This seemingly endless road trip novel has the potential to become a thrill ride, but it makes too many wrong turns and never gets above low gear. After receiving a kidney transplant, 28-year-old Leigh Fielding notices some strange developments: sudden interests in, for instance, graphic novels, kayaking and ethnic food. Convinced she's channeling the spirit of her donor, Larry Resnick, Leigh decides to go on an "Unfinished Business Tour," visiting her best friend, an ex-boyfriend and her mother, and tracking down Larry's family. The notion of Leigh inheriting Larry's traits and tastes is explored amusingly and a few surprises pop up (a supposedly stranded teenage girl among them), but Riley puts too much stock in Leigh's voice, which, while sometimes funny, is too self-involved to leave much room for the reader. This particular trip is too long and exhausting for its own good. (May)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Driving Sidewaysby Jess Riley
Leigh Fielding wants a life. Seriously. Having spent the past five years on dialysis, she has one simple wish: to make it to her thirtieth birthday. Now, thanks to the generosity of the late Larry Resnick and his transplanted kidney, it looks like her wish may come true.
With her newfound vitality (and Larry’s kidney) in tow, Leigh hits the road for an… See more details below
Leigh Fielding wants a life. Seriously. Having spent the past five years on dialysis, she has one simple wish: to make it to her thirtieth birthday. Now, thanks to the generosity of the late Larry Resnick and his transplanted kidney, it looks like her wish may come true.
With her newfound vitality (and Larry’s kidney) in tow, Leigh hits the road for an excursion that will carry her from Wisconsin to California, with a few stops in between: Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, the Rockies, Las Vegas–and a memorable visit to thank Larry’s family for the second chance.
Yet Leigh’s itinerary takes a sudden detour when she picks up a seventeen-year-old hitchhiker, Denise, a runaway with a bunch of stories and a couple of secrets. Add a long-lost mother, a loaded gun, an RV full of swingers, and Hall and Oates’s Greatest Hits to the mix, and Driving Sideways becomes a hilarious and original journey of friendship, hope, and discovery.
Praise for Driving Sideways:
“Driving Sideways is a gorgeous novel . . . hugely entertaining and very touching. Jess Riley’s voice is irreverent and wonderful, and her writing is genius.”
–Marian Keyes, author of Anybody Out There?
"A hopeful and hilarious debut ... Jess Riley may well be my new favorite author." –Jen Lancaster, author of Bitter is the New Black
“Brilliant . . . Jess Riley proves herself a huge new talent.”
–Kristy Kiernan, author of Catching Genius
From the Trade Paperback edition.
"Leigh Fielding was diagnosed with kidney disease and recently received a transplant. Since then, she’s been trying all kinds of new things and comes to believe that she’s channeling the donor, Larry. She decides to leave her central Wisconsin home for a road trip to meet Larry’s family and see if he’s anything like the new personality she has acquired. Things go awry at the Minnesota border when a teenage girl named Denise steals Leigh’s purse and uses it to blackmail Leigh into giving her a ride to L.A. On the way they visit classic tourist traps and try to stay out of trouble, especially since Denise claims that it’s her crazy ex in the black sedan that seems to be following them. Leigh’s road trip continues, embracing both highs and lows, alternately hilarious, humiliating, and heartbreaking, often within the same sentence. Smart and funny without being forced, sentimental without being maudlin, Riley’s funny, picaresque vision of America will make readers wish they could go along with Leigh on her next trip."
— Hilary Hatton
"Driving Sideways is a gorgeous novel I LOVED it!! It's enjoyable, uplifting, and so so so funny and sparky. I found it hugely entertaining and very touching. Jess Riley's voice is irreverent and wonderful, and her writing is genius." Marian Keyes, author of Anybody Out There?
"A hopeful and hilarious debut ... Jess Riley may well be my new favorite author." Jen Lancaster, author of Bitter is the New Black
"Brilliant … Jess Riley proves herself a huge new talent." Kristy Kiernan, author of Catching Genius
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Read an ExcerptDriving Sideways
By Jess Riley Ballantine Books
Copyright © 2008 Jess Riley
All right reserved.
