We’re driving through the night together. He keeps his eyes on the road as I pass him the mini-cigar. When he inhales, the cherry is reflected briefly in the windshield, superimposed over the staccato yellow striping of the highway as it races towards us; the blue-on-black horizon of rural North Carolina; the glowering stands of trees that briefly aggress the roadway and then fall back again, retreating into the grassy, moonlit plains.
We’re not talking, so he squeezes my knee and shoots me a warm, brown-eyed smile, gaze snapping back to the road. He’s got his headphones on and is listening intently. Tonight is his weekly meeting, conducted remotely now since the pandemic.
I draw thoughtfully on the mini-cigar, when it’s my turn. I’ve learned you can tap the ash off most effectively by aiming towards the front of a very minimally rolled down window, for best aerodynamic effect, i.e. not setting your own shit on fire. This is an interesting ritual we’ve evolved, while driving at times, and at other times as well, mostly in the evening.
I often marvel at the synchrony of our appetites. Nobody ever talks about that, except on the subject of libido, which is falsely compartmentalized and reductively examined. We often experience this twinge of interest for a smoke, in tandem — or for movement, stillness, Netflix, coffee, food, time on our phones independently but lying with our feet touching. We’ll both be ravenous for a talk, or moved towards silence. Sexual desire is easy, and in good company among our many other hungers. It’s restful, to share these mostly coordinated surges and sloughs.
He’s a weightlifter, which is obvious. Men make good-natured jokes — “how do you scratch your back?,” and “when’s the last time you had a neck?”. Women ogle him without intending to, their gazes catching on him like a silk dress snagged on a wire fence. They look at me, next, evaluating, and then away. This is a new experience for me: having a partner so appealing that I’m reflexively scrutinized in light of that. Susan Sarandon used to be nicknamed “the thinking man’s sex symbol”. I have an effect along those lines. We reorganize strangers’ first impressions of each other.
His black tee shirt, bulging at the shoulders, biceps, and chest, says “Join the fight against muscular atrophy”. He spilled a bit of vegan chorizo on his shorts, earlier, and is miffed about the oil stains. He only wears shorts and tee shirts, so this represents an impact to about 30% of his wardrobe.
It’s difficult for others to believe he’s plant-based; they assume, from his impressive size and astounding strength, that he’s saying it rhetorically, facetiously, or to placate me. This is a guy who can’t walk past a cow without befriending her. I, on the other hand, apparently radiate veganism like an aura. I was sitting on my cooler, years ago, eating a nectarine in North Dakota. Waiting for a driver meeting to start. A guy walked up and immediately said, “What are you, some kind of fucking vegan?”
We find mutual relief in each others’ ability to see beyond our projected, apparent stereotypes. The juice head and the granola.
He’s driving, while I enjoy a state of restful passivity from the shotgun seat, which is almost always the case with us — another installment to the hetero-normative narrative. And maybe it is.
Or maybe he’s an addict in recovery who doesn’t take for granted his pride in owning this spotless truck, which he paid off ahead of schedule; in feeling the easy, steady clarity of his eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, girlfriend and girlfriend’s dog resting easy and trusting him with their welfare; the miracle of his own confidence and competence in so many ways, large and small, capabilities that were beyond him, one way or the other, for much of his life. Maybe it feels good for him to thrive in this totally mundane way, touring me around the area where he used to be a homeless junkie. “See that alcove behind the bushes, at that Starbucks? I used to sleep there a lot.” We stopped and got food from the place where they fired him for drinking the remnants of customers’ cocktails when he was supposed to be bussing tables. The owner was happy to see him. “Wow — you’re huge.” He grinned. “You look really good. You said — the vegan chorizo?”
And maybe I’ve done enough driving for ten lifetimes. Maybe I’ve driven so much that even my natural zest for it, which returns to me so often and so easily, even that has had to be augmented with every mental strategy and fusion of strategies I could evolve, and then I even outdrove those. Maybe I’ve had to shim up my lumbar and wear a bracing belt and use cruise control whenever possible so that I can walk, not hobble, from the big fuel lanes to the truck stop bathroom. Maybe I’m more familiar with my own levels of fatigue than you can imagine — what each one means and what to do about it, how long I have at that level before it goes to the next, what combination of audio, caloric, and temperature inputs will keep me in the game. Maybe I’ve pushed it too far, a couple times, and I shudder when I think about it — the way everything looks grainy, like silent static, when you’ve pushed yourself for too long. Maybe I’ve spent more nights like this than you’d think, holding a steering wheel, pulling a 53-foot trailer full of carpet to Dalton; or a flatbed stacked with pipe out to Williston; or a tanker full of diesel out to a fire camp in Agness. Maybe I’m the type of woman who can surrender to a man in all the little ways, gratefully. It was only me, for so long.
Or maybe he just likes to drive, and I like to ride.
He’s mostly silent, listening in to his meeting for about twenty-two minutes with occasional greetings — “Hi, Neal,” — and then it’s his opportunity to share, which he does with easy eloquence.
I hold the cigar out the window and flick off the burning cherry. He squeezes my knee again as I return the rest of the cigar to my purse, the cab quiet now with the windows sealed up. Buffy is asleep in her tiny plush bed, behind his seat, and I stroke her silky ears for a moment and then smile at him, my heart in my eyes, as he says the Serenity Prayer and ends the call.
We’re driving through the night together.