We must have checked the weather twenty times. Ten times throughout the week, five this morning, five in the minutes before we left. The Weather Channel app lent a sense of humdrum comfort, like drawing in a mindless breath to realize, only afterwards, that you had been forgetting to breathe. This year, the need to breathe felt especially urgent, the post-finals, pre-break anxiety intensified, not only with the excitement of going abroad, but also with the sensation that my breath had been stifled since November.
In late November, I attended an all-campus reading by Gabrielle Calvocoressi, a poet who inhaled deep breathes to represent a gender identity she could not always find the pronoun to express. “It’s harder to breathe since the election,” she remarked, winded, at the end of the reading. For a month and a half, we had lived under a cloud cover, surrounding a campus that felt like a pressure chamber, and when we gasped at polluted air we pretended that everyone in the country breathed from the same chamber, that everyone felt this breathless.
Strip bed sheets, weather app, send literature review, weather app, tie trash bag, return room key, zip duffel bag, weather app. Somewhere in between trips out to my parking spot, bundles of pillows and boxes in my arms, I realized that there was no way my wooden bedside table would fit inside Robbie the Sentra with the rest of my things. I had found the table this summer, hidden in the corner of the one-room antique store in my parents’ new town, an inconspicuous Chicago suburb. Something about the warn mahogany and pencil markings made the table feel comforting and homey amid unfamiliarity. Robbie chuckled at my cajoling, mocked me with his bright red grin and blocked my attempts to flip and turn the table. In a tussle, I picked it up, ran inside, and left it in the dorm hall lounge. Weather app, breathe, lock the door.
“I’m a Mom, so I have to say it: please be careful out there. The snow should start soon,” a friend’s mom advised, helping load her daughter’s belongings into their minivan. Old shopping bags filled with winter sweaters and plastic storage boxes fit like puzzle pieces in the silver behemoth, a configuration drastically unlike the maze of loose books and bundles that filled the backseat of Robbie the Sentra. Robbie grinned his red, toothy smile again, overjoyed by my embarrassment at the disorderly display.
“We will, thank you. We’re heading south to Saint Louis, and it won’t be snowing there.” The plan was to head to my roommate’s house in Saint Louis for a few days of post-finals relaxation, before we drifted to our separate corners of the globe for our semesters abroad. The three of us drove out in two cars, but we would meet at a gas station in Hannibal, Missouri, switch the passenger-seat-dweller into Robbie the Sentra, and continue onward to St. Louis. We felt a sense of urgency, fueled not only by the need to cross the Iowa border before snowfall, but also with the unspoken false hope that somewhere outside these infinite corn fields lay the opening to our pressure chamber. Surely, somewhere along the highway the clouds would lift and for the first time in a month and a half, we would no longer breathe from straws.
Out on the open road, solitude taunted me, conducting her marching band of silent cymbals and drums. Seeking to drown out the chorus, I pressed play on a podcast. On cue, Nicole Antoinette’s animated voice pounded through Robbie the Sentra. Nicole, a writer, long-distance hiker, recovered alcoholic, and host of the Real Talk Radio podcast, promised to provide me with “refreshingly honest conversations about the wonderful mess of being human from a wide range of beautifully imperfect people”. Her conversations would never claim a magic-bullet solution, “no 10-day, six-step, life-hack plan” because “trust me,” she was “totally over that shit.” I wondered if I listened to Real Talk Radio precisely because it allowed me to entertain myself for sixty minutes as I wondered why I listened to Real Talk Radio. I pondered whether Nicole Antoinette truly found the insight of every pro triathlete, entrepreneurial pie baker, kitten rights activist, and nun-in-training-turned-burlesque-dancer as profound as her rhapsodic voice implied. All podcast hosts seemed to evoke such a sense of enthusiasm that I questioned their authenticity.
Take Michael Barbaro, for example, the political journalist and host of the New York Times’ podcast. Michael exuded enthusiasm about everything, even the name of his podcast, “I’m Michael Barbaro and THIS is The Daily”. Do I listen to podcasts simply because the hosts’ enthusiasm contrasts the mundanity of whatever activity I carry out while listening to said podcast, like cleaning my room, driving through cornfields, or worrying about the future of Planned Parenthood and gun violence?
