“You don’t really go to Waffle House,” she said, expertly steering us through the snow. “You end up there. And that’s exactly where you’re about to end up.”
I laughed at Sarah, the kind local barista who, when her cafe closed up early, offered to drop me off somewhere I could stay warm during the blizzard. She was 26 with pink and purple hair and beautiful brown eyes. She had a girl-next-door dorkiness about her despite being extremely pretty.
Sarah worked a corporate job for 8 years before realizing she wasn’t happy, so she quit, got an easy gig slinging coffee around, and now reads books and plays video games, happy with her flexible schedule and work-life balance. She answered my questions with patience and enthusiasm: yes, she liked living here; no, she didn’t want kids; no, it didn’t usually blizzard like this. She kept the radio down low while I was in the car with her but I could still hear the 90sesque punk rock music playing lightly in the background.
Why Waffle House? Everything else in the city was closed, and while I’d have happily checked into my Airbnb room just two hours early, I couldn’t get the host to message me back and didn’t want to assume she wouldn’t mind. So, with blizzards making hiking impossible and simply standing outside precarious and painful, I basically just needed to go sit somewhere.
And as I sat inside of the Waffle House, I couldn’t help but remember other strange occasions when I’d visited the place: at about 4 AM when Chris and I had finished moving 4-5 car loads of belongings from our old apartment to our new home; around 2 AM with Charlie on our late drive home from a shared Thanksgiving in Mobile; and at 8 one scary Sunday morning when I met my first ever stalker — love you, Frank!
Anyways, I was now living through my 4th weird Waffle House encounter: seeking shelter during a wild Midwestern blizzard that had roads closing down and generators exploding. (Literally — I heard and watched one of these explosions happen from out the cafe window, before it closed… a crazy-looking cloud of fast grey smoke had gone ghosting through the air and with an indigo sky and strokes of white everywhere, the whole scene was hauntingly beautiful.)
I listened quietly as Waffle House cooks and waiters talked about where they were from, what the weather was like there compared to here, and how FEMA checks whether or not Waffle House has closed down to gauge the intensity of a severe weather situation. Smiled at that. I also heard them tell every person who entered that the power was out, meaning “no coffee and no waffles and no toast.” I had asked about the hashbrowns when I’d first been told this and the lady’d said that, with those being a grill item, they were possible.
As I ate mine — smothered, covered, and capped — I watched snow drifting ’round the window and reflected on the trip so far… how I’d made it all the way out here without injuring myself or my friend’s car and how I’d spent the whole entire weekend with James. More on him later…
Later on yesterday afternoon (once my 2 PM check-in time had rolled around), I made it to my Airbnb host’s house — this cute Asian girl speaking broken english and moving about quickly. She showed me to my room, where I set all of my cold and wet things down, and then when her roommate got home, he leaned into my doorway to greet me. I’d just taken a soul-reviving hot shower and was wearing a ponytail and baggy pajamas. His name was Jason, so he laughed when I introduced myself as Jace.
Jason (who was wearing scrubs) looked young (30s) and radiated kindness, quickly offering to charge my phone in his car (the power was out all over town) and then bringing me a flashlight a few minutes later. Maybe ten minutes after that, he returned yet again and offered to share his food with me: “No sense risking your life to go out there and find a sandwich,” he smiled. I bet you’re the BEST doctor or nurse, I thought to myself, assuring him I had plenty of food with me already but thanking him warmly.
Finally, I was alone and under thick floral covers with easy-to-reach snacks laid out on the table beside me: bananas, chips and hummus, and Annie’s organic protein bars. I had accepted the reality that all I could really do today was relax, and this felt very weird to me: no work, no school, no writing (because the laptop was dead)…
With my phone at about 2%, I texted my mom and a few others, informing them that the power was out and asking that they please not worry if they didn’t hear from me for a while.
I set the phone down then, lifting the lid off the garlic hummus and opening my new comic book, Persepolis. I’d initially felt stressed by the idea of having nothing to do and of doing nothing, but as I began reading the first page and tasting garlic on my tongue, I thought to myself, this is really nice — I feel so at ease! Nobody needs me right now and even I have no requests for myself at this time…
There was a colorful flicker just then and a quick flurry of background noises; I looked up from my book and across the bed and saw my phone, which I’d preemptively plugged into the wall, light up. I could also hear the heat kicking on. Power was back.
