Central Standard Time
This morning in Wisconsin I braid my hair, pulling the wet strands into French pigtails while he sits on the cigarette-burned sheets and watches Animal Planet. We aren’t staying put. We’re driving across the country, Kerouac pilgrims in our early twenties. His red Subaru wagon, with less than one thousand miles on its odometer, is packed so full—and the sticky mid-June heat is so penetrating—I can’t fathom climbing back in, sitting still for so long, as the exhaust pipe pumps blue smoke from the full-force air conditioner. He waits while I lounge on the cheap motel bed, letting my pale skin dotted with faint freckles dry off; he rolls his eyes and tries to tease me into moving faster. I laugh, knowing I am frustrating him, and tease him back, “You hate me today.” I haven’t even known him a full year yet.
An hour ago, when we took a shower together, the whole bathroom flooded—only about a half-inch of water—but we don’t want to spare any of the too-small hotel towels, so we’re leaving it that way. This is a shit motel anyway, with brown-edged holes burned straight through the sheets by someone else’s cigarette, and we’re not too pleased with Madison or Wisconsin in general. Last night, after eleven hours of driving, we tried to get a bottle of wine to go with the motel cable, only to discover that you can’t buy alcohol in this state after 9pm. It will take some time for us to get over this, because we have a habit of latching on to things and embracing our mutual hatred as an inside joke. For the rest of the summer, we curse the dairy state, shake our fists at how awful it is, blow raspberries at Wisconsin license plates.
I’ve never been to Wisconsin before, not anywhere like it; this trip is my first venture west of the Mississippi, and I know only from pictures the enormity that lays ahead—the wide, flat expanses of prairie, the massive grey of the Rocky Mountains, the fields of amber wheat and yellow corn. I am so curious about the Midwest, so conscious of this transitory landscape; I know the hints of Eastern hills still lingering are the last I will see for awhile, and the promise of a longer, larger horizon is just beginning to show. Wisconsin is both the first and the last: a new, rocky landscape sprouts from the ground while the old, humid weather of my Atlantic childhood sticks to my still-wet, bare arms, echoing home. I stare at my inner forearm, seeing how far I can trace the blue veins until the red blotches of sunburn and freckles obscure them. We’re in Central Time Zone, headed for Mountain.
Eventually, we have to leave, and I let him take the first shift at the wheel. His brown feet in sandals press against the pedals. I watch the way his mouth wraps around a cigarette and think that his big fingers are what I always imagined a man’s hands would look like. He’s wearing the shirt we got from his house yesterday, his thrifted Alvin Lee Live 1973 t-shirt, so thin with wear that tiny holes fleck the collar, and I can see part of his protruding collarbone. We were supposed to leave my house and get right on I-90, but he was in a rush when he left New York and his family, so he had to say goodbye to his little brother who was still in the shower and he forgot this, his favorite shirt. He cried in my driveway because he wouldn’t see his family again until Thanksgiving, so I got off the highway while he was sleeping and drove into the obscure upper woods of New York so he could get everything he needed. His mother had folded the t-shirt on his childhood bed, with a little note she’d already written, to mail to him. She gave it to me to put in the car, knowing he would forget it again.
Though the air conditioning blasts out of the plastic vents, it cannot reach all the crevices of my body—the backs of my knees folded over, the curves of my neck against the cloth passenger seat. We leave the windows up, except when we smoke cigarettes. I’m bored, put my feet on the dash and let them breathe their sweat into water vapor on the windshield, begging for a scolding.
“Don’t,” he warns, not turning his eyes from the road to me, just darting to the side to see my feet near the windshield. “It’ll leave a mark that never comes off.”
“Oh, so protective of your new baby,” I say. I curl my toes and tap just one against the glass. It’s hot.
I smile, thinking he’s not. We don’t know each other as well as we think, but I know he loves to tease me. I spread my toes slowly, feeling air conditioning rush into the tiny curved spaces between, and flex, flattening them against the glass, smearing skin oils on the inside where bugs are smeared outside.
“Oops.” I’m barely containing my laughter.
“What the—I just told you not to do that! Jesus Christ, that’s never going to come off.”
