It dawns on us pretty early on that we must be crazy to drive across America in a small crammed sedan with a cat.
Chicago to Albuquerque: two days, 1,300 miles.
Goodbyes are a tough thing and that’s why I’m doing this—to honor friendship—to bid farewell to a life we’ve lived in two apartments, two cars and countless city bars, markets and restaurants.
And it isn’t sad because we both know this is only the beginning of unchained lives: me returning to the city where I get to work and build and explore; and her returning to her hometown to drop off everything that doesn’t fit into a backpack to go find work on the seas.
The day’s energy shifts pretty early on when I realize that I am no longer a part of the timeframe that keeps people locked and loaded into breakfasts, meetings, lunch breaks and obsessive time-checking around 4:40pm.
In fact, time is altogether irrelevant. We forget quickly where we came from and we lose track of where we’re going because we do not want to be plagued by the haunting question, “Are we there yet?”
We’re really asking a lot of our stomachs and kidneys today. The next 14 hours will be saddled with caffeine, aspartame, guanine, beef fat and pretty much every colored dye #-something you can imagine.
It isn’t long before the side of the road begins telling us where we can next eat, sleep, refill and poop should we so choose, as if to say, “Hey guys, you are not the first to do this and you certainly won’t be the last, you’re just a long string of folks I see everyday doing precisely the same thing you’re doing now.” But it somehow feels…special. It’s a different kind of monotony.
Conversation begins to thicken like salt-water taffy being strung by the wrinkled hands of candy secret-holders. The road gives us time to contemplate and the contemplations somehow feel grander than the contemplations we have just walking down the street.
We think about all the people we love that we are putting miles between right now—and instead of us thinking about how we feel about them, we begin to think about how they feel to be them. How it must feel to wake up every single day and look in the mirror and have Brian’s face and chronological timeframe.
We look back at the cat and wonder if animals recall memories the same way that humans do. Of course we figure they find familiarity in places, but do they reminisce? As we talk, I recall a memory for the very first time—a moment Baby-J and I shared several months ago on our last road-trip. I love recalling information for the first time.
We talk about identity through the lens of racial curiosity—her interest in her own ethnical background which is reinforced by people asking her about it once, twice, three times daily. About her friend who has just as intricate a history, but is never asked because he looks like just another white boy, even though his family has their own plaid and castle in Scotland. About my disinterest in my own background because no one has ever really seemed to take an interest in either telling me about my history or asking about it, leaving me with my dismissive, “I’m a European mut,” response.
And the craziness is that every single person has the same amount of history running through their veins, with as much intricacy and delicacy and wisdom as anybody else, and yet we see color and shape and attribute meaning, as if one set of features is somehow better than another.
It seems absurd that any human could ever possibly look at another person and label them better than or less than.
I am looking forward to the first time we will cross state-lines today, but I will explain that later.
I look behind me because of the cat. The stupid, stupid cat. He’s throwing himself into a panic, and I don’t blame him because we’ve set him up in a carrier roughly one fist-size bigger than his little body (and by little I mean 14 pounds). It’s either let the poor thing drive himself crazy and possibly into a seizure for the next thousand miles, or set up some nooks on top of the duffles in the back.
The driver vows safety and the passenger vows cat-duty, and so we let him out.
We’re in the thick of it. If there were any reservations about leaving, it’s too late to turn back, and we snuggle into relationships with other cars, some of which have been traveling with us for a hundred miles. And when we all get it just right—the road-buddies and us—weaving and following and passing kindly and efficiently—it’s like a drawn out moment of the satisfaction you feel when you clear a line of Tetris.
I take my turn behind the wheel. It dawns on me that maybe speed is relative. (That is all I wish to say about that.)
The license plates start to blend between mostly Illinois, to a thick combination of Illinois and Missouri. We’re traveling to places with completely different folks.
Finally! The state line. I guess Missouri has an arch when you cross into it, visible from the freeway, and Baby-J points this out as if this is common knowledge, which maybe it is (I often find myself out of the loop of common knowledge), but I have never heard of it.
As we cross over, I recall the last time I crossed state lines. I call to mind the man I’ve been trying to put from my mind the entire morning (which I’ve been doing a fairly decent job of until now). I remember he and I crossing state lines from Illinois to Indiana not three months ago and sharing our first kiss together.
I remember it especially because we were already in love when that happened, and isn’t it always a little different when you have your first kiss with someone when you are in the throws of love rather than in the throws of I’m-getting-to-know-you-and-you’re-not-bad-let’s-kiss-and-maybe-date-for-a-while-or-forever?
Now I get to think of all the kisses we’ve shared since then and the kisses we’ll share when I get back.
I am terrified and exhilarated and wholly grateful and in complete awe. If there is any proof of ask and you shall receive, this man showing up in my life is it. I’ll never be the same.
We didn’t burn road-trip cds, which seemed ill-advised at first, but now seems perfect, as we vacillate between stereo quietude and radio jib-jab.
I love that it’s okay to be silent on the road, which we have been for quite a while. It feels so good, so…clear.
