I’ve never liked your music, but I like that you like it. I let you play it in the car all nine hours to Santa Fe. It’s not an easy time. Your dad tried to kill himself last month, even if he won’t call it that. He drank too much and took a fistful of pills and ended up in the hospital. I felt bad when you told me about it. I kind of hate him, the way he’s always storming around your house and yelling at your mom, but of course he was in pain all along. I should have abided by the clichés. Men who make noise like that are aching all over inside.
My mom has breast cancer. I didn’t know what kind for a while. I had all the time in the world to pick up on the dire vocabulary--metastasis, in situ, malignant, stages one, two, three, and four. I’m not ready to lose my mom. I’m only nineteen. I’m going to buy her a necklace in Santa Fe. She loves turquoise. My family used to take road trips to New Mexico every winter and my dad would get her turquoise. If I don’t think about how I can’t afford it, it will resolve itself. There will be some flea market selling something she’d like, and I’ll pick it up there. Unless I jinx it by worrying about it.
I’m going to lose my restaurant job for up and leaving like this, but I couldn’t say no. I’m in love with you. I’m in love with you and I don’t even like you all that much. I’m probably not going to love someone like this again, and that’s fine by me because I’m not having a good time. I keep imagining all the things I’d give up just to make this work; fictional deals with a devil that hasn’t approached me. I’d shave years off my life. I’d give a limb. I do a lot of bartering while you’re staring slack-jawed at the open road. Mouthbreather.
This is fun, though. What is this, our third road trip? Your Jeep gives me an uncanny calm even if it might break down at any moment. It’s done that before. You revealed yourself to be less handy than I’d imagined. You cursed a lot without making any progress. But we made it in the end. I like it here; the familiar droop in the overhead fabric, the dent from my heel on the dashboard. I’m proud of that dent. I hardly dedicate myself to anything, but here’s proof that I’ve done at least one thing over and over and over.
We stop for gas. Freedom won’t taste like this again, like blue sky in my lungs. It’s more exciting when you’re not free yet, when you have no money but then you get a little money, when you can’t go anywhere but then you go somewhere. Later on when I can hop on a plane on a whim, it won’t feel like this. It won’t be the same. Nothing is ever what it’s cracked up to be, especially when you’ve had as much time to dream about it as we have. You can poison the rest of your life with expectations.
You climb back into the driver’s seat and run your hand through my hair and scratch the back of my neck. Touch won’t feel like this again, so loaded with affections and mysteries and appetites I feel utterly invested in. Love ought to be an involuntary thing. I see it that way because that’s how I’m feeling it. I didn’t choose to love you. I would have probably chosen anybody else. But here we are, so this must be how it goes.
The sun is so strong out here. It’s burning the shit out of my arms through the windshield. It’s wild how every place has a different relationship to the sun. I like that. I feel like we could go somewhere else and be different people because the sun is different, and the sky is different, and the people act differently and have a separate set of concerns--the desert, or the mountains, or the jungle. Why were we born where we were born? It’s the worst place. It’s flat and yellow like dried out straw and there’s nothing there. Nothing at all. Beachless, shoreless, featureless, nothing.
So little is in our hands. There’s so little you and I actually chose. Do you remember that church you used to get dragged to? You used to be so afraid of God. You don’t talk about Him anymore, but you still talk about that church, how silly and wrong it was. Things happened there you won’t even tell me about. Every time I pass it on the road I think of you. I think of all the things I don’t know about you even though it’s been just me and you for four years now. Five years now. I don’t know. I wasn’t even me before then.
I think religion messed us up. Catholic school did it for me. I understand. People are bored and they need something. I’ve seen religion in people’s eyes. I used to see it in yours, the way they were all hollowed out and then filled back up again with a great and distant purpose, keeping watch over obligations in a different world altogether. I never bought into it enough for that to happen to me, but I wanted to. I tried. Obsessing over love we couldn’t see did us no favors.
I remember the first time I saw you naked. We were seniors and it was night out. We were in my pool and all the June beetles were dying in clumps trying to get to the light under the water. We were throwing a yellow volleyball at each other as hard as we could, closing in to make it sting, closer and closer until we started fighting, then touching, then your shorts came off. You told me a week later you just wanted to be normal, but nothing felt out of place for me about that night.
You’re always saying how you don’t want to be your dad. Every guy I end up close to will say something similar to that. No guy wants to end up like his dad, or at least the guys that end up in my orbit. I’ve told you over and over you have nothing to worry about. The fact you’re even worrying about it is something your dad would never do. You’d never hit anybody. Well, not anymore. Those fights in high school don’t count. It’s a rough neighborhood. But you’d never hit your kid. You’ll be a good father. I’m certain you’ll be a good father.
You know I mean it because I’m saying it even though picturing you as a father messes me up. We’re not going to end up together. We’re not going to have a family. I don’t even know where I’ll be when you become a father, only that it will be far away. There’s no changing it. Your family would never let us. You’d never let yourself. Whenever we screw around or kiss or anything, it’s in the back of my head.
But I keep doing it because I’m not ready to lose anything. I’m not ready to lose what we have. I’m not ready to lose my mom. She’s wrapping her head up in these silky scarves and they seem so flimsy, so weak, and I guess I just can’t picture it. I can’t imagine anything ever getting better. I can’t imagine something weak getting strong again; her hair popping back up and out of her head and shoving those silky scarves off forever. All I do is picture the worst all day.
I’m not ready to leave our hometown. Isn’t that silly? There’s hardly anything to miss. The gentlemen’s club half a mile away from my house where that lady got shot. The creek out back. The Korean restaurant with the rude man named Moses behind the register, ready with an insult. Our high school with the broken windows and too few desks. Where else would I go?
I’m not ready for us to drift apart. I’m so scared of us drifting apart. I know, it’s not happening, you keep reassuring me, but yes it is. There aren’t enough rooms with doors that lock for us. I’m in love with you. You’re not in love with me, or if you are then it doesn’t matter anyway. We can’t keep going like this. Not forever. It’s killing me.
But for now I’ll try not to think about it. Thinking about it just jinxes everything. The sun is so bright here, and the sky is a kind of blue that makes me happy. It’s different from ours back home. We can’t afford to go anywhere, but we’re going somewhere. We’re never going to be together, but we’re together. There’s a wide open road and hours to kill. For a little bit, we can do whatever we want.
Listen to JP Brammer read this essay