Free Spirit. Wanderlust. Soul searching. …I like to think of this as more of a pre-life crisis. What else could compel a “normal” eighteen-year-old girl from a semi-functional family in a small, Minnesota college town to get into her car and drive around the country for two months? Regardless of how bizarre that sounds, this isn’t some impulsive whim. I’ve been planning this little venture for nearly six months now; contrary to all sound advice.
It’s my first day of owning this journal. Not that I’ve ever cared much for journals or diaries, but I thought it might be wise to keep a record. Although, wisdom isn’t something anyone I know would equate with this little road trip I’ve got planned. I’m wary of it myself, but I also know it’s something I need to get out of my system. I’m not driving over 6,000 miles just to sightsee and meet people. While that’s part of it, I see this as a huge personal growth opportunity for me. Hopefully, I’ll be using this journal to keep track of said growth.
This will be my “Walkabout,” to borrow the Australian term. Just another step in the process of me finding myself, and figuring out what I’m here for. I’ve been putting a lot of thought and prayer into my preparations. While part of me is afraid to go off and do all of this alone, that only confirms in my mind that it needs to be done. I don’t like the idea of being afraid of anything. And so, I’m trying an approach I’ve come up with recently. If something scares me I’m going to charge straight into it until, a) I become so used to it that I no longer fear it, or, b) I end up unconscious. Okay, so this plan might need some tweaking. It’s more of a work in progress. Just like me.
Mom has been on edge ever since she realized how serious I am about doing this. I can’t blame her for caring, but I wish she wouldn’t worry. She was the one who pointed out that I was up and running at eight months old, and my very first word was “Bye-bye.” Not “Ma-ma”. Not “Da-da”… “Bye-bye.” If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is.
Of course, my second word was “donut.” So maybe I’m reading too much into that…
Angie smoothed her slick palms down the seams of her scarlet graduation gown. Though dusk was falling, the loss of sunlight only took the barest edge off the early June humidity. Around her pressed hundreds of her classmates, all filed into rows in front of a portable stage that had been erected on one side of her high school football field. While she’d already endured the stifling situation for nearly an hour, the anticipation of having her name called threatened to drive her to the brink of nausea.
She distracted herself by rehearsing her steps in her mind. It was a necessity for someone who had difficulty navigating perfectly flat terrain, never mind the three steps up onto a rickety snap-together stage. For better or worse, it would all be over soon.
“Please God, don’t let me fall,” Angie prayed under her breath. Finally hearing her full name, Angeli, called out, she began her trek. Her anxiety peaked as the rubber of her squared heels caught along the grass, reminding her again of the Senior Prom debacle.
She’d worn these same ill-fated shoes that night. Having no success at finding a date, she’d decided to go stag along with her Somali friend, Millune. Denying her tomboy sensibilities for once, she’d spent hours in preparation for the evening — going to the trouble of coercing her long brown hair into holding curls, donning a shimmering floor-length gown, and even plunging into the foreign territory of wearing makeup. Turning prom into a girls’ night out hadn’t seemed like such a bad idea, up until the Grand March announcer stumbled over Millune’s name and mistakenly introduced the friends as a couple.
Angie could still hear the ripples of laughter and surprised murmuring of the crowd. The error took her attention off her feet just long enough for her to trip on her way off the stage. She missed the railing, and two years of Aikido training kicked in.
Tucking her head, she converted her fall into a front roll, allowing her weight to curve along her bowed arms. Landing unhurt in a crouch on the red carpet, she sprang back to her feet, mind racing for some way of making the epic blunder look more intentional. She then clasped her hands together and raised them above her head in a triumphant gesture, and was met with a roar of applause from the photo-happy crowd. Amid the creeping burn of humiliation, determination had steeled somewhere deep within her. She wanted much more than a laughable existence in an obscure, Midwestern town.
For the last two months, Angie hadn’t heard the end of that disastrous night. Her peers seemed to delight equally in poking fun at her clumsiness, as well as her supposed “outing.” She had yet to decide which was worse: the mocking, or the sympathetic inquiries. If any part of her had been holding out hope of dating while she was still in high school, it died a painful and awkward death at prom.
