In Davis, his parents give us one of their cars, in better condition than our old car (also from his parents) and roomier, for the cross-country drive. A box-shaped car that we fill to the brim with boxes.
Each day I’m home, my mom talks about my leaving. The anticipation of it—of my being across the country—bears down on the time we have together, now.
“When will you come home? Thanksgiving?”
“Probably not. The flights are too expensive.”
She reminds me that she’s going to Australia in December to visit one of her sisters. Will I come home or stay in Ithaca?
“I don’t know,” I say. “Either way, I won’t see you. Maybe spring, then.”
“Geez, that’s too long!”
What is the longest we’ve gone without seeing each other? A couple of months is the answer to a question I have not had to ask before. But people leave behind their families all the time. They leave for all kinds of reasons. She did once. My dad did, more than once. This is nothing in comparison. No oceans or languages or barriers to cross. Just one country. From one edge to the other.
We play Ping-Pong at his family friend’s birthday party. It is crowded with people we don’t know, and many little kids run around chasing each other, squealing and screaming. One boy stops at the table to watch us.
“You’re a lot better at Ping-Pong than your brother,” he says. “Can I play?”
J and I both stop and look at each other. I don’t know what to say. I want to cry.
J goes, “You’re right, I’m terrible. I bet you could beat her.” He hands the boy the paddle.
The boy and I hit the ball back and forth until he gets bored, only a few minutes in, and runs away.
“Do you think the world’s going to be a lot better when all these kids grow up?”
J says maybe.
“No. The answer is no. Because the world is going to beat their innocence out of them, and
they’ll end up hurt or hurting like the rest of us.”
“Are you feeling okay?” He approaches.
“I’m feeling very high-strung, or is it on edge, or maybe it’s in pieces.”
My dad is talking about the virtues of East Coasters in comparison to West Coasters. The former, according to him, possess all the good qualities as people: hardworking, direct, genuine, honest, trustworthy. New Yorkers, he says, are his favorite people.
“It’s not really New York, though. It’s upstate New York.”
“That’s the real New York. It will be good for you. People on the East Coast aren’t lazy, they aren’t so carefree and loosey-goosey about everything.”
“I’m not like that, either.”
“That’s because you were raised by someone like me,” he says. “You belong on the East Coast. But look at your bonehead. Just your typical California boy, laid-back and goofy.”
“Those can be good traits, too,” I say.
“Yes, to a certain degree,” he says. “Tell him from me: Drive safe and don’t smoke so much marijuana.”
“He doesn’t smoke and drive!” (At least not across the country . . . )
“No, in general, if he wants to do well in school. He needs to cut back. Tell him.
“Okay, I will.” (I do not.)
“You’ll have to FaceTime me every day,” my mom says as we leave.
“Every day! That’s too much.”
I am, however, comforted by the availability.
They gave me a card with a cat meowing Goodbye on its cover. Inside, names and short notes. We’ll miss you terribly! Good luck! Safe travels! Keep in touch! Take pictures!
One note in red ink: I’m still mad at you for leaving. This place is going to suck even more now. <3, Your only real friend here. Un- signed, but it’s Jasmine, of course. And Tim’s: You can still do a lot in the middle of nowhere. I keep the card in the glove compartment, but take it out several times to look at it, studying each individual’s handwriting, whose handwriting I realize I’ve never before seen. Some slanted and optimistic, some heavy and pointed with intensity, some letters so small they withdraw into the paper. My coworkers are finally revealing hidden parts of themselves to me. I take a pen from the compartment and write the date in the corner—May 29, 2013—so my future self will remember.
Correction: They’re not really my coworkers anymore. Just people I used to work with.
What does that make me? An ex-journalist? An unemployed person? A trailing partner?
“You do technically still work there,” says J.
“I’m going to quit. I’ve decided. It was like having Stockholm syndrome. I’m out, I can now see clearly. I’ll find something else.”
“You were pretty miserable.”
