Chapter 13

Rosey

We're speeding along I-70, somewhere in western Pennsylvania. It's almost five-thirty, which means we've been on the road for going on six hours now. No one has said much of anything since our little "breakdown" in Somerset.

As par for the course, my legs are severely cramping and I'm being gently rocked into an unbearable migraine from vibrating against the back seat, coupled with last night's injury. "Miserable" doesn't even begin to describe my current state of mind. I pinch the bridge of my nose, trying to shut out the world.

Without the bombardment of stimuli, without the eternal, saturate, vicious assault of commercialism, my senses find space to convalesce. For a fleeting moment I breathe air free of marketing manifestos, devoid of propaganda and half-talk.

Then I open my eyes to a billboard for Miller Lite, where a bikini-clad supermodel — more silicone than flesh and bone — clings affectionately to a life-sized beer bottle.

I sigh and slam myself closed again.

Yes, oh yes, dear cupidity, your presence is felt even out here in the backwoods. Somehow, you have managed to reach your tendrils, your malignancy, into every fiber of this land. You have crawled yourself into the earth, into our planet, our homes. You clothe our bodies in excess and insufficiency; and infiltrate our thoughts with a "caloric" preoccupation, leaving us like the empty shells you fire off in self-defense. In self-indulgence. Into every safe-haven we forsake, you root, as if you'd been here all along, watching. Burrowing. Even before the words "target market" and "profit margin" were coined into existence, you coiled, quiet and waiting for the perfect moment to pounce, to contaminate through centuries of osmosis. And this? This is the natural progression of our species? To warp, and mold, and mutilate ourselves into these anomalies, these freaks, that bare no resemblance at all to human beings? I have to believe, for the sake of survival, that there must another answer.

There has to be.

I find my thoughts running through a thicket of memories from childhood. Summers on the west coast at Grandma Rosey's swimming pool. The smell of shrubbery roasting under the Modjeska sun. My favorite, starfish swimming shorts hanging over the wood fence. I can still feel the hot concrete against my cheek as I hum "American Pie", trying to drone out the argument. Rosey lays on her sun-bleached chaise lounge, holding a reflector with one hand and a Capri in the other. And a fully suited Dad hunches next to her, exasperated, tearing at a shard of palm.

"Mom, what do you mean it's gone?"

She takes a long inhale. "It's just…" Then a grinning exhale. "Gone."

"But they gave you four years. Not fourteen. Not forty. Four years, Mother. Four."

"Sweetie, Jacky, I don't know what else to tell you, other than love, hope, and a little prayer goes a long way. They couldn't find anything on Tuesday. Or the last three labworks. So, I'm not quite sure what you want from me. Would you like me to see if maybe I could grow another tumor for you? Is that what you need to hear? Hm? Look, cry and cry as much as you want, Jacky, but I'm not going again. Are you listening to me? I'm done. It's over. Completely gone. Zilch. Zip. Nada. Now, can you please hand me my iced tea, dear?"

Dad hands her the pink plastic glass, a flexi-straw buoying against the rim. "Well there has to be an explanation. They must have missed something. Cancer doesn't just–."

"And you're right. There is." She lowers her drugstore-brand sunglasses—picked out from the rotary display by yours truly. "Only it's not the answer you want or expect to hear. As always Jacky, you're far too distracted to hear the truth. Too preoccupied with 'things.' Christina's Italian bras and that monstrosity you call a car and your fancy, little money-clips. I'm pretty sure that paperweight you wear around your wrist also tells the same exact time as the fourteen others you bought before it. You dear Jacky, are addicted to excess. You're too consumed with decorating your life to actually live it. If your father could only see you now; he'd smack some sense into you. You are the sick one darling, you, Jacky, are the one who's dying (assuming that you're not already gone), only no doctor or surgeon anywhere on this planet is going to diagnose what I could have told you decades ago."

"Mother!"

"But! There is a fix. There's almost always a fix, Jacky."

She leans over, bunching the flowers in her sundress, and with an unpolished finger, presses into the breast pocket of his Armani two-piece.

"Can you hand me the map?" Wolfgang asks, (except for the radio and the occasional groans of spinal readjustment) the first words in hours.

