Buddy drives and I ride shotgun. We ride in a ramshackle van with busted fenders and peeling paint, the kind of vehicle that inspires parents to hold their kids tight when it staggers too close on the street. We are driving up the coast and the ocean is wide and bright blue and white when the light hits it right. The ocean is everything although we are aware that the road is also something. But when we drive it feels like the windshield is only sky and water and we are driving right into it onto it through it, buoyant exuberant and drowning.
We are on our way towards something, although we subscribe to the notion that the journey is the true destination. The sun is high and colorless and it drags us north like a magnet. I roll joints on the Thomas guide in my lap and Buddy lights them with two hands while I hold the wheel. The van is an herbaceous sauna before we’ve even left the county so I open the window and let the car spit it up, smoke dribbling down its rust-red chin.
We are in love, although not with each other, at least we don’t think so, isn’t that the kind of thing you’d know? We are in love with salt water and heavy smoke and elbows in the road and I look at him from the passenger seat full of this love almost too full of it like nauseated with it like I wish I could crack the window inside of me and spit some of it out. We play the music recorded by some people in a windowless room wishing they were looking at what we’re looking at right now and we feel supreme and lucky.
I feel like I’ve known Buddy my whole life and maybe I have—he reminds me of people I’ve loved and hated and even been before, people off whom darkness hangs but in like a sexy fun way—although in this particular plane I only met him last night at a sticky dark red bar when he turned to me, a pure stranger, and asked me if I had any plans for the rest of my life. As he spoke he lit my cigarette like a 1960s adman and the smoke made him disappear for just a moment. Every runaway, he told me like a fact, needs a beautiful girl in the passenger seat. And to someone like me looking to leave the last thing behind, it sounded like a damn good line.
I take off with my new friend Buddy that very night straight from the bar before it even closes. I don’t go back to my apartment, that little studio off an alley near a drain pipe that leads straight to the ocean, where the dank air that drifts through the windows late at night could be saltwater or sewage. The unpacked boxes that line the blank walls are from someone else’s life, full of pushpin-punctured photos of people who used to belong to me, faces in whose reflections I used to see myself. It’s been over a year since Max’s death, since the funeral that split the rest of his friends still living (and hating ourselves for it) like shrapnel, since we left us behind and started drifting through space like moons without a planet, but somehow I’m still stuck picking the past out of my teeth like popcorn shells. Sometimes I feel like a part of me, maybe the very best part of me, left earth tied to Max’s bumper like a rattling can. I know I’m lost, know I’m idling, so remote from my own self that I’m surprised to still find her in mirrors when I pass them. These days I’ve been feeling like the angel of history, stuck flying ass-backwards into the future all alone with nothing but the terrible past in my windshield. And now here is a guy named Buddy in the night-morning fog with the keys to a van, jimmying the rusted-shut lock, opening the creaking door, offering me a chance to turn around.
So I get in and we point north and we drive.
The first place we stop is a Shell station at dawn made entirely out of shells with cockles and conches and limpets clinging to the walls like acne. Buddy fills the tank while I buy Bugles and beef jerky and a family-sized bag of Chex Mix. The guy at the register tells me it’s a historical landmark, the town settled decades ago by a family of mermaids who immigrated to land and built the town from the ground up the way they knew how. My great-grandmother was one of them, he tells me, although you’d never know it just by looking at me. Giveaway’s the scales on the bottoms of my feet. He takes off his shoes and socks and tries to show me but I’m out the door as politely as I can manage, back into the sunshine where Buddy is waiting for me with a man in a long white coat. He’s holding some kind of apparatus which looks like one of those tanks that balloon-tying clowns lug to children’s birthday parties and when Buddy opens the van doors the man hops right into the backseat like a stray dog.
On the road the man who tells me to call him Dr. Carl says he’s a former dentist who is no longer allowed to practice because he kept doing nitrous on the job. He offers us a hit off his apparatus and tells us there’s more where that came from if we can get him further north. We learn that Dr. Carl loves the Beach Boys but isn’t moved by Sheryl Crow and we argue about this as we speed up the highway, sand gritty under our wheels. Buddy hits the apparatus and swerves the vehicle into the left lane and cars honk as they pass around us like water before I pull us back to our side of the road. Dr. Carl has never smoked weed before and he laughs a high-pitched girlish laugh like he’s been tickled. I throw Bugles over my shoulder into the backseat and he catches none of them in his mouth.
