There is something about driving on the open road that brings a man peace. I don’t mean the type of open road you find squeezed in between rubber-stamped suburbs along the U.S. east coast or the hilly off-limits-to-most rolling greenery of much of the UK. I’m talking about the American west, where the only thing linking one cattle-stomped dust bucket to the next is the threat of brush fire reclaiming the earth. It’s peaceful here, mainly because it’s too damned big for men to have screwed it permanently up. In the open spaces between the Arizona desert to the west and the Sandia mountains to the east, it is possible to close one’s eyes to heartache and rediscover a part of America most of us think is lost. I needed to reconnect with that place, find myself in it, reset my brain’s modem and reboot.
That’s what I told Mina when I headed out, but she smelled the cow poop in it from across the room. The simple truth was that I was running away, not from the gray-clouded threat of marriage or the dampening weight of fatherhood, but from something simpler. I was overwhelmed, overworked, over my life and over the desert oasis I’d made it into, and I wanted out. If I were honest with myself, a mistake I earnestly try never to make, I’d have to admit that my home life was calm and predictable. I lived with three females who all adored me, two who could barely talk—so, perfect. Work was steady under my partner Deb’s able hands, and I even managed to get into the very occasional life-affirming scrape when trying to tie up loose ends. Things were going well according to all available measures to the twenty-first-century hipster of the masculine persuasion. I hated it. I’d been born an army brat and completed my newbie adult years globe hopping with the Army’s Rangers. The only thing predictable in my life had been change. I suppose maybe I’m too old to embrace consistency. Mina was great, once you got used to her occasional bouts of psychosis, and lord knows I loved the girls, but the road had been home so long even Flagstaff’s wild beauty wasn’t enough to tame me. I took solace in the fact that at least I didn’t have to tell Mina that this time I wasn’t coming back. She’d met me at the door, kissed me, and handed me the engagement ring she’d been wearing for two years. The emerald looked faded, though that might have been my imagination.
“Take care of you,” she said.
“I’m not dying, Mina.”
“Maybe not, but you’re dead to me.”
Her jet hair flounced along her back, teasing the curve of her bottom as she whipped a Marine-sharp turn and headed back inside, slamming the door behind her with such ferocity that it made my teeth rattle. Damned if that didn’t make me want to go back, beg her forgiveness, and to hell with adventure. I did love the woman so. Fortunately for my career, if not the rest of my life, Deb was waiting in the car and honked the horn just as I turned to open the door.
“We need to get going, Mr. D,” she said.
“For the millionth time, will you please stop calling me Mr. D? I mean, Jesus.”
Deb flicked her blond hair at me and gave me her best smoldering look, her green eyes barely grazing the top of her oversized sunglasses. She wore a neon-yellow shirt that hugged her athletic shoulders, sliding down along her frame so closely that I could count six of her ribs. There was a alabaster foot on the red dash of my car, which made me scowl, especially when she had the audacity to wiggle her glitter-adorned toes at me. She said, “I can’t call you Jesus, hon, it’d make my mama awful mad.”
“You know what I mean, dammit.”
“Sure, baby, I know,” she cooed. Her voice was so sugary my teeth began to ache with fresh cavities. “Is this better, sweetie?” She winked at me, blew me a raspberry kiss with those thin lips of hers and smiled.
I wanted to punch her in the smile.
“Hell no, it isn’t.” I tossed my bag in the back seat of the Mustang and hopped over the driver’s side door, forgetting that I was awash in adrenaline from my silent argument with Mina. I nearly castrated myself on the stick shift when I overshot the seat. Deb pretended not to notice and continued gazing out of the passenger seat window. She was leaning over the top of the door frame, her hair forming a blond veil, but I knew she was laughing at me. I could feel her smirk through the back of her head. I rubbed my upper thigh, all the while muttering about why I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t just call me Eddie. Most people like calling me Eddie.
“Eddie, calm down or we’ll never make it back east alive.” She looked at me. “Mina loves you. You love her. If it’s meant to be, you’ll work it out.”
By my calculation, that was only the third time she’d ever called me by my first name despite almost three years of my asking. It calmed me. In fact, it made me almost deliriously, inappropriately happy. “Where to, Debra Jean?” I asked.
She pointed to a cloud of dust headed roughly east, toward New Mexico. “The future’s that way, Boss.”
“I’m not your boss.”
“Damn right you’re not. I was talking to the Mustang.”
I couldn’t help it. I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. She grinned at me, but didn’t move a muscle otherwise. I turned the key and started up my best girl, a fully restored 1965 Mustang convertible. Unlike Deb, she turned over without giving me any guff, growling at the road like a wolf on the scent of a rabbit. I gave her gas for a few seconds, cranking up the noise just loud enough for Mina to hear I was leaving.
“She won’t come back out, Eddie.”
“So, let’s go, hon. She loves you, I love you, and it’s gonna be alright.”
I grumbled an acknowledgement and grabbed the wheel, but didn’t move. Deb placed another bare foot on my dashboard, most likely just to piss me off, and her smile broadened. I knew Mina was probably glaring at me from somewhere inside the house, so I made it a point not to smile back, at least until I’d put a few miles of road dust between us. I already felt like a heel, and the fact that I was leaving with a gorgeous twenty-three-year-old woman didn’t help much. “It’s like we’re eloping, huh, baby?” she asked, still not looking at me.
I winced, as she was once again doing her Radar O’Reilly act and reading my thoughts. It bugged the hell out of me, and made us a great team. She’d picked up my energy and maybe even my trying to distract myself from feeling like a heel by lusting after my young partner.
“It’s more like I’m running out on my family, just like my dad predicted I would.” My honesty surprised me, but if it did her, she didn’t show it.
“You’re not, you just got fed up with Mina’s trying to be something she’s not.”
“Which is what?”
“The stay-at-home mom type instead of the kick-ass, Marine, road warrior she is. Mina thinks you’re secretly still in love with her sister, so that’s who she’s trying to be.” For the first time since I got in the car, Deb looked at me. “Mina should be here, not me.”
I answered with silence.
“It would help things if Mina was wrong.”
More silence from me.
After five beats, she added, “It’s still not too late, you know. I won’t be disappointed if you want to call this quits, go back inside, and drag her here with you. I could even convoy behind you and drive the kids in my truck to stay with their grandma.” She threw me a weak smile. “Mina’s mom might not even shoot you.”
I choked on my heart just then as my body tried to vomit it up, but after a few ragged moments, I regained what was left of my composure, pulled my shades from where they’d been clipped to the sun visor, and said, as dramatically as I could manage, “Let’s go.” Deb couldn’t see, but I was doing a Clint Eastwood squint under my sunglasses. I do a great Eastwood squint. I shifted into first, squealing out and leaving two lines of overpriced rubber behind me on the driveway that I’d almost certainly have to pay someone to clean off. We hit the highway inside of five minutes, and less than fifteen after that I was lost in a symphony of small-block engine and wind noise, deafening hip hop music from Deb’s phone playing through my new stereo, and her off-key singing. She caught me smiling out of the corner of her eye and stopped.
“Oh jeez, I’m sorry,” she said, blushing bright scarlet. “Mama always said I sing like a cat caught in a fence. You want me to shut up?”
“You do and I’ll put you out right here on the highway.”
She smiled and began singing louder than ever. I tightened my grip and punched the accelerator to near a decent highway speed, which for me, started with the number one. I was towing a trailer, however, so I had to settle on eighty. Story of my current life. Still, it was good to be back on the road.