5/12/2004

The Deep Breath Before The Plunge

Hard to believe my time here is almost at an end. Hard to believe three years have passed since I arrived one June evening in the Virginia suburbs with a carload of clothes, a guitar, and no prospects to speak of. I will always remember Nuria racing barefoot across a shady lawn and jumping on me with a hug. Because I needed that so badly then from someone. I was exhausted, depressed—a wordless husk—and stayed that way most of that summer. Eventually I found a job and an apartment and a friend or two. Eventually I dug myself out of the hole I’d gotten myself in. I just didn’t expect I’d last so long.

I was born, I think, the perpetual nomadic instincts of a bug caught beneath a windshield wiper. How many hundred times have I had the urge to pack up the car again and flee D.C.? There have been times, winters especially, when almost anything else sounded better: New York, Chicago, California, Rome. I’ve invented mountain retreats for myself, planned a life in Philly, contemplated going to sea. Funny then to find myself finally ready to go in earnest, and forever—and feeling a little wistful for Washington. Walking around beneath the newly minted trees or cruising Mt. Pleasant St. at rush hour, all I can remember are the times I loved it here, instead of the times I felt a thousand years old. In a way, my time in D.C.’s been like a second go-round of high school: passionate in a way that hasn’t always seemed so; stagnant in a liberating sort of sense; a time for experimenting but not at the expense of security. I think it will always feel this way for me here, where I’ve got so much history. Sometimes I’ll look at D.C. and all I’ll see is the mountain of responsibilities I thought were on me, and sometimes I’ll long for all the freedom I couldn’t quite see I had.

Or who knows—maybe moving around so much as a kid has permanently fucked me up. Maybe I’ll always feel this way about anywhere I stay for too long. Maybe even New York will lose its romance. Maybe. But as I cast my sights northward along I-95, I feel a little bit like Johnny Cash in “The Wanderer”: I’ve come out here in search of experience…to taste and to touch, and to feel, as much as a man can before he repents. God willing, the road is scarce begun.

5/10/2004

The Ford Escort of the Apocalypse

Shortly before the end of the universe, my fiancée and I found ourselves entering that long, straight stretch of purgatory known popularly as the New Jersey Turnpike. It had been a tense eight-plus hours on the road, but when I spotted first toll plaza interrupting the flat line horizon, I felt the tight coil around my heart relax a little. That green-and-white Turnpike ticket meant we would soon be home, I thought. In a fit of fellow-feeling, I made the mistake of telling the attendant to have a good one as I snatched it from her fat fist. I thought I had earned at least a smile in return, but her face, when I looked up, was like a mausoleum—weathered, empty, pale—and her thin lips, beneath a faint moustache, were moveless. If anything, there was resentment in her stare—what my Greek grandmother would have called the Evil Eye. I had to stifle a shudder
“Jesus,” I said, accelerating onto the Turnpike. “So much for the kindness of strangers.”
“She’s probably at the end of her shift,” Felicia, my fiancée, said. “Or the beginning. It doesn’t get much worse than working a tollbooth.”
“Fuck her. It’s not Kosovo.”
I handed her the ticket and nudged the Escort up to eighty. I had been driving since North Carolina, where my dad now lived in lonely semiretirement, and my patience had run out somewhere outside of Baltimore, when I’d snapped at Felicia that for Christ’s sake it might as well not even be my wedding anymore. We hadn’t talked much since then.
When I saw the sign announcing the John Fenwick Service Area, I decided it was time for a break. This was early evening, and the light was fading rapidly as, above the dark blue of the immediate sky, broody clouds rolled in. Maybe, in retrospect, I should have had the headlights on. And, yes, I had been putting off getting a stronger prescription for my glasses. And perhaps we were going a little fast when I whipped around the end of a line of vehicles and into the parking lot designated ALL CARS HERE. But, clearly, that other Escort should not have been sitting there head-on in the right lane, directly in my path. My pedal foot spasmed for the brake and my right arm shot out involuntarily to pin Felicia to her seat. I held my breath and braced for the smash as we skidded in dreamy slow-mo across the asphalt.
When I opened my eyes, we had come to a halt, our front bumper less than a foot from the other car’s grille. In the sudden silence, I could hear the tribal drumming of my blood in my ears. “Are you okay?” I asked.
Felicia nodded. “Are you?” Her voice trembled a little.
The other Escort just sat there in front of us, like a slick black egg. Even when I stepped out of my own car, its interior remained obscure behind the smear of streetlight on its tinted windshield. For all I knew, there could have been an axe-murderer inside. Still, I couldn’t stop myself from marching over to the driver’s side window and furiously pantomiming the international gesture for Roll it down.
I didn’t expect the glass to recede so obediently. I found myself face to face with a girl who hardly looked old enough to drive. Her features were East Asian—Korean maybe—and they were braced as if she half-expected me to hit her. But any pity I might have felt was extinguished by the image of Felicia, broken and bloodied by an accident, that flashed before my eyes. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“What?”
“Drive on the right! You could have gotten us killed.”
“I’m just waiting to park.”
“I don’t care if you’re waiting…” I began, but couldn’t think of a way to end the sentence. I was unaccustomed to being the aggressor in these situations. Usually, it was me pinned helplessly in the driver’s seat, boiling over with mute frustration as some jerk yelled at me about clipping his mirror or stealing his space or cutting him off. I had never, in such cases, been able to muster a verbal defense, perhaps because I had never been able to figure out just what it was the aggrieved party was after. An apology? Monetary compensation? Now, with the shoe on my foot, I still couldn’t figure it out. We sat there in near silence for a few seconds. The girl looked close to tears. I had the urge to push her right over the edge, just so she would know how it felt. “You know what?” I said. In the sweep of passing headlights, I could see my own breath. It was not yet spring. “Forget it. Just forget it.”
I turned, stalked back to our own Escort, and got in. My hands were shaking. I took some deep breaths before reaching for the keys.
“Why don’t you let me drive,” Felicia said, kneading the back of my neck with her hand as I cruised for a space. Perhaps there was some implicit critique of my driving here, but I was too preoccupied to call her on it. And so, after visiting the men’s room and scarfing down a Nathan’s hot dog and squabbling again with Felicia, I found myself back on the Turnpike—in the passenger’s seat this time. I knew I owed her an apology, but I was irritated with her for blowing seven dollars on fast food when I was trying to stick to the budget we’d agreed on. I took off my glasses and pressed my forehead, still adrenaline-hot, to the window and watched the woody emptiness of central Jersey rush along darkly beside us, like an underground stream. Within minutes, I was asleep.
In my dream, the saucer-round face of the toll plaza operator was again before me, the skin as white and flawed as expired milk, the eyes so dark I couldn’t tell where the iris ended and the pupils began. They swallowed the light. She looked at me the way a little kid looks at an ant just before lowering a match to its hill. I kept trying to take a ticket, but each time I reached for one, it fell to the ground. I wanted to scream. I never know I’m dreaming, when I’m dreaming.

