Andrew McLean rescued me from the wrath of my mother and her wingman, Pentecostal Jesus. Mom wanted me to come home, be a good daughter, and follow the Lord. Instead I followed Andrew, on a journey longer and stranger than I could have imagined.
By the time Mom faced off against Andrew and Jonathan in the entrance lane to the Port-aux-Basques ferry, she had already lost half the battle. One thing my mother hates is Making a Scene in Public. Her plan was to have a quiet conversation over dinner. This conversation was supposed to end with me agreeing to stay home for the summer, like a good daughter. Instead, she was standing in front of me in the vehicle waiting area, trying to physically block me from getting on board the Atlantic Vision.
We had her at a disadvantage, but she still would have won if Andrew hadn’t come to my rescue. I’m not great at standing up to my mother. Or, well, to anyone actually. Making decisions isn’t my strong point. Looking back over my life, I find it hard to identify a single choice I’ve made simply because it was what I wanted. I drifted through school, getting A’s because I was a good girl and good girls studied hard. I moved into St. John’s for university because my then-boyfriend Danny wanted to go. I majored in English because my teachers told me I was good at it. Now, in the first impulsive decision of my life, I was about to leave Newfoundland for the summer in the company of two guys I definitely would not bring home to Mother.
In fact, I had refused to bring them home to Mother earlier this very day. So Mother had come to us.
The day had begun with such promise, despite the bitter argument about Pepsi and Ripple chips. We were awake earlier than any of us liked, rolling out of St. John’s at 6 a.m., sleepy and cranky.
“If you think you’re bringing that crap in here, you’ll want to rethink your whole paradigm,” Andrew said as Jonathan settled himself in the passenger’s seat and laid a two-litre of pop and a jumbo bag of chips on the floor.
“If you think I’m driving from St. John’s to California without snacks, you’re the one who needs your paradigms shifted,” Jonathan said, unscrewing the Pepsi.
“Watch it!” A note of panic rose in Andrew’s voice as bubbles fizzed over the edge of the bottle. “I drove this car brand-new off the dealer’s lot yesterday. I am not going to have it filled to the window line with spilled pop, candy wrappers and crushed chips. That is unacceptable on so many levels.”
Jonathan twisted around as much as he could, to look back at me. “To listen to him talk, Megan, wouldn’t you think I spent my whole life riding around in his car littering it with pop cans and chip bags? Is that not the impression you’d get?”
“Empty McDonald’s wrappers, popsicle sticks, Pepsi bottles ….” Andrew chanted.
“You’re going back, like, five years for grievances against me.” Jonathan tore open the Ripple bag. “Chip, Megan?” He didn’t bother to try to turn around this time, just held the bag back towards me, exerting the minimal effort required to nudge the chips in my direction.
I took a couple of chips. I felt guilty about the desecration of Andrew’s new vehicle, but I also felt the odds of the three of us getting all the way across North America without spilling anything were fairly slim.
We rolled out of the condo parking garage onto Duckworth Street and turned left – toward the west, toward California, toward adventure. Away from home, from futility, from failure. Downtown St. John’s looked gloomy and grey in a June drizzle, like a place I couldn’t wait to leave behind. My phone vibrated in my pocket, and I knew without looking it was my mom calling to see if we were on the road yet. I sat on my hands to keep myself from answering.
“Time for Roadtrip Playlist A,” Jonathan said, fiddling with the iPod. Once he had overcome his initial resistance to this trip he had turned his energy toward making up a series of playlists for the iPod. Jonathan’s relationship with music was at the level where making up a generic road trip playlist would not have even begun to meet his needs. Roadtrip Playlist A was a list of songs specifically selected for leaving home on a long journey.
The opening chords of “Born to be Wild” flooded the car as we sailed through the green light at New Gower Street onto Pitts’ Memorial Drive. “We’re starting the trip with oldies?!” Andrew protested.