The sun is behind us now like it’s egging us on and so Buddy hits the gas and the scene outside speeds up and blurs out until we are almost floating each time the road snakes. The hungry van consumes miles of highway in a single bite. We are climbing higher and higher now, around cliffs and through trees, ocean winking at us between green branches. The trees thicken out around us until the light is all green and we’re careening over tree roots and pine needles. Dr. Carl tells us a story about the time he came to on the floor of his office and looked up and saw a girl in his chair in a mint green bib, blood and toothpaste dribbling down her small chin. Same green, he says, and closes his eyes until he sees it again.
When we emerge from the forest it’s already night and we drive right through the night like a knife through chocolate cake, clean and dark. I feed Buddy beef jerky and slap him in the face intermittently to make sure he’s all there. Dr. Carl snores while he cuddles his apparatus. The higher the car climbs the lower the stars hang until I can stick my whole torso out the passenger side window and scuff them with my fingertips. Because it’s nighttime we play Gerry Rafferty and Al Stewart, smooth cool and jazzy like river-washed stones we turn in our palms over and over. I remind myself that I’m not in love with Buddy I’m in love with the moment, the road and the music and his clean short fingernails on the wheel. As the sun crests the cliff we shake Dr. Carl awake so he can see the first blush steal down the hillside like fog. The sun sends two angled rays out first like scouts before the whole thing gets the word and shows its face. The ocean laps lavender, shore blue like a bruise, and we turn off the music for a moment so we can hear the low thrum of the engine and the sound the sun makes as it takes its first breath.
Around the next bend we see a sign for one of those spiritual-garden-cum-faux-Buddhist-temples that seems to be indigenous to this stretch of highway, so we pull the van onto the packed dirt parking lot and wander in. We convince Dr. Carl to leave his apparatus behind and creep reverently like thieves onto a path that winds around a lake. It’s early enough that we have the place mostly to ourselves along with a few monks and a family of tourists.
It’s beautiful and peaceful here. Ducks honk rich and rubbery, their black-green heads damp and slick like pompadours, and a translucent orange butterfly dips and dives around Buddy’s ears. Dr. Carl paws a tree with lemon-lime leaves and then runs ahead to chase the butterfly. We pass eucalyptus trees lowering their long branches into the water to take its temperature, flaky skin quivering with electricity as the water reflects back onto it. Two long-necked swans have teamed up to paddle the lake together and I wonder if they ever get tired of going in circles.
Then Buddy climbs the rail and does a swan dive into the murkiness. The ducks scatter, braying like ocean liners, as he makes dark and unnecessary waves that stretch to the far shore. Buddy bubbles to the surface, pond scum in his mane, and the family of tourists looks on aghast. I look at Dr. Carl and wonder if I’m supposed to do anything. Buddy does a few backstrokes until finally a man in a polo shirt comes over and gently tells him he will have to please leave. He clambers up the nearest slope, disturbing the bougainvillea, and leaves sloppy wet footprints that Dr. Carl and I follow all the way to the parking lot.
We put Buddy in the backseat on some old towels while I drive and Dr. Carl rides shotgun. Buddy is sullen and agitated and shakes his head so that small beads of water clutter the windshield and Dr. Carl wipes it clean with his long white sleeve. We play Beach House so now we’re all sufficiently moody. I smoke a joint but don’t pass it around out of spite; I’m tired of being an us all of a sudden. The highway yawns right and cuts a straight line through the cliffs and the ocean disappears, replaced by farmland on both sides. The land is brown and yellow and the signs along the highway covered with big red X’s are mad about something. A fleet of long delivery trucks merges into us and I do my best to dodge them, switching lanes back and forth until we’re caged in on all sides by chrome belching exhaust. Dr. Carl empties the last of the Bugle crumbs into his mouth.
