The road trip
It is the night before we will hit the road in my yellow Rabbit, odometer 221,556 miles, inherited when my Dad got a new company car. My backpack, guitar and diverse camping gear are piled up by the front door. But tonight, I feel as if I am saying goodbye forever to Hotlanta, like I already know that I’ll never be coming back, even though there is no actual plan of the kind.
At Grady’s request, I have promised to go out for a farewell drink with her then-girlfriend, who works in production for a major television network. I secretly think that Mims is pretty screwed up, but in a mostly-likeable way. In addition to her day job, she is a punk guitarist who has taken me under her wing as a newbie on the local lesbian music scene. She is also a serious coke-head. Once Grady and I begin to hang out, Mims’ supplier of choice becomes Cody, my even-more-deeply-fucked-up, drug-dealer roommate, the charming and cute – but gravely depressed – son of a Bible-thumping deacon from rural south Georgia. Cody is also a roofer, the only one in town willing to strap on a harness and rappel the terrifying pitches of church steeples to dress them up with new shingles that will hopefully last another thirty years. It isn’t easy to find people willing to do this job, but he is just crazy enough. I can’t even remember how he arrived in my life, but arrive he did, along with Gilda, his Doberman pup, named for the late Saturday Night Live comedian. Gilda is an adorable, goofy creature who loves to curl up on top of my very chill mutt Bobbysox, so named for his four white feet. Gilda’s un-cropped ears and permanent doggie smile take away all of her potential for looking tough; she will never be taken seriously as a guard dog, and as if to prove this, she is in fact stolen from his pickup bed not long after I leave the South for good.
I sometimes make Cody’s deliveries to Mims’ house, a rambling Victorian-ish three-bedroom with high ceilings, on a cul-de-sac in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Usually I do this late at night, in my pyjamas, sometimes doing a line or downing a glass of champagne (the preferred house beverage, always in stock) before returning home to my humid, midtown duplex with its perpetually scraggly, push-mowed backyard.
On this night pre-departure, Mims and I meet up at a favorite bar where we listen to a set from a local girl group with an ironic feminist name, finishing up with a second round of top-shelf whiskey, on the rocks. She asks me to join her in her vintage leather-seated Mercedes for a private send-off before we head our separate ways. We do a bit of coke, and I am getting a light buzz on, already fairly drunk from the expensive scotch, when she says “You know, you guys can do whatever you want while you’re on the road, in fact I encourage it.” I’m not sure I understand. “What do you mean?”, I ask, rubbing some stray powder into my gums. “Well, you know…” She takes an almost motherly tone with me, smiling indulgently. “Oh.”, I reply awkwardly, suddenly getting it. I really don’t know what to say. I wonder if Grady knows about this. After doing a tiny bit more of the drug-du-jour, I stumble back to my own car and manage to drive myself home. It shocks me now to think about how dangerously we lived – I guess some of us died – the risks we so nonchalantly took, firm believers in our own immortality.
Grady and I have been making music together for about six months. We met via a classified ad for musicians-seeking-musicians in the local cultural paper. We share the same passion for music and can’t get enough of singing together. After a few months of practice, our first real gig is playing a lesbian wedding, despite the fact that this still isn’t technically legal in Georgia. Nobody seems to care about that, though, and when the day comes, we are pretty nervous since it will be just me on my 12-string guitar and our two voices. I set up and run the sound system, an old Ampeg P.A. with speakers that weigh about 100 pounds each. I ended up with it after my husband divorced me, leaving me for an older woman. At 24, the fact of her age was almost more of a shock than the divorce itself. Perhaps to soften the blow, he proposes that we can continue to sleep together from time to time because the sex has always been good. Right.
When the wedding ceremony is over, the newlyweds kiss and the bouquet is tossed and caught (by a male guest). Then somebody asks “When does the dance music start?”. Grady and I briefly exchange panicked looks. We are ill-equipped to provide the standard wedding reception fare, but in the end, everybody dances, encouraged by the minister, who is clearly a good sport, in addition to being willing to illegally marry same-sex couples. We gradually get into gear, playing the Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes”, slipping into Steely Dan’s “Peg” and more soul, R&B and jazzy gems, and winding up the set with some Indigo Girls and Bonnie Raitt. I think we earned a whole two hundred dollars (time hasn’t changed this fee all that much) but we are happy and everybody seems pleased with the outcome.
