On the Cusp

By Amanda Maddox '02 / November / December 2002
June 28th, 2007

'Through my tinted windshield, evening deepens into black. All that shows now is the Virginia interstate, pulsing and pacing in smooth phosphoric beats.

It's beyond late: the end of May, the day nearly dead, and school done for good. I stick my arm and camera out the window and photograph the road without looking. Syncopated, the shutter and the streetlamps flutter. A slight silver flash that hits like a last gasp. Into the night the whole valley unrolls, loose and shiny as a tendril.

Up ahead, my friends Angela and Varick lead the way in Angela's big, black Isuzu Trooper with Texas plates. My old Volvo traces the highway with geriatric grace. I try to catch up to my counterparts in this three-woman, cross-country expedition, but the car resists. And I don't mind so much.

Slowly every bend, every distant hill spills into black. It's like watching a Polaroid image emerge, only in reverse. Before long, Virginia becomes a blank, black shape.

This is the image I take away.

Three days and 500 miles ago, I sort of graduated. I stood waiting for my name, walked across a stage, and returned to my seat. My parents traveled 3,000 miles to see three fluid motions.Only in December, after I complete a study abroad program in Florence, will I finally receive my Brown diploma.

Early yesterday morning I stopped by friends' houses and collected their farewells along with a pan from a potluck dinner, photographs, and hugs from boxer-clad boys. One friend said see you later is the best way to end.

I just drove away.

In Virginia, AC/DC comes on the radio and I sing along frantically. I pull out my ponytail and jostle my hair with a confusion that matches my voice. The map on my lap falls to the passenger seat. For a moment I am completely alone, strangely taken in by the state.

There's a current of poetry flowing in the tarmac. It makes my teeth tingle. I half-believe this place is special to me. But I know better. Every semi-post-graduate road-tripping sojourner feels the same. The highway belongs to everyone, at one point or another.

My friends and I exit I-95 in tandem for dinner, and as we cross Tennessee I ride in the Trooper with Angela and her tape of Into Thin Air. She cradles the steering wheel like my grandma does. She can barely see over the dashboard.

Nothing is visible anyway, except blue grass and roadkill.

I turn off the tape when the book gets gruesome, and we listen to music instead. "Songbird" comes on as Angela says, "I'm not good at long-distance relationships. I just screw them up." We stop talking to sing the chorus.

She worries about losing her boyfriend to Canada. I recall my latest not-quite-boyfriends in a sequence of stilled moments. They shuffle in and out of mind, like tourists. This is how they survive now - in a mental slide show, as plates bathed and fixed by memory.

I say, "You can make it work. If anyone can, you can." We're in the middle of nowhere and everywhere all at once. It's the cusp of midnight and we drive with a new intensity.

I pull out my camera to photograph Angela behind the wheel. It captures everything, from the domestic-kitsch landmark "The Tallest Cross" to the desolate Mississippi to the Salinas buses that haul both migrant workers and outhouses. Sure, these pictures aren't the real thing, but they show what has been. And the memories attached flash with more brilliance than any neon South-of-the-Border sign.

Later, Varick and Angela talk on cell phones to keep themselves awake. Here, in the cake-tiered hills of Nashville, miles stretch on like a tough, thin hide. Gradually underneath this dark epidermis, from east to south to west, from black to color, the Polaroid of domestic decay and splendor and humanity begins to emerge.

So I watch the roadside intently. I wait. The scene looks almost invisible, like an emulsion you must touch to know it exists. I don't know when something will show, but I envision that everything is about to arrive.

Former BAM intern Amanda Maddox is now studying in Florence.

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November / December 2002