I am alone no longer.
It’s strange how much you can change in just one year. Twelve months ago, I’d have laughed in your face if you told me I’d be packing for a road trip this morning. Not rudely, of course, but because traveling anywhere remote was a remote possibility for me at that point. I’d have sooner believed you if you’d said, “One year from now, you will become a Scientologist, learn the pan flute, and join a Bay City Rollers tribute band.”
But I’ve had a change of heart. Well, kidney, really. I’m leaving for Los Angeles this morning, about to do some things long overdue. My Saturn is idling in the driveway, stuffed with suitcases I’ve never taken anywhere but to hospitals. I feel as if I’ve just discovered that the cure for cancer is dark chocolate followed by two orgasms. I think I’ve forgotten to pack my toothbrush, but I don’t care. I can buy one on the way. The thought thrills me.
“So you’re really doing this,” my brother, James, says from behind me, sending me out of my skin.
I jump, making a hair ballish–noise like aak, and spin around to face him. He crosses his arms and fixes me with his practiced stare: one part condescension, two parts disbelief. It’s the same lookJames gives the paperboy when the Fond du Lac Reporter misses the welcome mat on the front porch by an inch or more. I lean back into my car, pretending to check my cooler of snacks and bottled water while trying to regain my pretrip composure. As my surrogate parent for the last sixteen years, James has always been able to sneak up on me—catching me in an innocuous act like reading and still making me feel as if I’d been caught stealing from a quadriplegic. “Yes, I’m really going.”
“Does Kate know?” he snipes.
“She will,” I reply. I shut the cooler and turn to face James.
“Leigh, why do you even care? She’s such an asshole. She’s a footnote.”
“I just do, is all.” Kate is our mother, who developed the curious conviction when James and I were younger that she would one day become a great actress. The morning she left us for Hollywood, she crouched next to me and whispered absently, “Never settle. Take big risks.” Then she stepped into her Ford Pinto and lurched away from the curb, her silver bumper glinting in the sunlight, the scent of Charlie cologne mingling with exhaust in the air. I was five years old. I sat on the curb waiting for her until Sesame Street came on, after which I returned to the curb to wait for her return. Twenty-three years later, I’m still waiting.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” James walks around my car and stands directly in front of me. He looks spooky without having had his first cup of coffee, a little like a B-list actor with an emerging heroin addiction. Not that James has ever done heroin. James actually times his alcoholic beverages—one per hour—to ensure he never “loses control.” Eighty percent of my friends have had a crush on him at one point or another. Even the guys. They all want to be him, until they spend more than an hour in his presence. “When’s the last time you even talked to her?” he continues.
I ignore him and pretend to examine my kayak, which I’ve secured with bungee cords to the roof of my car. Exhaust forms a foggy pool around my ankles. I don’t think it’s a good idea to tell him Kate has no idea I’m dropping by. Or that the last time I talked to her was about seven years ago.
“And how well did that conversation go?”
I ignore him some more. If I ignore him long enough, James usually gives up.
“Leigh, be reasonable. You’re in no shape for some . . . road trip . . . that will just disappoint you.”
His tone makes my stomach contract into a fist. “I’m in fine shape. Dr. Jensen said so last week.” I adjust my kayak one last time. Why couldn’t I have just gotten up ten minutes earlier? I suddenly hate the snooze bar. I wish I could think of something clever to say, but the best I can do is, “Besides. I’ve been reasonable my whole life. That’s the problem.” James rolls his eyes: Give me a break. Even now, he knows exactly how to make me feel like a twelve-year-old who still can’t read a clock.
“People wait for years on kidney transplant lists. . . . You’re lucky enough to get one, and all of a sudden you’re Peter Fonda in Easy Rider?” He shakes his head, almost knocking me down with a sonic boom of disappointment. I think he’s more upset by the fact that I’m growing as a person—his little sister is changing from un- assuming, vanilla Leigh, with a spine like a warm Twizzler stick, to independent, empowered LEIGH, with a firm handshake and excellent posture. I once was lost, but now am found, thanks to a kind stranger named Larry Resnick.
