A year ago today, I sat in the Best Buy parking lot in Pinole – nervous as hell and excited beyond belief – waiting to meet an old friend. It had been sixteen years since I’d seen her or even heard her voice; and back then I was barely out of my teens. I was toned, skinny, and looked like Prince. Now… I was mumblety-five; I was soft, stocky, and looked like Prince’s UPS-deliveryman.
There we were, sixteen years ago, saying goodbye on a busy sidewalk outside of a cafe in Berkeley. Here I was, sixteen years later, sitting in a lonely parking lot in the driver’s seat of a white Chevy Malibu I’d rented from Enterprise. The interior was dark slate, and leather. I unfastened my seatbelt. I slid my hands outward and down along the smooth steering wheel, and through the windshield I watched the tree in front of me sway in the wind. I breathed in the new car smell, and exhaled slowly as I carefully planned how my friend would catch me off guard when she arrived:
She would pull up next to my car and see me beside it, like a cowboy beside his mighty steed. I would be reclining on my right arm, on the ledge in front of the car. My right leg would be draped over the ledge. My left would be drawn in toward me. I’d be casually rubbing a leaf between my left thumb and forefinger. I would be lost in deep, soulful thought as the wind-blown tree spoke to me. She would surprise me; I would snap out of it, stand, and rise from the ledge to face her only after she’d emerged from her car and was two-point-five feet away from me.
No. Too “Twilight.”
I would be INSIDE Best Buy, in the DVD aisle, holding a Beyoncé CD.
I got out of the car. I walked into Best Buy to scope out the surroundings. I found my spot, the spot where she would first see me. I stood there and in my mind, I practiced. She would see me from behind after winding her way through Best Buy’s maze of aisles, building her anticipation with every twist and turn. I would wait until I heard her say my name… then I would slowly give her a half-turn, cock my head 45 degrees, grin, and simply say “Hello.” Our eyes would say the rest.
That’s it. That’s the one. I walked back out into the wind, and back to the car. I opened the door, and slipped into it, melting into the driver’s seat. She texted just then, saying she’d be there in ten minutes. I closed my eyes and breathed slowly, and deeply. I tried to clear my head. That’s when my mind drifted…
I was lucky to be sitting in that parking lot. Or maybe this parking lot was the reason I was lucky. The day before, I’d driven 400 miles from LA, on the Five freeway. The Five is notorious for sudden storms and fog banks that cause the occasional 50-car pileup, the more frequent FEAR of a 50-car pileup, and the equally-frequent need for new underpants. The day I drove up, I was lucky; I barely escaped all three.
I was driving somewhere south of Kettleman City, where I was hoping to stop for an In-n-Out cheeseburger. I never got that burger. I saw something black on the horizon. In fact, it WAS the horizon. It seemed to roll down the western mountains, across the ribbon of asphalt that cut through the farms ahead, and all the way east, past the power lines and across the distant plains. I knew a Five Storm when I saw one. And I’ll be damned if I was going to drive through the looming maelstrom, possibly to my death, with Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” blasting on my stereo.
The good thing about this rental, its stereo had an auxiliary port. I pulled my iPhone out of my right pocket and plugged the auxiliary cable into the headphone jack. Just then, a rickety pickup truck barreled past me in the fast lane, with a fluttering tarp barely covering several suitcases and a bike. It almost veered into my lane twice before it passed me. I shouted “Fu…” before realizing I wasn’t really all that angry and deciding to save my profanities for the oncoming storm. I slid the iPhone’s slider to unlock it, and launched the iPod app. I scrolled through the songs until I found Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries. I bumped it up as loud as it could go.
Then the Jew in me decided he didn’t want the last thing he may hear in this life to be one of Hitler’s favorite tunes. So I switched it to Shuggie Otis’s “Freedom Flight.”
I took a few pictures of the storm. I texted them to a friend, and added “If I don’t make it, tell the world my story.” I put the phone down, rolled up the windows, gripped the soft leather steering wheel, and said a prayer. Then I picked the phone back up and texted “…But leave out the part about how I was taking pictures and texting while driving.”