I’m still not entirely sure what set this road trip into motion for me – maybe a combination of wanting to move forward into a new phase after the divorce, or a desire to explore who I am now that I am no longer anybody’s wife, or perhaps the fact that while my younger sisters hitchhiked, ski-bummed and mountain-climbed in the Rockies, I have never strayed far from the beaten path, going to university directly after high school, marrying and going to work at a series of low-end jobs – the only kind I can land with an art degree. So far, there has been no dash for freedom on my part.
Grady is also looking for something new. She has a degree in theatre, has studied opera, and written, directed and produced plays. A slim, naturally curly blond with a serious countenance and tomboyish, matter-of-fact style, she can also be mischievous, conjuring up convincing accents and extravagant personalities on the fly. Her current relationship is unbalanced – her girlfriend owns the house and makes enough to keep the bills paid and her entourage in recreational drugs. Grady is in many ways a kept woman, not a role she is comfortable with but one she can’t afford to change at that precise moment. Being dependent is hard for such an independent spirit. Unlike me, she has no family to bail her out should she get into a truly precarious situation. She is a tough cookie, out of necessity.
When I arrive on the scene, the combination of my cultural innocence, along with Grady’s intensity, has a strange effect on Mims and her little gang of new-wave punk friends, who are proud and out. Grady and I are sort of like mascots to them, and they are equally hell-bent on torturing and protecting us, treating us as if we are fascinating house pets that they can alternately coddle or boss around (especially me). They behaved like immature, bullying boys, probably without any real malice, but still employing the time-tested techniques that have served men for centuries in their quest to one-up and bend others to their will. But I go along with it, laughing most of it off, and eventually they calm down and stop trying to shock me with their behaviour.
It is the morning following the goodbye meet up with Mims, and Grady arrives at my door promptly at five a.m. We are both itching to be out of there. I am suffering from a mild hangover as a result of the previous evening’s activities, but I don’t go into details. We are not traveling light. We bring along an upright bass, guitar, camping gear, our backpacks, a plywood camping kitchen, in the form of a huge box full of food prep gear, designed and built by my Dad when I was a small child. And of course we bring my dog, Bob. The Rabbit is equipped with a CB radio, a leftover from the days when owning a diesel car means searching for the nearest gas stations which are hard to find when cruising the endless, southern rural interstates. We get on the horn “Breaker one-nine, wondering where’s the nearest go-go juice?”. “Try exit 31 on Route 7 North near Porter’s Creek. Should be open ’til ten. Oh, and watch out for the county mountie at yardstick 45.” “Thanks, ten-four, Good buddy.” We have a lot of fun with that CB. It is the early ’80s, and everyone still says “Good buddy” when they talk to each other on the radio. Later on, I learn that this expression has come to mean a homosexual trucker (“good buddies” return sexual favors), so trucker culture being what it is, naturally a lot of folks stop using the expression. But we were still living in those oh-so-different times.
There are days when we see nothing but the horizon, mountains off in the distance, eight, ten, twelve hours at a time, rolling across endless plains, past occasional ranches and old billboards with peeling advertisements for a long-closed upcoming restaurant one-hundred miles ahead. We chat with a lone eighteen-wheeler who is cruising at about the same speed as us. Those long-haul truckers are friendly and well-mannered. They talk longingly about little, sentimental things. “When I get home my wife’s gonna fix me some sausage and eggs, fresh eggs, from our chicken coop, not those reconstituted, made-from-powder scrambled eggs that they serve in some places.” Even though we’ve only been on the road a few weeks, hearing this makes us a little bit homesick.
Like all the truckers, we, too, have a “handle”, the name each CB operator adopts to identify themself on the citizens’ radio band, helpful when it gets busy. But it’s not usually busy where we are, mostly in the middle of nowhere. These late summer days are extremely hot, even by Atlanta-girl standards, and we wear gym shorts that expose the pale hair on our unshaven legs. Our CB crackles and we hear “Breaker one-nine, for the Georgia Rabbit”. Yup, that’s us. Grady picks up the mic, and says with her silky drawl. “Ten-four, copy that”. “Hey ladies, what be your handle?” “That’d be Peach Fuzz”, she smoothly replies, never missing a beat.
