I drove here at an average speed of 70 mph. Some days were filled with long flat expanses of Great Plains and a velocity of 85 mph or higher. Others consisted of winding mountain passes at a cautious 55 mph. And then there was the first day, essentially one traffic jam after another as I left Chicago and its environs. The line on the speedometer barely passed the 20 marker.
I was transported here in a not-too-old, yet aged-enough-to-be-affordable Volvo sedan. My bike was securely strapped to its roof. My belongings–an incredibly pared down collection of records, clothes, books, and art supplies–filled a tiny U-Haul trailer. The backseat held my sewing machines, stereo, and a suitcase full of clothes and toiletries. Vivian calmly sprawled across the passenger seat, revealing her likely previous life as a vagabond.
The car…my new car…the first car I had ever owned…was purchased with a large sum of money I had recently acquired as–for lack of better description–a gift. This endowment also covered all gas, lodging and food required for this journey. I even bought one of those silly plush dog bags, with the intention of using it to smuggle Vivian in and out of economy motels. After all of this, my savings account still held enough money to amply meet all of my expenses for the next year. Some of this could be attributed to years of an ant-like work ethic. Many superfluous freelance jobs had allowed me to accumulate away a sizable bit of cash. But most of the money I now possessed came from one single cashier’s check.
It’s like he knew that I would need that money.
I spent slightly more than $350 on gas. Not too terrible. I was very lax at tracking the various tolls, so I can only estimate somewhere between $50-100. Lodging expenses were high, approximately $500. Very little money was spent on food, as I subsisted on a diet of trail mix, energy drinks, and bottled water. Occasionally I would stop at Denny’s–because Denny’s really is everywhere–for a grilled cheese with french fries.
In the name of safety, I drove for only 8 hours each day. This required numerous stays at chain economy motels, including a few with pools. In anticipation of this, I had stuffed a swimsuit into the glove compartment. Many evenings were spent in a solitary dead man’s float in a tiny over-chlorinated pool somewhere west of the Mississippi.
There were many things to sort out. Too much for my brain to process. My thoughts were enveloped in a thick grey fog.
A tornado of epic proportions had passed through my mind. Cows were carried miles away from their pasture. Cars were tossed about like the tiniest flotsam. Houses were hurled and smashed with unmatchable violence. Only wreckage remained. A door frame here, a book missing its pages across the road, and piece of a family couch visible off in the distance. An inventory of survivors listed only one name: me.
My frequent stops and strict driving restrictions were not only for the sake of road safety and optimal hydration. I wanted to make this trip last as long as possible. I had decided that upon the arrival in my new home, all grieving must end. Interminable crying jags, accidental starvation, and bouts of solitary alcohol abuse would be forbidden. The plan was that no one, none of the new friends I would make, would ever know the contents of the last year of my life, much less the last few weeks. And so, I had to get it all out on this trip.
I wore fancy 60s nightgowns –think lemon chiffon and orange sherbet–with a pair of brown moccasins. This was my uniform for the actual driving portion of each day. Most of these ensembles had been acquired from my great-grandmother, a woman who could appreciate glamorous sleepwear. Despite the sweltering August afternoon, I refused to use my car air conditioner. All in the name of fuel efficiency! The filmy nighties stuck to my sweaty thighs. Every time I stopped for water or cat food or gas, I covered myself with a big blue cardigan. I spoke to no one. I felt sure that strangers could hear all of the broken glass and smashed bricks and random bits of metal shifting around in my head.
At night, after a swim, I would don some of my boyfriend’s clothes–leftovers from his section of my closet. I would sprawl on the floor, staring at the ceiling, smoking one forbidden cigarette after another.
Local news played in the background. A teenage girl missing in Des Moines, after a church youth group meeting. A new art exhibit at the Denver airport. An increase in crime in downtown Boise. Any other television programming ran the risk of reminding me of my own current events.
I smoked and smoked, rewinding all of the tapes in my mind. I would relive every moment of the last year…minus the last month. But no matter how much I thought about it all, no matter how much I could smell my boyfriend all over the clothes on my body, I just couldn’t cry. I was surprisingly dry.
I left Chicago because I thought I might never stop crying again. I could only see years and years turning into decades of tears and pain. Night after night spent drinking gin until I passed out on the kitchen floor. My liver would follow my heart into a cemetery of important–yet easily destroyed–internal organs.