But more on him later.
“James,” I say, “Peter Fonda had a motorcycle filled with drugs and money. I’ve got a Saturn with a kayak on the roof.” I also think of asking James if he would prefer I join a convent and sew my lips shut, but instead I say, “I’m tired of living vicariously through everyone else. I want my own life.” And really, that’s the meat of the matter. I want a life. I try to sound rational and convincing as I explain this to James, but I know if this conversation goes on much longer, my voice will grow higher and tighter until it sounds like I’m sucking helium. As the person who used to sign my report cards and once met with my ninth-grade principal to discuss the lewd cartoons I’d drawn in my math book to amuse friends, James has always had that power over me.
“What if you get sick again,” he says, challenging me. “Then what?”
“Then I find a hospital.” Simple logic, right? I think James is just afraid of change. Either that or being left behind with his wife, Marissa, who makes hot tuna casserole every Tuesday and leases a new beige Volvo every year. As if on cue, Marissa opens the back door. In a gauzy lilac robe, her hair in purple rollers, she looks like she’d be much more comfortable had she been named Mimi or Lady Bird.
“Everything alright?” she asks timidly.
James crosses his arms and glares at me. “Leigh still thinks she’s going to California.”
Marissa appears confused. “Oh?”
“I’m just taking a trip. People take them every day,” I say, trying to sound calm. Would James ever just let me breathe? I feel chest-deep in a vat of pudding and sinking fast.
“Leigh, you are not going alone.”
“I’ll be fine. I’m only going for two weeks,” I insist, but I don’t sound too convincing. I’m growing claustrophobic and sweaty, so I decide to just take action before I change my mind completely. “James,” I say with as much finality as I can muster, “I’ll call you from Sioux Falls.” With that, I slide into the driver’s seat, shift from park, and begin my journey. It’s one of those hyper, surreal moments where you might escape after all, where you think for a minute that you’ve actually convinced the Jehovah’s Witnesses peering through your front window that you’re not home, even though they clearly saw you streaking through the living room and diving behind the couch wearing nothing but a towel.
I leave James looking hurt and perplexed in the driveway, and suddenly I feel guilty. But not guilty enough to stay, and not guilty enough to quash my excitement.
I’m really doing it. Two left turns, a series of intersections, and one long graveyard on my right (which I drive past holding my breath, to add a day to my life), and I’m leaving Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Good-bye, Tucker’s Hamburgers, Gilles Frozen Custard, Lakeside Park, and the Miracle Mile, where a dozen people bought winning lottery tickets and thousands more bought losing ones. I wish I had a convertible, so I could wear Jackie O sunglasses and a scarf over my hair and carelessly toss something fluttery and symbolic into the wind—maybe a love letter from an old beau, or ancient to-do lists, or just bundles of money, because if I had a convertible and Jackie O sunglasses, it stands to reason that I’d have a much more exciting life involving a surplus of inherited or ill-gained money.
I turn my stereo up and Jefferson Starship assaults me: “We built this city . . . !” I rush to find something that won’t trigger my gag reflex. (Ah, yes: “London Calling,” by the Clash. For some, not just a band, but a way of life.) I suppress a delirious giggle. I’m really doing this. I begin to sing along and ease onto Highway 23. My MedicAlert bracelet glints in the sun, looking much more like a sterling silver Return to Tiffany™ heart tag bracelet than the old-school stainless steel plate the kid with diabetes wore around his wrist in fifth grade. Humming down the highway with the rising sun at my back, I snake a hand down my side to touch my scar. I can almost feel my new kidney jouncing around in me. It feels less like an alien jelly bean and more like an old pal. I decide to name it Larry. After its namesake. I am alone no longer.
I was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease when I was twenty-two, but hadn’t felt quite right since high school, really. I spent my late teens like an extra from the set of Flowers in the Attic: pale, fragile, dark half-moons under my eyes. I napped often. You’d have thought I grew up on melba toast dusted with arsenic. It wasn’t until my brief stint in college that anyone had a clue what was going on inside of me. The overworked staff at the university clinic put me on benazepril for high blood pressure and Tylenol for a low, grumbling back pain that wouldn’t go away. Minor, right? It was nothing gripping and urgent like meningitis or syphilis. I had more bladder infections than anyone else I knew, but I figured I was just prone to them, the way my friends were prone to cold sores and bad taste in men. And my fat ankles? Well, they were just another of the many physical traits that would never make me a qualifier for America’s Next Top Model. Nothing to write home about.
