Monday, March 29, 2010

Getting There

We'll start with the most essay I've written and move backwards. This one is about the road trip I took over Spring Break. Enjoy.

Tim has just finished rolling a cigarette when I realize the error of my ways. There is a pair of headlights behind me that wasn’t there a moment ago. Only headlights, though; for a moment I reassure myself that it’s only a false alarm. I am wrong, of course. Flashing blue lights come to life at that instant, pulsating with silent menace – silent because the music is blasting. I know the wail of the siren is chasing me down I-95. I resign myself to my fate and pull over – on the left side, like an idiot.
Tim has stashed the contraband well before the state trooper is at my window. I roll it down to see an older gentleman with paunchy cheeks and a bemused expression. He shines his flashlight into Tim’s car and asks for my license and registration. I do as he tells me. The time is a bit before two am.
“Son,” he says after he hands me back the license and registration, “you may want to consider pulling over on the right side next time. This is…sort of dangerous.”
He returns to his vehicle. I slump in my seat. In the six years I’ve been driving, this is my first time ever getting pulled over. I’m a fine driver. It’s just that this isn’t my car, it’s late at night, and we’ve already been driving for nearly nine hours. I can only hope that Southern hospitality is all it’s supposed to be.
He returns to inform me that he clocked me at 91 mph in a 70 mph zone. The penalty for such a speeding violation is normally $180 and four points on your license.
“I did as much as I could for you,” the officer tells me. “I brought it down to 79 mph. That’s $100 and no points.”
“Th-thank you, officer,” I manage to stammer.
He looks at me for a long moment. “Headed to Florida, are you? What university do you kids go to?”
I don’t bother to ask him how he knows this. “UMBC, sir.”
“Right.” He switches off the flashlight. “Well, slow down, son. Florida will still be there when you get there.”
* * *
Only a day ago I was sick in bed with a fever. I spent the day laid out on the couch at home. I hadn’t been home in three months, and my one day at home was spent in a medicated stupor watching TV. Much of this time was also spent listening to my dad lecture at me about the merits of going to law school. I finally agreed at some point that I should go to law school. Then I watched Kung Fu Panda followed by Monsters vs. Aliens. Kung Fu Panda was actually decent. Monsters vs. Aliens was terrible.
The fever broke soon after that, around eleven pm. Tim called me then to tell me that he was willing to wait till the next day to leave. I had called him and Gary, whose house we would be staying at in Tampa, at around noon to tell them that there was no way I would be able to go on the trip in my current condition. The original plan had been to leave Saturday night after Tim got off work, a plan that had been shot to hell by my falling ill. Weak though I still was, I told Tim that I would probably be feeling well enough after another night’s rest that we could still go. We’d only be losing about half a day in that case. My relief at not having to disappoint my friends was tempered by the fact that, all in all, this trip was still a dumb idea.
My dad was less than pleased with the idea. I was making a big mistake, he told me. I was a fool. But I was also 21. He could no more force me to stay home as he could force me to go to law school. Of course I was still going. I knew, however, that whatever happened, I could not ask him for help.
* * *
On the road, we measure time not in hours but in albums. This is our chance to listen to the really good stuff. Tim and I are constrained not by time, distractions, or unbelievers who do not share our eclectic taste in music. We can listen to the epic songs. We can listen to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, which clocks in at 40 minutes. Supertramp’s Crime of the Century is followed by Lateralus by Tool, which in turn is followed by Return to Cookie Mountain by TV on the Radio. Who knows how many miles we covered in that time?
My body is filled with a cocktail of DayQuil, sugary snacks, and 5 Hour Energy drinks. My bladder has shrunk to the size of a cocktail peanut, but I’ve become supremely capable of holding it in. I’ve finished off about four servings of orange juice and, combined with the DayQuil, I’ve probably taken in 600% percent of the Daily Recommended Value of Vitamin C.
Tim does most of the driving. I don’t know how he does it. He apparently did not go to bed until 6 am the previous night after an evening of belligerent drunkenness. His actions are not mine to judge. Tim is my closest friend at UMBC. I tend to gravitate towards people bent on self-destruction. Don’t ask me why. Maybe I just want a taste of danger myself. This trip would certainly attest to that. Tim’s mechanic warned him that his car would probably not survive the journey. We decided to take it anyway. The smartest people often make the dumbest decisions. That’s hubris at work.
* * *
Cruising through the land of white and orange barrels, I see huge, blocky shapes rise up to my left: construction equipment. In the distance, the lights are reduced to single pinpoints – stars on this lowly plane. The night is weird and the way is long and our minds are always in danger of slipping away. A billboard to the right advertises vasectomies. “No needles, no scalpels.”
Another set of flashing blue lights in my rear-view mirror startles me from my place of strange thoughts and eternal questions. The time is around four am and we are driving through Georgia through a construction zone that never seems to end. I am filled not with fear this time but with confusion. I know with complete certainty that I was not speeding; it would be moronic to speed through a construction zone, even one that goes on for miles. I’ve been keeping a diligent eye on the speedometer; my only explanation is that this must be an ambulance.