Distracted by Nicole’s voice, I barely noticed that it had started to drizzle, a light mist that drifted like grains of sand, blowing off the windows of Robbie the Sentra. Despite the harmlessness of the mist, I lightened my hold on Robbie’s pedal, letting his speedometer drift slightly below highway speed, as there was no one else in my lane. Maybe it was an overly-cautious gesture but my parents’ words pounded in my head: “That little car is unsafe in any inclement weather”. They remained unsure about their decision to let me adopt Robbie and bring him to Iowa, often wondering whether we should sell him instead. The rain started to pick up slightly, grains of sand accumulating into pudding stones in the ashen fog. I considered pulling off the highway and letting the drops pass, then chastised myself: no one stops for a little rain. There was not a drop of snow, so why did I feel so anxious? Besides, I was only a half hour from Hannibal, Missouri, only a half hour from the meeting point.
The moment came at once both suddenly and slowly, one instant my eyes were fixed on the road, Robbie’s pedals sandpaper, casting smooth friction on droning wood, and the next, we were spinning. Spinning free, Robbie’s wheels like spokes on the teacup ride that made me green with dizziness when I was a child. I think I heard myself scream, but if I did, it came from far away, like a train calling three miles down the track. This is it, I thought, this is the end, bracing myself for the thrash of a truck, barreling down IA-27. Somehow, in that moment I remembered not to break, perhaps somewhere in my distant memory of drivers’ education, I recalled an under-rehearsed musical film, over-exuberant teens sang “stay out of the no-zone!” and “turn into the skid!” My heart seemed to sink under the casing of my ribs and into the pit of my stomach, it too bracing itself for the end. Then fear subsided to peace, this is it, this is the end, Robbie’s wheels like the matching Easter dresses my mother would dress my sister and I in when we were little, twirling, light and free in the driveway on the first day of spring sunshine. Then, nothing. It was over as quickly as it begun. The spinning stopped, and I found myself leaning over the steering wheel, panting.
I had barely inhaled three breaths when a knock on the passenger-side window sent my heart hurdling back into its stomach-pit. Peering out of the mist-stained glass, I made two simultaneous discoveries: somehow Robbie stood at a diagonal, three quarters held snuggly in the shoulder of the highway, with just the front peeking out onto the open road, and the knocking had come from a boy about my age. Instinctively, I leaned over and nudged the passenger door ajar.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“It is so cold out that the little bit of rain is freezing on the road. There’s this patch of ice that drivers keep hitting and spinning off the road. My truck spun off minutes before you got here.”
He pointed to our right, where a red pick-up truck lay, halfway submerged in the ditch on the side of the road. Farther to our right, a gray station wagon lay fully submerged in the ditch, its back tires barely visible, like a submarine’s periscope, rising over the murky depth. Somehow, all drivers and passengers had survived without a scrape.
Perhaps it was his simultaneous helplessness and gallantry, but for some reason, Pick-up Truck Boy reminded me of the football players who lived in a dorm room down the hall. On the night of the election, one of the football players had knocked on my door to ask for melatonin. A seasoned insomniac, I was well versed in all the remedies: eye mask, magnesium powder, zzz-quil when I needed it most. I could usually trust melatonin, but on that night, it never kicked in, and I wondered if he had tossed and turned too.
Pick-up Truck Boy and I took turns pleading with Robbie the Sentra, turning the engine off and on, coaxing the locked steering wheel into movement, convincing him to slide off the road and away from the line of potential-spin off. Eventually, Robbie succumbed to a straight, sleeping position, fully nestled within the blankets of the highway’s shoulder. As Pick-up Truck Boy’s keys remained, well, locked inside his pick-up truck, and I feared others might collide with Robbie if they too spun off the road, we resorted to shivering in the ten degree December air while we waited for the police officer to arrive.
Standing outside Robbie the Sentra, it took about ten minutes for the cold to bite through my cast of adrenaline. A half hour for it to brush under my wool mittens and paint the tips of my fingers a sultry purple. An hour for me to wonder whether I had succumbed hypothermia. Two hours passed before the police officer finished gathering a report from the drivers of the first two cars. In that time, two other cars had hit the ice patch and embarked on their spherical journeys, spinning and twirling, landing in a half-on, half-off state. “Welcome,” said Robbie the Sentra.
