Driving to Nowhere

Elizabeth Gotthelf

The gas station attendant looked at Eleanor suspiciously when she asked for the key to the restroom. Stupid hippy, his eyes said, I know what your kind does in our bathroom. Reluctantly, he handed it over to her, a lone key on a key chain with a tacky metallic zebra. "Okay," he said, looking at the Pepsi clock on the wall, "Five minutes only. We got other customers. And remember, I've got the other key." He patted a key ring attached to his jeans and grinned menacingly.

"No problem," she said. She had perfected roadside bathing down to a science. She even had a Dr. Bronners soaked washcloth hiding in her purse.

In the bathroom, she quickly used the toilet, then took off her grungy tank top and cut off shorts. Eleanor filled the sink with water and wiped her body down. The peppermint aroma from the soap relaxed her, and she had to remind herself that she had to hurry. She soaked the dirt off her right foot, readjusted herself, and then washed her left foot. She wished she could wash her hair, but that would be too obvious. She filled her water bottle, deciding she could at least rinse her hair out later. Eleanor looked at her watch, less than one minute. Eleanor dried herself off with paper towels, put on her clothes, returned the key, then headed back to the rust stained yellow Volkswagen van, where Dave, her significant other, was waiting for her.

"Hi," she said as she climbed in.

"Hey," he responded. He leaned over and kissed her freshly scrubbed face. "You smell like peppermint. Did you have a nice birdbath?" Birdbath was the phrase Dave used to describe Eleanor's attempt at bathing in public restrooms.

"Yeah, it was good. I feel much better. I'm kinda hungry. Do you have any food?"

"I'll share a banana with you."

"Okay." As Eleanor bit into the piece of fruit, she remembered the last dinner she had eaten at her mother's house. It had been lasagna with salad and apple pie for dessert. The easy comfort of her mother's house seemed good now but it didn't then. She remembered the fights, the loneliness, the dreams she had of leaving. And then Dave came along, and she started needing her mother less, and then he asked her to ride across the country with him, no agenda, no schedule, just the two of them on the open road. And how could she say no to such a perfect idea, when it was so obvious that the two of them were dreaming the same dream.

During that last dinner, her mother had prayed out loud. "Oh Lord," she said, "I'm so sorry. So sorry my daughter is leaving a stable home to live such a disgraceful life. But, please, Lord, protect her. She's a good girl at heart and I know one day she'll come around."

The next day they left. Eleanor, clutching The Klutz's Guide to Volkswagen Repair, turned one last time to wave at her mother, who looked up to wave back one last time. It was June. They were going to head up to Caribou Maine and travel through the northern states first. As it got colder they would head south. That was the plan, or as much of a plan as they dared to have.

Now, a month or so later, Eleanor was trying to remember what exactly she was hoping to discover. She had already discovered that Dave smelled when he didn't bathe regularly and donating plasma made her too weak to move.

Her mind wandered as she rummaged for change in the bottom of her purse so she could buy some raman noodles for dinner at their next stop. The day before they had attended services at a Unitarian Church so that they could get some free food at coffee hour. The coffee had been good, the organic carrot cake delicious, the people nice, and the service hadn't even been so bad, something about Queer Rights in a not so Righteous World. At noon they had attended an art opening, where they drank wine from bottles chilled in ice buckets and crackers and cheese.

All of this would have seemed like such an adventure months ago, but now it seemed like work, like just another way to make a living. She couldn't remember what day it was or what town she was in. The rumble in her stomach awoke her from her thoughts and she focused on the road they were traveling on. A billboard up ahead had an attractive young woman clad in white promising that in nine months, she too could be an x-ray technician.

"But I don't want to be an x-ray technician," Eleanor said out loud.

"What?" Dave asked.

"Uhh, nothing," Eleanor mumbled. "I'm hungry. That banana just didn't do it for me. Do you have anything to eat?"

Dave reached in the back seat and brought up a box of moon pies. "I found these in the dumpster in back of the gas station. The expiration date on them was yesterday." Dave grabbed Eleanor's hand. "I got them for you, baby."

"Great," said Eleanor, not really meaning it. She opened the plastic wrap and took a bite of the sticky pie. The stale sweetness nauseated her, but she continued to eat it until all that was left was melted chocolate on her fingers and crumbs on her lap.

"These are so good," Dave said, his fingers tapping the steering wheel in time to the music on the radio. He grabbed another one. "Want another one?" he asked.

"No thanks," she replied. As she licked her fingers clean Eleanor looked at the road in front of her. It was long and repetitious and seemed to go on forever.

© Elizabeth Gotthelf

Liz Gotthelf recently quit her job in human services. She lives in Portland Maine where she writes fiction and is currently scouting out her life's next adventure. An earlier version of this piece was published in Words and Images in 2001.

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