Setting My Past on Fire 7:
There’s this scene from the end of one of my all-time favorite movies, Cast Away. (Spoiler Alert) Tom Hanks, who after being trapped on an island for four years, miraculously makes his way back to his life in Memphis. But as he soon finds out, life keeps moving on whether you’re there to experience it or not. His girlfriend has married and has two children. The life they had planned together no longer a possibility, he has no idea what he’s going to do with his new reality. Okay, now fast forward to the last scene, Hanks’ character, Chuck, pulls up to a four-way stop in Neece, Texas, a tiny town west of Amarillo, in the panhandle, and shuts off his car. With a bottle of water in one hand and a map in the other, he gets out and begins unfolding the map on the hood of his car. A beautiful woman in a pickup truck pulls up and, noticing that he’s lost, stops and offers him his options. “I Got it,” he says.
“Good luck, cowboy,” she says and drives off. Once again, he is all alone, standing in the middle of nowhere, left to decide his own fate. (Cue the movie’s heart-wrenching theme music.) With the dust from her truck still in the air, Chuck walks into the middle of the desolate intersection and turns every which way, hoping for some sort of sign. Cut. Freeze right there. On day seven of my journey across this country to escape my past, I found myself in that same spot. No, not in Texas, but at a gas station in Aurora, Illinois.
Minutes before, I had just left my sister’s house after a brief overnight visit. While I stood beside my car, filling my tank, I pulled up Google Maps on my phone. Although I had sold everything I owned and left my home in Pennsylvania, I literally had no idea where I was going. My only instinct was to go west. Since I was a teenager, The West had always called to me. And yet for the past 35 years, I had ignored the call, playing it safe in the Midwest, following a job in the South and eventually making my way to Delaware and the suburbs of Philly. So now at age 50, come hell or high water, I was determined to go west. But where?
If I went north on I-90, I could make it to Minneapolis by sundown. If I headed due west on I-80, I could be in Omaha, and then onto Denver the next day. Both were places I’d already been to. And I wanted to see places I’d never been. Albuquerque? Eh. Standing there looking at my car, which, not by accident was the exact same make, model and color my late girlfriend Meredith had driven, I was taken back to the day we met.
Sitting across from her at her desk during my interview with the University of Delaware, I knew within minutes I had to work for this woman. She was articulate, whip smart and she practically glowed with an unbridled positivity. Before long, I was pulling from every relevant story and interesting anecdote I could think of to impress her, sharing with her my love of travel and all the places I had visited or lived in for my work.
“Before today, I’ve been to 37 states,” I bragged. “Today, Delaware makes thirty-eight.”
“Thirty-nine,” she quipped without missing a beat, pointing to herself, waggishly reveling in her one-upmanship.
“Oh, but I only count it if you stay overnight,” I stipulated.
“Me too,” she shot back.
I lowered my head, playfully submissive in defeat, then perked up sheepishly to add, “Well, South Dakota is high on my list.”
“Been there,” she erupted in laughter, carving a notch in the air with her finger.” This is going to be fun, I remembered thinking, shaking my head and smiling without a word. I know now that at that moment, we were thinking the same thing. We were going to make an unbeatable team.
The gas pump handle made that popping sound, indicating my tank was full. I hung the handle back on the pump, screwed the cap back on my tank and shut the hatch. Back behind the wheel, without hesitation I mapped the closest city in South Dakota. Sioux Falls, 8 hours 30 minutes. “Done,” I said, and drove off. Minutes later, headed west on I-88, I got on Air B&B and booked a room in a private home in downtown Sioux Falls. I would have done anything to work for her, I thought after that first meeting. And eventually done anything to be close to her. And as trivial as it seems, I would have done anything to be close to her again.
After a brief stop for lunch in Iowa City, Iowa, I was back on the road, determined to make it there by sundown. Three hours later, with minutes to spare, I checked into my room and after a few suggestions from my host, I walked toward restaurant row as night began to fall, the sky ablaze with orange and electric pink. It was a beautiful warm, summer evening and I couldn’t bear the thought of eating inside. So I sat down at a sidewalk table outside an eclectic bistro to have a glass of wine and take in the scene. Lit up with colorful neon and lights strung over the sidewalk, restaurants and bars were abuzz with hungry patrons, eager to unload about their busy days to family, friends and lovers. After a long day on the road, I was just happy to not be in the car. Staring at the menagerie of colors dancing through my half empty glass of cabernet, the image looked like an abstract painting, lulling me into a trance.
Surrounded by people, I had never been more alone. No friends. No family. I knew only three people west of the Mississippi. I might as well have been sitting on an uninhabited island. My heart sank, thinking back over the past two years.
When I first met Meredith, I hadn’t realized just how unhappy I had been in my marriage for years. Something just clicked with us, and I saw a glimpse of what happiness could look like. I hoped to be happy with her, even though I knew the odds were stacked against us. But I had no idea just how badly those odds were stacked. Foolishly, since the day my wife had killed her, I’d been hoping for a chance to do it over. To make different choices. For a chance for them both to be alive and well. But I knew that hope was an impossible dream, a fantasy of grief.
Finishing dinner and my third glass of wine, I stumbled back to the house and up the stairs to my room. Opening the door, I was welcomed with a cool breeze and the droning hum of the window air conditioner. Not even bothering to change or pull back the covers, I flopped onto the bed and reached for my computer. Deciding it was the perfect melancholy movie for a melancholy evening, I began streaming Cast Away. Barely making it past the opening part where Chuck’s girlfriend, Kelly, dropped him off at the airport on that fateful night before Christmas, I dozed off.
Two hours later, something woke me up. I looked over at my screen, as it all began to sink in for poor Chuck. The rain coming down outside, a glass of scotch in his hand. “…I know what I have to do now,” he told his friend. “I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?” With a sigh, I closed my laptop and rolled over. A single tear rolled over the bridge of my nose and onto the pillowcase.
In the morning, the sun cresting the horizon, I packed and started the car. “Thirty-nine,” I said, pulling away from the curb while carving a notch in the air with my finger. “Thirty-nine.“