Finally the road leans back towards the coastline though I’m still feeling petty that it abandoned us in the first place. Buddy asks me to pull over at a roadside shack so I do. It’s chilly outside and the wind rattles the pine trees but the fresh air is a relief. Buddy buys us burritos and we sit on a bench together facing the water. Today the ocean is grey and purple, its foam churlish and sour, and the sky is pale. The seagulls overhead circle us passively. Buddy asks Dr. Carl how much farther north he needs to go and Dr. Carl shrugs. Need’s not a factor, he says. When the burritos are gone Buddy says he’s ready to drive again. I hand him the keys and lie down in the backseat, staring at the scarred ceiling of the ancient van as the wind rattles its frame. I feel unreal and unrealized, like I’m someone else’s idea. I wonder who had our van before Buddy, where they got it, where they went in it, what compelled them to leave it behind. I can hear Buddy and Dr. Carl talking quiet in the front seat like they think I might be sleeping which is a cozy friendly feeling so I try to fall asleep to prove them right.
I wake up in the dark to the tinny staccato of rain on the roof. Lightning illuminates the way forward for a moment, the road high and elevated, van hugging the craggy cliff walls, ocean too small and far below to see. Dr. Carl is behind the wheel now and he keeps wiggling forward in his seat as if that’ll help him see better through the deluge. His nose nearly flush with the windshield, he navigates us higher into the mountains until the rain turns to slush and the fingernails rapping the roof get damp and unfocused. I hook my chin over the back of Buddy’s seat and try to look at him but he’s either asleep or pretending to be. Finally Dr. Carl insists we can go no further and he pulls the van over into the dirt, which is now the mud. We can see lights through the near-opaque windows so we gather ourselves and stumble through the storm to a door that opens inward as we fall into it.
Inside it’s warm and it smells like beer. We tremble like wet dogs in the doorway as we remove our soaked layers and collapse into a booth, forest green vinyl squeaking against our thighs. At the bar Dr. Carl orders hot toddies for me and Buddy and a hot chocolate for himself (he says he doesn’t drink, raps his apparatus) and we wrap our fingers around the mugs tightly like we love them. In a minute or two we’re warm inside and smiling at each other with something like relief. The barkeep is nice and lends me his daughter’s old school sweater and a quarter to play the Pretenders on the jukebox. We dance near each other, arms wavey and loose, grinning at the mahogany walls. We throw darts at the board and at each other and when they hit our skin they don’t leave wounds, just rosy bruises like a hickey, until we’re freckled pink.
Buddy falls into a booth and presses the heels of his hands into his eye sockets. I slide in across from him and pick up my mug, tepid now. Buddy looks far away all of a sudden and I feel the warmth of the conspiracy surrounding us thaw, just a little. Outside, rain thickens to slurry against the muddied windows.
Buddy, I say finally, and the question I’ve been trying so hard not to touch falls out like a loose tooth. Where are we going?
Buddy shrugs like a child who has been asked who did this. He sighs like I am exasperating. His handsome face looks weary, the skin under his eyes stormy, and I realize he has not slept, not since I’ve known him. Buddy says my name like it’s strange and new in his mouth, which it is. It’s new to me too. Have a drink with me, he says next, and he reaches out and touches my hand with his cold fingertips so quickly I wonder if I’ve dreamed it, like everything else between us.
Buddy goes to the bar and comes back with two glasses and a bottle. I watch him pour several fingers into each glass and wonder why watching him do this feels like a gift I’m giving him instead of the other way around. What do we drink to, I ask him once the glass is in my hand.
To the road, says Dr. Carl, back from the dartboard, apparatus cradled in his arms now. He sucks hard on the nozzle and his voice drops through the floor like a piano in an old cartoon. To the open road and the ocean and to letting the good times roll—
Dr. Carl wavers like a weed in the wind. Time glitches with him for a moment, suspended in the air like the space between breaths. Then the apparatus hits the floor, a flat thunk that swallows the sound in my ears. Dr. Carl follows it. Now the place where his head meets the tank is blooming, metal red like the taste between my teeth. I’m on my knees in front of him, hands hovering over his chest, wondering if I should touch him. Shit. Shit, I say.
Shit. Shit, says Buddy.
Dr. Carl’s eyelids are trembling, one fast, one slow. Red is expanding across the bar floor. Dr. Carl, I say and I grab him and one eye finds mine. Same green, he says and he’s slurring, drooling, spit bubbling up on his lips like a baby. Don’t die, I ask him, like that might help.
