We set off at 6:30am in my little Scion: me, my boyfriend of a few months, and three spaniels. It would be an 18 hour drive, straight through, from central Illinois to Tampa, Florida.
Why straight through? Because one of the spaniels was 14, and could not make it through a night without an accident. One was 13, and deaf, and restless in his near-senility. The third, a youthful 8 by comparison, was an excitement barker: every time she saw a leash, or a treat, she barked. Loudly and insistently. A hotel would have offered no rest for me.
I had driven this same route before, by myself with the three dogs, down to Florida and back up to Illinois, nine months earlier. I knew it was exhausting. I knew it was just about determination, the same kind of “it will eventually end” attitude that gets people through marathons, and Moby Dick, and gynecology appointments.
Before we left, the boyfriend said, more than once, “If we don’t hate each other after this, it’ll really mean something.”
We packed the car more carefully than any video game addict ever packed a Tetris screen. The boyfriend even thought of the space under the back, around the spare tire. Dirty clothes wrapped breakable knickknacks and towels squeezed into crevices between suitcases and dog food containers. Under the passenger seat was an inflatable mattress, its pump, a box containing various papers including my checkbook, and a Ziploc bag filled with change. When we were fully loaded and pulling out of the driveway, two dogs were in the back seat—in their respective dog beds and harnesses, attached to the seat belts—and one was on my lap in the passenger seat. She rode the entire trip on the passenger’s lap, and was the happiest of us all.
I cried when we left. What I was leaving behind: my sister’s therapeutic riding farm with 9 horses and 4 dogs; the big Illinois sky; roads that carried only a couple of cars per day; the promise of fireflies; blooming peonies; family.
What I was going back to: a soon-to-be-ex-husband; my own apartment; a plethora of friends; my beloved teaching job.
In between was my boyfriend, who lived in Memphis. We’d never dated each other while living in the same state, and now I was going even farther away from him.
We stopped every two hours, and I lifted my oldest dog down out of the car, steadied her legs under her. We traded who held the dog leashes and who went inside to the bathroom. I thanked the boyfriend for being so patient, for driving so much. He grinned and said he was having a nice time.
In between the stops we talked. We listened to music and YouTube videos. We listened to audiobooks. We held hands.
It didn’t really seem endless until Atlanta. After Atlanta, every hour was like crawling on my knees. Backwards.
The boyfriend never complained. Not even once. He made bad puns. He told me I would be happy, surrounded by friends, in Florida. We made plans for me to come up to Memphis in a few weeks. He finally let me drive when it got dark.
After a certain point of exhaustion, nothing is more than mildly interesting—not back pain, not the juxtaposition of “Adult Superstore” billboards with anti-abortion billboards, not the climax of a good story on audiobook, not even the thought of sleep. Arrival? That was too far away to think about. How my life would be, trying to settle into an old town in a new role, after 9 months away, after my boyfriend went home and my ex and I had to actually figure out our new relationship with each other—even those worries had worn down through the hours, smooth as river stones.
There is a departure before every arrival. A leaving-behind of things loved and things that never quite came under control. Things I hoped to have done better. Havens. Former and new and possible selves.
We arrived at nearly 2am, having lost an hour from Central to Eastern time and more than that from so many stops. The key was where my sweet ex had said it would be. The apartment already had some of my furniture in it. My ex had hung a few pictures for me, brought over cutlery and dishes. I wanted to cry again, but I was too tired.
The boyfriend unloaded the car. He set up the air mattress. He asked if I was doing ok, and he brushed his teeth, and he told me he loved me, and he fell asleep. He slept through me getting up to let the dogs out a couple of hours later, and me feeding them a couple of hours after that. I think perhaps I was most grateful for that, of everything—that he slept, as if the day had been normal. As if the next day would be, and the day after that.
My whole year—a separation, a move, a sabbatical—had been a journey, and I had relied on so many people to get me through it. I was never really alone, not even those times I drove myself back and forth across the country. Every minute, every mile, someone loved me. And after it all, someone still does. Ain’t that something?
Ease on down the road with The Gloria Sirens. Access all of our Road Trip posts here: https://thegloriasirens.com/category/road-trips/
Categories: Katie's Voice