As my heavy eyelids slowly open, I immediately look out to identify the scenery around me. After two years of traveling, the landscapes begin to blend together. The brush on the ground tells me I’m in Arizona. No, it’s too flat. Arizona has miles of towering mountains that make you feel tiny in comparison. It must be Utah. No, there’s way too much green. Utah is so red you feel like you could drown in it. It’s New Mexico. New Mexico has seemingly endless roads of nothing that rarely lead to any place of significance, but it still manages to enchant you. If I look hard enough, I can see the peaks of red mountains off in the distance of the open road, surrounded by nothing else but dirt.
I’m in the passenger seat of a beat up 1962 VW convertible. The cracked, light blue paint makes the car look worn down and cheap, but the driver tells me that he saved up for this car all of high school, working at a local mechanic shop in Jasper, Indiana, where he left as soon as he got the keys. His name is Tom. He has calloused hands and bloodshot eyes that seem to constantly glance at me, even while he’s fixated on the road. Several times I woke up during our ride to find his hand softly resting on my shoulder, immediately sending shivers down my entire body. I am innately aware of how the feeling of a touch could be like sandpaper, and be so cold. I had come to expect that his hand would wander down my arms, as if I were oblivious to his obvious change of intentions. Instead, it stayed put in a place of innocence, of protection. His touch somehow felt warm, and slowly made me feel comfort instead of fear. Out of the many men I had encountered during my travels, Tom was gentler, but just as troubled. I could tell he was running from something that haunted him. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night to find him looking up at the sky, thinking too much, and too deeply.
I usually didn’t try too hard to dive deep into the psyche of the people I met on the road. Forming attachments would make it impossible to keep moving on. But still, something about the innocent placement of his hand, or the creases on his forehead, or the way the light shone on his five-o-clock shadow made me nauseous. The good kind of nauseous, like riding on a carousel at the local fair after two cotton candies, but still nauseous.
The mid morning air is dreadfully hot. During the nights, the air is cold, with the luminous light of the moon being my only solace. Sometimes at night my mind begins to wander to home, a place of comfort and familiarity, but also a place full of questions that seem too big for a small town to answer. When I finally get those answers, then everything will be worth it.
My mother always told me I was a wandering soul, belonging to everyone and no one all at once. Born and raised in Big Sky, Montana, my mother lived the life that was decided for her at birth. She went to school, helped her mother at home, and when she was 18, she was married off to a local man who she was expected to immediately love. She used to tell me that love was a choice. When she decided to love my father, she did it with all her heart. Still, I could tell her mind wandered to other lives she could have lived. My father was a man who was content with a simple life. He held a job as a manager at the local bank and brought home just enough money every day to keep food on the table and his wife in her place. When he was laid off, he blamed my mother. She was too weak, didn’t take care of the home well enough, and didn’t love him well enough. As piercing screams moved through the walls of our home, it started to shrink. My mother told me that whenever I felt scared, I could close my eyes and picture myself in New York City, at the top of the Empire State Building. Simultaneously feeling so big, like a King looking down on his subjects, and so small, like nothing really matters except the view. Thousands of feet above millions of people, just walking by. All with purpose, with direction. All free.
The day my mother died, March 22, 1970, I packed a bag with two sweaters, a pair of jeans, and some money. One of the sweaters was picked out of a thrift shop so cluttered I felt forced to pick the first thing I saw I didn’t hate. The other was my mom’s, which was already starting to lose the smell of her perfume; instead, it smelled of far too many wears with no washing. The jeans were old Levi’s I got at a department store, the only pair I could ever find that fit both my waist and hips, but they were still slightly too loose on my bony legs. I brought 257 dollars and 53 cents. It was all the money I had saved up, earned from years of chores and any job I could get. I kept it in a box under my bed, waiting for the time when I would need it. I thought it would be enough, but at this point, there are only a few dollars left. I vowed to myself that I would never return to my town. People who never leave home don’t understand what it’s like to be on a constant tour, or what it’s like to be free.
“Stephanie,” I hear Tom whisper from the driver’s seat of the car. His hair is messy, obviously having not been washed for days, perhaps even weeks. Still, I could tell he was handsome in another life, one where he had a place to call home. The name leaving his mouth feels unfamiliar to me. I gave every man I met on the road a different name and a different story of how I ended up so lost.
