Road Trip (Stop To Think)

traveling

I love a road trip: an open highway, the hypnotic hum of tire against tarmac, a trip so long I forget where I’m going or where I’ve been. Paradoxically, while catapulting down the highway, I am forced to stop and think. It may take a couple hours to overcome the anxiety of being confined to my seat but after that, I surrender, and the car becomes a mobile home, a snail’s shell, a room with a view, and the only static piece of the scenery is the shape of the windshield I’m looking through, and my mind wanders out of its usual ruts. Somewhere on the highway between point A and B, I roll down the window and lose my mind.

William Saroyan was speaking my language when he said that “Americans have found the healing of God in a variety of things, the most pleasant of which is probably automobile drives,” although I wouldn’t have used the words “God” or “American” because they feel so exclusive. I like to imagine this is a universal feeling, this bodilessness brought on by projecting oneself down a road for a length of time: transportation meditation, transportation in every sense of the word. I’d like to think that even on a tricycle or the back of a camel, even on a road made of sand or dirt or cobblestones, a similar sensation might be achieved.

I like to think it’s a universal feeling, but then I look over at John in the driver’s seat and wonder. Whenever we go somewhere in the car, John drives. Ever since we started dating 22 years ago, he has sat in the drivers’ seat, conveying us safely to our destination. He likes to keep one hand on the wheel and the other on my thigh. His rearview mirrors are angled just so and he doesn’t want to have to readjust his seat every time he gets in, so it’s better this way. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never been in an accident or gotten a ticket. It’s not even because I drive too fast and stop rather short and play the music loud. It has nothing to do with me, he assures me, he’d be nervous no matter who was driving if it wasn’t him.

It doesn’t really bother me. As long as we both decide where we’re going, my independence is not threatened by his need for control. Am I a failed feminist if I say I enjoy sitting idly, dreaming out the window? Besides, I can’t compete with his uncanny luck for finding parking places, so instead of feeling miffed, I have taught myself to see it as part of his charm. He is a careful and attentive man and if being the driver makes him happy, so be it.

In 1993 we drove across country in his little two-door Toyota Corolla, which we’d stuffed with as many of our possessions as possible, such a pile that we had to use the side mirrors to see behind. Metaphorically, this worked for me–I did not need to see where I’d been, only where I was going– but it bothered John, who is always extremely safe and law-abiding. I was packed as snug as a precious vase in form-fitted styrofoam with pillows and blankets tucked in on all sides and a box of books on the floor between my feet and feeling rather silly: an ancillary character in the story, a sidekick without superpowers. We were moving to Wellesley, Massachusetts, where we’d live in the Babson College graduate student housing while John got his MBA. We’d been dating for two years and this was the first step we’d undertaken together, our maiden voyage into togetherness, although John’s itinerary was much more direct than mine.

When we were supposed to be applying to grad schools, I had vacillated, unclear if I really wanted to leave California and my funky rented houseboat, unsure of our future together. I remember standing at the water-warped doorway of my houseboat watching him walk toward me, his leather-loafered feet carefully edging along the rickety planks that led from the dirt parking lot, through a patchwork maze of slumping vessels in various states of deconstruction, to my door. From a distance, he seemed so unlikely, so out of place, the glare from his round glasses cutting through the pot smoke billowing out of open windows, his shirt so sharp and white against a psychedelic mural. Like a shiny ball point pen in a box of melted crayons, a volley ball floating in sludge, he was clearly made for something bigger and better or at least steadier, since the gentle swaying of my houseboat made him seasick. But then he was standing there in front of me, smiling and kissing my lips, and I closed my eyes and breathed in his good smell and forgot about all that other stuff.

In your 20’s you stand at a crossroads with each path leading to a completely different reality. Once you’ve started down one road, it’s hard to get off, so you must choose carefully. John knew exactly what kind of future he wanted but I have always been less sure, not vague but amorphous, not insecure but unbuttoned. At that juncture, I had vastly divergent realities to choose from: I could be a penniless poet working part-time jobs, a fringe-dweller living on a mildewed houseboat on an illegal dock in Sausalito, or I could go to grad school and become a teacher. I could reenact Chaucer’s pilgrimage or Siddhartha’s journey or stick out my thumb and see where it took me. I could go to Japan to teach English, get knocked up by an old boyfriend and move to Pleasanton and work at the mall, or move to Los Angeles, dye my hair blonde, and marry a rich old man. John is as straight as a line, an arrow aimed at a bullseye. I wasn’t sure if there was room for me in his tidy reality, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a passenger on his trip.

