Instead of thinking about Sonny, his traveling companion wishes she were in Spain. How far of a drive is it from Granada to Barcelona?
Twenty miles south of Fresno a sign says Visalia 24 miles. Sonny pilots the car with dirty hands, a torn shirt, an unintentional beard, last year’s haircut and a diet of ice and ketchup packets. He looks over at his traveling companion and notices that the blood that dripped from her nose has been wiped away; still, a few unavoidable drops stand out on her collar.
“My body hates me,” Isabella admits as if it isn’t obvious. “I should get out of here and get my shit together.” She attempts to quiet a self-ridiculing laugh but a small whistle pushes past her septum. The whistle tears into a snort as it hooks on membrane and cartilage.
“Oh yeah, because that’s worked for so many people. Good luck with that. I could have left you at the hospital.”
“No, you couldn’t have,” she says. The car kills insects that hover in the air above the road. She counts them for a moment. One. Two. Three. Four. “That waitress looked like she’d never seen someone with a bloody nose before. I want to buy her a shirt that says ‘scorn’. For a second I thought we were going to get a free meal out it.”
“Ha. You distract her with a sudden bloody nose and I’ll go warm up the car.” They both laugh.
Isabella is thirty years old. She spent the better part of her twenties free basing cocaine and kicking methadone in between extended heroin engagements. Her eyes and her voice are dead, lifeless expressions that once conveyed a youthful personality. The drugs have all but obliterated her—chapped lips, red nose and sad purple trim around her eyes, superficial signs of her self-destruction. Like the bugs, she has found herself hovering in and around danger, never fast enough to get out of the way. Sonny has always been there to move her along, to get her to the next point along the highway. She thinks she is like the shark that lacks the muscles to suck water into its gills and has to keep moving, using the movement to collect water. She has lost the muscles to push herself. Sonny pushes her along, filling her gills with water. She could eat Sonny.
They met freshman year at City College. Sonny was the bad influence then—a role they would pass back and forth until now. They were both straight edge then, though she insisted that she be drug free, and that she not officiate it with a subculture label. Despite the detour they have since taken, they both still have the Xs to prove it; his bookending his email handle—XSONNYX—and hers tattooed on the inside of her bottom lip—XBELLAX. Veering off the path Sonny found that he preferred substances to abstinence. Isabella followed but pulled out in front before either of them knew what was happening. One would stop and the other would go. The steady vacillation, the bio-rhythmic, up and down and left to right wave pattern carried them across their twenties like the fox carrying the chicken to the other side of the river.
Thousands of nights were spent arguing over destination cities, European backpacking routes, rail lines, connections, hostels, mapmakers, footwear, regional cuisine and pocket translators. They would take turns throwing out ideas and swatting them down. Each mind individualized by cynicism and chemicals, locked around the other in adoration and antagonism. They were the 4th of July fireworks display of youthful argument. They were the gangland warfare of intimacy. They could laugh and scream and love and cry but never make a plan.
“What if we went to Mexico?” asks Sonny. “Lie on the beach and eat pacific crawfish and rice and beans until our guts rupture.”
“That only works in the movies. The baggage you thought you’d abandoned at the border checkpoint is waiting for you when you pass back through the Port of Entry.” Too little too late, she thought.
“I didn’t know that.”
“Well, you do now Sonny.”
“Yeah. I do now.”
She cups her stomach with her hand and rubs the surface. She scans the cavity like the spotlight scans the prison yard. The hand thinks that it senses rotted insides; a rotting stump in the forest—a hotel for grubs. In nature, organic decay is cyclical and systemic, necessary for renewal and growth. Inside Isabella, however, decay is different; it is emotional and chemical, the former often a result of the latter. She wishes she could have gone to Europe when she was a student. Be my Alhambra she thinks as she looks at Sonny’s stone façade.
“You look like a castle wall when you drive.”
“It’s hard for me to concentrate on the lines this late at night.”
“The road is hypnotic,” she says to herself; her head rests in a sling that she has fashioned out of the seatbelt. Her left hand creates the tension, gripping the belt like a kite string, attenuating the slack through careful and subtle wrist movements, up and down, back and forth, side to side, throughout the joint’s three-dimensional axis. The synthetic material of the belt gently presses into her face, from chin to ear. Clenching her jaw muscles in rhythm with the percussive concrete sections of the under passing highway, she rocks her head, up and down until her eyes lower into slits of vision. The drawbridge rising. She squints out through the passenger window at the road’s shoulder and wonders if Mexico could substitute for Spain; same language, climatically similar, different food.
“How long until we get there?“ She asks.
“Maybe four hours if I didn’t have to stop.”
“We shouldn’t have taken the 99,” she mumbles. “What if we just kept going? What if we ditched the coordinates and made a left turn and headed for Oklahoma?”
“What’s in Oklahoma?”
Sonny stares at the left side of her neck—it is the only piece of her skin that she has on display; her head is twisted as far to the right as it can twist. The tight sinewy neck muscles look like dried pieces of meat, taught and twisted around her nervous spine, covered in a pale opaque latex sheath.