I jerk my feet off the dashboard and under my body, stung and surprised. I turn toward the window to hide the tears welling up in my eyes and bend to find napkins in the pile of trash accumulating on the floor.
“I’m sorry, I…I really thought you were just kidding.”
“Why would I kid about that? This car is fucking brand new!” I scramble to wipe the spots off but he stops me. “You’ll just make it worse.”
The last thing he said before he kissed me for the first time, nine months ago, was “but I’m leaving.” But we didn’t believe in time then and went ahead and fell in love anyway, stupidly, without thinking. We had a blissful, new autumn—full of afternoons in, feeding each other cookies in coffee shops, studying in the same oversized library chair, and crunching through leaves to kiss in the woods—that lasted a supremely long two months before winter descended on New York and us. Suddenly it was December and it was snowing and it was true, he was moving to Montana and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. When we kissed on New Year’s Eve I couldn’t stop crying and he said, let’s just try it, let’s just see what happens if we stay together. Just three and a half months into our relationship, we were three thousand miles apart with summer the only end in sight. So when May came and all my friends were working for National Geographic or Glamour, I took an internship at Outside Bozeman magazine, packed a couple of suitcases and went with him.
We’re going to try and make it to Wyoming tonight, but neither of us knows what to expect of South Dakota, which turns out to be the biggest state I’ve ever seen, hundreds of miles full of flat red clay, little more than a motel and a gas station every fifty miles, our only company semis from big box stores. The waiting drives me crazy, and I sink into my head, tired of reading or singing along to the radio, tired of being trapped in this car. I’m sick of the limbo that is our relationship, sick of driving. I just want to start. For now, I’m stuck in Wisconsin.
Along I-90 past Madison, there are massive red rock outcroppings. They tower dangerously high and appear ready to collapse, like those games where you stack logs on top of each other, carelessly. It’s a delicate balancing act, an exercise in distance; take love, divide it by three thousand miles for six months, then add in three months together in the foothills of the Rockies. I’ve never seen red rock before, and the largest pieces of stone I’ve ever seen were the White Mountains, where you can barely see the granite for the trees. The precipice of summer looms ahead of us as we drive. Neither of us knows what to expect of this summer, the first time for both of us playing grown-up, sharing a house and a bed and bills. Neither of us knows whether we will survive the mountains, but both of us know this is our chance to try.
No matter what we find in Montana, I won’t be staying there. I wear sunglasses and stare at myself in the passenger side mirror, watching rocks and states slide by me, trying to catch a glimpse of a self ready for all this adulthood, responsibility, ready to love someone with everything and then leave the West and him behind, ready to return to everything familiar after a field season of experimentation. This is summer: we’re silent with heat; weighed down with the exhaustion that comes from boredom, repetition, driving; teetering dangerously on the edge of either love or loss.
Whenever I get tired, I toss aside the countless empty Styrofoam cups between the seats and curl into him, my head on his thigh, my body wedged in between the gear shift and the arm rest. He keeps his hand on me while he drives, usually on my leg, his fingertips tucked around and underneath my left thigh, but sometimes in my hair or on my neck, sometimes just the back of my seat, his two longest fingers dancing and teasing on the top of my head. When I drive, he tries to sleep on my shoulder, but he is too timid to relax his head all the way, worried I’m not strong enough to support his weight.
He doesn’t know that I already feel it, this enormous pressure against my chest every time I look at him. This love I don’t know what to do with, I don’t know where to put it. When he sleeps, I have silent, internal panic attacks; I have become that crazy girl who follows her man to the ends of the earth. We’ve made no promises. I imagine two possibilities: we live in idyllic peace for two months and then I have to rip the bandage off again to go home and finish school anyway and see him only twice in the next year. Or, we hate it, we fight all the time, we don’t work, and I leave without a boyfriend. I don’t know which one to hope for. Worse: I don’t know which one he hopes for, because we’re less than a year in and girls aren’t supposed to say things like where is this going anyway? But I watch him sleep and think about how I’ve never seen a buffalo and can’t imagine not doing this. Maybe he does know.
