12 January 2006
Waking in February
We were driving on I-95 North, talking, as all of Rhode Island bled past us: the quiet pines in Exeter, layered like a green watercolor, sharp tops receding in the haze and obscure against the distant sky: the water tower in Coventry, knobby and awkwardly placed between desolate sand quarries, like a large white doorknob set down from the sky: the indifferent corporate buildings through East Greenwich and Warwick, each with their flag pole and billow of steam: merging: taillights: the exit for I-295: broad-banked-highway-bends: Providence on the horizon: smoke stacks, loading docks on the bay, the piles of salt alongside the blue peeling cisterns in the shipyard. And then through Providence: the Fleet Center (still dirty), the Biltmore, the State House, Providence Place: up past it all into Massachusetts. The whole state bled by as we talked. My brother, John, drove; he had on his old track sweatshirt, frayed at the wrists and faded everywhere but the place where his pocket had been and I sat in the passenger seat – shoes off, feet pulled up under me – switching the radio from station to station. I was talking.
Who knows what time it was, or what drive we were taking. The sky was chalk-white and it could have been mid-morning or mid-afternoon or early-evening. The clouds diffused the light. The sky was a piece of paper, unmarked and unvaried, and the whole state ran past me like a series of cut outs from a magazine. We could be going anywhere: New Hampshire? Boston? Cape Cod? To the ocean (take the turn at I-195, cut across the city, bridges over the canal, the raised road between rooftops of old and new red brick mills, North Providence up on the hill, steeples and clock towers). It could have been any ride.
This summer we left at 6:00am too many times so that we would arrive in Cape Cod at Grandma’s for breakfast and have the whole day before us. I always made John drive to Falmouth, and I’d lean the passenger seat back, put my feet on the dashboard, close my eyes and talk. Stream of consciousness musings. False early-morning cheerfulness.
I don't think it was very early in the morning, but I was in the car with Johnny and it was just like all the good times. We were calling each other “Old Thing” and “Old Bean” and batting Wodehouseism after Wodehouseism back and forth. Quoting Bertie and Jeeves and Aunt Agatha and Anoria and Bingo and Balmy Fungy Phipps and occasionally we slipped into talking about running. Shoes. Race times. Goals. Stretching techniques. I am such a fake runner. He’s the real thing. But I've mastered at least some of the vocabulary and make myself run often enough that I can justify the conversation.
Everything was familiar except the feeling of rest that had settled deep in my chest, a feeling that had long been absent. There was no aching desire to be anywhere else, only engaged curiosity about what came next. I accepted the road and the sky and the exit signs, at peace with our vague journey and the small world within the car. Nothing existed but the present and I felt lulled by the vibration of the grey steady road, whispering up through the wheel wells, through a back window that wouldn't close. I half hoped it would rain and we'd spin along over the black shiny wetness, fog up our windows with chatter and laughter, look ahead through the rain as the wipers squeaked and slid back and forth.
And then I woke up, in Jane’s bed, at her Reston townhouse, in Virginia. Woke up with my clammy feet sticking out the end of the bed, my lips burning and chapped, with a headache from my 3:00 morning, to the conversation between Em and Jules about whether or not they should wake me.
We drove back to school and we were late. We were rushing to make it back before the cafeteria closed at lunchtime. I felt robbed of obscurity and mystery and peace; I knew exactly where I was going. Rt. 7 was khaki this late morning, lined by cement strip malls and traffic barriers, divided by apologetic tawny winter grass, and framed by naked oak trees. The sky wasn’t white, it was bright blue and flecked with occasional indifferent clouds. The sunshine, glaring and audacious, fell across my unwashed face, warming my dirty hair, as I leaned back in the passenger seat and told Emily things I don’t remember saying. I was desperate to talk, to fill the air, to ignore the feeling of emptiness that was wrenching me inside. This road was just as familiar as the one at home but I was weighted by the knowledge that it would be months before I was home again, driving with my brother, or close enough to to the ocean that it could lie at the end of a morning's drive.
"When you try to tell somebody about a dream, you find in the telling that you are simply having another dream, and different, and even the feeling of the old one changes."
Robert Penn Warren, Band of Angels
(written February 2, 2005)