"First in California!" you cackle victoriously, stretching your legs as far out as you can as we pass over the border. We pass a "Welcome to California" sign on our right, and some presumably Nevada-devotee has spraypainted a hastily-scrawled "YOUR LOSS ASSHOLE" in burgundy red just below. Somehow I feel like it isn't our loss.
But here we are. The Promised Land.
Eastern California is why it's The Golden State. This is amber waves and purple mountains and fruited plain and my anti-California bias gets left at the Nevada state line. This is a place where old things are new and new things are newer and we have entered a time warp wherein nothing exists outside of this car, this road, nowhere that we do not exist. Some bizarre force of quantum mechanics has isolated and assigned all existence to us. Solipsism at its most romantic.
"Is there any more Perrier left?" I ask. You rummage through the small cooler we've kept packed with vittles.
"No, but most of the ice has melted. Want to drink that?"
"Okay." You take my empty Perrier bottle and fill it with the now-liquid remains of what was keeping our remaining two turkey sandwiches chilled.
"Do you want your sandwich?" you ask.
"Yeah, that'd be nice. Thank you."
"Which one's yours?" You're peering at two nearly identical slabs of marble rye in small Ziplocs. You hold them up for inspection. I don't even have to glance.
"Mine is the one that is delicious and has honey mustard. Yours is the one with lettuce that is groooooooooooooooooss."
"You're such a child," you laugh, removing the sandwich from its encasing. You examine it curiously. "Did you cut the crusts off?"
I grin and snatch your sandwich-holding hand and kiss the back of it, then taking the sandwich between my teeth and steadying it with my free hand. You chuckle, but I assume that it's because you're so impressed by my dexterity. I lay the sandwich on my leg and take a big drink from the newly-filled bottle. It's cooooooooold.
You point to an approaching roadsign.
"Hey, look!" you say, "we're coming up to a town called 'Mystic.'"
"'A town called Mystic,'" I repeat. "Sounds like a Bukowski poem."
"Can we stop there?"
"Definitely. We need gas, anyway." We the I-80 E off-ramp and pull around the side, underneath the overpass, heading west.
"Did you see the 'No services' sign?" you remind me.
"Yeah," I say, "but we've got a quarter of a tank. We're not in any big hurry."
We keep going on the westward path. The speed limit's 50 MPH but we're going 75 MPH--uncharacteristically fast for me--and a quick peek at the rearview mirror shows we're leaving a wake of dust and gravel and my brain gives me three of those silly hypothetical scenarios that only seem to make sense in the desert.
SILLY HYPOTHETICAL SCENARIO #1:
I meet you in the Mystic, CA coffee shop where you're waitressing for $5/hr cash (under the table so as to keep Theo The Coffee Shop Owner from living off the grid) while you wait the four months until you start your Ph.D. program in Cleveland because hey it's an experience that you'd never have had otherwise and what matters more than new experiences right and I'm on my way to the beach for a crab festival and when you find out where I'm headed you make a joke about STDs and I smile more than I have for the previous ten hours I've spent on the road and I say "Do you want to come with me" and you say "Yeah I wanted to quit this bullshit job anyway" and you throw your apron in Theo's face and scream "YOUR THREE LITTLE MARIJUANA PLANTS AREN'T IMPORTANT ENOUGH TO THE GOVERNMENT FOR THEM TO BE LOOKING FOR YOU SO CALM DOWN ABOUT IT" and his virtuosic stream of curses is the soundtrack to us pulling away from both of our old lives and mashing them into something new and terrifying and made of pure synthesized potential manifested in each mile on the odometer and hey what do you know the crab ends up being pretty good too.
SILLY HYPOTHETICAL SCENARIO #2:
Your parents were both born in Mystic and your grandparents were both born in Mystic and their parents and grandparents were born in Mystic and you're sitting on the small plastic bench outside of the town's one gas station and you're reading a book and I'm trying to see the cover so I'm squinting and sort of staring but you think I'm looking at your boobs and you call me out on it and I get flustered so flustered by how goddamn pretty your eyes are and the afternoon desert winds hold your hair back like nature's bobby pins and a beat-up 1999 Honda Accord drives waaaaaaaay too fast down the adjacent road and the dust cloud it leaves behind leaps into my face and gets in my nose and my eyes and you feel so bad for yelling (especially since I wasn't actually looking at your boobs) that you let me sit inside even though I'm not buying gas and you send me off with a free Butterfinger and a cocktail napkin with your phone number on it and I take you to lunch on my way home from wherever I was going.
SILLY HYPOTHETICAL SCENARIO #3
Back home in Utah you're in a funk and you're feeling restless so I take out the secret pre-packed suitcases and we throw on some shoes and hop in the car and head west Manifest Destiny-style (but without you know all the imperialistic colonial undercurrent) and you kiss me on the cheek in the car and you win a bunch of change in Wendover that buys us snacks and we stay in a cold motel room and I write you a stupid little poem that you like and we talk about breakfast and then we find a place called Mystic CA and it turns out that there isn't really a town there it's just a name of an area and there's no one here and there's no isolated gas station or romantic greasy spoon diner or drive-in theater or antique store on Main Street
and I realize that I'd rather have this right now your hand in mine and being teased about how I can't eat lettuce without gagging and adjusting the rearview mirror so I can look at you observing the landscape to our right without you knowing I'm looking and every few minutes you ask me why I'm smiling because there's not much to smile at out here and I don't blame your curiosity because you can't see you like I can see you and we've hit that point where fiction is now fact and scenarios are now memories and possibilities are now stories and you interrupt my train of stream-of-consciousness, thank goodness.
AND NOW WE'RE BACK TO REALITY
"What are you thinking?" you ask. "You sort of spaced out there for a few minutes."
"Just thinking about California."
"What about it?"
"I wish...I wish that there really was a Mystic, CA, you know? Like, there's this border town out here whose name could be some postmodern novel about the ennui of the American Condition or something."
I look on down the road and feel a massive sneeze coming on. It leaps out from my nose and I yank my hand out of yours and cover my mouth with the crink of my elbow. My eyes are watering--this is a huge sneeze--and you smile bigger than any laugh I've heard all trip. You wipe a sneeze-induced tear from the corner of my right eye.
"The thing about California," you say, enveloping my hand back into yours, "is that it's all pretty mystic."
Another mileage sign tells us that we've got just under 200 miles until we get to San Francisco.
Plenty of time to make another story.