I felt sad because there was a lot I could and should do now: a research report, three story critiques, a shit-ton of subjective verb Spanish assignments… I was genuinely surprised by how disappointed I was.
So I looked back down at my comic and reached for another chip. “I’m just going to pretend it’s still out for a while,” I said quietly.
Before the Blizzard
When I drove past a sign that said “Mississippi” on Monday, it was raining softly and day was just being to dawn. I couldn’t help but cry a little as the word fell long and blurry behind me and the car I was in.
It wasn’t because I gave a particular shit about Mississippi that I was crying; it was that I’d never been there before, that I was embarking on another exciting journey within this long dream, and that I was – bravely and boldly and entirely on my own – going somewhere again. I feel good about myself, really good, when I do these kinds of things.
Anyways, I got into Colorado late Tuesday night after crying at the beauty of a bay in Oklahoma and then pulling off on the side of the road in Kansas to cry in front of a group of cows — hundreds, probably a thousand of them were all cooped up in these stupidly small rectangles that positively reeked of shit. “I’m so sorry,” I said to them over and over again, weeping and wailing and wishing I could do something more, anything. I guess I’ll just keep on not eating you, I thought sadly, because doing that alone didn’t feel like anything near enough.
What you need to know, because it ended up being a real trial for me, is that – towards the end of the road trip (day 2) – I found myself staring over at my pumpkin spice mug again and again, knowing how empty it was and thinking about how, since it was, I could technically try to pee in it.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, folks, and I really cringed at the thought of doing what I’m suggesting to you I may have done.
Let me explain: I’d been on a country road for nearly an hour, a noticeable need to pee quickly evolving into a preoccupying and then oppressive survival situation. But the thing was that Kansas had precious few gas station bathrooms while boasting lots of sad cows and wispy cotton fields and silly windmills.
So when I crossed over into Colorado (hollering with joy!), I believed things would suddenly change for me — but coming in on the rural eastern side of the state, I quickly discovered that there were still no gas stations, no grocery stores, and no coffee shops. And making this realization was extremely very depressing. Yes: extremely and very… no comma.
And I KNEW the mug thing was a terrible idea — I couldn’t even stand the thought of it (or clearly imagine the logistics of successfully using it)… so I started looking at trees: the sizes of trees, the locations of trees; were they thick and tall, easy to hide behind? And were they located behind or in front of fences?
This location bit mattered greatly because I couldn’t imagine pulling onto the shoulder of the road, unbuckling, getting the door open, stepping out, closing the door, and then locking the car behind me with two quick pushes of a button while running toward the fence, toppling over it, and then dashing behind the tree to DO the damn thing — all of this would take far too long and my run, my painful and difficult run, would look far too weird and desperate. The VERY LAST THING I wanted was for a concerned fellow driver to pull over and check on me, the bizarre hippie girl running madly toward the forest (which wouldn’t have even been a forest — just a tree or two in the absolute middle of NOWHERE).
And – call this gutsy or gross, whatever – I actually pulled off of the road TWICE, thinking I’d finally found a suitable tree for the job, but then I realized both times that it was just too embarrassing and too risky — that, up close, the width of the tree was off, or that there was a house within one thousand feet now visible to me, one where a resident could catch sight of weird desperate me through an old window and then raise a pair of fine binoculars to their eyes. What creeps! While there wasn’t a strong chance of this happening, the chance was there, and its existence made the idea of taking any chances too foolish and too frightful.
So I begun noticing bridges, imagining pulling over and running down through thickets and side brush so I could pee underneath the highway, but the only problem with this is that I passed one bridge where this thought first occurred to me and then no other bridges followed. I could have turned around, retreated to the OB (Original Bridge), but I have a great disdain for turning around in general.
And then finally, just as I began accepting the sad reality of me peeing my pants right there in the car (a friend’s car, no less), a gas station – the best gas station in AMERICA – came into view on my right.
I veered off the road quick as a bear (I’ve heard they’re pretty fast) and parked parallel to a gas pump when I looked over and realized – with actual, palpable horror – that the inside of the gas station was closed. But I also noticed a smoking man right there beside the building, standing just outside of an auto repair place that adjoined the gas station.
“How are ya,” he hollered from across the parking lot, smiling as I exited my vehicle.
