I stop for gas at the edge of town, where the dingy spotlight of community ends in scattered night. The bathroom’s cleanliness whispers to its longterm vacancy. In so small a place, people must prefer their own bathrooms. The sight welcomes me, though, because I don’t belong here any more than a public bathroom does.
Tears have set up like concrete in my sinuses. My head feels like a watermelon with too many rubber bands around its middle. After washing my face, I load my arms with bottled water, caffeine (that I wish was an IV drip), chocolate, and spicy gum. A long road rolls ahead of me to my next destination.
The man at the register reminds me of a zombie. The blue grey of his hair matches the bags beneath his eyes, and he apparently forgot how to smile. When I present my bank card, he grimaces. He actually grimaces. Only cash will be accepted, he informs me. I am pleased he has the power of speech, as many zombies don’t.
Leaving zombies and Helen and Virginia behind, I drive into solitude. I never knew how long a mile in the country is. Each one stretches like I’m stuck on a treadmill, going nowhere. When I finally meet my fork in the road, I pull to the unpaved shoulder and risk whatever wildlife might be lurking in the prairie grasses.
Heavenly bodies unencumbered by earth’s existence take my breath away. They alone preside over my next fate. I lean against the rental car. It pops and clicks, airing hot grievances. Satellite maps tell me that turning left at this intersection will eventually guide me toward the airport, toward my loft and my unfinished manuscript. But right will extend the adventure. The road is one, but the paths are twain.
I do not hear Helen’s voice in my head. She is, as she said, a stranger. The voices I hear belong to my roommate, my friends, and above all, my editor. To my shock, I counter each voice with excuses. My deadline looms but I still have time. The world won’t end if my roommate needs to ask her parents for rent. My friends have careers and families and tethers. Like a stranger told me, I have no tethers.
In those excuses I find my freedom. Nothing at my loft calls to me. The stories do. They cause my fingers to itch at their telling. They set me on the edge between past and present, and I don’t know which will claim me. I cannot go home, not yet.
Back in the car, the cool night locked out, I look left, turn right.