by Alizah Salario
Before I leave, I explain to my mother the Theory of Making Big Plans. The trick is to begin with numbers, not words. Start with an eight-character password (my middle name plus my birth year). Then enter a 16-digit credit card number. Next submit three destination choices, two references, and one resume. Use eight gallons of gas, interview for seven positions, and return with a single contract. Big Plans aren’t as scary when taken by the numbers. But start thinking about what they really mean, and the world will collapse in on you before you even get out the door.
I was born in 1980. A nice round number of a year. The digits add up to eighteen, then nine. Life and luck. There. You’ve got half my password.
My mother says fine. Okay. I understand. I was young once too believe it or not, but there’s a fine line between a daring adventure and an unnecessary risk. I tell her a daring adventure is always a risk, and then I Google the phase to see if anyone has already come up with it. Helen Keller said something similar, but not the same. I write it in my notebook under the “Possible Tattoos I’ll Probably Never Get” heading. My father used to call my notebooks the Hemingway journals because Ernest supposedly also wrote in Moleskins. Certainly not because he thought I was the next Hemingway.
Out of nowhere I start remembering. I remind myself that now is the exact wrong time to start thinking about it. Some guy is coming to pick me up in a rented Honda Civic in approximately four minutes. I’ve never met him, but I know he’s a middle school band instructor and he has his masters in music education from Northwestern. He needs to split the cost of gas, plus he promised to bring snacks. Along with his simple palindrome name — Otto — these facts make him safe.
“I don’t know how you can just get into a car with a stranger from the Internet,” says my mother. “Look what happened to that cheerleader in Aruba.”
I flare my nostrils in silent protest.
“I’m going to Iowa, not Aruba. But you’re right. A middle school music teacher with a rental car could be a total sociopath. Or he could be completely sane but an awful driver. We could hydroplane on a sheet of black ice and careen into a ditch. Or we might hit a two-ton semi head on. Or I could be robbed at gunpoint at a deserted gas station. There are plenty of things that could go wrong on a car trip from Chicago to Iowa City. The car could break down and I could get hypothermia and I could need my toes amputated. Anything could happen.”
A red Civic pulls up. The driver takes out his phone. My cell rings.
“Penelope,” she twists the word from exasperated to sorrowful in four syllables, making a corkscrew of my name.
“I have to go.” I head for the door before she can try and hug me.
“Don’t you think it’s a little soon?”
I watch the exhaust pouring from the tailpipe and sigh.
“I’ll call you when I get there, okay?” I step into the cold without bothering to look back.
Otto and I get on Lake Shore going South and exchange enough basic background information to know how to behave around one another before we hit the Skyway. Five minutes in my mother calls to make sure he seems normal. I glance at the Dominick’s bag of snacks in the back seat — sea salt chips, fruit leathers, apple spice granola bars — and tell her with confidence that I’ll be fine.
The knots in my stomach start as soon as the skyline recedes. I’m alone with a stranger on a desolate stretch of Midwest road. The tree branches along the freeway open into lonely Y’s yearning to be filled with snow, icicles, frost, anything that might make them seem less naked until their leaves grow back in the spring. If I can’t even cross a state line, then how can I expect to cross an ocean?
I focus on the numbers. We have six more hours until Iowa City. According to the dashboard, the wind chill is minus five degrees. I have two potential outfits packed for tomorrow, a charcoal grey pants suit that I forgot to get hemmed, and a black pencil skirt with a slit up the back matched with a conservative blouse to compensate. As we approach the Skyway, I worry that there may be bridges or other things to fall off of on the way. I think about what it would feel like to lose control, slam through a guardrail and sink into a Great Lake. I feel icy cold seep into my down jacket. My feet and hands go numb. A bleary-eyed ice fisherman wearing gumboots and a skullcap finds me on the shore the next day. My blue lips and empty eyes are forever etched into his brain. The papers say I had my whole life ahead of me. Otto survives and places flowers where the Civic went through the guardrail.
Logically I know are no Great Lakes on the road from Chicago to Iowa, but still.
Otto’s hands rest limply on the steering wheel. He is wiry and pale, almost translucent, as though he needed to simmer a little longer to get fully cooked. I want him to grip the steering wheel till his knuckles turn white. His nails are filed into perfect half moons. I want his hands to look how the knots in my stomach feel. I press my palms into prayer position and squeeze them between my knees. Not that I’m praying. I’m just cold.
“Have you ever done anything like this?” Otto’s voice seems to come from outside the car.
“No. Have you?” I say.
“No. But I’ve always wanted to. I just thought, hey, why not?”
“Exactly. But most people don’t think like that.”
“What do you mean?” he asks.
“Most people think in terms of why, not why not,” I say.