Oh well. As far as she was concerned, the selection pool had always been shallow. Or at least, that’s what she often told herself to fend off the suspicion there might be something terminally undesirable about her.
Now, in the final moments she would have to see any of these people, she was determined to maintain her dignity.
Angie pushed the past out of her mind as her foot touched the first step. With the stage squeaking under her firm stride, she crossed to the middle of the platform. Managing a smile for the school principal — a stern looking man in a gray suit — she accepted a scrolled piece of paper. This wasn’t the real diploma, of course. That would be arriving in the mail the following week. She planned to be gone by then.
Continuing on to the far side of the stage, she met the second set of stairs and held her breath, counting steps on her way down. One, two, three. Crisis averted.
Relieved to have her feet safely on the ground, she made her way back to her original position to wait out the remainder of the ceremony. As per a new rule, no one would be allowed to throw their graduation caps at the end. Evidently, someone somewhere had put an eye out. As an alternative, her classmates readied streamers and cans of silly string while a favored English teacher took the pulpit to deliver a few final words of inspiration.
When the speaker made mention of graduation caps signifying success and knowledge, Angie’s attention strayed. She didn’t feel successful or knowledgeable. Having completed the requirements to pass high school, she could at least claim a sense of accomplishment. But she had come to think of it as mere survival rather than true success. In this particular rite of passage, the objective hadn’t been to slay the dragon, but simply to avoid being eaten by it for four years. While she technically knew more facts coming away from it than she had going in, she’d accumulated many more uncertainties. What career path should she take? Where would she want to live? How could she make her life count for something worthwhile? What did it feel like to be in love? These questions all seemed critical, and in no way did recalling the square root of Pi prepare her to answer any of them.
An exuberant shout from the teenage mob signaled the finale, snapping her back to reality. The crowd dispersed in all directions amid a blizzard of confetti and streamers, with the majority making their way toward the after-party in the school gymnasium. Angie wasn’t interested in dragging out the goodbyes. After hugging her parents and posing for a few obligatory pictures, she wove herself through the scattering masses. Turning around to a tap on her shoulder, she found herself nose to nose with her best friend, Elsie.
At roughly the same height as Angie, just a few inches shy of six feet, Elsie was an eccentric creature in form as well as demeanor. Her eyes shone a bright and cunning shade of gray, like the surface of a pond after a freeze. Unruly russet hair fell as it pleased to frame her dusky, rounded features, which alluded to a vast and indistinct muddling of genetic heritage. For this particular occasion she’d chosen an elaborate red and gold Mandarin dress to compliment her willowy form. As she leaned in obnoxiously close to Angie’s face, the contrast between her friend’s elegant attire and childish demeanor was downright comical.
“Ahh,” Angie answered flatly.
“You look like crap.” Elsie chirped out, in her usual cheerful tone.
“Thank you.” Angie rolled her eyes. “So are you riding with me?”
“Yeah. The ‘rents dropped me off.” Elsie made a sweeping indicative motion toward the migrating horde of seniors. “Sure you don’t want to stay for the shindig?”
“I’d rather thrust a sharp stick into my eye,” Angie said in a glaringly unexcited tone.
Elsie tapped a slender finger to her chin as she pondered, “We could go to Walmart and I’ll let you push me around in a shopping cart.”
Angie shook her head. “Too risky. They almost banned us for life last time, after your little pillow-bin-diving incident.”
“Killjoy.” Elsie grinned. “Well…we could try an overnighter at the diner. Let’s swing by my house so I can grab a sleeping bag.”
As Elsie spun around to move in the direction of the parking lot, Angie saw a confrontation coming out of the corner of her eye. She shot out a hand and caught her friend’s shoulder. But while a collision was avoided, the near-miss was enough to draw the attention of the passing pack of girls.
