The drive from Atlanta to Orlando isn’t so bad, it’s like Detroit to Chicago, but a little longer. I make that comparison over and over again to myself, because when I was much younger I’d done that drive alone a few times, at least, proving to my anxiety that it was possible, I could do it. Back then, I had cigarettes. This time, I had an audiobook and two senior Pomeranians,
Jennifer and Ricky.
I checked my heart rate as I set off. My boyfriend recently surprised me with an Apple Watch, in part so that I could check my heart rate, especially on those nights I’d keep him up with my worrying. “Michael, I feel really weird in my body. Can you please see if I still have a pulse? I think it’s gone…” He’s never once belittled my hypochondria, his patience is saintly.
I was beating in the high 60s. My resting rate is typically around 45. I wondered if this was a sign. Was my body warning me that today was the day I’d wind up twisted in metal, smeared across the highway median? The dogs had refused their seatbelts. They revolted in the backseat, whining and twisting themselves, turning their harnesses into nooses. Within minutes,
Jennifer had jumped from the backseat to the floor and her seatbelt harness allotted enough slack to hold her just above the floor, all four paws dangling. I pulled the car over and unclipped them both. Jennifer settled onto the floor of the passenger seat, Ricky on a sheepskin on the seat itself. My heart beat faster. If it wasn’t me that’d die today, surely it was the Pomeranians in a simple fender bender.
I recently listened to Oprah’s life-saving tips episode of her SuperSoul Conversations podcast. In it, she shares excerpts from her different shows where women describe being assaulted. They talk a lot about that gut feeling and what happened when they ignored it. I’ve had gut feelings throughout my entire life, but they’ve always been accompanied by anxiety no different than the ordinary kind of anxiety. I only realized they were gut feelings after the incident occurred. The freakout before the bus accident, the pit of worry that festered in the days leading up to the break up, and the tingly flash that came with every late night phone call from a family member — all of them were just a putrid mishmash of terrible feelings. My therapist says that intuition isn’t typically accompanied by black and white thinking, it’s more smoldering. So when I start getting tunnel vision about things, things that I know in that exact moment are the fucking truth so help me god, I take a breath. When I start to monologue at myself I know I’m only making things worse. I try to remind myself of that and then I ask, do you really want to manifest a six car pile up? Because that’s exactly what you’re doing. My heart relaxed and off we went to Orlando.
I made it out of the city and settled onto I-75 South. It occured to me that I wouldn’t be able to stop and pee anywhere. It was 100 degrees outside and the rental car didn’t have a keyless option, so a mere two minutes in the car without air conditioning might render the dogs unconscious. I threw my water bottle into the backseat to resist temptation and accept that I will
spend the next six hours dehydrating myself. I wondered about Lisa Marie Nowak, the astronaut who drove from Houston to Orlando to take revenge on her former lover and his new girl (who he eventually ended up marrying.) She’d worn diapers during the drive. I wonder what she listened to during those fourteen hours. Surely if she’d listened to “Leaving Las Vegas” by Sheryl Crow or “Time to Move On” by Tom Petty she would’ve lost her steam. You can’t maintain the desire for vengeance while listening to songs about revelling in the pain and excitement of leaving fucking everything behind. Even after the smallest fight with my boyfriend, just hearing those songs has me ready to pack up and say, y’know what, I’m good baby, I’ll be just fine.
I listened to Ben Folds’ audiobook memoir, A Dream about Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons and started to relax. Coincidentally, he mentions Lisa in his song “Cologne,” which is probably why I still think of her from time to time. The book is inspiring. A tarot reader once told me that it’s not that I’d have a lot of hardships in my career, per se, just that I’d hit every single red light. Ben’s trajectory was similar and that’s obviously reassuring. He reminds me to indulge in every miserable situation I find myself in. It’s all a part of the at times arduous journey to uncover my authentic voice. I tear up when he mentions hearing “Divorce Song” by Liz Phair on one of his many long drives between Winston-Salem and Nashville in the early 90s. I’d give almost anything to hear that song for the first time again.
