I don’t know why I did it. I walked off of the subway this morning and there was another across the platform, going back the way I’d come. It was empty, and the doors were open, casting a warm yellow glow across the platform. It was so inviting. None of the other commuters seemed to notice it. They pulled their coats tight around their middles as they strode with purpose towards the escalators, bracing themselves for the shock of the cold air at the top of the subway steps. I walked across the platform and through the opened doors, taking a window seat and setting my bag on the seat next to me. I had the car all to myself.
I got in my car and drove west. I watched the road stretch out in front of me and I drove. I drove and I thought about the people in the cars around me, wondered where they were going and where they had been. I left the city behind, watched the buildings grow smaller and farther apart. I watched the roadsides become more unkempt, watched liquor stores increase and pedestrians become more disheveled. I drove and I watched houses replace businesses, watched the houses grow larger, then smaller, then larger again, and finally the road stretched out in front of me and the speed limit increased to 80 and I just drove.
I’m going to keep driving until I get to the ocean, then I’m going to get out of my car and walk into the waves and I’m never going to come out.
I don’t know why I did it. One minute I was on my way to work and the next I was running in the opposite direction. I’d packed a lunch, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and an apple. If you want proof I didn’t plan this, I’d packed a sack lunch, to eat in my cubicle, and instead I got in my car and started driving across the country. I’m hungry. I pull the brown paper bag from my backpack, an act that’s reminiscent of childhood, and I’m reminded that nothing has ever changed except my expectations. I shake my lunch from its brown paper wrapping and bring the bag to my lips, breathing into it, like they tell you to do if you’re hyperventilating. It swells and deflates with my warm breath. I don’t feel any better but I don’t feel any worse either. I’m also not hyperventilating. I bite into the apple. It’s soft and I can feel its flesh begin to decompose on my tongue.
I don’t know where I am. I can’t remember the last sign. “Welcome toâ€¦” or “You Are Now Enteringâ€¦” I don’t want to eat my sandwich. I imagine my car running out of gas, imagine myself pulling off to the side of the road and folding my body into the back seat to sleep, in my silver Toyota under the stars. It will be cold. I imagine myself pulling the wool blanket from the trunk, shaking the cold from it, and huddling beneath it, eating my peanut butter sandwich. I can see a truck stop in the distance. It looks close, but everything looks close out here. The land is so flat and the road so straight it’s impossible to tell how far into the future you’re looking, how long it will take you to reach the horizon; whether you should count the time in minutes or days.
I reach the truck stop and pull up to the filling station. When I swipe my debit card the card reader prompts me to enter my zip code. I had a zip code once, in a past life. Although it was only this morning I already feel as though I’ve forgotten it. As I punch in the numbers I think of the science museum. The last time I’d visited they’d asked for my zip code, to determine whether to charge me the cheaper rate for residents. It had been my favorite museum as a child; I’d wanted to be a scientist, to unlock all of the secrets of the universe. I feel a wave of sadness wash over me as I remember standing in front of the human body exhibit, looking at the well preserved cadavers with their skin peeled away. There were dozens of bodies, bodies with lungs scarred from cigarettes, bodies with tumors, bodies with brain injuries; there was even a pregnant woman, her abdomen segmented to show a fetus curled inside. It was a travelling exhibit, and I’d stood there thinking of the curator disassembling and reassembling the show in different cities, packing the cadavers into body bags and loading them into a van, wheeling them on dollies into the next museum and the next, after hours, standing them upright in new glass cases. Never in my life had I felt so ordinary. I seal the gas tank and decline my receipt.
The truck stop diner is brighter than I thought it would be. The counter shines, bathed in the glow of the overhead lights. I run my hand over the vinyl stool before taking a seat at the counter. It’s navy blue, smooth and clean. There is a row of glass ashtrays lined up near the coffee pots. I’ve either crossed state lines or driven through a wrinkle in time.
“Coffee?” The waitress leans toward me, resting her elbows on the counter, a white mug dangling from her index finger.
“Yes, please.” She sets the mug down and turns to reach for the coffee pot. She’s thin with the kind of blond hair that’s almost white, like a baby’s. You can tell it’s natural by the way her eyebrows fade into her skin, and by her eyelashes, which are transparent. They’re mascaraed, but it doesn’t reach all the way to the root, creating the strange illusion that they are hovering just above her eyelids. She can’t be more than 20 years old.
“Something to eat?” She asks as she pours my coffee.
