We have been driving for days. This day we have been driving for hours. And we’re nowhere near a beach. In fact we’re about as far from one as you can get.
On I-70 going west thru Kansas. We have been thru Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, and the eastern part of Kansas, all of which look alike. But now we’re on the Great Plains, and IDK of anything else that looks like the Great Plains. Big sky, grasslands. A tree about every 10 miles that was brought in and planted next to a farmhouse to break up up the incessant, demon wind that never stops blowing. The sky over the road ahead is clean and pagan blue but there is a thunderstorm on our right and you can see the lightning leap from the black thunderheads to the ground. On our other side you can see snow falling miles away. Here it is sunny and hot as hell. You have no idea how overpowering this is to someone who grew up in a place that is heavily forested like Georgia. I’ve seen it before but Tonya hasnt and she is spellbound, which is good. It’s shut her up for a while anyway.
There hasnt been anything on the radio for hours. Just white noise. For almost an hour i got a station in Nebraska somewhere but all it played were polkas. Now there’s nothing. I havent seen a vehicle for at least two hours. Windmill spinning like a chinese toy by a house every few miles. Once in a while something that looks like an oil derrick in the fields. Or an oil something, hammering relentlessly against the ground. I think of those apparently empty farmhouses we pass once in a while and wonder if there are strange, fucked up people in there watching the road, waiting. Maybe they’re cannibals who eat people they hunt for outside. Or eat each other. I shake my head. Sometimes i give myself the creeps.
Suddenly Tonya sticks her entire body out of the car and looks around and i grab her by the shirt and yank her back in.
Hey! She says.
You’re like a bratty 18 year old, i say. Or a little older but still a brat.
She opens her mouth to say something but thinks better of it and says nothing. I smile tightly at her and say, It’s really something, isnt it?
You werent kidding, she says, shaking her head. You’ve been out this way before?
Yes, i say. I was 27 years old.
Did you come out here to work?
No. Well, yes but i was looking for work. Right out of graduate school.
Were you alone?
Were you with a girl?
Who was she?
My first wife.
Tell me about her?
I shake my head.
Come on! Dont make me fence with you. What was she like?
Well…she had a monkey on her back.
What? Smack? Meth? Or…
I start laughing. When i stop i say, Not that kind of monkey. One you wouldnt ordinarily think of.
Well, RU going to tell me what it was?
If you’ll shut up and let me talk i’ll tell you.
When i met Hannah she was a little overweight, i say uncomfortably. Not enough to matter. She was that way when we got married. A few years later that bitch weighed 305.
We are both silent for a moment. I havent been watching the road behind me and a motorcycle, a chopper shrieks by and seems to disappear in the heat. Tonya screams and shuts up. I look down at the speedometer and i see i’m going 85. That chopper must have been doing 120. After a minute or two she opens her mouth to say something but i beat her to it.
She couldnt stop eating, i say. One day in Brunswick she told me she was an addict and she was addicted to food. I laughed in her face. But time told the story. She was right. She reacted to any kind of sugar like a junkie on smack. I looked back on things she’d done that never made sense and it all made perfect sense. One day years before we had a bunch of errands to do that were infuriating and unpleasant and we had to do them together and by near the end of the day she was nuts. There was one errand left to do but i could do it by myself so i dropped her off at home and did it by myself. Forty five minutes later when i got home she was in front of the TV and was like a different person. Have you ever been around a heroin user right after they shoot up?
You know how they are? Kind of not there at all but everything is completely okay with them? Dopey but not like a drunk?
Well that’s what she was like when i got back. If she hadnt been such a little miss perfect i wouldve thought she was on something but she was too much of a pussy about things like that to ever even try such a thing. The most she ever did was smoke some weed with me once in a while. But in the kitchen garbage can there was some kind of wrapper that wasnt there that morning. It had held some kind of pastry that was pure sugar, or pure fructose corn syrup. They havent used sugar for a long time. Anyway, it made perfect sense. In her own way she had shot up. She finally got off that habit and went to a Twelve Step group for compulsive eaters.
