Travel. That’s what they did with free time, took every bus and train and boat for cheap, for as long as they could. Her mother said they were “almost sophisticated, worldly if not yet wise” for twenty-four and twenty-six, as if they were jet setting transcontinental travelers. Tara laughed at such a notion, though secretly proud of having seen twelve of the states so far. Ott’s smile was acquiescent, thinking his mother-in-law had no idea how much they had gained from their trips, and was a little sorry to admit she never would. She was just too…provincial. But one day he would go to Europe and beyond, for certain. Rather, they would. He and his breathtakingly smart, often vivacious and, of course, good looking wife: Tara.
They decided to start out on a Greyhound bus from St. Louis to Detroit that year. Why not? It would be a different kind of romp.
“Detroit?” Mrs. Barnett had shrieked, “why on earth would you go to the murder capital of the world? Please sit this one out, Tara.”
The data about Detroit wasn’t strictly true. Sometimes it had held the top spot, other times it hovered between ranking 3 and 5–this year it took 2nd place. But Ott had family there, a cousin who helped run a deli in the suburbs, and he hadn’t visited in almost ten years. So off he and Tara went, and survived to tell a paltry number of tales.
The bus station was teeming and fetid that late June. Detroit-hot, sweaty and heaving with fumes. Ott located his cousin’s truck at the curb and they clamored into the cab amid back slapping and salutations. Tara wedged between them, her sleepy head aching from the one and a half days’ trip up north. She was woken up yet intimidated by the frenetic pace. Everyone seemed pursued by or pursuant of something. They gawked out the windows as cousin Dale yakked, taking in the densely aligned streets inhabited by tenements and gleaming skyscrapers, not much different from any metropolis yet more imperturbable and gritty. But the packed, diabolically fast traffic! They would have been killed by insane drivers if Dale hadn’t kept things under control, weaving in and out like a pro, honking his horn and swearing back at drivers with various hand signals. In time more leafy suburbs ran one into the other.
Rochester was a one square mile, outlying village that tried to bill itself as a suburb. There were fancy stores and restaurants along Main Street. There were grandfather oaks and spritely maples that shaded rather downcast two-story houses nudged by new builds of brick, behemoths that took their prosperous stand. Wakowski’s Butcher Shop and Deli had been across a neighborhood baseball diamond for two generations. They sold rows of meats made of parts Tara preferred not to think hard about, with names she hadn’t heard of, so that was one experience to tell her mother.
Ott was glad to be with his cousin, the next generation in line for the store management. They stayed at Dale’s fancy apartment nearby. The guys drank a quite a lot of beer while Tara sat by a creek behind the store’s deck and nursed her own or walked down a fragrant, woodsy trail out back. Bushes and thickets of trees hid residential blocks behind the store. It was prime real estate, she thought, and knew Otto’s family had some money if his folks did not. But the store was inviting. Customers could take food outside, enjoy their repasts at picnic tables. She thought how her mother would revel in common leisurely activities, the sharp sunlight roasting her legs pink, the rippling waters meandering by at a carefree pace, people gabbing and eating as if they had all day long to do nothing else. It was a comfortable, quiet neighborhood, not unlike the ones in which she and Ott had grown up.
But she nonetheless grew restless–time was wasting and there were other places to see–and was glad they left after four days. Tara did not want to be lulled any longer and thought of how her mother said she was born wanting to run. She had wanted to see the Detroit Institute of Arts but Ott said there wouldn’t be time this trip. As if she would ever come back. The last night she felt quite alone as the cousins took off down the trail like jack rabbits, letting her catch up if she could. Tara could and did, then felt extraneous as they talked of their childhoods, then their passions. It was the blood tie. It was their shared obsession with hunting and fishing, which she was slow to consider much less attempt. She had more liking for tidy rooms and in-room coffee makers and a hot bath, not pup tents and snakes and storms that convulsed the night. She would have liked to book a quaint houseboat along the Mississippi River, though.
As she walked at a brisk pace and they murmured about their wishes and wants, she missed her best friend. Her mother would do, as well.
Mrs. Barnett was the full-time housekeeper–hardly a handful of days off, mostly for illness or visiting her daughter–at Eldred Deeds’ home in St. Louis. She had never been anywhere, just the same old destinations within thirty miles of his stately house. She had once calculated the figures. It hadn’t bothered her, just made her wonder. She had been born only fifteen blocks from Deeds’ house, another world altogether. She had not even ventured far when married; her husband had been a shoe store manager near their apartment until he passed away. It was all alright with her, or so she said. But she said very little of what she really thought. Like the fact that her daughter and son-in-law were wasting money going all those places, cheap tickets or not. What was there to see that was so much different from where they all came from? She could only imagine. Alright, she ruminated on how life was out there, but she kept her mind on her tasks and her ears attuned to Mr. Deeds’ calls.
