I don’t know how it reaches us, but a letter reaches us on the road. I find it tucked within the pages of Brian’s battered copy of Infinite Jest. It’s an envelope without a stamp, without a postmark, addressed to BRIAN, SOMEWHERE ON INTERSTATE-5, and inside that is a newspaper clipping from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Brian’s hometown paper. Sweat damaged from too much handling, the clipping tells of a string of murders in the greater St. Louis area, linked to a few more out of state. All victims were of the name Jonathan Johannesson, the name of the second person who raped Brian. Though no real suspect has been named, many of the Jonathans died during or shortly after a Tinder date, all with the same person, known only as Tammy, 23. The clipping includes a picture of this Tammy— pale skin, flowing red synthetic hair, and a darkness to the cheeks only I see as stubble. No such Tammy has been found.
I also receive a letter, also without a stamp, also without a postmark, but instead of Brian’s name is my name. I find it tucked under the driver’s seat. When I ask Brian about how this could possibly have reached us, he plays dumb. When I ask him about the handwriting, he claims ignorance. When I question him about the letters he’s received, he says he doesn’t know what I’m talking about. I don’t open the letter addressed to me, SOMEWHERE SOUTH OF THE OREGON BORDER. The letter carries too much weight to open it, thick it is with who knows how many pages. I stuff it in the glove compartment and forget about it.
But I don’t forget about it—I’m haunted by the question of how it reached us. This comes first before any curiosity of what may be inside. Because I remember clearing out the van before we left, taking out anything expendable. I emptied all pockets, cleared all nooks, all cupholders and crannies, wiped all surfaces clean before we (Brian) built the platform to support the mattress in the back, before we stuffed our entire lives into this van, the contents crammed tight and spilling into the other’s. I remember all of this, and there was no such letter.
Before we left, long before the letters, Brian didn’t ask many questions. He seemed resolved to keep his mouth shut and his mind clean of whatever was/is contaminating mine. But as our departure loomed, and having found himself in the wake of his break with Tommy, Brian’s silence came undone. Outside the cottage I find him in the van, seated on the raised mattress in the back, and he’s smoking a cigarette.
“What is it?” I ask him.
He shakes his head.
I’m about to shrug it off, just walk away, when he asks, “Who are you? Who are you really?”
I tell him.
“No shit,” he says. “But who are you?”
“I don’t know what you’re asking.”
“You’re leaving because of who you are. And I’m coming with you, leaving everything too. So I need you to tell me straight, who do you think you are?”
“You wrote about it, you showed it to me, and I know who you were then. But who are you now?”
I tell him I’m the Christ. It sounds weird saying it out loud.
Brian relaxes, places the cigarette back between his lips as if he expected this.
“And what are you here to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“The road trip, what are we doing?”
“Finding Annie. You know this.”
“And when we find her, what are you going to do? Will you do what needs to be done or will you do nothing? Do you even know what you’re supposed to do?”
I tell him I don’t know.
“Well you need to figure that out,” he says.
“That’s all,” he says and then waves me off with his cigarette as if excusing me from his office.
That was then.
And so it goes now, we go, we go, the road unfurling before us, leading us downward along the northwestern coast of America. We pass cities and towns, farmlands and brown rivers. A homeless man gives me a thumbs up, and I give him a thumbs up too.
We take the wheel in shifts. We stop often. We pee often. We sleep less than I’d like to, though I try. I try so hard, but I can’t get a wink of it with Brian sleeping next to me. I think he’s awake too. His breathing is awake breathing, not sleep breathing. We’re not even outside Washington.
He seems to want to take his time. My time. Most days we go nowhere.
His eyes. They’re irritable.
“Wait,” he says somewhere far south of Seattle. “Stop the car.”
I stop the car. We’re stalled on the side of the interstate. We sit there silent and listen to the
tick of the engine cooling.
“How are we going to find her?” he asks.
“Where in LA?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know. All you say.”
“I don’t though.”
Brian pulls in his bottom lip, rolls down his window. The scent of tire and tar fills the van like pudding.
“We’ll find her,” I say confidently. Though thinking about it, I’m not confident about it at all.
“Facebook?” Brian asks.
“She’s not on Facebook.”
“Or she blocked you.”
I say nothing to that.
Brian rests his arm where the window used to be, raps his finger on the door.
Cars scream on by. The minivan shakes at their passing.
Brian pulls out his phone, flips through his open apps, opening new ones, closing old ones. His eyes don’t leave the screen, and I realize he’s right. How am I supposed to find Annie? What exactly was I expecting?
The road is still. What was once mania begins to peak, then pause, then slide toward it’s inevitable descent. Tick.
“What was that?”
“Tinder,” Brian says again. “Find her using Tinder.”
I can tell by his voice he knows it sounds stupid too, but what else about this hasn’t been completely, altogether downright—
“Tinder,” I say with almost a laugh. “Well…”
And instead of peaking, my mind continues it’s ascent.
And I start the engine.
Everything comes to life.
As I glance in the rearview mirror and pull back onto the road, Brian’s still on his phone and he’s on Tinder, swiping, swiping, relentlessly swiping and I see that devilish smile of his creep back through the corners of his lips for the first time since we left, since he left Tommy.
Interstate-5 pulls back under our wheels, ripping that horizon toward us. Jagged evergreens salute as we pass, as the road whispers: Prepare ye the way for the Lord, make his paths straight.
The road is straight.
My road is straight.
Behind us, the dome of the world falls away.
Eventually I do open that letter from Tommy. If just to taunt me, the glove compartment seems to rattle more than usual, until everything is rattling: the cupholders, the seats, the rearview mirror. Even when I’m not driving, even when I’m in the back trying to sleep, I dream of that glove compartment and it’s rattling, jamming itself against its lock. When I wake the glove compartment is open and inside is the envelope sticking out like a tongue. To shut it up, I tear out that tongue and slit it open and of course, this is unmistakable, vintage Tommy, classic Tommy-Tinder-style, saying so much with so little. This is what he says:
This goes on for 39 pages.
I read it twice. It kills me, it really does.
join man next year for PART IV of MANWITHOUTATINDER. Coming in January.