I’d never realised just how fragile friendships were until I ran out of energy and then bonds I thought unbreakable, shattered in my hands, slicing me apart with the shards.
Family however, well they’re kind of stuck with you; my brother for example, sweet, quiet and perhaps just a little shy, was having a lovely time being the apple of everyone’s eye…that was until I burst in, loud and brash, demanding attention. I’ve long suspected that had my parents taken him to a store and let him choose from a selection of little sisters, I would not have made the cut. He has to love me now regardless because that’s how it works.
Generally speaking, family remain by your side, you share a bond strengthened by blood, history, and the knowledge that everyone of your joint ancestors succeeded in at least one thing in their life; the passing on and survival of their genes, sliding down the helter-skelter of history to reach to you.
The wonderful thing about family is that you don’t necessarily need to know each other very well for them to come to your rescue or to find support. My brother and I were incredibly touched when my mum’s cousin flew in from America for the funeral; it seemed only right that I swing by for a cup of tea when in the country. Which is precisely how Blonde and I found ourselves sitting at the kitchen breakfast bench, as my mum’s cousin educated Blonde on the delights of combining clotted cream with jam on scones.
For the first time in weeks, we spent an entire day where we didn’t drive a car; instead we toured a brewery, walked dogs, sat in cafés and most importantly, tried out a sit on mower. It was with great sadness that we waved the family off the next day for their holiday before we set off again ourselves.
“Nebraska better be worth it” Blonde declared, pulling the car out of the driveway. “It’s literally the only state we’ll miss if we don’t go today, it’ll be fun, a random night out in Nebraska, what’s not to like? Besides, we get to visit the ‘Field of Dreams’ on the way” I encouraged, feet up on the dashboard as I tried to find the field’s address. “Tell me again what this field thing is?” Blonde questioned smiling, both of us in better moods after the day of rest. “Have you never seen the film?” I exasperated friendlily, she shook her head. “You’ve seen nothing! What did you do in your childhood!” I over exaggerated, throwing my arms forward, palms up. “Went outside, did stuff, we didn’t watch much TV” came the reply.
“Well, it’s a film where Kevin Costner has a farm and he’s poor and something happens, I can’t remember what, but anyway, he decides to build a baseball pitch in the middle of his corn patch. Then all these dead baseball players turn up and eventually he ends up playing catch with his dad! It’s like, really touching and, oh, and and there is this famous line” I paused in my explanation, switching voices to a low, masculine tone “if you build it, they will come” I beamed. “Right” came Blonde’s response, clearly not sold on my explanation.
The highway took us back west, farm after farm and nothing much else. We pulled on to the dusty car park, a camper-van selling a selection of souvenirs and people posing for pictures on the pitchers mound. We sat on the benches to eat our Subways, sun beating down, our skin growing dark. “It’s kind of disappointing” I confessed “I don’t know what I was expecting but it really is just a baseball field on a farm, I wanted Kevin Costner and home runs” I moaned. After a short play amongst the corn field, too early in the season to really allow any film re-enactments, we got back on the road and drove on to Nebraska.
Hours later, we crossed the river marking the Iowa/Nebraska border, cheering at the state welcome sign. “Ok, there are a bunch of motels on the other side of town. Oh, wait, they’re pretty expensive. Let me see if there are any hostel’s” I typed away on my phone. “I don’t think hostels are really a thing in America. Hmmm, we want a motel close to the city centre then. Ha, I can’t believe we just drove seven hours for a night out in Nebraska!”. As I typed, Blonde took an exit off the highway and drove around the local streets. Dark alleyways, homeless drinking on curbs, youths wearing hoodies gathered in doorways, rubbish over flowed from trash cans, old couches sat on corners, their springs exposed and rusting.
“Ummm I’m not sure I like it here” Blonde said nervously after pulling over whilst I continued to search the internet for accommodation. I looked up and saw a group on men watching us, their expressions dark and untrustworthy. “I don’t think we’re in the best part of town” I whispered. I was having no luck finding anywhere in our price range “do you, do you think we should maybe head back out and stay in a small town somewhere off the free-way?” Blonde suggested. Seven and a half minutes after entering the state, we left Nebraska and headed in the direction of Chicago.
With darkness’ approach, I plotted a small town on my phone and we pulled back off the main road, booking into an Indian themed motel. “Shall we go get a drink?” I questioned, “yeah, I probably won’t drink alcohol though” Blonde replied ‘of course not, couldn’t possibly let your hair down for once, not like we’ve been talking about going out, having some drinks and maybe finding somewhere to dance all day!’ I thought, trying not to roll my eyes.
