You gotta steal the time of a life that’s passing by…
-Third Eye Blind
7 AM. The air precipitated as it left my breath. I stood at the edge of a lawn, alone, the last of my kind in a ghost town called suburbia. In front of me stood the Benz, my instrument to achieve the ultimate freedom. A freedom that looked so exhilarating… a freedom that scared the living shit out of me.
I entered the car with caution, a heavy sense of danger looming, with every part of me holding the belief that I was headed towards a catastrophe. My skin formed bumps and opened its passages for easy perspiration. My lungs expanded and contracted rapidly, inadvertently converting oxygen into carbon dioxide at a dangerously abnormal pace. Blood pumped through my vessels at an irregular rate and my mind raced around and around with crowded thoughts, causing a traffic jam inside my head, a combination that led to an indefinite stall.
The infant sun lifted over the streets, a source of life so far way, it looked to be in every way unreachable, its power over me an ostensible reminder of the hopeless nature present when tasked to challenge authority. “What the hell am I doing?” I asked myself while I sat in the car for several minutes, void of any movement. The irony provided a most chilling answer, one that was the least bit pleasing.
My eyes slowly diverted their attention to the center console where a piece of stationary stuck out. First noticeable from my peripheral vision, its unusual placement seduced me, drawing me closer as if it was asking to be plucked. I studied its pose, how and why it was placed the way it was, wondering whether to open it or forever remain ignorant of its contents. I wondered, it’s unique and captivating position sending me deeper and deeper into a dangerous trance, and then I wondered some more…
It rained the previous morning when I left Wisconsin. Of course it rained… it had to. It was relentless, and in stereotypical fashion I might add, just like in one of those sappy chick flicks where the hunk has to say goodbye to the babe and everyone’s crying and drenched and the rain is just pouring down all over the place—you know, Nicholas Sparks style, but way cornier. Purely coincidental that every time you have to say goodbye to somebody, the weather turns to crap.
After a hearty lunch with Cousin Brian and one final stop at the Pick n’ Save to stock up on some Old Fashioned mix, I was back on the road, facing the barrage of rain, obstinate in its pursuit to challenge my driving skills. There was no time to feel sad or sorry, or even reflect on life events, my usual routine during a long drive home after vacation. All of my focus went into maneuvering through the thick web of rain punishing the external surfaces of my car as if I was stuck in a never-ending car wash at 60 miles per hour. The windshield wipers thrashed back and forth so fast and so frequently that I questioned the structural integrity of each wiper, whether they were strong enough to withstand the momentous forces acting upon them from each swing. I was almost certain once fatigue stress set in, each one would snap right off of their respective hinges and fly onto the highway, waiting to be crushed by the very structures they are tasked to protect while leaving me blind, sending me towards my inevitable doom.
Even with my wipers on overdrive, each swipe only provided a fraction of a second of limited visibility before the windshield was coated with another wave of rainwater. Despite the fury of water attacking my car, whose goal was to keep me from making it to Minnesota, a set of lights remained in front of me at all times; two, bright red lights coming from a structure whose blurry outline matched that of a truck’s, my guiding light out of the darkness. When it moved, I moved. When its light’s shone brighter, I slowed. I mimicked its every move, without any knowledge of who the man or woman behind the wheel was, whether or not they were a saint or a criminal (like Gretch). Yet, even the thought of a murderer as the operator of the rig wasn’t enough to stop me from putting all of my trust in the two red taillights in front of me; a pair of lights that would either turn my car into a mangled mess on the side of the road or successfully guide me through the three-hour stretch of road from Wausau to Minneapolis.
It was 4:30 in the afternoon when I stepped out of my car, safe and sound at the helm of the State Capital Building in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I was to meet Cambray before heading over to the Tin Whiskers Brewery a few skips away. Believing that my blind faith had been immensely rewarded, I took in a deep breath of relief, only to find that I had arrived in a city filled with smoke. The normally clean volume of air that covers the Twin Cities had been tainted with a thick haze, a result of the many wildfires that Bill and I were lucky enough to evade on our travels, until now.
Luckily for us, the quality of air and beer wasn’t exactly proportional at that time, making the variety of beer at the upstart brewery placed in the heart of downtown St. Paul well received. And although the Tin Whiskers lacked the fanfare and infrastructure of the Surly Brewery with their operation set on the bottom floor of an apartment complex, the brewers were able to deliver a quality product to us at a large quantity (although they did run out of their much touted “PILS-ner,” of which I expressed a small wave of disappointment).