I get time to contemplate the last time I traveled across America in my own car. Two years ago when I moved from my hometown in San Diego to Chicago. I remember all the dreams I had of what my life was going to look and feel like, and I remember how fucking huge that trip was.
I am in two internal places right now: (1) I cannot fucking believe I never turned my car around and just went back; and (2) I’m so glad that I didn’t.
Baby-J turns around to check on the cat, who has been mostly cool about this whole situation, all things considered.
Our first burst from silence is Baby-J saying, “The cat is pooping, the cat is pooping—no! Don’t Poop! No!
We had a box for him in the back, but he decided the duffle was as fine a place as any. My first thought is, thank God I’m driving, but that thought is quickly dismissed by the smell. Oh my god, the smell! I thought the smell sequestered to a small closet in the apartment was bad, but holy-moly, this is cough-worthy. This is almost vomit worthy.
We clearly have to stop. In Missouri. Baby-J has done a cleaning job worthy of a gold medal, but it’s time to stretch and apologize to our low-backs and get gas and figure out how we’re going to do the next eight hours because I am certainly not going to go through that again.
I take the cat out and start swatting his fur off him, mostly because anytime we open a window in the car, the car turns into one of those machines where they cram glossy-eyed people inside of them and blow money all around for them to grab fistfuls of their American dream. Only our situation isn’t as glamorous; our situation is filled with gusts of cat hair.
There’s a car that pulls up next to us and a middle-aged man gets out, looks at me, and continues, “Tell me you’re not doing that right here!”
I assure him that I am and ask if he wants to come meet the cat, which he gets excited about. As he starts his way towards me, I see his holster saddled to the side of his belt, and without thinking, I turn to Baby-J and yell, “He has a gun! This man has a gun!”
Thank God he found this charming, otherwise I’m not sure where I’d be right now, but he calmly looks at me and says, “This is Missouri.”
This world has all kinds of folks, man, and it’s fucking beautiful.
We try to get the cat to use the box before we leave the gas station, but we think he’s nervous and he is not a nervous pooper (I don’t blame him).
Before we even get back to the freeway, he decides he actually does have to go, which essentially means that I hold him over his box and pull a trash-bag over his hind legs to make sure he gets everything in there. We aren’t sure which number he’s going, but we smell it immediately and it turns out it’s both of them.
All this means for us is that we have to pull over again and reorganize the cat, the crap, the box, and air out the car.
To about 25 Missourians, we are now the pooping-cat girls—I can be okay with that.
The sun sets and the energy shifts again. For some reason, the sun always sets on my road trips when I’m stopped at gas stations. I’ve only ever had the privilege of San Diego sunsets, Utah, Nebraska, Illinois. Tonight it’s Missouri, tomorrow New Mexico.
I can only be grateful when I’m looking at the sun.
The cat is now passed out in the back, and it feels good to not check on him every two minutes. This whole day I feel like I’ve known what it’s been like to be the parent of a very sick infant.
It’s time for Oklahoma. It is dark and we are quiet and tired—but I also don’t wish I was anywhere else.
Our contemplations have shifted from people we know to people we don’t know. Delilah is talking to sad hearts on the radio, and we listen to Phillip who is heart-broken about his divorce. Eric Clapton starts his song and we talk about what it must be like to be Phillip tonight, wherever he is across America. Maybe he’s right off this exit.
What must it be like to live off this exit? I have no idea how people who live here must spend their time. I feel like I would watch a lot of TV.
I think about all the songs we’ve heard today, songs I haven’t heard for years. Rascal Flatt’s, God Bless the Broken Road—how many wedding receptions were built around that song in 2005? Nelly’s, Hot in Here—did I ever grind with someone to that song in high school, or was that still during the time when I wanted to grind with boys but they didn’t want to grind with me?
We’ve learned a few small but beautiful things in our time together: it takes me eating three and a half Nutter Butters for Baby-J to whiff the peanut butter she’s allergic to; we will know in approximately five seconds when the cat starts mouth breathing because of the smell (I guess this is how people close to me must feel when I forget to brush my teeth in the morning); and the amount of Oklahoma asshole drivers increases exponentially with our tiredness.
This day is perfect. It is long and I hurt and I absolutely cannot wait to be horizontal and unconscious.
But it is perfect.
I’m excited to go back home to my own carpeted apartment (with no cat) and sit on my floor in front of my bookshelf to look through all my favorite road-trip books: Kerouac’s, The Road; Klosterman’s, Killing Yourself To Live; Lipsky’s, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.
And I will be by myself but I will be so connected.
Goodbyes aren’t so bad when you think about them as Hellos to something new.
We are staying in Tulsa tonight—the hometown of my favorite band. And while I sleep in the city they grew up in, they are playing a show in Chicago, the city I live in now. (Time and space is a funny thing.)
In the morning, Baby-J will surprise me by taking me to the acreage they grew up in and the place where they wrote Mmm-Bop, but I don’t know she’s doing that for me yet (I told you time is a little screwy right now).
We have another whole day of cat poops, thought-meanderings and exploring what it means to be two human beings confined into an object hurtling through space at 75 miles an hour.
Tomorrow we get to see the Hardee’s turn into Carl’s Jr.
I can’t wait.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise