After a childhood in Virginia, college in New Orleans, a brief stint as a reporter in Arkansas and two years in the never-dull PR industry of Washington, D.C., Joanna has made her return to the south to pursue her MFA in Writing at SCAD. Joanna’s writing is fueled by coffee and Diet Coke; inspired by those authors who master complicated characters and semicolon use; and motivated by the promise of a patio, a cocktail and brutally honest edit.
One summer we were given two gifts: a decent amount of money, and nothing else we had to do but spend it. Johnny would say we were given a third gift too, each other, but we’d been going out a year by then and he just likes to be poetic.
The money was because of an uncle of his, who assumed he would be dying soon and knew how impatient Johnny could be. “I’ll just write you a check,” the uncle said. “So you don’t have to worry about the lawyers.”
“Isn’t he afraid he’s going to a put a kineahora on it?” I asked when Johnny told me.
“No,” Johnny said. “He doesn’t believe in that kind of thing.”
Johnny had a lot of ideas about taking pictures for the uncle, like he was on the road with us, but I had a lot of ideas about finding an isolated corner of a campsite and making Johnny very glad that there were no family members anywhere close by, and he liked that idea better. He was the one with the tent and the car and the fishing rods, and I was the one with the suntan lotion and the gum, who could read out loud without getting carsick and loved him like the moon.
“We’ll be like Starsky and Clyde,” he said. “Like Bonnie and Hutch. Like Butch Cassidy and Louise or Thelma and the Sundance Kid.” I laughed and laughed.
The time was because I was finishing school and in a few months Johnny would start. He had quit his job because he knew where his future was, and I hadn’t found a job yet because I hadn’t been looking that hard, which no one seemed to mind as much as I thought they would.
“You have your whole life to work,” they said. “You can wait one more summer.”
We weren’t going cross-country, because then we’d have to come back again. We were more making a loop, out and up and in and down.
“I have one rule,” I said, in the weeks before we set out, when Johnny was drawing lines on a map in thick red marker, and I was going through our music.
“What’s that, tootsie pop?”
“You know you make yourself sound about a hundred years old when you call me that.”
“Your parents think I’m a hundred years old anyway. I might as well sell it. What’s the rule?”
“I refuse,” I said, “to see the world’s biggest anything.”
He grinned so big with the thought taking off like a runaway train. “Well,” he said, “then you’d better get a separate tent.”
Johnny came to me like Athena, fully formed and ready for battle. He was a line chef, and I couldn’t help but find it glamorous, no matter how much he complained.
“This is a job,” he told me, sitting by my side at the bar of the restaurant. He wasn’t drinking because he was just on a break and I was three deep, because by then I’d been around enough that the bartenders liked me. “It’s not a career though.”
“What’s the difference?” I had said, and he later told me that I’d never seemed younger to him then I did when I asked that. We were only five years apart, but he’d dropped out of college, which made him seem at least twelve years my senior.
On the road, I started out reading lyrics to songs. We had the actual music on low, and my notebook was open on my lap.
“I didn’t peg you for that type,” he’d said when I first showed it to him. We’d been dating just a few months then, and I was starting to get used to the idea that Johnny wanted to know me under the surface.
“What type?” I’d asked.
“The lyrics type. The quotes type. The type to have a notebook filled with the words to Beatles songs and excerpts from Academy Award and commencement speeches.”
I’d tried so hard not to be mortified. “So what if I am?”
He’d just shrugged. “Then you are,” he said, and knocked one of the straps of my tank top off my shoulder.
The game now was to see if he could get the lyrics out of context of the song. Choruses, or anything that gave away the song title, were excluded. I had to struggle with myself to say them like I was reading the phone book. Mason O’Donnell, 1502 Chestnut Drive. “We had no cameras to shoot the landscape. We passed the hash pipe and played our Doors tapes.”
“Too easy,” he said.
“If it’s so easy then what is it?”
“Goodnight Saigon. The piano man himself.”
And then we found it in our music and played it and sang it as loud as we could.
“Next one,” I said. And then I did a Patti Smith song that he couldn’t get, even though he’d heard the song before. We’d listened to it together.
After Johnny got tired of that, he asked me to read from his journal. He hadn’t kept one since he was in high school, but he had never been able to throw them away. “It’s an exercise in humility,” he had explained to me. “I like reminding myself of all the stupid shit that was important to me once. Like maybe all the things that matter to me now will one day sound as meaningless.”
“But you were young then,” I argued.
“Who’s to say I’m not young now?” he’d countered.
The entries were all dated, but they began and ended abruptly. In medias res, my English teachers would have said.
“Shannon found me in the parking lot,” I read. The date on it was from November, eleven years ago. “She said she wasn’t even mad, just hurt, which from what I can tell are only two different things if you’re a girl. I didn’t even really know what to say, so I just let her be mad, which she said she wasn’t, and hurt, which I’m pretty sure is the same thing.” Johnny in real life was laughing to himself. “Who was Shannon?” I asked.
