9/11, 24/7

Never forget. This is what we’re told about Sept. 11. Most Americans cannot forget. The images of twisted steel and equally twisted faces have grabbed our memories with a grip that will not ease.

What we remember differs from individual to individual depending on how close we stood to the epicenter. My dearest friend on the East Coast, who was working in the adjacent building, keeps the memories that news coverage cannot convey — the moans of breaking metal, the smells of a city block ablaze, the breath of a stricken populace racing by.

My dearest friend on the West Coast remembers only that her local Starbucks didn’t open that morning.

I, protected by the tall walls of a midwestern college that fateful day, have a dimming recollection of canceled classes and a candlelight vigil on campus. But 9/11 has been a day of seismic change and terror for most of my life. Because my brother was born that day.

Shaun was the second and final child my parents had, and as he grew, he made it his life pledge to prove the playground taunts that first is the worst and second is the best.

If we had been a normal family, I would have excelled at everything I did, like firstborns naturally do. Shaun would have been left in my dust to marvel at how fast I ran, how high I jumped, how rapidly I completed times tables. Instead Shaun outran me. Outjumped me. Out-times tabled me. Out-mostly-everything’d me with the exception of watching Phil Donahue all summer long.

To add insult to injury, he also slept with my friends every now and then.

It took adulthood for me to comfortably settle into my role as the less impressive child. I grew content with the fact that I never would be greeted by my parents’ friends with, “We have heard so much about you!” I learned it was best to shake their hand and then step far to the left so as not to be struck by Shaun’s dazzle like shrapnel to the thigh.

Once I embraced my position, it allowed Shaun and me to become friends. We would email each other with trivial notions. We would call each other just to check in. I would hang up happy to have heard from my brother and only vaguely impelled to cry into a pillowcase of surely lesser thread count than his.

Then the 9/11 that all of us remember — and cannot forget — occurred.

Like many Americans, I was paralyzed by the enormity of what had happened. I couldn’t stand by, satisfied with mere missives detailing how I was just at the trade center a month prior. I wanted impact behind my actions, and so I did the only thing I knew I could do to help those who had been injured. I called my local Red Cross and signed up to donate blood.

I phoned my parents to tell them that their daughter, their firstborn child, was serving her country.

“That was thoughtful, dear,” my mother said distractedly. “Your brother signed up for the Navy.”

Shaun didn’t just sign up for the Navy that day. He became a Navy SEAL. A real one, too, not even a Demi Moore one. The sequence of calamitous outcomes on 9/11 urged him on through icy water swims, thigh-chafing runs, and exercises utilizing the sort of logs that soldiers of yesteryear used only to build forts.

He has now completed tours in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as top-secret missions in locations that I can only reveal were not Ohio. If he was ever away too long, allowing a layer of dust to settle on his majestic accomplishments, he would arrive, virtually by submarine, at a reunion or wedding that no one had ever dreamed of him attending.

Just like that, the unintentional one-upmanship returned to our relationship.

On my son’s third birthday, I gave him a plastic pirate ship. My brother handed him a skull-and-crossbones patch taken from the jacket of an actual Somali pirate. When he came to visit me at the media firm in which I worked in New York City, one of my superiors who had only stopped asking me to fetch his coffee upon my promotion to group director had to steady himself against a desk when faced with Shaun’s glory and muscles.

It was on Sept. 11, 1981, that Shaun was given life. It was on Sept. 11, 2001, that he became larger than life. While most of us do our best to get through this day, straining to remember how precious it all is while also trying to blot out how quickly, and without warning, it can all come toppling down, Shaun immerses himself in this day. He remembers why he committed himself to protecting people he will never know. He remembers why he spends so much time away from his family so that others can keep close watch over theirs.

He never forgets. And because he is my brother, I never do either. And also because he has a tattoo of the World Trade Center across his forearm.

Not In Kansas Anymore

I remember the exact moment in my life in which I became an adult. Before it happened, I had assumed adulthood was quantified by credentials, like having a high school diploma, a driver’s license, or a job. I got all of those things, but there was no convincing endorsement of my maturity to accompany them. In fact, my parents were so intertwined in their acquisition that I felt more like a child once I had them than when I didn’t. It didn’t help that the grownups giving me that diploma, license, and job always patted me on the back and said, “Tell your father I said hello.”