“The word is ‘classic,’” said Jonathan.
“Do you even have a song on that playlist that was released in your lifetime? Am I going to be listening to classic rock all the way to the Pacific?”
“Consider it an education,” Jonathan said. Andrew shrugged, and within a minute he was singing along to “Born to be Wild.”
I, personally, was born to be tame. I’ve never even been able to fake wild. But as Andrew accelerated to 100 km/h I allowed myself to imagine that wildness, like greatness, was a state one could achieve, even if one had not been born to it.
“Stop the car,” said Jonathan.
“Are you going to throw up?” Andrew asked.
“I’d prefer not to, but if that’s the only thing that will make you pull over, I’ll do it. All over your brand-new upholstery.”
“I’m not stopping the car just because you’re having second thoughts.”
“I’m not having second thoughts; I’m returning to my first thoughts,” Jonathan said. “Coming on the trip was my second thought. I never wanted to go to California; I don’t want to drive across the country for three weeks; I don’t want to be in this car. Chips or no chips.”
“Now that’s just ridiculous,” Andrew said, showing no sign of stopping. Not that it would have done any good, since there was no exit until Kilbride. “Remember your theory about getting what you want?”
Jonathan had many theories. Theories about movies – Why Martial Arts Movies are Under-Appreciated as Art -- theories about music – Why Pop Music Went Into a Tailspin After the Beatles From Which it Never Recovered – theories about life and human behavior. One of the most durable and frequent of these was the theory of What You Want, which stated that everyone ultimately gets what they want most in life. If you didn’t want it, Jonathan figured, you’d make the effort to get something else.
“Get off at the exit and drive me back home,” Jonathan said. “You’re the one who wants to go to California. You want to go live out some dream of a hotshot California life, working with game developers, selling a movie deal, jet-setting down to L.A. for meetings. Megan wants the road trip. She doesn’t care about the destination; she wants to get away, to travel, to be in motion. I don’t want the trip at all. I want to be home in the apartment, working at my computer, connected by the internet to every corner of the world without needing to physically leave my own space.”
“You’re contradicting yourself,” Andrew said. “You insisted you weren’t going on this trip because you didn’t want to, but you changed your mind. You packed your suitcase. You got in the car. According to your own theory, you wouldn’t have done that unless there was something on this trip you wanted.”
Jonathan said nothing. We drove on past the exit and onto the Trans Canada Highway.
“Pass the chips,” said Andrew.
I had my doubts about Jonathan’s theory. You’d think a girl born in place called Heart’s Desire would have an easy time figuring out what she wants in life, but I had a hard time identifying, much less pursuing, the desires of my heart. Maybe my parents shouldn’t have relocated me out of Heart’s Desire at such an early age – first to Corner Brook, then to a dot on the map called Cox’s Cove. Something in my desire wiring had gotten messed up; location was the easiest thing to blame. Perhaps another change of location – travelling from one end of North America to another – might teach me how to want.
We ate chips and sang along to Roadtrip Playlist A as the highway rolled away under our tires. From St. John’s to the ferry crossing on the far west coast of Newfoundland is a solid ten-hour drive. Jonathan punctuated the hours with complaints: Why couldn’t we cross from the Argentia ferry? Why didn’t we have a cabin booked for the overnight crossing from Port-aux-Basques? Were we watching for moose who might wander onto the highway? Did we know what the moose-vehicle fatality rate was this summer? Why couldn’t we stop for the night at his mom’s place and break up the trip into two days?
“I’ve got a question,” Andrew said. “Why have I known you for seven years and never realized what a whiner you are?”
“Obviously you’ve never had the pleasure of a ten-hour road trip with me,” Jonathan said. “Not to mention a two-week road trip. Having second thoughts?”
But I didn’t think any of us were. Even Jonathan’s complaints had entertainment value, while Andrew and I were so excited that the endless miles of tree-lined road seemed fascinating.