“Yes, please.” I say again. She hands me a menu and sashays to the other end of the counter to fill coffees and take orders. The menu is enormous and the font is small, the pages cluttered with entrees and sides, appetizers, platters and combos, lunches and dinners. I lean over the counter, my forehead almost touching the plastic page, as if to absorb my options.
“Ready to order?” I look up, startled. I realize that although I’ve been studying the menu intently I have no idea what I want, no idea what they even serve. It’s as though I’ve stepped outside of myself and lost time.
“What do you recommend?”
“People really like the French dip.” She says.
“I’ll have that then.”
She puts in my order and pulls a pack of cigarettes out of her apron, tapping it on the counter.
“Mind if I smoke?” She asks. I shake my head. I wonder if I would have liked working at a diner.
“Can I buy one off you?” I ask. I don’t smoke anymore, nobody does, but it seems like the right thing to do. She shrugs off my attempt to press a dollar into her hand and sets a cigarette and an ashtray on the counter.
“Where’re you headed?” She asks, handing me her lighter. I light my cigarette and hand it back.
“California,” I say, holding in the smoke while I speak then exhaling. It feels good, smoking. Why did I ever quit? The act of it makes me conscious of my breath, aware of the fact that I’m alive.
“Business?” She asks. I nod. “What sort of business you in?”
“Oh, that’s interesting!”
“It really isn’t.”
“I don’t even know what a consultant does,” she shrugs.
“Neither do I,” I shrug too. “I really don’t!” I really don’t. Every time I explain my job to someone it feels like a lie. She laughs.
“You’re funny.” she says, stubbing out her cigarette. As she walks back into the kitchen a thin stream of smoke rises from the ashtray. I finish my cigarette and put it out on top of hers, pressing them to the glass until they are both completely extinguished. She came back with her arms full of plates, deftly swapping the dirty ashtray for my sandwich. “Holler if you need anything,” she tells me as she breezes by.
It is the best French dip I’ve ever had. I devour the entire sandwich, sopping up as much juice as I can with the warm crusty bread. I pay my bill and look at my watch. It’s almost five o’clock. I wonder how many times my boss has called. I’ve turned off my phone. I could probably turn around and drive home, could probably show up at work tomorrow with some kind of excuse, some kind of lie. It would be as if none of this had ever happened. I set the phone down on the counter and walk outside.
There’s a general store across the parking lot. I walk in to get a toothbrush. I can’t believe how many products they carry. They’ve got everything a truck driver could ever possibly need. I wonder if I’d have liked driving a truck. I think I would have. Driving all day and getting fat from truck stop food. Not talking to anyone for hours, or days. They even have clothes here. I buy a pair of black flip flops, a pair of gray sweatpants, and a package of three white undershirts, v-necks. I also buy a travel toothbrush and a tiny tube of toothpaste. They even have showers at this truck stop. I buy miniature bottles of shampoo and conditioner, and a miniature bar of soap. Irish spring. It costs $10 for a shower. I don’t need a shower; I took one this morning, but it seems like the right thing to do. I take the hottest shower I can stand, and follow the directions on the tiny shampoo bottle: lather, rinse, repeat. I’ve never lathered twice before. It’s nice. The second time the shampoo works itself into a thick foam, trailing down my neck and around my shoulders. It reminds me of being a little kid, taking a bath with Mr. Bubble. The scent of my new soap and shampoo mingle with the steam, filling up the stall. I feel so clean. Like a new person. I put on my new pants, shirt, and shoes. It’s begun to snow; fat wet flakes swirl around the parking lot and melt on my toes as I walk to my car. I drive fast, into the snow, and the flakes look like stars as they race towards my windshield, like I’m flying through space.
I drive all night, buoyed by coffee. I never used to drink coffee. I like it. Maybe in my next life I’ll be a coffee drinker. The sky lightens from black to almost black, the color of an old television screen after you’ve hit the power button but before the picture snaps on. The sun peeks over the horizon, fiery red. It oozes streaks through the sky as it rises, magenta, lavender, tangerine. It’s stopped snowing. I crack my window. It feels warmer. I wonder what time it is. I’m sure I’ve crossed a time zone by now; I’m either in Colorado or Wyoming. I’m sure I’ve gained an hour overnight. I wonder which one, which hour I’ve lived through twice. 10:00 pm? 3:00 in the morning? I should have paid closer attention. You don’t get many opportunities to go back in time.
