The steering wheel is bathed in the quiet fluorescent lights of the Fort McHenry tunnel. It’s early Saturday morning. Someone stirs in the backseat, and through the speakers I can hear someone tell me that it’s raining in Baltimore, but he’s wrong. No rain today. And I’ve been thinking about the things that I’m afraid of. People claim to be afraid of a lot of shit. So I’m running down this checklist in my head.
I decide that it can’t be car accidents, as I put my blinker on and pass a Honda Accord going only the speed limit in the center lane. My speedometer shoots to 85 and the hum of the accelerating engine causes someone else to stir in the backseat.
I cross off death while I hold a cigarette in my left hand, close to the cracked window, and watch the white strings of smoke float out of my car, dancing like ghosts into the autumn air. As I flick the smoldering cigarette butt out of the window, I see it bounce on the highway behind me in my rearview mirror, and I watch the sparks hit the pavement and die out in the night.
The car hits a bump and the change in the center console rattles around. On the other side of the Fort McHenry tunnel it’s still dark, but the morning lies somewhere just past the city. Maryland and Virginia speed by, but I’m not afraid of that either. Not afraid of time, at least not anymore.
I look over to the passenger seat and she’s asleep, her blanket pulled up to her chin, her eyelids fluttering in a silent dream, lost somewhere beyond the left lane of I-95. I reach over and gently brush a thin strand of hair off of her face with my fingers. She opens her eyes for a second and gives me a dreamy smile, and then closes them again.
Suddenly I’m aware again of why I used to be afraid of time. How it so often slips by unnoticed, caving in the world behind it. I have no reason to fear it now, with her in the passenger seat next to me, but it’s still something you know is always lingering just out of sight. It gets me thinking of the first time we raced the sun to the Mason-Dixon line; that same passenger seat empty as we floated through five states as transparent as a summer morning.
The object in my mirror was so close I couldn’t even see it, and so I looked right past it. It’s one of those tricks that time plays on you, turning you around so many times you can’t remember which way is up and which way is down. But after a while you figure it out. You figure out that you can beat time at its own game if you wait long enough.
And so the tolls have passed, and Alexandria turns into Richmond and Richmond turns into Raleigh, and just outside of Durham I’ve figured out what I’m really afraid of. Through six hours of silence and shimmering asphalt. I’m afraid of not knowing what I’m afraid of. Some might call it uncertainty. The great Unknown. With a capital U.
I’m counting the miles by the number of cigarettes I’ve smoked and she’s awake now in the passenger seat. Her feet are up on the dashboard and she’s singing along to a song on the radio. And I’m thinking about how I’m afraid of that passenger seat ever being empty again.
Maybe at the end of the day, above death and volcanoes, shark attacks and the Giants missing the playoffs, maybe I’m afraid of not seeing her smile when I close my eyes. But above all else, I’ve decided it’s the not knowing that really gets to you. And I guess that exists to keep people afraid of something. Because if you run out of things to be afraid of, it’s not knowing what else there is that really scares you.
But this isn’t something I’m worrying about right now. With the early morning sun glaring down on four lanes of highway it becomes almost impossible to see without squinting. I pull off I-95 and onto a country road flanked by tobacco fields on either side.
Dangerously low on gas, the car sputters into an Exxon and I get out to fill the tank. She gets out and looks at me, asks me if I want anything from the Tiger Mart. And then she yawns and stretches. My eyes are still glazed over from a lack of sleep as I watch the numbers on the gas pump climb towards $50 and then go past it. All of the thinking, all of the questioning that comes with having 600 miles of highway to yourself, all of that arbitrary fear that repeats itself over and over and over, backwards and forwards, begins to dissipate, like early morning mist.
It isn’t strangely wonderful, it’s wonderfully strange, and everything in between. It’s like every children’s nursery rhyme and pick-up baseball game you ever played in your backyard, and every time you poked at a dead bird until it didn’t seem dead anymore and it didn’t even seem like a bird anymore, but you were fascinated nonetheless. It’s one of the things you have to figure out by yourself.
As she gets into the car again, she drops a large iced coffee into the cup holder and puts her feet back up on the dashboard. She leans over and gives me a kiss and I start the car again. I’m pulling out of the gas station and following signs back to the interstate, going south.
Everyone in the car is awake now and morning drifts in through the open windows mixing with the smell of coffee and the sound of laughter. And I look over at her, with her bright orange sweatshirt on, and her hair up and I find myself wondering what we’ll do when we get to where we’re going, whenever we get there. I find myself wondering again what exactly it was that I was afraid of. And I find that I can’t even remember anymore.
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