Big Country

Written By Anna Forsyth

The plan was to recreate Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty’s road trip from Kerouac’s On The Road. Jack said he wanted to be Hunter S. Thompson instead. I told him that was the wrong book. We had a fierce argument for three miles (passing by roughly twenty thousand corn fields) until I realized he was just trying to piss me off. He threw his head back and laughed, closing his eyes briefly to enjoy the morning sun before refocusing the road. I yanked on his ear and he laughed again, running his hand through his bleached blonde hair; he was too beautiful to be mad at. Jack was too beautiful for a lot of things.

He was certainly too beautiful for Des Moines, Iowa. We had to get out, we’d die there, he’d said, more than once. But we’d live there too, I once retorted. I hadn’t meant to be funny but Jack cackled until his eyes watered. My ability to amuse Jack was just one of the ways he had improved the way I saw myself. When Jack wandered amiably into my gray, country life in Grade Eight, I was in awe of him; I had never seen anyone as pale and glowing as he was. He floated to my desk, returning a pencil I had dropped; he sat behind me, lent forward and said in a whisper, his voice dripping with a wonderful out-of-town strangeness, “Great doodles, man.” And that was that. In the months that followed, I didn’t see any of my other friends, dropping them like rocks I had carried in sticky hands through a long nature hike realizing I no longer had use for them; I became ever more infatuated with Jack and his shining energy. 

One summer sleepover, I took advantage of Jack finishing up his chores and slipped into his leather jacket, drinking in his scent from the lapels. He must be stealthier than I had previously given him credit, for he was in the room and watching before I even noticed. Nothing was said at the time apart from a mumbled apology accompanied by flushed cheeks and a hasty disrobing but in the morning, he asked me gently if I was in love with him in any way. Faced with the alternative, I was forced to admit my obsession; that I didn’t want to be with him, I wanted to be him. His eyes searched me, trying to understand but he never would. Ever since, Jack has made it his personal mission to get me to fall in love with myself, to get me to see the guy he insisted everyone else saw, the guy he did. And to some extent, it worked. That was the wonder of Jack Montreux.

The persnickety side of me wanted to go to New York and start our journey from there, just as Sal Paradise had. Jack had said sure, if I wanted to pay for gas and do all the driving. I had been tempted to consent to these terms, just for the sake of being thorough. No, Jack resolved, Des Moines was the third stop on Sal’s itinerary, we’d pick it up from there. Besides, all this was fun but we had to remember that we weren’t Dean and Sal, that we would never be, we were ourselves and wasn’t that enough for anyone? I reluctantly agreed that it was. It was under this good-natured contract that we made our way to North Platte, Nebraska, squabbling over control of the radio and waving goodbye to Farm Country, counting off the things we’d never have to do again.

Eventually we’d have to figure out something for money, our paper route savings could only get us so far and we couldn’t panhandle our way across the country on a couple of dollars like Sal had. Different times, I sighed, equal parts yearning and relief. We had enough to get us to Reno, the sixth stop, if we were careful. Jack suggested we make our money in the casinos. He was joking, I think. It’s hard to tell with Jack sometimes, such is his enigma. Still, we’d have to have a plan; freedom and autonomy could only satisfy us for a few days at the most. I’m the worrier of the two of us unsurprisingly, but even I was caught up in the clichéd Open Road feeling. It was a big country, and I needed to see it. There was no denying now that there was more to the world than our own little lives. It was thrilling.

Given our shared loathing of the farm country of our home state, Jack had tried to haggle for missing out our Nebraska stop. He wasn’t the Beat Poets obsessive that I was, though he had never scorned me as others had for being so consumed by youth culture that was never my own but that of two generations before. But I could tell my fixation was now beginning to irritate. Unlike me, Jack had always been comfortable enough in his own skin not to waste half his life wishing himself into that of a fictional other. He had offered me various combinations of Steak ‘n’ Shake, extra hours of driving and his beloved leather jacket. I was desperate for that jacket but I couldn’t make him part with it. Plus, I had this feeling in my bones that we should start things out right. I stiffened my resolve; we were heading to North Platte.

It was a testament to Jack’s trust in me that he acquiesced. We were lucky to have that in our friendship. It made up for a lot of inadequacies in the rest of our lives. Though there came a point when the monotony overwhelmed, when we weren’t able to save each other, or even ourselves, not if we had stayed where we were. Like a sordid affair, or other such uncomfortable truth, we had to get out. We didn’t stop driving until we crossed the state line.

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