The first victim-cars were filled with students from a nearby community college: Pick-up Truck Boy and the three Station-Wagon Kids. One of the Station-Wagon Kids’ mothers arrived to drive them home. The four of them spoke in thick, southern Missouri accents, recounting the events of the spin-off with an exuberance that both impressed and terrified me. While the Station-Wagon Kids filed their reports with the police officer, it began to snow, falling in thick cloud-chunks, lining the window sills of the police car and puffing onto the fuzz of my knit hat. The cold had begun to spin its spider-web of ice through my mind, netting my thoughts until the only thought that mattered was that of warmth. The police car slept far from its owner and far from the patch of ice, nestled deep in a woolen blanket-shoulder, unlike the threadbare rag that cloaked Robbie the Sentra. Without permission, I climbed into the passenger seat.
By the time the police officer climbed in beside me, a delayed-shock reaction had tied itself into the webs of my spider brain. Words slogged out of my mouth in muddled half-sentences. I imagined he thought I was stupid: what is this girl doing out on the road alone? She can barely speak. He didn’t ask me to explain my situation much, just suggested that I grab my necessities from Robbie, and pointed to the number of a towing company, scrawled in pencil on his notebook page. He then proposed I tell my friends to keep waiting in Hannibal, as he would drive me there to meet them. As the police officer spoke into his walkie-talkie, I decided to call home. No, not home, Dad’s cellphone. My father remained calm as I recounted the events, like the gray sky before it shed its beads, wary to augment my hysteria.
“We will figure out the car, the towing. Don’t worry. You’re safe.”
“Don’t be. I’m just happy you’re safe. Want to talk to Mom?”
“NO…thank you. I mean, no thank you.”
I imagined the police officer’s thoughts as he ceased his walkie-talkie banter: spoiled, unappreciative girl. I felt myself longing to explain my relationship with my mother, that composure was never her strong suit, to recount the story of when I was nine and had expressed nervousness for an upcoming vocab test. My mother, the lawyer-turned-history-teacher, diagnosed me with OCD and sent me to a therapist the next day, surprised when the therapist suggested she return regularly, but without me. Where would she send me when she heard I spun off the highway?
As I reentered the cold and approached Robbie, my spider-web brain prevented me from recalling which possessions qualified as most essential. Wallet? Wallet already in jacket pocket. Bag with running shoes, backpack, laptop in backpack, toothbrush. Privileged, he surely thought, materialistic, as I opened the back door to display the puzzle of boxes and bundles. I wanted to explain that I was not going back to school next semester, that Robbie held all my belongings, and not just the luggage I needed for winter break. I watched him as I slammed Robbie’s trunk shut, imagined he rolled his eyes at the Iowans for Hillary bumper sticker, glistening bright blue, like braces on Robbie’s red-sheen smile.
I wanted to pinch myself, to make myself stop mistaking my own prejudices for the officer’s thoughts. I knew it was no use. In the cold the pinch would register as winter wind, simply brushing again my numb skin. I could not shake the feeling that my two bags and I had suddenly found ourselves in a police cruiser in the middle of Trump Country. The middle of Trump Country was surprisingly quiet, boisterously quiet in fact. Silence conducted a new symphony, now complete with a choir, chanting judgements that remained unspoken. I suddenly found myself defensive, hyper aware of my liberalism: my Iowans for Hillary bumper sticker, my Grinnell College keychain, even my purple, knit hat could be construed as the police officer’s enemy. I wondered how much my current position owed itself to my identity: a white woman. Would he have offered me the ride were I anything else?
“What do you study?” he offered through the chorus.
“Political Science and Environmental Studies”. Of course she does. I tried to hold the skin of my forearm between my pointer finger and thumb, but the pinch never materialized, my skin unable to sense additional shock.
For the rest of the ride, we spoke in silence. Silence that slowly dumbed, the chorus fading into an instrumental overture, the light accompaniment of a piano, then nothing. The wintery mix increased its momentum, dropping flakes of ice that lined the highway like lizard scales. In the absence of music, I grew aware of the thump of windshield wipers on sleet-lined glass, the steady rhythm of rolling tires, his eyes fixed on the treacherous conditions in front of us, and the whisper of our two deep breaths. I wondered if he noticed the fleeting chorus too, the crash of the cymbals dissolving into a distant ringing. Some people, I decided, are okay with silence.