So with an extensive supply of beer in close proximity and time to spare before John met up with us, we caught up on each other’s lives, something we had ceded from during our first gathering as a result of the birthday antics at the Surly Brewery and 1029 Karaoke Bar. I filled her in on the better details of the wedding, from how I ripped my favorite pair of shorts and the debate of whether or not we should be amiable to farm girls, to when we got to watch Beth and Blake get wedded. Of course I couldn’t forget about the excessive dancing that led to excessive perspiration, and I had to touch on the abhorrent behavior put on display by Bill and Gretch. She shared with me the latest updates of her life, and as it usually plays out with all my friends, we diverted our talk to the past, sharing a few laughs and smiles as we recounted the many adventures we had throughout the years.
The conversation became sentimental as the subject of our talk turned to friends, both old and new. I couldn’t help but bring up people like Bill, Mike, and Jay—especially Jay, leading me to share a few memories of him and how his simple presence was so meaningful to the people closest to him. He had a way of retelling a previous night’s adventure with his down to Earth personality and wit that never ceased to put a smile on each of our face, sending us into gut rolling bursts of laughter sooner or later at one point of story. And no matter how fun and wild a night with Jay was, it was always the day after, whether it be sharing a conversation over a lunch sandwich or a group of us sitting in a living room listening to him speak so gregariously that made his friendship worthwhile, that defined him as a great man, brother, and friend.
It was such a simple and meaningful presence in life that went unrealized until his unfortunate passing… a life I’ll always cherish, and a lesson I’ll never forget.
The brief pause of dialogue between us coupled with a stern look strewn across her face sent a shot of anxiety buzzing through my veins. It was a look that needed no explanation, evidence of how much our conversation had turned from colloquial to serious—funny how just a moderate amount of beer consumption can have such drastic effects.
I knew the question would come up sooner or later. It always does, and this time was no different, and just like in its usual, inevitable fashion, it would again catch me off guard. The talk of friends the past and current state of our lives, our dreams, and future aspirations should’ve been a dead give away.
“Are you ever going to move here?” she asked. “We’ve talked about it for years, but it still hasn’t happened…”
She deserved an answer; here at the Tin Whiskers Brewery in St. Paul, Minnesota… she deserved an answer I was ill prepared to give. And so I took another sip of beer and pondered over the question, as I had done, also for several years… “I just want to let you know that I really meant what I said in your birthday card.” Perhaps she knew better than me of where I wanted to be, and where I needed to be… where I belonged…
But I could never seem to provide a straight answer. Only a mush words delivered in equivocating terms was all that was ever forced out, a bare minimum offer for a satisfaction that was rarely attained…
Fear drives us in many directions. There’s a reason that stirring feeling swells inside when faced with peril. And for good reason too, at least for the most part, be it a kid staring down a giant bully, or the same young hunk asking a babe out for the very first time. It gives us time to swallow the gravity of the situation, helps us to put a grasp on the risks and rewards involved in such a decision, and in some cases, buys us time to realize the sheer stupidity involved with the thoughts rolling around in our heads (for instance, contemplating whether or not to take Ben Woodward’s advice and go blackface for a Halloween costume). In all facets of life, fear drives us. It also slams on the brakes.
And in that moment of contemplation, sitting in the comfort of the Tin Whiskers Brewery amongst a grand population of Boundary babes and next door to Wisconsin, friends, family, and the world’s greatest football team, it was fear that reemerged inside my head; a fear that provided an excuse, an artificial roadblock to hold me back, to keep me from reaching my ultimate goal.
“I really do think you belong here,” she said, as I was unable to divert from my prolonged moment of silence. “You have Midwest blood. It lives in you. You’d blossom here. You’d thrive here… Give it some consideration, not just for my sake, but for yours as well…”
John walked in a few moments later where he was embraced halfway to the table with the offer of a beer, consolation for letting me off the hook. Soon after we were joined by his coworkers, and being that there was a brew in each of our hands, the conversation turned much more casual. Though I enjoyed the respite, I couldn’t quite shake off the entrapment, the curse of complacency that lingered through my head, a feeling that lasted well past the last sip of beer at the Tin Whiskers.
