I rode a shuttle bus last night up on campus and after everyone boarded and the driver turned off the bright overhead lights leaving a series of moody pools of warm reading light, I was flooded with longing.
Cross-country bus trips of my youth. Stopping for minutes at a time in little towns whose name I never knew. Longer stops, blurry-eyed at five in the morning, looking for warm coffee to wrap my hands around in the boring spaces between drivers, here in these bigger towns. Flagstaff, Oklahoma City, KC, St. Louis. Or the run-down, industrial outskirts of these towns at least.
I was just out of high school desperately in love with a girl who, though only a couple of years younger than I, was a million miles away from where I wanted to go. Holding hands was her limit. I, who’d been sexually aware since I was ten and deflowered at fourteen, felt constantly hopeful and horny and guilty and ashamed.
Her mom and Nana were deeply enmeshed in every aspect of each others lives, forming a creepy three-headed, cross-generational triumvirate. I’ve wondered over the years if they were deliberately conscious of how effective this doling out and withholding affection was at keeping me around. Unconscious or Machiavellian or a young girl just not ready, I remained doting and obsessive and sexually frustrated for nearly two years.
I am mercilessly unforgiving with myself about this now. The less she gave, the harder I tried. This has been a central lesson in my romantic life in the last few decades. One cannot will a relationship into existence. I am willing to meet you half way. Or maybe more than half way, but I want to feel like partners in this. I’m not going to woo you, seduce you, convince you, pressure you. If you already think I’m funny and sexy and smart like I feel about you, maybe then, we’ll see. What will happen will happen.
In her senior year, her mom, her Nana, sent her to a boarding school in Saint Louis. I wonder what part my ardor played in that decision. A Christian Science school in a treeless stretch of prairie as big as a university.
I wrote to her daily, or very close. She was at a new school, meeting new people and here was a boyfriend back home who she’d given maybe a chaste kiss once or twice flooding her mailbox with letters. Who knows whether she read all of them. She wrote me maybe once a week, answering only some of my jealous questions about who she was hanging out with and what she was doing.
During the winter holidays, I decided I would have an absurd adventure. I would travel across the country for a week to spend a few days with her. It was that kind of irritating and nauseous romance. A bus trip with money saved from working in her family’s shop. Two thirds of the way across the continent by Greyhound bus.
The sense of expectation first. This sense of purpose and reason. Riding a bus across the country to get somewhere. Of course, anywhere, is nice too. But somewhere, a specific goal, has a nice feeling.
But being on the road that long, that far from home, there’s a sense that anything can happen. Might happen. Maybe should happen. What if I got off in this town, what is it called? Greensburg. What if I got off here in Greensburg, what would my life be like? Who are these people? How did they get here? Why are they here and not somewhere else? Why are they them, and me me, and not the other way around? Could I live here? What kind of connections would I have with these people? All thoughts that come in the night as the long highway detours through little towns.
In towns through Missouri and Kansas I spotted butchers that specialized in wild-killed meat. Their customers were primarily hunters. Indeed, in a coffee shop serving as a small town bus stop, in the middle of the night, we came upon a herd of hunters in camouflage drinking coffee ready to begin the hunt. I developed an inexplicable craving for deer jerky.
A jealous love. A starving man. An obsession. A manipulation. A lonely romance. A young young girl with the usual ambivalence. A scarcity economy. A long, slow panic. Shame. Guilt. A feeling of unloveability. A rationed affection. Still after twenty years I don’t know how to think of it.
The pools of light made by reading lights. On this crowded bus, each passenger gets her or his own intimate bubble. An entire universe, wedged in between other universes, in which to read, snack, or think. A moment alone to dream, followed by another uninterrupted moment, followed by another.
In one town bathed in washed-out winter sun, a row developed at the front of the bus which quickly moved outside. A red blotchy-faced woman was having an argument with the driver. I watched distantly, dispassionately until the woman walked away from the bus cursing.
In the space of the bus, another space was created. A mental space, a separation between strangers, that was as wide and open as a desert valley. In two thousand miles maybe two or three people broke through that bubble.
One was a young blond girl curious about my travels. What was I doing on the road? Where was I going? Where was I going to sleep? She was from another town in California and was traveling much much further than me all the way to the other coast for reasons I couldn’t quite discern from what she said. A man? A job? Both?
The other strangers I talked to were concerned middle-aged women. Motherly types, concerned about my welfare, full of advice and suggestions. Their smiles all looked the same. In my memory, they meld into a road trip archetype of all the concerned mothers I’ve met on the road who have a young wayward son in the military.
I’ll leave the part about the girlfriend behind in these reminiscences, because every moment of the journey stuck with me deep down in this way that’s hard to describe, except for the part of the journey, the three days I actually spent with her. In the future of this young man, in the summer, several months hence, a great weariness overtakes him. The weariness of trying too hard overcomes him and he gives up on this quixotic romance. But this bus trip in the winter in an attempt to demonstrate the depth of his love.
Two days across the nation, and two days back. Three thousand nine hundred sixty two miles. Three days, twenty-three hours, and fifty minutes of bus travel over a long long week of an eighteen-year old young man.
And in the day, the unending vision of road and town and landscape scrolling by. The endless, boundless, constant, continual, eternal, everlasting, immeasurable, infinite, interminable, limitless, monotonous, never-ending, perpetual, unbounded, unbroken, unending road.