We’re pushing our bikes up this giant hill, and the bugs are swarming around our heads. Hot Southern summer, with salty beads of sweat around our brows and upper lips. Slapping our necks with our dusty hands, smashing black gnats. Sometimes one will fly into your mouth. But we don’t care when they do. And when we get to the top of the hill we find a beat-up old cassette tape, cracked open and spilling its threads of sound onto the pavement. And we unwind the tape, a huge, hundred-foot string. And we snap it in half at the middle, tying the pieces onto the seats of our bikes, and ride back down the hill, watching the glittering of who knows what on cassette flowing behind us like a tail, like a stretched-out wish, like a thin brown destiny.
We’re driving a beat-up white car through a rainstorm at three o’clock in the morning in the middle of Mississippi—or maybe we’d made it to Alabama without seeing the sign, or maybe we were still in Louisiana. And the rain is coming down so hard that we can’t see the street in front of us. And we’re both thinking tornado warning for upper and lower Alabama, but we don’t say it out loud. So for three hours we travel what adds up to be forty-two miles on the low-shoulder freeway. We pass a few cars parked on the side, determined to wait it out. And in those three hours, the loud, wind-shaken hours, we don’t speak. I squint, my eyes low along the top of the dash, and he drives, tapping the gas pedal, not braking, easing on, rolling back toward home. Then, crossing the state line, we see the brightness of the morning. I look over at him, he stares ahead.
We used to take drives out to nowhere on weeknights. He’d smoke and we’d put a mix tape on and take turns talking. About what we wanted to do when we grew up, even though we were sixteen and didn’t know what we wanted to do when we grew up. And didn’t really care. And what we wanted to do would change every few miles, every few minutes. And we were grown up already. We’d pass rusted farm machinery, crumbling frames jutting out of the browning grass, leaping out of the dirt. Out near the deserted factory that you’d ride past if you went far enough. He’d take pictures of me in front of it. He wouldn’t let me take pictures of him, he said he didn’t like his picture taken. I wouldn’t smile because I knew what we were doing was serious. And he knew it was serious. And so he didn’t ask me to smile. We didn’t have to pretend. It was too hard to pretend. And mostly it still is.