This is the last stop on this road trip of ours, our first road trip together. You and I have driven out here from New York City so you can reunite with some family and childhood friends whom you haven’t seen in years. So far we’ve visited your hometown in western New York, stopped for a night at each of your parents’ houses, camped for three days at a music festival you used to attend as a teenager, and now we’re here: forty minutes outside of Pittsburgh in a broken-down industrial town whose name I’ve already forgotten.
We are at Mike and Tina’s house. Mike was one of your closest cohorts growing up. Both from poor, splintered families, you raised each other to some extent. You’ve been band mates and roommates many times over. Mike is exactly as I’ve imagined him: dark eyes and straight brown hair, crooked teeth, skinny but with a paunch, and friendly as hell. Tina is his girlfriend of five years. She is plain-looking and her skin is sallow, but she is as warm and hospitable as a beloved aunt in a fairy tale. Together they have a four-year-old son, Andrew, and a baby, another boy, on the way.
The night before we were scheduled to embark on this journey, you and I sat in my therapist’s office discussing whether or not we should go through with the trip. We’d been fighting for the last few weeks, and it had reached a point of severity we weren’t sure we could overcome. Since it was to be a you-themed excursion, I was apprehensive about going ahead with things as they were. Would our problems follow us into your parents’ houses? Would your reunions with old friends be strained by my presence? Would I become lonely and miserable trapped in a car with you? Would one of us smother the other in their sleep? In my mind these were valid questions, and I put every one of them to my therapist that evening.
“You want me to tell you what you should do. Is that right?” she said, her hands folded neatly in her lap.
I nodded. In the chair next to me, you stared at your shoes.
“You know I can’t do that,” she said. “But I’ll tell you this. If I were you, I would go. You’ve just spent an hour talking about the worst that could happen. Instead, why don’t you think about the best? Maybe you’ll have a great time.”
I wasn’t paying this woman much and at the moment I was glad. A great time did not seem to be in our cards. Earlier in the day we had stood in Prospect Park basically daring each other to end it. You were suffocating me, I said. Expecting me to fill all your empty spaces. I was stingy with my affection, you shot back. Unreachable, cold. When it began to rain, we moved under the canopy of an enormous elm. Water fell through the leaves and onto our hair and shoulders, as we continued to dissect the past year. Why couldn’t we get back to the way it was in the beginning? We’d been crazy for each other then, not even that long ago. Now, in my therapist’s office, we were silent. After the session, we stood in the hallway and hugged. We would go, we decided. Give it one final shot.
To our mutual surprise, the trip thus far had been wonderful. You’d been calm and confident, trusting and accommodating, and in response, I’d transformed into the open, ever-present girlfriend you wanted me to be. You let me choose all the music in the car, and I held your hand under your mother’s dinner table. Zipped up in our tiny, orange tent at the music festival, we felt at home. The landscape seemed to be nourishing us, too. In New York we’d sighed through three straight weeks of rain. But the so-recent days spent sloshing through the city in a bevy of umbrellas felt far away now. Here, it was all wide openness, green. The sun every day on uninhibited display.
Tina is eight months pregnant and holds a cigarette in her right hand. Her belly is a globe of silent life under her stretchy printed top, and her breasts bulge from its deep V neckline when she bends down to pick up an ashtray off the porch step. In doing so, she becomes self-conscious. “I still smoke,” she says. “Unfortunately.” I press my lips into a sort-of smile and look quickly away into the yard. It takes all of my mental energy not to repeatedly shift my eyes between the cigarette and her belly, not to snatch the thing out of her hand and cast it into the dirt of the patchy lawn. At the same time, I can’t understand why this is so shocking a scene to me. I have surely witnessed a pregnant woman smoking before, haven’t I? When I glance back at Tina, she looks like a member of an endangered species I must protect.
You and Mike aren’t paying attention to us. You’re off in the yard, deep in conversation, deep in each other and the past lives you’ve shared. Tina offers me the only available seat on the porch, a faded gray plastic chair with a cracked armrest, which I insist she must take for herself. Instead, I sit down on the porch step as if it’s the perfect spot. Exasperated, Tina sits in the chair but only for a moment before popping up again to offer me a drink from the kitchen. “Pepsi, orange juice, beer, milk, water…” She lists the entire fluid contents of her fridge before I can say, “Oh, no. I’m fine, thanks.” She can’t do enough for me, it seems, and I can’t remember the last time an actual friend of mine was so eager to make me feel welcome.