We need to call someone, I say to Buddy.
He’s the doctor, says Buddy, and now something like laughter is escaping from his mouth ragged and wild.
The bartender comes out from the back and sees the scene, Dr. Carl bloody, me bloody, the floor bloody. Buddy knocking back his whiskey like he has somewhere else to be.
Fuck me, says the bartender.
Call someone, I tell him, and he disappears again.
We should go, says Buddy, and he is pulling on his still-wet sweater again, knocking back the whiskey again, patting the keys in his pocket. We can’t be here.
We can’t leave him. Dr. Carl’s eyes are both closed now, the bubbles on his lip still, the sticky dark red pool at his crown the only thing breathing. Buddy jangles the keys at me until I look at him.
Runaways don’t wait around to see what happens next, says Buddy.
Outside fresh white is blanketing everything including the van under a crystalline heaviness. We try to free the wheels with our bare hands, panting, beads of sweat appearing and freezing on our ruddy foreheads. Finally we sit in the fridge-cold van and wait for the engine to warm up, mouths hot on our own fingers. I’m still teeth-chattering, Dr. Carl’s blood still wet and rust red on the sleeves of the bartender’s daughter’s sweater. Buddy is clenching and unclenching his fists around the cold steering wheel like a racer waiting for the starting gun.
Suddenly we take off, lurching with an icy whine onto the road. We can hear the yowl of sirens in the distance growing closer and Buddy presses the ignition flat like they might be for him. Now the trees are white-capped, the road slick and hesitant. Even the ocean below looks sluggish and sickly. As we drive north the scenery around us does not change but instead repeats itself as if on a loop, the same white firs, the same treacherous turns, the same signs which no matter how long we travel do not seem to show us getting closer to anything. We rub the windows again and again with our sleeves but an opaque fog continues to blush onto them obscuring the way forward. I hadn’t thought to bring anything like gloves or a coat, hadn’t known what Buddy had in mind when he asked me to drive north with him, hadn’t planned to go this far. I glance side-eyed at Buddy, who is driving with surprising control but whose knuckles are white ringed with red on the wheel, and I wonder how far I’ll let him take me.
There’s another way out of this story, one where I turn left instead of right and kick open a trapdoor to somewhere else entirely. I steal the car keys from Buddy back at the bar—how would I do it? A bar stool over the head rendering him expertly unconscious, as if I know how to do that, or maybe I ask him to get some towels from the bathroom for the blood while I warm up the van’s engine and I jam the stool under the door’s handle, wedge him in, listen to him bang flat-palmed and useless on the bathroom door as the bartender and I grab Dr. Carl by the armpits and sling him into the van—and in this version I’m the one in the driver’s seat, Dr. Carl bleeding out all over the passenger side window, as I navigate us towards—what? Towards redemption, towards consequences, towards whatever comes when you stick around to find out what happens next. What would it feel like to grab the wheel, to swerve just in time, to make it out more than just alive?
Like a ghost I watch this version of myself pass us on the highway headed the other way. The girl in the other car has gumption; she’s a heroine in her own right, not just a beautiful stranger in someone else’s passenger seat. She’s not afraid of being alone inside her choices either; she grabs them with both bloody hands and jumps instead of stumbling into them like a crack on the sidewalk. The girl feels real, like all the best stories do. And she feels close so close as close as a missed turn I can still see shrinking in my side mirror. Like if I blinked I could find myself in her car instead, watching a pair of lost runaways disappearing in my rearview.
With his eyes still on the road Buddy reaches out and takes one of my hands in his. He lowers his mouth to my knuckles and breathes out just a little until my numb fingers twitch, not warm but close enough. We’re okay, he says. Say it back, he says and I say it back. I don’t know if it means anything but it’s good to say, good to hear. We listen to silence now on the radio, the monotonous hypnosis of tight rubber on sludge, the wind whistling tartly around the van’s bones, the quiet hiss of my and Buddy’s breathing running along two different tracks. We are the only car on the road now. Everyone else has turned back or stayed home, and I wish we were them, but then we wouldn’t be us.