The town consisted of one small high street and one bar. We pushed open the bar door and stepped into the light; loud music pumped form a DJ in the corner, men with mullets played pool towards the back and a middle aged group stood gathered at the front of the building. We made our way to the bar, eyes scanned us up and down as we passed before dismissing us. At hearing my accent as I ordered, a large lady, clearly several drinks down, spun around on her bar stool “where y’ from?” she slurred. We explained politely and removed ourselves to a table up against the wall.
“Ummm, it’s not exactly the wild night out in Nebraska I was thinking we’d have” I laughed. “Yeaahhh” Blonde surveyed the room “do you think this is the entire town?”. I followed her lead and looked around “yeah, I think it might be”. We sat in silence for a short period, I tried to think of things to talk about, how to make the night fun.
I was bored, I thought of my friends in Australia ‘Rocker would have torn this place apart, if he’d been here we’d of ended up cow tipping and stealing a tractor. House-mate and I would have polished off several bottles of wine and probably slow danced with the bar tender. Burnley and I would have stumbled back into the motel at three am after playing dares all evening. My friends back home would of been the same too, it didn’t matter the circumstance or the person, there was always fun to be had’.
But with Blonde it wasn’t fun and I couldn’t understand why, it wasn’t the lack of drinking, it was the energy, she never let go, never threw caution to wind, always wanting to know exactly how things would play out, always so controlled; I looked at her watching the bar, seeming perfectly content. I blew out my cheeks, stirring my drink with my straw “hey, wanna play truth or dare?” it was all I could think of to try and save the night.
“Yeah” she sounded enthused. “Truth or dare?” I asked, predicable she replied “truth”. I thought for a second, I already knew everything, there wasn’t any gossip to be had “ummmm, oh, do you fancy Geo? Are you going to get with him when he joins us on the road-trip?” I already knew the answer. “Oh, he’s a really nice guy, and he is interesting, I mean he’s not terrible looking or anything” she skirted the edges, I waited. “It’s, well, I don’t really fancy him. He’s really nice but he, he slouches when he walks and is a bit awkward and…” she trailed off.
“What?” I pushed. “Well, I’ve lost all this weight and I sort of feel I deserve someone who’s really good looking and intelligent but also nice and funny, you know. I worked really hard to get to where I am and…” she paused. “You feel like you deserve more” I finished for her “well yeah” she said sheepishly. “Have you told him you’re not into him?” I followed up. “No but he knows” she insisted, “but have you actually said that to him?” I asked again “have you actually said the words?”. ” Well, no, but we’re just friends” came the reply, “I think you need to make sure he understands that before he flies down” I tried to drill home.
“Your turn, truth or dare?” she changed the subject. “Truth” I answered, sipping my drink, she didn’t hesitate “do you fancy Alaska?”. I should have known the question would be reversed “no, not really, I don’t think so. I don’t know. I think I was starting to like him when we were staying at his but then he said all that stuff. But now, well we talk a lot and it’s been awhile since I’ve really done that with anyone. I mean I do love him but no, not in that way. I don’t want to be with anyone right now, that’s not why I’m on this trip” I finished. “I think he wants more though” Blonde suggested, “no, we’ve talked about it, there will be no muddying of the waters!” I justified. “Truth or dare?”.
She went for truth again “you can’t have truth every time!” I moaned. “I’ll do dare next time, but depends what it is!” she surrendered. I struggled to think of a question that wouldn’t lead to the same coming back at me “oh, ok, would you rather get with that man there, yeah, the really big one in the dungarees and beard or the 70 year old bartender who’s belly is hanging out right now?”. We went back and forth a few times before the lady from the bar stool approached “girls, let me buy you a drink!” she slurred, refusing to take no for an answer.
Blonde leaned in as the lady returned to the bar “what if she drugs us?”. I laughed “I think we’ll be ok, look, we can watch the bartender make them and you don’t have to drink it if you don’t want to”. The lady returned setting down our drinks and pulling up a chair “the rumours aren’t true!” she testified.
“Sorry?” I puzzled, Blonde shooting me a look, confused. “The rumours” the lady began again “despite what they say, I’m not sleeping with him! I work all week and my husband doesn’t mind me coming down here on a Friday for a night out. I can’t very well drive home now can I? So he let’s me stay on his floor” she gestured a hand towards the bartender.