One day while filling out a doggy report card at Fuzzy Navels for Kermit, a high-strung pug, I collapsed with a blooming, amazing pain in my lower abdomen. (Fuzzy Navels is the doggy day care I work at. I was beta “paw”ssociate.) They wheeled me out of work on a pop-up gurney, and everything happened so fast after that: the ultrasound that diagnosed my disease, a million blood and urine tests, a parade—no, a hailstorm—of needles, new words like creatinine and erythropoietin. . . . My kidneys were infected with cysts that were multiplying, bleeding, taking over, blossoming like mini mushroom clouds. People with polycystic kidney disease (or PKD) aren’t supposed to get sick until their midlife crisis, until they’ve had time to save for retirement and build equity in a home. It’s supposed to progress slowly, plodding along at a nice, glacial pace. But I guess my particular PKD skipped class the day they handed out the syllabus. Over the next few months, the painful cyst-bleeds ramped up in frequency and intensity, as did the resultant hospital stays. And then one day, my cysts just wouldn’t stop bleeding. The pain was radioactive. My abdomen swelled up like the bloated belly of a refugee. I became a revolving door for dozens of blood transfusions.
My kidneys, then working as successfully as Todd Bridges after Diff’rent Strokes, were excised from my body during a bilateral nephrectomy from which I now have a fifteen-inch scar. And I became the second-youngest patient on kidney dialysis at St. Luke’s.
I remember I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all. I felt as if I were hurtling toward earth without a parachute. I stepped outside my body, avoiding eye contact with everyone: the boy who bagged my groceries, the teller at the bank, even my closest friends. In an orgy of self-pity, I let tears collect in my ears at night while I mentally catalogued everything I’d probably die before doing or seeing or touching or tasting. I eventually stopped returning my friends’ calls. I became a nonperson pulling into my brother’s driveway in a noncar. I hadn’t quite received a death sentence, but I knew my odds. About 55,000 people are on waiting lists for a kidney transplant at any given time, and 12 people die each day before they get one. That’s 4,380 people dead every year, just off the transplant list. I tried to stay optimistic. If 12,000 people receive a kidney transplant in a given year, I had a 37 percent chance of making it to thirty. Even the Miracle Mile couldn’t help me.
Talk about putting things in perspective.
PKD is genetic (although I can’t recall anyone in my extended family being formally diagnosed); so thus programmed from birth, my getting sick was inevitable. And maybe I lit the fuse with a few too many college visits to Bullwinkle’s for dollar Captain and Cokes on Thursdays, but what could I do now? By the time I decided that anyone in their twenties could be hit by a truck before they made it to thirty, my doctors had me on a list for a kidney transplant. James wanted to give me a kidney, but he wasn’t a good match. We seldom are. I love James, and I owe him more than the average person owes an older sibling. But there’s something in James that’s like lemonade on a canker sore.
But that’s a story for the ride.
So anyway, six years, hundreds of hemodialysis sessions, and a million bad poems later, I’m the proud parent of an adopted kidney donated by a good-hearted stranger named Larry Resnick. Sadly, he wasn’t a living donor. I have no idea how he died, but I’m sure it wasn’t of old age.
God, I sound flippant. I don’t mean to sound so crass. I guess there’s no telling what kind of reaction you’ll have when told you may or may not make it to thirty due to an organic rebellion occurring inside your body. And how you’ll swallow the prescription for that ailment is something else entirely. My doctors told me the new kidney was not a cure-all. That I should think of it as just one more piece of my total ongoing treatment plan, the key word being on- going.