Mindy lurched to one side, as though the mere threat of contact with Elsie might result in leprosy. An average-sized girl with a fit build, her flaxen hair fell to just above her waist. Her face was set with fine features, but corrupted by the contempt she wore so readily. The exaggerated dodging movement caused her to strike shoulders with Sarah, an athletic, dark skinned beauty. They were the Beta and Alpha of their pack, respectively. Shadowing the duo were three other girls of similar social status.
“Watch it, Freak Show!” Mindy barked out, indignant.
“Oh, that was original,” Elsie said, with an effortlessness that came from years of practice. “But hey, a lack of imagination ought to come in handy for that ambitious fast food career you have ahead of you.”
“Easy—you just insulted the service industry everywhere.” Angie murmured over her companion’s shoulder, though she made no real effort to keep from being heard. She was more concerned with catching Mindy and Sarah’s gaze with her hardened stare. Posturing stand-offs with this malevolent pair had been an almost daily occurrence since middle school. It was one of the many experiences she wasn’t going to miss.
“You got a problem, fugly?” Sarah focused her hostility on Angie, her ample upper lip curving back into a scornful snarl. She squared her shoulders, flipping back the golden tassel of her graduation cap as she stepped forward in a blatant challenge.
Angie held her ground. “Just you,” she answered, feeling too drained to scrape up a witty retort. She hoped Sarah would interpret her tone as either boredom or arrogance — neither of which could be mistaken for a sign of weakness.
To some extent, Angie knew she’d brought this kind of attention on herself. Functioning as more of a drifter than an actual part of the high school social strata, her conviction to root for the underdog had led her to befriend the most poorly-integrated of her peers. Or, as her mother liked to put it, “collect strays.” Although, when it came to friends like Elsie, it was less of a collection and more of a Misfit Protection Program.
Sarah’s wolfish gaze snapped aside to Elsie. “And what the hell is -that- supposed to be? Couldn’t wait for Halloween?” She extended a finger to indicate Elsie’s ornate dress.
Elsie, in a rare moment, seemed at a loss for words.
“That… is more culture than you’ll probably ever see again.” Angie cut in, mimicking Sarah’s tone. “Don’t you have other places to be…people to torment…small animals to sacrifice?” She leaned forward in emphasis. Her heart rate picked up tempo, readying her for a quick reaction on the off-chance the clash turned physical. Now that there was no risk of expulsion, she couldn’t be sure how far beyond covert shoving and tripping the girl might go.
As their followers began edging around them in a subtle sort of urging, Mindy was the first to back down. Muttering an obscenity the blonde snorted, turned on her heel, and marched off in the direction of the gym. Sarah gave a snort and turned away.
Anticlimactic as ever, Angie mused.
“That’s right—be gone! Before someone drops a house on you!” Elsie jeered, fluttering her hands in a shooing motion before Angie could prod her into moving along. Fortunately, none of their opposition seemed to understand the reference. After a few more disdainful looks and crude insults, the pack moved on as one.
Angie used her hold on Elsie’s shoulder to steer the girl toward the parking lot before any more unpleasantries were exchanged. She refused to allow the minor incident to dampen her sense of relief. As far as she was concerned, she’d just walked off the set of a really bad teen movie and into the rest of her life.
“Ah,” Elsie sighed with an air of refreshment. “What’ll I ever do without them? My senior year is starting to look really boring.”
“Good. It’s not like I’m going to be around for it,” Angie reminded her.
“You know you love me,” Elsie said, latching onto Angie’s arm in a clamorously exaggerated hug.
“Ugh. Get off.” Angie gave her arm a shake, and then pried her friend from her.
Elsie relented with a cackle, only to bolt for the passenger side door of Angie’s aging sedan. “Shotgun!”
Angie shook her head, lacking the energy to engage in a futile discussion about how unnecessary it was for Elsie to call shotgun when she had no competition. Any other day, she might have humored her. “I’m not up for an overnighter. I think I might need to go to the doctor tomorrow,” she said as she opened her door and slid into the driver’s seat.
