Northern Passage
A Short Story by Doug Dean
Written using the suggestion "Truth"
Originally featured on 01-29-2007
As part of our series "Phases of a Holiday Meal"

Nothing is more beautiful than the truth. I had heard that said many times. As I rode what some consider to be the most beautiful highway in the world, the Pacific Coast Highway, I remember feeling cold.

On the back of my “classic”, the cold ocean air blew easily into the cuffs of my blue coverall sleeves and reached the white tee-shirt underneath. I think that she would have really liked this. But the truth, somehow supposed to be beautiful, is that I don’t know.

I saw a sign foretelling Ft. Bragg was 45 miles away. A small town began.

To my left, I saw the blue ocean with starkly contrasting white houses racing by in an occasional blur. To my right was a brown and green amalgam of trees, bushes and hillside. Up ahead, I saw the road wind slightly to reveal a gas station. I looked down at my odometer and then signaled. A few moments later, I hit the kill switch and dismounted. Coveralls are consistently comfortable in almost any position unlike jeans which tend to bunch up and tug.

I walk comfortably to the mini-mart and the door opens with an electronic tone signaling my arrival. The counter faced the door and I made eye contact almost immediately with the counter-girl.

“Does the PCH stay slow like this all the way to Ft. Bragg?” I asked.

She moved her head in such a way that it seemed in tune with the ocean just on the other side of the road. “It’ll get faster. Bikers usually take about a half an hour to get there.”

I don’t remember why I questioned the choice of road. It was beautiful and the only option I had at the moment. But perhaps it’s in my nature to question my good choices more heavily than my bad ones. If truth is beautiful and truth is based in reality than perhaps good and bad choices don’t exist—better categories being choices that were made and choices that weren’t.

I began to thumb through some maps on a red metal stand. I wanted to pick one up and open it but then realized that I didn’t really have a choice anyway.

I hadn’t had a cigarette in almost a week. I purchased a pack of Parliament lights and soon I was back in the parking lot sitting with on a small wooden fence. In front of me was my “classic” and then the highway and the ocean behind it. The sun hovered halfway between the horizon and the top of the sky. It was the color of a clean yellow crayon and stood out subtly against the clear sky.

I think that she would have really liked this. The person I knew would have really liked this.

But how do you really know? You didn’t know everything about her and now you know even less. Nothing, in fact.

Everyone has voices in their head. The phrase “voice in your head” has gotten a bad wrap mostly due to mentally ill people claiming that a voice in their head told them to do some unspeakable act.

Like what, cheating on someone?

The truth, which is somehow supposed to be beautiful, is that almost everything you do comes from a voice in your head or your heart or your stomach. When the act of listening to the voices — making a choice—yields a positive result they can be called ‘instincts’ or ‘inspirations’. When they find you alone on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway lighting your first cigarette in a week, they get called by their lesser name. In any case they make poor company on a trip like this.

I’d been heading North for about four or five hours. I started in Alameda and traveled up past San Francisco and landed — incorrectly — on the Highway 101. After about forty miles, I realized I would need to head west if I wanted to manifest my destiny of traversing the winding turns of the Pacific Coast Highway. The mistake added perhaps an hour to what would be a two day trip. Part of the sadness that inspired my second Parliament — chained directly to the first — was that it could’ve been an hour, or six or six days. At that moment, it seemed that nobody would notice.

She didn’t notice nor would she have cared. Why should anyone care?

I used to talk to myself a lot more than I do now. Sometimes I would get involved in whole conversations—lost in them—and then suddenly turn to see someone watching me sitting on a bench talking to nobody — looking at me as though I were insane. Lots of people talk to themselves, right?

I suddenly noticed that a small red car had pulled into a spot on the asphalt roughly ten feet from me. A middle-aged man with a beard was sitting in the driver’s seat watching. I wonder how long he had been there. I couldn’t remember if I had been talking to myself out loud or not.

His door opened and he stepped out. The sole of his boot was silent on the asphalt except for a minor tapping sound as he nodded to me and turned to walk towards the mini-mart. I took a drag of my cigarette and looked at back out towards the sea.

I thought about whether this bearded man was a local resident or passing through like me. If I was talking to myself, would he tell his wife, I wondered. I imagined how easy it would be for him to walk into his white house, walk through the plush living room and into the kitchen overlooking the ocean where she would be cutting tomatoes for lunch. I envied him briefly. Then I stood up and walked over to the back of his car. He had Oregon state license plates. For a moment, I mourned the beautiful existence he had lived in my mind.

I saw him walking back from the store with a brown paper bag pressed up against his chest. As he got closer, I spoke.

“What part of Oregon you from?”

“Ashland.”

I had only had one memorable experience in Ashland—a negative one—and I remember thinking that the town itself looked lackluster. My mind began to create a new existence for him. It was of a lackluster job in a lackluster town where he made his own lunches in the break room of an insurance office.

“You?”

“Portland.”

“Long ways on a bike.” I wondered if he had ever ridden a bike. I envisioned him riding up to his grey-looking office on a Harley Davidson and receiving pleasant looks from his one female coworker.

“Yeah. But it’s a beautiful trip.”

“Sure is. Be safe.” As he nods and shuts the door, I wonder why I don’t believe the things I’m saying. I wonder if I should believe the things I’m thinking.

His engine started up and he backed out almost silently and then turned and merged back into the one lane highway.