The first time I met him I was struck by his unreasonable good looks: broad shoulders, long legs, blue eyes and dark wavy hair: a three-dimensional representation of masculine beauty, Greco-Roman as a marble statue of a frat boy with Sicilian ancestors, something to look at but not touch. He compensated with a chatty Southern friendliness that felt equally alien to me. He was from a small town in Louisiana where everyone drove with one hand so they could use the other to wave at each other while I, from Mill Valley, home base for the Grateful Dead and birthplace of the hot tub, was used to dating moody, damaged, complicated boys with black clothing and unwholesome habits. John was freakishly healthy, unbelievably sincere, and so fucking nice, I didn’t know what to make of him.

When John was accepted to grad school we said goodbye, but as soon as the door shut behind him, it felt unimaginably not right, as if a main vein had been severed and my unborn children had been erased. I felt physically damaged, like the Beast after Beauty leaves, like a snail without its shell, I realized that whatever happened, even if it was rigid or conventional or unlike anything I had ever imagined for myself, that maybe who was more important than where or what.

Driving to Massachusetts was our first exercise in conscious togetherness. I wanted to take Route 66 but John persuaded me that Interstate 80 was more direct. I quoted Jack Kerouac and found interesting radio stations and studied the map for places to stop (selecting the places with the weirdest names) and as we drove, I kept looking over at John, studying his profile for a sign of what was to come.

John is an excellent driver. He drives with unruffled absorption, as if the steering wheel is a colossal thing he has balanced in his fingertips. He drives his car the way he drives his life: strategizing scenarios, primed for danger, never forgetting what he’s doing, never losing control. As a child, he was the kid who had caches of cash hidden here and there– wrapped in a sock at the back of a drawer, stuffed under the base of a lamp, tucked inside a hollowed-our book or in a knothole in a tree — because you never know if the house will burn down and you’ll need to buy food for your family.

Vigilance is a perpetual state of being, an on-the-edge-of-one’s-seat frame of mind, from the Latin vigilare: to keep awake, perhaps a vestigial impulse from a time when humans were prey. Unlike me who falls asleep minutes after my head hits the pillow and sleeps like a drowned person until the morn, my man has insomniac (insomaniacal?) tendencies: one creak, one cough, one bang in the distance, and he’ll lie awake for hours worrying about intruders with semiautomatics, fantasizing about how he’ll cut them off at the front door and detain them with various tools, sports equipment, and pieces of furniture until the cops arrive. John has always been this way: leaning forward on the tip of his toes, tensed for the starting gun, eyes glued to the horizon.

While he’s driving, I’m dreaming. Highways are curious places, so completely devoid of personality. Robert Louis Stevenson understood how I feel when he said, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” I put my hand out the window and feel the air push back. Sometimes it feels like the only thing that keeps me from floating away is his hand on my thigh. Every now and then I look over, reminding myself of his solidity, trying to figure out how we can fit in the same picture. In Massachusetts, I watched him work hard in school while I dabble and played, sampling various jobs, making friends and doing art projects. He powered through his program and had a good job lined up back in California even before graduation, and although I would stay in Boston another year to finish my Masters in Education at Harvard. It would be a test in separation. I agreed to drive him home.

Choosing someone is so hard. You might be yolking yourself to a beast or chaining yourself to dead weight. What if you don’t look hard enough and miss some crucial flaw? What if they want to go somewhere you don’t want to go? What if they are not what they seem? That if that’s all they are? I kept looking over at John, wondering what he was thinking.

We drove back across country but still, he didn’t want me to drive. We had accumulated many things during our time in Massachusetts. It was a long haul to pull off single-handed, but he was worried about the too-heavy trailer hitched to the back. His car was simply too small for its load. How metaphorically interesting, I thought: Suddenly, gravity seemed to be against us. Suddenly, we had become The Little Engine That Couldn’t. It was the middle of the night by the time we’d reached the rollercoaster roads of Pennsylvania and his little 4 cylinder engine was suffering. We hugged the right edge of the slow lane with the hazards blinking while sixteen wheelers blasted past, the impact of their forward momentum tossing our car as if it were made of paper. He’d been driving for more than ten hours straight and his palms were sweating on the wheel when I finally got him to pull over at a fast food restaurant and park the car for a minute.