Later that night we ventured over to the Uptown neighborhood in Minneapolis (near the infamous H&M incident) for a sushi dinner, where we met up with Lauren (the #1 boundary babe herself and potential future wife in 15 years) as well as Claire Brinstagram, always an added pleasure. Truly blessed by their presence and impressed by the restaurants music selection (a number of indie rock hits from bands like the “Yeah Yeah Yeah’s” who played at the 2009 Sasquatch Music Festival mixed with a little Modest Mouse), I offered up a round of Sake Bombs. Only Cambray and John could be convinced to join me for a round of shots, which were set up using a pair of chopsticks that held a shot glass filled with Sake over a cup of Sapporo, similar to what I had learned in Denver a week prior.
“Ok, when I say ‘Sake’ you say ‘BOMB’!” The ritual was met with less excitement than previously encountered with Bill, for John and Cambray, being that their level of sophistication was a bit higher than most, didn’t exactly take to yelling “Sake Bomb,” banging on a table, and spilling beer at a quiet sushi restaurant with much enthusiasm.
At the night’s end, we found ourselves back at Cambray and John’s apartment watching English reality TV. The particular show of interest involved a bunch of people who just go on blind date and talk about it, with some dates ending horribly and others with “happy” endings—and that was it. “Man, no offense to John, but I don’t how you can get into this stuff,” I thought to myself. They seemed to enjoy it however, so I soldiered through it in deference to my hosts, thus giving the show an appropriate chance.
“Hey, have you guys ever seen Baseketball?” Both of them shook their heads, prompting a condensed screening. If they thought that First Date show was funny, they’ll lose their mind over this! “Man, I used to watch this all the time in college. It’s seriously the funniest movie ever!”
Their mouths remained flat throughout the screening, replicating the same look given to me by a group of babes in the college dorms several years back, of whom I was also able to convince that watching the movie would be worthwhile. “Man, I miss English television,” said John. By the tone of his voice, I would’ve guess that he was unimpressed with the humor on display. I, on the other hand, was completely baffled, finding each “psyche out” in the movie beyond hilarious. Well, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.
“Well, we’re going to bed,” said Cambray. “I think we all have a big day ahead of us.” I agreed and made my way to the respective guestroom where I was to prepare myself for a slumber, but not before saying our goodbyes, just in case the opportunity wasn’t there in the morning. Before crawling into bed, I checked my phone for messages. Bill…
I slid my finger across the screen where his name was placed to open the full contents of his text. Many words were used for persuasion, but the message was clear:
Come to Pony. Meet us in Billings tomorrow by 5. A BBQ is waiting for you…
I lay in bed that night, wondering if it were even possible—if that were even a good idea or if I could actually do it. I checked the Google Maps on my phone for the best route. Minneapolis, MN to Billings, MT—12 hours, 840 miles. Billings… Pony… It seemed so blissful, yet at the same time, a distant dream I wasn’t the least bit prepared for.
And so I lay in bed, wondering and dreaming, with a hint of anxiety sunk at the bottom my heart. I wondered and dreamed, until I fell into a slumber, wondering if it were possible, if it were a good idea… if I was actually going to do it…
“Cheers” said the front portion of the folded card, accompanied by a drawing of a fizzing can of beer, freshly opened. It was in my hands now; somehow, through the workings of a mysterious force inside the Benz, the card with a picture of the most coveted substance on the face of the Earth had found its way into my hands. A curiosity set in, a deadly curiosity, sending an urge fueled by a feeling of intrigue to open the card, to reveal its contents… to read…
Zack – I’m so delighted and proud to spend this milestone birthday with you in person. You are truly loved here in Minnesota, and treasured by your whole Midwest squad. I’m just going to take this opportunity to again request that you move to Minnesota. Please, just consider it. I hope this new era of your life brings you more happiness, closer to the goals you’ve been working towards throughout your 20’s, and maybe getting published. I’m so proud to call you my friend and thankful to have you in my life.
All my love, Cambray.
I stared out at the open road ahead of me, absent of any movement except for the glowing rays surrounding the sun, slowly rising above the Earth to once again proclaim it’s reign over the world. It stared back, an old western outlaw all too eager for a showdown, punctual as always. “How dare he challenge me,” I felt him say as a thickening film of sweat lubricating the steering wheel the harder I squeezed. I set the card back down on the center console—my ticket out, my ticket back to the Promised Land… my answer. With one last deep breath I turned the key, igniting the engine that sent a loud roar through the air, a message that I was not to be trifled with; that I would not be intimidated. I would not go quietly in the night, as was demanded.
