By: Emma O’Neill-Dietel
Smith College, MA, USA
The road was too wide. Natalie’s favorite Willie Nelson song was playing at top volume, yet Jessie could still hear Erin crunching on potato chips a few inches away from her ear.
“You know the next exit, Jess?” Erin shouted through a mouthful of Frito Lays, her feet wedged against the glove compartment.
Jessie nodded, feeling too sick to respond. She knew she should probably pull over and let Erin take the wheel, but despite her white knuckles and churning stomach, she preferred to be in charge.
Natalie and Erin had nominated Jessie as the primary driver on the journey from Pittsburgh to the Grand Canyon, and she had been more than happy to oblige. It was her car after all, a brand-new green pickup truck that set her apart from all the other students at their college. She assured her friends that she genuinely loved driving. It was the open road she couldn’t stand.
When people talk about the Great American West, they always dwell on the open road. People describe it as something grand and gorgeous and all-American. No one ever mentions that along the panhandle of Oklahoma, the plains of Texas, and the desert of New Mexico, there are stretches of road that seem as barren and foreign as the moon. These gaping spaces in the landscape made Jessie feel entirely alone, even with her two best friends in the car.
Willie Nelson crooned on, lamenting about lost love, reminiscing about times gone by, and charting new adventures on—what else? —the open road.
“On the road again, I just can’t wait to get on the road again,” Natalie sang along, trailing her hand out the window. The open road made Jessie want to close herself into a box and never leave.
When she looked out at the expanse in front of her, she had a sensation she knew all too well. It was the same feeling she’d had when she visited the library as a little girl, and realized that she would never be able to read every book on its shelves because new books were constantly arriving. It was the same feeling she had when she thought about how many nameless bodies laid buried and forgotten in ancient graveyards, and how deeply unknowable they all were now. It was the same feeling she’d had when she imagined the beauty of every possible alternate universe in which she did anything other than follow her high school boyfriend to college.
It was crushed diamonds slipping through her fingers. It was a world too big to hold, a sun too bright to see. She felt as if she needed to peel back her eyelids to take in everything that was in front of her. She needed to split open her body just to take up enough space to exist.
She convulsed involuntarily. Her arms jerked the steering wheel to the side. Natalie and Erin screamed, but Jessie remained stony-faced.
“What the hell?” shouted Erin. Her shoulder slammed into the window as the car veered to the side of the road and lurched to a halt.
“Is everybody okay?” asked Erin as she took stock of the car. Her voice was far louder than it needed to be in the suddenly still car. It rang out desperately over the soft strumming of Willie Nelson that still fell through the speakers.
“Fine,” said Natalie shakily.
“Jessie?” asked Erin. Jessie slowly unlocked the driver’s side door, unhooked her seatbelt, and stumbled out of the car. As soon as she was free, she stomped on the ground, desperate to feel her feet make contact with something, anything. The ground was unyielding, and her feet left no mark, so she turned to the next largest thing she could find: her truck. She raised her foot and felt a solid crunch where her steel-toed boot met the driver’s side door. She yelped and fell back, clutching her foot.
“Jessie!” Erin shouted. She scrambled to untangle herself from the seatbelt and pushed through the passenger side door. Natalie sat in the backseat, her chest heaving. When Erin joined Jessie outside, she found her retching on the side of the road, hobbling on her injured foot. Willie Nelson serenaded her through the open car door.
“What the hell was that?” asked Erin. “Are you okay? You looked totally spooky right before you crashed us. Like you were about to pass out or something.”
“It’s just…” gasped Jessie, still bent over, “I couldn’t… I don’t know.” Erin put a hand on her back tentatively.
“You’re alright, Jess. Nobody’s hurt. The car looks fine… except for that.” She eyed the dent that Jessie had made. “You could probably get that fixed, right? It’s all good. Why don’t you get in the back with Nat? I’ll drive.”
“Okay,” breathed Jessie. She was surprised to hear her own voice fill the space around her like a shield. It was the only sound to be heard for miles. Sometime in the moments after they had run off the road, Natalie had turned off the Willie Nelson album.
The road is too wide. It stretches into infinity, wider and wider, going against everything I know about perception.
When my daughter was first born, she cried and cried when we drove. My mother had told me that the gentle motion of wheels against road would soothe her, but it was just the opposite. The first time I took her in the car, we were driving to my mother’s house down the highway that cut through the cornfields between our Pennsylvania towns. I looked into the backseat and saw my baby’s eyes fixed on the road in front of us. Her face trembled with a fear that I recognized immediately: fear of a dead end, fear of paralysis, fear of finite space. Her eyes were tracing the long, flat road and saw it shrink to extinction on the horizon. In her mind that dot was our destination, and we were destined to crash.
