The rain was so heavy we had to pull off the highway. We inched along the exit ramp, following the taillights of the semi trailer truck before us, rain pelting the roof and hood of the car with a solid sheet of noise. We took shelter at a Sunoco, beneath the canopy beside the pumps, watching the water hit the pavement hard and turn to mist. The mist hovered above the ground like a low, dense fog. We were thirty-three miles from Albany, one hundred and sixty-nine miles from Boston, twelve hundred and sixteen miles from Minneapolis. You looked back to the rain shrouded road behind us as if to gather back the miles we had traveled just to end up stranded here.
"It will pass," I said, resting my hand on yours, though just then I wasn't sure it would.
Interstate ninety stretches just over three thousand miles. From coastline to coastline. The longest highway in the U.S. We talked about traveling from end to end one summer, summers from then, stopping at every city and town we had passed along the way here: Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, South Bend. Even then we knew we never would. But, we needed to believe that we would make it to our final destination, that we would stay there long enough to need to be freed every now and again, knowing that the surest sign we were "home" would be when we learned to need to leave.
"This is my first time in New York," you said, unable to hide the disappointment, though it had nothing to do with the rain, as if you thought it would be smaller, the Manhattan skyline stretching across the entire state, leaving it in shadow. When you looked out at the rain, leaning over the wheel, chin resting between your curled fingers at eleven and one, your eyes wandered, scanning for the horizon you had imagined you'd find, head tilted to the side, lips pursed with concern.
We traveled out of Erie to get here. A one night stay in a road side hotel, in a small city of hotels. We arrived late. The desk clerk eyed us with some interest and some concern, hesitating a moment, dangling the room key above my hand before setting it down carefully, slowly, her fingers resting on the edge of the card until we both looked up from the exchange. "Enjoy your stay," she said at last, sliding her hand away, though I could tell what she really meant was "I hope you get to sleep soon" aware that where we were was nowhere near where we were headed. I could see it in her eyes. The pity I had for her for being anywhere just like here reflected in her inward stare. But, I'm sure she saw it often. The pity. The mourning for her life. Everyone there walked hundreds of miles ahead of themselves, each eyeing the next day's travels, calculating the mileage in their heads, dividing the world into two halves, where they had been and where they had not been.
The next day, driving away, we eyed the horizon for long stretches of time. Every once in a while we imagined we could see the shore of the lake by the same name, the sound of it wearing the hope in our hearts away. And though we never said it, we vowed never to return, our labored breathing giving us away.
There were brief patches of sun along the Ohio Indiana border, where everything stretched on for miles without apology. Otherwise, it had rained the whole way. I tried to explain it later, the difference between the two, to new friends who had asked about the drive, about what we left behind to journey here as we drove through rural Massachusetts, littered heavily with houses, with town after town of thatched roofs and narrow, brightly painted doors.
"Imagine metal so rusted, you can picture it no other way," I said, the comparison lying wait in the pause, " . . . and that is Indiana." The slow upward nods of their heads told me all I needed to know, the image settling in, the weight of the world shifting, if only for a moment, and resting in the tall grasses there, and maybe for longer than that, too.
The trip had been stretched from two days to four. There were quick stops with family along the way. Madison. Dundee. In Dundee, at my brother's home, we stayed the night, the rain breaking long enough that we headed out into the back yard, the grill, the lawn chairs shiny and wet, the clouds holding off from letting go of the next two days of rain, to let us pick up a bat and ball. A three inning game, the laughter rising high above the score. When the sun was gone, the clouds too heavy to hold off any more, we headed in to eat, alone together, at the table set for six. There was no way to know when we would pass this way again. And after every bite, we looked across the table at someone new, smiling, words dying humbly in our mouths, each unspoken word meeting its mark, soundly.
At last the rain began to lift, passing on just as suddenly as it came. We inched back into our seats little by little, until we could feel their full support, our bodies pressed without regret against them. We watched the front pass beyond the ridge of trees a few miles ahead, waiting even longer still to make our way out onto the road. To our surprise, the sun followed close behind. Just as torrid as the storm. Without a word between us, together, we opened the doors and climbed from the chamber of the car, our gazes focused on the clouds delivering rain to the towns and roads that lie ahead where everything else in the world was happening, and even further than that still.
*The title is taken from a line in William Gass's, "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country."