I pulled up close behind the truck so I could follow it through the storm once it turned on its lights, but it pulled away from me. It must’ve disappeared into the void going around ninety. So I decelerated until a group of about a half dozen cars and trucks passed me, right before the Buttonwillow exit. Then I sped up to tail them. Surely one of them would turn on its lights and lead me through the storm.
Not a single car turned on its lights. Luckily, I had saved all my profanities for just this moment. Rain started pouring onto the car as if from a huge celestial bucket. I plunged into the black. The world disappeared. I could hear my own pulse over the music. My speedometer showed 55mph, but it felt and looked like I was standing still in space. There was almost no light at all, and my headlights only made it worse. I lost the truck ahead of me. I imagined Obi Wan saying “Use the Force, Darrin.”
For eleven colon-cleansing minutes, I followed what my intuition, not my eyes, told me was the ghostly image of a large truck ahead of me. I was certain I would not make it to the other side, either because I’d run off the road, or run into a slower car that I’d have no way of seeing. I don’t know what was tighter, my steering-wheel-grip, or my internal organs (which all felt like they were tied in a knot). It was too much. It was never-ending. It was raining harder and getting darker every minute. At last I panicked, and raised my foot off the accelerator. I prepared to coast until the speedometer read 25, and then gently drift to the right until I left the pavement, hoping I would slowly roll to a stop in a ditch without a car hitting me from behind. But I was certain I wasn’t going to make it.
Just then, just as I was certain I would die, something changed. My certainty reversed itself. I grew certain I would live, because… I still had to meet my old friend. She was waiting for me. My story couldn’t end before that happened. It would be unsatisfying, and the Great Editor in the Sky would send it back for a rewrite. Maybe it was that, maybe it was the crescendo of “Freedom Flight,” or maybe it was both… but whatever it was, a deep, abiding calm overcame me. I exhaled. I loosened my grip on the wheel. My spleen untied itself. I accelerated again and drove straight and steady. I followed the ghost through the darkness. And I smiled. A minute or so later, the world came back, and the vicious Five Storm withered and shrunk until it lived only in my rearview mirror. And then it was gone.
That night, at a friend’s 39th birthday party in Daly City, we all got very drunk on home-made sangria and tequila shots and I told everyone about the storm, as if it had been a grizzly bear I’d fended off with my bare hands. As I drifted to sleep on a blanket on the floor after everyone else had left, I spread out, laid as flat as I could, stared at the ceiling, and drank in the stillness and the quiet of the dark room.
The next day — a year ago today — I sat in the car that brought me through, in the Best Buy parking lot planning how my old friend would catch me off guard. I had it worked out to the last detail. She said she’d be there in ten. In seven, I’d leave the car, walk into Best Buy, and assume the position. But I could relax for a few minutes. I could enjoy the rustling leaves of the tree and the new car smell and the soft leather seats for a few minutes. I closed my eyes. I thought of the storm. I thought of “Freedom Flight.” I thought of the smile. The thumping of rain on my windshield and roof. The ghostly truck I’d followed. …And I fell asleep.
I woke up when I sensed something big next to me. It was a tan-colored minivan, and my friend was in the driver’s seat talking on her cell phone, and looking at me, with a look that was either confusion, or mild disappointment. My face was puffy and I had a seatbelt indentation on my left cheek. My eyes would only open halfway. And I’m pretty sure I was drooling, because my head was back, my mouth was wide open, and there was a damp spot on my shirt.
That’s when I realized I had some saved-up profanities left over.
I collected myself, opened the door, and walked around the van, hesitating behind it for a moment to try and pat my shirt dry. Then I walked up to my friend, and hugged her. I hugged her extra tight, and a little longer than I otherwise would have. Because when all was dark and the world was gone, and I thought the storm was the last thing I would ever know of this earth, the simple fact that she was waiting for me on the other side was all I needed to keep going.
A year ago today, I was ecstatic just to be alive. And I knew exactly what good friends were for. I don’t ever want to forget that feeling.