The Ways We Marked Endings

Kathryn Sukalich

A bonfire at Grant Park on the beach facing Lake Michigan. Milwaukee’s skyline glowing to the north, cold sand between our toes, burnt marshmallow falling into the flames. Black waves crashing against the shoreline, inching toward us with the rising tide. We pulled our sweatshirt sleeves down over our hands, fists tight.

A walk around the neighborhood, taking pictures of the places we’d seen, but barely noticed. The highway interchange, the brick apartment buildings, the man in front of the library handing out pamphlets that read, “Got Jesus?”

A half-hearted wave, a door closing, NPR on the car radio. Headlights slicing through smoggy, mosquito-filled air.

In New York, a strawberry sundae at Serendipity, the restaurant whose walls were decorated with so many old photos and ornate mirrors we felt like we’d fallen into a movie from the twenties. The menu advertised a sundae with gold flakes that cost $1000 and required 48 hours notice to assemble. Our hair was grown out, sun streaked. Our heels clicked on the steps to the subway.

A run along the creek in the early morning, beads of dew leaping from the grass to our shoes. The air smelled like fallen leaves and smoke. The only sounds our feet thumping the ground, our inhale and exhale. Sun blanketed the golf course, where the flag on the ninth hole stood still.

A bottle of $5 wine on the tiny wooden balcony, drunk straight from the bottle because we’d packed up all the glasses. We sat crossed-legged, careful to avoid splinters, and watched the tenants in the apartment below move a mattress. The grass in the courtyard grew brown and patchy. We fed the last of the wine to our potted philodendron. In the stairwell on the way out, one of the guys from downstairs said, “So you’re getting out, too? Good decision.”

The ritual “Cleaning Out of the Desks” in our shared office. Finding old photos and postcards we’d pinned up. Empty Scotch tape containers and a pair of flip-flops from a rainy day when one of us tried to keep our dress shoes nice. The air still smelled stale, old, like the day we’d moved in. We recalled the time we’d found a live bat in the hallway, the time we’d found a dead sparrow behind the recycling bin. We peeled posters off the walls, but left the world map where we’d marked the places we came from.

Another bonfire, this time on the concrete slab we called a back porch outside our rented townhouse in central Iowa. The smoke of our burning words—essays, tests, stories—billowed up, blocking out the white-yellow moon. Some said, if you listened closely, you could hear the corn growing, its roots grabbing down into the soil, its leaves curling up into the sky. It made us wish for a moment that we belonged to a generation more rooted, less transient, less prone to packing up and heading out, our cars plunging through the sticky night air to new beginnings.