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.