I pull over and get out of the car, stretching my arms toward the sky. My colleagues are probably on their way to the office now, sitting on commuter trains with their lunches in their laps. Starting work early as they ride, checking their emails from their phones, always tethered to the office. I’m hungry. I don’t what to eat my peanut butter sandwich. It’s all I have left. I take my coat off. It’s chilly, but I want to feel the air on my skin. I gather a handful of pine needles from the side of the road and crush them between my fingers. It smells like Christmas. I bounce up and down on my toes. My legs feel restless; I’ve been in the car for hours. I jog a few paces ahead of my car and back. It feels good. I start to jog again. My flip flops smack loudly against the soles of my feet. I push off the ground, harder with each step until I’m sprinting down the shoulder of the road, my feet barely skimming the ground. I run faster and faster until my lungs burn and I slow to a walk, crossing my fingers behind the back of my head and breathing hard. There’s something on the road ahead of me, something black. It looks like a garbage bag. I wonder what sort of thing someone throws out of their car out here, in the middle of nowhere. A body? I walk towards it. It’s too small to be a body. Maybe it’s a bag full of money. Blood money. More likely it’s just trash. Empty soda cans and candy wrappers. As I approach it I realize it’s an animal. A dog. Medium sized, black hair matted with blood. It’s alive, and it stirs as I approach. Someone must have thrown him out of their car. What kind of person throws a dog out of their car? I stop and stand at the side of the road. I don’t know what to do. I take off my coat and cover him with it. I look around. I can’t leave him here. I scoop him up, wrapping him in my coat as I carry him back to my car. I take an undershirt from the pack I bought at the truck stop and soak it with water from my water bottle, cleaning his fur. His wounds aren’t as bad as I’d thought. The fur is scraped away and the skin is raw but no longer bleeding. He shudders as I rub the blood from his fur. “It’s okay,” I tell him. “Good dog.” He’s probably hungry, and so am I. I lay him in the back seat and drive.
The land flattens again as I drive west, and the trees become smaller and fewer. By the time I finally reach a town I’m starved. Gotham, population 436. Gotham, what a strange name for a small town in the middle of nowhere. I drive through slowly. The houses are small and far apart. They are all in various states of disrepair, and their lawns are littered with debris. I don’t want to stop here, but I don’t know when else we’ll have the opportunity to eat. The dog has grown restless and is pacing the back seat. He slides into the door as I stop at a red light. A stoplight; this must be the main street. I make a right turn. “You hungry, boy?” I ask him. I park my car. I crack the back window and tell him I’ll be back. It’s dead here. Nobody is out. I walk past a pharmacy. The lights are off and the window display is dusty and full of bugs. Cockroaches, brown and fat, climb over each other. Is this a ghost town? I feel like I could be dreaming. I hope I haven’t fallen asleep at the wheel. I hope I’ve not crashed my car and died. I pass a diner. It’s full of patrons. Everyone in town must be eating there. A bell chimes as I push through the door. I see a cockroach in the glass behind the counter, crawling over the dusty peppermint patties. I turn around and leave the diner. I stop at a gas station at the edge of town and fill my arms with crackers, muffins, bottled water, as much as I can carry. I pay the cashier $26.02 without speaking. The dog and I eat in the car.
I wonder how far to California? I’m exhausted. I keep driving. The trees and dirt are replaced by rocks. The landscape is like a watercolor; the soft rusts and corals. People talk about overpopulation but I haven’t seen a trace of human life for at least an hour. I’m in Utah now. There’s a missing girl, three years old; still a baby, really. It’s national news. She was taken from her crib while her parents slept. There were pictures of her at the last rest stop. I pulled in to let the dog relieve himself, and when I went into the bathroom to wash my hands there were sketches of her hanging. She was blond, with curly hair and fat baby cheeks. I look out of the window and wonder if they’ll ever find her. She could be anywhere out here, her small body tucked into a crevice between the dry rocks. She’s been missing for weeks. I wonder if her parents realize that she’s probably dead, or if they are still hopeful. I hope they never drive out this way. It’s hard not to think about her small white bones, the hot wind sucking them like lozenges until they disintegrate. I drive faster.
I reach the salt flats before nightfall. They’re like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The hard earth is white and cracked with salt. I’m tired, and as I let my eyes slip out of focus it looks as if I’m driving over a frozen lake, the ice splitting beneath me as I drive faster, trying to escape before I sink beneath the floes of ice. I pull over to the side of the road and get out of the car. The dog hops over the gearshift and follows me out of the driver’s side door. He’s made a remarkable recovery; he must have been more dehydrated than injured. The dog lifts his leg and urinates on the tire. I hop over the guardrail and he follows. I’m stuck with him now, for the rest of my life. I should probably give him a name. Fido. Fidelity. It’s true what they say about dogs, how loyal they are. You can treat them however you please and as long as you give them a pat on the head every once in a while they’ll stick around. Someone had to throw this one out of a moving car to be rid of him. I think I’ll call him Steve. I lean down and press my hand to the hot white earth. I bring it to my lips and taste it. I’m deliriously tired.