I know I’m not cured, but when I woke up after surgery, I wondered if I was in the wrong room. Or the wrong body. I felt as if I’d been living in the dream where you’re trying to run away from a lurching horde of zombies, but your feet are tied together, so all you can do is shuffle, and I’d finally woken up. Once my anesthetic wore off, I wanted to devour a deep-dish cheese pizza, then take a sun-dappled bike ride through Paris. Well, I was probably incapable of riding in the pace car of a parade, given my hospital gown and stitches, but damn I felt great!
My transplant team said that sometimes people wake up after surgery feeling quite well, and I shouldn’t push myself, and a million other dos and don’ts. And as long as my kidney functioned, I’d have to take medication every day that suppressed my immune system so my body wouldn’t reject it. Of course I listened. I’ve been listening all my life. And I’ll do everything I’m supposed to, but . . . something’s different. I can’t help feel I’ve been given a free ticket to the destination of my choice. My mind keeps playing that song from The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and the gang wake up from their sleep in the poppy field and dance right on into the Emerald City—“Optimistic Voices,” I believe it’s called. (You can almost imagine the conversation that led to that title. “But we need to name the song!” . . . “I don’t know. It’s a pretty hopeful tune. And those gals’ voices—so cheerful, so positive, so . . . optimistic. Jeez, I don’t know. This is a tough one!”)
After the operation I returned to my brother’s place and gradually resumed my life. The first perk was that I didn’t have to return to work at Fuzzy Navels for about five months. And when I did, I didn’t have to pick up poop anymore. Too germy. Too much risk of infection.
But then things got a little strange. Before my transplant, I lived in the rigid little bubble that many chronically ill people call home. Every morning for breakfast, I had a bowl of shredded wheat and soy milk. I measured all of my portions. Every day for lunch I ordered a veggie sandwich on a sesame bagel from the Bagelmeister Café. For dinner each night I had a salad of mixed greens and iced tea with whatever low-sodium, low-phosphorous, low-potassium casserole Marissa had taken a well-meaning stab at that evening (mmmm, right?). After dinner, I watched Animal Precinct and ate an entire bowl of salt- and taste-free popcorn. You get the picture.
But after my surgery, I began having strange cravings for food I’d never tasted before. Gazpacho. Falafel with cold cucumber salad. Candied ginger. Once I found myself standing in the Copps checkout line at two a.m. dropping five bags of frozen edamame on the conveyer belt. Five bags! I’m sure the checker thought I was completely stoned.
In addition to my new food cravings, I also completely lost interest in the music that had propelled me through three years of college. Dido? Barftastic! Third Eye Blind? Shittacular! At first I chalked it up to a simple change in tastes. This happened to everyone, didn’t it? I mean, we all used to have mall hair and jelly pumps, but then we developed common sense, right? One night, I found myself on line at the Exclusive Company holding CDs by Elbow, Nick Drake, and Wilco. I’d never heard of these people—or heard any of their songs—but I knew I’d love them. And I did. A new soundtrack for a new me.
James knew something was up when he came home one afternoon to find me on my knees digging up his front lawn. “What are you doing?” he asked, in a tone that suggested he was making a mental note to price straitjackets online later.
“I’m metal detecting,” I answered. Wasn’t it obvious?
He frowned. “I didn’t know you owned a metal detector.”
“I just bought it,” I said, removing my gloves and grinning. “You won’t believe the stuff I’m finding!”
After I showed him the collection of rusty nails and old coins I’d dug up, he left, looking slightly ill. Later he began referring to my new hobby as “mental defecting.”
I discovered metal detecting by accident at the park one afternoon with my new favorite reading material, graphic novels. I saw a man who bore a strong resemblance to Ernest Borgnine skimming the ground with a machine like the starship Enterprise on the end of a long stick. It occasionally emitted a muted bwoop, at which point he crouched down, dug around in the dirt, and unearthed a mud-caked artifact that he carefully examined. I forgot my pretransplant shyness and asked him what he was digging up, and he showed me. Dirt-crusted coins, worn dog tags, and even a rusty contraption that looked like an old polio brace. I bought my own metal detector the next day. I checked with Dr. Jensen, since I knew I wasn’t supposed to be digging around in the dirt, and he said it was okay because my surgery had been more than six months ago. As long as I wore gloves and washed my hands. Which I would have done anyway, given the fact that I despise dirty hands.