“Still not feeling too sporty?” Elsie asked, quick to secure her seat belt. She made a show of hooking a hand through the grip bar that was secured to the ceiling just above her window, which she affectionately referred to as the “oh crap” handle. “You know, you probably got it from me. Every time I go to the doctor I test positive for all sorts of fun things. Strep, shingles, mono…malaria. But I don’t actually get the symptoms—they say I’m just a carrier. Like a plague rat.”
“Fan-freaking-tastic.” Angie released a melancholy sigh, rapping her fingers against the steering wheel several times before starting up the car.
Elsie gave her a sugary smile. “I know. God broke the mold when He made me.”
“You sure He didn’t drop the mold -while- He was making you?” Angie narrowed her eyes at her friend. With a glance over her shoulder, she put the car in reverse and whipped out of the parking spot. The sudden action elicited a nervous squeak out of Elsie, effectively putting her on her best behavior for the remainder of the drive.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
In this particular town there were only two places that stayed open after nine o’clock at night, aside from the bars: Wal-Mart, and Gerkin’s. The latter was an all night diner which catered to a variety of patrons. It sat along the main interstate that cut through the town, making it a favorite of truckers. If one happened to be underage and preferred to be sitting down while loitering, this drab little establishment was the place to be.
Angie and Elsie claimed their usual booth in the back corner and were promptly greeted by Cliff, the night manager. Cliff was a tall, thin young man with a pasty complexion and dark hair, which he kept meticulously slicked back. His acrid sense of humor was a source of much banter for Elsie, with Angie enjoying the exchanges nearly as much. Knowing them as regulars, he had their hot teas and plate of French fries marked down before they could ask.
As a counterbalance to ordering very little and staying entirely too long, they always made a point of tipping him well. Although, whether or not he allowed Elsie to best him in their verbal sparring matches often determined whether or not his tip would be awarded to him in the form of masses of loose change.
The two spent the next few hours discussing an art show Elsie had planned for later in the summer, with a random smattering of obscure topics inserted as her attention span waned. Angie had absorbed a great deal from Elsie since they’d met in middle school, most of which resulting in her familiarity with the world of the nondescript geek. Their cache of shared interests included comic books, video games, Japanese cartoons, replica weaponry, and role play. It was a safer, less judgmental world, where the inhabitants were more sensitive and creative, if not socially impaired to varying degrees. Most of the time, the ineptitude could pass as an endearing quality. Particularly to Angie, who preferred it to the backstabbing and manipulation that seemed to be the primary teenage-girl alternative.
Graduation had cut the last tie she had to the suffocating version of reality that high school represented. She should have been giddy over her new-found freedom, but an array of unknowns continued to loom over her.
“You get any news on your Air Force guy?” Elsie deviated at last. For the most part, she shied away from any meaningful conversation. But when she did bother with it, she could be astute.
Angie peered down at her mug of tea, having lost count of how many times she’d refilled it. “It’s sounding like I won’t get to meet Don at the end of the trip like we were planning. They put a Stop Loss on his unit. He’s supposed to let me know for sure in the next few days, but unless he can get an honorable discharge, they’re going to keep him for three extra months.” She was sulking now, and she allowed the fact to slip into her voice.
To anyone else, it would sound naive of her to have become attached to someone she had yet to meet in person. She’d come across Don the same way she had most of the others she intended on meeting on her fast approaching road trip: through a text-based writing community. A favored hobby from the age of fifteen, she had Elsie to thank for introducing her to the pastime. There she had been free to create and share stories. What’s more, she felt closer to some of her online peers than she did to the friends she saw on a daily basis.
Don had been among these online friends, and after the September 11th attacks, she’d discovered the twenty-two-year-old was also an Air Force serviceman stationed in Germany. They began having phone conversations, and she quickly became infatuated with his soft-spoken Arkansas accent. Hopeful over the sense of connection between them, they’d made plans to meet once his service contract was up at the end of the summer. News of the Stop Loss had depressed them both and dashed her fragile hopes.
“I should have taken his offer to fly me to Germany,” Angie said in lament. “Now I’ll probably never get to meet him.”