Now that we’re on the road, the wind blowing through the open windows, I tell myself, Cut loose from whatever it was you were living in before! Look at the beautiful sky! Onward!
We talk about everything we’re excited to do: Visit our friends in Portland; go through Montana, a place I’ve never been and which he says is beautiful; figure out what Midwesterners eat; see all of the country’s landscape; etc. To finally have a vacation and be free of any responsibility, except to end up at his grand- mother’s upstate New York hometown for his great-uncle’s ninetieth birthday. But that is not for many days. We have time. All the time to do as we please.
Then Ithaca. What will Ithaca be like?
“There’s no better redneck than an upstate New York redneck,” the new managing editor told me. “And make sure you get snow tires.”
Since he asks where the term comes from and because he is driving and I am doing little but sitting beside him, I conduct a bit of research on my phone. The first use of “trailing spouse” appeared in print in the 1981 Wall Street Journal article “Problems of Two-Career Families Start Forcing Businesses to Adapt,” written by reporter Mary Bralove. (An amazingly strange last name.) “By far the majority of those ‘trailing spouses’ are women. The Catalyst report finds that wives tend to relocate for their husbands’ careers. In most cases, such moves are decided by whose salary is higher,” she wrote. It’s true we are moving for his academic career. But I am not a wife. I am not moving because J’s salary is higher. Although it is also true that I do not currently have a salary to speak of.
That word—trailing—evokes a rolling suitcase bumbling along behind somebody, its wheels getting stuck in divots, its body toppling over as it runs into bumps along the path, a dead- weight that needs constant pulling, adjusting, and care.
“You’re not a suitcase or deadweight,” says he.
“Right, so then I’m not a trailing spouse or partner or whatever.” The if-not-that-then-not-that logic does not quite add up, but it doesn’t matter—the point is, I’m refusing to be either.
“Moving is one of life’s top-five stressors,” one of the former co- workers told me at my farewell drinks.
“What are the other four?”
“Death of a loved one, divorce, major illness or injury, and job loss,” he said. “This, according to the experts.”
“What qualifies somebody to be an expert in life stressors?” I yelled. “Like, how we’re all experts in when the next iPhone is coming out?” I was drunk. It was over.
Am I truly experiencing two of life’s greatest stressors? There must be, I believe, as a nonexpert on the topic, greater stressors than these.
I take it back. I won’t quit. I will work for them remotely. I will be the Ithaca bureau. It will be different. Or, at least, it won’t be exactly the same. For one, I won’t have to be physically around them. So that could be better. What do you think? I ask J.
“I think it would be good for you to take a break from thinking about it.”
“A break from thinking? How? Tell my brain: Now, stop. And then magically it works?”
“Enjoy the views!”
“What views? There’s nothing new out there.”
On the road for only four hours; everything outside looks like someplace I’ve seen before.
According to a Pew Research study conducted between 2011 and 2013, 73 percent of Americans say that on a scale from 0 to 10, the importance of working hard in order to get ahead in life is a 10 or “very important.” Only half of the rest of the world agrees. The other half has other priorities. Like what, I wonder, and should I have them, too?
“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving. A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants. A good scientist has freed himself of concepts and keeps his mind open to what is,” wrote Laozi, way back when.
Now J is sighing his big performative sighs.
I deign to look up. “What? What is it?”
“Are you looking at your work chat?”
I shove the phone under my thigh. “No,” I lie. (They’re having another all-hands meeting next week. More layoffs.)
“I saw! Stop doing stuff on your phone. How about it’s your turn to drive?”
“Perfect,” I say. “Sounds perfectly wonderful to me.”
I am in the left lane going five below the speed limit when a truck begins to tailgate and flash its headlights behind us. He is speaking to me in code. I feel like I might throw up.
J tells me to change lanes so the truck can pass.
That’s not possible. I would if I could but I can’t.
J goes: “Now. You’re clear. Now. Clear. Okay. Now.”
