Photo: Jorge Santiago

Our Own Ocean

During the longer days of our cross-country road trip I slept in the car in the early afternoon, dozing in the passenger seat as Cam’s Toyota ate up miles of American highway, the flickering sun through the windows casting all my dreams in a strange, mottled light.

Cameron, for his part, was content to drive in relative quiet, one hand on the wheel and the other in his lap, a philosophy podcast murmuring on the stereo. Whenever I woke up, blinking at the landscape whether new or endlessly familiar, I’d ask how he was doing.

“Are you sleepy? Do you need to pee?”

“Nah, we’re good,” he would reply. I’d eat something, and stretch out as best I could in the small car, and we would often lapse into silence again, me awake now but both of us occupied with our own private thoughts.


A mutual friend had introduced us at the beginning of the summer, amid the hectic flush of graduation and final papers. Cam, I would find, drank tremendously and was an analytic philosopher, prone to reading with a gin and tonic in hand. That July he was taking a class on Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, and the lack of clarity in the material frustrated him. How could he ever rely on something as capricious as a dream? One of the first conversations we ever had was a tense argument about truth, late at night in my living room—overly earnest to a fault, two college kids butting heads over their intellectual politics. He wanted to deconstruct the word to its essential definition; I didn’t care about the mechanics, only how it operated in our lives.

It seemed natural to spend all our time together. We were equal parts lonely and not interested in sleeping with each other—this we established one night at the beginning of the summer, drinking PBR, sprawled on our backs on my roof.

So we moved together through New Haven like two bodies holding each other in orbit, checking in with each other between classes—“Are you done with your work yet? Do you want to get lunch? Come over for a beer later. Text me when you’re out.” We structured our days around the time we shared, each of us the thing that moored the other to stability.

Cam had planned since early June to return from New Haven to his hometown of Seattle the way he came, via car. Two days before he was to leave, in mid-August, we got dinner together at the pan-Asian restaurant on my street. It was not special. It was just what we did.

“I just need to finish packing,” Cam told me. “Then I think I’ll be all set to go.”

The prospect of ending my summer without him seemed to stretch infinitely long and terrifying before me. Who would I stretch and wrap my time around? Who would call me to ask how I was doing? Who would show up at my house at 2 a.m., a protein-shake bottle of gin and tonic in hand?

“Can I come with you?” I asked. My hometown was Portland. It was not far from Seattle, and after my class ended there was nothing holding me to New Haven.

“I was going to ask,” he said.

Of course. Yes.


That August life seemed permeable and slippery, sleek with possibility. All of a sudden a door had opened and all I had to do was follow Cam through it.

Sitting across from him in the window seat of our favorite place, the A/C washing over our skin, I imagined our trip together. The United States is very large. A car is fast, but not that fast. It would be almost a week of each other’s company.

The first night Cam and I had properly met each other I’d had no place to sleep, having subleased my room to a friend whose stay in New Haven overlapped mine by two days. After a few rounds of drinks we retreated to Cam’s apartment, itself a work in progress: already he was in the act of moving out. His bed was piled with laundry and missing its sheets. He offered to let me stay; he had been sleeping on the floor, on a pale imitation of a pullout couch. Fading with exhaustion we curled up there together. “Can we cuddle?” one of us must have asked. He held me awkwardly. We did not know what to do with our bodies. That summer was a scorcher. It was almost too hot to sleep.


The American road narrative usually only has room for one person, the man who makes the trip. He weaves cross-country through cities and small towns, sleeping with strangers or having epiphanies, sometimes both in the same dusty motel. In Cam’s case, he once plowed from coast to coast in a little less than three days, sleeping in the front seat at rest stops on the side of the road, stopping only to scrape the bugs from his windshield.

Before we left, I wondered what my role would be in our journeyman’s tale. When a boy and a girl are together in public, there is always an expectation that they must be partnered somehow; that even if they are not sleeping together then surely there must be some kind of sexual tension simmering beneath. Why else would two attractive young people be traveling together?