We first drive north from Georgia through New England, where we wisely decide to leave the dog with my sister, the bass with a friend and the back seat of the Rabbit folded up in my parents’ garage, thereby freeing up space for a camping mattress, for nights when we stop too late to pitch a tent. From there, we cross the US-Canada border, spending a day in Montréal, where we revel in hearing another language spoken everywhere around us, right over the line from the mono-linguality of our everyday world. We visit the McGill University campus where my Mom went to school, eventually heading west through Ontario on TransCanada Highway 17, toward Sault-Sainte-Marie, referred to by locals as the “Soo”. It is August, and in this part of North America, during the only three months where (mostly) nothing freezes, this always means one thing – road construction. It is close to ninety degrees Fahrenheit (even Canadians were doing Fahrenheit back then), and the Rabbit is, of course, sans air conditioning. We don’t realize until later, when we have to choose between headlights and windshield wipers, that it is also nearly sans battery. The windows are open wide to let in as much air as possible and when we can’t bear it anymore, we impulsively take off our t-shirts, exposing our mutually unimposing, bra-free breasts. At first, we keep a towel handy for any emergency coverups that might be required. Every so often, we became part of a line of traffic waiting for the flagman, consulting a walkie-talkie, before waving us through the single lane that is open. On this day, and many others, it turns out that the flagman is in fact a flagwoman, which suits us just fine, removing the need to hide our topless tops. Once, when we are the first car in line, we offer a cold drink of water from our cooler to the woman holding the stop sign. She takes one look at our bare breasts, accepts the bottle for a hearty swig and wistfully exclaims “Sure wish I could do that!”, nodding her head at the many male road workers behind her, who are, like us, shirtless, which is still allowed on the job in 1984. Little do we know that in 1996, after twenty years of protests in which women are arrested and jailed for public indecency (but only temporarily, so the men can make their point), the province of Ontario will pass a law permitting women to be topless in all of the same settings where it is already legal for men. This is a fact that, years later, one of my male friends will bring up every time we travel through Ontario, where he makes sure to remind me “You know, it’s legal for you to take your shirt off here ANYTIME you feel like it.” Despite this hard-earned freedom, I have yet to be motivated to exercise that right.
At night, we mostly camp in parks, only occasionally spending a cramped night in the car, usually when it is too rainy or too dark to pitch the tent or cook outside. On a starry, prairie evening, somewhere in the Dakotas, we set up camp, a ritual by now, and cook a satisfying meal of pasta, washed down by a decent bottle of the wine we have stashed in our supplies. At the next campsite over, there is a group of four or five college-age guys, all wearing team t-shirts, laughing and chugging beers. They glance at us now and again and we pointedly ignore them. The sun is setting spectacularly, and as we prepare to settle down for the night, rinsing dishes and tidying up, we see them showing off for our benefit, doing flips, laughing loudly, clearly trying to get our attention. I am standing just outside the tent when Grady glances back at them, walks up to me, puts her arms around me, weaves her fingers into my hair, and proceeds to kiss me slowly and deeply. I am surprised, but I respond in kind, and when we are done with that leisurely kiss, she leans back and gives me one of her trademark mysterious smiles. Our neighbors have stopped whatever they are doing and are watching us with confused expressions. Then they turn away and act busy, but we hear them whispering. I am satisfyingly aware that we have just challenged their assumption that we exist only for their pleasure and attention.
I recall the time that two of my friends, a lesbian couple, came to pick me up for lunch. I was one of only two women working at a company that sold diesel engines. One of the guys smoking near the entrance to the building spotted my friends holding hands as they got out of the car to come and get me and quipped sarcastically “They obviously just haven’t met the right man”, which set the others to laughing. Without thinking, I retorted, “Obviously, YOU just haven’t met the right man”.
Grady is an actress and really knows how to make words on a page come alive. I discover this when she reads chapters aloud from the trendy, erotic Diary of Anaïs Ninn. We roll past fences, enormous fields of freshly cut hay, through quaint neighborhoods, alongside cliffs overlooking the sea, over the Golden Gate bridge. I downshift to descend mountain passes, and the characters come alive as she inhabits them. When she gets on the CB to locate the next gas stop, she uses her impressive gift for improvisation in response to questions about who we are and where we are going. Why do random men think they have the right to this information? A typical conversation goes something like this (insert regional trucker accent of your choice):
TRUCKER: Hey, where y’all goin’?
TRUCKER: Why the hell you wanna go there?
GRADY: We won a contest. We’re gonna be on Johnny Carson.
TRUCKER: Whatcha gonna do on Carson?
GRADY: We sing in harmony while standing on our heads. (here we would sing a few notes, in harmony).
TRUCKER: (giving up and not quite sure if we were pulling his leg or not) Well, y’all have a good time, now!
