Maybe I should’ve gotten that Redbull. I debated the moot point for a moment. What I correctly guessed as the last twenty-four hour convenience store on my trip down the I-95 was thirty minutes behind me. I had missed my opportunity to get a caffeine pick-me-up, but my mind continued to wrestle with the past. I slipped deeper into drowsiness.
My driving music wasn’t doing it for me anymore. After being on the road for more than ten hours, and being awake for more than eighteen, no amount of hardcore rap was going to remove the need for sleep that started two states ago. I yawned when I saw the Welcome to South Carolina sign. At one in the morning I was almost there.
Like most things, the beginning of my trip began long before I put my foot on the gas and headed towards the Mason Dixon line. It started years before when my mother told me, “Your Aunt May wants to talk to you.”
I didn’t grow up around my Aunt May; I never met her. And until I was in my twenties, I didn’t even know she existed. My father’s mother had a brood of twelve children and the ones who made it to adulthood in that third world country, like the blown seeds of a dandelion, let the wind carry them across the globe.
I had an uncle who I will never meet who married a woman I had never met, and they moved to South Carolina to buy lots of cheap land in the country and mow their backyard with a tractor. Uncle Ulrick died when I was twenty-four. Based on how much she loved him-I would later learn-it was remarkable that my Aunt May didn’t die with him. She did, however, miss having family around and tried to reach out to her husband’s side.
This was what I had assumed when I picked up the phone to call her.
“Hello, can I speak to May?”
“This is her.”
“Hi Aunt May.” I smiled as if waiting for a photo to be taken, though of course she couldn’t see me. “This is Alex. Jacques’ son.”
“Oh! Hi Alex!”
I could hear a southern accent in her cheerful voice and I pictured a pretty Aunt Jemima talking to me from the other end. Our conversation was short but she wanted to know what I was doing. How was Korea? “Fun.” Would I be going back? “Yes. In a few months.” What was I going to do when I eventually returned to America to stay? “Become an English teacher.”
At that point the conversation became more one sided as she told me about teaching opportunities in her state in general, and her town specifically. I got the distinct feeling that she was trying to sell the place to me. She let me know that the cost of living was cheap and I could stay with her since she had a lot of space in her house. Then I listened as she went over her experience as a principal’s secretary. She gave me some vague information to follow up on. I promised I would, and we ended on a pleasant, “Talk to you soon.”
I pulled over on the highway to urinate. I didn’t need to go badly enough to violate public decency laws, but I did needed to stretch my muscles and get some air. The peeing was just an excuse. On the side of the road I thought about a conversation I had in Korea with a friend and fellow foreigner. We met every so often over coffee and talked about the most obscene things while sometimes working into our discussions real issues about life and love.
As I relieved myself on some tall grass I remember him telling me, “I hate the other foreigners here.” I smiled as he said it, then sipped my caramel macchiato as he continued in his typically boisterous way, “They don’t do anything. Their lives are just empty and they spend every waking moment drinking and having sex and eating. They have no life. No passion. No creative energy drives them.” He said all this with a look of repulsion on his face as if some awful smell was forcing itself into his nose. He took a pull from his cigarette and instantly reminded me of a French stereotype. I said nothing and let him go on as he intended to. “That’s why I love you Alex. That’s why we’re friends.”
I reminded myself that he wasn’t American and could tell another man he loved him without fear of being labeled a homosexual. My smile was steady and I said, “We are friends, Raoul.”
“Yes, good friends.” His eyes opened wide and he looked at me earnestly, “And the reason that’s the case is because you have life. You’re a writer. You’re a good writer too, and we can talk about creative things. I enjoy making films and you’re working on a novel, which I think is fucking fantastic. I mean, a novel for Christ’s sakes! But when you talk to everyone else here they don’t do anything. You listen to them, and at most they want to be teachers – spending their time wasting away on lessons plans. Just fucking boring people.” He took another puff. “But we know this isn’t it. You’re not going to waste your life in a fucking classroom. You’ve got stories to write.”
I confirmed his statements about me with a nod and said, “This just can’t be it for me. I like it, but you’re right, it’s not what drives me. Kinda why this is gonna be my last year here. I’ve got to go back home and focus on what’s gonna make me happy.”
Looking at the counter, then quickly back at me, he said, “I want to fuck that Barista so badly. She’s looking over here at us too. Do you think I could fuck her?”
I chuckled, “I don’t know. She is beautiful though.”
I zipped up and headed back to the car. According to MapQuest I still had about two hours until I reached my aunt’s house.
“You’re not going to waste your life in a classroom. You’ve got stories to write!”
Much of the vague information that she gave me over the phone during our first conversation, and subsequent ones, didn’t pan out, but it put me on the right track. She was right about things being cheaper. What was more attractive, however, was the idea of leaving New York to start fresh again.
I had spent most of my life in New York City and, in my mind, at the time I was thinking of leaving, the best word to describe the place was “tight.” Physically, there was just not enough space. Trains were always packed. The streets were always crowded. The job market was bottlenecked. The cost of living went up by leaps and bounds every year as more and more people came to fill up the increasingly expensive people boxes that were being built on top of old neighborhoods that poorer people were being pushed out of.
I hearted New York, but I wanted something new. Over the course of 18 months I did some research and learned about what programs were hiring career switchers – people who had epiphanies late in life and decided they wanted to be teachers. I found out about a South Carolina teacher’s fair that school superintendents throughout the state were going to attend. They were looking to hire, and so I made plans with my aunt to use the space she graciously offered for that weekend. When the time came I let my Twitter and Facebook friends know that I was taking a trip and I hit the road.