It is early afternoon in somewhere, southern Oregon. Not likely high traffic, but from this, my, vantage point, the cars on the wretched freeway are bumper to bumper. We continue on for several more minutes, the white truck taking up the whole rearview mirror, until, finally, it merges into the right lane. The driver flips us off as he passes. My hands are clenched and wet on the steering wheel. When there are no cars in sight, I pull over onto the shoulder. I have lasted thirty-seven minutes total.
“For somebody who likes to be in control of everything, it’s weird you don’t want to drive,” says J.
“I have more control over here, telling you where to go. It’s impossible to know what’s happening from over there. It’s precisely because I don’t feel like I have control that I can’t.”
He shakes his head.
“Don’t! It’s not like you’re teaching me how, and I’m just sup- posed to do it?”
For the next hour, we do not speak.
I got my learner’s permit (for the second time) specifically to help drive across the country. Though I have obtained a document ap- proving me to do so, in the legal sense, I have not been imbued with the ability to maneuver a car, in the literal sense. There were a few times in a parking lot across the street at the junior high with my dad. Those drives were short and smooth. Then the few times when friends in high school and college, being dumb teen- agers, asked me to be the unlicensed designated driver, and being a dumb teenager, I consented. I drove across small college towns or on winding country roads with people in the car singing and screaming, windows rolled down, their white hands petting my face. Their beer breath warmed my neck. Don’t be a bad driver, they said. Don’t be a stereotypical Asian driver, and a woman! I never checked the mirrors or looked anywhere except ahead. It felt like playing a video game I knew I couldn’t win. It felt like driving wild animals to their death. It felt like driving myself to my death.
My dad has said that I have driving in my genes, thanks to him. My younger sister and brother both got their licenses at sixteen. But I hate the way my brother drives, like a maniac, or a teenager, which he is.
“Well, he gets it from your mother,” said my dad.
“How do you know I wouldn’t, then?”
“You’re more like me.”
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2006 data, Asians experienced a rate of 4 motor vehicle fatalities per 100,000 population—the lowest among all ethnicities and races. Whites had a 12.5 per 100,000 fatality rate. The discrepancy between the rates suggests that Asians in this country are no worse drivers than other, and are, possibly, the safest drivers. Then again, this data only really states that Asians do not die as often in car accidents, whether we are bad drivers or not.
In Urban Dictionary, “asian driver” is given its own lengthy definition with thousands of up-votes:
this is being posted as a public service, learned from years of experience. some other sure signs that can help you spot an asian driver are
1 they make a left turn from the right lane
2 both hands on wheel in death grip
3 head never moves from straight ahead posistion ex: like checking mirrors
4 red and gold thing with tassels hanging from rear view mirror,
blocking yet even more of thier already severly limited field of view 5 flower pattern seat
covers and doillie things near rear window 6 NUMEROUS dings scrapes and dents on
bumpers and doors,
tire sidewall is completely scrapped off. this is caused by MANY botched attempts st
if ever involved in accident with asian driver, be forewarned . . . they will not speak english.
Quoted with its racism and xenophobia and typos and all.
I watch him drive. He looks calm. His lips are closed, but a little slack at the corners. He looks like a man who knows what he’s doing and doesn’t have to think about it. He looks like he’s meditating with his eyes open. His dark, dark eyes. Dark like a well, the pupil drowned out. Framed by those long, dark lashes and strong eyebrows. The sun gives his auburn stubble a pretty glow. He’s so good at driving, it’s like watching somebody who is scared of nothing at all. He is beautiful.
I reach over and clasp his upper arm between my hands. He looks over. “What?” he says.
“I’m sorry I got mad. I just don’t like driving.”
“That’s pretty obvious,” he says, and smiles.
What I am is an excellent directions woman. I point and say, Turn here, exit there. He is the one who drives but does not listen, or at least does not comprehend, until I yell, Here, here, here, more frantically jabbing the air. He is also the one who swerves and goes, “Ha ha, see, no problem. We made it!”