In D.C. and Virginia, both places I’ve visited and closer to home, the problems from my NJ life leaned on every shaky word out of my mouth. I never really spoke much during the first few days because of this; I had put myself into a completely new situation while in an emotional rut. “You lost your job, man, you’re broke”. “You had to move back home, what are you going to do now?” I had no answers to my own questions, so they danced around my mind and created a fog over everything in front of me. The bedroom I moved back home to, the one my grandmother passed away in, was still packed except for a few things spilling out over the tops of cardboard. I couldn’t go back to my old bedroom because my sister had staked claim to it and her alcoholism had greatly destroyed it during my 6 month absence. The kitchen table in here is more comfortable and has a lot less ghosts. When I drunkenly decided to come aboard on this trip, I was hoping it would clear my mind of every shitty rhetorical question I pounded myself with but they lingered around every corner of the statements that came out of my mouth. I’ve never felt more artificial in my entire life than on this trip, and I have nowhere to run and hide, nowhere to be alone and lick my wounds. Every silence and even the thoughts never expressed seemed out in the wild, in the same room as people who seemed casual about their lives back home. Though not during the trip, I had once heard Josh Craig refer to his life in a way I understood: “I’m in hell, man, and it is hot.” The worries I carried around with me before the trip, now in the RV, don’t seem noticed by the people on board. If anything, I think I sometimes come off as standoff-ish because of my usual silence during times that seem to warrant a laugh. On the open road in the south, I’m the darkness.
Driving at night, the sounds from the motor take over everything. I’m a bit hard of hearing as it is; the motor cuts through all other sounds and keeps me alone in the driver’s seat. Sometimes I can hear the faint muffle of talking from the ‘recreation’ part of the vehicle though it never lasts long. Mark, Nikko, or occasionally Jimmy in the passenger’s seat has to deal with a lot of “I’m sorry, what was that?”’s coming from me, caught in a wind tunnel of loud mechanical noises.
I start driving around the time everybody starts getting ready to sleep. The days on the road are long, especially when I try to stay awake as passenger while Mark carries us another 150 or so miles to 3 or 4 am. I go to sleep then and wake up around 8 or 9 am to cows in a meadow, or in a Wal*Mart parking lot, or along the side of the road at a highway rest area. We tried our luck at a truck driver’s park & rest but those awake: Jimmy, Mark, Nikko and myself felt both small in comparison to the resting 18 wheel giants and unwelcomed even though all temporary residents had windshield covers blocking our views of their angry waking bodies to a group in a RV looking for an open spot at 3 AM.
When Mark drives, I understand the noise restraints and speak little in the passenger’s seat. He must be able to hear more than I can though because he continues to choose individual songs from his phone. He’s relaxed behind the wheel, a feeling I’ve come to know the deeper south we find ourselves. When I first drove in D.C., it was raining and heavy traffic flooded highway lanes. I have anxiety behind the wheel because of 5 car accidents (1 was my fault), and being in charge of 5 other bodies in a large vehicle created minor panic attacks every 10 minutes. I thought I can’t do this. Stop it. You’re fine. I can’t do this. 100 times in the first hour of my first shift, and regretted ever agreeing to come aboard. The drivers in D.C. are very similar to those in NJ; they cut you off, brake for no reason, and change lanes without signaling.
Right before I slipped into the darkness of unconsciousness, I thought You’re lying. You’re fine. Drive. Get up. You’re fine. Stop it. My head became heavy and fell onto the steering wheel, John yelling “Ant! ANT!”, while we spun around on the NJ Turnpike at about 50 mph. I remember people climbing into the car, inches away from the meadowlands swamp, taking my hand, and crying. I remember a man asking me questions to keep me awake, to keep me conscious. I remember answering all of them incorrectly. I can’t remember what he looked like. I wish I could.
I don’t remember what it was like, to be stuck inside myself and trapped. The first time I came back I was surrounded by doctors while lying on a table. When my eyes opened and fixed on one of them, he immediately put a mask over my nose and mouth, putting me back to sleep. The second time, my father and sister were standing at the edge of the bed. I looked at them, said “This sucks”, and immediately slipped back into darkness.
I can’t remember where I was with my eyes closed. I don’t know what happened. It was a weird feeling afterward, not knowing what had happened or where I went. I’ve recreated the scene in my head so many times, have absolute details about what happened that day, but have no idea where my unconsciousness led me.