Mrs. Barnett was joyous and relieved Tara had gotten college scholarships; she wouldn’t be able to bear her only child stuck in a job like hers even if it did pay bills. her own work never surprised her, nor gave her much of a laugh or a boost. She didn’t get to test the truth or foolishness of ideas she’d had over the years. Thanks to her daughter’s recommendations, she read good books at night and fell asleep dreaming of people and places so unlike her world that she awakened mystified and out of sorts.
Ott and Tara had gotten hired as teachers at a Jefferson City high school and middle school, respectively. They could enjoy the summers as they chose. They saved up all other months just for these trips. They had invited her once or twice but of course she couldn’t go. It was unthinkable, not only time-wise. She would be out of her element, entirely. Instead, she waited to hear the stories her daughter shared on the road.
After Detroit, Ott and Tara took the bus to Denver for five days, then from there a train to Boise in August for twelve more. They were pulled out west, felt another presence in this city close to the borders of Oregon and Nevada. There was the hint of wildness, of a history of mountain men and fur trappers. The foothills of the Rocky Mountains were a magnetic backdrop as they hiked and explored the semi-arid land. The sun scalded Tara and tanned Ott and he was more chipper than usual. Tara had to admit it was stupendous land.
“I’d like to go to British Columbia,” Ott said as he eased into bed one night in Boise. “Camp awhile.”
They were staying at a cheap motel, and they checked the bedding twice every night to make sure there weren’t any bedbugs thriving. They would have to find great hostels or…camp more.
“I’d like to go anywhere cool, where the sun kisses not saturates, beats or ignites,” Tara said as she turned over, the springs squeaking, “so that’s fine with me, I guess. Next year?”
He traced the gentle, alluring slope of her shoulder with his fingertips but her breathing was already a shiver of soft sound. The demanding heat sucked all energy from her normally active body. Her face shone white in the grey of the room. For a long time he stared at the ceiling cracks and wondered if she’d be willing to camp more, primitive camping. Ott was tired of so many cities and longed for the different sounds of the untamed. He hadn’t yet told her, but he was getting sick of teaching already and thought perhaps he had made a mistake. He wanted to travel more off the beaten track. In fact he had a surging drive to travel every day of the rest of his life, not be stuck inside an airless classroom teaching geometry to a bunch of mouthy kids who found it worthless. Dan understood; he didn’t want to run the butcher shop and deli. They had talked about heading out together somewhere remote. Like South America, the Amazon or Patagonia.
Ott knew Tara wouldn’t go for it. They had the money; they were both so frugal by nature it wasn’t hard to save. But she wanted more security than he did, even though she was a good sport and did enjoy their trips. But traversing their country and exploring the wild, wide world were two different things. Ott feared she would bring up having a child again as she had last fall. He wasn’t ready for fatherhood and he didn’t know if he ever could be, at least not until they had expanded the radius of their journeys.
In August they drove, for once, and entered the wilderness of Sangre de Cristo within the Rio Grande National Forest in Colorado. Ott had talked Tara into it; she put forth a spirited effort and camped without significant complaint. She found the wilderness life affirming if difficult. Ott knew this was not the highlight of her summer, whereas for himself it was a mere scratch of an itch for more extreme adventure. They returned home. Tara was satiated, weary, bug bitten and ecstatic to shower, then see her friends and mother. Ott felt he was just catching his breath, was in between destinations, and at long last admitted to himself he felt repugnance when he considered returning to a classroom jammed with yawning. cell phone sneaking students again. They demonstrated a weird passive corrosion, both in manner and mind.
“I’m not going back to teaching,” he told her three weeks before classes started. “I can’t do it, anymore.”
“What’s that? Teaching is now a travesty, you say?” She let go a silken sigh, then looked up from the book she was underlining, something she might use in class. Her eyebrows rose as lips compressed, eyes wide with teasing laughter–held back. Now she saw his high forehead furrowed, his eyes dark and closed. She put down the red pencil.
“I have to travel more. I need to push my limits–find them maybe. You knew teaching was convenient, not the path I really wanted.”
“Right you are, you wanted to be a pilot but your vision isn’t good enough. So teaching math was a decent choice since you are smart in math and sciences.”