We stopped for lunch in Gander, where Jonathan’s mother met us at Mary Brown’s. I’d never met her before but she was warm, friendly, and completely enthused about our trip – the antithesis of my own mom, who had spent several hours on the phone trying to talk me out of going. My mother called again not long after we left Gander, and this time I couldn’t stop myself from answering.
“So you’ll pass through Corner Brook around supper time,” she said. “Dad and I can drive into town and meet you for supper – where would be a nice place to eat?”
“Sorry, Mom, we won’t have time to stop for supper,” I said. “Got to keep pushing through if we want to make our crossing--"
“But you have to eat--"
“What? Sorry, can’t hear you, my cell reception’s really bad out here …” I fought down a wave of guilt and hit “END,” shoving my phone down to the bottom of my purse.
“Aw, I’m sure we could’ve made time for supper with your folks,” Jonathan said.
“No. Absolutely not. All my mom wants to do is talk me out of coming with you. If she gets me in her sights, I might not be able to drag myself away.”
So we rolled on through Corner Brook at suppertime. I felt waves of guilt radiating all the way from my parents’ home in Cox’s Cove, chasing me down the highway towards Port-aux-Basques.
I didn’t realize at the time that the guilt waves were following me because my mother was following me.
We checked in at the ticket booth and joined the lineup of cars, trucks, tractor-trailers and motorcycles, waiting for the command to drive on board. The sun went down over the water as we waited, and it grew so dark that when a sharp tap sounded on the rear window beside my seat, I jumped, unable to see who was outside.
When I rolled down the window, I was shocked to see my mother’s face inches from mine. She must have had her nose pressed to the glass to see if I was inside. Thwarted in her attempt to twist my arm over supper, she had apparently driven for three hours to accost me in the ferry line-up. She had to have one last chance to stop me from making the biggest – the only – mistake of my life.
“Mom! What are you doing here?” How did you find me? I wondered, but remembered too late I’d told her Andrew had bought a brand new GMC Yukon just for this trip. I think I was trying to reassure her that I’d be safe, as if a 4X4 would protect me from the kind of dangers my mother feared.
“I just want to talk to you. You’re not going to leave without even talking to me, are you?”
I got out of the car and stood facing her in the darkness. It was noisy in the ferry waiting area; some people stood outside their cars talking and laughing, while others were locked inside, their music throbbing out through the cracks around doors and windows.
My mother is small, like me, but unlike me she’s fierce. People always say how much I look like her, but she has a squinty-eyed determination that I lack. Now she clutched her oversized purse against her body like a shield and jingled her keys in her left hand. She pushed silver-blond hair away from those narrowed eyes, and riveted me to the ground with her gaze.
“Megan, I want you to think about what you’re doing. About this decision you’re making.”
“I’ve thought about it, Mom. I want to go on this trip.” Damn, my voice was shaking already. Tears rose from my chest to my throat to the back of my eyes, inexorable as the tide.
Her face softened. “Do you really?” She paused a moment to let the question land, then pressed on. “There’s nothing for you in California. Seems to me like you’re just running away. Sweetheart, I know you’re disappointed about your classes, and I am too, but you know, we all make mistakes. I was talking to Mrs. Curran, you know, Sheila Curran from the library? You know her daughter, Kathleen.” Vaguely at best, I wanted to say, remembering a girl a couple of years ahead of me at high school – but whether I actually knew Kathleen was not relevant to the point my mother was making. “Kathleen failed a class in her first year of grad school. She went to the University of Ottawa, remember? Anyway, she failed this class, and she went back the next year and made it up and now she’s a speech pathologist. With the school district.”
My mother nodded to punctuate the moral of this anecdote. Even though I couldn’t care less about Kathleen Curran's degree -- or about my own, really -- I felt myself weaken. My bones – spine, knees, all the parts that should be strong – melted to liquid under the force of my mother’s vision. I took one step toward her.