When we reached the gas station parking lot where I would meet my friends in Hannibal, the should-be twenty-minute drive had turned into forty. My two friends jumped out of the silver Prius at the site of the police cruiser, relieved that we had finally arrived. I wondered what the police officer thought of my friends: oversized wool sweaters, warn hiking boots dangling from a North Face backpack, a bag of Hyvee carrots. Like all the liberals, feigning ruggedness in a Prius, on vacation from their expensive liberal arts school. I tried not to think, to imagine only his eyes, fixed on the icy roads. This time, instead of silence, he handed me a business card.
“Thank you.” Thank you? Was that all I could think of to say? “I really appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome. Tell your friend to please drive safe.”
I threw in a handshake because that seemed to make sense, wondered for the first time in my life if I should master the art of speaking in silence.
Back at my parents’ new house outside of Chicago, I pulled the crinkled business card out of the pocket of my purple parka. I unfolded a piece of white stationary, one of those blank cards my parents kept in bulk in the corner of the bookshelf. A faded photograph from our old town in Connecticut covered the front, a wintery New England scene. The image of a snow-covered wind-mill exuded a sense of calm that contrasted with my latest association between cold precipitation and circling objects. Robbie had arrived two days earlier, appearing like an estranged cousin, uninvited at the front door. Drivable but in need of some minor repairs, he lay in a quiet slumber on the street outside the house. He would awaken eventually, sold to a new family before winter’s end. Inside, an aux cord hung lazily from the dashboard, ghostlike, suddenly disconnected from its podcast life-line, a to-go coffee mug sat in the canister, and a half-eaten granola bar on the passenger seat. In the remnants of the spinning, I imagined Emily Dickinson’s words, held forever in a crash-state on the page of my ninth-grade English textbook, “It sifts from leaden sieves, it powders all the wood…then stills its artisans like ghosts, denying they have been.”
Instead of snow, I tried to recall silence, and the look of concentration on the police officer’s face as he drove me to safe familiarity. I opened the card and began to write.
Dear Officer Lewis,
My name is Emma, and I am the young woman who spun off I-27 on my way to Saint Louis the other week. I was pretty shaken up at the time and unable to find the words to adequately thank you. I want you to know how much I appreciated your generosity, that you went out of your way to find me a tow truck and drive me to Hannibal to meet my friends. These days, it is extremely comforting to experience such kindness in our police force. I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year.
I wondered what he would think of the second-to-last line, erased it, wrote it again, traced my pencil markings in black ink, and sealed the envelope. Some prejudices never die. Two weeks later, a card from Missouri arrived in my parents’ mailbox. Inside was a holiday card, one of those picture-collage templates: a family of four dressed up for Halloween, two little blonde girls in matching plaid dresses, the officer and his wife, sporting medals and matching half-marathon t-shirts, finish-line tape glistening blue and gold in the background. Suddenly, I felt the need to tell him that I was a runner too, that my sister lived a plane ride away. I looked up from the glossy images as a text from my sister flashed across the screen of my phone. “Em, have you seen this website? Check it out!” Under the text, she had left a link, “5 Calls” to resist The Trump Agenda.
I unzipped my backpack and opened my laptop, its blue Hillary Clinton Sticker catching the ceiling light, and typed in the website address. Immediately, an extensive list of causes popped up, bolstered with descriptions, congress peoples’ names and phone numbers, and a potential script for the caller. The first listing instructed me to call the Army Corps of Engineers to resist the extension of the Keystone Pipeline. There were numbers for anti-choice senators, for immigration hardliners, for conservative education reformers. Resist, resist, resist.
I copied the names of Republican senators from Iowa and Illinois into my contacts, and as I typed, I wondered who we resisters picture as the face of The Trump Agenda. Do we envision a man who attended business school at the University of Pennsylvania? One who netted fame in New York real estate and reality TV? Or do we see an army enlistee? A factory worker? A taxi driver? A police officer? The neighbor we avoid at the barbeque? Do we ever, even for a moment, see ourselves?