If there's something to be gained from getting lost, I sure as hell haven't found it yet, at least not in Baltimore. Most salient in my memory is the night some good friends and I attended a Raven's preseason game as a double date, compelled entirely by the free tickets my girlfriend's uncle had given us. The day was bright and cool on the way up but the night air was balmy and clung to our necks as we left the stadium. A windows-up/air-on drive home. We had stayed for the final moments of the game, getting the most out of our night on the town, and the time had dragged on late as we pulled up to Juliana's house. About midnight. We all got out of the car under the pale orange streetlights, shared handshakes and hugs like it was New Years, and Juliana made the first steps up to her house followed closely by her boyfriend Rich. Elena and I watched them enter and bent down to wave at her puppy Metro pressed excitedly up against the glass of the front door. Before long we were pulling out of the driveway to get our own selves back home comfortably.
As far as I had been concerned, I considered the night over. It was encroaching on the morning hours in a quiet suburban area of Baltimore City, my ass sore from squirming in the rough stadium seating, and Elena's eyes fluttered with drowsiness as she gripped the steering wheel loosely at each turn in the road. To keep each other lively, we kept a modest conversation going throughout the drive home. I remarked at how nice it was to have a quiet moment alone for what seemed like the first time in a while. Then Elena perked up. Her floral green eyes jumped open, recalling a story she had been waiting to tell me.
“Did I tell you about when my mom showed me the place she used to hang out with her friends?” Her voice quavered with exuberance as if she were on the brink of sharing a religious revelation with me. I shook my head in the negative; my voice had quit on me by now. “Ah, it was so cool!” She paused and whipped her vision about. “I think it was around here actually. Yeah, yeah! Right up here, I think!” The car jerked like the corners of her mouth a moment ago and it purred up to an intersection for a typically busy city road. (At this hour, we could've driven off into the field ahead of us and gotten away with it.)
Elena looked confused. “Is this the right-turn lane? Shit, wait . . . ” her voice trailed off as she threw the car in reverse to allow herself more lee-way in moving over. The car rolled back a bit until the cabin progressively filled with a dull light. The headlights of the car behind us came abruptly into focus as we approached them, Elena muttering a sound of chagrin under her breath and stopping the car. It rocked, shifted, and Elena pulled ahead into the right lane. Feeling hurried, she sharply made the turn and stayed committed to her unfolding story.
A turn here and a turn there, the vehicle careened through the sporadic wake of trees on the curbside as persistently as its driver and I, the first mate, was by now lost thoroughly in the creeping rustic scenery. The tattered sylvan canopy loomed over us and framed the road ahead, fracturing the moonlight illuminating the furrowed dimples in Elena's grinning cheeks. I watched the light on her face grow more intermittent like the last glimmering wisps of a dying lightbulb as the trees began to stand closer together. Something washed over me, starting at the back of my ears and reaching out for my feet perched on the dashboard. It was light. Even and unnatural; not the moonlight. I sat up in my seat and glanced over to the side mirror. My eyes met a scattered, dull, searing yellow and I looked back over at Elena. She was looking back at me, her dimples retreated in hills and her bottom lip grazing her teeth.
“Is that the same car from the intersection?” Oddly enough, it felt almost compulsory to skip the formalities of establishing if we were on the same page, something I would imagine most people would logically do in any situation. Her eyes said plenty.
“I don't know, I wasn't looking. I'm driving.” I blinked at her frankness and looked over again. The light sunk through me as something still so perversely unnatural.
“Turn up here,” I insisted, pointing feverishly at the roadside.
“But the place I wanted to show you is right up ahead.” I didn't answer. She stared. Her eyes locked to the road again for a second and as the turn approached, her head fell back into the headrest and she took it. The vibrant yellow sign directed traffic right, we were veering left. Questions of legality escaped me in the moment and only looking back on it does that sign strike me.
The road narrowed into a winding thread as we were back under the trees again, creating a thicker screen of light this time. The green tops reached up like minarets in the black, obscuring anything beyond the first row or two of wooded walls. I felt funneled. Nothing malicious, just that the trees were edging for every inch for their territory and I was inclined to let them. The car was humming and both Elena and I were completely absent of any way to say everything inside us. The quietude massaged the moment until that same garish light screamed into the cabin again. Needless to say, neither of us looked. It all hovered in the back seat. Ahead of us, our own headlights were projecting reflected beams onto the world just at our closest reach, bound by the canal of trees. Things passed in front of us like frames in an old cinema. A flickering array of tea-stained postcards offering something surreal. Neither the light behind us nor the light ahead of us seemed to show anything meaningful. From the back seat, the light slouched forward. It slipped and shook Elena's golden hair and tugged at my gnashing teeth.
When people get nervous or anxious, and their heart silently thumps in its place and their stomach rolls, we assume it's the thing ahead or the the thing just recently passed. Typically there's an awareness that accompanies us in the present that overrides our myopic tendencies and highlights that which is distant. For the first time, however—at least in my life—the hole in my cheek being burrowed was born from the immediate. The possibilities ahead and the questions behind jumped ship at first sight of trouble and I was left in a stasis of implacable concern for what I was doing now. Every move required thought and planning which, looking back, seems entirely unhelpful in a fight-or-flight situation. Or, perhaps, that forward-rolling motion of the car created the facade of flight. Or something. It's hard to craft poetics in trying to illumine such a bizarre feeling.
Yet the road kept snaking on with our headlights trying feebly to discern the road ahead. Small bends became sharp curves and the feeling of being lost sat with us in the car. Behind us, the lights came closer and I started to really embrace it.
“Go faster,” I rasped out at Elena never breaking my vision from the reflection in the side mirror. The engine roared and calmed in succession, like it was breathing or snoring. Pressured as she was, Elena was careful and took the bends with an impressive discipline. But behind us it gained. Such a placid but foreign thing, it stalked up to our bumper and insisted. I swore that the road was infinite. It wasn't ending. As cliché as it sounds, it was truly dreamlike. Each curve only revealed more road and trees and more road and trees. It was maddening. It stirred me at last to move. I reached for the OnStar button and asked for the directions to Elena's house, swallowing the distress in my voice for the operator.
As the androgynous voice commanded us like Moses through the desert, Elena must have been spurred by the uneasiness as well.
“Call my mom,” she said evenly. I flicked on the light and reached for her bag. A minute of rummaging through the abyss of a woman's treasures finally bore the pink phone case and I grasped it in my hand. I didn't call anyone. I just stared at it. Whether it was because I didn't want to worry her mother, I was embarrassed that I felt some responsibility in getting us in this situation, or that my body had jumped out with my earlier senses doesn't matter. The phone sat black in my hand.
Suddenly, the last curve we took revealed a house. Then another, and another. A neighborhood unfolded in the woods. I never thought I would perceive a rural house to be the harbinger of salvation. The houses birthed driveways and streetlights and houselights, lights that actually illuminated. As we followed the last strip of road, zipping white lights broke through the sentry of trees and beckoned us back into Baltimore. Elena pressed the car once again and we became liberated from the tunnel of trees and handed to another intersection. The lights behind us jumped viciously towards us as it screeched up our bumper once again. Without a moment longer of hesitation, Elena took a right and joined the other cars on the road. Broken from my trance, I glanced back towards the intersection.
The car stopped, stalled, seemed to glance in our direction, and turned left.