It is probably the universe’s simplest and most confounding utterance, carrying with it, all the weight of possibility.
You can add anything to the end of it. How far something is. How long it takes to get there. How to get there. And where is there? I asked a lot of these questions at college – a small liberal arts school in the suburbs of Los Angeles. At a crossroads town, it was nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Heck of a sales pitch, right? Believe me, with the choking smog, it isn’t exactly paradise.
I considered the same questions I asked as a toddler, such as why the sky was blue. Little did I know, I’d be asking the same type of questions in philosophy class. One day, my professor posited, writing on the chalkboard, why is white horse white? After a week of wrestling with this question, I returned to class with an answer which, to me, made the most practical sense. Instead of engaging in lively debate about the absence of light, or that white horse could be all colors instead of only white. My answer, hence my essay, was one word. I was proud to announce, with my chest puffed out. “Genetics,” to which the class groaned, throwing crumpled pieces of notebook paper at me. I had to know that was coming. The professor frowned, then smiled, and continued his priceless lecture.
I concluded that my $14,000 a year education bought little more than my observances as a child. But I got to say, furthering my education did more than enough to spark my curiosity. Dear college, thank you for my keen analytical mind that now finds me an unemployed aspiring writer. Hence, I wondered even more. Years later, I recalled a weekend jaunt to Palm Springs during Spring Break of my freshman year, in fact I pondered the whole of my college experience, and like a mad rush, how things can turn on a dime.
I could feel the sun warming my skin through the open top of my red convertible MG Midget. I called her a chick magnet. She was my faithful companion until my junior year when I blew the engine in an ill-advised street race in Pomona. Sadly, I couldn’t afford to rebuild or replace the heart of Midge. However, that day, heading out to the popular oasis of fun and debauchery, she was alive and well crossing the desert along the I-10, the San Bernardino Freeway. Life in the fast lane, we were gleaming, shimmering and passing clumps of fast moving traffic.
My temporary companion, Chrissy stood up on the passenger side digging her feet into the leather seat; I was nervous she would roll out of the back end of the car. Wind blew through our hair. She waved her hands wildly crouching on the seat, singing along to the Go-Gos, “We got the beat,” at full volume. The dashboard vibrated from the speakers which hissed with static on the high notes. Her twisting, flailing body absorbing every ounce of excitement. Then, careless with her hands, she knocked her L.A. Dodgers ball cap into the wind. It went flying out of the back of the car. Then, with a pathetic pout, she begged me to turn back to get it.
“It ain’t gonna be there,” I said, dreading the decision to cut time off our valuable vacation. “It’s gonna keep blowing with the wind.”
She looked pitiful, slumped down in the seat with her arms crossed, dirty blonde hair nearly covering her hazel eyes; her bangs were too long. I pulled over to the side of the road to talk her out of it, even offering to buy her another one, saying, “It’s just a hat.” That was a mistake.
She looked at with me narrow eyes. The proverbial if looks could kill. “My dad gave it to me when I was a kid,” she growled.
I saw our Break becoming a break-up if I didn’t comply. We sat in silence for a few more minutes, as I wondered why I invited her. She wasn’t my first choice for a date, a gangly, spindly waif of a girl, but cute and funny. That was my first impression. While I contemplated my next move, she took out a bottle of baby oil, poured a few drops in her hands. It emitted a sweet odor and took me back to summer days at the public pool back home in Nebraska. All the white girls tortured their skin for a bronze hue, one that I already had. She smeared the thick liquid over her bare arms, torso and legs, any skin that wasn’t covered by the string bikini top. The rest of her was clad in a pair of jeans cutoffs and worn out Birkenstocks.
“That’s just as good as cooking your skin,” I said.
She ignored me, grabbing a pair of Wayfarer sunglasses from her woven straw tote sitting in the small space behind her seat. Peeking over her shades, she gave, as her sassy reply, “so?”
Finally, I said “fine. We’ll go back and get the hat.”
I gunned the engine, jamming my red beauty Midge into gear, letting the wheels spin, Chrissy sat up with glee. “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. You’re my hero,” she screamed in my ear.