With a flick of a lever that set the car into drive, I left the beloved land held so dearly to my heart, that small glimpse of heaven called the Midwest, taking with me a gallon of Old Fashioned mix and a set of memories that was to remain along my side for the rest of my days on this precious Earth. I pressed on my foot on the gas pedal and cruised into the west, where I would eventually meet the outlaw once again, waiting for him to catch up.
My breaths became heavier and more frequent as I merged onto I-94 West, triggering a cold sweat that bled through the cotton of my Surly crew cut sweatshirt. There was no turning back, and nothing to hold me back as I made my way across a barren tundra of crusted dirt and brush, a nearly 900 mile stretch across the sparsely populated state of North Dakota and into the frontier of Montana, not at this point. The weight of my foot held firmly against the pedal unbeknownst to my consciousness, causing a rapid acceleration that crossed lanes and weaved between cars at an expedited pace, knocking on the door of authoritative confrontation; a pace of which I was in complete control.
Several miles outside of Minneapolis, a line of cars clogged the left lane of the freeway, each one with the foolish idea that their single file presence eased the flow of traffic, a dangerous and corrupting idea that left them much too stubborn to admit the error of their ways. I flicked my turn signal and shifted into the right lane, buzzing past the long line of cars who weren’t the least bit enthralled with a man and his audacity to test their presence on the road, as if I were 2nd grader causing a stink by cutting to the front of the lunch line. My position was gaining quickly, inching closer and closer at a breakneck speed to the vehicle directly in front of me, its steady pace appropriate for the right lane. However, the laws of Physics in its ultimate justice were not in my favor, for no combination of time, velocity, acceleration, and displacement could send me safely in front of the line of cars set so obdurately in the left lane. I flicked my blinker once again to signal my return behind the leader.
It was a cardinal error. By informing the car directly behind me and to my left my plan to merge with ample time, I had given the competition prescient knowledge of my next move, who seized upon the opportunity and acted accordingly. The gap to my left went from wide, to modest, to short, and then to even smaller until it was non-existent, closed by the inconsiderate acceleration of an ego-threatened driver. I threw up my hands in disbelief. The driver lacked the courage to give me any eye contact whatsoever. Accepting the fate for the moment, I slipped in behind him to manage both my progress and position until the next opportunity presented itself.
“No! Thwarted once again!” A red sedan this time, having witnessed the whole scene, repeated the offense of driver in front of me, cutting me off and sending my car into an abrupt and dangerous swerve back into the right lane. This driver held no bones about expressing his attitude and all out rudeness with a few expletives mouthed through the car windshield. Again, my hands subconsciously threw themselves up into the air, accompanied a few choice expletives myself.
It wasn’t the first time I had witnessed extreme anger on a Minnesota highway. Coming back from the Boundary Waters a few lovely summers back, a rather sweet and soft-spoken Cambray had turned hot with psychotic rage when confronted with rush hour traffic near the outskirts of the Twin-Cities. Thus, the action on of the two drivers further cemented my opinion that road rage was an epidemic plaguing the usual and otherwise friendly people of Minnesota, who once again made their point loud and clear. I was not to pass, under any circumstance.
I retreated to the back of the line several cars away, a position I was doomed to stay in as long as they had their say, a long and dreadful line bound by a set of imaginary rules. They were rules that had no registry within me; yet, I was forced into their submission by the others following with blind obedience. We crawled passed the cars on the right, each one with just enough set distance to make a full pass impossible. The scenery, a forest separated from the freeway by two long strips of grass lining it received little acknowledgement from me except for the fact that it simply existed, for I remained in place at the rear, the bulk of my concentration waiting for my chance to strike, not knowing if that chance would ever come, but fully prepared nonetheless.
For several long minutes I lingered, my demeanor smooth and calm, not letting the evil deeds done unto me to deter my focus or keep me my from completing my mission. I stayed back, lurking in the shadows; waiting for my chance, a chance to get off, to show them that despite their best efforts, despite all of their power, I could not—I would not… be… restrained. I sat and waited… just one time…
Inch by inch I crept closer, my mind racing faster, a circulation of air flowing faster, in through my nose and out through my mouth; my heart pounding, faster! Each passing second increasing in its intensity, driving my desire to go faster, for these mobile roadblocks ahead of me to move faster, faster—FASTER! Faster and closer to a decision I was forced to make, a one and a million shot—odds I would take in a heartbeat!
