It was two o’clock in the morning. My girlfriend squeezed my thigh and the brake slipped a little under my stockinged foot. We had no signal on our phones and the road came to a fork right there. To one side it got darker and gradually narrower, and to the other it widened into a huge toll road with seven or nine tollbooths. The booths were all empty, the security cameras hanging from a cable above the roofs. Not a single car was driving past at that time, and cold lights lit up the place as if it were closed. If I had to describe the atmosphere, I’d called it Lynchian; it looked like at some point someone was going to yell “cut”, and my girlfriend and I would get out of the car and go on our separate ways to drink water or soda or alcohol in a corner of the set, as if she definitely wasn’t my girlfriend and I wasn’t hers.
We could have crossed the country in two days, driving north through Louisiana and then up through Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. I didn’t want to. I wanted to show her beautiful places, places that I had never really seen before and that I wasn’t particularly interested in either, but I wanted her to see those places and not the massive parts of the country from which one might never get out. Not without messing up the soul. We would stay close to the coast, first the Gulf, and then the unnamed areas of the North Atlantic. In the end, we had decided to stay in America for a while, so it was better if we stopped understanding things as we did and started understanding them as others did. Beautiful things always made us doubt. To doubt, under the sick sky of Houston, was already a new wonderful life for us.
The strangest thing of all is that when I try to remember it, sometimes the illuminated, impregnable highway is to the right and some other times to the left. And as much as I try to leave it on one side, when I recall it again it can be found, suddenly, on the other side. I checked my phone signal again and told my girlfriend to check hers, but not a single bar. The car was mowing meekly toward the white light. I asked her what she thought, and she said it didn’t matter, since you couldn’t turn back at this point anyway, and then she looked up through the windshield. I said it was doable, there was no other car to stop us. She kept looking through the windshield, and when I raised my eyes to see what she was looking at, I saw one of the cameras hanging from the cable almost above us, flashing as if it were giving out electricity sparks. I stepped on the gas pedal, mostly to proof to myself that it was I who chose to get in the booth and not the white light, or the cameras, or the terrible width of the highway, or the darkness of the road from which we were pulling away, or anything else.
Our car was a very small, very basic Corolla where I could barely fit a few stuff. The bicycle that I had bought with the 176 dollars from my first paycheck almost two years ago, the rocking chair where she read her books, which was the only furniture in the empty room, the old TV that we connected to the laptop to watch series and movies, the VCR I had gotten a few months ago at Goodwill; all of that had already been dumped in the swamp of memory in exchange for keeping the coats, the bedspreads, the shoes, the pots and a couple of novels.
I must have driven with my foot stuck on the gas pedal for about 15 or 20 minutes not thinking about a thing, not wanting to think about a thing, not looking at my girlfriend or knowing if she was looking at me. Then she said something about the moon, something that didn’t sound like a terrible way to break the silence, and I saw it peeking over the wheel, there in the Maryland sky or maybe already in the Pennsylvania sky, a red ball that was starting to deflate as if bitten by an animal, an object my girlfriend had called the moon because neither she nor I had ever seen anything else drop down from the sky at night. I told her to film it, so she grabbed her phone and lifted up her arms. I asked her if she could see it and she said no, you couldn’t see a thing, and then she said nothing, nothing.
The VCR had cost me only 20 dollars, but for some reason it had bothered me to leave it behind. I bought it because some time ago I had found a copy of Braveheart in another Goodwill store, or maybe it was a Salvation Army, and I had given it to her, as if it were a postcard rather than a movie. There were two VHS tapes inside a box painted black on the sides and orange or yellow on the back. In the front, under the title, you could see Mel Gibson with his eyes fixed on a spot slightly above him, his mouth closed as if just realizing something, his hand on his sword next to a phrase in Italics: Every man dies, not every man really lives. We watched Braveheart the night I brought home the VCR. It was a movie of her childhood, and she cried three times: when Mel Gibson’s girlfriend was killed, when Mel Gibson was betrayed and when Mel Gibson squeezed the handkerchief in his fist as he saw his dead girlfriend moving through the crowd.
I don’t know when I started to notice it. My Corolla and I were going fast, but something raced even faster ahead of us. It didn’t matter that I floored the gas pedal, speeding from 90 to 100 to 110 to 120 mph, because whatever drove faster in the lead kept a steady separation between us that I couldn’t exactly measure in distance or speed, but if I were to say a number, I think it was about two or three miles of advantage. And that’s what made me most uncomfortable: having to fear whatever sped faster ahead of me, being so close at the same time, and not knowing how to reach it or even if I would ever catch up to it. The Corolla was the only car on the highway, so I suddenly began changing lanes without any turn signals or mirrors, and then I moved from the lane furthest to the left to the one furthest to the right in wide, clean-cut dizzying zigzags, as if that was the only way to overtake what was racing ahead of us. My girlfriend put her hand on my thigh again and I saw the moon once more in the background waning crescent as if bitten, high in the sky of Maryland, or maybe Pennsylvania, and I lifted my foot off the gas and told my girlfriend not to worry, everything was going to be okay.
