Kara shivered in not quite sleep. The fatigue of many miles driven had conspired against her. The rain drummed incessantly in her ears while the cool air of the lakebed country nagged at her body. Her muscles were cramped from too little room in the back of the brown Subaru. Why the hell am I doing this? If time had passed since she had driven off Route 97 south of Lava Butte to rest, she could not tell. She opened her eyes. Water undulated darkly down the windshield, disfiguring the world outside her all-wheel-drive hatchback. Sitting up, she pressed her forehead against the back of the driver’s seat. She shivered. The day had been warm when she’d left Portland.
Hunched in the cramped space, she pulled on a faded white sweater she’d been using as a pillow. She fumbled through a cargo bag for her black cotton tights and put them on. He had given the tights to her, back when she’d been so attracted to him. Am I now? Still? She sighed. Feelings fade. Love lives, then dies. Has it? Her hands rested on her thighs, drinking in the softness of the tights against the hardness of her quadriceps. She had worn the tights around their apartment because he had told her once that they were sexy. His hands would caress them before he’d ease them down around her knees and kiss her tummy, his tongue licking over her groin. Kara shook her head. Not now. She reached for the odd, mesmerizing, frustrating, maddening map. The damn map. She clutched it against her chest, lay back, and closed her eyes.
She longed to stretch. My legs are too long. Why aren’t they retractable? Comfort eluded her. Kara was tall and, depending on whose truth prevailed, either skinny or slender. He’d called her “scrawny” and “too thin” once. No. I’m lean. I’m slender. I’m not “scrawny.” I’m … I’m … god damn it, I’m supple and graceful and slender. I’m fucking hot, damn it. She sat up, pissed. At him. At the map. At the rain. At the cold. At everything.
She piled some of the stuff beside her onto the front seats to make more room — the cargo bag; the big blue beach towel; a small leather case with an old iPod she used as a backup hard drive and accessories; a canvas bag filled with biking clothes; her “healthy back” one-strap leather go-bag crammed with digital cameras and iPad and MacBook and phones; and more assorted clutter that called the back of the hatchback home. She had a MiFi, a solar panel that enhanced the battery, and a cigarette lighter adapter for the power cord. The laptop, tablet and, cameras were her only extravagant possessions besides the mountain bike on the roof rack. She’d built it herself.
Dad the Engineer and her brothers had taught her tools before she could ride a bike. She had a photograph in a black plastic frame from Walmart. It showed her at four years old, her face wrinkled with distaste, her hands covered with grease, holding a bicycle chain with outstretched arms as it were a nasty snake. A mechanical family. She fixed things — a doorbell once, a toaster once, her bicycle — before her first kiss at a pre-teen party at Johnny Blevins’ house. Afterward, she fixed the derailleur on his bike. She got no kiss for that. He never kissed her again. But a few times in high school, he had stopped by Dad the Engineer’s garage. He’d asked her if she could figure out why his carburetor was coughing. And if she’d adjust the timing on his pickup another time. He’d looked at her in a funny kind of way. She never figured out what that look meant. What was it?
She got out of the Subaru. The rain struck her face softly and wet her short, dirty blonde hair. She closed her eyes, licked her upper lip, and tasted the rain. Why did I do that? The rain soon chilled her, so she climbed back inside. She rearranged her gear. She lay down on her back, diagonally across her shelter, head bumping the hatchback door, her legs between the seats. Better. I can stretch my legs. She slipped a cargo bag under her knees as a bolster. Much better. Much, much better. She closed her eyes, hoping for comfort.
She slept fitfully. She dreamed she could hear each rain drop die in a tiny explosion against the metal canopy over her. She dreamed of symphonies as the squall swept over the car and sang throatily against the roof. She dreamed of the petite, dancing notes of a lone piccolo as the rain diminished to a few staccato drops. She dreamed of long, bright days and longer, loving nights. She did not dream of answers. Only of questions forming.
Kara woke just after midnight. Lightning married the sky to the ground in sharp, hot flashes. Thunder returned. Rain fell steadily but not heavily. She sat up, turned on the interior light, and looked in the rearview mirror. Her hair was tousled. Hazel eyes flecked with green stared at her. The dusty tracks of dried tears trailed down her cheeks. Did I cry? I don’t remember crying. She liked her face. Mom’s pretty face. She snapped off the light. I miss Mom. Her mother had taught her to play the piano. But she had died when Kara was nine years old. It had been the only time she’d seen Dad the Engineer cry.