I didn’t know much about the girls Johnny had dated before me. They rarely came up, and I wasn’t usually that curious.
“She was a girl I dated for a while.”
“Why is she mad at you here?” I asked, and suddenly I could hear myself in a classroom. Now students, why do you think Shannon is mad at Johnny in this scene?
“I don’t know,” he said. “She said she wasn’t.” He’d glanced over at me briefly. “I’m glad you don’t do that.”
“Say you’re not mad when you really are.”
“Yes,” I said, sarcastically. “I’m very efficient at telling you when I’m mad.” When I was pleased by something, it took him a while to draw it out of me. When I was sad, I shut him out and I shut myself down. When I felt that I was failing at something, I would tire out pretending that everything was fine, just fine, rather than admit to a defeat. But when I was mad at him, Johnny always knew it.
“Yes.” He sounded so sincere, so himself. “I may hate it at the time, but I always like it later.”
I flushed golden, like the sun heating up the hood of the car.
We hiked some in New Mexico and Colorado and thought about calling some family friends of his in Nebraska but ultimately decided against it. A few days it rained, and we found excuses to stay off the road. A movie would be a nice change of pace, we had a craving for Chinese food from a mall food court. There was a town just off the highway that looked hilariously awful. On the nights when it rained we forewent the tent and slept in the car; I stretched out in the backseat and Johnny was so tired that he stayed mostly upright in the front, eyes closed and breathing soft.
He did the bulk of the driving, but occasionally he let me behind the wheel. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust me; I wouldn’t go as fast as he did. Plus, he said he liked the picture I made, bare feet up on the dash, toes painted bright red like so many girls in movies.
I offered to pay for things along the way. Little things, mostly. A soda, a coffee, a souvenir penny from a rest stop. In our regular, stand-still lives off the road, we split things almost exactly evenly. He’d pay for dinner and I’d buy the movie and the next time we’d switch. Occasionally I would buy him groceries for nothing in return, or he’d take me somewhere expensive and wave me off when I offered to at least leave the tip.
But out on the road that summer Johnny seemed determined to spend his uncle’s money down to the last drop.
“You don’t even have a job,” he said, laughing. “You’re in no position to offer.”
“I have graduation money. And I get two more months on my parent’s payroll. That was their gift to me.” Sometimes we struggled to talk about our families. Johnny’s was around — parents on the East coast, a sister in Texas, a brother at boarding school. I had met them all. They were, as my mother would say, perfectly nice. But his parents didn’t ask me to call them by their first names, and his sister didn’t take me up on my offer to show her the good vintage store that not everyone knew about.
He had come home with me for the first time at Thanksgiving, and I’d laughed when he’d asked where he’d be sleeping. “With me,” I said and he’d raised an eyebrow. “My parents are under no illusions that we don’t sleep together, John. Besides, with everyone we have coming in from out of town, all the spare beds are claimed.”
Johnny had loved that my dad smoked a cigar every night on the back porch, no matter how cold it was, and that my brother and his fiancé preferred not to sit next to each other at dinner because they talked to each other all the time. He said he loved that my mom used her grandmother’s silver, and he loved even more that afterwards it could be thrown in the dishwasher. He loved that there was no kid’s table.
“You should save as much as you can now,” he told me. “This trip is on me.”
By the time we were back in California I gave in and let myself believe that I wasn’t nervous about anything yet to come. We took it slow because we had the time, and we were sort of sick of the car by then. We’d start late and do three hours and take a long break and then drive one more and call it.
“Enough,” Johnny would say. “I’m sorry, E. I can’t drive another mile.”
I was in no rush. “You’re the boss,” I told him. “I’m happy to stop.”
And we’d pull over at the next campsite we saw.
“So I’m the boss, huh?” he’d say so many hours later, long after the conversation had ended, when we were naked next to each other and the roots of my hair were just damp with sweat.
If I was playful I’d elbow him in the ribs and feel his grin in the dark. But sometimes I’d answer. “Yes,” I would say quietly. “You’re the boss.”
“What does that mean, exactly?” he asked. “The boss of what?”
“Of whatever,” I said, and I would have shrugged except it didn’t feel meaningful to do it when we were in bed and he might not have noticed anyway.
“I don’t want to meet anyone new,” he said towards the end. “I don’t ever want to not be in love with you.”
“That’s not how it works,” I told him. “You can’t decide if you’re in love forever, you can only decide if you’re not.”
“Why is that?”
“Because if you are,” I said. “It’s not a choice.”
And that’s when I ended, and it was all in his hands. We’d had the conversation a million times and we’d have it a million more, and in the end, if things were going to change, not one word we said beforehand would make a difference. We both knew that, but sometimes Johnny was able to stop us before we wasted too much time, where I would have talked in circles for hours. It was one of so many powers he seemed to have more than me.
“Well,” he said, and tugged my hair just so, to tell me that enough was enough for now. “I’ll keep you posted.”