After the conversation we’d had early on in our friendship, staring at the stars after shotgunning beers on my roof, we never spoke of being anything other than platonic. Closeness was something I craved from him, but we already had it, in a form that was compact and safe.

But that was in New Haven, a place with its own stories. We were leaving. We were going on the road.

As I packed, folding t-shirts and athletic shorts into my red duffle bag, as I called my summer job and told them I’d be taking the next week off, I wondered if our roles in each other’s lives would change. If there would be some kind of seismic shift, if over the miles some different breed of relating would grow up between us.

That summer I wanted a lot of things. I wanted to stop chasing guys. I wanted intimacy so comfortable I could live in it. And I wanted to be loved the right kind of way but did not know where to find this love. It seemed too easy and dangerous in its way, this journey that Cam and I were about to go on together, the two of us leaving our haven of friends and booze and familiar places, exiting the safe orbit that held us in sync. Where all narratives would read that we were already paired and I would have to work to prove that our friendship wasn’t the romance everyone assumed—and where there would be safety in that fictional romance.


The first time we checked into a motel together was in Portage, Wisconsin. The night before, we’d stayed at the house of my friend’s family in Cleveland, where we’d each curled up on an arm of their huge sectional sofa. In Wisconsin we knew no one.

“Are we gonna die here?” I asked Cam. We were sitting in the car in a gravelly parking lot a few exits out from Madison, looking up motel listings on our phones. Near us loomed the tall specter of a wooden cowboy statue, the kind that would have been used to hawk cigarettes a few decades ago. In daylight it might have cast an eerie shadow; at ten at night, everything felt haunted and strange. There seemed to be no one else for miles, and country roads scare me beyond reason; they are so quiet and so dark. Our reality had narrowed to the taut bubble of the car and the two people in it.

“Nah,” said Cam. “We’ll be okay.”

At the desk of the motel we’d chosen I stood next to him awkwardly, my eyes lingering on the wrapped candies in a dish on the counter. In stories motels are only good for two things: stranded travelers and seedy sex. I wondered how old the candies were. The man behind the counter informed us that our room only had one bed.

“That’s fine,” we said.

I wondered if the man thought we were eloping.

When we got to our room we poured a few fingers of whiskey each in a mug and toasted to us. Then I nursed the rest of my booze and lay on the bed listening to Cam shower, the dull ratatat of low-pressure water. So this was what it meant to be alone with you, I thought. Sitting around, looking at your toothbrush. Waiting for you to be done with your shower.

After I showered we got good and tipsy, trying and failing to play a game with our handle of whiskey because there aren’t any drinking games made for less than three people. On the bed I leaned into Cam and he leaned into me and we held each other a while. Our hair was still wet and soaked into our shirts, and I tried to figure out how he smelled but all I could smell was Jack Daniels. I thought I should have known his scent by then.

And then we went to sleep. That’s it. Hardly touching, in the cool unreality of the A/C, in our double bed, in a dusty motel in the middle of Wisconsin.

In the morning, after we woke up and stretched and marveled at how nice it was to sleep in a real bed, we packed up and as we were leaving I took a picture of the rumpled covers we had left. I was careful that Cam didn’t see me take it, as though I was stealing from us or from myself. I wanted the evidence that we had been there and we had slept there and we had disturbed the sheets but we had not done anything else. That we were still as we were best. It felt as though something had transpired and we were leaving part of it behind—or maybe I was just leaving behind the desire to make us into something else.

It hadn’t been the first time we’d shared a bed. There was the night we’d met, when we’d slept together fitfully on the floor of his apartment; other nights, too drunk to walk home, Cam would crash on the other half of my double mattress. But there was something different about these sheets we’d left rumpled in Wisconsin. There had been some kind of terrible intimacy in that moment before we went to sleep; some edge that I drew back from. And downstairs the man at the front desk surely thought we were already fucking, but we hadn’t, and we didn’t, and we wouldn’t. We were everything for each other but.

Months later, the photo’s still on my phone. I haven’t shown anyone.


