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Preying Mantis on the Interstate
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Adam and I drove forty hours nonstop, taking turns sleeping. I had to be back for a shift at the bookstore on Monday, so there definitely wasn’t time to stop at night, barely enough time to grab drive-thru. It felt just the right amount of crazy to try to drive across the country in one go. We were young, Adam had a car that probably wouldn’t die on us, and we had a weekend. More than a weekend–a full Friday night to Monday morning! That summer after our overscheduled, get-me-out-of-here-as-soon-as-possible undergrad years, it felt like a luxury.

We were moving Adam to San Jose, CA. He snagged a job at a video game studio, something he actually wanted to do. We agreed I’d join him soon, but first I’d go back to the Entomology department at Clemson and attempt (even then I knew it would only be an attempt) to finish my Master’s thesis on caddisfly larval taxonomy. He loaded everything he owned into his 14-year-old Nissan SX, which barely filled the entire trunk. We got someone to watch the kittens we’d adopted the year before, and we headed out.

We predicted the trip would take us forty-two hours with stops, and then I’d take a redeye back to South Carolina Sunday night. Most of the trip was too fast to be memorable. All I have left of the first day is impressions and details: the ecstacy of freedom, the possibilites of love, FM stations blasting on the old radio, the musty smell that seemed to come from the car’s saggy roof, the chilly air from the AC that I was unceasingly surprised still worked.

We drove across the Utah and Nevada deserts during the night, maintaining 100mph for longer than I ever had or ever would again. When the sun came up, we crossed the state line into the Golden State. At hour forty, we’d made it to Vacaville, CA, less than 90 miles from Adam’s new place. That’s when the back left tire blew.

I was driving. There was a pop, and then the car’s handling went wonky. I looked over at Adam with a “This was bound to happen–we’ve been too lucky” look, and calmly pulled off next to the median, the I-80 traffic whizzing by.

It didn’t take long to deal with. A towtruck came within the hour. While we waited, I felt strangely serene. I was standing on the other side of the continent, and I was standing there with Adam. We’d made it. It was a warm, late-summer afternoon, and I was feeling the California sun on my skin for the first time.

A preying mantis was standing stone-still on the median, a little zen-like stick figure, bright green amidst chrome and concrete. Looking back, I could have seen it as an omen that I should hurry home to my microscope and hip waders and pickled bug carcasses, that I shouldn’t be there, and what did I think I was doing anyway? None of that even crossed my mind. I watched the mantis sway gently in the breeze of passing cars and felt like I’d entered an enchanted kingdom, where even the interstate median had a splash of magic. I knew then that I would be drawn back powerfully to this place and not just to Adam, who had his hands around my waist and his chin on my shoulder. When I pointed the preying mantis out to him, he said, “Ah, cool,” and pulled me closer.

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