ONE FOR THE ROAD
It’s okay to be with a guy who prefers to keep his thoughts to himself—or so I’ve been saying—but the road trips keep telling me otherwise. The car is a small and enclosed space, with an atmosphere all its own, like an anti-gravity chamber, or, if the windows are down and air is whipping through, a whiffle ball. And it’s generally just him and me, the two of us in there, hurtling uncertainly forward through conversationless galaxies, maybe for hours to come.
The space inside my head is smaller and less escapable, and that’s where the trouble always starts. It happens within two minutes of his announcement that he’s not in the mood for any of the CDs we have brought. I feel like talking. He is staring out over the land that is his to cross, unaware of how I’m stealing away to that favorite upstairs room of mine, where every stick and stitch of what I have is made of words. My mission is to find a subject, anything to pique the interest of my silent friend, the conversational equivalent of a walk-off home run. But in the protracted, hanging moment of the car ride, I find my head blown out, like a Carolina shack after a great, ravaging wind. This normally abundant, cluttered place has been swept bare, and I am rooting among the stray artifacts, combing through debris in search of one single thought that the guy next to me might turn over in his hands, examine and weigh.
I scan the rear of a sticker-plastered mini-van ahead of us: Free Tibet, Celebrate Diversity, Expect a Miracle. Not a chance. Imagine the frazzle of my hair, the way my forehead is bunching up to defend whatever’s left in the looted hut. And so it happens that I turn to him, there behind the wheel, and sadly offer, “So it looks like they’re gutting the Fourth Amendment, huh?” I only saw the headline over his shoulder the other morning, on my way to fix another round of toast. I was happy to get up then, since I can never seem to read when he’s around. At the table I have to try hard not to watch him. He can feel the expectant suck of my eyes. So I look past him, out beyond the kitchen to dust balls, a crooked picture frame, a cascading stack of mail. As he snaps and shuffles the big, inky pages, I can’t help recalling my former studio apartment, where fighting the dust seemed so worthwhile, and I always lit candles to eat by myself. My maroon velvet love seat has taken on an aspect of absurdity now, squeezed up next to his brown vinyl Barcalounger, and I wonder what makes me feel more lonely, the futility of trying to curl up on a creaky antique, or the grunt of satisfaction he emits, shifting his chair into recline for the latest episode of Lost.
If I ask, “So are you worried about the polar bears?” or “Tell me a story from when you were eight,” he will clap his hand onto my thigh and scold me gently. “Babe, are you trying to jump-start a conversation with me?” My questions get handed back to me like wet wood, soggy and unsparkable in my lap. “Conversations come up spontaneously, like weeds,” he says. “They don’t need to be planted.” A metaphor. Am I blowing things all out of proportion? He assures me that how much we talk is normal for couples. We talk a normal couple amount. “Plus remember when I woke you up in the middle of the night to tell you about that dream I had?” Yes, he buried his face in my neck and kept smelling my skin like it was the greenest grass. He talks to me more than anyone in his life; I know this is true.
“Plus, Babe,” he says, “you talk all day long.” And it’s true, I’m a dedicated communicator. With my mom and my sisters, my friends and advisors, my clients, my patrons, and myriad creditors—in my car, at the store, on the treadmill, while peeing, plugged into the headset while scrubbing the tub. Maybe it’s all just a big harangue, a swamp of verbosity into which I have sunk. And what I actually need is one arid field, where most things can go unsaid. A person who can just give me quiet—wide, wordless swaths of it. Could it be, as he says with such certainty, that this “talking problem” is all in my head?
If we’re driving more than an hour, and he doesn’t want to play Would-You-Rather-Die-By-Freezing-or-Burning, I will have to pitch the CDs to him again. A taste of my a capella voice (I’ve got “Desperado,” “The Gambler,” and “Tomorrow” at the ready) is guaranteed to break down his resistance. I know the singers who stir him: Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Roger Daltrey, Eddie Vedder. Then I can turn it up, weave my fingers into the scrub of hair at the back of his neck, and remember all of his strong points: good with old people and waitresses, a 20 percent tipper, communes with nature, likes to cook. To say nothing of the improvisational mileage he can get out of a few basic guitar chords. I feel the geologic pull of a diamond in the rough.
Nor can I discount those crossword-puzzle mornings, when we sat together on the sidewalk outside the bakery, those shimmering, expansive mornings when we were falling in love. He was, in fairness, what I wanted, an island away from the rest of my life. But most of all it was the way we put our heads together over those puzzles, and he knew his presidents, knew the periodic table, could spell. True, when I am brushing my teeth and he is waiting in bed, he only wants to lose himself in cycle traders, auto traders, boat traders, but it’s not as if he has no feeling for words.
