Every Friday, she drove six hours across state lines to visit home. Every Sunday, she drove six more to go back to school. Week after week, the setting sun tanned the left side of her face through her car window, leaving the right side pale and soft in comparison.
At first, she passed the time with music. The same few songs over and over, usually sung by women, and always very sad. Until one rainy evening, halfway to home, when her playlist made her cry so hard she thought she was going blind. She was completely hysterical, and also vaguely surprised. For the last few years, she had been numb to the world. It was strange to feel her emotions, those sharp and exquisite pains she remembered from childhood, crash into her all at once. She pulled over to the side of the freeway, turned off the music, and waited for her vision to return. After that, she mostly listened to podcasts.
She often had the overwhelming suspicion that the people she passed — taking their kids on road trips, filling up their semi-trucks, buying beef jerky from their local gas station — were somehow realer than she was. That they belonged to the world and enjoyed (or at least accepted) their lives in ways she did not. Other times, she worried that everybody felt the same left-out sort of way when they looked at other people. It was hard to decide which was more depressing: being the only lonely person on earth, or being just one of billions, all unable to connect with one another, stumbling through the dark with hands outstretched.
She drove through hundreds of miles of cornfield, occasionally interrupted by the picked-over carcasses of small towns and big cities. She liked to imagine what it might’ve been like to grow up in this crumbling farmhouse, or that apartment building, this suburb, that trailer park. She pictured dozens of herself, dispersed evenly across the Midwest. Each one with her own life, completely unaware of the existence of the others. Some had a boyfriend, or a husband, or a couple of little ones already, and another on the way. Some still lived with their parents, and others moved out at seventeen and hadn’t spoken to their mothers in years. She, meanwhile, spoke to her mother every day on the phone, sometimes for more than an hour. Pulling onto the highway on the way back to campus, she’d dial the number, force of habit. Then they’d start yelling at each other all over again.
“The prouder you make me,” her mother once told her, “the more I hate you.”
The disappointments of her mother’s life—college degree half-finished, marriage broken up, house foreclosed—were the weighted blanket that kept her in bed on nights when she could be kissing strange boys and dancing on sticky frat house floors. They were the web that drew her back, week after week, to check on her younger siblings and get drunk with her older cousins. Some sick part of her, she knew, loved insanity, because only amongst it did she feel sane.
The people she invented shared none of her problems, none of her responsibilities. She gave them their own small disasters, which were different from her own and therefore interesting, instead of just pathetic. She was deeply, stupidly jealous of them.
Every time she stopped at a gas station or a drive-through, she half-expected to cross paths with one of these twins. They’d be buckling the kids into car-seats, or looking up from a tabloid magazine, or asking her if she wanted fries with that, when a shadow of recognition would pass over their near-identical faces. She wondered if they’d be willing to change places with her if they could. She couldn’t help but feel disappointed, even a little rejected, when the opportunity never arose.
She knew the billboards on the side of the road, their words and images, by heart. ‘God is Real,’ and ‘Hire Naumberg and Associates for Workplace Injuries,’ and ‘Save the Children, They Have HEARTBEATS at SIX WEEKS.’ There were also ads for wooden roller coasters, barns packed with antiques, and the largest underground cave in the tri-state area, which intrigued her. Still, she stopped only when the gas gauge dipped to empty. She believed in these little wonders, scattered across flyover country, the way other people might believe in God. If she ever sought them out, if they ever became real in all their glorious dilapidation, they might lose their meaning entirely.
Occasionally, though, she couldn’t avoid stumbling across something surreal: a Christmas tree farm in July, a parking lot overgrown with white and wishful dandelions, a life-sized statue of a pink elephant. Then, she’d stop the car and pull her body, so heavy and tired it felt as though it belonged to somebody else, from the driver’s seat. She had this feeling all the time: that her life was nothing but a made-up story, scribbled by a stranger, in which she was not even the main character. But what a story!
She’d light a cigarette—a habit she picked up, not without difficulty, in high school, back when it had seemed sophisticated. Now that it disgusted her, she couldn’t stop. As she inhaled what may one day kill her, she reminded herself she was still, after all, alive.
In dark and stormy weather, she pictured every kind of fatal accident that could possibly befall her. She could be struck by lightning, swept away by flood, murdered by a man who appeared totally normal to his neighbors. She could fall asleep at the wheel, lose control of her vehicle, and go careening into a ditch. She could go to the doctor, who’d give her his condolences and a diagnosis of cancer, already riddling her blood, her bones, her breasts, her lungs. Her life could end instantly, in a flash of white, or fade away gradually over days, months, or years. She had trouble telling whether she feared death, or loved it, like an online boyfriend begging to meet up in person. Mostly, she waited.
Really, she liked the world (or, maybe, she lacked the imagination to long for another, better world). And she liked to be alive. When she thought about it long enough, she always returned to the same essential problem, not with her life, or with her family, but with herself. Wherever she went, she clung to the shadows, never fully participating. She haunted her college apartment, like her dorm room before it, and her childhood bedroom before that, a premature ghost.
There was a time when she did not consider this insurmountable. She had once believed that it would be easy to change herself, that if she only desired it enough, she would wake up one morning a completely different person. Every time she made the drive, it seemed a little less likely.