“Everyone thinks we’re sleeping together but it’s not like that. My husband understands, he puts our daughter to bed now she’s a bit older and I get to have a night out. A few drinks, unwind. We have kissed and had a bit of a cuddle but that’s al’right. It’s the rest of em who judge me” she sloshed her drink, gesturing to the rest of the bar “they think they know but they don’t!” she seemed angry for a second. She leaned in, heaving her cleavage to rest on the table top “so you two, what are you two up to?”.
“Well, Blonde here was just about to do her dare!” I smiled. “I will do it, doesn’t bother me” Blonde looked resolved. She walked over to the DJ who fired up a track “wa’ she doin?” the lady asked. “She’s going to dance to a song on her own in the middle of the dance floor” I explained, it was the only dare she’d been willing to do. The lady and I sat and watched as Blonde jumped around, the rest of the bar completely ignoring it. “Ok fair enough, I couldn’t do that! That was impressive” I shook my head laughing at Blonde’s return “shall we head back now, we have to drive tomorrow?” Blonde suggested.
The following evening we arrived in Chicago just as a thunderstorm clouded the sky. Alaska had flown in that day and was staying with a friend whilst we had two nights booked with a couch surfer. “This guys wants us to grab some dinner then head out for drinks with him tonight” Blonde stated from the passenger seat clutching her phone whilst I drove up and down the dark street trying to find somewhere to park. I was really tired but the prospect of a proper night out and drinks with people who actually wanted to go out was too much to pass up.
I reversed parked into the only free spot just as the heavens opened; “he says he’s not home but his housemate should be” Blonde announced, slipping her flip flops back on. We lifted our smaller cases from the car boot and headed down the street, wet feet slipping through growing puddles whilst the sky rumbled above.
Together, crouching under the narrow door cover and shivering in the dark, we rang the flats doorbell. No answer, we tried again, nothing. Blonde text the guy as we huddled closer, the rain falling heavier and great crashes echoing through the clouds as gods forged thunderbolts within. “He says he’s out but his housemate should be in, he might be asleep though”. We rang the bell for a third time, fingers crossed as the sky lit up with electricity, the first bolt thrown. “Yeah” a skinny man in his early 20’s appeared in sweatpants and nothing else, rubbing one eye. “Hi, we’re the couch surfers” we beamed, trying to sound enthusiastic. “What?” the guy seemed confused. “We’re couch surfing, your housemate? He’s said you’d know about us staying?” we were beginning to worry, something didn’t feel right. “Oh, right, ok” the guy seemed dazed but held the door open and led us to the flat.
We walked into a living room, no furniture, just old blankets strewn across the floor. Piles of paper in one corner, a couple of bags propped up against the wall “you can sleep in here with the others” the guy gestured. “The others?” I probed, “yeah, we’ve got some other couch surfers staying, they’re out at the moment. He gave us a brief tour, the flat was filthy “I don’t like it here” I whispered to Blonde “but he had over 50 positive reviews” she contended.
“So, how many live here?” I asked the man, trying to make small talk. “Just three of us but we’ve always got couch surfers here” he explained. “What do you do?” I was curious. “I’m a chef, the other two work in IT and stuff” came the answer. “You have people here all the time? Don’t you find it hard to work and have people staying?” I wasn’t sure, but something about his body language and the way he answered didn’t add up. “No” he seemed defensive “we all work at night”. “All three of you?” I didn’t understand “yeah” he replied, leading us from the small kitchen back to the living area, we perched on some blankets on the floor as he stood in the doorway.
“Don’t you ever get a bit worried having strangers stay in your house every night whilst you are all out at work?” I continued. “No” he was definitely annoyed “we all work from home”. “Wait, but you’re a chef, and all three of you work from home whilst couch surfers sleep in the living room? How do you cook all night?” he ignored my questions, reading a message on his phone that had just come through.
“You guys need to go get food from the store for dinner” he looked up at us. “We’ve actually already eaten but we’ll happily cook dinner for you guys tomorrow night” Blonde responded. “We’re all going out tonight so you need to go get some food for dinner, there’s the two other couch surfers, us three house-mates and then a few of our mates coming round, about seven people in total” he continued. Blonde glanced at me and proceeded to pretend she didn’t understand “we’re ok, we’ve eaten, but you guys should just get what you want for yourselves” he didn’t look pleased. The doorbell rang.
“This feels so dodgy, I don’t know if I want to stay here!” I whispered as he went to answer the door. “But he has really good reviews…” Blonde started to defend her booking skills as two others walked in. A girl and a guy, both skinny with pale skin and sunken cheeks, their eyes wild and dangerous. The girl slumped down on the blankets opposite whilst her boyfriend followed the first guy through to the kitchen.