I rub my eyes open, this time to a sprawling landscape of highway and forestry. Acres of boundary-less frontier. And not an advert in sight.

"Where's it?"

"Check under the seat."

I sweep my hand under the driver's seat, then Jules'.

"Not there."

"Behind you? Look behind the seat."

I twist against the confines of the belt and walk my hand over the fraying mat, feeling for maps and direction. All I turn up is a near-finished Snicker's and a handful of lint and blonde hair, clearly belonging to someone other than current company.

A past lover? Or maybe, a shallow one-night stand. Hopefully, a sister he's forgotten to mention.

"I can't find it."

"Well, look again. It has to be back there." He says, his eyes in the rear-view not completely convincing me.

I unbuckle and squeeze down between the seats. The carpet whispers a faint rumor of dog feces and neglect. I cram my hand up under each of the seats, finding the greasy, cold mechanics, but nothing resembling a map.

"Seriously, Wolfgang it's not here."

"It has to be. Jules check the glove."

Furious, from such a radical request, Jules pulls open the glove compartment. Then slams it shut without a word.

Wolfgang runs his fingers through unwashed hair, flustered. "Great. I'll take that as a 'no'." More sardonic than sarcastic.

"Maybe the trunk." I proposition.

"No, I'm sure I had it this morning. I got in, checked the gas, threw it in the back on the floor somewhere, it has to be there. Unless,…" He shoots an accusatory dagger at each of us. "That is unless you two bludgers knocked it out during your conniption fit back in…" He shakes his head—the disapproving father. "Damnit you guys. Maybe next time we can act like actual, real-life adults instead of immature brats, huh? So now what? What's the brilliant plan now, Jules? Ethan?"

Jules and I simultaneously slink.

Who needs a map, anyways? They're pretty much useless, if not for getting you to where you need to go. The devil's in the details, that's what I've always said.

"Well guys, the road's up here any minute, now. So someone better come up with something. Quickly."

I can't focus. What looks like antique dollhouses, blink by in flipbook animation, on Oak-split acetate. All I hear is his voice replaying in my head. The words "up here" skip over and over, broken. In his accent it sounds like "appear."

The roads appear….

"Seriously folks, someone speak up, left or right? Wheeling or Bridgeport?"

I pull myself between them, and attempt to will direction from the three-pronged fork racing toward us.

Then Jules speaks out in a moment of clairvoyant brilliance. "Which ever road you take is the right one."

And with that

we merge.

"Nooo, it was Mr. Belvedere." Jules disputes. "The 'Kevin-dates-an-older-woman' episode."

"You're crazy. Martha Plimpton would never make a cameo in such shallow, low-brow television." I guffaw.

"And what, Robert Goulet would?"

"Well, yeah. After you leave Fantasy Island it's all downhill."

"Well regardless, I was practically raised by Christopher Hewitt himself, so if anyone knows Mr. Belvedere, it's me."

Wolfgang—ever the unwilling referee—turns up the radio, muting us both. I crack open to page one of Lord of the Flies, as Molly, the "I think I can't" Chevelle, bounces through a snippet of what we hope to be West Virginia, fueled on The Pretenders, Sonic Youth, old and forgotten Morrissey, Soft Cell, The Cure, and a band called Sebadoh, I somehow managed to avoid back in high school. Nostalgia gives way to humming, which gives way to tension giving slack. Unabashedly, feigning eighties luminaries, we flood the car with the discordant gnashing of harmonies and lyrics that we only think we know, still unsure if we're bound for Michigan or Missouri, but hopeful. For a moment we are stars. Fallen and cursed by a gravitational pull.

But shining, nonetheless.

We come to the democratic conclusion that if we don't reach another state line in the next twenty minutes we pull off for directions. True to gender, the men were vehemently intent on the prowess of geo-directional instinct, only to be swayed in the end by the prospect of dehydrated meat and territorial marking.

Then, just as we enter Ohio, all hell breaks loose.

"What the hell happened to your face?" Jules turns to me, landing a whiplash-inducing double take.

I panic. "What do you mean?"

"Ethan, you have a gigantic lump on your head. What do you mean, what do I mean?" She turns down the radio, genuinely concerned. And waits.

