Things were much better by the light of day. I dropped Carleen off at the airport at 11:00 A.M. and, amazingly, the world didn’t end. Within a few hours she’d be back in Ohio, falling back into her routine and I’d have no basis for projecting my anxieties about us being apart onto her. It was a beautiful sunny Bay Area day – a bit cool, just how I like it – and with spirits bright, I drove over to Arthur’s house in Berkeley to pick up Ethan for a day of amiable pointlessness.
He wasn’t there when I arrived. Instead, I was greeted by a rather tense and grumpy Arthur. He loosened up as he and I talked about nothing important for a few minutes, but the tension returned when Ethan came back. After a bit of three-way conversation, an uneasy truce regarding their unexplained dispute seemed to be forming, but it was hard to say how long it would last. Regardless of what they were fighting about that morning, the larger issue was probably the fact that Ethan was going on a second week on Arthur’s couch, and as most people know, it’s not easy for grownups used to their own space to live together for any extended period of time. Ethan had an apartment in the works, but it wouldn’t be ready for a couple of weeks, so he decided to get out of town for a while and join me on the road for the drive back east.
We left Arthur’s and went to a cool little Italian place in Berkeley to plan the route. The planning took about twenty minutes. The usual bullshitting about life, the universe, and everything took about three hours. That usually happens when Ethan and I get together with time to kill. Despite the fact that I’ve known the guy since freshman year at Ohio State, and despite the fact that we’ve exchanged several thousand emails of often preposterous length since we graduated, we never run out of stuff to talk about. As far as road trip companions go, you can’t do any better.
The general plan we had come up with was to head east the next morning, hang a right at Tahoe, head down US-395 along the backside of the Sierras, hang a left into Death Valley, and hopefully make Las Vegas by dinner. After that it was a bit more vague, but the general idea was to go south towards Tucson, then east into New Mexico, cut across the width of Texas to Austin, and then up to Dallas where Ethan would catch a flight back home and I would head back to Ohio.
We lost Arthur and Liz after the game, but met up with another friend of Ethan’s and headed to the Mission to get a late dinner and some mojitos. Between the rum and the wonderful day I was buzzing quite nicely as we crossed back over the bridge and into Berkeley. I dropped Ethan off at Arthur’s and – assuming that Arthur wouldn’t want yet another squatter in his house – I checked into the Hotel Durant for the night, eager to get on the road the next morning.
Except when the next morning came I wasn’t so eager. I don’t know if it was one too many mojitos the night before, or my room’s broken radiator and banging pipes, but I slept terribly and I was in a gloomy mood when I woke up. Sitting on the bed as the room went from black to gray, I started thinking that whatever illness had prompted me to get on the road in the first place had long since passed. I no longer wanted to find myself, or see the world, or do whatever the fuck it was I was supposed to be doing. I had to scuttle the rest of the trip, burn ass eastward, and get back into my normal routine as soon as possible. I had to be home with my wife. I had to start painting the nursery or buying life insurance or fixing the wreck that was my career. I had to do something – anything – that smelled of responsibility and structure.
Disgusted with my wife’s thoughtfulness, I called Ethan and asked him if it would mess his week up if I bailed on the trip. In my anxiety-clouded state, I had decided that the only possible way for him to react would be to unleash a classic male pep talk in which he’d tell me to grow some balls, man-up, or whatever it is guys are supposed to say to each other at times like these. Indeed, I was hoping for this, because if it came, I could counter with haughty indignation at the assualt on my manliness. I’d declare that there were far more important things for me to be doing than dicking around in the desert with my friends, and that I was shocked – shocked! – that he couldn’t understand that. It would be the perfect cover for a strategic retreat east.
Ethan failed me too. Instead of acting like a typical guy, he acted, as always, like a true friend. He told me that I had to do what I had to do, and that he’d be fine no matter what I decided. He continued, however, by explaining that there were many objective reasons not to rush home, all of which he then listed in a calm, sober manner. Sure, I’d be home in a couple of days, but all I’d do once I got there was watch baseball, mow my lawn, and read books, and though this seemed comforting to me at that moment, it would be a source of regret in the future. I’d never have a chance to do this again. Carleen was pregnant, and once my child came there would be little time for hikes in the desert and 500 mile drives with my best friend. Sure, I may travel out west again – maybe dozens of time – but every time I did it, I’d be reminded that I passed up the opportunity to do it when I was a young man and still relatively free of responsibilities.
Of course he was right, and I knew it as soon as he said it. I thanked him and told him I’d call him back to let him know what I was going to do. I pulled the chair over to the open window, took in a deep breath of fresh air, and gathered my thoughts.
What had come over me? Why was it that when faced with a completely blank slate – in this case, a month’s worth of zero responsibility and carte blanche to do whatever I wanted short of adultery – I am invariably drawn to the safest, least creative alternative? Wasn’t it exactly this sort of behavior that led me to two legal jobs I hated and a desperate need to find myself? I gazed down Durant Avenue and watched UC Berkeley start its day. How many of those students down there wake up afraid of being away from home? How many of them are overcome with anxiety when forced to do something other than their normal routine? Not many of them, I’d wager.
I sat there, thinking that there would be no hope for me if I didn’t somehow manage to break old patterns. No, I wasn’t going to do anything radical, but I had to start testing my boundaries from time to time. To push back against that which predisposes me to be safe, fat, seemingly-happy, but boring. I wasn’t about to abandon my career, sell my house, and become a drifter, but I was going to stop allowing myself to compulsively take the path of least resistance.
I didn’t call Ethan back. Instead, I got dressed, packed up, and headed over to Arthur’s house. He was a bit surprised when he saw me at the door.
“No. I’m here to tell you ‘let’s go.’”