Our shirtless-travel strategy leads to some interesting moments. Only rarely do passing cars notice that we are topless, probably because both of us are barely pushing an A-cup, plus we are wearing baseball caps and glacier glasses – mirrored sunglasses with leather side-pieces – which give us a distinctly boyish and slightly mountaineer-ish look. Once in a while, we pass an RV with a retirement-age man at the wheel, his wife perhaps in back napping. As we pull alongside the RV, the driver looks over at us and does a double-take. You can practically hear the “boii-iiing”, that sound effect that usually accompanies eye-popping in a Wile E. Coyote v. Roadrunner cartoon.
We are on Interstate 10, on a dark night, during a windstorm that has us fighting to keep our little car rolling in a straight line. The asphalt is all bump-bump-bump and we complain about the quality of the road, comparing it to the New York State Thruway, famous for its ka-dunking seams. In the morning, when the sun rises, we can see that those bumps were in fact countless jackrabbits, trying unsuccessfully to get to the other side. We sometimes spend whole days cruising along with the same group of truckers. Amazingly, nobody ever harasses us on the CB – it seems that there is an unwritten code of honor to keep it clean, or at least that is so in the early 1980s. Maybe this is because CB channel frequencies can be heard by anybody who is interested, opening all participants up to judgement. So we continue to do our shirtless thing whenever it is just too damn hot. On that same desert crossing, we pass a trucker we’ve been chatting with innocuously for about five hours. As we pull up level to his cab window, about to move ahead of him, he rolls the window down and hangs a pair of blue jeans outside in the rushing air. We snap a photo of him and his pants and continue passing, slightly unnerved, but mostly just laughing our asses off. Fast-forward 20 or 30 years and it is hard to imagine doing the same thing.
Ever since the campground kiss, as I come to think of it, I am both happy and confused. My connection with Grady is natural and I trust her completely. When I am with her, there is an ease that I have never felt with any man. I try to imagine telling my parents that I am romantically involved with a woman. My sister has already informed me that they questioned her about the possibility, which surprises me, since I hadn’t seriously considered it as an option myself.
Both of us are victims of sexual abuse as children – I consider her experiences to have been much more traumatizing than mine – but we react to it in different ways. As soon as Grady got away from home, where she had been controlled by her abuser, she simply avoided relationships with the opposite sex completely. There had been one exception, an artist who became a close friend and who she eventually slept with, sort of as a way to test her sexuality and vanquish her fear. But he was the only one and she hadn’t been into the physical part of it. She tells me that she doesn’t know for sure at what point she realized that she was actually gay – the violence of her childhood had been such a powerful factor that at first she had attributed her attraction to women to her fear of men. My own distrust of men hasn’t prevented me from sleeping with them but has resulted in a lifelong need to control all sexual interaction. To this day, I decide when and how everything happens – I rarely permit myself to go with the flow. From my early teens I have been aware of my attraction to both men and women but it never once occurred to me that this might be a choice I could act on. Like most American women of my generation, I’ve been fed a steady diet of sexual stereotypes that I took for granted and played along with, even when it didn’t feel right.
It is early September, and Grady and I are more than halfway home, spending the night in what we jokingly dubbed the “roach motel”, a run-down, moldy-smelling motor inn with a creaky, dripping, barely functioning AC unit that gives off a not-faint-enough whiff of old fish. We take a dip in the pool to cool off and meet a friendly young couple who agree to meet up at the pizza joint next door for dinner. The four of us order pitcher upon pitcher of cheap beer. We have all been on the road for roughly fifteen hours a day for several days in a row and we aren’t fit company for anyone who hasn’t been road-tripping. We are giddy and laugh so hard at each others’ jokes that tears run down our cheeks and beer squirts out our noses. It is one of those insane, magical moments in time where there is only the now. We exchange addresses (we actually remain in touch over the years), say absurdly emotional goodbyes considering the couple of hours we’ve actually known one another, and return to our respective rooms. I lock the door behind us and turn around to see Grady lying on her back on the bed. Despite (or perhaps because of?) my drunkenness and the crazy-good mood I am in, I immediately lay down beside her and then roll up on one elbow to look at her face, framed so charmingly by her blonde curls. She is gazing up at me with that little, lazy, wonderful smile of hers. Somehow, I know exactly what to do. Her body is a foreign country, even though it should seem so much more familiar since it resembles mine in all the most important ways. We meld together so organically, children playing the kind of hide-and-seek where you already know exactly where everybody is hiding.
In the Badlands. Photo C. Cardina