Of course it isn’t. Karma has taken me to task for getting off so easily the first time around. Six years without a speeding ticket, and now I’m getting two in the span of a few hours. There’s no way I was going 76 mph. I never saw the needle go above 70. Officer Kenny Williams is an evil old bastard. Of course he knows I’m not going to come back to Georgia to contest this $180 ticket that I didn’t earn. The night is weird and the way is long and highway robbery is alive and well in the South.
* * *
Tim points out to me that the lyrics to the song “Lateralus” follow the Fibonacci sequence: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 5, 3.
“Really?” I ask.
“Yeah. Just pay attention to the verse the next time it comes around.”
I listen:
White are
All I see
In my infancy.
Red and yellow then came to be,
Reaching out to me,
Lets me see.
“No shit,” I marvel.
We head bang.
* * *
Eventually, we leave Georgia behind. And just as we enter Florida, faint traces of color begin to seep in at the horizon. Light is returning to the world. Red and yellow come to be, letting us see. The sun is rising just as we enter the Sunshine State. I can’t remember the last time I saw a sunrise.
We have just entered Florida, but we are still three hours away from Tampa. The GPS, our constant glowing companion, never tires, but as we watch our estimated time of arrival rise with every delay and mishap, we do. Weariness resides in our minds more than in our bodies. I have discovered that 5 Hour Energy has a certain threshold of effectiveness; after one or two, it ceases to offer any benefit.
I fear for Tim’s sanity. Once we got pulled over the second time, I completely lost my will to drive. Before that, even with the first speeding ticket, I had been in high spirits. The first 5 Hour Energy that I quaffed had really done the trick. I was so wired that I started calling random friends. Incidentally, that was when we got pulled over the first time.
Since that second run-in with the law, at around four am, Tim has been powering through. The drive was easy-going when there was no one else on the road, but now our tensions are mounting. Traffic is picking up and the Florida sun is baking the inside of the car, causing Tim’s temper to flare.
“People in Florida can’t drive,” he grumbles constantly.
I’ve never really understood the tendency to rank drivers by state. People in Maryland say that New Yorkers can’t drive. I’m sure that New Yorkers say people in Maryland can’t drive. As far as I’m concerned, people everywhere can’t drive. There are no good drivers as long as there are bad ones. Driving a car isn’t something humans are just naturally predisposed to. As soon as you forget how easy it is to end your existence in a twisted mess of crumpled steel, you become one of the bad drivers. I’ve never had any accident, but that doesn’t make me a good driver – it just makes me a lucky driver.
That being said, people in Florida can’t drive. In the entire time we spent driving through Florida, I never once saw a driver use their turn signal before changing lanes. Traffic had been abysmal between DC and Virginia, at one point coming to a complete stop, but we had still been full of vim and vigor then. Now, 16 hours later, Florida may be our breaking point.
Tim is hunched over the wheel. His grip is rigid, like he wants nothing more than to snap the steering wheel off and beat the driver in front of us to death with it. His cap is turned backwards and his hair is a mess. His eyes are wide but his mouth is clamped tightly shut.
I am searching for the loudest, most bone-crunching metal I can find in a futile attempt to keep us alert. My eyelids feel heavier than the boulder Sisyphus was forced to roll up a hill for eternity. The three hours left in our trip feel that long. Time has become a factor again.
A black Cadillac Escalade cuts us off as it weaves from the right lane to the far left lane. Neither of us can summon enough energy to muster an appropriate display of rage. We can only stare at the Escalade as it continues to weave through traffic ahead of us, knowing that there is no justice in this world.
Flashing blue lights behind us: an undercover cop. It cannot be possible. The universe does not want us to succeed. It is as simple as that.
The cop speeds past us to apprehend the driver of the Escalade. We slow down to watch it get pulled over, something we would never normally do. A look of unspeakable triumph passes between Tim and me. Maybe there is a little bit of justice in this world.
* * *
We are 15 miles out from Gary’s house and sweet, blessed rest. We are crossing the Howard Frankland Bridge and our exit is coming up. We will finally be off the cursed highway. No prospect has ever sounded as inviting to me.
The engine of Tim’s Toyota Avalon erupts in a fit of violent sputtering. The oil pressure drops to zero. Tim reacts quickly, putting on his emergency flashers and pulling over on the side of the bridge right before the exit sign. The car has died.
We knew this was a possibility all along. Tim’s mechanic had advised against him taking the car. I had told him that if I were in his position, I wouldn’t take the car, but that I would stand by his decision either way. And so we had taken the car, knowing that it was a dumb idea.
We are stalled out on the side of a bridge and I have to pee. We look at all the cars passing us by and laugh.

I Write Sometimes

It's been a while. Short post right now, just want to inform you that I'm going to start posting some of my creative nonfictions (read "personal essays") on here that I've written in the two Creative Nonfiction classes I've taken. I think you'll get a kick out of them, and it's a lot easier for me than actually telling you about my least at the moment. Cause Lord knows there's plenty to say on that subject. More later.