I made a stop in Washington to say good-bye to a friend, and then embarked on my twenty-two hour drive. If you make it out of the labyrinth of the Capital (no easy feat for someone with the directional sense of a comatose chinchilla), it’s pretty much a straight-shot to Texas. In total, I took three exits. I drove on I-66 for almost eight hours, through Roanoke, to Johnson City. On a stretch of road through Tennessee, I had the mountains flanking me, miles of asphalt ahead, and it began to hail on my beat-up Ford Taurus.
I recalled to memory the summer of 2010. That summer I was nineteen, and I faced several challenges that most nineteen-year-olds don’t have to endure. Some of which arose from my unfortunate tendency to pursue whatever I want to do in the moment without considering future ramifications, even if I am aware that consequences will follow. Incidentally, it is now occurring to me that I spent much of the past four years living a hedonistic, yet fiercely competitive, alternate reality, disparate from the “real world” in virtually every manner. The looks of shock on the faces of my colleagues whenever I share stories cement this notion that the culture at the University of Virginia was cultivated on another planet (Planet Bourbefferson). Evidently, descending from high altitudes to catch your friend’s vomit before he douses your new shoes after celebrating the conclusion of an exam for which you pulled an all-nighter by debating string theory with a world-renowned physicist and sauntering down a World Heritage site naked with the assistance of a police officer is not the norm anywhere, let alone in Texas.
But I digress. That summer was a whirlwind of one catastrophe after another, but I was so caught up in the thrill of the politics of it all that I didn’t even notice until the wreckage was strewn out all around me. (So, maybe a month ago.) Without getting into too much detail, one weekend several friends and I drove down to Charlottesville, Virginia, to negotiate the terms of our lease with our landlord. After a year and a half of mental anguish, scandal, emotional strain, and the deterioration of numerous relationships, the negotiations ended in our favor (and may now be found in the circuit court records of the Commonwealth). That night, however, in the sauna that was Virginia’s translation of early August, we were stuck. I excused myself from an argument that was going nowhere to sit on a tree stump amid the swirling summer gnats to make the requisite phone calls; then we piled into a truck.
We drove over the Blue Ridge to the soundtrack of exasperated whimpers in the front seat and choruses of indignant accusations (“This is ludicrous!” the driver yelled over and over, emphasizing the long “u” sound), accompanied by wild gesticulations. I mean, the arm-waving was rampant. The windshield sheared white clouds—they were that close to the ground—and we traced their cascade over the mountainside. We took respite around a table in an Italian restaurant in Staunton, monitoring the weather outside, and on our return to Charlottesville, we sliced through sheets of rain in the dark with only the intermittent flash of lightning to illuminate the roads, all wound up into ribbons. I slept through the second half of the ride.
Like he does on the subject of many other topics, Robert Penn Warren has profound things to say about driving, driving alone, and driving alone in the rain. He said:
There is nothing more alone than being in a car at night in the rain. I was in the car. And I was glad of it. Between one point on the map and another point on the map, there was the being alone in the car in the rain. They say you are not you except in terms of relation to other people. If there weren’t any other people there wouldn’t be any you because what you do, which is what you are, only has meaning in relation to other people. That is a very comforting thought when you are in the car in the rain at night alone, for then you aren’t you, and not being you or anything, you can really lie back and get some rest. It is a vacation from being you. There is only the flow of the motor under your foot spinning that frail thread of sound out of its metal gut like a spider, that filament, that nexus, which isn’t really there, between the you which you have just left in one place and the you which you will be when you get to the other place.”
When we studied All the King’s Men, we derived a major theme for the novel from that paragraph. Though his words struck me as poignant, I never understood how they related to the overarching theme that we called the “spiderweb theory”—the idea that Penn Warren put forth in prose that all people and events are interconnected in some way.
Every story I’ve ever told, every accomplishment I have had, and still more failures, every memory I’ve ever made—they’ve all been on the backs of other individuals. My mother always advised me never to take pictures of a landscape alone; people make the picture. How I define my existence is inevitably bound to the valuation of others, whether I like it or not. And so, twenty-two hours is a long time to be away from myself.
I may as well have not existed at all, save for one long phone call from a friend soliciting my advice in a business decision, which he ultimately chose not to heed.
It started to hail, and I couldn’t see more than five meters in front of the car. I thought that if I were to swerve off of the cliff, no one would know. Not even I would know. It would be as though I was never really there.
And so I found myself reflecting on the spiderweb theory.