He touched the glasses atop his head but held her eyes with a fearless gaze. “I am quitting teaching. I will take my resignation letter in to Harold tomorrow. It’s been three years and it’s worse for me, not like for you–you love what you do, the kids, the atmosphere of barely controlled chaos–”
“Don’t be ridiculous, you can’t just quit! And do what? I can’t carry us both–the responsibilities, the debts–while you live a wanderer’s life.”
“I know, I do know….” He looked at his palms as if the fine lines might hold some clue to what was next. “I have a plan. For me, anyway…”
Tara leaned forward to better see him in the afternoon sheen of grey left over by rain. She could not believe him; he was joking. She knew this man, finished college with him, had been married to him for four fine years. Well, at least thought-provoking! Overall fulfilling and packed with sensual moments. He was her friend, her partner. He was a good if uninspired teacher. Did he think he could abandon her, too, just as they were becoming more adept at building a life together?
“A plan–for you? What do you mean?” Maybe he needed another career direction–yes, that was it, that’s all.
“Yes.” He clasped one hand with the other and felt dizziness sweep over him. He sat up taller. “Dan and I are going to travel for a year and then see if we can somehow make a living as guides… somewhere.” He took a deep breath. “He has money, you know. He inherited last year after his grandfather passed. He’s taking time off from the family business and…well, that’s it, I suppose, we’re off in a couple of months if all goes well.”
“I heard you say you were thinking of leaving me–for a year at least, with your cousin? Quitting your good job to traipse around the world–is that right?” Her heart was crashing against her thin chest, stomach was aflutter.
She looked at him, stricken, as if he’d morphed into an utter stranger and maybe that was true, he was no longer who she imagined, at all. or perhaps this was the man she had avoided seeing. He appeared so certain, stronger than ever even if anxious and sad. Relieved, perhaps, even as she was thrown into an abyss of shock. He looked just enough sad that she held back a torrent of accusations and horrendous feeling but had to say something.
“You are separating from me, aren’t you, a little now, more later–aren’t you?”
Ott nodded his head in such a small way she wanted to hope he had not. But he had.
“Alright then, be selfish, just go, chase a crazy new dream, have a happy life, be the man you were meant to be and so on. Just go on!” She stood and went to him, leaned close to his startled face. “You are leaving me for the world, Otto James? Is that it? Yes, you’ve known you can’t have both so you’ve made your choice. I suggest you pack now. Next stop, unknown–have at it.”
She began to laugh and knew it was the leaking of this new hysteria that might explode if he stood near her any longer. She laughed and laughed as tears gathered at the corners of her eyes and then fell shamelessly, while he dared to hold out his arms to her. She turned her back, walked away just like he had left her already. She never wanted to see him again.
“Adventure!” she shouted as he left the room. “Is that the only true love you know?”
But she knew the answer and realized she always had.
It was spring already and how sweet were breezes that swept across the mammoth spaces of the train station. Tara was standing in the middle of the floor clutching her red bag, looking for her mother. They were to meet a half hour ago; the train was leaving in another hour. Where was she? Perhaps it was complete idiocy to have invited her own mother on a train ride for the very first time all the way to Portland, to Seattle, then to Vancouver, B.C. She tapped her foot, but it was excitement that gave her the jitters. Tara felt this trip was right, even perfect. Her mother had been there for her all year, had held her close when she cried Ott out of her system–not entirely successfully, not yet. And this woman of fifty-five had worked alone and in a humdrum job for her only child, for her own survival so very long. There had to be more for her, but Tara had asked with some trepidation.
Her mother had dropped the robust bunch of flowers she was set to arrange, her mouth flying open. “When? Where?” she had asked and that was that.
Yes, it was true her mother was one of her trusted friends, one who would not judge her nor forsake her, or ever just ditch her. They might bare their teeth at one another now and then but that could be worked out. Yes, her mother would soon arrive and then they could begin the fun, too long put off.
Mrs. Barnett could just then see Tara from the second floor railing, Tara with her mass of enhanced if originally strawberry blond hair and her big fire engine red bag stuffed with books, passport and sweater, a water bottle and snacks. Tara with her sensible clothing and that fierce look as she worried about being late to the gate. They were going on a trip, at last, a real train trip and she was going to see new things, experience such different people, share an unbelievable adventure with her Tara. She could now have, quite possibly even at this late date, the time of her life!
“Tara!” she called out and waved like a madwoman, her new yellow blouse flapping about. “Tara, look up here, I’m coming, we’re set to go!”
Tara looked up, seriousness erased by a big, welcoming smile. Which assured her mother that all would be better, then well, soon enough.