The Van

“Baby, it’s 5:55!”

I opened my eyes to see her in the air mattress next to me. It was hot in the back of our van, except for two battery-run portable fans we had picked up at Wal-Mart before the trip. They were my idea; Hayden never planned ahead. She just told me “We’re going to Arizona” and expected us not to die of heat immediately when we hit the Texas border.

I rolled away from her on my side, my back peeling off the naked plastic of the air mattress; apparently neither of us were smart to think of bringing the bedspread. The sweat of my back went cold when the air of the fans hit it, so I pulled the blanket over my shoulders. My eyes were practically crusted shut, matted with makeup from yesterday, and all I wanted to do was sink back into the bowels of my subconscious where all my bizarre nightmares about high school math class were waiting for me.

Hayden tore the sheet off of me with a strong arm and rolled me back over.

“We’re watching the sunrise, asshole, get up.”

I sighed and followed her out of the van, slipping my feet into my tacky flip flops she bought me in Memphis. She had an early morning picnic out for us in the dusty open field we parked in; an old-fashioned red-and-white checked blanket with a humble breakfast selection laid out. She must have made the eggs, coffee and toast before I woke up. I didn’t know how the hell she managed to whip it up until I saw the propane burner and pan off to the side. So she must have kept the eggs in the ice chest. Weird. And the coffee must have been instant; did she heat the water over the propane stove too?

Thinking about all the unnecessary work she probably went through, I could only groan. “You know, if you had just let me treat us to IHOP, we wouldn’t have to eat our eggs on the ground.”

“You’re so ungrateful.” She giggled, crushing me with a hug. People joked that Hayden was twice my size, chubby and muscular at the same time, and it was still funny to me to hear her giggle like a schoolgirl from all the way up at six feet. Her voice was boyish and gruff until you got her to laugh; then it turned as light and girly as her lavender hair.

“All I’m saying is that the sunrise might look better from an IHOP window.”

“Shut up. Eat your goddamn eggs.”

We sat on the picnic blanket eating our chilled eggs, watching the sun rise. The eggs were cold from sitting, but at least the toast was warm. She must have had to made the toast after.

“If the coffee’s too cold or grainy or whatever, we can go to a Starbucks after,” Hayden said. “I know how particular you are.”

“It’s fine,” I lied.

I’ve woken up to hundreds of sunrises before, for work. It was different in a field, the soft colors roaming loose through the open sky rather than cramming in through our blinds. Even I had to admit it was lovely.

“It’s lovely,” I said, reluctantly.

“I told you it would be.”

I slapped a mosquito off my thigh.

After getting my double shot latte and Hayden’s huge frappuccino at the Starbucks in Amarillo, we were westbound on the interstate again. Once we reached the open road, she passed me the aux cord.

“I’ll let you handle the flamethrower this time,” she said, sipping her frap.

“The flamethrower?”

“It spits fire, babe.”

“Did you take me on this road trip so I could kill you outside Atlanta? Across state lines? Without any witnesses? Because that was so thoughtful of you.”

“Yeah, I figured the landlord would appreciate it if the stench of dead body were further away from the apartment.”

I laughed. “Fuck you.”

“Fuck you too.”

I sipped my latte as I browsed Spotify. I put the Aladdin musical soundtrack on, and watched Hayden’s face as she faced the road driving. When the first few notes escaped the van radio, her face opened up; her eyes widened and her mouth gasped.

“Bitch!” Hayden said. “We don’t have to listen to this, you hate Aladdin!”

“Well you’re driving, so I figured you needed something to lip sync while you stared at a barren road for the next ten hours.”

“But… Okay.”

Her dimples returned to her cheeks as she started singing the entirety of “Arabian Nights.” I had no idea how she did theatre and rugby at the same time in college, but I could tell she missed theatre more. When the Aladdin musical came out, she flipped her shit, and wouldn’t let me go to sleep until James Michael Whatever accepted his Best Actor on Broadway award for the genie on the Tony’s in June. She treated theatre the way my dad treated football. When Hamilton came out, the whole apartment wasn’t safe. I almost threw a dish at her the morning she thought she could sing the soprano parts.

I surfed my phone as her one-woman performance rampaged on in the driver’s seat. I was going to use up all our data before we even got to the Grand Canyon; there was nothing to look at outside the window, just dead grass and an abandoned gas station here and there, and part of me wanted to just jump out the car and throw my head under the tires of the 18-wheeler driving beside us, because at least that would give us something to do. After the opening number was done, she turned down the volume, surprising me. I don’t think she’s ever willingly turned down the volume to a musical number.

“You know…” Hayden said, her voice sinking from high-pitched theatre voice to her boyish rugby voice, “we’ve been dating for a year, and you still haven’t told me why you hate musicals.”

I looked up from my phone. “I haven’t?”

“I mean I know it’s just part of your doom-and-gloom existential bullshit personality–”

“Ouch. Harsh.”

She snickered. “But is there a particular reason you hate them so much? I mean you just go out of your way to loathe them.”

I bit my lip, looking down. “Well actually, I do have a story about why I hate musicals, now that you mention it… ”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah… see, when I was a little girl… Alan Menken, Stephen Sondheim and Idina Menzel broke into my house and killed my dog.”

