I wake to a bunch of messages.
We’re going to stay a little longer.
It’s the first message I see and while I’m surprised, I guess I’m also not. We live by the seats of our pants. They must’ve had a good time. I’m happy for them and. I just hope it’s not because Oliver is doing worse than we even thought and needs more than one night with good friends.
Karen sends this next:
Not sure how long we’ll be away. Can you get our mail for us while we’re gone? Expecting a worrisome bill.
This is striking. Enough, anyway. Get their mail? How long is Karen thinking they’re going to stay?
I’m up. I’m hungover. Maybe I’m reading into things. Maybe none of this is weird at all.
Then, one from Rodney:
Hello! Sorry I didn’t respond last night. We played CUE. Another good one. Got lost in a bottle of wine.
Wow. Just… WOW. Kinda makes me wanna move to a farm.
I’m thinking I was right when I wondered if I was missing a legendary night.
I notice a voice mail. It’s from Morris. Halfway to the bathroom I listen.
“Hey, buddy. How is St. Louis? I’ve seen that Arch before. Can’t remember if I went inside it or not. You know how childhood memories go. So listen, Rodney and I are going to stay at Olly’s farm a little longer. Too much to explore in one night. Don’t really feel like making the drive back yet either. Not used to spending so much time in a car. Can you do us a favor? You don’t have to if you don’t want to but we would be completely grateful if you checked on Townshend while we’re gone. He should be fine for a day or two but even cats need maintenance. Again, I don’t mean to put you out. I apologize in advance. But let me know? And Rodney says hello. Or actually he says he texted you himself. Okay. Call me if there’s any problem.”
I’m standing halfway to the bathroom, looking at my phone for some time. I’m feeling something like anxiety crawling up my shoulders, but not quite reaching my head.
Thing is: everything about that message wasn’t Morris.
I know, at some point, I’m the one who sounds like he’s not himself, standing here accusing everyone I know of being other people. But, really. If there’s one thing I know about Morris, one thing we all know, it’s that he’s never been polite about asking for favors. The Morris I know would’ve left a message like this:
Yo. We’re staying longer. Look after the cat. I owe you one.
Am I losing my mind? Did we analyze the change in Oliver’s personality to such a degree that I’m transferring all that onto my other friends, too?
I call Tracy. I have to. Maybe I’m just feeling left out. Maybe I’m isolated in St. Louis while they’re all on some spiritual wine journey and I just need to hear the voice of a friend.
She picks up right away.
“Hi, Tracy. Are you staying out there, too?”
A beat of silence.
“Nope. Ever has a meeting tomorrow morning, early. I have an audition in two days. So we’re heading back now.”
“How’s St. Louis?”
Silence again. Why do I feel like I’m intruding? Like I’ve stepped into a room full of people who are talking about something I’m not privy to?
“Well, okay,” Tracy says.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean… you know. There was quite a buildup to you guys heading out there. I’m just wondering how it went.”
“It was interesting.”
“Interesting,” I repeat.
“Yes. But we’re heading out now.”
“Okay,” I say. “I fly out in two days. Let’s meet up when I get back? You can tell me all about it.”
“Great,” Tracy says.
We hang up.
I’m feeling a little crazy. Oliver isn’t himself. Morris isn’t himself. And now Tracy…
“She’s with her boyfriend,” I remind myself. And no matter how cool we are, no matter how forward-thinking Tracy and my relationship is (once engaged, now close friends) she does have a new man in her life.
I shake it off. Because I’m pretty sure I’m more upset about the fact that I have a conference to be at in less than forty minutes. I’ll suffer through panels and lectures, deep discussions about topics I have nothing invested in. I’ll spend the day nodding and smiling and counting the hours until it’s over.
It helps that Tracy and Ever have a long drive ahead of them. They have hours spent trapped ahead of them, too. But it’s not till much later that I’m told how that drive goes.
It goes like this:
Ever drives. Start there. None of us have ever known Ever to drive at all. He knows how, he tells Tracy. She’s fine with it. She sits in the passenger seat and they reverse out the gravel drive, smiling and waving to the rest of our friends, Baum and Karen, Morris and Rodney, Connie and Oliver, too.
