Jane and I began the evening drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes. Plastic dollar store baubles hung off her ears and around her neck as she floated around to erratic electronic music pulsating though big speakers, rattling off the wooden walls. Greasy streaks of pink and yellow paint sat on her high cheekbone, beaded with sweat. She lurched forward, clumsily pushing a blue baseball hat spotted with yellow and pink butterflies over my head and flipped up the brim.
Laura arrived and soon we were all very drunk. Jane’s boyfriend was the tortured artist type, shuffling around in his slippers with a dour look on his face. We would go downtown, Jane said. She always knew where a party was.
While I was unlocking my bike, she separated a thin metal necklace from the tangled mess of plastic ones. At the end was a little glass vial. She dabbed a bit of white powder on the back of her palm, between her thumb and forefinger and stuck her arm out toward me.
We rode through the east-side streets towards the skyline in the dark, singing stupid songs and laughing.
Out front of the bar, Jim appeared out of nowhere, alone. He grabbed Jane roughly from behind and kissed her cheek. She seemed happy to see him and let out a little uncomfortable squeal.
“I’m Jim,” he said, squeezing my hand hard.
A cigarette dangled from the edge of his mouth. The thick lenses of his black-rimmed glasses made his eyes float.
I wouldn’t see him again before I left.
A month later, I’d rode through Bellingham and Seattle and Portland and Eugene. Outside the jungle of civilized America, I’d slept in campgrounds and on forest floors. On a diet of hummus, cheese, quinoa, and beer, I’d pushed my rusted old department store bike along hundreds of kilometers of highway.
I screamed my way up a five-kilometer hill, cursing the semi-trucks barreling beside me mere inches away. I pushed on through flat barren stretches of highway, surrounded on all sides by large and looming trees. I stopped to overlook the ocean, and heard the barking of a family of seals ten feet below me. It was late October. The days were mostly grey, full of biting wind and rain.
The loneliness hit me like a heavy weight the first few days, pulling on my insides. I found peace in the ritual of movement. I awoke alone, packed my tent and ate a cold breakfast in silence, listening to the noises around me.
Some mornings I could watch the grey ocean waves roll over empty beaches. Others, I pulled myself out of musty beds of moss. I rode eight hours or eighty kilometers a day, whichever came first, stopping to eat every two hours.
By the time I got to San Francisco, the wind had burned my skin red. My sides ached from coughing and sneezing. Even the softest cushions hurt my ass, and I walked with a limp, like Mickey Rourke trying to capture Bukowski. I choked down bottle after bottle of water infused with the bitter sting of Echinacea. All I wanted was the warmth of a dim room, full of smoky laughter and the smell of alcoholic sweat.
And then I found out Jim was on his way south. He was going to Mexico, he told me, the day after he arrived. I was going too. There was no doubt in my mind.
I gave thanks to the random pattern of synchronicity that had bailed me out again. It was easier than religion.
The city bus hit the end of its route at Highway 99 and we got out. It was an unassuming stretch of skinny road snaking along the white sand border of the Pacific. Salt spray filled the air, lifted up by crashing waves. The sound they left behind was like a huge vacuum, pulling everything into it.
Sitting in the sand, Jim rolled a cigarette while I rolled a joint. He passed me his canteen full of Wild Turkey. His mischievous, shit-eating grin reminded me of Vancouver and Jane and Laura and that last night we’d all been together, drunk and fucked up and happy. He leaned forward and pulled the joint out of my mouth.
“Shelter it from the wind, dumbass.” He said.
He lit it and put it back in my mouth, laughing loudly and slapping his knee.
Waiting for another ride outside Santa Cruz, Jim rustled around in his bag and brought out a black plastic case. Inside were two battery powered speakers and his iPod. He sang or played his harmonica along with Townes or Woody, always sure to stick out a thumb whenever a car came by.
The Wild Turkey was already gone so I had to smoke to quell my boredom. I thought about how much I hated smoking, the heart racing inside ribcage, blood heating up feeling.
I watched Jim set his camera on the wooden post of the crash barrier and play with the timer. He took a few quick steps back to the shoulder of the road and posed, bandana around his neck, hat stuck with a single feather, and those beatnik sunglasses hanging on the tip of his nose. His mouth flattened into a rare straight line as he looked to the distance, out of the camera’s frame.
No one even stopped that night, except the police. When the evening sky bruising into night, we clambered down the grassy side of the freeway into an open lot beside a creek. Cans of soup heated over the camp stove, we ate wrapped in sleeping bags. Jim sang campfire songs.
“Because we don’t have a campfire,” he said.
Sleep didn’t come easy for me. It never does without depressants. I listened to the cars pass on the highway above and worried about what was next. I thought of Mexico and Vancouver and my parents, of my new and old friends. Was I a good friend? What was I doing?
Jim was snoring.
I tried to take comfort in his comfort. It was like Kerouac’s ghost was keeping watch, imbibing him intravenously with the spirits of freedom and independence, terror and inspiration.
He was the strong child of a new pack of wanderers, unchained from their kennels and watching a great beast slowly die from the outside. The killing machine of old found a way to trudge on as a zombie.
I wondered when I would have my moment. My sudden revelation that truth is only something we believe so completely that it can no longer be false.
You can’t fake that.