Call it the seductive fantasy of tabula rasa: a new beginning. By throwing ourselves into a foreign situation, where no one knows us, we tell ourselves that we have the freedom to be an entirely different person. Whatever we don’t like about ourselves, we can leave behind; maybe we’ll be more courageous or assertive or stronger than we previously ever thought we could be. (We never think we might be more petty and selfish and paranoid than usual, but that’s human optimism for you.)
I’d given myself this “clean slate” pep talk when I left home for college, for grad school in Georgia and in Pennsylvania, and for Amanda’s book tour.
And as Joe’s car had vanished down the Toledo street, I closed my eyes and envisioned it carrying away all my embarrassing neuroses and unappealing qualities. I was a lifelong introvert when I really wanted to be an extrovert; I was often frumpy when I wanted to be sleek and glamorous; I was a square when I wanted to be an unpredictable adventurer; and though I’d once been a great student seemingly destined for great things, several minimum wage jobs and two masters degrees later, I was flailing and struggling as a free-lancer, looking down the long road of a spotty, only occasionally satisfying professional life.
To make it all worse, I’d suffered terrible insomnia over the last year and a half because I simply wasn’t built for the stress and financial risks that come with self-employment. I’d wanted to be a writer my whole life, and it was finally dawning on me that while I might publish a short story here or there in a literary magazine, I’d probably never write something significant – something less disposable than my for-hire study guides and newspaper articles.
Amanda had at least made it to the next level, where I wanted to be. So I secretly hoped that by spending time with her, she might provide me with some secret career map.
In the bus station parking lot, Amanda, Jimmy, and Cedric soon stubbed out their cigarettes. Cedric cleared his camera equipment from the passenger seat, where I took my place while Jimmy drove.
There was small talk about my drive to Toledo, and then Amanda, from the back seat, told me about her two-days-and-counting bout with constipation. (Unnerved by frank conversations regarding bowel movements, especially with strangers, I nodded and said nothing.)
Jimmy handed me a file folder filled with MapQuest-printouts and itineraries.
“So when the tour companion finalists were narrowed down, who were they?” I asked. Perhaps I was fishing for praise, but I also wanted to know why it was me in this gray hulk of a car and not someone else.
“The first guy was an hour late to meet me, and he, like, offered no apology or explanation for being an hour late,” Amanda said from the backseat. “He just stood there, like a little boy waiting to be punished, waiting for me to reprimand him, and I wasn’t going to do that. And then the next woman was hyper, and since I’m that way myself, I thought that would just be too, too much hyperactivity in the car for three weeks. Then the last woman—”
“She smelled funny,” Jimmy said, raising his eyebrows and catching Amanda’s eyes in the rearview. “She was creepy. A creeper. Gave me the creeps.”
“Jimmy didn’t like her at all,” Amanda said. “I thought she was OK, but then she asked me if I could change the tour to October, because that would work better for her schedule. So that pretty much settled things.”
I sank into my seat and glumly watched trees and small Ohio towns fly past. I’d thought that learning about others who’d seriously contemplated doing this would provide me with insight, or at the very least, make me feel good about being chosen. But all I learned was that my low-key nature and lack of anything better to do had ultimately locked up my “victory.”
But what if I’d smelled funny?
Amanda had had no way of knowing. And I had a history.
In my fifth grade class, Ms. Schmidt had seated us in alphabetical order, so I sat next to Sara McDonald – a girly-girl who used a curling iron daily to sweep her cornsilk blond hair back from her doe-eyed face, and who had an enviable sweater collection. I had few-to-no friends at the time, but once I got over my shyness, I cracked jokes that made Sara laugh during class, so I occasionally got to hang out with her and her friends during recess.
Yet after several weeks, Sara reported to her mother that I stank so badly on some days that she could hardly breathe. Mrs. McDonald immediately called the school, so that my own poor mother soon got what had to be the world’s most humiliating phone call.
So when I got home from school that day, my mom sat me down on our red, scratchy living room couch. She bluntly explained what happened, and my face burned. I’d thought Sara had liked me.
“I know you’re taking baths,” my mother said. “Are you using soap?”
“Yes,” I said through gulping sobs, as though injured that she could even ask this question.
But I was lying. Despite my mother’s clear instructions, I usually just sat in a tub full of steaming hot bathwater, studying how it made my skin turn bright pink, watching my breath ruffle its smooth surface.
“Well, you may just need to use more of it,” Mom said. “Are you using the deodorant I got you?”
Again, the answer was no. Being ten, and having my father’s poor sense of smell, I viewed the slick, white ball of roll-on Secret in the same way I did perfume – something to be used on occasions when I wanted to smell especially nice. But of course, I couldn’t cop to this confession, either.