The car is silent, but whispering.

"It's nothing."

"Ethan. Seriously. What happened?"

Wolfgang interjects. "He bumped it. No big deal."

"When?"

"When, I came over."

I'm suddenly wracked with guilt, and struggling for a specific reason as to why. Maybe it's the Catholic in me—always a burden, regardless of fault.

"Wolfgang, Jules, just drop it please. It's not an issue."

"When was this?" She asks, directed at me.

Wolfgang chimes in, smug, eyes on hers and not the road. "Last night. Late. We went to the park. Not really a brain-teaser here." He turns the radio back up.

She turns it off. "You guys went to the park?"

Their shoulders slowly mount, synchronized, in time with the growing friction.

"Yes, we went to the park. Is that a problem?"

"Which park?"

"McCarren."

"Why?"

"Because."

"Because, why? Where was I during all of this?"

"In your rehabilitation tank I assume."

"Huh? What is that supposed to mean?"

"Your bed, Jules. In your bed. It was a joke. That's your problem: you're so freakin' sensitive."

She pauses, mouth open, mind racing, suspicious.

"Then what?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, then what did you guys do?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?"

"Alright. We slept together. Happy?" He tosses her a malicious smile.

"Jules, we did not sleep together."

"You did what?" She snaps back at me.

"I said, 'We slept together'." Wolfgang bites into the air, drooling condescension. "Maybe you would like me to repeat it again, no? In Espanol, perhaps? Or maybe I should just sign it." Feigning Down's Syndrome, he continues. "Last. Night. Ethan. And I. Slept. Together."

"No, you didn't."

"Yes, we did."

"No, we did not, Wolfgang. Jules, he's just trying to get a rise out of you. Honestly, we went for a walk, came home, and fell asleep. It was completely innocent. Nothing happened. Really. I promise. Nothing. Happened. Now who wants McDonalds? I know I sure do; I am star—."

"I cannot believe you two."

"Jules I swear to you, all we did was sleep in the same bed. Wolfgang, please tell her."

"Ethan's right."

She glares, penetrating. Speculating. "Uh-uh. There's something more here. Something you're not telling me, Ethan."

"No there is not. I promise."

My face gives it away. She laughs hysterically, masking. "Oh wow. Oh my God. The last to know, yet again. How typical. Jules loses yet again. Great, well I'm sure you two will make a sweet, little couple; you're actually perfect for each other."

"Seriously, Jules?" Wolfgang growls.

"Yeah, seriously. You guys are seriously disgusting. Perverts."

"Oh sweetie, pray tell, how so?"

My jugular throbs. Her eyes ignite. "Two men…No, two boys to be exact. You know what, that is…it's like better yet-." She chokes on the thought, her tongue tripping. "It's not in our programming for males to screw each other. You realize that, right? It's not natural. It's wrong. You can't even procreate you stupid eunuchs. Well, maybe you Wolfgang. But definitely not you, Ethan. Backstabbing faggot."

"Excuse me?" My heart capsizes.

Wolfgang defends. "Actually, according to the New England Medical Journal, homosexuality in animals is a means to controlling-"

"Yes, population-control. Yeah, blah, blah, blah."

"Jules, I don't understand. Where is this coming from? You've never had a problem bef-."

"It's coming from your screwed up genetics, Ethan."

"So help me you two, I will turn this car right around."

"We held each other, Jules. Sue me. Since when is that a crime? Actually, Jules, darling, let's be totally honest here. You're jealous that something has sparked between Wolfgang and I because you're in love with him. You said it yourself. And I apologize that I didn't tell you last night, but it was after the fact, and now you're looking for some ulterior motive to lash out, so that I look like the bad guy and you come off as a self-righteous saint. You're totally deflecting."

"I am not. And do not." She turns to him. "I am not in love with you Wolfgang."

"Jules, you just told me last -."

"Fine. Whatever." She opens and closes the glove box, feels for something in the side door panel and then privately explores her purse—such transparent avoidance. Then under her breath: "I hope you both burn in hell. Oh wait, don't have to worry 'bout that."

Wolfgang slams on the breaks. "Inappropriate, Jules! Way over the line."