“Fuck you!”

“I mean really killed him! Split him in half even, intestines out and everything. I can’t listen to musicals without thinking about his still-beating heart on the kitchen floor.”

“Seriously, fuck you, Joan.”

“Poor Fido. Idina sang the whole time they were finishing him off. I can’t listen to Let it Go without looking off into a thousand-yard stare.”

Hayden couldn’t help it, she laughed and laughed, slapping her hand on the steering wheel. She was light-hearted, but she had a soft spot for my graphic sense of humor. If there was one thing we both loved, it was laughing. I chuckled along with her, even though I was 90% sure she had heard that joke before. Or maybe I had told it to a friend of ours. Not sure.

By the time “Friend Like Me” came on, we were quiet, Hayden resting one thick wrist on the steering wheel, the other one rested against the open window sill. I continued a game on my phone, and before we knew it, we were both in New Mexico, passing “The Land of Enchantment” welcome signs. Yes, signs. There were two different welcome signs, for some reason.

“We’re in Breaking Bad territory now,” Hayden said. “You want to see if we can find the high school Walter White taught at?”

“Was that actually filmed in New Mexico? The school, I mean.”

“You know, I’m actually not sure. I figured you’d know, you’re the human IMDb.”

“On it.”

Right as my thumb hit Google Chrome, we heard a loud pop, and the van hopped. I shot up.

“Hayden, what the fuck was that?”

“I think we might have ran over something.”

As she spoke, her voice was shrouded in the louder and louder rumbling of the van. It felt like an earthquake.

“Pull over, pull the fuck over!” I yelled frantically as Hayden steered us off the interstate onto the desert. When she cut off the engine, we raced outside, the smell of burning rubber and hot air stinging our noses. Sure enough, the right back tire was as flat as my chest.

“Oh my God,” was all I could say. I looked at Hayden. She was at a loss for words, her wide eyes glued to the blown out tire and her mouth gaping. I sighed, pursed my lips, and made my way back to the back of the van. “I knew this would happen. Wake me up when Triple A fixes it.”

I slammed the sliding door behind me, turned both our battery-powered fans on to high, and crash landed on the air mattress, sliding my phone open to scroll mindlessly through to kill time. Then I heard another slam – the van door sliding open.

“Joan. What the fuck was that supposed to mean.”

I didn’t even look up from Facebook. “You know exactly what that means.”

“I want to hear it from you.”

“It means,” I locked my phone back, threw it, and turned to her, “that you probably didn’t get the van checked up on before we left for this insane road trip, which means you took a blind gamble on whether or not these shitty, shitty tires were going to carry us all three-and-a-half thousand miles to and from the gigantic asshole of America that is the Grand Canyon. Is that safe to assume?”

Hayden’s olive face turned red. “Joan, it’s just a flat tire.” Her voice cracked. “I brought a spare. I’m going to get us to the next town and then we’ll get a brand new one.”

“How much is that going to be, Hayden? How many pizza delivery tips do you have saved aside to fix a blown out tire?”

She stared at me. Her eyes narrowed, her chest heaved slightly, the red in her face disappearing. “Why. Why are you like this.”

After the van door slammed shut I realized that I had gone “full jackass,” as my mom liked to call it. At my normal state, I’m only “half jackass,” like when I don’t make Hayden cum after she makes me cum because I’m too sleepy after, or when I put the empty cereal box back in the cupboard because I think half a handful of Cinnamon Toast Crunch is enough for a bowl, or when I get too drunk when we go out and tell all our friends that Hayden is still too scared to watch American Horror Story with the lights out. No, this time was worse. I’m just barely five feet; I’m so little that I forget the power I have over my loved ones. This is probably the most full jackass thing I’ve ever said to Hayden in a while.

I’m a lady of order, I like to have our meals for the week planned out, our Netflix list updated, and my to-do list completely checked off at the end of the day. So when Hayden told me a few days ago that we were going to the Grand Canyon in a day’s notice, I thought she was joking at first. And when I realized that she wasn’t, I flipped my shit. She had an old map she got at an antique store, an ice chest full of beer and breakfast food, the propane stove, fresh gas in the van; the kind of shit you see when movie characters are about to go on a trip. She had already told my boss I was taking off for the rest of the week; when she said my boss “wholeheartedly agreed” I needed this, I rolled my eyes so far back my head hurt. And even though she planned ahead my days off and the van and everything else, she wasn’t even packed the morning we were supposed to leave Atlanta.

“The Grand Canyon is still gonna be there, baby,” she told me, “I say we fuck all morning, watch another episode of Breaking Bad, go to that diner you like for brunch, and by that time we can probably make it to Memphis before it gets dark.”

We did that. We fooled around. We made it to season four. She packed. I packed some extra things. I made a shopping list. At the diner she had huevos rancheros while I had a breakfast club. There’s something so satisfying about having an entire breakfast in between two slices of bread. She even bought me a mimosa. “You’re not driving, baby, you’re relaxing,” she told me. I groaned. I hated not having my hands on the steering wheel when we drove. It made me nervous.