The instant I knew I had transitioned from kid to adult came in an airport. I was traveling for work, something I had begun doing frequently despite my neophyte position in a media agency. I was meant to fly from New York City to Denver, but my flight had to be re-routed on account of weather. The announcement came suddenly and with little ceremony other than to land on a runway in Kansas. Out of the fuselage straggled a couple hundred passengers who wanted anything but to be in Kansas.

The most distressing thing about being in Kansas when you’re supposed to be in Colorado is explaining to your boss, who conceivably had never left the concrete cradle of New York City, why you are in Kansas when you should be in Colorado. It was a conversation that included much geographical instruction about the middle of the country and many assurances that Kansas was, in fact, a neighboring state to Colorado. It concluded with an incisive order to get myself to the state that I was supposed to go to in the first place. And to do it before the morning.

I recall snapping my cell phone closed and proceeding through the airport with only the collision of my rolling bag against my heels to nudge me forward. I pulled the bag over the high-waxed floors of that airport in Kansas, my eyes trained along the ceiling at the suspended signs directing me to beverages, to bathrooms, to baggage. I hoped that one would signal the way to Denver.

As I traversed baggage claim, my memory unreeled its footage of trudging behind my mother as she navigated the labyrinthine corridors of airports. I would follow closely behind, alongside my brother, never questioning whether she knew how to get to Gate 34B. Or to Colorado. The tremors of travel catastrophes were rarely felt by the kids, triaged at an executive level before information slid around our headphones. There was a comfort in knowing my mother would always get us on the plane. There was an equal comfort in knowing she would never get us on the plane if the airline was offering free travel vouchers.

It was there in a state that I had never been to – and never meant to go – that I became an adult. There underneath those directional signs, without any internal direction of my own, where I had to plot my next move. There was no mother to help me out of Kansas. There was no boss who even knew where Kansas was. I rented a car and drove myself six hours to Denver – and into adulthood – that night.

The consequences of being an adult continued for years. Marriage, home ownership, children, Huey Lewis concerts. Throughout the milestones, I felt like a grownup because there was no one there to regard me like a child or to remind me that, in some ways, we all remain children.

Then my marriage ended, and the levees of my adulthood were tested. Without summons, emissaries of good judgment flocked to my side and began speaking to each other above my head, the way adults do when talking about the insolent child in the room. I now needed a lawyer to tell me how to speak. An accountant to tell me how to save. A realtor to tell me how to live. A therapist to tell me how to feel. A mother to tell me to sleep. A father to tell me to eat. A friend to tell me to stop watching Eat Pray Love every night.

The directional signs – the ones in the airport that illuminated the way when I first became an adult – have all gone dark. I am back to following at the heels of grownups, trusting that they’ll get me where I need to go, which is a route much more complicated than those laid out by any business trip. I have never felt more like a child while, by the same token, never feeling more adult.

I have never been more in Kansas and in search of Colorado.

The Tea Party

When we were kids, my brother and I held underwater tea parties at the bottom of our backyard pool. We plunged headfirst toward the deepest depth, holding the bubbles in our noses, trying to preserve as much air in our lungs as possible on the way down. Before reaching the drain, the auspicious site for these gatherings, we would reverse our orientation and attempt to lower ourselves to the whitewashed concrete floor by sending the stored air out of our noses and scooping our arms through the water until we anchored. We would cross our legs and raise our hands in a grandiose wave across the pool drain that served as our tea table.

In the space of what could have only been seconds, we pantomimed our way through salutations, the sipping of tea, and the sharing of finger foods. We attempted conversation but the words, indiscriminate upon our lips, were lost altogether in the murk. Somewhere in between the sandwiches and the lemon squares, we would have each wiggled a free hand under the cap of the drain to give us some protection from the invisible forces that were doggedly fighting to pull us apart.

