This is an extended adaptation of a story I told live at the first ever The Moth event here in Madison, WI. The theme of the night was “Love Hurts”.
The sound of a fat plate of oatmeal being thrown at the picnic table lifts my face out of my hand. The word “Eat” sounds like a bullet. We eat in silence, and pack our campsite in silence, and get in our rented Chevy HHR in silence, because we know that one way or another our relationship ends today. It really ends, because we have decided in the middle of our Route 66 trip that we have to go get married. And it sucks.
We have been planning our trip for the better part of a year now. From Chicago to LA, watching the remains of the golden glory of 50s Americana and the rotting traffic signs which are as useless as the abandoned towns they used to serve. Perhaps unconsciously we painstakingly planned a trip to the past knowing that after reaching the Santa Monica Pier the future looks as hazy and open as the Pacific Ocean. My student visa will expire, and Aut will accept her new awesome job, and we don’t want to talk about what happens when Route 66 ends because hey, we should stop at the Catoosa Whale!
Marriage seems like the only feasible plan, but it also means losing something we believe fundamental to our relationship. We have been telling everyone (especially my mom) that we don’t need a paper to love each other, we don’t need a paper to be together. But then the US government was all like “yeah, you do.” We would love to believe love knows no boundaries, despite what the US Customs and Borders Protection Agency says. But love does seem to know boundaries, apparently, and those boundaries are pushing us north towards Las Vegas. “I hate Las Vegas,” she says, and even though I don’t say a thing she knows I agree.
As we drive through the Arizona desert a 30 mile per hour sandstorm engulfs us. Outside, there’s nothing but red sand blowing ominously on our windshield, and inside the silenced cabin of our HHR, the second ugliest car in the world (the first is the PT Cruiser, which is the HHR doppleganger), the atmosphere is almost as violent. I’m holding the steering wheel tightly. Aut sits in silence, looking out the window. I know what she’s thinking: “I can’t believe I’m doing this for him, just to get him a Green Card.” But we just drove by the biggest ketchup bottle in the world, and the largest rocking chair in the world, so I’m thinking, “I can’t believe I’m doing this for her, I’ll be living in this country!”
Autumn starts to look ahead as the windstorm starts winding down, and I wait for her to say something. She turns to me and says, “you know, this is just paperwork. We’re off to do some errands.” We don’t have to get married. We just have to do some paperwork so that the U.S. government thinks we are married. I look at her. She’s trying to smile. It’s almost comforting. That’s it, I say. As long as we keep this casual and unimportant, we’ll be fine! She’s right, of course. As usual. We just have to make sure we do this uneventfully. No significant memories. No symbolic rituals.
We have to not tell it to anyone, ever. Or, you know, write about it.
And we’re off, just a regular, boring day where nothing interesting will happen. The thought comfort us and we start looking at each other from time to time, turning the awful thought of marriage into a joke. After all, we’re going to lie to the government. And the thought of committing a federal offense is kind of funny.
We hit Flagstaff, Arizona, and we go into a pay-by-the-weight thrift shop. I get a suit, tie, and shirt, and she picks up the simplest, most boring white dress she could find, and we pay $2.40 for everything. After all, we need the official in my Green Card interview to think this is a meaningful day for us. That fool. Aut insists on trying on her dress, and as soon as she walks out of the dressing room time slows down, a fan starts blowing her hair, and all lights turn down except for the one above her. I immediately know I will never get this vision out of my head. “How do I look?” She says, with her eyes shining as much as her white dress. “You look adequate” I say, trying to get this errand behind us.
As much as a pleasant shock it was to see her, we’re still alright. We still have not had a spiritual moment, so we can still do this without any repercussions. But then we stop for ice cream at Delgadillo’s Snow-Cap in Seligman.
We’ve already read that the owners are tricksters, so we’re watching carefully for the fake “Enter here” signs, the double door knobs, or a fake mustard squeeze on our shirts. We’re laughing and we easily forget our errand for a while. We see a column covered in coins from all over the world, and in silence Aut takes out an Ecuadorian coin and together we use tape to display it on a space that seemed to be waiting for it. It feels ominous to place a plaque of my origin on this temple of Americana. Without knowing it we have willingly started the ritual. As we approach the counter to pay, the man that has been standing behind us taps me in the shoulder and insists on paying for our ice cream. He’s dressed in black, he’s wearing a hat, and he’s hiding behind a pair of low-shade sunglasses. “I can see you’re on a journey,” he says, and tells us about his own. He has escaped his responsibilities with Penguin publishing, suddenly quitting his book tour, and is driving without aim away from Kansas. Just like us, the call for ice cream has made him stop here, and encounter us. “I am the country’s most prominent translator and interpreter of 13th century Persian poet Rumi,” he says. He talks delicately and he clicks his tongue at the end of each word. He seems to meditate on each one he pronounces. His apparent speech impediment gives his voice a mysterious authority, and a sense of wise loneliness, the kind all wise men must have. “You have reminded me of some of his poetry,” he adds. His voice changes, and the words of the poem come out fluidly, like a 700 year-old echo:
To my eyes, lovers touching are folded wings
in a beautiful prayer.
But yes, what heights and great expanse one
can also reach
when tenderness is placed upon the bow, and
our spirits know no gravity.
We look at him in silence, enthralled by the words. “Fuck this guy,” I think. He just ruined our plans. He just got us married. He’s the priest, the employees behind the counter our guests, the smiling anthropomorphic ice cream cone our witness. We look to each other, ashamed in our recognition of how meaningful and absurd the episode is, and we smile, pleased and thankful for the inane ceremony. When we turn around the man is gone. “Will that be all?” the man behind the counter says. “That is all,” Aut says.
The rest is easy. We get into the car, we change in a rest stop outside the city, and we choose the cheapest package the little Vegas chapel can offer us. “Rings or no rings? Vows or no vows? God or no God?” the minster asks us. We answer “no” to all of the above, and as the man recites his empty and memorized speech we look at each other laughing. And as the minster asks me the required, official marriage question I think of one of my own. Could I live here if that means sharing with her the road? Could she live with me if we share some poetry and ice cream? “I do”, I answer out loud. “I do,” she says too. And we burst out laughing, and get in our HHR, and open our road map because we need to plan for lunch, find a campsite, and prepare for the rest of our journey together.