Andrew’s voice stopped me. I hadn’t even heard the car doors open, hadn’t known that my friends had both gotten out of the car and were standing on either side of me like bodyguards. “Mrs. Cross, you know, Megan’s not a teenager,” Andrew said. “She’s twenty-three years old. If she wants to come to California with us, you can’t stop her.”
My mother spared only the briefest glance for Andrew. A single frown line bisected her forehead. Andrew edged away from her until he was leaning against the car. He was trying his best to save me, but he was out of his league.
She wasted no words on him. “Dad has your job all lined up in Harry’s office, Meg. You could finish up those papers over the summer while you’re working, and save some money for next year.”
I saw my summer, peaceful and predictable, unfolding as she spoke. I had no desire to work in the dental office of my dad’s friend Harry, to write my unfinished paper on Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, to go back to grad school in the fall. If I could identify a desire somewhere in the centre of my knotted stomach, it was the desire to get on that boat with Andrew and Jonathan, to drive away from home, school, Mom, God, my past and my future. But I couldn’t stand the way she would look at me if I left. I couldn’t handle the things I knew she’d say, the guilt and disapproval that would follow that decision. And if I walked away without looking back – if I drove across North America without answering her phone calls or emails -- then I’d be torn from my moorings, set adrift on something bigger and deeper than the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
“This is ridiculous—" Andrew began.
“You want to know what is ridiculous?” my mother said, turning on him. “You taking this innocent young girl off with you, off to goodness knows where, claiming she’s your ‘personal assistant’. What kind of summer job is that, Megan?” The interrogation swung back to me. “What do they run, a – some kind of computer game company? And they need you as a personal assistant? Do you know what they call girls who get paid to take vacations with men?”
Her left hand still held her keys, and her right hand never moved from gripping her bag, but I felt like she’d slapped me. I couldn’t speak, but Andrew found the words for me. He was angry, and with that his confidence was back.
“Maybe you should spell that out, Mrs. Cross. What exactly are you calling your daughter?”
Mom looked from Andrew to me. She knew she’d crossed a line. Once again her expression shifted, from angry to sad. The lines in her small, pointed face seemed deeper than they’d ever been before – or was I just noticing them more? That line on her forehead, brackets on either side of her mouth, the scrunchy lines on either side of her eyes that deepened with anger or with laughter.
“I’m sorry, Megan.” She sounded as close to tears as I was. “I just worry about you, sweetheart – I worry so much….” She let go of her purse, finally, pressed her hand against her mouth as if trapping all the worries inside. When she took her hand away her mouth was calm, smooth again, and I realized in that moment she had whispered a prayer.
“Megan, do you remember the bracelet I bought you when you were thirteen?”
“The – what? What bracelet?” Of course I remembered.
“The green and pink one … You wore it every day for five years.”
“Oh. That bracelet.” You don’t wear a piece of jewelery daily from age thirteen to eighteen without remembering the weave of the cotton, how soft it got as it frayed, the neon stripes, the four letters emblazoned on it.
“That’s right, your WWJD bracelet,” Mom said. “What Would Jesus Do. As long as you wore that, you had to ask yourself, every day, What Would Jesus Do? You haven’t worn that bracelet in a long time, sweetheart. And I don’t think you’ve been asking yourself that question.”
“What – what bracelet? This is insane!” Andrew said.
“What would Jesus do, Megan? Do you remember what it says about Jesus after Mary and Joseph found him in the temple in Jerusalem? When he was twelve, when they found him teaching the rabbis, and they brought him back home?”
I nodded like a marionette, strings pulled. “I know the story, Mom.”
“What does it say? After they brought him home.”
“He went down to Nazareth with them, and was subject unto them,” I quoted, and barely stopped myself from parroting “Luke two, verse fifty-one.” Sunday School Bible verses are etched onto my brain like the velveteen pattern on Nan’s flocked wallpaper. Just like all the patterns etched my head, the patterns that would lead me to go back down to Cox’s Cove and be subject unto Mom and Dad for the rest of the summer. Maybe the rest of my life.
