Partly because I didn't know exactly which day the money for the deposit on the drive-away car would be arriving, and partly because there were any number of cruel and permanent things could still happen, I spent my last few days in West Lafayette lying on Mat and Joe's couch, inching through the first part of Henry Miller's 'Sexus,' which I only knew about because of a movie. All these things, each one, were kind of depressing, and it showed in my body.
I spent each moment slinking into the next moment, with no answer for anything. The only pictures I could get of the future were washed-out nightmares, without meaning or pity. Even when I was trying to read, I couldn't avoid feeling nervous, not to mention nauseous and strained. I only had enough pot to smoke once or twice the week I was there, so the rest of the time, things were too sharp and intense, like smoke looking out from inside soap bubbles.
Inside that apartment, I realized I must be feeling trapped, if only because I had this strangled need to be cramming my head with someone else's frustrated words, and to escape the people who slid over the sidewalks. I felt ridiculous moving at all after I'd spent an hour or two awake with my eyes closed, curled around myself, under a layer of blankets. I'd drifted into a place where I no longer knew how to begin moving, and in that momentary lull I had perversely become like an ancient underwater predator, who must soon start again, or else drown from the inside.
When the deposit money from my parents arrived, all I was capable of feeling was relief. Packing took fifteen minutes, as I only had the one overstuffed hiking pack to carry down and throw in Mat's trunk. He had agreed to drive me to Chicago, and on the way out of town, I asked him to lend me twenty dollars, and he did. I felt ashamed that I had asked, and that if I hadn't asked, it would have been worse.
We found parking on a street with the right-angles of the train supports hanging over our heads, and Mat decided to wait with his car. Those few minutes, while I walked around the block, I knew that suddenly I was exposed again, and my mistakes would stick to me.
I went into the building, through this dark paneled hallway past the security desk, and up the elevator to the little office, and gave them my driver's license, and something else, and the money. The guy at the counter told me how much mileage I was allowed, and then suggested a route. I hadn't really thought about this, and for a moment I couldn't remember why I shouldn't take the freeways he was talking about. It did come to me though. I wanted to visit a friend who had just started at the University of Missouri.
I felt uneasy that I almost hadn't said anything, that already a sticky mistake had floated so close to me. I wrote down the freeways I planned to take on their piece of paper, and then they gave me other things to sign, and I laughed at the essential obscenity of white man's culture.
Mat drove me to the lot where they kept the cars, and I couldn't believe it. I had vaguely expected to be confronted with a stripped-out van lacking even an AM radio, not a bright white sedan sporting a cassette deck and the other domestic car bennies, power windows, cruise control, as befitted a used company car heading for a new owner in Los Angeles. The only object in the car was a toddler's blue toy, a telephone, on the back windowsill.
I went over the car with the mechanic, noting dents and chips and other flaws I could be held liable for. He mentioned that I wouldn't be allowed to drive after ten at night, or I'd lose the entire deposit if there was any accident. I thought, then too, I'd be stuck wherever I was.
Mat and I said good-bye, awkwardly hugging each other. Then he looked half-worried, and wished me good luck, and we both drove away, in opposite directions.
Getting onto the freeway, I looped through a round on-ramp dividing the aquarium and the familiar meadow from a few days before. It felt odd to be one of the drivers I'd stared at, uncomprehending, before. Now I knew. Once on the freeway, I drove directly into rush hour, and pushing alternate pedals monotonously, tried to listen to the radio. I couldn't stand to hear any more voices selling at top enthusiasm, personalities talking mindless clumps of words, after an hour of it I threw in a mix tape of old stuff I had rescued from Royal Oak, because those words sometimes split apart and made sense.
I drove until it was dark, and finally I stopped and paid to fill the tank up, and bought a little ten-pack of different cereals. Even with Mat's loan, I only had a hundred and ten left after that. I munched one of the boxes of cereal, dry, with fatalistic contentment I knew would last at least until I saw what the car got for mileage.
Inside the wood-panel store, which was about the size of a large dressing room, I called and talked to my father and my brothers for a few minutes. I didn't want to feel like I owed anyone a call, much less anyone in Royal Oak, once I got rolling.
I ended up going onto the wrong side of the freeway split near St. Louis, but I realized it right away, and it didn't take long to go back the other way. Still, it made me notice that I was tired, so at the next blue square 'rest stop' exit sign, I drove into the parking lot and pulled up in front of a lonely, skinny pine tree with a concrete skirt circled around it. I slid down curled up on the front seat and wrapped my sleeping bag around myself.