The boom that awakened me surpassed every other noise I’d ever heard. It sounded like a hammer brought down on five thousand panes of glass. Or like an anvil dropped on a boneyard. For a second, I thought we were back in the Service Area parking lot, colliding with the black Escort, crashing into our own dark mirror image. In the time it took to formulate this thought, though, the sound had ended. I opened my eyes to find a darkness relieved only by the glow of the dashboard instruments and a distant flicker like faroff fireworks. I looked over to find Felicia still in the driver’s seat, steering calmly as ever.
“What the hell was that?” I muttered groggily.
She didn’t answer. Maybe I had dreamed the noise. I turned again to my window. Beyond it, the artillery afterglimmer I’d glimpsed had disappeared. For a minute, I couldn’t see shit. Here, south of the industrial lights of Perth Amboy and points north, there were no gas stations or parking lots or billboards, no truck lanes or buses, no airplines lilting down softly over Elizabeth or complicated refinery pipework etched like a blueprint onto the night sky. I couldn’t even see the pavement rushing by beneath us. Gradually, however, my eyes picked out the background field of stars. Through the smudged glass I watched them waver like droplets on the inside of a shower curtain. Then, one by one, they began to fall. I blinked hard, and when I opened my eyes again, the stars were motionless again. I couldn’t have said for certain whether they were all there anymore.
Strange, the emptiness outside. We glided on as though there was no road beneath our tires. There weren’t even any other cars. I reached out for the radio dial, to fill some of the silence that obtained in the Escort’s cabin, but all I could pick up was static.
My muscles were tensing up again. I reached for Felicia, the way I used to during the scary parts of the movies. I ran my index finger over the hard little nub of stone set on the engagement ring I’d given her—the ring I’d inherited from my mother. Because diamonds, unlike mothers, are forever. Her hand didn’t stir from the emergency brake between us.
“Honey?” I said.
Something was wrong. She continued staring out the windshield, though our headlights didn’t illuminate much of anything out there. I tried to swallow the knot that was forming in my esophagus. What had I done that was so wrong? My mom was dead, after all; didn’t I deserve a little slack?
I do not know how long I kept my hand on Felicia’s (I was the one who pulled away, in the end). Nor can I calculate how long we drifted through the dead vacuum where the heart of New Jersey should have been. Long enough, at least, to make believe that the stars were passing headlights, arclights in mall parking lots, the all-night lights of diners. Long enough to begin to believe that the thick darkness that enveloped us was the smog around East Brunswick. Eventually, we passed the first sign for Exit 13A, and I felt my gut uncoiling again. I knocked lightly on my window to remind Felicia this was our exit. She put the blinker on and we drifted, as though across ice, to the toll plaza that hovered, green and solid, west of the deserted highway. As we approached, my stomach dropped. All the lanes were closed, except for those marked EZ-Pass only. Then, above a cash only lane, a green light came on.

