The road is grumpy and lonely. So am I. In the last month I’ve broken up with my girlfriend, decided I haven’t processed my father’s death, stopped shaving, stopped cutting my nails, called my mom too much, called my friends too little, worn my boxers four days in a row, listened to Fergie, and left thousands of bugs plastered on the windshield of the maroon Saab station wagon that I’m driving alone across South Dakota.
This road is stupidly straight and pancaked. On the sides, nothing: I-90 doesn’t do scenery. I am the only shadow for miles: a lost New Yorker searching for some America that isn’t this. Mother Nature must have hiked her way through Wyoming, turned East, and collapsed of sunstroke.
My eyes itch from boredom and cringe in the unfiltered sunlight, even from behind sunglasses and with the car visors down. This road wants me to fall asleep. The sunsoaked asphalt bakes me from below. Despite the air conditioning, anything exposed to the searing light is on a subtle simmer. The road and I are grumpy and lonely—not in solidarity, but in opposition.
The car smells of flat vanilla coke and olive oil. The coke cup is squeezed into the cup holder on the center consul, half-empty; I cannot find the cap. The olive oil is next to the dry food I have in the trunk for my camping nights in Yellowstone. I pray it hasn’t spilled.
I reach for my phone – it’s something to look at – and go for my mom, even though I know I’m ready to pick a fight. I get voicemail. I toss the phone onto the console, too vigorously, and it falls off onto the passenger-side floor. Fuck. I slam my hands onto the top of the black leather wheel and recoil – it is scalding.
I had been driving a careful 9mph over the speed limit – the cops catch you at 10, my mom had told me – waiting for straight road where I could see there was no highway patrol and could really throttle the car and soak in the thrill, Top Gear style. I was the host, of course:
[Fake cockney accent] This clunky old Saab might look like it packs no punch, but blimey, when you putcha foot down [puts foot down, is drilled into his seat as the Saab pulses to untold speeds] oh my god this thing is fast!
That’s how I imagined it. But now I’m on this blank road buttressed by emaciated fields and I don’t know what else to do because my phone is on the floor and the heat is pressing down from the sun and up from the asphalt (it must be 100 degrees I can feel it through the roof) and I am desperate.
I mush the ball of my foot into the smaller, stumpy pedal until I feel my heel hit the padded depths of the foot well.
One, tw– the turbo kicks.
Someone has caught the engine sleeping and smacked it upside the head; it, and I, sit bolt upright. It’s the sound you get when you grind your front teeth together and blow out with a low, vibrating, mucusy hum, and then keep blowing, getting higher and higher as you run out of breath. That sound, but so much better: gurgling, exquisitely mechanical, gas churning through pistons and making the little turbo dial on the rightmost side of the dashboard leap up like a pinball flipper. The air conditioning wheezes and I imagine the front grill desperately sucking in one long hungry breath of sun-dried air. The speedometer slides smoothly across its arc. This Saab does have kick! The black dial passes little orange numbers, slower each time the car gets faster: 100 mph, 115, 125, 130, 135.
At 135 miles per hour, I become very aware that my hands are the only things keeping me alive. I realize I am tethered. I glance down and they seem alien to me, the feeling you get when you say a word slowly too many times and it stops making sense: these two pasty-white, measly strips of flesh and the ten spindly rods that have coiled themselves around the sweaty black leather. They are so locked on the wheel that I wonder if they have become part of it.
The shaking pricks my fingertips and makes it to my forearms. The steering wheel quakes. The car is not built for this. It wants to shake, shudder, swerve. My eyes flicker down to the dashboard. 140. Still no other cars in sight; still a stick-straight road ahead.
I stop paying attention to speed. I’m stuck analyzing the language of my own thoughts. How, in the past 5 minutes, have I ascribed to this road and this car the ability to want? I’m the one who wanted to be on this road. I wanted to put my foot down. I can take my foot, still flooring the accelerator, off.
But I do not. My knee stays locked and my foot keeps pressing. I take the tremor surging through my arms, take my blurred logic, and harness the two into one dreadful potential energy.
Turn the wheel, Daniel. Turn the wheel. TURN THE WHEEL.
My eyes glaze; sight does not matter. Every nerve, every muscle, every ounce of tissue is ready to jerk, hard, to the left. I imagine armies of little arm-atoms waiting for the order, tense, at the ready. I imagine the sound of the skid as road grinds rubber. The aching creak of the car’s metal frame as it tumbles onto the grass and flips round and round, James Bond style, in a whirling ball of flame and climactic, invigorating death.
And for what cannot be more than half a second, I want it. I want to fire up every neuron in my puny little hands. My death seems like a small price for the rush of letting all that potential energy become kinetic: it is so tempting. In my head, the argument feels right. I can’t store this avalanche. I can’t make potential energy dissolve. You want this, Daniel. Not the road. Not the car. You.
I don’t know where the tingling goes. But something – my brain’s safety alarm, of sorts – calls my arms off. My foot relaxes. The engine sighs, and my right hand, numb from pressure, collapses. 105, 95, 80. Perhaps I’m in shock. My brain does not stop to ask why, does not stop to search for that energy. It can’t have disappeared; it must have passed back, from chest to arms to hands to fingers to wheel. It’s somewhere, dormant. My brain shrugs – well, that was interesting – and points my eyes straight ahead. The road is grumpy and lonely.