“Well, you know, it might be for the best.” Elsie fidgeted, picking at a rip in the worn booth cushion. Offering comfort had never been one of her strong suits. “Maybe it wouldn’t have worked out. You said he can be kind of moody, and you aren’t exactly Little Miss Sunshine yourself. Who knows, you might hit it off with somebody while you’re on your trip—”
Angie raised a hand to stop her friend’s reassurances. “I’m -not- looking to start some desperate long-distance relationship. And besides, I’ll have plenty of other things to worry about while I’m traveling.”
“Like…staying alive?” Elsie’s lips curled back in a light smirk. “I wish I could go with you. You’re crazy, though—and this is coming from me.” She quirked a questioning eyebrow. “I mean, I know how boring this town is, but aren’t you overcompensating just a little?”
“Yeah, probably. I can’t seem to talk myself out of it, though. I have to go through with it.” Angie managed a tight smile. “Assuming my mom doesn’t carry out her threat to sedate me before I get the chance.”
Elsie giggled outright. “Can’t blame her. My mom would crap a brick.” She sipped at the remainder of her tea. “I mean, you’ve only met two of these people you’re going to be staying with. Well…and one’s my cousin—I guess he doesn’t count. So that leaves how many?”
“Seven others,” Angie answered matter-of-factly. “Yeah, I suppose it does sound pretty…out there. But I checked them all out, just to be safe. And I know I’ll regret it if I don’t go. I’ve only got one semester left before I’ll have my associates degree and…then what?”
“What do you mean, ‘then what?’” Elsie asked, wringing her tea bag into her cup after draining the last of its contents. “You’ve been taking college courses for like two years now, and you just graduated high school. I’d be grateful to be that far ahead of the game.”
“I know, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with myself. I don’t know what I want—” Angie cut herself short, realizing she was starting to whine. She didn’t have any right to complain, and she didn’t expect her friend to comprehend the upwelling of uncertainty that seized her every time she tried to envision her future. It was all she could do not to turn and run every time someone innocently asked what her major would be. She had yet to decide if the road trip was her way of running away from destiny, or headlong into it.
Finding the hot water pot empty, Elsie reached across the table for Angie’s mug.
Angie yanked her cup toward herself, sloshing a few drops of its lukewarm contents over the rim and across her knuckles. “Negative, Typhoid Mary.” She leered in scolding. “You lost your sharing privileges. Flag down Cliff if you want more.”
Elsie gave a dramatic sigh. “Where is that greasy weasel, anyway?” Defying common discretion, she brought two fingers to her mouth to create a shrill, beckoning whistle. It was late enough that few of the other patrons spared her a glance. Within seconds, Cliff came jogging back from behind the front counter.
“Ladies…anything else I can get you this evening?” He waggled his eyebrows at Angie and deepened his voice in jest. “My phone number, perhaps?”
“More hot water, please.” Angie offered a faint smile as she held up the hotpot. All in good fun or not, flirtation had always been a concept that threw her off. She wasn’t sure if she should view it as a tacky display of guile, or as a legitimate skill she simply had no knack for. Either way, she was certain her ignorance in that area had contributed to her state of perpetual singleness.
“Yeah, I bet you’ve got a nice bachelor pad set up in the dumpster out back.” Elsie resumed her verbal jabbing. “Must be convenient, being able to walk to work.”
“Oh yes, it’s got plenty of glamorous perks.” Cliff quipped back in his typical dry, sardonic tone. “This morning I scraped together a full breakfast -and- I found a perfectly good shoe. Jackpot.” He accepted the container and swiveled on his heels before marching back toward the kitchen.
Elsie looked back toward Angie and grinned. “Too bad Cliff isn’t your type. I don’t think he’d need much encouragement.”
Angie shifted uncomfortably. “I’m pretty sure Cliff hits on everything that moves. You just make it harder for him, what with all of the conversational castrating.” She paused with her mug halfway to her lips, considering a moment before venturing to ask, “So, what exactly is my ‘type? ‘” She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the answer, but she needed a distraction from the sense of gloom that seemed amplified by whatever was ailing her.