The daylight gives way to dusk, and Tina shivers and runs her palms up and down her arms. You and Mike join us on the porch. “Let’s go in,” Mike says, holding the screen door open. Andrew, Mike and Tina’s little boy, dashes to the living room to play with his Matchbox cars. Mike is one-hundred-percent wrapped up in you and doing the same thing Tina has been doing with me: offering beverages, showing off the snapping turtle in the long aquarium by the front door, pointing out the resemblance between him and his boy in the framed baby pictures on the wall. He does all this as if to say to you, “Look at my life, old friend. Look at what I’ve achieved.” His joy and his pride bewilder me, and for this I feel ashamed. I know what I’m seeing is just an image, a reflection on the surface of a life. But he lives in a rented house in the most depressing neighborhood I’ve seen since your hometown, his girlfriend is pregnant with their second child, and they’re having serious money problems. They’re not married, as Tina says, because who can afford a wedding? She tells me about her sister’s upcoming wedding instead, and I can see in her sweetly strained face how she aches to be a bride, not for the promise of some hope-filled future—her future is here, now—but simply for a day when she can wear an up-do and a white dress, see her man in a suit and her boy and baby-to-be with combed hair and little boutonnieres, her parents glowing, relieved, in the front pew of the family church.
Mike and Tina begin chattering excitedly about the dinner they have in the works for us: Delmonico steaks, mashed potatoes, and, what would we prefer, beans or corn? Mike holds a frozen plastic bag in each hand. You and I exchange a glance, afraid to state a preference not in line with theirs. “Corn sounds great,” I say. “Yes, ma’am” Mike answers cheerfully. And then he’s back to you, as focused as a surgeon in the operating room. The two of you are recalling old cars and drug-laced parties, petty crimes and gigs, and I’m not surprised by these stories. By now I’m well acquainted with where you came from and what your life has been. But hearing the details today, let loose from your friend’s memory instead of yours, I am struck by the gaping divide between our two worlds. Even time sets us apart. As you and Mike move on to discuss Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, I remember that you are six years older than me.
The steak is well done and salty, and the mashed potatoes are from a Hungry Man box that sits open on the counter. You and I say “Mmmm” and praise the meal, while Mike beams and Tina blushes and asks Andrew, who has left the table and resumed playing with his Matchbox cars, if he would please go get ready for bed. A few minutes later he has returned and is sliding across the linoleum floor in Superman pajamas that keep coming undone in the back. Tina buttons them up for the third time and pats his bottom. “Good job with your pjs, Bud. Now go on up and brush your teeth, okay?” Andrew obeys and before long is back in the kitchen, looking thrilled from head to toe. “Daddy!” he shouts. Mike takes his eyes off you for the first time in half an hour. “What is it, Bud?” he asks. Andrew shakes and bobbles like a cartoon kettle about to boil. “I love toothpaste!” he blurts, a Christmas-morning smile on his face. “So glad to hear it!” Mike says, laughing, and squeezes his son’s tiny shoulder before he races out of the room again.
After dinner Mike and Tina won’t let us help clean up, so instead we sit cross-legged on the living room rug and play with Andrew. It is a new sensation, having a child between us, and you look at me knowingly, like I’m carrying your baby. “I’m glimpsing something,” you say, and I know you mean a family with me. I smile, but I am only glimpsing our end. I can suddenly see that the sole reason this trip has gone as smoothly as it has is that you’ve had me with you every second. Back in New York you were suspicious and accusatory, and I took umbrage, always having to prove my loyalty to you. But for the past eight days you’ve been able to watch me, possess me, be in control. Your imagination hasn’t had a chance to betray you and run rampant. Finally, it’s crystal clear: The only world in which you’re okay is one where I exist entirely for you.
Just a few days after we return to New York we’re arguing again. Things feel thin and tight. A couple of weeks later you receive an email from Mike: The baby was stillborn. He and Tina are utterly devastated, trying to pick up the pieces. “Everything’s so fucked up,” Mike writes, and I feel my heart curl up in a ball. Tina appears in my mind. Her belly, her easy smile, the cigarette between her fingers, between her lips. “Goddamn it,” you say, and drop your head in your hand. I watch Tina’s image drift away like smoke.
It has been a long, hard summer for you and me, and I’m ready to put us out of our misery. When I do, you don’t take it well, but that’s the way things go sometimes. Messy instead of clean. I don’t understand why the baby had to die, and I don’t understand why I fell for you when it was always going to end like this, no matter what we did or didn’t do.
There is one bag from our trip that I don’t unpack for almost two months. It’s filled with the sentimental things: jotted-down notes, our festival passes, a book of matches from your hometown diner, maps with our driving routes drawn out. Finally, on a day when fall feels near, I open the bag and sift through its contents. I save a few things and throw away others. A familiar ritual, this. A way of shifting from one phase to the next. I think the bag is empty, but then I feel something small and hard in a zipped outer pocket. Puzzled, I unzip it and pull out a red Matchbox car. For a moment there is no recognition, and then the reel of my memory flies. I remember Andrew on the floor playing with his cars, and out of the corner of my eye, while I’m talking to Tina, I see him pick up my bag. “What’s your favorite color?” he asks me. “Red,” I say. “What’s yours?”