I gathered my coffee thermos, pack of cigarettes and wallet and placed them back into backpack which was bungeed to the motorcycle. The engine of my bike was warm and one touch of the starter should’ve fired it right up. When I touched the button, nothing happened. My heart skipped a beat and I didn’t take a breath. I turned to see that the Kill Switch was still on. As I turned it back to the “Run” position and fired up the bike, I silently wished for a similar switch to use on my thoughts — my voices.

You can’t back away from the truth now. Even when told to you by yourself.

I made sure my bag and my items were secure. My zippers were all closed on the leather vest I wore over my coveralls.

Both the coveralls and the vest are new possessions from Oakland. When I put them on, I considered comfort but mostly I envisioned how this unusual outfit would affect passersby in cars. Would they think I was unusual or different? If they believed I was a different kind of person, could I believe I was a different person? I wondered how that would feel. Not carrying these things around everywhere. My helmet felt heavy upon my head as I clicked the chinstrap.

You’re not a different person. Wherever you go, whatever you wear, it’s still you.

Moments later, I was racing uphill at seventy miles per hour. I could see turns up ahead and slowed to take them. On my left was a cliff and below it water. Absolutely beautiful but you have to look through your turn — to where you want to go. The road winded and banked unpredictably. If I looked too long to my left — a split second too long — and I would go straight across the double yellow line into the guard rail and over the side. If a car was coming from the opposing lane, it would punt me into the ocean. The danger was there and it made me think about the letter I didn’t leave on my bed a week ago.

The letter was my insurance policy. It was my final words if I never got to say them out loud to anyone but myself.

So why didn’t you write it?

There’s a reason why some voices in your head get a bad wrap. They repeat themselves with unwavering confidence. Even when you don’t want to hear it.

Why did you spend the time to think about all things you would say and then not write it?

But on a long trip like this, some company is better than no company at all.

You could’ve easily written it. What if you actually do die on one of these turns?

I think that deep down, she knows what I would’ve put in there.

You don’t know the first thing about what she knows deep down. You also thought that deep down she would still love you after your last letter.

I don’t know that she doesn’t.

Give me a break.

I don’t know that she doesn’t!

You don’t know a lot. I’ll give you that. But I think you know that she doesn’t.

So what should I do!? Stop looking through these turns and just fly off one of these cliffs?

That’s one of many options you have. If you had written the letter, then your accidental death would look like suicide. She wouldn’t notice. She wouldn’t care. Why should anyone care?

Because I care.

Bullshit.

I want to care again.

After looking down at the odometer, then at the upcoming turn, then through it — at where I want the bike to go, I took a breath and pulled back on the throttle. The road up ahead was a stretch of straightaway.

The letter was supposed to be reassuring. It was supposed to be beautiful. It was supposed to say that greatest thing that ever happened to me — that I could ever hope for—was falling in love. But it didn’t get written. Somehow it seemed unfair. Easing off of the throttle a little, I wondered if telling someone these things after my death was of any use.

Lining the road to my left and right were bushes. The road became a set of straight rolling hills. I began breathing easily and moved back on my seat. It felt nice to coast for the moment.

I wondered what it would feel like to read a letter from a corpse that used terms like Great Love of My Life. I wondered how much of Love is just a voice in our head. And if it is just a voice, then does it get angry and lash out when it no longer feels at home? Does it ever forgive? Or try to work in a kind word amidst the rage? Or does it just fade away, getting quieter each passing moment?

I saw a wide turn that may have led into more and I eased off the throttle a little. As I slowed, the air seemed to get warmer and coveralls stop flapping. I took a deep breath as I entered the turn.

You only care about yourself. That’s why you did it and that’s why you told her.

No.

Then why tell her? Why wait until after she dumped you? Revenge?

That’s disgusting and not true.

Some of these are hairpin turns — challenging even at low speed.

You’re a liar.

That’s exactly why I had to tell her.

What?!

Yes.

What the fuck kind of sense does that make? It was after the fact. You had lied for a long time.

Yes, I know.

So why not let it rest?

There’s more than one reason. But one reason is because the lies twisted me into being someone else — someone who is a liar and who can’t talk about the things he’s done because of shame and consequences. I saw a future of lying to the people I loved the most in the world — being forced to in order to maintain my relationships.

That is selfish and ridiculous.

It’s not the only reason and it’s not ridiculous.

Why else?

Because I was afraid that if I didn’t, then I would always associate her with guilt. And eventually I would avoid her to avoid the guilt and having to lie. Sooner or later, I would have pushed her away — even if it was subconscious. The thought of her being completely out of my life terrified me.

But that is exactly what happened.

Maybe you’re right. I’m not defending the results or the pain I caused. It’s all so ugly.

So what are you doing? What the hell are you defending?

The idea of forgiveness, I suppose. Maybe the idea that real love can transcend real problems.

I don’t forgive you. Nobody does. You did all this for a stupid idea. I hope you’re aware of that.

I believed in it at the time. And there is another reason — a reason that I don’t think anybody really understands.

What?

While truths may be ugly, the act of honesty — the choice to be honest when it doesn’t benefit you, when it costs you — is important. When you get lost, you tell the truth and hope the people that love you can find you. And when that happens, the truth is beautiful.

I still don’t forgive you. That may be the weakest argument yet. You’re talking about hurting real people that you say you care about-

I do care about them.

-because of an ideal, because of Truth.

We’ve still got a long way to go.

I continue North and at times it is dangerous and cold. Often, it is lonely. But when I can steal a glance and see the sun hitting the water just before taking a hairpin turn—see the beauty—I feel my heart against my chest and hope to find my way home.

Read More By Doug Dean

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