Out the passenger window I will see a million rows of artichokes flashing by and wish I could form a decent question about irrigation. I will wish we hadn’t left his dog at home. “Look at Digger,” I would say, and he would light up and search her out in the rear-view mirror, make faces and talk to her in cartoon voice, bending his r’s. “Oh, Diggewy dog. What an intwiguing puppy you awe.” Then he might tell me about a raucous squirrel encounter from yesterday’s evening walk. And this would feel like talking. Maybe later he would check the mirror again and say, “Look now, Babe. She’s dweaming.” I would twist around beneath my seatbelt and see sweet Digger twitch and softly woof in her sleep. I would smile helplessly at her, and he would see this and probably give me an urgent squeeze. “I love you,” he would say. And then it might run through my head that I could share something like this with him someday. Someday, he will make a great dad.
But as we shoot past a sign saying “last gas for fifty-two miles,” I have to admit that combining genes is a long way to go just for something to moon over together. There must be a more prudent step forward for us, but I can’t seem to picture it. He can. He says things like, “You’re The One. Let’s move somewhere remote. Just the two of us, twenty acres, no neighbors. We could get a snowmobile, and cool helmets.” This scenario makes him sparkle. “You would have plenty of time to write.” He says he loves how smart I am. If I ask him what it is he likes about my brain, he’ll tell me he likes me better than I like myself. Perhaps, I think, recalling the way he’s always breaking into the high stream of my effusions, saying, “Easy there, Babe. You’re losing me.”
I believe him when he says he loves my body, because there is evidence in the attention he pays, the way he is generous and unruly in bed, and everything else falls away. It’s good to remember this in the car, the sound bulk of his muscles, the way he fits around me like a shield. Even so, in the car, I have to fix my attention somewhere. Say my index finger comes across something dry and jagged around my thumbnail. I fiddle with it casually, attempt a clean removal, until things accidentally go too far. Something tears. My thumb now requires close inspection, and toenail clippers, if I’ve got them, to cut off this big flap of skin.
“Don’t pick,” he says, as I press a Kleenex to the wound, shamed by the conspicuous bleeding. He’s got other tips for me, too, a few things I can practice right here in the car. Breathing, for example. In through the nose, out through the mouth, is what he has been learning on the Yoga Channel. Deep cleansing breaths can help me stay present in the moment, and he is glad to demonstrate. After two or three such cleansings, he will smile my way with his lungs full of air, nodding for me to join in. And maybe I will concede momentarily, allow my chest to rise high and fall softly with a swell of forbearance.
But it will take very few breaths for me to feel present, plenty present, in this car. He’ll keep going after I’ve quit, veiling his annoyance at my non-commitment, rhythmically making his point. When he finally gives up and breathes normally again, I’ll see that his body language has become prim, chauffeuresque. Nothing, not even I, can bother him now.
Unless I ask, “What are you thinking?” Do I not know better by now?
“I talk when I have something to say,” he says, “not just to hear myself.”
“But what about the weeds?” I try to remind him. “Don’t they sprout up everywhere?”
“Yeah,” he says. “That’s why they’re called invasive.”
How can I make him see it? The dialogue between us as the realm of untold possibility. It could be the two of us, lying on our bellies, taking turns at the lookout from our secret fort. Freedom fighters, passing the binoculars back and forth. Or we could be trudging back to camp, shoulder to shoulder with a bucket of water, choosing each step up the gravelly slope. And what if, just as we were cresting the ridge, some charred silver branches exploded with magpies? Oh! This is nowhere we’ve been before.
But he’s right. I am trying to jump-start something. I want to clamp the cables onto his head. What is it like in there? A soaring redwood grove? An intricate network of tunnels? A desolate lunar plain?
He has glanced over and caught me looking at him. And I must have that starving-orphan look on my face, because his broad frame slumps pleadingly. “What do you want from me?” is a question he often asks. And to it I reply, dishonestly, “Nothing. What do you mean? I love you.” The last part is true, but it is love in the way that you love humanity, human effort, tender souls. It is the love of wanting to see a valiant, kind person succeed and shine, of being constitutionally opposed to giving up. And why should I, when, after a year and a half, the signs of progress are there? He is trusting me more, and we are growing sunflowers from seeds. We’ve painted the bathroom green.
And today’s drive is totally manageable, more of a day trip than a road trip, and our turn-off is coming up soon. Then we'll be out on the same foggy beach where I was a stalwart kid of ten, ranging bravely among mounds of kelp, bleached-out wood, things washed-up and left behind. Impervious to signs of ruin.
Out there the waves crash with heartening constancy, and the salt air soothes my skin. And it is not nothing to roam with him, stopping to pick up broken sand dollars and consider them together. “Babe! Come look at this one!” he’ll shout to me, calling under the din of birds and tide. His beckoning gesture, the strange thud in my stomach. Who am I to say what is not enough? Futureless child. Untethered exuberant. The guy I’m with is loyal, a hard worker, solid and un-ironic. These are not small things in the age of viral cleverness and self-promotion—I’ve got the Internet, I know.
But the words, why do I need the words to be manifest, spoken and formed, faceted, revealed? It makes me feel faithless, pushy and coarse. So stay with him, I tell myself, though it pains me to get back in the car, and I have to train my eyes on the center line as he snakes us inland over windy roads. Your time will come, I say to myself, while the miles of high grass are just a honey blur.
Erin Stewart Brown, an avid documentarian and souvenir hoarder, lives with her family in Missoula, Montana.