An hour or so later Sonny applies pressure to the brake, and everything not stitched or glued or bolted down heaves forward.
“What are you doing?” She asks half awake.
“Why are you stopping?”
“Because I can’t sleep if I’m driving and I can’t drive if I’m sleeping.”
“I can drive.”
“Maybe you can, but I won’t let you.”
Isabella thinks about her rebuttal but backs off, cools down and thinks for a long while. Her eyes stay focused on the now static world outside.
She thinks hard, to herself: in front of the car there is a highway that some might describe as a symbol of possibilities, of the future, or of fate. I don’t know if I am sold on this idea. Above our heads stretches a black sea of what many think of as the unknown, as the unknowable. To me that’s kind of boring. I see it as dark paper with puncture wound stars leaking light into our diorama of a road trip. We are like little papier-mâché figurines, bent around each other inside this vehicle. Our bodies—covered in honeymoon scars, bruised and chafed skin, irritated by the salt of sweaty clothing—lock into place.
Sonny, teetering on the edge of sleep, mumbles something but Isabella shuts his mouth with a medium sized spit-back of Hydrocodone cough syrup, passed in a sticky medicinal kiss from her mouth to his. He almost chokes on the warm pharmaceutical berry flavoring, but manages to pass it to the back of his mouth, gagging a little as it slides down his throat. His muscles, still half useless from an evening of sedatives, muscle relaxers, booze, and cough syrup, melt in the confines of the driver’s seat.
“I’m not nearly as far down as you,” he whispers as his tongue clicks the roof of his mouth four or five times, making sure the entirety of the syrup absorbs into his system. She isn’t offended by his remark; it’s almost as if he isn’t real, and that getting mad at him would be as useful as getting mad at her own shadow. She watches him nonetheless, staring at him as he melts away from reality.
When he goes down she finishes the bottle of cough syrup. A small spark of anxiety flashes as their well of intoxicants dries. On one side lies the shame of having emptied the bottle alone; on the other side, the panic of it really being gone. Trying not to think of the hours to come, hovering above the highway, waiting for the windshield of dawn, she thinks of the bugs of the San Joaquin Valley. How many are there?
Morning hits like a train. She throws the empty bottle of cough syrup across his chest and it bounces off the window and hits her in the nose. “Why the fuck did you want to take the 99 anyway? If we had taken the 5 we would be there by now—fixed and faded. I have once again fallen victim to your idiotic ideas, this time that the 99 is more romantic because you can see the western Sierra. Well it’s light out now and I still can’t see them—it’s still foggy like yesterday. I can’t see anything.” She breathes in deep and holds the breath for almost a minute, cracking her knuckles. Sonny rubs his eyes and looks out the window at the fog covered almond fields. Exhaling, Isabella says in a sweet, childlike voice, “I’m sick Sonny, sick as a dog and I need you to get this car started and I need you to get me well.”
Sonny takes her right hand and puts it to his face, splitting the index and middle fingers with his nose. He kisses her palm and exhales out of his nose, blowing warm air onto Isabella’s knuckles. He says nothing and her stiff joints compromise a small amount of tension, enough to get her to breathe.
The grey sky throws diffused light, washing the dark shadows from the pits and circles and creases of her face, but the splotchy colors are indelible. Her neck is stiff and her legs are numb. Her feet are cold, but they are always cold because most of the veins in her legs collapsed years ago.
“Do you want anything to eat?” He asks her.
“No, I’m not hungry. I’m going to throw up actually. What time is it?”
“Is it always this bright?” The sunlight silhouettes the bugs on the windshield. Even their exploded guts are black. She counts them as the car pulls back out onto the highway.
“As long as I can remember,” Sonny responds.
“Do you think any thing did go through their heads before they died?” she asks pointing to the bugs.
“I’m sure they quickly processed little fly sized lists of regrets and accomplishments.”
“That’s what they were having us do back in the DETOX unit.”
“Did you come up with anything good?”
“My number one regret was that I missed out on the whole Hyper Colors craze back in middle school. Number two was missing my ten-year high school reunion two years ago.
“Boring. What about accomplishments?”
Isabella thinks for a moment as if politics were at play in the formation of her answer. Sonny can almost see the calculus forcing more blood to her brain. Her strained look shatters as she sighs. “I’m done. This game is stupid.” Isabella puts her feet up on the hatch to the glove box and stares out at the almond farms. Every few minutes another dead bug explodes in a small tic on the windshield. I wish I had made it to Barcelona.
About Morgan Strauss:
Morgan Strauss is a sixth generation Californian and a Los Angeles native. Morgan’s image of his future self has shown little consistency other than leanings toward art and creativity. To one day be a garbage man, a chef, a poet, a basketball player, a chef (again), a writer, a video artist, a musician, a filmmaker, a career student, and a lay about, Morgan has had these aspirations. Morgan believes that one should be defined by one’s intentions and not by one’s successes. Morgan believes that if Jimmy Carter had been re-elected that the world would be a better place even if he lusted.