The back of the Subaru is packed and not budging with as few things as I could muster, and all the extras he couldn’t fit the first time out. An old bike (mine), a tub full of chemicals and a photo enlarger (his), two enormous suitcases of clothes (mine), boxes of books I won’t read in the next three months, but can’t bear to leave behind, bandanas, a tent, a huge sleeping bag (his). I’m wearing only a striped cotton sundress, and my flip-flops wait on the floor of the passenger side. There are piles of maps, a small, flip-top AAA TripTik with an orange highlighted path for us to follow, atlases grouped by state—Wisconsin/Minnesota; South Dakota; Montana/Wyoming; Ohio/Illinois/Indiana—my CD binder, my empty Nalgene water bottle, before it had any stickers on it. Our summer to-read books: Ulysses for me, On the Road for him. The 90-degree weather seeps in through the glass. I think I might be getting sunburn. I shaved my legs in traffic in Ohio yesterday, and I read out loud to him in between eating cheese sandwiches and pasta salad—road food for vegetarians.
All the hours bleed together, the state lines our only milestones and the further West we go, the fewer there are. Today we leave Wisconsin, enter and leave Minnesota without seeing a single of its 10,000 lakes, leave behind the green world of my youth, and enter South Dakota, a pink-grey state, a Western state. Today we cross two state boundaries; yesterday we crossed four, four familiar eastern states, states I had seen before. The day drags on; I am eager to become Western, ready for arrival. I wonder if I will be able to pull off cowboy boots or if I will discover I have an East Coast accent. He’s going to take me rock climbing outdoors for the first time and teach me how to roll a kayak upright and take me hiking at the Flying D Ranch. I’m going to get to cook him dinner and cover the local horse show for my magazine and go to my first national park. Whatever happens, it won’t happen in this car—it won’t happen until we get there. I like tallies and want to check South Dakota off my to-do list. I drive for six hours and we’re still only halfway through South Dakota; the giant pink image of the state in an I-90 rest area too static, too overwhelming. As we climb back into the car, I sigh deeply, seeing the future out the dirty, bug-streaked windshield; no protective hills to shield me from reality—only clay earth, only the horizon.
The day ends in South Dakota, and we pull off the road onto one of those wide, paved shoulders to watch the sunset. We lay a towel on the warm engine hood and wait, the immense Badlands stretched out in front of us, welcoming the sun. The cliffs seem to be stained from previous sunsets, with clear striations of orange, green, grey, beige and red. The markings of cliffs confuses, startles me; I am so recently removed from the Eastern land of green and blue mountain forest lagoon, thrown now into heat without moisture. The sandy, dusty sweat of the desert replacing the sticky, maple syrup sweat of blackfly summers. Flat, wide, endless expanses of land, leading straight up to the mountains, all I could see for miles, sky and rock and earth. Western panorama surrounds me on all sides; the same sun sets over barren cliffs, with a different barometric pressure reading, with new colors and at new angles. I am content to move out West and live a cowboy life off a page: a life of casual front porches, of late nights in bars, working or drinking. Where I write only on a typewriter and paint my walls like a rainforest and don’t wash my hands, where I learn to dance without shoes on and stop pushing the hair out of my eyes. I have him beside me, and finally, if only temporarily, we are leaving together. He pulls my arm off my belly and wraps it around his neck.
“Hey,” he says, “I’m sorry about the windshield. It’s no big deal.”
We collapse into sleep in Gillette, Wyoming and the next morning, we stop for gas at a wooden outpost, where I make friends with a shepherd dog wearing a red bandana, and the owner tells us where to find the best fishing. We climb back into the Subaru for one last day. I adjust the dashboard clock to one hour earlier. “Finally,” he says, “done with the time zone that holds stupid Wisconsin.” There’s still a smudge in the shape of my toes on the passenger side of the windshield. I start to drive away, dust kicking up under our tires, and I notice the freckles on my arms growing stronger, readying themselves for the mountain sun.
Marissa Landrigan‘s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Orion, and Guernica, and she is a nonfiction contributor to The Nervous Breakdown. She received her MFA in Creative Writing & Environment from Iowa State University. She currently lives in Pennsylvania, where she teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh – Johnstown.