The first to dislodge from his perch and begin the reluctant drift upward would be grabbed by the ankle by the other and yanked back down for a last second, a final farewell. We would stare at each other through the bent light of water, our lungs burning in protest, waiting for the other to make an earnest move toward the top. Finally spent, I would kick off the floor, beating my legs in a desperate swirl as I grabbed my way toward the blue sky, and hope that we’d break the surface in unison. Sometimes we did and we’d smile through the water streaming down our faces. Other times I would slap my face underneath the water’s top to see him still at the bottom, staring up at me.

I’ve been recalling these submerged moments lately because my life out of the water has felt a lot like those tea parties. A recent decision has sent me back to the pool floor where living under the pulverizing power of deep water makes the mere business of breathing something to consciously consider.

My husband and I have ended our marriage.

The process by which a couple arrives at this place is difficult to catalog. There are no markers along the way to help you identify when your lungs are just low or actually empty. And so you go along, each yanking the other back down by the ankle, hopeful there is more time. More will. More air.

We’ve been at the tea party for a long while, clasping that drain with time-brittled fingers. We have been staring at the other’s face, distorted by the depth, the words from our mouths garbled in the liquid transom. It’s unclear who stayed rooted and who went screaming for air – or who is to blame for the place they staked – but that doesn’t really matter in a marriage. All that is important is that we’re no longer at the table together. Some days it feels like I’m on the bottom. Other days it feels like I am bobbing at the surface. Then there are days where it feels as though we’ve both breached and can face each other through eyes no longer stung by chlorine and ears that have found a dry equilibrium.

Like I said, it’s hard to know who floated away first. Whose breath expired. Who stopped yanking the other back down.

The only thing I do know: The party is over.

 

Desperately Seeking Season

When explorer John Smith made landfall in America and began charting the shoreline of the East Coast, it is reported that he sailed into Maine and immediately turned his ship around, citing the upper reaches of New England to be the over-cold. I tried to do the same thing when I first arrived to Maine, but the flight crew of United Airlines insisted I disembark the vessel. Fortunately, it was August and Maine was suffering a heat wave, a term I use laughingly since I was raised in Arizona where heat waves are only declared once the asphalt roads begin to bubble and people perish upon setting out to collect the mail.

That first winter in Maine was a tough one on which to cut my teeth. The harsh temperatures were unrelenting and heavy snow dumped upon the coast for what seemed an entire calendar year. Wisdom comes with winters, I muttered often. And it did. I grew wise to many things I had previously considered hyperbole or lore, like black ice and deadly icicles that plummet from rooftops. I also learned of the crowning jewel of coastal winters: the snowy mix. Nothing makes dressing, driving, walking, and choosing to go on living more difficult than a snowy mix.

Through the hardship of winter, though, I learned of its requiem. Spring. In places I have previously lived, spring arrives like a parade. The throngs of people are eagerly waiting for it to begin, and just when you think you have enough time to duck inside a restaurant to use the facilities, it’s marching by. Spring arrives differently in Maine. The grip of winter eases hesitantly and with several false starts. Snow boots become rain boots and then snow boots again. We prepare with equal diligence for Easter and Nor’easter. As the states to the south of us showcase their cherry blossoms and open-toed footwear, those of us in the over-cold are still existing on chili and wondering if it’s time to take down the holiday wreaths.

School releases for Spring Break, a much less ominous title than its precursor, February Break. There isn’t the same exodus from Maine during this week. You can face your fellow townspeople the week before without fear of hearing their plans of treason which include traitorous words like Mexico and Florida. While we’re not yet taking a break from spring, it’s the break we need to start searching for it. Spring is no easy find here. It beckons quietly, probably because it’s covered by mud, and we’re forced to scour our surrounds for earnest signs of it.

At long last we take note that the snow-hardened earth has waged its land-grab upon the slush. Animals long forgotten make their presence known by rummaging through the garbage again. Ten layers dwindle to two or three. Crockpots resume their post as
storage for pens and unpaid bills.

Spring in Maine allows for the sort of reflection typically mustered at the seam of a new year. It brings time for introspection and a renewal that comes with not wearing flannel for extended periods. To take an ambling walk under sunlight and to glimpse a harbor that has broken up its last floes of ice reminds us that while it’s still cold, it’s no longer the over-cold.