“Are you tired, Steve?” I’m talking to a dog. He looks at me, head cocked, long tongue unfurled from the corner of his mouth, gently bouncing up and down with each breath.
“Do you think we can make it to Nevada?” I don’t think I can make it to Nevada. My eyes burn. Steve follows me back into the car. I stop at the first motel I see.
I park my car in the farthest spot from the entrance so that no one will be able to see Steve from the front desk. It’s a Budget â€˜Otel. I don’t know if that’s one step below a motel or if it’s just supposed to be cute. It’s one of those L shaped places with a rusty railing wrapped around it and an outside door for each room so you don’t have to run into anyone while you’re there. I check in for the night and pull my car around to room 116. I lay down on top of the stiff comforter. Steve lies next to me. I’ve been awake too long and my jaw aches. I can’t quiet my mind. What have I done? The curtains are drawn and I lie in the dark, my heart racing. Steve jumps down from the bed and trots to the bathroom to drink from the toilet. I think of California, think of the Ocean. I imagine I’m lying on the beach, on the sand. I pretend I can’t feel the hard coils pressing into my back, or the scratchy comforter against my cheek. I’m laying on the beach, under the warm yellow sun, listening to the waves crash against the shore, the white foam lapping at the soft undersides of my calves and arms, at the small of my back. The waves come closer and closer until they wash over me and then I’m completely submerged in the water. Luckily it’s salt water and so I float.
I sleep forever, or at least it feels that way. When I wake up I’m calm. I empty my backpack onto the bed. Three new undershirts wrapped in plastic, toiletries, and a peanut butter sandwich that’s three days old. I peel the aluminum foil from around the warm, warped sandwich and take a bite. The peanut butter is soft and grainy and sweet, and I start to cry, I don’t even know why. I dump the rest of the contents of my backpack onto the bed. A torrent of pens and paper clips gives way to a drizzle of cellophane and receipts, tiny particles of dirt and sand. I shake it until it is empty. I take a shower, unwrap the motel’s soap. I’m going to wash myself with a different soap every day for the rest of my life, I tell myself, but the wrapper sticks to the soap, and the soap doesn’t smell like anything but an ecru smudge of warm wax, so I walk naked to the bed, water still running, to get the Irish Spring, leaving a trail of wet footprints behind me.
I leave everything except for Steve and the clothes on my back in the motel room when I check out. Except my wallet. I tried to leave it behind, and then went back for it.
As I drive into Los Angeles, traffic increases. For the first time in days there are cars to all sides of me, close enough for me to see the drivers, close enough to hear the faint beat of the radio emanating from their cars, close enough to read their bumper stickers, to see the air fresheners and parking passes hanging from their rearview mirrors. The freeway is congested and we drive slowly, slowing further as the cars’ brake lights light up in front of us, red and bright, first one and then the next, like a message passed back. Driving is strange. There are so many of us, side by side, cooperating perfectly towards our own individual goals. It’s the closest I’ve ever had to a spiritual experience. Steve is in the front seat, beside me, and I stroke his fur while we slowly approach the coast.
I can smell the beach before I see it. Sand and salt and seaweed. I find two bungee cords in my trunk and loop one around Steve’s neck as a collar, using the other for a lead. I’m proud of my resourcefulness in doing so, prouder than I’ve been of anything for a long time. We walk down the shore until we come to a rock ledge. I crawl across it on my hands and knees. Steve runs ahead. There’s a secluded beach on the other side, and I sit on the sand, beside an old lifeguard tower, watching the sun throw sparks over the rippling water. Steve lopes across the sand and wades into the ocean. He comes back with a strand of seaweed in his mouth, and lies at my feet. My whole body feels warm. I hear shouting, and Steve’s ears prick up. I see children scrambling across the ledge, racing over the rocks, shouting to each other as they approach. They must have seen me cross and been curious as to what lay on the other side. I stand and use the bungee cord to tie Steve to the lifeguard tower. The wood is soft and rotten. It won’t hold him for long, but it will hold him for a while.
“Good dog. You’re a good dog.” I tell him.
I can hear him barking after me as I walk into the water, letting the waves wash over me.