My eyes gleamed passed the last remnants of a passed car, calculating the available distance between it and the one ahead, real estate with a severe diminishing return. Into 5th gear I went, prepping for the moment to move, to turn the impossible to possible, to show the world my unbound potential. 4th gear—the Benz revved and grinded well over 3000 RPMs…. “Any moment now…” I glanced over at the open space to my right, pinpointing the exact moment to release; every inch was precious. I glanced again, looking for evidence of a car, evidence I didn’t see, that wasn’t there—open space—GO!
I swerved to the right. A fierce roar of an engine pierced the atmosphere, sending shocking pulses across the freeway. “80… 85… 90,” the speedometer’s dial rotated, moving across the front dashboard console at a steady rate. Rekindled with a state of intense concentration fed by a psychosis previously felt only once before within the treacherous terrain of Wyoming, I blasted past my opponents with the remaining distance between me and the car in my immediate line of view quickly diminishing.
100 feet. Time slowed. My breaths, the engine, the beat of my heart; every audible sound augmented, forcing an acute concentration into the past and present. Flashes of Idaho and the majesty of the Gran Tetons drove through my mind. Then came a pint of puke from a Sushi bar in Denver, a never-ending cornfield, the sight of pure beauty softly cutting through a delicate plane of water lined with an untouched forest, a representation of all things wonderful and natural in the world. Then there was love… love sealed by two partners, created and confirmed in the company of friends and family, watching with delight over a body of water sparkling with rays of fading sunlight, sunlight that would disappear and allow an amazing sprinkle of stars, both natural and artificial to light the world for the remaining hours of darkness.
This was the end. “But… it can’t be…”
50 feet. “I won’t make it. Stop!” my mind screamed. I had misjudged the distance. There wasn’t enough time. “Go back. It’s not worth it!” Every cell in body pulled at my leg, working in tandem with my mind, begging for the release of the gas, anything to prevent turning a beautifully engineered piece of machinery into a useless mush of metal scattered across a plot of pavement. My eyes darted back and forth throughout the car. Panic set in. Death entered my head—flying, living and dying, a battered body lying next to his heap of steel, the remains of a disfigured frame once recognized as a car, its spilt fluids joining that of its operator’s, until both are fully depleted and marked useless.
My eyes continued to dart back and forth and front to back; then stopped, fixated on an anomaly in between—a miracle. “Cheers,” it said, a piece of stationary sticking out of the center console. My eyes darted back to the road while my body pulled with all of its might to send my stubborn foot onto the brake… but it could not… overpowered by a single force, a beating heart pounding against my chest. Faster… faster… faster—FASTER! It pushed my foot harder on the gas pedal, one entity against an entire army, standing in sheer defiance with one simple message. “No. You’re wrong.”
20 feet. A single instance of life struck through me, sending a wave of confidence through the body it was once against. No longer did I fear death or pain. There was just absolute freedom, for at least one, beautiful moment—absolute freedom.
10 feet. I turned my head, staring directly at my original rival forbidding me of progression. We were to never see each other again. However, I was to make sure he would remember this moment. He would remember this day, the day he failed, the day I conquered, for all time. He twitched his head my direction, a microcosm of acknowledgement, just enough to fulfill my satisfaction.
5 feet. Time sped back into its normal form.
1 foot. I braced for impact; my eyes set forward, guided by some unnatural force, beaming towards the vehicle in front, readying for it. Fully expecting it.
A twist of the wheel jerked the car left. The motor shifted into third, thrusting me across the pavement. The engine screamed louder—louder, harder and faster! An angry howl, one seeking revenge on its enemy after several years of torture.
“WHAAAAAA HOOOOOO!” I screamed, delivering my final deathblow to my enemy, an enemy separated by mere inches; inches that turned to feet as its puttered engine breathed its final breaths over I-94 West. I didn’t wait to watch him perish, didn’t care to watch such a pathetic display as the feet turned to miles, and then to many miles, miles that would eventually become states.
I flew across the highway, past the last traces of the Midwest. There was no apology as I disappeared into the Siberian-like landscape of North Dakota, an unstoppable force with the world at its fingertips, a world waiting to be conquered as a challenge—one I gladly accepted. My heart continued it’s heavy beat, injecting my body with a double shot of adrenaline across the 850-mile stretch of I-94 West with several hours of daylight at my disposal. My eyes beat down the highway, eyeing its first victim like a madman possessed. This was what it meant to be alive. This is what it was like to love. This was what true freedom was.
“Bill! Gretch! I’m comin’ for ya!”
Pony, Montana. It seemed like such a lovely place…