We spent an ocean of time alone together. No one tells you this when you are going on a road trip. People tell you about corn, about the Badlands, about Montana. People tell you that traveling can be as isolating as it is exhilarating. But no one talks about the quiet that unfolds.

Through the Midwest we spent hours in silence. There’s only so much you can say to someone you spent the entire summer sitting next to. Sometimes, waking from a nap, I’d have a question for him. We talked about our childhoods, our anxieties and our neuroses, our old loves and our weird dreams. But mostly we sat without speaking, eyes on the road.

From the cramped front seat I passed Cam celery sticks, opened bags of sunflower seeds, popped the tabs on cans of Red Bull that we drank like water. When I caught him trying to open a granola bar with his teeth, I swatted it out of his mouth and chastised him for being reckless. “Don’t do things like that when I’m awake,” I said. “Don’t even do them when I’m asleep. This is what I’m here for.”

I remember sitting on the hood of the car somewhere in Pennsylvania while Cam pissed at a rest stop, feeling the heat of the engine under my bare thighs. Digging up quarters and nickels from the bottom of my bag and passing them over to pay the toll outside of Chicago. In Wisconsin, just before we crossed the border into Minnesota, we went on a day hike up the Black River overlook, hopping over the fence at the observation deck to clamber ever higher. On the way back down, I carved our names into the wooden balcony alongside so many Sharpie’d others.

And I wondered then if getting along meant you might as well go for it and try to make something out of nothing. If being alone with Cam meant I should try being in love. He and I agreed, during one conversation in the car, that love was really just brute force, when it came down to it: deciding you wanted to be with someone.

We could have done that; we could have changed us. And yet we remained where we were and it was a place where we were safe. We kept each other whole and sane, and we didn’t go where it was easy, where we were lonely.


It was early on in our trip that I saw the Great Lakes for the first time. We had arrived in Cleveland at night, The National playing on the Toyota’s stereo. “Oh when I lift you up, you feel like a hundred times yourself. I wish everybody knew what’s so great about you.” Raindrops danced on the windshield intermittently, blurring the lights of the city; we wove through industrial freeways, into the winding roads of the suburb where my friend’s family lived. At night I had no conception of the space we had moved through. It was only in the morning, after we rose and were fed and back on the road again that I glimpsed Lake Erie through a thin veil of trees.

“What’s that?” I asked. It was a thin gray-blue strip that seemed to stretch endlessly across the horizon. Early morning in Ohio, and the light filtering through the clouds made everything seem bloodless and pale.

“It’s Lake Erie,” Cam said.

I pressed my face against the window. This early in the day, the glass was still cool to the touch. “It’s so big,” I said. I had never seen a lake that big before: had only known them as bodies of water with edges, which closed loops and seemed containable. “It seems like the ocean.”

“Yeah,” said Cam. “People call the shore a beach.”

“That’s funny,” I said. “Coming from the Pacific Northwest.” The two of us had our own ocean. The cool gray morning came and went. We rolled on and the lake disappeared from my sight and I thought about the thin strip of infinity we’d seen and how many more miles we had to cover before either of us would be home. Cam turned on the radio and landed on a country song. Soon enough we were on our way to Chicago.

To be alone with Cam at truck stops and trailheads, at gas stations and Dunkin Donuts and on bridges in the early morning fog—yes, it was to be in love with him too. Not the kind of love I was scared we’d fall into but something rare and plain that made no claim over bodies, just the dashboard and the wheel and the passenger seat.


In Montana, we spent the night in Billings, at a tiny inn outside of downtown. The motel was gussied up to look like a faux-log cabin, but we parked in the back where the poured cement was only covered up with white paint. We had arrived late enough that most shops were closed, so we walked to Albertson’s, under one of the brightest night skies I’ve ever seen. We bought baby carrots and hummus and Coke to mix with our endless stash of whiskey, and I still remember the contented silence of our walk home: the plastic handles of the shopping bags stretching at our hands, the air warm enough for running shorts, and the sky wide and low, close enough to touch.


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