She leaned against the side door and took hold of her toes, legs out straight, to stretch her calves. She enjoyed that, the feeling of kinked muscles unkinking. She liked her legs and took care of them. Her first coach had preached stretching as much as weight training. Kara liked the hardness of her body, the result of subtle sculpting with weights and rigid adherence to a low-fat diet. She liked wearing tight clothing that hinted at the latent muscularity of her arms and shoulders and thighs. She’d always worked out in front of mirrors, watching her muscles contract and release. She never considered it to be narcissism; rather, she appreciated watching her muscles perform their functions. My body works well. It lets me ride hard.
Sometimes he offered to massage her legs, but that kindness usually revealed itself as mere prelude to sex, an artificial foreplay. She wished he’d do it just as decent muscle therapy after she’d had a long, hard ride. That would really be caring. She imagined someone — him, hell, anyone — massaging her legs. Renewing her legs, refreshing them, getting them ready for the next day’s multi-K workout. They deserve better. Her hands kneaded her calves. She lowered her forehead to her knees to stretch her back. What the hell am I doing here? I should be back in Seattle. She looked out the window into the dark, sugar pine forest that surrounded the Subaru, hiding a half mile off the highway. She shivered again.
Kara had driven to Portland Friday night and stayed in a small motel off Burnside Avenue. She made the six-hour drive at least once a month. Dad the Engineer had preached that change is as good as a rest — when needed and appropriate. So she escaped Seattle — let’s be honest, I got away from him, too — for the freedom of solitude in Portland. She loved her Saturdays in the stacks at Powell’s. She had money — she worked long hours and invested much of her income with great care — to flee Seattle and buy books. Lots of books. She’d wandered through the bookstore and added several books for the growing stack on her night stand. Having books unread meant tasks to be completed. Always have a project, Dad the Engineer had cautioned, so Kara read voraciously.
Walking through the little room with the travel books, she had found a folded Rand McNally highway map on the floor. Something about the map kept her from returning it to the display. The title read “West Central United States.” Odd. She’d seen Rand McNallys that covered several states but never a region carved out of the middle of the far West like that. The map rested warmly in her hand. It was silent but oddly communicative and irresistible, so she bought it. Nothing had been irresistible for a long time. In Seattle, the relationship had lost its fervor, its energy, its compelling newness. Hasn’t it?
Kara had left Powell’s and walked down East Burnside and up 9th Avenue to the welcoming red façade of Fuller’s, a diner where she’d parked. She’d sat in front of a cheese omelet that had grown cold as she examined the map. It covered a region south and east of Portland, east and north of Los Angeles, north and west of Four Corners in Utah, and south and west of Billings, Montana. She’d dwelled on Oregon, looking at the blue, red, and light brown highways and the gray “unimproved or dirt roads” and the green forests and the bright blue sea and lakes and the thin blue rivers and the pink borders around national forests and the cities in a big bold font and the nowheres in a tiny lightface font. She needed a holiday. From him. From everything. All those colors ought to be explored. She asked herself, Where would you like to go today?
Sitting in the car, Kara had thought of work, of living together, of being apart, of being together again for the sake of a needed togetherness in her life. Was this love? Is this what love became when it fell silent, when it became only rituals and routines? Options had been reviewed. Dad the Engineer had always insisted on having Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D if Plan A, the preferred option, hadn’t worked. It was early Saturday afternoon. She had time. Tuesday’s deadline could wait. I can do that work anywhere. Her wireless MiFi and her iPhone and satellite phone could send her productivity anywhere from anywhere. Kara hated radio shadows, the tunnels and valleys and repeaterless landscapes of so much of the West that left a cell phone addict inventing profanities. Always the Girl Scout. Semper paratis. Kara had booted her Mac, guessed at the URL for Rand McNally’s home page, and typed:
It’d worked. She’d searched the catalogue but could find no listing for a “West Central United States” map. That had mystified her. The map did not exist. But it did! It sat in her lap. She’d fingered the paper. The map was tangible.
