After haggling via e-mail about where and how we’d meet up, Amanda and I settled on the bus station in Toledo on a Saturday in early November. Joe offered to drive me, though it meant an early, long Saturday morning for him. “I’m not going to see you for three and a half weeks,” he said with a resigned shrug. “If I take you, I’ll at least get to spend some time with you. Even if it is ‘goodbye time.’”
“Goodbye time” was an original concept of Joe’s, whereby two people have a stunted, strained, drawn-out conversational goodbye over the course of an hour or two. And though I’d teased him, he was right. For after an uncharacteristically quiet car ride, during which we listened to NPR’s Weekend Edition, we reached the bus station and still didn’t have much to say. Joe bought some hot chocolate from a vending machine, and we sat on a bench, listening to a handful of video arcade games chirp and play music. Goodbye time, indeed.
I definitely felt a twinge of guilt about leaving Joe for so long, and so soon, after our wedding and honeymoon. Not exactly famous for his patience (the man considers waiting in line to be personal punishment), Joe has nonetheless always been patient with me, not once complaining or fighting me when I left Michigan – on two separate occasions, for two and four years at a time – to attend graduate school programs. (The motto for my soulmate, apparently, was the same one that’s painted on the wall in the University of Michigan football team’s locker room: “Those who stay will be champions.”)
When I finally came back to Michigan from my second grad school tour, I moved into his house. We let several months pass — to make sure we knew how to live in the same place and be happy, which we did — and then took our time discussing marriage: what it would mean, and what it would change. We proceeded on our own terms and planned our unconventional wedding together. I’d felt good about that. Yet here I was, leaving for nearly a month to go on what everyone deemed a ridiculous venture.
Joe soon grimaced at his cup of hot chocolate, taking only two sips before tossing it. I knew this month would be hard on him. He’d just gotten used to having me around again. But I couldn’t back out now.
I’d packed my trombone; a huge, overstuffed suitcase (I’d like to say I travel light, but I don’t); and a full backpack into the trunk of Joe’s Taurus. I’d dressed for the Toledo rendezvous with care, settling on my favorite jeans and a black t-shirt that said “Blackthorn” – the name of our favorite local Irish band. I wanted to project a sense of easy cool to Amanda. Maybe a little mystery. Self-assuredness.
But I likely broadcasted little beyond abject terror.
11 a.m. – the original time slated for our meeting – came and went. Joe and I stood outside in the parking lot, and Joe paced around his Taurus. The Michigan/Michigan State game in Ann Arbor (to which he would drive from Toledo) had a noon kickoff, and though I told him he could leave – Amanda’s boyfriend had called to say they were just running a little late – Joe said he wanted to make sure I got off OK, and wanted to meet the people I’d be spending the next few weeks with. Granted these few extra minutes, we hugged and held on to each other, trying to store up affection. I grew more and more clingy – which is not like me at all — as the passing time made the trip more real.
Moments later, a long, old, tank-like gray Volvo station wagon finally pulled up to the nearby intersection, and its inhabitants waved frantically. “I feel like a kid going to sleep-away camp for the first time,” I said to Joe, who gently squeezed my hand. The car rattled into the lot and pulled up next to us.
A tall, skinny, smiling guy sprang out from the driver’s side. Jimmy, Amanda’s boyfriend, was coming along for the first part of the tour only – essentially, to deliver her to me. With messy, springy brown hair, and a zipped-up pullover, he looked boyish; one of those thirtysomething guys you looked at and knew precisely what he looked like at age ten.
Next, a tiny woman with a light brown, three inch, curly vertical ponytail climbed from the car. Here was the Dean Moriarty to my Sal Paradise: Amanda.
She had brown eyes, a gold nose ring like a tiny cluster of grapes, and a cynical, knowing smile. She was wearing the flowy kind of peasant top that never looked right on me when I tried them on, and she’d stapled up the cuffs of her pants. She looked thrift store hip – and to Midwesterners like me, New Yorkers are like Parisians. Their attitude and body carriage usually made whatever they chose to wear look glamorous — and the more we didn’t get it, the cooler it was.
The last person to emerge from the car was a dark-haired, olive-skinned man with heavy-lidded, bloodshot, green eyes. Cedric – a French-Italian man whose home base was Sicily – shook my hand while holding a camera, capturing our first-meeting awkwardness on tape. (This would be one of the few relevant moments he captured on film.) His English had an extremely thick accent, but I vaguely understood his apology for filming me so immediately.
“That’s OK,” I said, trying to sound flip. “I’ll have to get used to it sooner or later.”
“Hey, risk-taker,” Amanda said, opening her arms to hug me. “Jimmy’s been calling you that all the way here.”
“Well, you’re taking a big risk, too,” I said. My voice felt suddenly strange in my mouth and ears. Deeper and more grave.
Jimmy lit up a cigarette, and I struggled to control my expression while thinking, “Shit!” repeatedly. For some reason, it had never once occurred to me that I might be inhaling secondhand smoke all day, every day, for the next month, nor that my hair and my clothes might reek of it. I quickly tried to rationalize things, reminding myself that according to Amanda, Jimmy would only be along on the tour until the next day…
But then Amanda and Cedric lit up, too. Damn it! The harsh reality of what I’d imagined would be my life for the next few weeks hit me like a sucker punch. Why hadn’t I asked about this instead of cutesy, Barbara Walters-inspired “hospital room” questions?
This wasn’t like leaving for camp at all, I realized. It was like joining up with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on their psychedelic bus, Further. Once again, I’d profoundly misjudged myself. I was no beatnik. I was a good girl from Michigan who never once tried tobacco, let alone anything narcotic. I made it through college without imbibing a single drop of alcohol, so panicked was I at the notion of not being in control of my circumstances at all times — and because vomiting, as a rule, profoundly repulsed me. And although I owned tie-dyed items in my wardrobe, it suddenly felt like a cute costume I occasionally donned for kicks.
Knowing I’d never back out of my commitment, though, I wondered if driving these people around for three weeks would bring me closer to my desired-but-false hippie self-image, or whether it would merely reinforce the straight-arrow person I seemed hardwired to be.
Jimmy opened the back door of the station wagon and made room for my bulky luggage. He moved swiftly and didn’t flinch once at my crazy over-packing. (This endeared him to me immediately, despite the burning cigarette hanging from his lips.) I’d tried to use restraint while filling my suitcase, but every kind of climate lay ahead of us; I didn’t know what laundry opportunities we’d have on a regular basis; and my running gear took up a good deal of space, as did my trombone case and practice mute. Jimmy shoved it all in the car and firmly snapped the wagon’s back door shut.
The crisp noise resonated in my gut. This was it. Terrified and exhilarated, I hugged Joe tightly and – uncomfortable with overt public displays of intimacy – gave him a not-quite-on-the-lips kiss. Then I re-considered, reminding myself that it would be weeks before I saw him again, and kissed him with more care and accuracy. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” I said. He nodded, waved goodbye to everyone, and drove off, leaving me with my new, smoking companions.
For a second, I wanted nothing more than to chase after Joe’s Taurus. To wave my arms and flag him down, tell him that I’d changed my mind – he should take me home.
But I’d agreed to do this. I’d been dying to do this. Hadn’t I?