We play a game where I name a band and he names a band that ends with the last letter of my band. We play until we come around to bands we’ve named already.
We drive in circles whenever we leave the Pacific Coast Highway, not knowing where on Earth we are.
John reads to me from the books he bought in Portland.
All sentient beings have at least one right, he says.
He lights a cigarette and opens the window. Cold salt air rushes my face.
All sentient beings have the right not to be treated as property.
Do you ever feel like property? he says.
All the time.
You never feel like you sacrifice more than you gain when you go to the supermarket?
You never feel like you’re part of a herd of cattle when you’re sitting at a stoplight?
He ashes out the window and reads the page over silently.
Why are you vegan?
Is it really healthier?
I don’t answer. I don’t know. He keeps reading.
I can’t believe this stuff is true.
Like, we eat over 7 billion chickens every year.
Male chicks are immediately ground up.
They’re not useful.
Serve no purpose.
We drive a little farther and switch places at an Amoco. We continue to switch places each time we stop. We take turns navigating. When John drives, I read to him. He thinks that he bought the books in Portland for me, but I know he bought them for himself.
I don’t care.
I feel they aren’t real.
I tell him I’m too afraid to sleep while he’s driving on the cliffs. Really, I couldn’t sleep if I wanted to, I’m so awake. I swallow two Hydroxycut each time we stop, which is every few hours. I take myself to the bathroom before we eat and swallow more.
When I ask to stop at Walgreens for snacks, I get pills, magazines, bottled water.
He smokes impatiently. He calls from the car.
What’s taking so long?
I’m in the bathroom.
You’re throwing up.
I haven’t eaten for hours.
The road curves.
Do you think I’m sexy?
Do you want to pull off and have sex?
We’re on a dangerous road.
Maybe later, then.
I look at my face in the mirror. It’s full of craters.
Some stars are fixed and some are not. I am not fixed.
Some believe that our sun’s companion is Nemesis, a red or brown dwarf, or an even darker presence several times the size of Jupiter.
Nemesis is not always detectible, but occasionally sends comets toward Earth and may be responsible for Earth’s periodic mass extinctions.
Nemesis is therefore also called the Death Star.
It is amazing what one can endure.
I know each box intimately. I believe in the benefits of green tea. I believe that coffee is the best replacement for food and also the best supplement. I believe that I need its bitterness because I don’t like it. I don’t deserve to like what I take in.
Most things are bitter, anyway.
Most things harden when they reach my center. Are compressed.
Most things are things I shouldn’t eat.
I pretend to like Tabasco because it burns.
I need to burn.
I am very scientific, or at least methodical.
Everything must be quantified.
I do constant research. I train myself to do it.
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Stars form in gravitational instability.
I want to go to the Grand Canyon.
I want to stand on the edge of its emptiness and feel small. Delicate.
I want to sweat in the sun. Feel dry. Brittle.
Feel like mornings feel when I’ve been awake for days, but because I’m standing on the dry, desert earth, and I am part of it.
I want to stare across the desert and walk across it alone like the Mars of my mind.
If I wander far enough into the desert, I may become a dune.
And then the winds will blow across and reshape me, and I will see that my form has always been and will always be indefinite.
We’re stuck in a traffic jam in New Mexico and I get out to build a snowman on the side of the freeway. Other people get out of their cars, too, and soon there’s a small party sitting on the snow of the embankment watching the stilled vehicles extend for miles in both directions. I get back in the car.
I smoke the last of my cigarettes and John offers me one of his, and we wonder if it would be a good idea for me to walk down the onramp to the gas station and buy two more packs. People are honking but no one’s moving. The brake lights of several cars ahead of us go off, as if their drivers have put the cars in park. The driver in the car ahead of us climbs onto his roof with a pair of binoculars.
John takes a banana out of the bag at my feet, peels it and offers it to me.
I read the fitness spa billboard three car lengths ahead of us: Want to Get in Shape for the Office Party?
You haven’t eaten anything today.
Yes I did. I ate some fruit at the continental breakfast.
No you didn’t. I was there.
You didn’t. I was there. I saw you.
I ate it on the way to the car. I was behind you.
He finishes the banana and tosses the peel out the window.
What does it feel like? he says.
I don’t know. It’s hard to describe if you’re not doing it.
I’m just trying to talk to you.
And I’m just trying to talk to you about your drinking, but you don’t even think you have a problem, so where does that leave us?
What if I really don’t have a problem?
I open the door.
Where are you going?
To get cigarettes.
We’re going to start moving soon.
I don’t think so.
Get back in the car. Get in.