But we didn’t crash, of course. Perception worked in our favor, and what once seemed thin as a thread opened wider as we reached it, wide enough to let even a dented, secondhand pickup truck pass through comfortably. My baby learned what all babies must learn: what looks like an end is only a continuation. A heart isn’t broken when it breaks. Her mother isn’t gone forever when she leaves the room.
Now the road is too wide, and I’m heading towards its unending sprawl with no baby in the backseat and no heart left to break. I left her in her crib this morning. I tiptoed in to kiss her on the forehead and she shifted in her sleep. Had she woken and looked into my eyes she would have paralyzed me, trapped me there in her room, held me to the floor beside her crib, and I would never have gotten in this car or out on this road. But she stayed asleep, so I kissed her and slunk from the room.
I should have done this before she could speak, before she could cry out “Mama,” before she had grown to think that I would always come back when she called. My own mother will be there by now, ready to pick my baby up to bring her to the nursery school where she works. She will let herself into the house expecting to see me sitting at the breakfast table with my baby dressed and eating beside me. Instead she will find my baby crying in her crib, still in her pajamas, alone and unfed. I focus on the road and try to let the picture in my mind fly out of the open passenger window.
The road is so wide it eats up the periphery of my vision and consumes my mind as well. All I see is road.
The road is my future, and it is swallowing me whole.
The road was too wide.
“Are we there yet?” my brother Neil asked.
I felt my breath being sucked out of my lungs, through the car window and into the abyss.
“How about now?”
Neil stuck his hand out of the window and waved it, fanning the open air into the car.
“Stop that,” I said. “The air conditioning is on.” I slammed hard on the button to roll up the window. It shuddered but remained open. It would be a miracle if our busted pickup, dubbed the Green Giant by Neil, made it to Colorado in one piece.
“Mari, don’t bother him,” my mom said.
“Yeah,” said Neil, “it’s for my closet-phobia.” My mom nodded.
Ever since my seven-year-old brother had had a panic attack inside the elevator to my aunt’s apartment, he had been seeing a therapist for anxiety and “closet-phobia,” as he put it.
Before Neil’s diagnosis, I had thought that things like claustrophobia and anxiety only happened to emo teenagers and aging psychotic poets. After he was diagnosed, I began to look for signs of mental illness in every person I knew:
My eighth-grade teacher. My elderly neighbor. My older cousin.
I was convinced that the very existence of anxiety was giving me anxiety. Neil, however, seemed less bothered by his anxiety than any anxious person had a right to be. In the seat next to me he sang a song he had made up after his first visit to a therapist. She had given him a worksheet to begin writing down the “tools” she gave him to deal with his anxiety.
“Closet-phobia, closet-phobia, use your toolbox so you don’t explodia,” he chimed to himself.
“Close the window or I’ll make you explodia,” I muttered.
“Why do you care so much?” he whined.
“It’s bothering me,” I said. “It’s not like driving in the city. Bugs could come flying in here.”
“I like bugs,” said Neil. The car picked up speed to pass an enormous truck.
“My papers could blow away in the wind!” I cried, clutching my sketchbook to my chest. “Everything could blow away.”
“Everything? Like what?” asked Neil. “How?”
“There’s too much space out there,” I said. It was true. Back home in New York City, cars moved slower than Neil could walk, and everything was held securely in place between the skyscrapers. The farther we drove away from New York and towards our new home in Colorado, the looser the world became. Cows roamed unfenced. Pages ripped themselves from my sketchbook. The road sprawled for what felt like years with nothing to tame it.
I could feel Neil watching me watch the scenery go by out the car window.
“I feel like you have the opposite of closet-phobia,” said Neil. “The Earth is too little for me but too big for you. Is that because you’re growing up?”
“That doesn’t make sense,” I said. “If I’m growing up, everything should seem littler. Like how you used to not be able to reach the sink in the bathroom, but now you can. You got bigger and the world got smaller.”
“No,” said Neil. “When you grow up you have to think about bigger things. Like taxes and the news.” I heard my mom chuckle from the front seat. “The world does get bigger,” Neil said. “Maybe you’re just not ready.”
“Then what does that make you?” I asked.
“I guess I’m just ready too early. I gotta wait for the world to get bigger before I grow more.”
“The world will be plenty bigger in Colorado,” my mom said from the front seat. “Plenty of space for both of you to be as big or as little as you want.”
Off in the distance I noticed the peaks of mountains that seemed to rise out of the ground like alien skyscrapers. Maybe the roads in Colorado would be held in after all; not quite as tightly as the skyscrapers would hold it, but just loose enough for Neil to feel comfortable, too.