You have outlasted another winter, which is more than the earliest settlers could claim. Feeling victorious – and maybe slightly sunburned – you return home to relocate the down jackets and shovels to the recesses of the garage. You spruce up and make space, both within your home and your self. You are struck by grandiose ideas of converting your mudroom into a sauna or a guest bedroom. You stand proudly in your home which has been denuded of the trappings of winter, admiring the lightness that spring cleaning affords, when a voice emanating from the television seizes your attention.

6 to 8 inches of snow on Thursday.

And suddenly you wonder if John Smith’s boat might still be out there, bobbing in the Atlantic, ready to take us all down to Virginia.

Badger Me

I’m going to write something.

Soon.

I am going to write something soon. I’m declaring it outwardly because that’s what gurus tell you to do to inspire an inward impetus. I think that just means to involve others in your inaction so that they can badger you about your progress. But no one becomes a guru by saying, “Make friends badger you.” It’s much more inspiring to advise a stuck person to declare their intention. So I am declaring my intention to make the words that clang around inside my brain hemispheres siphon through my fingertips that lie slack across the keyboard.

But, please, also badger me. To write. And to buy toilet paper because we ran out three days ago.

In the meantime, this is the video of my show.

 

 

Darwinian Evolution – Part II

This is the conclusion to the start of this story.

There is not a more powerful thing to echo inside the ears of a poor traveler than the siren song of free food. With that, I allowed her to push me into the waiting shuttle bus.
The bonfire towered in the distance. A daunting column of orange with flames licking the setting sun. The silhouettes of youthful bodies, toned by hiking and surfing, jerked and swayed, backlit by the glow of the fire. I moved tentatively toward the tribal scene, convinced I was about to be scalped and made into a teepee. Just as I was about to turn around, someone grabbed my hand and pulled me in the direction of the heat. Before I could protest I had fallen into the pulsing group of strangers. The girl who had taken my hand yelled above the din, “Take your shirt off, mate!” I looked around and noticed everyone in various states of undress. Bathing suits, bras, underwear. I strained to recall the morning, before I had boarded a plane bound for this unkempt place, to remember what undergarments I had thrown on. If my memory drew beige, I was keeping everything on. I peeked under my neckline and saw I’d worn black.  This is fun, I breathed, before slipping my shirt over my head.

The next couple of hours were a blur of dancing in the midst of crackling branches and spiraling smoke. I was introduced to people from the ends of the earth, all strangers before this night but united in wanderlust and diminishing bank accounts. We shared – but mostly I listened to – stories about the quirks of life Down Under with the kind of easy cadence reserved for intimates. The conversation turned in the inevitable way it does among backpackers to the next stop on the trail. The casual way with which these rootless souls tossed out locations like Bali or Jakarta or Singapore as though they were their grandmother’s house made my skin itch at the thought of returning home. Going back to the Midwest, back to Pre-Med, back to the loaded question, “Was it fun?”

Before I had to face the shame of revealing that I would no longer be galavanting around the world to the swarm of globetrotters, a booming noise rang out over our heads. Our eyes darted in unison toward the direction of the sound. A man, cloaked by the shadows cast by the fire, called out, “It’s time for The Game!”

You could tell by the way he said it that ‘The Game’ was capitalized. It was a thing that carried lore and probably fallen contenders. He continued on, his words traveling through the smoke and flames like errant embers, to describe a swimming competition. A tradition among the backpackers who traveled to Darwin. The idea was to coerce as many hostel guests as possible into swimming out to a deep point in the sea until we all had to race back to the sand, scramble on to the shore, and attempt to seize a prized T-shirt on the beach. The first to nab the T-shirt won his stay at the hostel for no charge.

I looked around at the faces of my new comrades. Some had a visible glint of excitement in their eyes while others held that I’m-too-drunk-to-even-walk glaze. But every one of us, me included, stared out at the ocean blackened by nightfall. Now I’d seen Jaws enough times by this point in my life to know that bad things happen to those who swim at night. I stood up and started to brush the sand off my still unclothed thighs, expecting my tribe of half-naked travelers to join me.

They did not.

They were trotting down to the water’s edge. I turned toward the idle shuttle bus and began to walk toward it when a voice yelled, “C’mon! This is fun!” I stopped dead in my tracks. The F word again. I pivoted to stare at the person goading me. I threw the clothes that were still in my hand into a heap on the sand.