When she climbed into her Subaru, she hadn’t really decided anything. It just kind of happened. She’d driven up Burnside, and without thinking about it, turned south on 405. She’d refused to consider consequences as she followed I-5 south. At a rest area south of Portland, she’d opened the map and looked at Oregon, then Nevada, then Utah. She’d pursed her lips, grabbed her iPad, and quickly touch-typed an e-mail, which she preferred over texting. Typing with thumbs never made sense to her.
hi, hon …
i’m not coming home tonight … i’m really tired and i need some rest … i think i’ll take a little drive and find a motel tonight … maybe cruise around the deschutes sunday or just drive somewhere … i should be back monday night … well, maybe tuesday night …
i’ve got the mac so i’ll work a little at the motel … i can get most of it done … i’ve done all the formatting for the site, all the video’s in place, just need to finish the links and touch up the grafix …
i know the deadline’s wed., but i’ll make it … you know i always do … yep, that’s my specialty … making deadlines .. haven’t missed yet … so don’t worry …
don’t forget to feed petty … and we ought to start giving him his heart worm pills again … it’s that time of the year again, you know … and you forgot my chocolate bunny this year … shame! … i need to do some thinking too … you know that … i figure just getting out on the road for a while will clear my head a little … i really need that right now … i’ll be okay … and don’t forget to water my plants, will you, please …
luv ya 🙂
Kara’s finger had poised over the send button, not moving. Am I lying? Maybe a little. She tapped the button and sent the e-mail. Maybe a lot.
She had turned east on Route 58 at Eugene. She’d driven comfortably into the darkening of day’s end. Hours later, driving had become a chore. She’d turned off the highway and driven through darkness on a dirt road. She found a turnout in the trees out of sight from curious or malevolent strangers. A touch of fear accompanied roadside solitude at night, but she’d never admit it. Never.
Now here she was in the middle of nowhere and she didn’t like being alone so what the hell is going on? I’m tired and I just want to go to sleep and drive back in the morning. Her monthly enchantment at Powell’s had vanished. I was raised in Iowa. I should be used to nowhere. But she had never really adjusted to rural isolation and left to go to college in Seattle. Or did I never adjust to such a dysfunctional family? She hunted for her old plastic camping mug insulated with blue ensolite and gray duct tape. Dad the Engineer would have applauded her ingenuity if he’d lived — apply available resources rang truest in her memory of her father’s dicta. Like her brothers, she’d sought her father’s approval in acts of mechanical creation and adaptation. Build it well, and he would grudgingly bestow approval. When she’d fallen in love with the written word while smitten with her ninth-grade English teacher, Dad the Engineer had pored over her writing, horrified by her seedling desire to create fiction. He’d counseled her into a world of hard facts, objectively displayed, neatly arranged. Thus half of her dual degree — the half in journalism. Write tight, write bright, she’d been taught. She had discovered the effectiveness of the Web as a profitable means of instruction earlier than most and became a creator of Web pages for a consultant — him. He specialized in intranet sites for corporations that wanted online training materials. Him. Working with him by day, screwing him by night. Three years now. Day after day. Night after night. His company had expanded into websites for schools that wanted in on the bandwagon of online courses. Lately they had begun to produce software shells for MOOCs — massive open online courses. She had become an innovation engine for distance learning. Kara had grown with the company, making a helluva lot of money.
She frowned at the brown, muddied streaks inside the mug. I should hose this thing out some day. She drank the rest of the lukewarm herbal tea she’d brewed earlier and listlessly tossed the mug onto the front seat. She tried to get comfortable again. No such luck. She took a small black MagLite from her bag, turned it on, and opened the map. The light stabbed at the silent map. La Pine, not far from where she had parked, earned only barely readable small print — a little nowhere lost in a big nowhere.
Kara cracked open the side window and inhaled cooler, fresher air. She had decided to take her bike at the last minute before departing for Portland. She didn’t know why, and that puzzled her. She never had taken it along before. Now it just sat on its rack on top of the hatchback, getting soaked despite its expensive cover. I bet it’s pissed, too. That new chain lube had better work. She took good care of her bike. Maintenance, saith Dad the Engineer, prevents breakdown of available resources. Why’d I bring it? Some tiny and irritating tension in her throat and chest would not let go. The map lay beside her. Condensation on the windows blurred what was real and what was not. The hatchback shook slightly. The wind had risen. Where is reality when I really need it?
Kara wanted to sleep. She wanted to crawl beneath her down coverlet in her own bed in her own home where she could stretch and toss and turn and let tense muscles release. She wanted this, this whatever the hell it is, to go away. Sleep had been her habitual escape from melancholy. But the busy fingers of something knifing at her confidence would wake her, only to find him snoring or inattentive.
She closed the window against the rain and piled all her unused clothing and her canvas and cargo bags at one end of her mobile metal tent. She braced her feet against the rear hatchback door and wriggled to get comfortable. She put the MacBook in her lap, booted it, and opened a new file. She pulled down “Save as …” from the menu, stopped to think, then named the file “Specifications, map.” Analysis calmed her. She methodically typed in everything she’d thought about the map since leaving Portland.