Elsie cleared her throat and splayed her hands across the table as though she’d prepared an important announcement. “Beefcake Philosopher,” she said at last, deadpan.
Angie gauged her friend with caution. “Explain.”
“See, I’ve actually given this some thought. Me, I like ’em smart and skinny, with minimal sun exposure. You like the big, strong, manly sort, but you won’t give them a second look if they don’t have brains. And those are hard to come by. Not that it’s a bad thing. There have to be a few of those out there that fit the rest of your criteria. …probably.”
Angie rubbed two fingers against each temple, absently noting how warm her forehead felt to the touch. She would definitely have to get checked out in the morning. “So, you’re saying I’m looking for a smart, tough-guy who can meet my standards without resenting it. Oh, and who’d actually be willing to put up with somebody like me.”
“Set the bar any higher and you’d be looking for somebody with pole-vaulting credentials.” Elsie gave a dour nod. “But like you said, you don’t really know what you want. Give it time and some of that adorable idealism of yours might wear off.”
“Thanks,” Angie said in glib reply. “You should go into counseling one day. I could see you getting paid to tell people when they’re being delusional.”
Elsie formed the thin, crooked smile. “Or, you know, you could always settle for less and end up missing it when the right kind of guy does make an appearance.”
“I take it back—you should go into politics.” Angie chuckled in defeat before realizing she was no longer the focus of Elsie’s attention.
Her cohort had filled the bottom of a water glass with quarters and leveled off the water at the rim. She then pressed a laminated menu to the top of the glass and, in a swift motion, flipped it upside down with her hand under the menu to maintain the seal. Steadily, she lowered the menu and maneuvered until the table took the place of her supporting hand.
Angie watched the trick with detached curiosity. “And you’re doing this to him because—?”
“He’s taking too long,” Elsie answered without breaking her concentration. In another quick motion she slid the glass, transitioning it from the menu to the tabletop with only a small trail of water lost in the process. “Voila!”
Angie shook her head at Elsie’s flair for vindictive creativity. The motion turned out to be a mistake, as it triggered a painful throbbing at her temples. “As much as I’d like to see his face when he finds that, I think I’m going to call it a night.” She scooted out of the booth and made her way to the front of the diner. Elsie gave a disappointed whine, but followed without a fight.
Reaching the front counter Angie laid open her wallet, leafing out a few bills and setting them beside the cash register. A weary young busboy emerged from the back and peered over the ticket. As she waited, Don’s picture grabbed her attention from its place in the transparent inner pocket of her billfold. His sandy-blonde hair was crew cut, detracting no attention away from his strong, clean-shaven jaw and keen blue eyes. Arms folded across his broad chest framed the blue AIR FORCE lettering of an otherwise gray T-shirt.
Beefcake Philosopher — Elsie was right.
Regret twisted in Angie’s stomach and she snapped the wallet closed. Pining over something so unlikely was immature, she reminded herself. And this was no time to start acting her age.
I graduated last night, finally. It was a painfully long-winded ceremony, punctuated by an explosion of screaming and silly string. …and nothing about it meant anything to me. I took one last look at my 370-some classmates and it was confirmed in my mind that they wouldn’t miss me. At least that’s mutual. But it’s alright. That chapter of my life is complete. At least I made it through without embarrassing myself.
This morning I went in to the doctor and tested positive for Mono. Elsie must have given it to me when she drank from my smoothie a couple of weeks ago. In a way, it’s a relief to know I’m not just lazy and out of shape. At the same time, I know it could take me weeks or months to get over it. I’ll have to take it easy, especially for the first part of this trip. Hopefully I won’t get anyone else sick. *Think healthy thoughts* Now, on with exploring/saving the world! Or…something.
With the Arkansas part of my trip in serious question, it looks like all I can do is pray and trust there’s a reason for whatever happens. I don’t know yet what I’ll do if it turns out for the worst. I’ll have to play this by ear and hope that Don keeps in contact with me. So far this isn’t going the way I’d planned, but I’m not going to let that stop me. I need to get out of this town.
Three days left, and counting.