“Yes!” I protested, the mucous turning sour in my throat. My arms folded tight over my fast-developing breasts, which I’d been trying to stop from growing by lying on my stomach for hours at a time. “Can I go to my room now? Please?”
“But Jennifer, we have to talk about this. The principal said she could smell you clear across the library.”
Oh, God. The principal knew, too? “Please, just let me go to my room,” I begged.
My mother recognized that I was done. I could go no further than this. She pursed her lips. “All right. But we’re going to have to do something about this.”
I fled at “all right,” pounding down unfinished wood stairs to my room in our half-finished basement. How many people were now aware of, and talking about, my rankness? My mother would tell my father, if she hadn’t already. Sara, and Mrs. McDonald, and the school principal would probably all talk to other people about the disgusting, foul-smelling girl in Ms. Schmidt’s class. How could I be expected to go to school the next day and sit next to Sara again, as if nothing had happened?
But Ms. Schmidt seemed to get the inter-school memo on my stench, too, because the next morning, without explanation, she asked us to empty our desks and shuffled us into new assigned seats. I didn’t say a word to Sara, and I knew I was facing a school year, if not more, with no friends. I hated myself, which equated to hating everything about my body: severe acne on my back and face; my huge-for-fifth-grade breasts; my glasses; my body odor; my large, pronounced features; my un-athletic lumpishness.
From then on, I spent all recesses alone, walking around the outer margins of the playground like a ghost. I rejected my classmates’ rejection, shutting myself away in our house after school every day. I read teenage romance books, and repeatedly sang along with Olivia Newton-John’s “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” and watched lots of bad television.
Because I’d decided then that the one thing marginally worse than being invisible to the world was being seen.
Jimmy pulled into a service plaza along a toll road, where Hardee’s was just about the only dining option. Blech.
For the last few years, I’d followed a strict diet, wherein I allowed myself to eat junk food only one day a week – usually Saturdays. That fact of my life was necessarily going to have to change for the next few weeks, I knew, but in the fluorescent light of a truck stop – which made us all look like Marilyn Manson groupies – it dawned on me precisely how difficult it would be to find nutritious food.
I ordered a ham and cheese sandwich, figuring if nothing else, the sandwich had bypassed the fryer on its way to me. The four of us ate while hunched over the small, square formica tables, and Jimmy stared at the road atlas.
“You OK, baby?” Amanda asked Jimmy, stroking his springy hair.
“Yeah, now that I’ve eaten something.”
Amanda looked toward me to explain. “He’s hypoglycemic.”
My stomach dropped. I’d made the choice for us not to eat in Toledo (see what I mean about decisions?), and since then, there’d been almost no choices for food stops. Crap.
And things weren’t much better for me on the other side of the table. I struggled to understand Cedric’s English, so I kept asking him to repeat everything. (Occasionally Amanda translated, which was almost worse.)
So much for the new me. I was already the ugly American on tour.
“I’m so sorry,” I told Cedric, wincing. “It will probably just take me a couple of days to get accustomed to your accent.”
“It is OK,” he said, his lazy eyes and smile focusing only briefly on me. I tried to decide if that was really condescension in his tone, or if the French inflection just always felt that way to overly-sensitive American ears.
“So what is the plannification?” Cedric asked the others.
“Plannification?” A wicked smile spread slowly across Amanda’s face.
“Yes, where are we going?” Cedric smiled back, knowing from Amanda’s response that he’d just said something funny.
“Our plannification indicates that we’re now heading to Wisconsin.”
“Is that good?”
“I don’t know. But even if it’s not, we’ve got lots more plannification after that.”
By the time we headed back to the car, I was desperate to make myself useful. “I can drive, if you want,” I told Jimmy. “That is what I’m here for.”
“That’d be great.” He tossed me the keys and folded his long body into the back seat, next to Amanda. Cedric settled into the passenger seat with his camera, pointing it at me.
More patches of silence filled the car, but at some point, I confessed that Joe and I had recently got married. (I’m here, I told myself. They can’t send me back now.)
“How did you meet?” Amanda asked.
“We both played trombone in the Michigan Marching Band. But we were friends for years before we ever dated.”
“Jimmy and I met at a bar. I was celebrating finishing my novel,” Amanda said. Only her vertical ponytail appeared in the rearview. “Two months later, he was offered an acting gig with Cirque du Soleil, so I went on tour with him.”
This was how they both had met and befriended Cedric, who had been a performer with Cirque, too. Amanda talked about the places they’d all traveled to, and how terribly bored she’d often been. “You’d think the performers for Cirque du Soleil would be these really interesting people, but they’re not. They’re interesting when they’re on stage, but when they’re off-stage, most of them have no personality at all. They’re just these boring people who used to be gymnasts.”