“You mean they base decisions on what’s known rather than what’s unknown.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
We stare out the window without saying a word.
“Hey, McDonalds?” Otto lifts his eyebrows toward the Golden Arches in the distance. I nod yes.
We pull into the drive-thru, Otto rolls down the window and our breath instantly becomes visible. A voice crackles through the speakerphone. I order fries and a Diet Coke. Otto gets a veggie burger and a milkshake even though it’s freezing.
“Road trip. You have to eat fast food at least once,” he says. “Not that I would normally go to McDonalds.”
“I guess so. It’s the American way, right?”
We sit in the car and eat with the heat on full blast and the windows rolled down. I look over at Otto. He’s captivated by his burger. I don’t like his dainty hands or his milky complexion. I don’t really care for the Civic, either. These are the facts, and I keep imagining them differently. Different man, different car, different place. Otto, Civic, Iowa. Flushed American cheeks, power locks and glowing dashboard, a parking lot with melting snow turned grey from exhaust. Otto, Civic, Iowa. The beginning of a Big Plan that started seeming small the minute I began living it. I’m already starting a parallel adventure in my head in which I say all the right things. I order a salad and water with lemon instead of fries and Coke. I’m eager with anticipation instead of tense with anxiety. I finish my meal and the knots in my stomach get tighter. I think about vomiting something brown on the white snow.
“It just seem better than the alternative, you know?” Otto picks up where we left off.
“The alternative? You mean law school?”
“ No. Maybe. No. Here’s the thing: I’m a woodwind guy at heart. I played the bassoon for years. I even auditioned for third chair in the CSO once. But then it’s like you tell people you play a mean bassoon, and then what? Me and some of the brass players I knew from undergrad tried to start a band, but we were missing the key ingredient.”
“A tuba player?”
“A sexy front man, preferably one who plays guitar. And I’m not trying to brag about the CSO thing. I’m just saying. Anyway, the alternative was to be a starving musician and composer, maybe write jingles for some extra cash. But I was already giving private lessons, and I figured if I made teaching my profession then I could take my talent somewhere else. Plus I wouldn’t have to starve. I mean how random would it be to say I was a band instructor and a bassoonist in like, I don’t know. Budapest?”
“That would be random,” I say, not knowing why. “The schools do seem great, but I thought the brochures looked a little too much like Benetton ads.”
“So where do you think you’ll apply?” I ask.
“I don’t know. There’s an amazing music program at the American school in Tokyo. Band is really competitive. What about you?”
“I don’t know. I just want to go somewhere warm, I guess. And not a place that’s run by an autocratic dictator. But that might not be so bad. Life would be simple on lockdown¬¬¬¬¬.”
Otto looks confused, but nods heartily in agreement. “Right on,” he says. “Well, I hope we both get what we’re looking for.”
Otto and I are applying for jobs at a job fair. Not just any jobs, but jobs in schools abroad, and not so much schools as incubators for the next generation of ambassadors, U.N. representatives, and international business leaders. Most positions include all-expense paid travel, housing, and a competitive salary.
“Are you nervous?” I ask.
“No. Actually I’m totally stoked. Aren’t you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“You shouldn’t be nervous. You’ve traveled before, right?”
“Just to Canada and Mexico.”
“But never to another continent?”
“Nope,” I say. “Unless you count the Wisconsin Dells.”
“So that’s really brave of you. I’m lucky. I’ve been everywhere. I guess you could say I’ve got a strain of wanderlust. The more places you go, the more places you want to go. That’s how it works. So what made you decide to teach abroad?”
I think about lying. Then I think about giving him a long answer. But we have five more hours together, so I just tell the truth.
“I don’t know that I really want to go.”
“You must kind of want it. I mean most teachers aren’t even qualified to interview with these swanky international schools.”
“I applied hoping I wouldn’t get accepted.”
“Oh. Well that’s different.” Otto is working overtime to be nice. I don’t want to make the next five hours awkward. “But there must be a reason,” he persists.
“Not really. I’m just over trying to make a difference.” I should stop being a jerk.
“Well that’s not really a reas—”
“My father died.” It comes out too intentionally ambivalent, like I’m trying too hard not to make it matter.
Otto swerves a little.
“Oh. Sorry. That sucks.”
“It’s fine, actually. I mean it’s not fine. But I’m fine. Should we listen to the radio?” I suggest.
Otto turns it on. A Rufus Wainwright song is playing. What the fuck?
The horizon curves like a cradle, and we glide along.
Alizah Salario is a freelance journalist, book critic, and teacher. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The New York Observer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, at the Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere. You can find her essays and commentary at www.alizahsalario.com. Originally from Chicago, she now lives in Brooklyn.