“What would Jesus do, Megan?” My mom pressed her advantage. “Would Jesus get in that car, drive onto that boat – with these young men? Would he?”
Now, at last, she really looked at Andrew and Jonathan. I looked too, and saw my friends with a kind of weird double vision, saw them through her eyes as well as my own.
Andrew and Jonathan had this game they played, the one-word game, where they tried to sum up a person with a single word. Once you start this game it’s impossible to stop: you look at a person and see a word stuck like a Hello nametag to their chest. When I looked at Andrew, I saw words like Rakish, Handsome, Charming. I saw longish blond hair, a brown leather jacket, the line of stubble on his jaw. I saw a young Owen Wilson whose nose had never been broken, a guy far too handsome for me who had somehow remained my friend after my roommate broke up with him. A guy who paid for everything with his Visa gold card, who went on local TV shows like Out of the Fog to give interviews about his success as a young entrepreneur. A guy who, despite all that, had a hollow space inside him that needed me.
I knew this was not what my mom saw when she looked at Andrew. She saw Dangerous. She saw Unreliable. She saw Bad Boy, although technically that's two words.
To be fair, I saw those labels too. I’d be lying if I said they weren’t part of the appeal.
Then she turned to Jonathan, and her face was harder to read. People usually looked surprised when they first saw Jonathan. I remembered how that surprise felt, that look from inside of my own face, the first time Andrew brought me to the apartment.
Back last winter, after I’d been hanging out with Andrew for a couple of months, he had invited me back to his condo to meet his roommate. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Andrew had mentioned that Jonathan didn’t go out much. I knew already that Andrew was the public face of Serpentyne Games, the company they had built together. He gave Jonathan full credit for being the power behind the throne. He’d mentioned once that one of the reasons Jonathan didn’t go out much was that he was sensitive about his weight, so I pictured Jonathan as a chubby man with glasses, a receding hairline, and a pocket protector full of pens. I imagined he would fulfill the geek stereotypes Andrew so flamboyantly dispelled. I thought he might be plump, heavyset, chubby. I imagined a polite euphemism.
When I first saw Jonathan in the dimly-lit apartment, I didn’t even realize that the vast bulk in front of the computer was a person. When he turned around to say hello, then slowly rose from his seat to cross the room and greet me, I gave a little start, which I felt terrible about for weeks afterwards. It was so obviously an effort for him to get up that I wanted to tell him not to bother, but saying Oh, please don’t get up, you’re much too fat would have made us both feel a lot worse, so fortunately I kept my mouth shut.
There was nothing polite or euphemistic about Jonathan’s size. He was a very, very fat man. He was a huge man. Since he rarely moved from his living room and subsisted almost entirely on fast food, it seemed likely that he would eventually be a gargantuan man. He wore loose, tent-like, nondescript T-shirts over shapeless black sweat pants that were hitched underneath his enormous belly. Part of the reason he didn’t go out much was that the outside world was increasingly difficult for him to navigate; the other part that he was point-and-stare fat.
Here at the ferry terminal, Jonathan was a long way outside his comfort zone. As we stood next to the car I saw people glance at him, then quickly glance away. Even the group of Quebecois bikers standing next to their Honda Goldwings, quite burly men themselves with rounded bellies poking out of their fringed leather vests, shot quick looks at Jonathan and laughed at each other’s French wisecracks.
Until today, I’d never seen Jonathan outside the condo. He told me soon after we met that at that point he hadn’t left the apartment for twelve weeks. “I’m not so much agoraphobic as too damn lazy,” he would tell people – on the phone, or by email, or if they came to see him. He was, indeed, lazy when it came to putting forth the physical effort to get out of the apartment, but I also wondered if agoraphobia could be a learned behavior, if a disinclination to face the outside world could morph, over time, into actual fear.
