the counter. He orders an almond butter cookie, a French raspberry truffle, and cayenne cinnamon hot chocolate. I roll my eyes at his over-the-top choices, but he just shakes his head and moves to the side so I can order next.
The girl taking my order is short, with a green stud in her nose. “What can I get you?”
I look back up at the board. I’ve been staring at the menu for what feels like forever, but there are so many choices, it’s
overwhelming. “Uh . . . can I have a chocolate chip cookie and . . . a regular hot chocolate?”
“You can get that anywhere,” Cy whispers. “You sure you don’t want to try something different, like the one with maple and sea salt?”
“But what if I don’t like it? It’s not like I can return it.”
The man behind us inches closer to me and clears his throat. Cy gives him a look, and the guy backs off.
“The original hot chocolate is really good,” the girl at the register says with a patient smile. “It’s made with ganache and organic milk. It’s way better than the plain hot chocolate you get at other places.”
“That sounds great,” I say, handing her my money. “Thanks.”
“Wait,” Cyrus says, “can you add two milk chocolate truffles?” He turns to me. “I wanna give them to the McAlister girls.”
He pulls his wallet out again and grimaces. “Actually—”
“Make it three,” I say, handing over my last ten to the girl. “I’ll get one for my brother, too. Rodney loves anything sweet.”
Cy bumps me with his shoulder. “I’ll pay you back, Dess.”
“That’s okay,” I say, accepting my change. “I probably owe you some money anyway. Plus, this way, you have to share the credit with me.”
We take our food and step to the side, where the other employees are calling out the names of people who ordered drinks. I wander over to a corkboard that’s covered in flyers
for guitar lessons, babysitters, and other local stuff. I act really interested in a missing cat poster, but really I’m avoiding talking to Cyrus about him paying me back. We both know I don’t owe him any money, just like we both know he would have said the truffles were from both of us anyway. But he spent the money he made helping his dad fix motorcycles on taking Rodney to a movie last week, and he doesn’t have a grandma who sends him a twenty-dollar bill every holiday like I do.
When Cy’s cayenne hot chocolate’s ready, he holds it out to me. “You try it first.”
“It’s going to be too spicy.”
“It might not be.”
The guy behind the counter calls my name, and holds up my regular hot chocolate. I take a sip, even though it’s way too hot. “Mmmm,” I say. “Whatever ganache is, it’s freaking delicious.”
Cy shakes his head.
We sip our drinks as we walk to the Asheville farmer’s market, where we pick up groceries for my mom. On our way back to the RVs, I take my time, enjoying the way the cool air makes my skin tingle. Half a block ahead, Cyrus swings his plastic grocery bag around and around, letting the loops twist against his wrist. “It’s going to rain,” he says, staring up at the darkening sky. “We should walk faster.”
My cell phone buzzes in my pocket. “Just a second.” I click the email icon on Dad’s hand-me-down smart phone. My
breath catches in my chest at the sight of the subject line.
Application to UCLA.
I open the email, my fingers shaking so hard I almost drop the phone.
Your UCLA application has been updated. Please click here to check the status of your application.
I tap the link, and wait as the UCLA website loads. It happens painfully slow, my phone struggling to find a signal this close to the mountains. The loading symbol spins and spins, my stomach churning with it. This is it, I can feel it. It’s not going to be like all the other places. I’m finally going to get into college. I’ll be able to show my parents that art deserves to be studied, not just created. There will be no more sitting alone in the RV, searching the internet for tips on using negative space in paintings while my family explores yet another small town on the East Coast. No more squeezing my legs together while I wait for my brother to finish using the damn bathroom in the morning. Instead, I’ll be surrounded by other students, holding my breath as a real live art professor leans over my work, critiquing the composition, commenting on my use of light and shadow. And at the end of the day, I’ll go home to my dorm, to my one and only roommate, and we’ll talk about how incredible our new lives are. I’m finally going to start living the life I’m supposed to have.
The life I want.
The website finishes loading. I scan the page, searching for
the words “Application Status.” At the bottom of the screen, I finally find what I’m looking for.
Application Status: Enrollment Denied.
Panic surges inside me, hot and wild. This status isn’t for me—it can’t be. I scroll up, then down again, searching for someone else’s name, an error message, anything that’ll reveal this is all a terrible mistake. I reload the page.
Application Status: Enrollment Denied.
“No. No, no, no!”
Cy looks back at me. “What happened?”
I try to speak, but my throat feels raw. My chest heaves. I can’t . . . I can’t breathe.
Cy’s eyes go wide. “Dessa. Are you all right?”
My brain is fuzzy, like I’ve just woken up. But even through the fog of my misery I can see that he’s staring at me, waiting for me to tell him what’s wrong. I take a step back, my legs shaky beneath me. “I have to go—”
“Wait.” Cy walks toward me, slowly, like he doesn’t want to scare me away. “What happened?”
I look down at my phone, still clutched in my hand. I can’t say it out loud. Won’t.
“Is someone hurt? Is it your parents?”
At the mention of my family, I let out a moan. I’m going to have to tell them, and then everyone will know I failed. Ten schools and I didn’t get into a single one. I should have studied
harder. I should have retaken the SAT. I should have—
No. This isn’t about my math scores, or my stupid grades. This is about my portfolio. My art.
“Oh god,” I whisper as Cy closes the gap between us. “It’s over.”
Cyrus wraps his arms around me. My muscles immediately tense at his touch—it’s too much, I should pull away—but he rocks me back and forth slowly, and for once I let myself need him. I let him hold me together so I don’t crumble to the ground and scatter in the wind.