I feel my blood pressure rise with every ruthless jab. "No it's fine, Wolfgang. Just tell me one thing, Jules. What in the world did we do that was so awful or so unnatural? How, please tell me, how is our sleeping in a bed next to one another—mind you nothing sexual happened—such a depraved and puerile act? Was it the fact that maybe, we might have completely normal, loving feelings for another human being? Or maybe it's the sex organs. Or the social constraints of gender? Or maybe just the physical touching of our bodies? I mean basically when you boil it down, men and women are only separated by a single chromosome. Do you know how big a chromosome is Jules? It's really small. Almost as miniscule as your conscience. Or perhaps, Jules, perhaps you're actually saying such hateful things because you're upset and scared and a spiteful bitch."

"Well, I'd rather be a bitch than an abomination any day."

"How dare you."

She shakes her head at the road. "I thought I could trust you, Ethan, but I see now that I barely know you, you traitor. You monster."

"Oh shut up, Jules. You're barely human as it is. Stop projecting." Wolfgang leans over the steering wheel. His chin bounces against the weathered leather with each vocalized thought. "I mean, honestly, when did loving another person become such an atrocity? I don't understand people who go around berating—let alone killing and maiming—one of their own kind just because they have the capacity to love. It's ignorant, inhumanity like that, that nearly murdered, Ethan."

"No it's not. He deserved whatever happened in that bathroom stall. Those men weren't bullies; they were heroes."

Suddenly, uncontrollably possessed with a feral spirit, my fingers interlock around Jules' slender neck, constricting, shaking her. "Fine Jules. Fine! Is this what you want? You want me to act like a fucking animal? Fine!"

Tears pour down my shirt as I give into a part of myself I wish I'd never met.

I feel her nails stinging into my forearm. Her gasps, gargling.

"Ethan! What is wrong with you?" Wolfgang cries out. His voice trembles far away. "Stop it! Ethan!"

Every sensation is a vacant murmur, except for the malicious pulse of blood-thirst rushing through me. I'm completely numb. I clamp down.

Then the lights go out.

Moments later, I wake, dizzy, leaning against the back seat. Mouth tastes like copper. My face: wet and throbbing.

Through the blur I hear marbled voices.

"I said, 'pull over'."

"Jules I can't, we're in the middle of no-"

"Wolfgang, pull over, I'm gonna be sick."

I hear the car slow, followed by the mumble of crushing gravel. I look down at the frighteningly large, red stain on my shirt and feel for breaks in my nose. A door slams open. Then shut. Then more gravel. Then the sound of heaving and wet splashing against solid.

I tilt my head back in an attempt to stop the bleeding. In doing so, I notice Molly's black, inner lining has started to bubble and sag from the wear of time. A handful of shoe prints and cigarette burns.

"You okay?" Wolfgang asks, vacant. "Sorry."

I'm too stunned to answer, still damming the flow from my nostrils. He reaches into one of the drive-thru bags and hands me a napkin.

"Thanks." I sniffle.

Wolfgang opens his door. "I'm gonna see if she's okay."

I muster a slight nod.

Askance, I watch them in the headlights. Jules hunches over, holding her hair, as Wolfgang rubs her back, both of them shivering. I can vaguely make out their conversation: something about Jules having to relearn how to chew food, Illinois being cursed, Owen Wilson's broken nose, and Wolfgang being obligated to buy me a new shirt.

I pretend not to watch as they stumble back to the car. Jules's face is running down her neck and Wolfgang looks like he's just been through battle. Both of them are worn beyond recognition.

What in the world am I doing?

If someone would have told me only a month ago, that I would be sitting—practically kidnapped—on a desolate road, lost somewhere in middle-America, bleeding onto a stranger's back seat, while his bigot friend vomits her love-sick guts onto the pavement, I never in my wildest imagination would have believed them. And yet, here I sit.

They get in.

Slam.

Slam.

Slam. I curl up against the half-window, silent, and pick sticky bits of rough, cheap paper from my nostrils and chin.

Molly pulls back onto the highway and into the uncertain dark. Wounded.

For the moment, things aren't quite calm, but settling.

And together, we stand hushed, as broken limbs, in the eye of the tornado. Waiting for the next revealing wind.