Ed, a truck driver from Nevada met Jasmine, a girl from a wealthy home in California who ran away from her overbearing parents.
Jonathan and Mary, a couple traveling to Tennessee from Oregon met Alicia, a waitress from Idaho with the hopes of becoming an actress in New York.
But Tom met Stephanie, the girl from a small town in Montana. Me.
When he asked me my name and story as he picked me up on the side of the interstate outside of Albuquerque, my real name somehow slipped from my lips. His eyes searched mine intently, maybe because I looked so unsure of my story. Maybe he even thought I was lying to him. That I had made up this girl named Stephanie. That I was just trying her on to find someone that fit. I wonder if what he told me about himself was true.
I glance over at Tom, still awaiting a response from me.
I struggle to let out any sound after so long of silence, but look at him inquisitively.
“I want to show you something,” he softly replies, eyes searching in the distance.
There’s not much around for Tom to show other than pieces of brush and small animals scurrying around the ground. He puts his key into the ignition, the engine making a loud roaring sound as the car begins to move. The car struggles, almost like it is tired of travelling, but is still being forced along day after day. As we begin to drive, Tom turns on a cassette player that I have never noticed the car has. When classical music blares through the tape, I look at Tom with puzzled eyes as he begins to explain.
“I play the piano. One day I’m going to be like Mozart, or Beethoven, or one of the other greats. I mean, I’ve never had a proper lesson or anything like that, but my grandmother used to have an old piano in her living room. Sometimes I’d sit for hours and just feel it vibrate.”
As he talks, he fidgets with his hands and looks down into his lap, like his hobby is a secret he has been itching to confess.
His words surprise me, not because of his ambitions, but because of his appearance. Tom’s shaggy hair and loose, ragged clothing make him look more like the kind of guy who would listen to rock bands, like The Velvet Underground or The Doors, who I would listen to on my record player at home, just quiet enough to not bother my parents, and just loud enough to feel lost in it.
The sound of the piano melody pulsates through the car as Tom determinedly drives down the monotonous road. Suddenly, Tom makes a sharp, jolting turn and comes across a small path that I never would have noticed. There appears to have once been a sign leading people down the path, but it has since been knocked down, now lying down in the brush, battered and neglected. The path is obviously not meant for cars, with constant bumps sending us off of the ripped leather seats and into the air.
A small grin creeps upon Tom’s face as we pull up to a village. Not a village per se, but a giant formation of red rock houses, that seems like it is from many lifetimes ago. A neighborhood long abandoned. The rocks look worn, but sturdy, like they were built to last. There are about 7 rock houses built on top of each other, with stone stairways leading up to the door of the next home. They’re a rectangular shape, completely plain other than two holes: a window and some sort of door. The holes seem too small for anyone to squeeze through to get to the equally small interior, which is completely empty. The rocks are a muted red, but seem vibrant compared to the far away mountain scape. Driving in the village feels like finding something from long ago that doesn’t quite belong to you, but is impossible to not take for your own. It feels too valuable to be left behind, even if not by the true owner. It seems like the entire world was all here at once, but just happened to be forgotten. As I look around at the full panorama, my mind wanders to what happened to the people who lived here and what made them run away.
“Do you think we could stay?” I ask Tom, immediately feeling a rush of adrenaline.
His eyes widen with excitement, and no trace of fear.
“I don’t see why not,” he replies as we walk out of his car and into the village.
I imagine myself living in one of the small rock houses, feeling the past where I rest my head. I imagine Tom living with me, with us only having each other, and maybe a few of his cassette tapes. I imagine never being seen again, until maybe someone stumbles across our little village and wonders how we got so lost.
I look over at Tom as he turns to look at me. Without any effort of my own, my arms extend as I let out the loudest scream I can muster. Tom smiles wide, not seeming surprised at my random outburst. Without any hesitation, he joins me. As both our screams fill the air, I wonder if we could stay in this moment, screaming forever, until our voices give out, and all there is left is silence.
Jen Cullen is a 17 year old attending Viewpoint School in Calabasas, California.