I lined my toes up against the lapping water. Goosebumps staked claim to my body despite the balmy summer air. I looked out across the black sheen of the ocean, my mind drifting to what could lie beneath. The foam swirled around my ankles as I started into the surf. The hooting of the others had ceased, giving way to an eery quiet as everyone waded into the shallows of an ocean few had ever before touched. I slid under the water, allowing it to rush over my shoulders and head, before I broke the surface and began swimming to the invisible junction of black sky and blacker sea. With each stroke, I felt as though I was dredging a spoon through pea soup. The water was warmer than that of any ocean I’d ever been immersed in. It felt murky and thick and filled with sediment. I put my head down and continued to put one arm in front of the other when my torso was bumped by something on my right.

I gasped for air and flailed my arms, struggling to regain my bearings in the dark while staring wide-eyed into the abyss beneath me. Laughter rang out, and I realized with enormous relief that I had collided with someone – a human – in the dark.

The swimmers formed an uneven starting line and we awaited our signal, each of us silently treading water and fixing our gaze on the beacon of the bonfire in the distance. When we heard our bell, we all lurched forward, swimming with as much heart and energy as our underfed, under-rested bodies could manage. Every several strokes I had to raise my head to relocate the bonfire, my lighthouse ablaze, and recalibrate my direction. The churn of the water and the kicking of feet propelled me through the water, until I felt the grit of the sand graze my fingertips. I rose to my feet, water streaming from my hair and body, and began to run. I could feel the presence of other bodies but my fight-or-flight impulse had taken grip and I had lost control of my senses. I could only run. Toward the fire. Toward the T-shirt. Toward fun.

The sand flew under my feet as my eyes scanned in vain for the T-shirt. I saw it at the exact moment I felt someone overtake me. I hurled my body through the dark, arms stretched, through the night air. I hit the ground, fingers encircling the T-shirt, as a heap of other racers landed in a pile around me.

We all lay there for awhile in the sand, chests heaving and eyes unblinking, unable to do or say anything. And then I started to laugh. I laughed until tears sprang out of my eyes. I laughed until everyone else began to laugh also. We laughed with abandon until the mysterious man who had organized the race crouched before me.

“Now that was fun!” He said, staring into my eyes.

“Yes,” I panted. “That was fun.”

And it was.

I stayed an extra couple of nights in that hostel because I could and because it was free. And because I needed a couple of nights to recover from a conversation the next morning with a Darwin elder who told me that the ocean teems with crocodiles and that only a crazy person would swim in it.

Or a fun person.

Darwinian Evolution

You should all read this piece because it had the very distinctive honor of not winning the travel writing essay contest it was submitted to. It’s about a time in my life where I had to teach myself to have fun. Nudity is involved. Australians, too. If you read this in the Bangor Daily News, part 2 will follow on Thursday.

—-

I had been living in Australia for the better part of a year, which seemed – on the front end of the trip – to be more time than I would want, but after enduring the twenty-hour plane ride, it turned out to be the minimum amount of time I would need before I could face it again in reverse.

I had chosen Australia as my place of study on a lark. Seated in my academic advisor’s office, surrounded by glossy magazines with crisp images of the Great Wall, Stonehenge, and the Colosseum splashed across the covers, I murmured, “What do you think about Australia?” He leaned back in his chair, his fingers tapping at his face, as he mentally escaped to a memory Australia had once handed him. A smile played upon his lips before he said, “Well, if you can’t have fun in Australia, you’re not capable.”

That was the word that I needed to hear. Fun. I’d spent the last three years in a ruthless Pre-Med program, struggling to keep pace with foreign exchange students who possessed more intellect in their earlobe than I did in my frontal lobe. Things crystallized inside of that shabby office, and the loftier concepts of history, art, and foreign language felt suddenly short-sighted as compared to the more elemental idea of fun.

Moving somewhere for the pursuit of fun proved complicated for someone who had fallen out of practice with it. What does one pack for a year of fun? How much money do I need to have for fun? What level of SPF is fun? Is living without antiperspirant fun?