In the morning I realized that I was closer to the university than I thought, so I called the number Chris had given me, tumbling out a hello and that I thought I'd be there that day into her answering machine. I'd called her once from Mat's, but even so, a lack of certain plans shifted under my feet as I hung up the receiver.
There were other reasons for me to be tense, too. Chris was only eighteen, three years younger than I was, which she mentioned when she came up to Ann Arbor the second time. I had met her during that summer, through a girl I had kissed and gone swimming with, once, which was rude, probably, but a very easy decision to make.
After Chris picked up and flipped open an issue of 'Cud' I had lying around my room, and she saw Bob, naked, pissing on a cross, she actually started laughing, and she had a lovely smile, too. Someone gave someone a phone number, and she drove up a few times, and we talked to each other and slept together, and it was very enjoyable and affectionate like.
The fourth time she came to see me, she asked for some of the acid I was on, and I gave her half a hit, and she utterly flipped out. For ten hours deep inside my tiny room, because anything outside was nowhere good, she was adrift until her record skipped again, not remembering, not recognizing anything, even my face, asking, and then again, and again, "Are we outdoors? Are we safe?"
If had known some things that happened to her when she was small, I might not have given it to her. I learned about those things anyway, the hard way, tripping on a full hit myself, and I thought, if this doesn't flip me, then what. She'd come up with a friend who'd slept some other unknown place that night, and the next morning they vanished.
I called her the next day, she told me she'd been in the shower all day, and I slumped into the wall sideways under my unhappiness. We met to talk once after that-- I was too confused and guilty to even consider having sex-- so we talked over cold coffee, everything still ripped the way it was, there at the end of August, with her just about to leave for Missouri.
Now all the things I'd owned and any remaining sense of knowing what I was doing had gone out a broken car window in New Orleans, and I wanted to be falling by myself. Especially because. But she had really wanted me to visit her, and I wanted to stop feeling so bad when I thought of her.
A couple hours later, in the early afternoon, I tried to call again, but the long empty two-lane next to the freeway only teased me to a station where the gas pumps and cash register worked, but not the phone. It had been an exit-only stop, I didn't know, it took forever to find my way back to the freeway. I was frightened at the empty landscape I had fallen into, and at what the people who inhabited it might be like. I asked directions, twice, but I was talking about streets and roads ten, twenty miles away, these people I asked had no clear idea of.
I finally found the freeway again, and used the phone at a rest stop. Fortunately, Chris was there, she answered the phone right away and I got directions to her dorm. Things were fine, probably.
I ducked into the men's room of the rest stop, and as I came out, on the door was a cardboard sign written in marker asking for help 'for a veteran,' whose VW bus had broken down. I thought, he'll be here a while, hideously imagining how few quarters he might have gotten today. I felt this awful foreshadowing, or deja vu, feeling in my stomach. I gave him one of my boxes of cereal, because I had to do something, and I thought, I couldn't handle that right now.
Finding the university was pretty simple, I parked the car in front of Chris' dorm, checked all four doors three times, and then I tried her number. I got her answering machine, so I knew she hadn't gotten back from class. It was like fifteen, twenty minutes into the hour, so I had some time. I headed toward the campus and walked into some hideous coincidence, a corporation-fair touring colleges. You could run down a tube tied to a bungee cord, or play new video games, or watch things being demonstrated, or enter raffles. It was everything I hated about this planet, but I was bored, having been staring at hours of tan stubble along the freeways, and then too it was free, if you pretended to be a student.
As I was walking back, more bored than before, there were two guys on mountain bikes ahead of me on the sidewalk, doing tricks that I didn't know how to do, off ledges and such, and my bike was in a basement anyway.
Chris had just gotten home when I got back to her dorm. On our way down seven or eight stories in an elevator, I met her friends, who were definitely in their first year. Chris was bright enough that I didn't include her with them, but even the seniors in Ann Arbor had started to seem young this past summer, right before I left, and for I moment I wondered what I was doing. I ate with her friends in the cafeteria, full of things I half tasted, and endless white light.
On the way out of the building, a boy with short brown hair rode an old fashioned red cruiser with chrome fenders into the black links of a chain, strung in a circle around a large spreading tree, and flipping forward off the bike. After repeating this five or six times, he stopped for a moment, looked at us, recognized Chris, walked the bike over to talk, and surprised me by being friendly to me.