The rocking chair hadn’t cost much. Twenty-five dollars and a couple of days touring all the Goodwills and all the Salvation Armies and Value Villages and Family Thrift Centers and Texas Thrift Stores in town. And it’s not like we were that poor, or maybe we were, but that’s not what it was about. I had already learned some basic rules of the game and a friend from back then had told me: “wherever you go, do what you see”, so I wasn’t hesitant about using my credit cards to buy stuff. But my girlfriend always said that she liked to check the Goodwill stores. Other people didn’t like that so much, for sometimes thrift shops smelled bad, but the Goodwills had a different atmosphere, as if they didn’t hurt anyone or they were rather preserving something. I used to tell my girlfriend that the Goodwills looked like a sterile cemetery, that sometimes I thought any minute, while I was touching the handle of a Christmas jar with the year 1995 printed in green and red numbers, or watching someone inspect a dirty stuffed animal displayed on a shelf, I was going to start hearing in the background, above the background sound of happy, quiet songs in English, the voice of a child reading The Loved Ones, and then my girlfriend would have to agree that I was right, but at that point we wouldn’t be able to run away. She laughed at me because she liked Goodwill stores, and failing that, the other second-, third-, and fourth-hand thrift stores. I thought that all those things should disappear from the world, all the misery of the years stuck like gum to the grime and mold of that furniture and those toys and those clothes, but my girlfriend thought, or felt, that there was something good about them being there. My girlfriend didn’t think it was creepy at all. And I wasn’t going to break her heart by telling her I had bought the rocking chair at Walmart, or that an Amazon driver had left it at our door.
We’d taken the wrong way and we both knew it. That’s why we were there. And we knew that too, even if we didn’t dare to unravel the character or nature or origin of such an event. It occurred to me for a second that what was racing faster than us was suspicion itself, and also that perhaps only where you can’t go, you really go all the more. We kept driving forward along the highway, now at a regular speed, as if nothing was happening, as if Nissans and Hondas and Fords were racing up and down on both sides of the highway, some speeding forward until we lost sight of them, others lagging behind, as if they had something to lose, playing one of those games that are played on all the roads of the world. Not the game of recklessness, or a pretense of recklessness, but that of the pretense that in reality there are reasons not to play. It took at least another quarter of an hour for our phones to get reception back, and then my girlfriend said, somewhat tired or saddened but not the least resigned, that we had taken the wrong way. I looked to my left at the long wall, the concrete worm separating the two sections of the highway on which street lights endlessly grew until they washed away the emptiness of the American early morning. I thought about how good it would have been for us to feel a bit resigned, and also for the silver Corolla, which must have looked like a stunned bird on the toll road.
I climbed the steps of the building to the second floor carrying the rocking chair in my arms. I wanted to be able to tell her that when she asked me how I had moved it all the way up. I wanted her to never leave. The rocking chair had two pieces of cloth that fastened to the wooden structure, one to the back and the other to the seat. I took them off and put them in the washing machine. People said Goodwills were full of surprises, that sometimes you could find clean things and other times things that looked clean but were in fact bug-ridden. People were terrified of bed bugs and I didn’t want my girlfriend’s butt to be pestered by them. When she arrived home, the rocking chair was in the corner of the living room, next to the only window. She started screaming as if something bad was happening, but as if it happened inside a dream where she couldn’t scream very loudly. I smiled because I knew she did that whenever the incident in question was actually a good thing. She sat down, rested her hands on the arms of the chair and began to rock herself, but the condo’s carpeted floor wouldn’t let her swing too much. She laughed and I laughed too and thought what a jerk I was.
There was nothing else to do. The map indicated there was still a good 20 miles of road to go, and then we would have to drive back on the other side of the same highway. My girlfriend put on some music and we started to relax. It was three in the morning and I told her I didn’t think I had the strength to make it to Boston. She suggested we could sleep somewhere nearby and started searching on the map. I told her I could hold on for a little longer, that she should look for a place near New Jersey to cross New York as soon as we woke up. She said there was a Motel 6 an hour and a half away, or maybe it was a little over two hours if we counted what we’d left to go and then drive back. I told her it was okay. We got to the end of the highway and the cameras started sparking. When we passed the empty booths I had the urge not to return but to keep driving on any of the roads that opened ahead. I didn’t dare. I made a U-turn and the Corolla meekly approached the cameras again, now from the other side. I looked at my girlfriend and she placed her hand on my thigh. At the same time as the Corolla, a Prussian blue Acura was driving through the tollbooth in the adjoining lane. Eight tires started screeching like eight hooves ripping the asphalt apart. Two metal birds perched on a branch that melted in the night. I would have liked to explain to my girlfriend what it was all about, but I only managed to shake my thigh under her hand. The moon had disappeared from the sky.