The road stretched long and flat before James. His eyes were starting to ache from staring into the sun and he turned to look at Tara. She was turned slightly away from him, leaned against the window. She looked crumpled and uncomfortable; the seat belt tucked under her arm so it wouldn’t rub against her throat. He couldn’t tell if she was sleeping or not. She had been turned to the window now for at least the last 50 miles. Maybe more—probably more. James looked back at the road. The Midwest highway seemed to run forever into the flatness of the country. He didn’t mind. He was enjoying the trip. He looked back at Tara in her cut-offs, red shirt, brown hair. He could see the shape of her hips in the jeans. His eyes followed the line down to her knees. God, she was so pretty. He reached out his hand to touch her, but brought it back. If she’s sleeping better let her sleep. He turned his eyes back to the road.
Tara looked out the window. She hoped that James would think she was sleeping. She wasn’t in the mood to talk. She really had been sleeping though a moment ago, but it was the car kind of sleep where you drift back and forth between awake and not without really knowing it. But she was awake now and trying to figure out where they were. North Dakota maybe, she wasn’t sure. It could still be Minnesota — she hadn’t seen a state sign in a while. It’s probably North Dakota, she thought, I feel like Minnesota would be greener — with more lakes. She stared at the flatness and felt irritated by it. And the more she stared the more irritated she got. Her eyes scanned for a point of elevation. She began to have a feeling of panic; the flatness felt so vast, going on forever in all directions, and that as it grew bigger she felt like she was growing smaller until she would be so tiny that it would swallow her up inside itself. And her shrunken body would disappear into the flatness of the land. If the earth was going to eat her, she’d like to at least be a mountain. Lonely Mt. Tara of North Dakota. The idea made her smile and she blew a breath on the window to watch it fog.
James noticed the movement and glanced at Tara. She hoped he wouldn’t say anything, and he didn’t. James was great. They had been planning this trip for months now ever since James had mention that he’d always wanted to drive across the country. Tara had told him that she had friends they could stay with in Seattle, and the plan seemed to evolve on its own from there. She had liked watching him plan for the trip; it was fun to see him so excited. Tara glanced over at James. He was looking at the road, but looked over at her to meet her gaze. She smiled and he reached out and put his hand on her knee. Yeah, he’s a really good guy, she said to herself again. He’s a good guy.
Tara fell back into old games she had played as a kid. She softly tapped her foot to a rhythm, slicing the landscape with it as it fell. The highway ran alongside fields and occasional farmhouses, barns, and groupings of cars and tractors. Most of the fields looked like grain fields, but she couldn’t really tell what they were. She had grown up in a city and all this space intimidated her.
“A…A…A…A..,” she thought to herself, “No A. B….B…B…boys!” She saw three boys walking along the side of a fence; white shirts and jeans, just like they should be wearing. One of them was holding something in his arms and other two kept looking back eagerly at it. She couldn’t tell what it was. An animal maybe? A cat? “ C — cat! D — dirt E…E…E…F — fence, field, Ford truck, flashflood, forest fire, fickle friends of France and Florence.” This was dumb. The alphabet game is always dumb.
James looked over at Tara again. He never knew anyone who could be so quiet for so long. They had met four months ago and for the most part they got along great. Better than great, James thought. He had felt immediately comfortable around her. Even though she was so often quiet, he never felt like she expected the silence to be filled or really that she expected anything from him in general. Everything about her made him feel comfortable, yet at the same time there was something detachable about Tara. She wasn’t the type to play games, and she certainly didn’t seem jaded, but there was an aloofness about her that worried him. He had told her that he loved her for the first time a week ago. She had just looked at him and said thank you.
Tara looked over at James now, and wondered what he was thinking but asked instead, “James, can we pull over? I need to stretch.” James snapped back from his thoughts.
“Yeah, of course. I’ve needed to stretch for a while. I wouldn’t mind switching drivers either if you don’t mind?” She nodded. “I’ll look for the next turnout,” he continued, “but we could probably stop right here in the middle of the road. I swear I haven’t seen another car for at least an hour. It’s kind of nice though, feeling alone in all this space.” Tara nodded, but didn’t agree. She hated feeling alone.
James pulled over onto a gravel turnout. The car slowly pulled to a stop, kicking up dust as it did so. Tara got out of the car and could feel the dust landing on her face and arms and hands. August is hot. The Midwest is humid. She stretched her arms up, happy to be standing. She walked over to the wire fence ten feet off and leaned over it. James came up behind her and put his arms around her waist and leaned his chin onto her shoulder.
“James,” She said suddenly, turning to face him, “do you believe in God?”
He looked down at her and hesitated for a moment. They’d been together four months now and hadn’t talked about religion. That seemed weird. “How can you love someone so much and know so little about them?” He thought, “I wonder if she loves me?”
Tara was still looking at him. “I don’t know,” he started, “I guess I do. Sometimes. I mean sometimes it seems impossible that this—what we see, is all there is. But other times, I don’t know- religion seems ridiculous. I don’t know. Really. I guess I just feel like it’s not all that important to my life, since there’s no way we can know anyways. So why spend time and energy on something that seems to only make people unhappy? And really, isn’t that the point — to try to be happy? It just seems that simple to me. But who knows. There’s probably a God, a higher being. Maybe I should think about it more.” James looked at Tara, he was suddenly nervous about what she thought of him.
“What about you?” He asked, “do you believe in God?”
Tara had turned back to the fence part way through James’ answer. She was looking across the field again. She didn’t like it here. “I used to,” she said, “I wish I still did. When I was a kid, I used to talk to God a lot. It was nice feeling like I wasn’t alone. Sometimes I felt like he talked back to me. But then at some point he just stopped. Maybe I stopped believing, maybe I grew up.” She brushed the sweat off her forehead, “It’s weird though. I can remember exactly when I stopped believing in God. I was camping with my family. And I remember looking up at the sky and it was so big and so black and it seemed to just get bigger and bigger— it felt like claustrophobia, only reversed. It was terrifying. And I just knew then, that I was all alone. I still get that feeling sometimes. Like I’m all alone and small and the space around me is so big. Sometimes I think it would have been better if I had never believed in God to begin with. Maybe if I didn’t know what it was like to not be alone I wouldn’t feel it now. I don’t know—that’s probably not true, but maybe.” James tightened his arms around her waist, but she instinctively pulled away. “Do you know what I believe now? “ She turned back and looked at him.
“I don’t believe in expectations. I believe they lead to suffering. I heard someone say that once — I think he was Buddhist, but anyways, the point he was making is that having expectations of a person or a moment or a thing — all it does is set you up with desires that ultimately leave you feeling empty and unsatisfied. And you suffer.”
“But don’t you think that’s just life?’ James answered, “You can’t live constantly trying to protect yourself from suffering.”
“I can.” She replied. She had a strange look in her eye and it made James uncomfortable.
They stood there for another minute or so then headed back towards the car. “I feel like driving some more, if you don’t mind,” James said, and got back in the driver’s seat. He wanted to touch Tara but didn’t.
The sun had begun setting, firing a gold across the wheat fields. They both watched it grow in silence.
“James?” Tara said, “I still want to believe in heaven though.”
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Portland Fiction Project
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