“It’s okay,” he says. “Whatever it is, it’s going to be okay.”
A strangled laugh escapes me. It’s an awful sound, guttural and full of pain. “It’s not going to be okay,” I say, and pull away from him. “I didn’t get into UCLA.”
“Oh, man.” Cyrus runs his hand over his close-cropped hair, his fingers brushing through the short black curls. “Dessa, I know you’re upset. I do. But you can’t let this beat you. It’s unfair and stupid and they’re idiots for not accepting you. You’re . . . you’re amazing.”
We stare at each other for a moment, the distance between us somehow way too far and yet much too close. If this were a movie, we’d throw our bags down and reach for each other again.
“You’ll get in somewhere else,” he says. “Right?”
His eyes are worried, but also full of hope. Even though he
doesn’t want me to leave him and the families, he still wants me to succeed.
How am I supposed to tell him I’m an even bigger failure than he realizes? How am I supposed to tell any of them?
There’s a rumble of thunder overhead. I hitch my mom’s biodegradable tote up my shoulder. “Come on,” I say, my voice barely more than a whisper. “We should get back.”
We walk in silence for a while, and I can feel all the unspoken words bouncing between us like a current.
Cyrus finally clears his throat. “Do you think that maybe . . .”
He licks his lips. “Don’t take this the wrong way, okay? I love your work, but . . . do you think maybe the problem was your portfolio?”
I tighten my hands into fists. It’s one thing for me to think it, but I can’t believe he’d say that to me, especially after it’s too late to apply anywhere else. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say through gritted teeth. Cy opens his mouth to defend himself, but I cut him off. “I chose the pieces based off the student work they’re showcasing on the college website. Clearly that’s the sort of thing they’re looking for.”
“Okay, okay,” he says, holding up his hands in surrender. “I just wonder what would have happened if you submitted that other painting you were working on.”
I frown. “Which one?”
“The sunburst, remember? Those colors were amazing. It
was like the reds and yellows were busting off the canvas.” He mimes an explosion with his hands, throwing his arms wide. “It was awesome.”
My chest constricts at the mention of the sunburst. It was one of the fastest paintings I ever did—under an hour, while Dad was having the oil changed. You could tell, too. It was messy and bright, nothing like the careful studies in shape and color I’d been doing for months. It felt reckless and alive. I don’t know if it was because I was sick of being cooped up in the RV, or because of the argument about extracurricular credits I’d had with my mom earlier that day, but from the moment my brush touched the canvas, it was like being caught in a tornado. I couldn’t see where I was going. I just had to ride it out.
In the end, I loved it so much that I had planned to hang it over my bed when I got to college. But then the rejections started coming in, and I couldn’t bear to look at the blazing sunburst. It’s lived in the storage compartment by my bed ever since.
“UCLA wouldn’t look twice at that painting,” I say. “It’s juvenile.”
“You’re the expert,” Cy says with a shrug. “I’m just trying to figure out why you didn’t get in, that’s all.”
I’ve been asking myself the same question over and over again for weeks, ever since I got my first rejection. I told myself it was about something other than my work. They had a lot of really talented applicants. They were looking for sculptures, not
painters, like me. Budget cuts forced them to take fewer people. But now that I’ve been rejected from every single school, those excuses don’t work anymore.
I didn’t get into art school because I don’t belong there.
We continue down the street, past the single-story houses with perfectly manicured lawns and freshly painted doors. Above us, the clouds sag under the weight of their collected water, their bottoms gray. We turn the corner, and the neat homes become a row of apartment buildings.
Cyrus swings his plastic bag through the air, letting it fall back against his leg with a thud. “I love when the sky looks like this,” he says, staring up into the moody sky overhead. I don’t look up; it’s going to take more than the weather to distract me.
We round another corner, and the three RVs come into view up ahead. I stop walking and face him. “You can’t tell them about UCLA. About any of it.”
“I won’t. But you’re going to, right?”
I picture the sad sympathy on my parents’ faces, and it about turns my stomach. “I don’t know.”
There’s another rumble of thunder above us. I glance up at the clouds, but Cyrus doesn’t look away. “Dessa, you have to.”
“I will, eventually. But not right away. I need time to think.” A trickle of rain begins to fall. I start toward the RVs. “We have to get inside.”
“Dessa, wait.” He catches my hand in his. “You did your best. That’ll be enough for them.”
I look down at our hands, his fingers laced in mine. “But what if it’s not enough for me? What if I want more?”
“You’ve done everything you’re supposed to,” Cyrus says, pulling me toward him. The rain falls harder, clinging to his black hair. “Maybe try doing something you’re not.”
I swallow. “Like what?”
His lips curl into a slow smile, and he spreads his arms wide. “Stay out here with me until the rain stops.”
“What?” I say, pulling my canvas bag to my chest. “We can’t do that.”
“Why not? It’s just rain.”
There’s another roll of thunder, and the sky opens up. Rain pours down on us, soaking through my clothes. “Don’t go,” Cyrus says, his brown eyes serious. “Give it a chance.”
Water streams down his face, turning his dark skin shiny. He’s so handsome it hurts to look at him. I imagine myself closing the distance between us, wrapping my arms around his neck as he presses his lips to mine. I imagine his warm hands on my back, how I’d hold him so tight and never, ever let go—
A crack of lightning splits open the sky, and I jump back. “I’m sorry,” I say, and take off running across the dirt lot toward the RV.
Cy calls my name, but I don’t look back. If I do, I might turn around and go back. I might kiss him and kiss him and kiss him, just like I do in my daydreams.