Departure

by carl coetzee

On our way out of town, we make one last stop at the Sunset Diner on the side of I-76 for brunch. We crawl from our car, which is packed nearly wall-to-wall with suitcases, and enter through the shiny chrome doors to the aroma of fresh coffee and bacon. In the booth, the jukebox is packed with songs from a previous generation -- here, no one ever plays the newer hits -- alongside a plastic rack offering an assortment of various jams and jellies. I slide in next to Evan, leaving Brian to sit alone on the opposite bench. Out of habit, I order myself an English muffin with butter and jam. Evan does the same, but the waiter hardly needs to write anything down; she has taken this order hundreds of times. We settle in and try to wrap our heads around the drive that awaits us. Eventually, Brian breaks the silence.

“So, Jason, have you met your roommate yet?”

“Yeah, I’ve texted him a few times. About music, mostly. Apparently he’s really into post-punk. Gave me a few recommendations.”

“Where’s he from?” 

“He’s actually from Sacramento. Grew up, like, seven minutes from campus. What about your roommate? Where’d he grow up?”

“Oh, Mike? He lived in DC. Says he’s never been to Chicago, except on the tour. I guess we’ll find our way around together.”

“Well, tell him to bring gloves. I have relatives in Chicago, and they say the winters are brutal.”

“Ha, I will. Of course, you don’t have to worry about that in California, huh?”

 

The waiter returns with our brunch; for a while, we don’t talk at all. The English muffin is just as good as I remember, and I try to savor the taste. Who knows what kind of breakfast places they have on the West Coast? After the meal, we pack ourselves back into the car amidst the piles of luggage and head back onto the road. As I drive, Evan controls the stereo. His playlists are familiar, and we try to sing along to most of them but usually fail to remember words beyond the first verse or chorus, devolving instead into a vague symphony of unsure mumbles. In the rearview, Brian takes up the backseat alongside our suitcases. I envy him -- since Evan is destined for Colorado and I go further still to California, his journey is the shortest. As he often told me, Illinois is the furthest he would stray from home; anything more than that, he said, and he wouldn’t be able to drive home on long weekends. He wasn’t comfortable with long distances, which made sense given that growing up most of his life, family, and friends (myself included) resided within blocks of one another. His family had lived in our town nearly since it was founded, and he intended to return. For him, college was almost a long gap year before he inevitably moved back home to start his life and family.

I take a hard turn; in the backseat, a mountain of suitcases capsizes onto the unlucky passenger.

“Hey, Brian, you okay?”

“Jason, next time you’re back here I’m popping a U-turn. Then we’ll see how you’re doing.”

 “You sound like Matthew.”

“You know Matthew would never be sitting back here. He’d be where you are, driving like he was in Fast and Furious. He wouldn’t have toppled the suitcases, either.”

“Hey, his school is in Ohio! How come he’s not coming with us?”

“He’s driving up with Lindsay tomorrow. She’s going to see him off.”

“I thought the two of them broke up.”

“No, they’re still together.”

“That’s weird. She’s going to school overseas, right? There’s no way they’ll make that work.”

“Well, they’re probably ending it this weekend.”

“Why are they driving up together, then? They know it’s not going to last. I dunno… it seems kind of painful to me. Like drawing a bad thing out.”

“I mean, they dated for most of high school. It must be hard to end that sort of thing until you really have to.”

“I understand, but I just can’t see why anyone would want to suffer like that.”

 

After several more hours, we grab dinner at a burger joint -- much to our amusement, Evan emits a shriek of horror as his ketchup-soaked pickle dives from his sandwich and onto his freshly-laundered white sweatshirt -- and return to the highway with Brian as driver. In the backseat, unable to fall asleep, Evan and I resort to playing several games of MarioKart on Evan’s switch as Brian continually asserts that if he were not driving (or at least not around so many other cars), he would deliver unto us a loss so humiliating that we would need several expensive therapists to regain our respective senses of pride. 

The game is soothing to me; even though I am leaving home, each track and each game reminds me of the life I am leaving behind. The music takes me back to the placid hush of languorous summer afternoons, the hum of the air conditioning as it haphazardly filled the room with chilly, refreshing air, the smooth leather of Brian’s couch.  Onscreen, the road is paved with familiarity, not concrete; I am never lost. Eventually, the three of us decide that Evan and I need our rest to face the road tomorrow, and in an acrobatic feat the two of us concoct a way to simultaneously lie fully flat across the seat. After another few minutes of conversation, I put on my headphones and drift asleep.