I had stopped going to work weeks ago. My employer was understanding. I had the option of working from home, which I accepted. I treasured the opportunity to distract myself from the actual emotions and truths at hand without being forced to shower and eat. My roommate, proving that he was far more than just another resident of my apartment, and really more like the brother I had always wanted, brought me food, cigarettes, and bottles of booze. He never suggested that I might benefit from soap, water, and shampoo. When I was crying for hours in the bathroom, he knew that he should not intervene until I was vomiting. This happened every night around 1 am. He would bring me water and brush my hair. And then he would sit on my bed with me until I finally fell asleep, with the aid of a double-dose of Xanax.
My mother was there for the first few days. She had flown into the city on a shockingly expensive flight, for the sole purpose of holding me up through all of the rituals and functions required by the recent turn of events. She gripped my hand tightly as I received whispered condolences with a brave smile. She kept me company all night while we watched rented movies. Unfunny comedies and confusing action films. Nothing involving love was permitted.
I could not sleep. In fact, I was afraid of the dark. I sat in the living room all night long, with every lamp shining brightly. I knew that any darkness would remind me of the truth: I would most likely never again see the person I had loved most in the world. He was somewhere so far away, miles, kilometers, and leagues would never measure the actual distance. It was appropriate that the loneliness became excruciating in the absence of light, because the most breathtaking moments between us–the instances I would relive regularly for the rest of my life–had happened under the veil of darkness.
My mother suggested that I move back home. This did not seem like a viable option to me. Returning to the beginning of my story seemed like defeat.
I had no game plan.
She left, after filling my refrigerator with food and extracting a promise of sobriety from me. I was relieved to be alone. Quasi-bravery was no longer required.
And so my new career as a shut-in continued for a few weeks. It may have been months or years. Alcohol and sleeplessness impaired my ability to measure time.
One afternoon I realized that there was no cat food in the pantry. Vivian was staring at me, pleading for dinner. My roommate worked until midnight. It seemed unfair to make her wait that long.
The store near my apartment sold only unhealthy cat food. Vivian’s sensitive stomach required the fancy, organic variety. This meant a trip to the Jewel-Osco.
It was only a few blocks away, but it seemed like miles and miles. A shower was required. I put on the first dress I saw in my closet. Wearing shoes seemed alien.
I was surprised by how delicious it felt to ride my bike. I found myself smiling. The trip was almost too short! But even the simple act of locking up my bike was pleasing.
The grocery store! Rainbows of produce and super-cool air conditioning and rowdy families. It was better than I had ever remembered. I decided to pick up a few things. Maybe I would make a late dinner. I squeezed melons and examined tomatoes and filled plastic bags with greens. I accumulated rice milk, faux-healthy cereal, and a box of muffin mix. Only one item remained: cat food.
This was the last aisle in the store. I was practically skipping as I rounded the corner. I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw a group of familiar faces. They were the girlfriends of various friends of my boyfriend.
“Oh, Abbie…how are you doing?”
“You look like you are feeling better?”
“How are you holding up?”
“You should really come over some time, you know…if you want to talk or something.”
And so on.
Add in a trio of sympathetic faces and moist eyes.
I walked away after exchanging a few niceties. As I headed to the check out line, I realized that everyone was looking at me. Thinking about the “terrible tragedy” I had just experienced. Whispering things like “I wonder if she’ll ever be the same” and “Well, anyone with any bit of sense saw this coming.” I was drowning in sea of unwelcome empathy.
I dropped my basket of groceries . I ran out of the store as fast as my feet would take me, dodging children and carts. I rode my bike back to my apartment at light speed.
I made a beeline to the bathtub. I turned on the cold water at full force, took of my shoes, and climbed in. I sat there for some inexact time, with my arms wrapped around my calves and my face buried in my knees. I had to leave Chicago. I knew this.
Eventually I climbed out, shed my wet clothes, and wrapped myself up in my bathrobe. Vivian was still starving. I rummaged through the pantry until I found a can of long-forgotten tuna. She might recall that night as the best meal of her life. Meanwhile, I will remember it as the moment my relocation scheme was hatched.
A few weeks ago, a former Chicagoan had sent me a postcard. It was from a small city in the Pacific Northwest. I fished it out of a pile of flowery condolence cards on my desk. “Come quick! There are more trees than people.”
I would be arriving much sooner than he probably imagined.
Soundtrack: Goin’ to Acapulco–Jim James + Calexico.