I began to feel sad and annoyed around hour two of my drive. Driving straight, going the speed limit, not killing myself, was so hard. I lamented how in control I had to be of my own life, how in control we have to be in all of our lives. Not in a spiritual way, but in that we’re expected to make so many goddamn decisions all the time. I get so hung up on all of these little things, like buying paper towel and banking. I hate going to the bank. I hate talking to the young men and women in their ugly suits and purple blouses. I hate having to say no to all of their promotional offers and I hate knowing my balance. Banking is the most miserable part about being human. When I used to visit my friends at the University of Michigan, I’d often meet guys who planned on becoming “bankers.” I once drunkenly asked, in earnest, “What do you mean? Like you want to be a teller?” and the guy looked horrified. Then I moved to New York and figured it out.
My ass and back began to hurt and Jennifer’s must’ve too, because she started getting restless. First it was panting, then pacing, then scratching at the seat and door. I got off at the next exit I saw and pulled up to a typical old gas station. The pavement was scorching so I carried the two dogs over to some grass. They both sniffed a bit and peed. I pressed lightly on my bladder and wished I could squat down and join them. An old man meowed at the dogs. It was a convincing meow, like he had a rickety old cat stuck in his throat. The dogs stared at him, confused. So did I. Why meow, why not bark? I didn’t smile at him or anything. The life-saving tips podcast said to never let down your guard, it’s okay to be mean. We got back in the car and the dogs settled down for another couple hours.
I made a few phone calls. My mom tried to convince me to pull over at a rest stop and bring the dogs into the bathroom with me. The idea of their little paws stepping in that slushy mix of piss, water, paper towels, toilet paper, and dirt was too much, especially because I wore white pants that day. She said there has to be a way to keep the car running with the a/c on. I told her, no, and even if there were, I worry they’d figure out some way to leave me. In Jim Harrison’s The Woman Lit by Fireflies, the fed up protagonist ditches her husband at a rest stop in Iowa, heading into the corn fields while he uses the restroom. She ends up in Paris two weeks later. I can’t shake it.
Somewhere in hour five of the trip, Jennifer really loses it. She’s stumbling in circles on the floor, like a drunken little goldfish. She’s digging at the carpet, at the seat again, at the door again. She starts moaning and whimpering and tries to jump up onto Ricky’s seat but keeps falling backwards. I’m going 80 and it’s getting dark. There’s no exit for a while so I reach across and grab her harness and lift her up onto my lap. She lets out a howl and I feel terrible. Jennifer is old, 13 or so. She has a myriad of health problems that I’ve sustained her through, well enough to be bequeathed the duty of caring for my parents when they’re someday diagnosed with dementia. I hate to think that Jennifer’s last few memories of me will be of me causing her pain. I squeeze her against me with one hand on the wheel and kiss her over and over again. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry baby girl, please calm down, you’re okay. Ricky, meanwhile, is beginning to freak out, too. He wants to be on my lap, he wants to be told how special he is. Jennifer keeps squirming and whining so I get off at the next exit and swoop right into a Denny’s parking lot, hoping that I’m not about to witness my old girl drop dead.
The three of us spill out of the car and Jennifer pulls us through the parking lot. I’m no longer anxious, I’m just tired. She’s like a toddler. I suspect that every young mother’s fear is eventually eclipsed by their exhaustion, tempering the paranoia that their baby has stopped breathing. And thank god, the baby keeps breathing. I once wondered if this feeling was apathy, at least in the way it related to my relationship with Michael. He did something stupid that used to upset me and I found that it no longer upset me. Was it that the energy it took to be upset just wasn’t worth it anymore? I wondered if this sort of apathy was a bad sign, a pox, but I decided it wasn’t. It was just accepting that what will be, will be. A blessing, really.
It turned out Jennifer had to take a dump. She had to take a giant shit in the middle of the Denny’s parking lot. Ricky joined her. I should’ve known.
With that out of the way, we continued. The sun had long set and both dogs fell into quiet sleep. I turned Ben Folds off and pressed on in silence. The final 100 miles ticked away with ease. As calls from friends and family came in, I ignored them, content with the silence and company of the other drivers. I had finally surrendered to the road. I could’ve driven all night, I could’ve driven to Chicago.