As soon as the car stopped, John rolled into a ball under the steering wheel and covered his face with his hands. I can’t do it anymore, I can’t do it, he said. You can’t do what? I asked him. He was shaking and his voice was breaking. I can’t move across country and find a place to live and start a new job and work my ass off then get a promotion and then find a better job. I can’t wear a tie and earn six figures and build a portfolio and invest in the stock market and buy a big house and start a startup and find investors and venture capital and go public and get on the board of directors. I can’t. I can’t do it.

His forehead was slick with sweat and could feel his heart thudding wildly against the palm of my hand. I draped myself over him like a heavy, hot blanket and squeezed. I told him I was there. I said he didn’t have to do any of those silly things, that we should make up a better story. I said all we have to do is get some food, find a motel, and go to sleep, that’s all that mattered. I took the keys from his hand.

And that’s when I knew he was the man for me.

There’s something subtle that happens when you sit beside someone for hundreds and thousands of miles. Sleeping next to someone every night for year upon year, you learn something about balancing, sharing dreams, and taking turns breathing.

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About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.

50 comments

  1. Goose bumps at the end. It’s something special to see a man’s scared little boy, and even better if they keep letting you in. Gorgeously written, as usual. xo

  2. that’s what I am looking (hoping) for … haven’t found him yet, not even here in Berlin

  3. Wow, what a story and how lovely to know you are still travelling that open road together!

  4. Ditto everything Laurel wrote! Perfectly written, beautifully drawn picture of a real man, a real woman, a real relationship… Thanks for letting us in! xxoo

  5. Todd

    ‘Bout time you wrote ’bout him. You two really lucked out. He sounds like a really good guy, the type a brother wants for his sisters or old GFs. 22 yrs. is proof you both found the right one.
    Those moody, bad-habit MV dudes were a mess. My sister suffered her share too. I’m pretty sure I graduated from that ilk as well. Sausalito houseboat? Now you’re messin’ with me. I had a Sausalito houseboat dammit. Anchor out… rowed out to it until some frazzle-headed hippie stole my anchor and it got beached in Strawberry during a storm. Was fixing it up, never did live on it. Spray-painted her name on the front… Blind Optimist. My friend Pam Helprin lived on one in Gate 5 too. I came into MV last month via Bridgeway. Almost cried when I saw a pile of dirt and a bulldozer where the Charles Van Damn sat in the mud for so many years… epicenter of a lifestyle gone with the tide. Couldn’t smell the ganja anymore either… friggin’ new world order! Oh well, I haven’t toked up since Reagan anyway… just like to think there are still some woolies left to enjoy the sun while us work-jerks man the ramparts. Congrats Anna!

    • That’s a great line Todd, and a wonderful sentiment. “… just like to think there are still some woolies left to enjoy the sun while us work-jerks man the ramparts.”
      While I too am well past the toking up stage of my life, I do get to enjoy the sun, and it’s nice to know there are people like you who don’t resent me for it.

    • I want to hear more about your houseboat. You mean you never slept there?! What a tragedy. I wonder if that was you rowing past my bedroom window….

      Last I looked, the Gates Co-op was still there. What do you mean, pile of dirt?! Maybe I should go check again.

      • Todd

        Really, Gate 5 still exists in some fashion? Oh good. But are they artists, old hippies, outcasts and other non-conformists, or just more investment bankers? I’m sure you remember the Van Dam was a old pre GG Bridge ferry that for years was kind of an apartment complex for Gate 5ers. Maybe it’s been gone a long time and I didn’t know it, but it ain’t there now.
        My old boat was a flat-bottom river houseboat, green hull, white house. I had it at a dock until they kicked out all the houseboats. I got an old outboard at the flea market for $35. We got it running just long enough to get into the bay. Then the pull rope broke and the single anchor was dragging in the mud. So, with the rocks heading our way my pal “Pud” (aka Eric Weinberg) tied a rope to the outboard and threw it in the bay. Not the greenest anchor but it worked… for a while. I kinda fixed it up on weekends while I was going to SF State. Mainly my pals and I just sat on the deck, drank beers and day-dreamed. Probably passed out on it once or twice but never did move aboard. I did live on my dad’s sailboat down there for a while in high school with another pal who was from Chile. It was a great “bachelor pad” and girls thought it was cool.. or maybe they just thought my suave pal was cool. One day my dad showed up, took one look at the looming piles of empty pizza boxes and beer cans and kicked us off. Oh well, I had just crashed his sports car, he probably figured I would soon sink his boat.