It hadn’t taken long for the Aussies and other study abroad students I had made acquaintances with to realize that I was a struggling student of fun. My existence within my new university became startlingly similar to the one I had been living in the United States. I could be counted on to attend class and provide notes to those who had slept through it. I would stay sober and drive the revelers home at the end of the night. Let’s just say that everyone knew whose door to knock on when they needed an extra international phone card or some aspirin. They knocked on a different door when the situation demanded condoms or cigarettes.

When the University announced that there would be a week-long break in classes to allow the students time to prepare for finals, I breathed a sigh of relief, glad to know I’d have ample time to collaborate with my study groups. That was until I learned that all of my study groups were going to be collaborating with the Great Barrier Reef. Everyone was heading north to take in the sights and sounds of the famed Gold Coast. Room after room in my apartment complex was evacuating as though the place had caught fire. Hastily packed duffle bags were thrown into the hallways as students frantically called out to no one, “Have you seen my passport?”

I, of course, knew just where my passport was stored. I hadn’t used it since arriving to the country. I pulled open the center drawer of my desk and saw my passport lying across my Biology syllabus and my return ticket to the United States. I fingered the small booklet distractedly, mentally tabulating how few weeks remained before I would be exiled home. I flipped open the passport, staring at the imprints collected from trips already taken, the memories of each already yellowed and folding up at the corners in the drawers of my mind. A voice from the hallway pierced my silent musings.

“So I guess we’ll see you in a week then?”

I turned to see a friend paused at my door, bag in tow. I looked down at my passport once more before meeting her gaze.

“Actually,” I stammered. “I’ll see you in Cannes. I’m going to hit Darwin first.”

The landing gear slammed against the pavement and the plane shuddered down the runway just as I had finished thumbing through a guidebook of Darwin. I hadn’t learned anything of import other than that absolutely everything in the Australian city of Darwin will murder you. Be it lightning or spiders or snakes, each one a ubiquitous and lethal foe. While the plane taxied toward its jetway, I glanced at the Accommodations section of the book once more and scrawled the address of the first hostel listed across the back of my hand. I was fast depleting my bank account, already taxed before I had spontaneously decided to travel to the land where everything kills. A cheap room bursting with bunkbeds of Danes and Swedes was the only way to keep my ship sailing.

The taxi deposited me at the mouth of a bustling swath of roadway. I trudged along the sidewalk, passing restaurants and nightclubs I couldn’t indulge in, toward the screaming red building that I knew – by smell alone – had to be my hostel. I entered the lobby through a doorway strung with wooden beads. The beat of an American dance song – probably one that had failed to become popular in the U.S. – assaulted my eardrums as I peered over the check-in desk at the top of a head that had not yet swung up to notice me. I cleared my throat. She didn’t budge. I reached over the counter and touched her shoulder. She flew back in her chair, startled, and stared at me as though I was the first tourist to ever check in there.

Before I could inquire about vacancies, she scurried around the side of the desk and scooped up my bag in her wispy arms before turning heel. I worried momentarily that someone might steal my valuables, which were pitiably limited to a bottle of American antiperspirant and a tube top. She dashed back into the room, arms emptied of my bag, and began scooting me toward the door.

“You’re going to be late for the bonfire on the beach!” she screeched.

“That’s okay. I’m not really a bonfire kind of…”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she interrupted. “There’s free dinner.”

———

Part Two to follow…

Show Video

Remember when I harassed you all to come to my comedy show? Many of you came, and I’m very appreciative. And those of you who only come to Maine for summer camp, I appreciate you asking for video of the show.

Here is a snippet (the last 10 minutes). The whole video will be up soon.

Ignore my ends. I know I need a trim.

 

Taking Care of Business

My younger brother is in the Navy, and is currently stationed overseas. While he busies himself with trifling matters like preserving the safety and liberties of American citizens and maintaining freedom of the seas, he asked his family to pledge one thing in return.

Take care of his car.

The responsibility of caring for a brand-new Land Cruiser that rivals a Boeing 747 in both size and price has fallen squarely to my parents, but because I’ve come in for a visit, I decided to lighten their load and pick up my share of automobile maintenance.

I think he’ll be really pleased. I’m buffining and shining. Yielding and merging. 10ing and 2ing.

