I asked my friends about him. They filled me in: he was rich man’s son, smoked two packs a day, guzzled his coffee black, was very quiet, and people liked him.
I learn that he lives in Winnetka, near Chicago , where my Momma had moved, So, being a spoiled youngest child and therefore intrepid when it comes to asking for things I want, I fling the small doorway of our acquaintance wide open one morning by asking Paul for a ride home over Winter Break.
To my surprise, he says okay.
And no doubt lives to regret it.
I become his chattering monkey of a long-distance traveling companion. Determined to keep this new friend of mine entertained as we coast along through the Midwest, listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash on the car radio, Creedence Clearwater Revival ‘s Proud Mary, Simon and Garfunkel singing Bridge Over Troubled Waters, all music I love and therefore force Paul to listen to, I am unstoppable! When The 5th Dimension sings The Age Aquarius, or Little Stevie Wonder comes on with My Cherie Amour, I even cajole Paul into singing along with me. This is so much fun, I convince myself we almost achieve art when singing along to the Beatles.
Paul started on the trip with a sedate brown paper bag of raw veggies, sliced fruits and a few homemade cookies made by his mother, but before long I have him plowing into the mounds of Hostess cupcakes, Fritos, Lays Potato Chips, red licorice, Yoohoo Chocolate Drink, Heath Bars and other assorted candy I’ve stuffed into my shoulder bag. I replenish our supply at each stop for gas. That’s what car travel meant in my family: eating all the junk food you can manage, without getting sick, and, a mere hundred miles outside Minneapolis, I finally persuade Paul to join in these culinary delights.
I’m convinced that Paul has simply been waiting for someone like me to free him from the hellish boredom of carrot stick and apple slices.
But, I discover to my delight, that he has his vices too. While I am being “good” sipping diet sodas, Paul drinks more coffee that anyone I’ve ever known, taking it black and so strong I can smell it across the car seat. Paul also smokes.
Packs and packs of his ever-present Winstons.
In the dead winter cold, I keep my window cracked open because of all the smoke, which, of course, makes the car heater useless, so, even though it makes the candy awkward to open, I wear gloves for the entire drive, only taking them off if a particular junk food package is impossible to open with them on. Feeling the need to entertain my driving host, however, I do continue talking, then talking and talking some more, which generates a timid heat all its own.
I just blab on through the hundreds of miles, sharing theater department gossip, info about shows I like or hate, what the Living Theatre is doing in New York and what the genius Jerzy Grotowski’s Theatre Lab is doing in Poland, what I want to do after I earn my MFA, how I want to contribute to a meaningful theater. Paul manages to inject a comment or two, giving his opinion of grad school politics, the teachers he admires, a bit about his high school theater experience. But if a silence arises, I fill it as fast as I can. In that black and white Chevy Caprice, gliding along the snowy roadways, I am the alternative radio station; one Paul cannot turn off, as much as he might wish to.
Eventually – after what Paul no doubt feels is an eternity – the 7 hour and 19 minute car ride is done, the 400 miles are covered – he drops me off at my Momma’s Chicago front door, and off he drives to his no doubt mercifully quiet family.
I actually don’t think about Paul again until he picks me up for the return trip. This time, I have a large bag of food cooked by my mother, and lots to talk about. On reflection, as Paul opened the car door for me, to begin our long drive back, I bet he mentally kicked himself for not picking up some earplugs at his local drugstore.
He probably would never have used them though. He was far too polite.
It was only years later that Paul told me how horrified he’d been at my never offering to help pay for gas.
I was too self-absorbed to even know I should have.