I’m unsure when I wake up again. It is dark out now, and I can feel that several hours have passed. I take off my headphones, but don’t lift myself in fear of waking Evan up. Brian is at the wheel, coasting down the highway with various 2000s-era hits still pulsing from the speakers. I look outside. I see that we're still on a highway, but instead of the crowded east-coast scenery of before we're now gliding along a long and misty road somewhere in the countryside that seems to lurk endlessly beyond the darkness. Outside, the wheat sways back and forth in the fields, looking like phantoms fading through the hazy night. The car vibrates as it sails down the road, and I feel the soft mmm-mmm-mmm of the concrete below. Every once in a while we make a gentle turn and my eyes dart to the pile of suitcases above me, waiting for Brian to make good on his earlier threat; For the most part, though, my gaze remains at the infinite abyss beyond the window. Trying and failing to recognize anything around me -- or even see more than 20 feet around us in any direction -- makes me think of just how unfamiliar I am with what is to become my new world. I think how by leaving my town -- maybe for good -- I am abandoning much of what I know and am familiar with. The childhood home, the sunset diner, the maze of streets and houses and woods I grew up exploring, the abandoned house by the creek with the oak tree growing through it -- they all vanish into irrelevance. I will have to discover everything anew. New streets. New breakfast places. New abandoned houses. New friends. I look up at Brian, thinking how in the morning he will be gone and Evan and I will press on into increasingly unfamiliar circumstances.

We arrive in Chicago at around 5 AM. As the sun rises and clears the fog from the horizon, I see the skyline of the city, the tall buildings instilling us with sentiments of perpetual innovation and opportunity. We soon move further inward, and Brian notes all the local shops and hotspots he will soon discover. I tell him that the pizza here looks more like casserole to me, but it smells good nonetheless. We arrive at his campus and pile out of the car to help Brian move his luggage into his dorm. From the inside, his new living space is sleek and modern, with polished wooden floors, glossy leather furniture, and large glass windows. 

“Look, Spongebob.” quips Evan, noticing the lustrous, shiny chrome that lined the room and the furniture. “We’re in the future.”

The car grows more spacious as we remove all of his baggage from the vehicle; I am surprised to realize that I actually liked the cramped nature of our vessel, which now seems wastefully spacious. Brian, still exhausted from driving through the night, does not keep us long.

“Well, I guess this is it.”

“Yep, that’s the last of the boxes.”

“Yeah. Thanks for helping me get settled.”

“No problem.”

A startling gust of cool autumn air blows through the window, and we shiver in silence.

“Well, I guess you guys have a lot more driving to do.”

“Yep.”

“Well, good luck.”

“Thanks. You too.”

“I’ll see you around.”

“Maybe at Christmas.”

“Definitely. I’ll text you guys.”

“Ok. You too.”

“Ok. Drive safe.”

 

The door closes, and we walk back to the car in silence. The image of Brian, standing groggily but proudly in the hall of his new dorm, passes through my mind one final time before I turn the ignition and begin the drive out of Chicago.

Our luggage still taking up much of the backseat, Evan and I sit up front. We listen to the radio for a bit, but after a while the signal turns to static and I turn it off.

“So, Evan, have you met your roommate yet?”

“Not yet. I got an email address, but it doesn’t work.”

“So this guy could be just anybody.”

“Pretty much. They told me he’s from Milwaukee, though.”

“Huh. That’s pretty close. Maybe he’s starting to drive right now as well.”

“Maybe.”

 

We rode in silence for a few hours. Evan and I never really needed to talk all that much, anyway. Our friendship was a quieter one; after several years, we had developed a pattern of speaking without actually verbalizing, of subsisting merely off of one another’s mood and temperament. Often when we did speak, there wasn't any need to form words; instead we merely exchanged half-mumbles and occasional grunts with gaps being filled in through context and mutual understanding. Evan was actually far better off than I was when it came to his new circumstances. While my family was mostly on the East Coast and overseas, Evan had the benefit of having family in nearby Wyoming whom he could visit without much trouble.