That night I slept in her bed, underneath her Yoda poster, she let me run my hands gently down her body under her quilt, and quietly she said, "My roommate has class tomorrow afternoon."
The next morning I slept, after a cafeteria muffin for breakfast, until the roommate went away, and Chris had come back from a morning class. We talked for a few minutes, I noticed her eyes held against mine more than usual, and I asked if I should lock the door. I stood by the door waiting for her to answer, soaking up the bright sunlight in the room, the color of the noon blue sky flowing off the walls, clouds floating across the windows, and she smiled, yes. I asked her to put a disc in the rounded stereo sitting on the shelf next to her bed. She held up 'last rights,' which I'd never heard before, so I smiled yes, and we took each other's clothes off.
We stroked our hands along each other, and immediately I felt again a signature energy that always rippled from one end of her body to the other, while tortured, fractured sounds echoed all around us, but despite or because she'd chosen such a dark soundtrack, we were fixing something, and better than I deserved.
Her arms pulled me closer, close together, her skin this smooth fountain of surfaces. I wanted to feel okay again, especially this once, so when I thought we were both pretty close, I shifted onto my side. Fingertips touched her neck and slid down until palm hit bone and again, panted laughing and quivering rubbed.
After, right after, in the halo of everything gripped up tight and unsqueezed away, she turned her head over towards me, and smiling said, "Thank you," quietly.
I whispered, 'No, no, you' and looked at her, moving my hand up to my eye, because it was wet, and I didn't know.
That afternoon I followed Chris up the path to the top of a rocky hill overlooking the town, through the dying colors of the trees, falling onto the path. From the gritty edge of a cliff, the world seemed hopelessly distorted and bent underneath us, like a movie projected onto a curved ceiling. We talked idly of the universe, how long it would be around, and what might have put it there.
She led me through the campus telling me how much she liked her journalism classes, that she'd be going to Brazil for the winter holiday, and I was suddenly relieved. We were talking to each other, neither of us would break when our arms touched, the sun had billions of years left, and both of us could choose to leave.
Back in her dorm, we visited the kid who had flipped his bike over the fence and his roommate. They had up weird posters, and a painting of a human torso, with three drawers built into it. I asked the roommate, who'd painted it, about the drawers, but he didn't answer. For some reason, he let me fuck around with his bass, even though I couldn't play, just so I could hear what was in my head and the four of us swayed gently to the pulse of thoughts reverberating through space. I had started to forgive myself, as I accepted the place I was heading, down.
I followed the three of them to another room filled with television. After the sitcom came the local news, and surrounded by college students in pajamas and make-up, on the glowing box someone had been caught with pounds of hallucinogenic mushrooms in the trunk of their car. The malevolently unsympathetic news people showed a picture of the car, some dented seventies sedan, and someone going to jail for a long time. I think a driver of a delivery truck stacked with enough beer to give cirrhosis to a church choir, in a similar situation, might get a speeding ticket.
The dark light of evening dropped rapidly. I felt uneasily aware of my surroundings, in the overfed and false center of this country, and its silly, cheap emptiness all at once swung at me. I had been in town for more than a day, leaving only four days left to get the car to California.
Outside the dorm building, Chris and I wrapped our arms around each other long enough for me to lose track of my heartbeat, and I waved to her friends as they flashed in and out of my headlights, before I followed the glowing dashboard up out of the black parking lot.
On the road away from the campus I stopped at a gas station bleeding yellow light into the mist. On the counter next to the cashier sat a stack of cardboard halloween masks a beer company was giving away, warty witches and frankenstein's monster, with little eyeholes in the cardboard. I took a mask of a skull wearing round red and blue sunglasses like Doctor Jacoby's, and put the elastic band around the passenger headrest. The skull would be my mascot as I ascended for a night on bald mountain, or my demonic attorney, and would grin right back at me, and never stop.
I drove for four or five hours, until I was on a pay freeway, a charmingly named tollway, and nothing can drag you down than having to pay to roll across each yard of concrete, so about an hour inside Kansas, I parked the car in one of the asphalt corporation clusters they had on the tollway instead of exits. The enormous parking lot was too well lit to sleep properly anyway, but I slept very alone, and uncomfortably, and it was somehow my fault.
story index - iv