I was used to Jonathan by now. When I looked at him, I saw words like Kind. Easy-going. Brilliant. But I’m pretty sure my mom looked at him and saw Weirdo. Slob. Freak. She looked from Jonathan back to Andrew, then over at the Quebec bikers and back to me. I knew that in her mind, Andrew and Jonathan were only marginally above the bikers on the scale of Guys You Wouldn’t Want Your Daughter Driving Away With.
What Would Jesus Do? My mother’s question hung in the air, and I had no answer except Okay, Mom. I’ll come home.
The words were there, in my mouth, as ready as tears to spill out, but Andrew grabbed my arm and pulled me aside. At the same moment Jonathan moved too, to my mother’s side, and began speaking to her in low tones I couldn’t hear.
Andrew slipped an arm around me. We were Just Friends, but his casual touch – Andrew liked to touch people – sent every neuron firing, as if passion and energy flooded out of his arm and into my shoulders, down into my spine, giving me the backbone I so desperately needed. Heat rushed to my face as Andrew put his mouth close to my ear.
“Megan, honey, what is going on here? She’s treating you like a little kid, she’s invoking the holy name of Jesus or whatever….I don’t mean to be offensive, but your mom’s a little batshit, you know? I feel like she might start casting out demons any minute now. I know you want to come to California with us. So why are you even listening to her?”
I looked into his beautiful face and saw that he really didn’t comprehend. There was no part of Andrew that understood why I was tied to my mother and my past and God, why I might go home and be subject unto her. Andrew lived life full-tilt, by his own rules, and never asked what Jesus or anyone else would do. He simply didn’t understand why I was torn.
He kept his arm around me and steered me back around to face Mom. Jonathan was still talking to her, and I couldn’t read the expression on her face. I wondered what he was saying.
Before I could move close enough to hear, a loud three-note chime cut across the sound of idling engines, voices, and heavy metal music from the bikers’ radios. “Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. Mesdames et messieurs …”
The static-muffled voice from the loudspeaker had all our attention, in English and French, as it announced that boarding was about to commence. “Time to go,” Andrew said. “Mrs. Cross, Megan’s coming with us. She’s made up her mind, and we have to go now.”
The loudspeaker voice continued, warning us in both official languages to return to our cars and prepare to board the ferry. “I’m sorry, Mom,” I said, burrowing into Andrew’s side.
She stared at me, but she didn’t look angry anymore. She glanced back at Jonathan, then darted toward me for a quick hug. “I’ll be praying for you,” she whispered into my neck. How many times had she said those words? I knew she meant them as a gift, but too often they sounded like a threat.
Then I was in the car, the solid thunk of its door closing me safely inside. Andrew was laughing as he moved the car slowly towards the on-ramp. “What Would Jesus Do?” he repeated, shaking his head. His eyes, glinting, met mine in the rear view mirror, inviting me to laugh with him. But I turned away to watch my mom’s back as she walked away toward the parking lot. Jonathan said nothing at all.
The tight bands constricting my chest didn’t loosen till we were on board and I stood between Andrew and Jonathan on the passenger deck. With every rope the crew loosed I felt myself coming undone, slipping away from home as the Atlantic Vision slipped away from the dock. We stood facing the shore, watching it recede. Andrew stood behind me, an arm around me pulling me against his chest, his chin resting on the top of my head.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever said no to my mother,” I said, forgetting that I had never really said it; I’d let Andrew say it for me. He’d come to my rescue like Young Lochinvar riding out of the west. Not a poem I’d learned in any of my master’s classes; it was one my dad used to recite when I was little, when I still loved words and poems.
“It’s my first time on the ferry,” Andrew said. “I’ve always flown before.”
“It’s my first time off the island,” Jonathan said.
“While we’re on a roll, let’s go for another first,” Andrew said. “Let’s take Megan down to the bar and get her completely, utterly, shitfaced drunk.”