There wasn’t enough time for answers or niceties. “I HAVE TO GO TO THE BATHROOM SO BADLY,” I cried, and he immediately began taking long strides, leading me in through the auto repair shop to the gas station via a secret side door.
“Hey ma?” he called out into the dark.
“Yeah?” I heard the voice but couldn’t see anyone.
“This young lady really needs to use the restroom.”
Whew. My poor mug… I still shudder at the thought of it, of what nearly almost happened. I mean, if one were to pee in their pumpkin spice mug, how could they ever forget it?! Even a thousand cycles through the dishwasher couldn’t undo such a thing…
Blizz Time (aka Wednesday)
I passed out in a video game-themed bedroom in Colorado Springs on Tuesday night. The host dude was awkward, pacing around the hallway when I first got there and saying I could leave my door open if I wanted. “I don’t mean it like that,” he added quickly, laughing… I kept my door closed all evening.
And despite feeling deeply exhausted, I got up early Wednesday morning and returned to the road. Why? The craziest blizzard of all time was on its merry way and I knew I hadn’t even a single moment to spare if I was actually going to make it up to Westminster.
So I threw on some pants and shoes and slipped my rings back on and then, sans showering or brushing my teeth, routed myself north. Only five minutes after getting on the road, snow began to fall, and the distinct and sudden drop in visibility made me both dizzy and queasy. Boy oh boy…
It’s not that I don’t like or LOVE snow; it’s that I don’t know how to drive in it because I never do! And if I was driving my own car, that would have been one thing (maybe I’ll wreck it, maybe I won’t — we shall see), but driving a beloved friend’s car and hoping very much that you don’t accidentally destroy it adds a whole other level of anxiety onto the existing delicacy of things — of successfully doing dangerous things you don’t actually know how to do.
But James called while I was on the road and talked with me the entire time I drove. I warned him that I’d be in and out of the conversation, focusing intently on changing visibility levels and diligently checking my brakes now and then, but I also told him the sound of his voice was really comforting. He said he was happy to stay on the line.
My danger drive turned out to be fun and thrilling; thrilling in an “I might actually die today!” kind of way and fun because a. the scenery was just gorgeous (think: misty mountains to the left and foggy danger snow EVERYWHERE!) and b. I got to listen as James talked about obscure and brainy things. We asked each other questions and took turns answering them and I believe that, in addition to learning more about each other yesterday, we discovered interesting things about ourselves.
For instance, when he asked what my dream profession would be, my first thought was writer, of course — and while I really would love to be a journalist who travels around and meets people and writes their stories for them, I knew that wasn’t quite it — that that isn’t what I’d choose for myself if I could literally do and be ANYTHING…
And after probing a bit further into myself, I realized exactly what I’d want.
“I don’t know if you’d call it a forester or a park ranger or what,” I began, “but if I could spend my days traveling through woods and rivers, picking up trash and giving tours and making fires and putting them out and knowing which berries were alright to eat and which snakes were safe to handle, I’d just love that. I’d love to do that all week long and then write on the weekends. That would be my dream profession.”
I re-realized then (because I already knew this) that my aim has never been securing an esteemed social status or making a bunch of money… it’s been doing things that matter. Art matters, relationships matter, pups matter, and nature matters. There are lots of other things that matter, too, but these are the things that mean the most to me right now.
James answered that he’d like to tend to his own vineyard in Italy, making meals using food from the garden while studying philosophy and writing books. Very him. And I couldn’t help but wonder (to myself) if the woods and rivers I was to look after might be close to the vineyard that he would love.
On Sunday, I watched him try on six sweaters, two short-sleeved button-ups, and a regular long-sleeved shirt. None of them worked, he said. I counted nine articles of clothing, nine fine- and clean-looking pieces of wardrobe, and yet not a single one of them “worked.” Then why do you even have them?! I thought to myself, fondly exasperated with the guy.
But I love that cut; that color; that collar, I’d say. He’d take the thing off anyways, throwing it onto the growing pile and then reaching for something else, murmuring to himself about brand names and improper fits and what did or did not go with chinos.
While I watched (with GREAT amusement) James picking out his outfit, I realized just how high maintenance he is; he does his brows, color coordinates, and smells wonderful. He’s super fit (martial artist), his house is clean, and – most interesting to me – his mind is really, really sharp. Sharp as a frickin cheese grater.