I know, this sounds like a hobby for retired accountants who wear black socks with sandals. But since I have such a short attention span, I figured it’d be a great way to meditate on the go and make some pocket change in the process. And like the man who scours used book stores convinced he’ll discover an inscribed first edition of Anna Karenina for five bucks, I am positive I’ll one day unearth a pocket watch that belonged to Ralph Waldo Emerson or maybe a flask used by Janis Joplin. I’m going to have to keep this one a secret from my friends, though. They just wouldn’t understand.
Weirdly, I also had a strong urge to go kayaking. Before my surgery, I thought of kayaks as the Canoes of Death. The very idea terrified me. Lacking any semblance of upper-body strength, I knew I’d just roll over and trap myself underwater the second I sat in one. And I only knew how to doggy-paddle—my version being much closer to the flailings of a stroke victim than that of a flat-coated retriever gliding through the water with a duck in his jaws. I also thought only people with really expensive sunglasses and huge backpacks kayaked. But guess what? With my new kidney, I bought my own smallish recreational kayak and joined a kayaking club. I talked my friend Wes into buying a kayak and joining the club, too. Wes turned out to be pretty good.
While I was reexamining my life, I decided to take this road trip. I call it my Unfinished Business Tour. So here are the major pit stops during the tour: First, stop in for a chat with Seth Bradley, whose last words to me were, “We can still be friends, right? [Long pause.] So are you gonna eat that?” Second, pick up my road trip partner for the next leg of the journey—my best friend, Jillian, who moved to Colorado shortly after we graduated from high school. Oh, and while I have her attention, talk her out of marrying her eye crust of a boyfriend, Geoffrey (yes, with a G—even my neighbor’s cat had the good sense to be named Jeff with a J). Third, personally thank Larry Resnick’s family for his gift of life to me and learn if I’m really channeling him. Last but not least, I want to confront my mother about how she could abandon James and me. I know that at this point I shouldn’t care, but I do. I’m finally ready to ask the questions that have dogged me my whole life.
You may be thinking that this is an errand for the chronically and optimistically deluded, or maybe a person who’s eaten some bad bologna. You may also be thinking, Channeling the kidney donor? Is she high? I know. It does sound like I’m smoking lawn fertilizer. So let’s throw this narrative in reverse. The Seth thing, well, that’s just basic curiosity about the old college boyfriend who broke my heart. Okay, broke is too kind a word; more like he sliced my heart from my chest, sautéed it in butter and garlic, and ate it during a date with Kara Rivers, his next girlfriend. On a whim, I e-mailed his old Hotmail account, not really expecting a reply. But he wrote back, and he sounded genuinely happy to hear from me. Really happy, like I was the Megabucks lottery commissioner with a big check for him or something. Turned out he landed a job after college in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We made plans to meet for lunch. Since I was headed west anyway, I figured, What the hell? I was so over him, and maybe he’s gotten bald and fat, which would be kind of fun. But he was my first major deal, and the last real one, so you know how that goes.
The Jillian and Geoffrey thing is a bit more complicated. They started dating six months ago, and now they’re engaged. While I realize this isn’t terribly absurd, here’s the problem: I’ve never met Geoffrey, and neither has Jillian’s family. And Jillian is close to her family. And to me. We’ve always had veto power over the men she’s dated, and there have been a lot. Sure, she and Geoffrey live in Colorado, but you’d think they could’ve squeezed in at least one trip back to Wisconsin somewhere during their whirlwind courtship. I wasn’t really paying attention while this developed, because I was deeply absorbed in discovering and mentally cataloguing more ways I was channeling Larry. And that whole idea is Jillian’s fault anyway. But through conversations with Meg, another friend who moved to Aspen with Jillian a few years back, I learned some disconcerting things about Geoffrey with a G.