I was speeding. I hydroplaned. I hit an incline; I remember a curb in the road, and my tire blew. Spun around, hit a car. Hit my temple against the seat belt adjuster, knocking me into semi-consciousness. My hands fell into my lap; my head slumped forward onto the wheel. We hit another car. I had an intense feeling like I was giving up, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Everything was completely out of my control. Even if I wanted to, my strength was gone and lifting my hands to the wheel couldn’t happen. Sounds became distant. John’s shouts became muffled. My lap was blurry and I became overwhelmingly tired. We spun off the highway and down a hill, though I don’t remember that. John pulled the emergency brake before we went for a swim in the swamp. He’s my hero. I faded in and out of the darkness throughout the crash, and though the memory races through me, I can’t remember what I thought about or what I did; where I was while inside myself.
I ended up with a brain bruise, John was completely fine. Now, even when I’m not driving, I hear the shrieks from my tires and the loud metal CRONCH of two cars colliding. I’ve had anxiety about driving ever since, and I was 17 when it happened. I looked into myself and found nothing that day, or that’s how I’ve seen it since, anyway. Though I questioned some things regarding Christianity before it, I disbelieved everything after. The accident began my journey into my spirituality, to turn that internal darkness into light. Before the accident, I don’t think I would have been able to look so critically at my beliefs and say “no, this doesn’t work for me”, but I haven’t really made any gains since then, either; just a lot of things that I don’t believe in, and so few that I do.
With each turn behind the wheel on this trip, in a different state each time, driving becomes more effortless. I don’t particularly look forward to my nightly shifts, but when they come I’m almost always driving parallel to the sunset and into the early hours of night. The darkness on the road is wonderful, filling me with ease, and something I rarely see in New Jersey. Streets without lights in the tri-state area typically have an urban legend attached to them and people travel upwards of an hour to drive down them to spook a date, or play a practical joke on a friend. Driving in the South’s dark I’ve found a sense of relaxation behind the wheel. I think I look something like Mark does now; lost in thoughts while almost letting the RV drive itself.
“Look over there” Mark says, pointing his head to the far side of the road. There’s a clearing of trees leading to a hill with three crosses lit up by lights at their base. It is the only light within our field of vision aside from headlights, and the white from the crosses is bright enough to cause a negative imprint behind closed eyelids.
“You should take a picture of that.” He suggests.
“I would, but my phone is pretty dead.” It’s sitting in the kitchen sink, charging. I think about standing up and grabbing it but instead stare at the intensity as it passes us on our left.
My mind first wanders down my own cracked mirror of Christianity. I was confirmed at 11 but haven’t been to Mass since. I think of Jesus Christ with great admiration but have trouble making sense of some visions of the man. With all of the wonderful and profound words and actions he spread through his life, how has his torturous death become the symbol of a man who tried to escape negative thoughts of people, instead trying to inscribe a simple and powerful alternative? Seeing the crosses are meant to relay the image of Jesus Christ, savior of mankind, but also simultaneously brings back the history of a people who tried, convicted, and sentenced him to death. “Turn the other cheek” finds itself lost in this symbol to me; an action partly responsible for Jesus Christ’s legend. When I was young and first thinking about Christianity outside of church walls my first question was “Who is bad enough to deserve an eternity in hell?” I couldn’t think of a soul who deserved it, my version of hell was empty. I spent so much time wrapped up in the unfairness of hell but spent little time thinking about Heaven. Maybe I had a guilty conscious, even at 11.
When I got around to thinking about it, my problem with Heaven stemmed from other’s inability to be in two places at once. What if, for instance, somebody who had made a positive impact on my life also made an impact on someone else’s? Would we be together for eternity? If this were true, I thought, this would combine everybody from their heaven with mine. What if there was somebody in their timeline that affected me negatively? I would have to deal with somebody I don’t want to deal with for eternity? To my young mind, this sounded a lot less heavenly than I was being told; it didn’t make harmonious sense to me. In an attempt to make sense of the afterlife, I came up with my own interpretation: everybody has their own heaven and people can be in more than one. If, for instance, I somehow impact somebody’s life in a positive way, I’d be in theirs as well as my own. My own heaven would harbor my soul, deeper being, or whatever you want to call it, while every other heaven I would happen to appear in would contain a representation of me from which their good memories came. They’d have no idea they were interacting with a “soul-less” Anthony, and I’d have no idea I was even in other heavens. I haven’t thought of my Heaven scenario in many years, and rushing back to me, it makes sense but also presents a problem: the afterlife is “supposed” to answer all of the questions about life, but my interpretation doesn’t do that, there are questions to be asked in Heaven that would be unknowable, “Am I in other people’s heavens?”