        • I keep waiting to respond, thinking I’ll make it over to see for myself what’s still there, but apparently, my life is too busy for real road trips back to the past. *sigh*

  6. Road trip!
    (Oh, sorry it’s summer and seems like time to go somewhere)
    Well paced story. Last paragraph is perfect

  7. These pieces are a book, you know. And I’m loving every chapter.

  8. I’m amazed by how much truth you can write in something that isn’t fiction.
    And I’m glad you have a man who’s a real man.
    Enjoy every road, Anna.

  9. You have so much talent – and always manage to get straight to the heart of the matter. I just love reading your installments and just can’t wait for the next. Thanks for making my day.

  10. You are both lucky to have found each other and hung on, adjusting when necessary, enjoying the drive.

  11. Well.. this made me cry. You weave words to describe life in a way so tangible, palatable, pleasing and painful. I know these people. I am thankful for having read this this morning, Anna. You’ve helped me understand something I’ve been trying to describe for awhile now. Thank you… so much.

  12. There is always something so unravelling about a road trip. But in a good way… Beautiful and bittersweet. Reminds me of the cartoonist, Michael Leunig, for some reason… One of my favourites of his ( there’s a visual on this link http://community.boredofstudies.org/showthread.php?t=128022 ):

    “Let it go. Let it out.
    Let it all unravel.
    Let it free and it can be
    A path on which to travel.”

  13. I agree with Averil; a memoir is building right in front of our eyes. Save these. My man doesn’t handle people very well. He gets grumpy in crowds and I’m sure a lot of people think he’s a jerk, especially drivers. Part of that is a disease he has. One day I found him carefully sanding and rebuilding a sewing box of my grandmother’s that I thought was lost after falling apart. I told him I wished others could see that side of him. He said ‘I do this for you, not for them.’ That’s my keeper. We’re very lucky, aren’t we?

  14. Nice story! I was just passing through via email link today and in a hurry to move on but I had to read this whole thing as it captured and captivated me. Glad it all went well for you both.

  15. After reading I closed my eyes, and thought about the many miles traveled here. I tried closing them while reading, but had to keep opening them to read more, something about how the crows fly down here in a country that is mostly flat, with a few bumps around the edges. But it’s vast, just like life and its choices. It’s good how above you captured that, the journey, the traveling together, that choices, and directions don’t always have to be fixed to a singular network of destinations. I still like to get lost in the wild places down here, and to travel the roads that lead to them, companions and all. Thanks for sharing a little history, love, and life between places.

  16. Oh yes, a ‘road’ trip. By any transportation possible. Perhaps even a canoe and paddle in the wilderness brings the same sort of sensation. At a different speed.
    I think the first time I fell in love I was in a sailboat. I was 16. It makes me think about what you have said about transitions and how during transition anything is possible. Maybe that’s why a road trip is so seductive.

    Your words often bring me to that state of possibilities. A mental buzz. How I love reading your work, Anna. Brilliant.

  17. Todd

    I’m on a road trip now, in my mind. I’m following my wife’s sister and her husband along Highway 40 as they escape from L.A. for a new life way up in Vermont. Gran Canayon, Arrrrizona, Abakooky, Texoose…. Somehow her thick Cambodian accent makes everything seem light, new and friendly. They’ve never been apart, slept in the same bed until I married her sister. I promised I’d keep them together, to guard their happiness, so far from their country and family. My wife says her sister needs to follow her own path… she’ll like the farm Matt dreams of starting, the small town ways, the quiet, the snow. I hold her close now at night and promise a trip once a year. I tell her she’s right, it’s for the best. Dreams become roads. Roads lead to new places, new worlds and lives, far far away.

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