He seems to be your average self-deluded weirdo—not nutty enough to be a lunatic, but not endearing enough to be eccentric. He runs a health club called Crunchtime in downtown Aspen, and one of his more memorable print ad campaigns compared a photo of his buff thonged ass to a photo of a friend’s saggier ass in a thong (“Become ass-tounding again! Join Crunchtime!”). When The Passion of the Christ was released, Geoffrey printed an ad featuring a crucified weight lifter and the tag “Resurrect Your Body!” That wasn’t even the worst part. He’d superimposed a photo of his own smiling face over the face of the crucified weight lifter. Can you believe that?
He gets terribly possessive of Jillian, once driving ninety miles to extract her from a night out with girlfriends because she’d sounded “weird” when she called to check in with him at midnight as he’d instructed. Maybe because she was having fun? And he is completely obsessed with fitness. Before Geoffrey, Jillian was like me: laid back, slightly pudgy (and fine with it—my kidneys couldn’t handle low-carb if you paid them), and easily talked into spending an entire day in pajamas watching Brat Pack movies on DVD while eating Cheez-It crackers, caramel corn, and gummi bears in a nice little snack rotation. You know, normal! After Geoffrey, Jillian became decidedly not like me: chiseled, dedicated to “food as fuel,” and awake at four a.m. daily to train with Geoffrey for their next triathlon.
Oh, and did I mention he has two ex-wives and a son with each of them?
So I have to rescue her. I haven’t told her this, though. It’s kind of a surprise. It’s also a wonder he’s letting her leave for a few days, but I suppose those are the freedoms granted when traveling with a well-medicated, frequently hospitalized friend. (The assumption being that I am less likely to introduce Jillian to hillbilly heroin and swarthy men intent on seducing her, since I’ve had a kidney transplant and all.)
My third and fourth reasons for taking this trip are self- explanatory. And right now is the perfect time for a road trip. Fuzzy Navels is closed for the month of July, since my boss, Mindy Vandenheuven, the alpha pawssociate, is trolling Europe for young backpackers to bed. I’m not dating anyone because, well, do I want to have a miserable time out with some guy who’s comparing my legs to his last girlfriend’s, or would I rather eat an ice cream sundae and take in a sunset? And I need time away from James to figure out where to go from here. I think I’ll just take this summer to be alive. I can worry about the rest later.
The farther west you drive in Wisconsin, the more interesting the scenery gets. Once you cross I-39, the expansive cornfields and potato fields give way to the occasional cranberry bog and lush rolling hills flecked with mature oak trees and family farms complete with old red barns, twin silos, and the requisite herds of impassive black-and-white Holsteins. The views from the interstate are postcard-worthy, but I’m only a few hours from home and already I’m sick of the billboards for cheese shops, casinos, U-pick apple orchards, flea markets, and Amish furniture.
You never see signs for Catholic furniture. But I do think we Catholics have cornered the market on yard art, with the Saint Francis of Assisi bird feeders and the Virgin Mary in a mini amphitheater/half bathtub. I’ve counted eight such Mary in a Bathtub statues in front yards in the last two hours. My great-aunt Pansy had one in her yard, too; my cousins and I would arrange our Barbies in a semicircle before Mary for a concert from the Giant Virgin Soloist. Sometimes all of the Barbies would make a pilgrimage to Mary in the Bathtub to confess their sins, which usually revolved around a deviant, sex-addled Ken and, once, a large armless G.I. Joe action figure with post-traumatic stress disorder and blackouts when he drank too much.
Closer to the Mississippi, the hills segue into rocky gorges and steep sandstone bluffs. Tenacious pines and birches cling to the rocky outcroppings. All of the local geology has something to do with the last ice age, but I may have been passing notes during that particular lesson. Maybe the next rest area will have some brochures.
Four hours after leaving James and Marissa in Fond du Lac, I become the last person in a long line for an empty stall in the women’s bathroom of a rest stop on the Minnesota border. The girl in front of me turns around and fixes me with a bright smile. I jump, because she looks exactly like me. Well, not exactly, but close: blond, shoulder-length ponytail, billboard of a forehead, a spray of freckles across the nose. Her lips are plumper than mine. We’re both wearing denim shorts and white T-shirts, but she’s wearing baby blue sneakers without socks and I’m wearing san- dals. It’s like gazing into a dirty mirror at a younger, cuter me. Mini-Me.