Nothing Really Happens

If you’ve been reading along of late, you already know that I’ve been trying to live a bit louder. I have been experimenting with some new things in an effort to outgrow my personal borders. Mostly I’m concerned with being a person who doesn’t always say, “I won’t,” in favor of being someone who can say, “I have.” Even if they become my lasts, I am determined to set some firsts.

So running out of gas on the highway fit nicely into my new paradigm.

No car I have ever driven has run out of gas before. I have run out of windshield wiper fluid. I’ve run out of good CDs. I’ve even run out of gas money, but that was easily enough worked around by actually getting a summer job instead of just talking about getting one. To run out of gas while driving was a totally new experience, and one I had wondered about for much of my behind-the-wheel life.

I have a storied reputation of awaiting the illuminated gas tank symbol before bothering to fill the tank. Even when its glow attracts my eye, my tendency is to believe that I still have a few hundred miles before I need to pull into the station. When the needle droops glumly to the Empty line, I raise my eyebrow at it and think, “You were made by an American car manufacturer who surely accounted for my preference to remain seated and my life outlook that gas is an inalienable right,” before returning my gaze to the road ahead while trying to remember to hold my speed at the rumored optimal gas-metabolizing rate of somewhere between 20 mph and 70 mph. I can never remember exactly.

I recall very nearly running out of gas while riding with my father once. We were traveling the lonely expanse of highway that connects Phoenix to its desert cousin, Tucson. We had made the trip to see Eric Clapton perform, one last homage to father-daughter activities before I would leave the state for college. My dad, of the same gas tank-challenging ilk as I, was confident his old Land Cruiser would reach home on the well of petrol we had. His bravado began to erode as the exit we needed loomed an uncomfortable distance ahead. Like an airplane pilot preparing for a hairy landing, he began to systematically switch off all the dials, stripping our road-bound fuselage down to the essentials. The radio was grimly silenced. The air conditioning was ominously gagged. I clutched the undersides of my seat for fear that I might be shed as unnecessary cargo especially given the extra pounds I’d picked up in the lethargy of senior year.

As we barreled toward our off-ramp, the neon beacon of an Exxon lying just beyond, the lights on the dashboard began to flicker. At least I remember it happening that way. Though I also remember asking my dad if we had time to stop at Arby’s first. My mind ranged into the morbid, and I began to hope we would run out of gas, if for no other reason than I would finally see what happens when you do. Surely a villainous cackle rings out through the car before a hazy demon billows out of the steering wheel to damn our souls. Maybe the gas tank explodes in a fiery display of orange and Michael-Bay-film-slow-motion? Or perhaps an automated voice informs us that the car will begin drawing fuel from an emergency reserve that only the dimwitted drivers of the world ever get to learn exists. I imagined that the instant the car swallows that last droplet of gas, the glove compartment automaticall fills with hydrofluoric acid, burning your proof of insurance and car title and stripping you of all the medals and privileges of driving. At the very least, Keanu Reeves would come into play.

I didn’t find out that night since we made it to the pump before any of those outcomes came to pass. It took fifteen more years of pondering, of challenging the convention that cars even need gas at all, to learn what really happens when the gas runs dry. Are you ready to hear what happens?

Nothing.

Nothing happens. There are no violent shudders, no wizards, no explosions, no confetti. When the gas tank empties while you are driving, nothing happens to your car other than it begins to decelerate. You press your foot upon the gas pedal but instead of speeding up, your car is slowing down. The forward inertia that you are losing is so gradual, however, that no one else in your car is even alerted to it. The cars behind you won’t even notice because – much to my surprise – no banner announcing This Dipshit Just Ran Out Of Gas unfurls across your back windshield. In fact, the whole event is so peaceful that even you, as the driver, scratch your head and wonder what is going on. Then that banner that doesn’t appear in your window suddenly unrolls in your head as soon as you glimpse the level of the orange and disappointed-in-you needle.

Once your car slows to its unavoidable resting place, all you can do is wait. You make a few phone calls to see if a friend or a mechanic can rush to your aid with a portable container of gas. That’s all you can do, really. Because if you are the sort of person who fails to drive to the gas station in the first place, you’re sure as shit not going to walk to it.