I look down the length of cars and see brake lights flashing and going out for at least a mile.
It’s the same as it was before.
I would just really rather you be here. I don’t want to have to drive in circles by myself looking for you.
I get in the car and shut the door.
Just leave me alone, John.
Fine. You’re alone.
It rains in Texas and we get stuck in the mud driving between cow pastures. It was my idea to stop and look at the cows, but John drove too far off the main road and slipped into a ditch. Our shoes and pants are full of mud. There is mud on our faces and on our hands. I think it’s funny but John is too worried about his car to see the humor. I tell him he’s cute.
We pitch a tent among patties and see above us a sky full of stars, all fixed.
John takes his Seroquel and falls asleep in the tent before I can stop him. I’m too hungry to sleep, and I lay next to him staring up at the apex where the tent’s two sides come together. An hour goes by in complete silence until I see lights shining through the flap. Four deer hunters hook their truck up to the back of John’s car and pull it out. They offer me jerky.
No thank you, I’m vegan.
Where’s your man?
He’s sleeping in the tent.
They disconnect the car from the tethers and sit on the hatch. Stickers on the truck advertise John Deere and a local radio station called “The Pig”. They wipe the mud from their boots.
You look like you need some jerky.
That’s not nice, Wade.
She knows I’m kidding.
It’s a dietary restriction.
More than that. It’s a lifestyle.
I couldn’t do it.
Tell you what.
One of them spits on the ground.
I need a good steak every now then. What’s your man like? He a sissy?
He’s not vegan.
Is vegan why you’re skinny?
Don’t you miss a big, rare piece of meat?
Not really. I don’t like meat.
No, I mean like, really crazy.
That night, I lie awake until the sun rises. When John wakes, he’s upset that I left him alone while I talked to the deer hunters. They could have hurt me.
We make love in the tent and lie there to watch the sun rise, then drive into town for breakfast. I order fruit salad.
We go back to the hospital first thing the next day. I have pinkeye probably caused by cow dung. I throw out my contact lens and wear a patch over my eye. I refuse to leave the car because I think people will stare at me. I can only see in two dimensions and I can’t see my whole periphery; I see ninety degrees to my right and that’s all. I can’t see John.
When I take the patch off my eye, all the world looks blue.
We drive toward New Orleans passing in and out of towns of clusters of three buildings, passing junk shops and farms laid fallow by the cold, billboards for Jesus and against homosexuals, for Popeyes and the American Bank of Texas but against Obama, for NASCAR and Keller Williams but against socialism. I eat four banana chips and regret it because they’re cooked in coconut oil and sugar. I feel like a failure.
John buys us coffee with cream when we stop at a RaceTrac and I use it to wash down two Hydroxycut, then remind him that I don’t eat dairy. My stomach turns circles in my chest and I roll down my window and stick my face into the wind.
John rolls the window back up. He’s exhausted. His pills sometimes make him tired all day. I think he’s mad at me.
I’m sorry we did that again, I say.
He’s not listening.
I roll down my window. He rolls it back up.
It’s cold, he says.
I’m claustrophobic. I need to move around. Or get out. I need some air.
Are you on something? You look terrible.
I’m serious. Did you take something?
What would I take?
Sit still. You’re making me nervous.
I can’t. My heart’s beating really fast.
What’s wrong with you?
I put my seat halfway back and shift around.
No offense, but you’re kind of annoying me, he says. You need to calm down.
I am calm. I have a headache.
We drive in silence for a long time before John asks me to plug in his iPhone and pick a song. Brown farms flow past us on either side like muddy rivers. I launch his Pandora and scroll through preprogrammed lists of like artists. I pick a British activist singer we both like and choose John’s favorite song. We listen for a few minutes until the station plays a Nissan commercial and then we switch to another station.
I hate that Pandora plays commercials, John says.
I guess they have to.
I’m sorry I can’t drive.
It’s fine. You’re blind.
I really am.
You really are. You’re totally blind.
We’re silent for several minutes while I study the margin of the road. We pass billboard after billboard for the same strip club.
I need to go to the bathroom, I say.
I tried to hold it. I can’t hold it anymore.
I can’t believe you sometimes.
SARAH GERARD is the author of the novel Binary Star. Her short works have appeared in the New York Times, the Paris Review Daily, Tin House and other journals. A Florida native, she now resides in Brooklyn and works at BOMB Magazine. Read more about her at sarah-gerard.com.
Adapted from Binary Star, by Sarah Gerard, Copyright © 2015 by Sarah Gerard. With the permission of the publisher, Two Dollar Radio.
Author photo: Josh Wool