I openly warned him that I do none of these things, these beauty regime things (other than possibly smelling alright bc of my impressive essential oil collection), but he assured me he liked me anyways, just as I was: long hair falling down my back in messy locks, baggy hippie clothes hanging off my waist and shoulders… my accidental style seems to be hodge-podge everything in too-large sizes.
“You look like an artist,” he said once, and he said it in an approving kind of way. I thought that was nice. Not that I need approval, but it is nice to be seen the way you feel and believe yourself to be… you know? I just like wrapping myself up in whatever colors and textures look and feel right, and if I had to describe what I feel like in my clothes, I’d say: wind, river, rabbit, wizard. Using adjectives to describe how I feel in these clothes: comfy, light, warm, magical, invisible.
Anyways, we spent the weekend cooking, walking around, and drinking beverages together: tea in the morning, mead and kombucha in the afternoon, and then coffee after the mead and kombucha and then wine after the late-afternoon coffee. His americano was basic, boring, and fancy while my bourbon caramel latte was advanced and edgy and awesome; the evening wine was pink and bubbly (some kind of organic whatever) and we both really liked it.
James fussed over the way I handled my knife as I chopped mushrooms and potatoes that night (we were making homemade soup together) and I smiled to myself because of his frankness. We poured wine into the soup and then cuddled and swayed in-between sautéeing and stirring things. The conversation babbled on all evening as it had throughout the morning and afternoon: ambling freely, like a river, with neither of us ever running out of anything to say.
When Saturday evening first rolled around, I took note of the time: It was about 6, and I determined to be in bed by 10 (as I wanted to get on the road before sunrise). But as we continued cooking and listening to music and reading poems together, the time got away from us and it was already 11 the next time I even thought about time. James suggested then that, instead of me leaving at 5 the next morning, I stay with him another day.
REALLY? Stay a whole other DAY? …what a wild idea! I thought to myself. Wild because it wasn’t a part of the original loose plan in my head, and we both know how I love making and sticking with plans.
But I realized that I had the time off from work anyways and that staying with him for another day and night would delay my road trip only slightly. After laughing while deliberating over the matter (because changing plans is kind of exhilarating!), I modified my Airbnb reservation that night and then texted my friend’s mom (who I would be staying with in Tulsa) the very next morning.
I’m so glad James and I got an extra day together. We drank coffee again, walked around town again, and warmed up leftover soup in the evening, listening to violin music and taking turns with the guitar. I jokingly told him that I’d only agreed to spend another day with him because I wanted more of the soup we’d made and he laughed, disbelieving. I was only partially kidding… 🙂 ha!
When we left his his apartment on Monday morning, it was still dark outside; he was heading into work wearing a fashionable coat and I was hitting the road in black jeans and a sweater.
He wrapped a scarf around my neck (I got it for you because of its colors, he said), wished me a good time in Colorado, and then kissed me goodbye. We’ve spent hours on the phone since then. I’ll see him again in eight days.
Corey – that guy I adventured around CO with back in November – texted me OUT OF THE BLUE Monday morning: “I’ll be in ATL on Wednesday.”
I couldn’t believe it; what are the chances I’d hear from Corey, Colorado Corey, the very day I set off FOR Colorado? We haven’t spoken in months.
I texted that I was actually going to be away from bham this week, over in his neck in the woods instead, and he quickly replied that he’d be back in CO on Friday.
I sat on the text for a minute, asking myself if it would be wrong to reconnect. I decided it wouldn’t and told him I’d love to get coffee with him on Friday or Saturday.
Then I returned to my coffee and my writing (I was taking a driving break @ a cafe in Memphis), but when I remembered how we’d kissed each other and held hands and I imagined him reading the text and thinking about me (and specifically about me that way), I worried over what he’d assume and what he’d expect and what he’d hope for… so I picked my phone back up again.
I added that, to be clear, I was dating someone now and that this would be a strictly getting-coffee-and-catching-up-with-an-old-friend kinda deal. No smooch-a-looching. But if he was still interested, I really WOULD like to see him, I reiterated.
“Well then never mind!” he texted back, throwing a laughing emoji in for whatever dumb reason. I waited to see if he was just joking about not being interested in staying friends with me — to see if he was just pretending to be a total ass… but he didn’t say anything else. What an idiot!