“Hand her the ticket,” I told Felicia.
“What ticket?” she said flatly. They were the first words she’d spoken since I’d fallen asleep. She still wouldn’t look at me.
“The one I handed you when we got on the Turnpike. What did you do with it?”
She didn’t even bother to look for it. “There is no ticket.”
I felt myself growing irritated again. If it weren’t for her slow driving, we would have been in the Holland Tunnel by now, arcing along in the shadows beneath all that water. I leaned across Felicia and spoke directly to the attendant. “Excuse me. Can we just pay you the full toll? We got on at the first interchange.” Like a record spinning down, my voice died in my throat as the featureless blur outside the window resolved into the face of the tollbooth attendant.
“What took you so long?” she asked me. This time, I thought I could detect a faint smile flicker beneath the black whiskers of her upper lip. “We’ve been expecting you.” Blinking didn’t make her go away.
I heard my tone grow unnecessarily shrill. “Can’t we just pay the maximum and go?”
“You’re not going anywhere.” There was definitely a smile. A predatory smile, with a gold-capped incisor at the center.
“I think I’m confused,” I told Felicia. She still wouldn’t meet my eye.
“Don’t you get it?” the attendant barked in her Essex County brogue. “You’ve run out of road. It’s over.”
“What’s over?”
But in a way, I think, I’d known for some time. I looked out the windows. All around us was emptiness—behind, above, below. There was only the Escort, and the toll plaza, whose red and green lights were swallowed by the darkness. And the stars, like wallpaper. Already they seemed thinner, dimmer than before. I felt carsick. I slumped back into my seat.
While we idled there on the outskirts of a dead universe, my mind continued to race along, as though that still mattered. What had happened when we entered the Turnpike, took that ticket? “If you want to know,” the attendant barked in an Essex County brogue, “It’s your own fault.” From where I sat, her head was obscured by the roof of the car, but I could see her hands dangling like dead fish just outside the open window. All of a sudden, I desperately wanted that window closed.
“Roll it up,” I said, but Felicia appeared not to hear me. When the attendant began speaking again, I reached across for the button. But one of those massive paws reached in and grabbed me by the wrist. It was as dry and hard as bone. “She’s can’t help you none now. You’re both already dead.”
“Bullshit,” I said. I remembered how, as kids, we covered our ears and sang I can’t hear you over and over again to protect ourselves from the truth.
“See,” she continued calmly, pedantically almost. “Your universe is a lot like your Turnpike here. It was designed with certain limits in mind. How many. How fast. How much. It was only engineered to withstand a certain amount of anger. Beyond that? It breaks down. Tonight, it was right at that limit. What with war, disease, infidelity, and whatnot.” She snorted contemptuously and let my wrist drop. “And here comes you with your little grievances. Blowing your top over this and that. Like there were no consequences. You’re the straw that broke the world, so to speak.”
A bead of sweat rolled over my ribs. I could feel my scrotum tighten.
Almost casually, she added, “You know, even now, if you could let go of something, the Authority might see its way to doing some repairs.”
I leaned across Felicia again, careful not to touch her. “You mean things could go back to normal?”
The attendant shrugged and crossed her fat arms over her chest. When it became apparent that she wasn’t going to say anymore, I rolled up the window and leaned back in my seat. I decided to try: I held my breath and shut my eyes. I peeked to make sure Felicia wasn’t reaching for my throat or anything, but she just sat there lifelessly, staring straight ahead, with her hands at ten and two on the wheel. When I closed my eyes again, I could still see her like that. Dead, the attendant had said.
I tried not to be angry about that. I tried instead to remember her self-absorption, her thriftlessness, her stupid wedding fantasies. Honest to God, I tried. But I kept seeing the lips I might not get to kiss, the veil I might not live to lift, the kids who might never splash around in the sprinkler we might never own. When my throat tightened and my fists balled and shook and hot tears leaked from my clenched eyelids, I tried to tell myself it was grief. But it wasn’t.
I felt the car gliding backward, away from the tollbooth, and returning to the Turnpike again. I couldn’t see the attendant’s face anymore, but I imagined it was smiling.
I squinched my eyes tighter, until little lights danced on the backs of my eyelids. Sinking deeper into the worn upholstery of the passenger seat, I tried to remember what I had to gain: the warm bed; the morning; Felicia’s arms around me; the burble of the coffeemaker coming on; the waiting shower. Even now, I told myself, I could wake up to this. But I kept seeing my mom, laid out in her coffin like a slab of cold meat in a butcher’s case. And my dad, wasting his life in front of the TV. And the news on that TV, the oil spills, the bombs, the children burnt alive. The poor girl I’d screamed at in that parking lot. All the other people I’d mistreated. Goddamn if any of it was fair.
So how are you supposed to feel but angry, even with the universe on the line?

Even now, I know, this Turnpike we’re still on could end. The toll plaza attendant said so, and I trust her implicitly. Even now we could find our way back to the world, return it to the dazzle we missed the first time around. But probably we won’t. Change is hard. Probably we’ll be on this road forever.