They don’t say a word the entire ride home. When I later tell Tracy she can’t be serious about this, she looks at me the way people do when they believe they’re the expert, you’re the novice.
She put it this way:
They have a lot to think about on the drive. Feels like they’re seeing the world in a different way. Everything, even something as simple as a rest stop, looks new. They don’t point these things out to one another because it’s understood that they’re sharing this experience. They’re going through this at the same time.
About halfway home, the idea of Oliver’s farm in Michigan has become a little blurry. Tracy imagines Karen still sitting at the kitchen table, still staring at where Oliver spoke for so long last night. But Oliver isn’t in the kitchen anymore. She imagines Karen looking inward, hours on end, maybe for as long as it takes Ever and Tracy to make it back to New York. She imagines Connie standing where she stood when they played CUE, alone now in the living room, not playing any games, just thinking, considering, then reconsidering, too. She imagines Rodney quiet on the front porch, Morris making circles in the gravel drive with the tip of his shoe. His hands are in his pockets. He thinks. She pictures Baum on the back deck, coffee in his right hand, overlooking the fields that have more detail now, whether that’s courtesy of the sun or not. And out in those fields, just past the row of willows, Tracy imagines Oliver himself, a speck of a silhouette to Baum, taking stock of his crops.
Oliver has a utility belt of mason jars in Tracy’s daydream. He’s barefoot and he kneels and he jams his fingers into the dirt and scoops crops into jars that will be labeled with his own sloppy handwriting and eventually tucked into the walk-in pantry in the kitchen.
She thinks of the word traits and shudders the one shiver she feels the entire drive home. The word sparks a memory of one more person in the house, someone, she can’t remember who, sitting in the little green chair next to the bed in one of the bedrooms upstairs.
Is it herself she’s thinking of? Who’s upstairs? Should she and Ever have stayed longer, too? Are they destroying the moment by leaving? Are they cracking some unspoken circle?
Silly as it sounds, it almost feels like they’re walking out on a ceremony they agreed to play a part in.
She doesn’t voice these thoughts. Instead, she views the world, literally, noting everything she sees out the window and how it all makes her feel.
She feels different. She is aware of this. A change within.
But what exactly?
She looks over at Ever behind the wheel. She doesn’t like what she sees. It’s one thing to really notice road signs for the first time in your life, but it’s another to observe a wholly new expression on the face of someone you believe you know so well. It’s not like Ever looks crazy, exactly, it’s more like he’s thought of something, has had a revelation profound enough to alter his physical appearance, the look in his eyes, the lines of his face.
Tracy looks away from him. Tries not to turn his way again for the duration of the drive. At one point, she has to see him, as they’re getting gas, as she watches him walk into the gas station, as she thinks, That isn’t Ever’s step.
Tracy notices these things. We all do. We’re actors. And it’s obvious to her that Ever’s aloof walk has been replaced with something more purposeful, something driven. As if he’s not walking into a gas station, or driving to New York City for that matter, but going somewhere well beyond both.
Yes, Tracy thinks, Ever looks like a man heading to the base of a mountain he’s always wanted to climb. A man stepping toward a specific location she doesn’t know the name of.
They don’t speak when he gets back in. Ever simply starts the car and they’re off again. The American highways beneath them. And all the while, Tracy thinks of Ever’s new walk.
She’s been thinking about why she didn’t get out of the car at that last stop. She could’ve used the bathroom. She could’ve gotten something to eat or drink.
She thinks she knows why:
Tracy didn’t want to see her own new walk.
She feels a burst of anxiety, something so deep and central to her person that she can only equate it with lava threatening to erupt. Then, she squashes it. Easily. With a clear and focused confidence she didn’t know she had.
And like that, she’s okay.
More than okay. She rolls down the window. Lets the fresh air whip against her face and hair.
She thinks of Ever’s walk but this time it makes her smile. Maybe her walk is different now, too. She’s sure it is. And maybe, if she wants to walk the way she’s always walked, if she wants to think the way she’s always thought, she’ll have to play the role of her life.
She’ll have to play Tracy.
The wind coming hard from the Pennsylvania skies, Tracy releases one triumphant, ecstatic howl out the open window.
Then she’s still again. Contemplating everything she hears, everything she sees, every little thing she feels.