He followed up later on in the evening by saying that, joking aside, I should totally hit him up on Saturday. I felt it best not to respond.
When my dad called me at 4 AM, I woke up disoriented and panicky, afraid that somebody had died or was in the process of dying…
But when I answered the phone, Padre was asking – in his usual tone – if I was one of the thousand people stranded on the interstate. I assured him that I was not, that I was safe and warm and slightly delirious in a nice bed in Westminster, and then both of us were extremely relieved: nobody was stranded, dead, or dying… not today, anyways.
We told each other we loved each other and then he went back to being a truck driver as I sunk back into dreaming.
I slept in late this morning, ate another banana and protein bar, and then walked (very carefully — these sidewalks are thrillingly icy!) to a nearby cafe. For dinner, I’m either getting repeat spaghetti from this cool vegetarian restaurant I stumbled into a few years ago OR buying a few avocados and some pineapple from the market and then returning to my rented room with them (as well as a super chill chocolate bar, ha!).
Either way, it’s already been a very great day and a very great trip in general. Haven’t found my town yet (bc #blizzard) but I’m looking forward to wandering around within an hour of Denver tomorrow…
And before I go, I’d like to share a dream from two weeks ago with you.
Someone was showing me a picture on their phone — a picture of a river. I loved it straightaway and asked where it was, how I could get to it.
As they pointed down at the picture and gave directions, I somehow fell down into the picture, finding myself suddenly standing knee-deep in the water.
I turned to look around me: just water and woods everywhere. Beautiful.
Friendly people I didn’t know started calling out to me from a ways down the river, telling me I should slide down the tunnel — this concrete cylinder of sorts situated right in the middle of the river. I slid down it, laughing; do it again! they said.
And I remember sliding back down the other way while thinking: This is impossible — there’s gotta be an angling of sorts, a definitive slanting in ONE direction, for this to happen… how can it possibly work both ways? But it did work, and eventually, I stopped questioning it and simply enjoyed myself for a while.
When the sliding ended and I was standing still in the water again, I could feel old darkness drawing close to me. I turned to look behind me and saw a deck over the river now, and on top of its wooden boards, there was a house — I understood that it was mine.
Instantly, I was standing in the doorway of the home and holding the door open, telling my family to come inside, to hurry; the darkness (I intuitively knew I’d battled it before, reducing it in some way) was hopping around the deck now, manifesting as a tiny frog.
As I held the door open, I gazed out to where my brother was wading in the water, watching him as he slowly made it toward the rest of us. I wanted to ask him to please hurry, to move faster, but I knew he couldn’t — I understood his limitations.
So I turned to look at the frog again, intent on keeping my eyes on him; he was hopping away from the house and then right back toward it on a loop, and I knew that one of these times…
I looked over at my brother again, desperately, and saw with a sinking heart that he’d barely made any progress. I knew, then, that I had to go ahead and close the door.
When I closed it, the house grew very dark. I was standing in a wooden kitchen that had an open pantry built into one wall and I could hear the frog hopping around inside. “It’s in here,” I said out loud, moving slowly and straining to see things. I felt linoleum underfoot, saw triangular patterns painted onto the floor.
Turning back towards the door, I caught sight of my grandmother’s lined face in the window. I could see only half of her, her bits between the blinds, but I could fully sense the danger we were both in. I realized then that the darkness was both inside with me and out there with her, and my hand was still struggling to keep the rattling door closed.
Within seconds, she disappeared from me. The air turned chilly and I grew very, very numb.
Meanwhile, the doorknob kept trying to turn from the outside, and I was doing my best to hold it in place, but I knew that I couldn’t keep on doing this forever and that, the longer I resisted, the more people I’d end up losing. So I made the best decision I could: I released the doorknob and opened the door in one swift, gentle movement.
The house disappeared completely then, along with the wooden boards, and a man – the darkness – began walking toward me. The water was rushing behind me, I could hear it, and while I wasn’t sure who all was left, I knew that some were, and I also I knew that I could do one of two things now: resist him or kiss him.
Once he’d come close enough, I kissed him softly, and then everyone – including me – was safe.
“So what does that make you think of?” I asked Charlie (a few days after I’d dreamed the dream).
He hesitated, staring at something. “…death?”