The highway fired like a neuron down the Oregon coast, and I was an electrical impulse. Off to the right side of the road, the waves surrendered over and over again against the shore. I imagined that at night, each individual house, cars in the driveway, shone as its own lighthouse, for whatever that house had lost to sea. Each one had lost something, some thing taken, something discarded.
“I remember,” I said, “the first time I learned to drive.” She glanced at me, right foot up on the dashboard, knee bent casually. Her window was cracked to let the searching wind in, and she had given up on her hair miles ago. It hung loose, dancing off her shoulders.
“My uncle took me driving when he was visiting from California. He grew up where I live. We went out to the old football stadium where the high schools still play.” I could picture the stone bleachers, never more than a quarter full. I could smell the salted pretzels and popcorn. Or maybe that was saltwater. “It was the kind of place where the parking lot is all gravel and weeds. He let me push the speed up to sixty just so I could feel how it felt to slam on the brakes.” I laughed.
She smiled in response and moved her hand to the lip of the roof, holding on. Her name was Maurine, but she went by Mauri. “It’s funny how the road can be anywhere,” she said, “even as it constantly reminds itself of its location.” She gestured to a mile marker as they passed.
“What do you mean?”
“You talk about that parking lot as if we were there now, you know? Even though we are miles away and moving further away. I think it’s something transitory, memory.”
“You sound like you’ve thought about this a lot,” I remarked as I watched a dog lope out of the driveway to the left, looking at the car inquisitively, then turning to pee on the hydrangeas I could tell his owners were proud of. We came upon a line of cars heading north then, and each one sped by, one after the other, air and tires passing with the sound of a rifle.
“My family moved a lot when I was little. My parents were always looking for work.” Crows wheeled overhead. “I have a lot of stories, only some of them my own. I remember one small town, like this, actually, only further inland, where I befriended the older woman a few houses down from ours. I say older, though really she wasn’t much older than my mom was then. I was five, you know?”
“Yeah,” I smiled. I knew. I had been insolent in my curiosity as a child.
“She had one of those signs that read ‘Hippies use side door.’”
"Oh, one of those,” I joked, knowingly.
“Every morning she would go out into her yard and lay on the grass with her eyes closed and her arms folded in front of her. I would sneak up and say, ‘boo!’ I never did manage to surprise her. I asked her what she was doing. She said she was thinking, and when I asked her about what, she said ‘anything.’ Now I know she was meditating, but I couldn’t comprehend it then.”
“I still have a hard time with that.”
“It takes practice, and she had it. One morning, when she finally sat up, after what felt like forever, I brought her a dandelion, and she gave me a story in exchange. She was like that, liked the idea of trading what you had.” We passed a sign that read: I5 Jct 24 miles. The trees opened up then, and the fragments of the coast between pines pieced themselves together into a vista. A few kites flew.
She went on, “She told me a story about living in France for a year during college, for a study abroad program she applied to. The place where she stayed was close to the Seine, so each night, she went for a walk that took her across a bridge over the river. On days it had rained, she carried her umbrella with her, and the handle of the umbrella was shaped like the head of a duck. She said she considered that duck a friend, but every night she walked across the bridge and looked out over the water, she felt the urge to throw the duck umbrella into the river.”
“The call of the void.”
“Yeah, just like that. She told me the French word for it, but I can’t remember now. Anyway, one night, she was walking, and she went and did it. She actually threw her umbrella into the Seine. She was the kind of woman who just did those sort of things.” Mauri was quiet for a moment. “I like to imagine the umbrella sending ripples through the reflections of the lights from the buildings there. I like to think she was trading that umbrella for something the river had given her.”
“My uncle died when I was a teenager. He was hit by a car, I thought you should know.” I felt like this was the right thing to say.
“I know,” she replied, “and I’m sorry.”
“Wait, what? How did you know?” I pulled the car away from the ridged shoulder.
“You told me about him teaching you to drive. That was the story you chose to give me.” She looked at me, then. I breathed. Her eyes were hazel and understanding.
We spoke amiably for a time after that, several more miles or so, of small things that seemed to drift out the still open window. The road had since wound away from the shoreline, and the trees around us were rich and sluggish from drinking in the ocean for years. I could still see the waves between the trunks, the legs of giants.
“You can drop me off here,” she said, pulling her foot down from the dash and collecting her things from around her feet.
“Are you sure?” I asked, reluctant. “I don’t mind going out of my way.”
I began to slow. I pulled off to the side of the road and turned on my hazard lights. She rolled up her window, and opened the door, stepping out and swinging her brown messenger bag over her shoulder. “
Thank you so much,” she said. “I really appreciate it.”
In the rear view mirror, she waved and turned to face the other way, toward the traffic. She stuck her arm out, thumb up, and waited for someone going where she needed to go.