It wasn’t so much a roadtrip as one day we all got in a car and tried to drive away from what was dragging us down. I said yes without knowing if Sheila and Mike were still together, and I guess I’m not much of a detective because we’re four hours in and I still can’t tell. I search for hidden meaning behind brushes of Cheetos-stained fingers and sips traded from a can of grape soda and find only the profound certainty that relationships are one of those grotesque things I like to examine from afar, like roadkill or belly button lint.
When I tell people I’m in a band with my neighbour and his girlfriend, I think there’s an unsaid pity that hangs in the air, like post-shower condensation or the last person at a funeral. I used to think it was because we were a three-piece, but I’ve recently come to the conclusion that my life choices are generally considered to be poor, that I should be investing in education instead of band logos and the only person paying in the end will be me.
Sheila wakes up first, asks if there are any more Cheetos left (I ate them all). I point-blank ask her if she broke up with Mike and she looks at me like I just ran over her dog. This is a roadtrip, she says. This is a safe space. She starts drumming on the glove compartment and I wish I could jot it down, maybe write an album on the road. I mention it to Sheila and she stops immediately. This is why we operate out of Mike’s basement.
I’ve known Sheila for about a year and a half now and she’s always had this energy like she could lift a tow truck off a baby in a crisis, except she’s almost always in crisis and no one ever calls her for help. I thought about it once but I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to pay her back and it would just be this thing held over my head until I died, at which point I wouldn’t have much use for the help anyway.
Sheila looks out the window when I ask about Mike’s dad. He’s better, she says quietly. Better is a good, safe word to use because it’s comparative – better than yesterday, better than Gord Downie, better than dead. It leaves you just enough hope to curl up into a white ribbon and pin to your chest.
I want Mike’s dad to be okay for selfish reasons, which include the following: he used to drive our band equipment around, I want Mike to stop smoking weed so Sheila will shut up about it, and I am uncomfortable with mortality. Those weren’t listed in any particular order, but when Mike wakes up and asks me to pull over for a toke, I get irrationally angry. He doesn’t pull the grieving card – which is still a work in progress – but I do it anyways because my head is somewhere back in Orangeville and it’s too late to turn around.
I have a bag of Cheetos tucked under each arm like a pair of footballs when I spot him sitting on the ground by the pumps. Sheila’s in the bathroom so it’s a perfect opportunity to ask about the state of things. He is a much better source of information. We’re done, he says.
Far too late, I realize that my face is not configured into an appropriate position for this kind of conversation. Mike doesn’t seem to care, aims his rant at the ground instead. I told her it wouldn’t matter if she left again, like I don’t have enough on my plate. I nod at the wrong times. Secretly, I think he’s right – Sheila’s been leaving since she got here.
We don’t need her, I say, throwing an arm around him. There are plenty of good drummers out there. Mike turns to me and I can tell I’ve said the wrong thing – there’s a look on his face like I have spinach in my teeth but I haven’t had a salad in weeks, months if we’re being honest here. You’re incredible, he says, and I feel anything but. I don’t follow him when he walks away. For me, it’s always been about the music. It’s the best we could ever get along.
Mike and Sheila are deep in conversation when I get back to the car. I throw the Cheetos in the back and give them space, overhearing snippets like completely delusional and awkward breakup. I trust that they are discussing the impending end of their romantic relationship and not the gaping social error that I have committed, and wander towards the portable bathroom.
The voice finds me before I can place it – floats into my stall like dandelion seeds and settles deep in the pit of my belly. She’s not pitch perfect but she’s raw, like a worn-down piece of sandpaper from my old man’s workbench. I burst out of the outhouse and nearly tackle her to the floor. She is very clearly homeless.
Your voice is beautiful, I breathe into her ear. She looks suspicious so I take a few steps back. Where are you headed? She shrugs. Hopefully the city, she says. I drag her back to the car with me. Sheila and Mike are less-than-impressed with my unsigned talent, but they don’t move to stop me as I toss her wrinkled knapsack in with the Cheetos. It’s your car, says Mike. It’s your funeral, says Sheila.
Elsie used to play the accordion in a Ukrainian orchestra, but sings now because an accordion is too tough to carry around. We could use an accordion, I say. No one agrees with me. Mike and Sheila have struck an unsteady truce in the backseat, hands holding hands clenched around another grape soda. Things are improving.
This is what our sound is missing, I tell them. They don’t believe me so I get Elsie to harmonize with the radio until they too are nodding along. We’re still done, says Mike, but I don’t believe him either. Elsie passes out a half hour into the drive and we sit in silence, driving towards the next best thing to come our way. This is a roadtrip. This is a safe space. I think of Mike’s dad and the ribbon pinned to his coat and the ribbons in Elsie’s hair, and I wonder if this is as good as it gets – not better, but different. I never like it when a band adopts a new sound but maybe it’s better to have a new sound than no sound at all, and when we are this dangerously close to silence, it’s hard not to want to make noise.
Photo credit: Scarborough Fair