“Two people are alley cats; we have an unhappy cat
He is restless, needs attention, loses patience, seeks affection”
It's not that the heat is particularly enjoyable, causing me to sweat profusely in clothes that still have to cling uncomfortably to me for the rest of the day. Nor is it purely the fact that I despise the cold, so much so that when summer's swelter comes around, I can't in good conscience allow myself to slip into ingratitude for the seasonal reprieve. It's simply the feeling I get when that stifling air rolls in, when even the ordinarily welcome breeze is conspiring with the devil to offer no soothing relief, that I am in a time of infinite possibility. It's a deep-seated reaction, lingering from those carefree years when with that oppressive weather tagged along unparalleled liberty.
It’s tempting for me try to pin the blame on this involuntary emotion welling up, rising from the depths of childhood nostalgia, for coercing me into believing it would be anything but a shockingly inappropriate idea at best to undertake a cross-country road trip alone with a girl who I'd met mere weeks before, willfully waving aside the distress such a decision would rightfully engender in my relationship with my extant significant other, who had remained back at home while I completed my degree a few hours away.
Northeastern Ohio to El Paso, Texas. Nearly 2,000 miles of nothing but the results of the great American experiment, marinating in its vast petri dish for going on two and a half centuries. Not the kind of effort many people feel comfortable enduring on their own, I equivocated, weakly scrambling to hide behind a disfigured mask of dubiously chivalrous intentions.
There was substantial overlap in our respective circles of friends and acquaintances. Bea and I been at the same parties, even, we figured out later on, in the same room at the same moment, but had somehow never knowingly crossed paths. Fate, in that mischievous streak bordering on sadism that it loves to flaunt, intervened to overturn our fluky avoidance just two months prior to commencement. In the all too brief period between my pledge to act as co-pilot for her return home and our designated departure date, we accidentally grew dangerously close, developing an intimacy that I should have seen coming and consciously acted to head off. A kiss, stolen in a doorway at a fuzzy, mostly-forgotten apartment party, snowballed in short order into flimsy excuses for staying out late and clandestine predawn escapes so as not to arouse suspicions from inquisitive roommates.
I knew - as I imagine we both did, but I can speak concretely only for myself - that the charade would eventually have to come to an end, and I gutlessly chose to wait and use what I figured, or, more accurately, what I hoped would be the natural way out that the culmination of our journey would provide. My hand should have been forced long before that point was reached, though. That it wasn’t was not for any lack of intensity that was poured into an escalating series of confrontations with the Girl Back Home. These, by any rational measure, should have provided the stinging slap that jolted my head firmly back into place, but instead I defiantly and cruelly decreed that I would still be going forward with the trip, submitting as my rationale solely that it would be wrong to abandon someone in the lurch with the prospect of now having to execute a colossal task on their own.
The true reasoning, however, arose from far more egocentric roots than this grotesquely twisted altruism, or even the affection that I had undeniably come to feel for Bea. At its crux, my motivation was purely self-serving: I just desperately wanted the adventure. Hell, I’d convinced myself that I needed it.
Through a combination of happenstance, curiosity, emotional funk, fortune, and beneficence, I had landed the incredible, unquantifiable privilege of getting to live for four months in Switzerland the previous spring. It hooked me with a daily injection of wanderlust directly into my veins. Since returning stateside, the ennui of my little slice of the world had once again descended upon me like an allergenic blanket of pollen. A final academic year spent trapped in an unremarkable college town in the hinterland of several asphyxiated, contracting Rust Belt cities contorted in various stages of rigor mortis. A summer job in the low-wage morass of a local amusement park, night after night of accepting soggy dollar bills tugged from the nether regions of bathing suits and bras and dishing out sweatshop-produced stuffed animals if some inane feat of menial skill was successfully achieved. A relationship born of newfound confidence but perpetuated two years on out of comfort and concern that its dissipation would reverse what I feared had been fragile gains in self-worth.
This Groundhog Day existence lay like a pit of mud under the tread of the vehicle whose engine had been immutably revved by my once-in-a-lifetime experience overseas, impossible to accelerate out of, the resultant whining skid yielding only the acrid stench of overtaxed rubber. In this proposed odyssey with Bea I saw the winch that would haul me from this bog of tedium.
Never before had I been presented with the opportunity to roam between the Mississippi and the Rockies. An entire third of the country, empty pages in the gazetteer of my mind, waiting to be filled in with scribbled observations and anecdotes. It was a drive that could feasibly have taken as little as two and a half days, but in my singleminded greed I commandeered the entire planning process and devised a much more leisurely itinerary that would span a full five days and four nights. This, understandably, went over like a lead balloon on the home front, but I had already galloped too far along the path of villainy to permit such considerations a second thought.
And so I counted down to my escape, whittling away the seemingly interminable procession of sticky nights at the park, Lee Greenwood's saccharine yet vaguely menacing jingoism emanating from loudspeakers and washing over the concourses strewn with powdered sugar pared from overloaded funnel cakes. And then, at last, one morning towards the close of June I was gone, Buckeye State bound, with the sun at my back.
Bea's car, a blue crossover that she had christened "Bubble," was ready and waiting, every available inch of space occupied by compression bags crammed with an amount of clothing that boggled my mind, and that was before getting to the cargo pod strapped precariously to the roof. Bea had by then sussed me out as the selfish coward I was and now viewed my presence through sideways eyes as a necessary evil for splitting the daunting number of hours behind the wheel to come and certainly not as a worthy companion for the ensuing week.
She drove first. Rather anti-climactically - not to mention in violation of one of the sacrosanct rules of riding shotgun on a two-person trip - I succumbed to Ohio's monotony and slept most of the way to Cincinnati.