Jimmy had played a ringmaster-type of role, while Cedric had played a clown. “Ced was one of the few fun, interesting people I met.”
“Yes, I was very fun,” Cedric said, pointing the camera at Amanda.
I craned my neck toward every exit, searching fruitlessly for a Shell gas station; Amanda’s publisher had furnished us with a Shell credit card for the tour, but nothing but a stream of BPs lined the toll road.
When the gauge fell so far below E that I feared pushing the car further, I gave up and pulled off. I tried to put only a few dollars’ worth of gas into the tank – enough to get us to a Shell station, hopefully – but a woman on the intercom barked at me about pre-paying inside.
So who was going to pay for this? I wondered. It certainly didn’t seem like I should pay. But Jimmy and Cedric had disappeared, and although Amanda was in my orbit, looking at food items, I was way too Midwestern to say, “Um, isn’t this your responsibility? Aren’t I already driving you around the country for nothing?” For me, this was a bind. I didn’t want to establish myself as the go-to money girl – bad patterns got formed this way – but I didn’t want to be confrontational, either. So I forked over a five-spot and stepped back outside to the pump.
Not a good start, I thought, grimacing. I hadn’t realized I’d be sponsoring the tour, too.
Tons of toll booths dotted the Illinois highway (fortunately, the money for tolls consistently appeared from the back seat.). As we pulled up to each one, Amanda and Jimmy instructed me to hand the attendant a promotional bookmark for “The Long Haul” and tell him/her that we were on a book tour.
“We’ve been doing it at every booth so far,” Jimmy said. So I took a deep breath, gritted my teeth, and did it.
This small act flew in the face of my Midwestern upbringing. I’d generally been taught that busy people packed the world – people who worked hard but hated their jobs; people who had families and problems of their own; people who didn’t want to be bothered with whatever it was that you had to sell. To assume otherwise was vain, self-aggrandizing, and rude.
Yet to my surprise, two amused booth attendants paused thoughtfully over the bookmark. From the backseat, Amanda leaned into my open window and urged each of them to buy her book, to read her book. She had zero qualms about promoting herself – something I found simultaneously gauche and thrilling.
Our destination that first night was a town outside Madison. A guy named Poe, who free-lanced for two local, underground publications, wanted to interview Amanda, and so offered us a place to crash. (This confirmed for me that we would, indeed, be staying on various people’s couches and spare rooms often throughout the tour. Yet another thing it would have been useful to ask about ahead of time.)
Amanda called Poe on her cell to tell him where we were on the interstate, and he told her to call him again when we reached a particular exit.
“That’s silly,” Jimmy said, when Amanda hung up. “We have pretty detailed directions from Mapquest. I don’t think we’ll need more help.”
Amanda held her cell phone back up to her ear. “Poe? This is Amanda. I’m sorry. My boyfriend’s decided he doesn’t like you, so fuck you, we’ll find somewhere else to stay. Bye.”
Jimmy played along, his softened voice suddenly plaintive. “Call him back, honey. Come on. I didn’t mean it.”
She pretended to press numbers on her phone, held it up to her ear again and said, “Great news. I just talked to my boyfriend, and he says he will have gay sex with you, but only if you’re on top. What? You’re 350 pounds? All the better.”
She clicked her phone shut, and Jimmy said, “Thanks, baby. I knew you’d work it out.”
I laughed at their spontaneous play-show. Jimmy and Amanda were obviously the kind of couple who playfully performed with and for each other, and I was charmed.
Raindrops had misted the windshield, on and off, since I’d taken the wheel, but only the passenger side wiper worked; the one on the driver’s side lay like an amputated limb upon the glass.
“This was my stepfather’s car,” Amanda explained. “My brother mostly keeps it in storage, so it doesn’t get much use.”
I hunched over the wheel, straining to see my way down the darkening highway. When we finally got the chance to fill up at a Shell station, Jimmy asked to drive the last few miles to Poe’s house. (An odd request, I thought, but what did I care?)
Per instructions, Amanda called Poe again when we reached the prescribed exit, and he talked us through various turns (all of them also indicated by Mapquest) until we finally spotted a tall, thickly-built man standing in a driveway, waving his arms. Jimmy pulled the car up to Poe and a sawhorse with a homemade sign that read, “New Driver Parking Only,” with four more small, plastic barricades flanking the sides. Clearly, this guy – with a backwards newsboy cap pulled down to his brow, tattoos and piercings everywhere, and a cigarette in his mouth, wearing nothing on this cold, rainy night but jeans and a t-shirt that said “Assrash” – was really into this whole thing.
We had no idea.