After a quick stop to Wal-Mart for last minute road trip items, we were finally on the road. I don’t think I’ve taken a real road trip since my family and I went to Disney World when I was four, when my parents were still together, and it hit me just then. I had flashbacks of being in the backseat of my mom’s Suburban, my little brother and I fighting over the Gameboy, my mom screaming at us, my brother shitting his diaper when I finally ripped it away. He was only two, he had no concept of video games yet, let alone Super Mario, so why the hell would I let him have it? What if he accidentally saved over my file? I remember trying in vain to explain this to my mother, whose baggy eyes glared at us from the rear-view mirror from time to time while my dad laid sleeping in the passenger seat.

Leaving Atlanta, I was in the passenger seat this time. And my lavender-haired girlfriend, her eyes devoid of bags or glares or impending divorce papers, looked at me with such wild adventure and excitement that I couldn’t help but smile back. She was so full of optimism and life; it was clear to anyone who was the theatre major and who was the math-philosophy double major between the two of us.

And right then, after my beautiful girlfriend slammed the door of the van, I sat on the sweaty air mattress, the two battery-powered portable fans aggressively blowing my hair off my shoulders, and I couldn’t figure out how the hell I was going to recover from my moment of full assholery.

-

We were silent the entire time Hayden changed the spare, the entire time we drove to the small town of Tucumcari at forty-five miles an hour on the spare, and the entire time we waited in the lobby for them to change the spare out for a good tire. I paid for the new tire. Hayden didn’t object.

When we got the keys back to the van, it was the afternoon, the sun beginning to beat into the windshield of the car onto our faces. We sat in the front seats for a solid minute. Hayden stared at the windshield. I decided to open my dumb mouth.

“Hayden, I–”

“I’m driving us home. I’m driving us home right now.”

“No!” I grabbed her wrist. My little hand barely made it around her wrist, but it still managed to hold it back from the ignition. I looked at her, hoping my eyes would burrow into her and she’d look at me. She didn’t.

“Let’s go to the Grand Canyon,” I told her. She didn’t move. “Come on,” I continued, my voice cracking a bit as I tried to lighten the mood, “don’t you want to spit down into America’s gigantic asshole? The Grand Canyon is basically America’s asshole after all, walking along it would be like giving America a rimjob, really, isn’t that funny?”

“You work all the time.”

I shut my mouth. I paused, my breath in my throat, afraid of what she’d say next.

Hayden sighed. “I thought this trip would get you to loosen up a bit. You work overtime so that we can have a roof over our head while I work a deadbeat job and go to audition after audition.” She turned to me, tears in her dark eyes. “You know how much that means to me? I just wanted to give you a bit of a vacation, to show you how much you mean to me. How much I appreciate you.”

I couldn’t help it, I lost it. I cried and I cried into her big shoulder. Hayden crushed me in a hug across the seats, my little body melting into her.

“Joan…” Hayden continued, “if you didn’t want to go on this road trip, you should have let me know. I know I probably wouldn’t have listened, but you should’ve insisted. I would have planned something less drastic for our one-year anniversary.”

Oh my God. This week was our first anniversary week. This was her anniversary present to me. I didn’t plan anything for her. Or maybe I came up with a list on Etsy of stuff to get her, but I had never gotten around to purchasing anything. Lately the days had been shooting by like bullets and our first anniversary just crept on me. And right then and there, in the strong arms of the only woman I’ve ever loved, I realized that I was the worst girlfriend in history, even below Lady Macbeth. At least Lady Macbeth said she’d kill a baby for Macbeth to be king or whatever. Fuck. Now she had me thinking in theatre terms. I hated her.

“I love you,” I sobbed, my voice muffling into her arm. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so happy you care about me, I never show it.”

“Did you miss the part about you working overtime?” Hayden said. She pulled me away to grab both my shoulders and look into my eyes. “Babe, you do so much for me. Every day. Every week. These have been the happiest twelve months of my life so far, and it’s all because I’ve finally been able to follow my dream. Because of you. And I know I’m not the lead in any films or plays yet, but I will be. And one day, when I do get a callback, and when you walk into a theatre one night to see me, you’ll see all your hard work paid off. I love you.”

I burst out a heaving sob, spitting on her and squinting my eyes shut like that ugly Kardashian picture. I was so happy. She laughed, and we hugged and laughed and cried for a little before heading off.

-

We continued our journey through New Mexico. We visited American Indian tourist trap stores and bought a bunch of cool-looking gems and shirts. I even spent God knows how much money on a gigantic amethyst stone for Hayden; the amethyst matched her hair and was resilient and strong, just like her. I told her this, she told me to stop kissing my ass, that she wasn’t going down on me for a long time.

When we crossed the Arizona border, we were astounded at the amount of gigantic rocks that were on the side of the road, and marveled at the amount of rocky hills we crossed. When we finally reached the Grand Canyon, it was gorgeous, just like Hayden knew it would be. Neither of us had seen it before. We stared as the sun set behind the canyon, her arm around me.

“You know what?” I said.

“Please don’t make another America’s asshole joke, you’re gross.”

I opened my mouth to say it, but stopped. I decided to listen to her for once.