Ghostface Killah was playing loudly in the car–wonderfully working together stories of ghetto murder and drug running hilarity. I still was fighting sleep. It wasn’t a dangerous sleepiness that would guarantee me a crashed car, and most likely a smashed face, but it was still more than I was used to and I needed it to end before it became dangerous.
My mind wandered to earlier that day in Atlanta, where I visited my ex-girlfriend. When I left Korea for the last time she was only three months ahead of me in hitting the states. I made things complicated since I wasn’t sure about the future of “Us,” and we left on uncertain terms. When I got back, however, we kept in touch and I realized how much I loved her.
I visited her for a weekend soon after returning from Korea, and we spent her three-day vacation smiling and holding hands. I missed her in a way that was shocking to me. During one of our talks she let me know that she had similar feelings. She smiled and teared up at the same time when she told me that I made her feel like she could just be herself. I was overjoyed to be that person, but eventually it ended.
She loved Jesus Christ, but I had no feelings whatsoever towards the man. She made my heart smile, but it didn’t matter since our differences were so glaring. When I drove through Atlanta to my aunt’s place I made a quick stop to see her again, but she was just my ex.
During that second visit we talked about her move to Orlando and the excitement of returning to where she used to intern. The conversation didn’t involve much more than catching up, but it felt wonderful being next to her again.
I told her how tiring my trip was and I fell backwards on her bed like a kid. She looked at me with a slight smile and I slowly got off, remembering that I had no business lying there anymore. I smirked and helped her pack up for her own road trip the next day.
While carrying a box to her car she said, “I’ve gotta start working out again. I’m getting fat.”
“You’re crazy. You look almost the same as you did in Korea.”
“Alex!” She said my name in mild surprise and exasperation. She did that often, and I always loved hearing it. “You know I gained weight when I got there. I’m trying to get my flat stomach back.”
“You look great to me. Really. You look beautiful.”
She coyly said, “Thank you. But still.”
I wanted to hold her, but it was another thing in my life that ended on an odd note. I kept my hands on the box of plastic drawers and satisfied myself with looking at her. It wouldn’t work out, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t in love with her.
The memory of my ex disappeared as MapQuest told me to take the next exit in point six miles. I did as I was told and began closely monitoring whatever commands were given to me by the computerized voice. What I began noticing was that my connection was getting weaker.
The closer I got to my aunt’s place the fainter the signal to my phone and its GPS app. I was beginning to understanding that AT&T’s coverage didn’t extend as far as Dorchester, South Carolina. I was driving down local roads that I’d never seen, making U-turns on dirt streets that didn’t have clearly visible streets signs, and all in the middle of a pitch black night. It was all so unfamiliar, and to my sleep deprived mind, a little jarring.
I memorized the address in case my phone’s GPS stopped working. It was happening quickly, and the last place it directed me to, before its bars dwindled to nothing, was a dark road walled on both sides by cornfields. I drove slowly. With only my high beams to keep things visible, I made a few tight turns and looked for a sign to let me know where I was – anything that could tell me where I was heading.
Breaks in the cornfield appeared and I saw a house, then another. The fourth one matched the address I imprinted in my mind ten minutes before. My drive was over, but I still felt extra cautious. I wasn’t sure if I had read the street name right at the beginning of the cornfield and for all I knew I could be parking in the driveway of the wrong house. I slowly got out and looked around for anything close to what was described to me over the phone.
Aunt May told me to go to the back door. She said she would leave it unlocked when I had called her at midnight and I was nowhere near her house. I checked the back door, but it was locked. I checked it again, with a bit more force, but still, locked. I began to panic a little. I checked the front door to see if maybe there was some miscommunication and back really meant front in Dorchester. But no, that door was locked too.
I started hearing bugs. Some mosquitos maybe, crickets definitely. I swatted at the air and realized that if this was my Aunt’s house, and no one was coming to the door, then my car might have to be my bed for the night.
I noticed a random plastic stick near the front door. It looked like the extended handle of a pool net and I grabbed it. I saw the light of a television behind one of the windows and decided to bang until someone came out. I banged for a minute straight, but no one came to the door. I was left to guess that the person who left the lights on was now soundly sleeping in another part of the house. I dropped the stick and listened to the crickets, feeling cold and lost and alone in front of a house that may or may not have belonged to an aunt I never met.
While rubbing my arms for warmth I looked up and saw the clearest night sky I had ever seen in my life.
Living in cities for my entire 32 years of existence, I had never seen so many stars lit up at once. The sky was purpled with them. Bright and dim pinpoints of light filled my field of vision. With no tall buildings to obscure my view, they stretched into the horizon. The uniformity I usually witnessed was gone and I looked at chaotic streaks of color alongside clusters of stars. I looked at the Milky Way, at the bundle of space stuff that signaled the end of our galaxy.
What I also began to notice was the depth of it. I could see outer space. I felt a terrible panic come across me as I realized how naked I was. Standing in the middle of nowhere, with no clue about where I was going to sleep or where my life was heading in general, I could see that I was just a tiny thing standing on a beautiful blue pearl floating through space. It was as if I was sleeping without a cover on – unprotected from everything around me.
I grabbed the stick again and banged harder this time. I banged as hard as I could without breaking glass. I heard a few voices, then soon the creak of the back door as it opened. I quickly went to check it out and saw a tall, shirtless man standing there with a black stocking cap on his head.
“Alex?” he asked.
He smiled, “Yeah. Man, we planned to wait for you, but it just got too late and I didn’t feel right leaving the door unlocked. Sorry cuz.”
I smiled too, and made my way past my car to the opened door. “It’s alright. You’re here now, and that’s what matters.”
As I walked inside he said, “Same to you. My mom told me why you were coming. Hope you get what you’re looking for.”
*Images Courtesy Justin Rahme