That night, it was Evan’s turn to drive. While I could have laid down easily in the back seat, I felt strangely reluctant to move all of our baggage, and instead moved to the passenger seat where I could partly recline. I tried to doze off, but instead ended up watching the sunset before spending the next few hours passively listening to the radio.

As darkness set upon the road and mist once again shrouded the outside world from me, I was once again faced with the daunting scope of a life so far from what I knew. Brian was gone -- his presence removed from the car both in weight and spirit -- and soon Evan would be as well. It began to set in that these two people I had known since grade school, who had grown up mere streets from my childhood home, who until today had seemed nearly omnipresent in my everyday life, were to be removed by hundreds of miles, finding new places and interests and friends far from the world in which I would have to do the same. Of course I would see them again at some point -- over Thanksgiving or Christmas or maybe Easter -- but I knew that our closest days were behind us. It seemed incomprehensible to me that these people whom I had known for all my years would suddenly fade into the background, how life would so apathetically split those friendships which I had cherished. But I knew that it wasn’t the split that would kill me. It would be the awkward meeting 15 years later, perhaps running into Brian at the supermarket while visiting my parents and sharing a short, quietly stifling dialogue while realizing that our youth and commonality had vanished in turn.

We arrive in Colorado the next morning. Before we arrive at Evan’s dorm, we go to a local café for breakfast and both order an English muffin with raspberry jam. However, the toaster is partly broken, leaving our food cold. Afterwards, we drive to Evan’s dorm and unpack his things, spending an extra hour to set up his desk and connect his computer to the WiFi. Unlike Brian’s dorm, Evan’s new space is cozy and well-worn; with a creaky wooden door and coarse wool carpeting. While we are unpacking, his roommate from Milwaukee arrives. He’s a friendly guy, and hits it off almost immediately with Evan; they are mid-conversation when I decide to say a quick good-bye and start walking to the car. 

I set out for for my final destination. Before I leave, though, I take a suitcase and move it to Evan’s former spot in the passenger’s seat. Since there is no one to talk to, I put on one of my playlists and set out across the final leg of my journey. I don’t pause much besides stopping for dinner, after which I turn on the radio and continue.

The sun sets as I approach the Rockies. The roads are treacherous; ahead, impish rocks littering the path, threatening to uncouple my tires from the road and discard me over one of the tight, cliffside turns that straddle the mountain. Driving slowly as to avoid this fiery demise, I am tense as I begin the gradual climb upward. The radio soon fizzles into static, so I turn it off and drive in silence for a while. The road stretches on for miles, and the only people around are those driving the intimidatingly large cargo trucks that occasionally veer too close and threaten to muscle me off the side of the cliff. At around 1 AM, I grow tired and stop at a rest area where I get myself a coffee and a local newspaper, sitting to read it before finishing the coffee and getting back into the car.

The images flash through my mind once more. Brian sitting on his new bed in Chicago. Evan and Chris meeting each other for the first time. The longevity of these moments, which will surely be remembered across each of our respective lifetimes, was somewhat detracted by the realization that these were the last moments I would spend with each of them, and they with me. Beyond this point, our roads would split; days would be passed separately, texts would cease, ill-advised facial hair would be grown. Not only would a new life be formed, but the old one would fall away and be lost.

As I reach the top of a hill, I see a glimmer of pink infiltrate the night sky. I've driven through the night. I should reach Sacramento in a few hours.

I keep thinking of Evan. On the way here, he was quiet -- most likely also thinking of how he was to manage the year ahead -- but when he met Chris he suddenly grew more talkative, more lively. Something about Chris physically walking through the door seemed to have changed his mood. Maybe it made things seem like less of an abstraction, as this man who before had been only a location and an email address manifested himself into what seemed like a friendly, reasonable guy. It made sense that the partial elimination of the enormous hypothetical before us all helped Evan realize something, helped him conceptualize the impermanence of life. After all, it’s much easier to accept a new life when you can see it in front of you. And it’s easier to forget the old one once it’s gone. Maybe, I thought, once I arrive, I’ll feel the same way.

The road levels out, smoothing itself out into a humble plateau, and I grow tired of the silence. Since my playlists are quickly going stale, I flip through my phone and find one of my roommate’s music recommendations. My destination a mere few hours ahead of me, I watch the sky become crimson as I drive further across the mountainside and down into California.

© 2020, Carl Coetzee