“Hey, where you from?” she asked manically, we briefly explained before asking about her “is that your boyfriend?” Blonde questioned. “Yeah, we met three months ago and haven’t spent a day apart since” she beamed as he slumped down next to her, swigging some sort of booze from a cup and passing it over, she ran her hand up and down his thigh whilst taking the cup and taking a deep drink before he pulled it away to raise it back to his own lips. “You haven’t been apart?” I asked, wondering how that would even be possible.
“No, not for more than half an hour”. “But what about work? And showering and spending time with family and stuff?” it didn’t make sense to me. “No, we’re just together. He’s my boyfriend” as though that was all the explanation needed, she put a protective arm around his neck and leaned towards me, any friendliness instantly gone, looking as though she was wanted my blood. And then she cackled, before leaning back, her previous demeanor having returned.
“We need to go to the store” the guy tried again. “Do you mind if we stay here? We don’t need to get anything and we’ve been driving all day” Blonde continued to play ignorant. “No we all need to go, you need to pick up the food” the guy began again. “But we got the last spot on the street, we can’t really move the car again and it’s really coming down out there now” Blonde despaired, clearly not wanting to buy a group of strangers dinner when we’d already offered to cook the following night. I was feeling more and more uncomfortable and punched out a message to Alaska explaining the situation.
His reply filtered through “ah, that’s shitty. We’re going to an arcade which is a combination of bar and arcade. Has pinball machines, classic arcade games and other fun stuff. Should be really cool” he was clearly having a good time. “Sounds fun. Do you think there is any chance we can come stay at your mates for the night? I think we might get raped and murdered here – not necessarily in that order!” I sent a reply, hoping I wouldn’t have to stay in this flea pit much longer, more and more convinced it was a drug den.
Whilst Blonde tried to negotiate with the guy I text her a message “I really don’t want to stay here”. She sent a reply “ok”. “Hey, why don’t we go get some stuff from the car to change in to and then we can head to the store?” I announced. “Yeah, let’s do that” Blonde joined. “I’m going to take my bag, just to swap some stuff around so I have what I need for the night” my lie sounding unconvincing.
We sat in the car as it misted up, lightning forking the sky above and rain turning the road to a river. “I just don’t feel safe staying there” I began. “Well where else are we going to go? I think it’s fine, I don’t mind staying” she returned, tensions rising. “Well you can stay if you want but I’m going with my gut, if you want to stay you stay but I’m going to find a motel somewhere. I can come pick you up in the morning” I fired back. “I’m not being left without the car!” she argued. “Well I’m not staying here!” I insisted “do you honestly feel safe here?”. “Well no, not really but he has loads of reviews so it must be ok” she concluded.
I searched the internet for a motel, the cheapest being 45 minutes away by the airport with only one room left, “that’s so much money though” Blonde complained “can’t we stay at Alaska’s mates house?” she added. “I’ve asked him but they’ve already gone out” I flicked to my message on my phone just as his reply shot through.
“Sorry, I wish I could give you a hug right now. I haven’t met the house-mates of my friend yet and they have other people staying so there’s no room. Love you, my texting might be intermittent, playing arcade games 🙂 having the best night ever!” came the text reply from Alaska.
“No, we can’t stay at his” I answered Blonde, a little annoyed Alaska was so unconcerned for our safety. Blonde turned the engine on, pulling her mouth into a straight line, clearly agitated “you can stay here! I’m not making you get a motel!” I began. “I’m not going to stay on my own am I!” she retorted. “Sorry, but I don’t feel comfortable there, and neither do you! I’m not going to put myself in a situation if I don’t have to” I defended my position.
For half an hour we drove in the heavy evening traffic; spray from the cars in front causing a cloud of blindness and smudging car lights. “Shit, you just turned onto a toll road, this isn’t right!” I looked at my phone “we’re going in the opposite direction, this is heading to the free-way out of town, shit, get off the road!!” I yelled over the thunder. “This is so stressful” Blonde was leaning forward in her seat, fingers wrapped tightly around the steering wheel. “I know, but you’re doing really well” I offered, wondering if we might have been better staying at the drug den after all.
An hour later, one u-turn on the toll road, a lot of leg crossing as we tried not to wet ourselves and some swearing at the GPS we finally arrived at the motel gone midnight; utter exhaustion taking hold as soon as we climbed into the beds.