In pressing the gas pedal to the floor, fumes wafted through the interior, which for some reason set me back at ease until I began to pull back onto the freeway. My heart leapt. I nearly sideswiped an eighteen-wheeler. Its horn blared, while the truck driver waved his hand and yelled obscenities out the window. As if the throng of traffic wasn’t bad enough, people drove like maniacs in Southern California. Going back, we passed Mountain View Avenue, far enough along the trail between ‘San Berdoo’ and Loma Linda, giving us about a half-mile stretch to search. Getting out of the car, I let her drive Midge slowly along the shoulder while I scanned the roadside for the hat. The bright blue color should have stood out like a sore thumb among the tawny drying weeds and sand. I had a pretty good idea of where it landed, I hoped.
“Slow down,” I said. “It’s around here somewhere.”
Like I always believed, the Dodgers picked nice bright team colors. Chrissy spotted it like she was a homing beacon. Must have been some weird psychic connection. It had blown nearly 100 yards from the road. We had spent nearly 20 minutes of a slow grinding search, and I nearly had had enough. My polo shirt stuck to my back. My throat itched, and my lips were dry as fuck. She gave me a dumb smile beneath her shades. After parking Midge, she got out, swinging the door open, and ran up to give me a hug. Her soft skin made me forget my pains.
I placed the hat back on her head, pulling it low down over her eyes. “Now don’t lose that thing again,” I said. She was lucky. It was caught on a friendly flimsy weed. If the wind had been blowing stronger, it probably would have ended up in Mexico that day. Her tight grip around my shoulders made me self-conscious. I needed a shower. The dust collected on my face leaving an outline around my own sunglasses. She took a kerchief from her bag. Pouring her water bottle, she wet it. She lifted my sunglasses, wiping my face. She said, “how’s that?” A quick peck on my lips, I could taste spearmint.
Seeing our duffle bags in the so-called backseat, in a flash, my mind wandered back to that morning when I was getting ready for the trip before I had gone to pick up Chrissy. My mother called to wish me safe travels. “Vaya con Dios, or go with God.” While pulling Midge out of the barn and rolling down the top, random images of home floated through my head. That’s when I knew mom was thinking about me. I could hear the phone ring from the carport, and I ran back to the apartment, reaching through the open kitchen window. I grabbed the receiver. Without hesitation, like we were already in mid-conversation, I said, “Hey mom. Don’t worry. It’s a short trip.”
“I know honey. Be careful,” she said. “But have a good time.” She paused for a moment. The silence was unnerving. I thought she had hung up, or we were disconnected.
“Mom, mom, are you there?” I said.
“Yes… Yes. Still here. I just get this feeling, like you’re going to have a good day and a bad day. I don’t really know.”
“What?” I exclaimed, frustrated. “Why do you have to say shit like that. Now you got me wondering.”
“Don’t talk to me that way, Franky. Don’t use those words with me, you know I don’t like it,” she said. “Going to college, you think they would teach you better.”
“Sorry mom, it slipped,” I said. “Now you got me worried.”
“I didn’t say it would be bad-bad,” she said. “You’ll be fine honey. Just call when you get there. I love you.” Click. This time it was clear she had hung up. She never said good-bye on the phone because she said it sounded too final. I held the phone until I heard that annoying busy signal. What did bad-bad mean? I wondered.
Chrissy and I returned to the car, and she asked if I wouldn’t mind her driving for a while. “Yeah,” I said that it’d be OK, though a nervous wash came over me. What could be the harm, thinking that losing the hat was all ‘the bad’ that could happen that day? Chrissy, leaned into me again, pressing her oiled body against me, saying, “Anyway, I think Midge likes me, and maybe someone else does, too?” She winked, then dangled the keys in front of her. “I’m in control. Ha-Ha.”
“If you say so,” I said. “We still got a long way to go. Just keep her around 80. I don’t need another ticket.”
I got in the passenger seat, and settled back, kicking her straw tote aside to stretch my tired legs, taking a few more swigs out of the water bottle, and thinking life was pretty good. Not a bad first date. A few unexpected surprises, but good. Then there was that nagging wonder.
“What’s the first thing you want to do when we get there,” Chrissy said, fluttering her eye-lashes and blushing. “I know what I wanna…” A random gust popped up out of nowhere, kicking up the desert dust. It lifted Chrissy’s Dodger cap up into the air. It twirled around over the highway, getting away. By instinct, she turned to try to catch it, taking a few steps onto the interstate, in a sudden burst of traffic, and then…
Some things in life make you wonder.