Well, i’m glad she…
I wasnt, i say, glaring at her. She got rid of that habit by herself. Those groups are like cults, and all cults are dangerous. All she had to do was change her diet. I’m glad she did that but all she had to do was change her diet..
You dont know anything about that, she snaps at me. Those groups are the only things that….
I dont know anything about it? I dont know anything about it? You dont know a fuckin thing about it! I’m the one that lived with her. When she was clean she was sane but mean and resentful. When she was using she was just like a goddamn heroin junkie. But those groups never made sense to me. Replace one dependency with another. One obsession with another. Things she said that werent her words. Somebody else’s words. That was scary. But it just meant somebody was filling her head with bullshit. Sorry, i’m going to have to pull over..
I pull onto the shoulder of the road and stop the car and turn the engine off and pocket the keys.
Stay in the car, i say and start walking off into the head-high grass and when i am sure i am not visible i take a long, satisfying piss. When i am empty i go back to the car and start it. She looks hurt and i feel guilty.
Sorry i yelled and hurt your feelings, i say.
That wasnt what hurt me, she says.
You didnt leave the engine on. You turned it off and took the keys. Like you were afraid i’d drive off and leave you.
Oh, shit, i’m sorry, i say. That was automatic. I didnt think, i just…well, i’ll have to get you a set of keys. We need another set anyway. I’m really sorry.
It’s okay, she says, sighing like a martyr. At your age i guess you have to…
Have to what?
You know, you suddenly have to…
Have to what? You mean old-age urinary urgency? No, i just didnt see the point of waiting for a an exit with a gas station, since they’re only about every twenty miles. I just got out and leaked and came back and drove off. Dont start trying to provoke me with that old man shit.
If you’re trying to get inside my head and fuck with it find something else because that wont work.
Allright, she snaps at me. What about her? The rest of it?
The rest of what?
About your wife..
I could spend months doing that. We were married ten years.
Did you leave her because she was so big?
NO! You think i’m that big a son of a bitch? No, i’d never do that. Toward the end of that marriage she’d gotten up to three fifty. She’d lost 100 pounds and hit a plateau and couldnt handle being stuck there so she went to eatin’ and gained it back and then some. She wouldnt tell me what she weighed the last six months but at the very end i swear i think she weighed about 400.
No. When i left her it had nothing to do with her weight. Even if she’d weighed 700 pounds. It was because she was such a Passive-Aggressive bitch. Actually, when i left it was because she’d manipulated me into having to leave. That’s a long story. And that’s all i have to say about it except for one thing. One thing to show you how she could hurt me and give you an idea why i finally left.
I force back tears and take a deep breath, trying to see the road as we move right into a western sun that will be a torment for hours until it sets. I’m almost at the point where i need to let her drive.
When she was in that 12 step group for overeaters she was working the fifth step. The one about ‘taking a fearless moral inventory,’ whatever that means. The healthier groups interpret that to mean to ask yourself if you are honestly doing everything you can to stay straight. If the answer is yes, that’s all there is to it. Unfortunately the group she was in was one of those that thought you needed to make lists of everything you ever did to hurt the people you were close to. A list for the people that were closest and most important to you.
She did that?
Yes, Tonya, she did that. She was sitting, writing something one day and i asked her what. She told me she was listing everything she’d done to the people she loved to hurt them, yak,yak, yak. It was one of the worst things she could have done because it fed right into her obsessive, pathological guilt. It was sick.
But get this. She was making two lists. One for her mother, one for her sister. I asked her where my list was. Of the things she’d done to hurt me. Surely she didnt think she’d never done anything to hurt me. Her face got really red and she stammered and i left. I just walked out and didnt come back for hours. I would not let that fuckin bitch see me cry. And i cried. For hours. I couldnt stop. After that i dont know if we ever talked about it. But we both knew she didnt do a list for me was because i wasnt important enough to deserve one. Get it?
Yeah, she sighs.
I’m pulling over, i say. Your turn to drive.
Near sunset we get off the interstate at a little town in western Kansas caled Oakley and find a motel for the night. Tomorrow afternoon we should reach Denver.