She says, “I’m totally convinced there are more stalls on the guys’ side.” She smiles again, and I smile back, disarmed. Her teeth are crooked, but not distractingly so.
“There’s this disposable paper gadget called the Magic Cone that girls can use to pee standing up,” I blurt. Where was I going with this?
I’m glad when she laughs. “That would save time. We could switch lines.”
I glance at the line ahead of us. Everyone looks exhausted and uncomfortable, shifting from foot to foot like dazed cattle.
“Where are you headed?” she shouts over the din of constantly cycling hand dryers.
“Oh, me too!”
“No kidding,” I say. “Where in California?” The line inches forward a bit into the industrial warehouse of a bathroom.
Her eyes flick over my shoulder. “Long Beach, to visit my aunt.” “Cool. Ever been?” I ask.
“Once when I was younger,” she says dreamily. “All I remember are palm trees and strip malls.”
We inch forward again. Wads of paper towels have spilled from the trash cans and are now blowing across the floor like tumbleweeds. Mini-Me and I continue to make small talk, bonding over the annoyances of public bathrooms. After about two days, we’re at the front of the line. A stall bangs open and releases a white-haired woman in a Disney sweatshirt who is yapping into a cell phone and wiping her free hand on a thigh.
At this point Mini-Me smiles at me and says, “It was great meeting you. Nature calls!” And she’s off to the newly vacated stall before someone else jumps the line. What a nice girl, I almost muse aloud, entering my own empty stall sec- onds later. I hardly even mind that she used the phrase “Nature calls!” which is one of my least-favorite colloquialisms in the English language. Only “silly goose” and “heavens to Betsy” rank lower.
Sweet, sweet relief. Larry’s working beautifully. I stand and wipe, checking the bowl for signs of blood or strange coloration. Nothing but yellow, baby. Afterward I fight the herd to the sinks, wash up, and am pushed by the mob to the hand dryers. Somehow, the bathroom chaos has its own order. I set my purse on the tile floor between my feet and punch the silver button on the dryer. To my right, a woman has turned the nozzle up and is attempting to dry her hair. I wonder where she washed it. In one of the sinks? That’s a bit off-putting.
As a blast of hot air hits my dripping hands, a swarm of girls in soccer uniforms stream into the bathroom, giggling and shouting the call and response lyrics to a song that’s been playing on Top 40 radio lately. They break through the endless line, victors in a restroom game of Red Rover. I overhear one of them say, “And I’m, like, ‘Didn’t you get my messages?’ And he’s all, ‘What messages?’ Like his phone is broken or something.” At this, her audience protests. Men, I think. I try to dry my hands faster, rubbing them vigorously together as the machine instructs me. Just then the strap of one of the shouting girls’ purses breaks, sending coins pinging and rolling across the tile floor. The mob in front of the sinks parts, as if the coins are little bombs, while the girls bend down to pick up the change.
As I glance at the woman still drying her hair, a blond girl picking up pennies bumps me. Hard. “Sorry!” she shouts, while I stumble to keep my balance. Because she apologized, I give her a lame smile. I really start smiling when I notice she’s wearing an armful of the same kind of jelly bracelets that were popular when I was a kid. Who knew they were making a comeback? My hands are finally dry, so I bend to pick up my purse.
I find nothing but air.
My purse is gone. I irrationally wonder if I left it in the stall, but I know I put it between my feet. My purse is gone, I think as my pulse goes from a walk to a trot. I’m sure it’s around here somewhere. I scan the gray tile floor, finding nothing but crumpled balls of damp paper toweling. I fluff through them a bit, making a show of the fact that I’ve lost something so people won’t think I’m a bag lady. More people drift in and out of the bathroom like drones. I find nothing under the wads of paper. My pulse shifts from a trot to a gallop. I latch onto a sane-looking mother with a mopsy toddler in tow. “Excuse me. I can’t seem to find my purse. Have you seen a big black purse anywhere?”
Excerpted from Driving Sideways by Jess Riley Copyright © 2008 by Jess Riley. Excerpted by permission.
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