Sitting passenger in thought, I feel like I had a firmer grasp on spirituality when I was young than I do now. I’ve read some religious text, some philosophy; got caught in thought about meaning of words, about scripture, about my own interpretation, and have tried to make something circular out of it. Something to make sense of, ending where it begins; something to point to and say “This. This is what I believe.” After the accident, I didn’t believe in anything. I became a gnostic Atheist and found myself angry with most who believed in any idea of the afterlife. “There is no god, there is no heaven. It’s just darkness.” Even saying the words then, they felt hollow. It was something temporary, something I thought could be true that would quiet all of the questions I had about everything. I acted this way for about a year before I gave up believing in nothing; it may work for some people but not for me. When I found myself back in question, I ran into Buddhism, then Hinduism. I never claimed to be a believer of Hinduism, but shortly tried to consider the lifestyle of Buddhism and the “enlightened” path. At the time, I was on a Jack Kerouac kick and it probably helped with the sudden interest. This belief, though beautiful to me, was shorter-lived than my Atheism. With Catholicism, gnostic Atheism, and Buddhism, I never felt as though it was what I believed; a similar feeling of doubt wrapped around each thought I had during my time with each belief; “You don’t really believe this” I’d think while thinking. I’ve always felt stuck, with or without a spiritual title and have secretly been trying to find what I believe. Here, now, I still feel stuck. These days I actively try not to think about my own spirituality but these three crosses brings back thoughts I wake up to, thoughts I shower to, thoughts I fall asleep to: all I tried to leave behind in brightly lit New Jersey. Some of the many thoughts I tried desperately to run away from, those I thought the south might finally silence; they’ve found me on this road, in this darkness, sitting beside Mark.
“I like the shape they make between them.” Mark outlines it with an index finger.
I’m silent, watching him, and nod.
Mark and I think very differently, something that keeps us close with each other. He looks between the symbols into the unknown and makes something of them where I look directly into the shining light and analyze myself and the world against them. He is a creator, I’m an interpreter. Including everybody sleeping in the back or just above us, I’ve known Mark the longest. When we first got to know each other, we bonded through our mutual disrespect of the law. Along with Leon, a friend since 3rd grade, we committed gross amounts of theft, drunk and disorderly conduct, trespassing, tampering of city property, and other crimes that would have wound us in jail if caught. The three of us spent entire nights smoking packs of cigarettes in a diner with 3 dollars for coffee and tip. The head waiter, Dino, would sit down with us and play cards; he always won. Occasionally he’d place an order of onion rings between us and walk away to our echoing “Thanks, Dino!”
Once, while stealing cookies and pastry after hours from a job I held the key to, we were caught by the police. I talked the cop into a state of confusion, making up a story about being unaware of my next shift while showing him ID and the job’s registry verifying my name while Mark and Leon were silent holding bags of stolen goods, pressing cigarette butts out under shoes. The officer told us to leave, and we did. Later that night we went back to grab our goods. I told my boss the next day and she laughed, “I do that all the time! You actually got caught?”
Mark and I are quiet people, though I can get pretty loud. He’s handled some situations very differently than I have; sometimes seeming passive to the situation while I can be over assertive to aggressive. He likes to feel relaxed, and I do too, but problems seem to cloud my mind while he takes them in stride. This is something I’ve tried to learn through him, to try and patiently address problems instead of letting my first emotional response to get the better of me. Sometimes it works out, other times I have to apologize. Mark wanted me to come on the trip to write and asked a few times if I was working on anything, how it was coming along. I had stopped writing but had pasted post-it notes all over my mind regarding certain events. Some writers, like Fern, are good at writing while in the midst of adventure; it’s his job. I learned very quickly that I couldn’t do this. At first, I didn’t think any words would come from what was happening on the trip, just figured I’d have very detailed memories and some stories to share in passing. I decided to first write something from them as a way of saying “Thank you” to Mark and Jimmy for having me tag along. I sent it to Mark, Nikko, and Jimmy, and was asked when they could expect the next. The next thing I know I’m writing about my spiritual unfulfillment and tackling personal problems while trying to literally distance myself from them.
I try to make out the image Mark is referring to though the image has left our view and we’re plunged back into night. I can see it but I don’t know what to do with it. Mark is aware of something hidden between the crosses that I cannot see.