“You know you’re golden if you can sit with someone and do nothing,” Mark says. “Like, you don’t have to be reading, or watching TV, or taking bites of your food or whatever. You can just sit there. Just be.”
“Hmmm.” I nod and reach over to turn off the radio. We’re heading up 5, and it’s the part of the freeway with nondescript agriculture on one side and empty foothills with freeway detritus–food wrappers, half-built chainlink fences, roads that go off to nowhere–on the other.
I look straight ahead, ten and two, eyes on the road. I can hear Mark shimmying around in his seat. His seatbelt makes a zippering sound.
“Yeah, you know, I want that,” he says. “Like, you know when you see super old people in a Denny’s or something, and they’re both sitting over their omelets, and their papers are folded neatly at their sides, and they’re both sort of staring. Not creepily, or intensely, or bored or anything. They’re just, I don’t know…content.”
I try to make my face into the Norman-Rockwell-cum-Buddha Americana that Mark’s describing. I feel my lips pout and it makes me laugh.
“What?! What is it, Val?” He says, laughing too. He seems relieved. “You don’t like Denny’s? What?”
“No, I was just picturing you flirting with the hostess as an old man. You have a fedora.”
The dashboard thermometer says 102. The sun is hitting my forearm through the window and the air conditioning feels icy against my wrist.
“I mean, we can do that, I think,” Mark says. “Like, remember that morning after Halloween back in college? We just sat around your place. You laid on the floor a lot, I remember that. And we just, like, were. That’s what I want.”
The Cow Part of the drive is starting to come up on our right. It smells like wet alfalfa, which is strange because I’ve never been around wet alfalfa but I’m pretty sure that’s the right smell. It’s ripe and I can taste it in the back of my throat, but I like it. I’ve always liked the smell of the Cow Part. It’s halfway.
The first time I made this drive with Mark, back in college, we played reggae too loud and sand until our throats hurt. Then we hit the Cow Part and Mark stopped singing mid line, his fake Jamaican patois turning immediately into his rich Seattle kid non-accent.
“What the hell’s that, Val?” He said. “Did you crap your pants or something? Is it the car? What?!” He was laughing but also definitely scared and sort of offended.
“Oh, yeah, sorry about that,” I said, doing my best to deadpan. “It must have been the In n Out. They’re delicious, but they don’t always agree with me.”
“Wow.” He said, and tucked his face into the T-shirt. “That’s so… I don’t know. It’s like, unsettling.”
I couldn’t hold the joke any longer. “It’s not me, Mark. Haven’t you driven past a feed lot before? It’s cows. We’re coming up on Harris Ranch. That In n Out probably came from here. Literally.”
“Oh,” Mark said. He cleared his throat. We had only known each other for three months at that point, dorm mates and besties and who knows what else, but I knew that Mark hated to seem anything less than totally sophisticated. Even when it came to livestock.
“Like, you never drove out of Seattle up to, I don’t know, Vancouver or something and passed some cows?” I knew I was bugging him but I liked it.
“I mean, sure,” he said. “But these California cows are no joke. And, you know, our cows are always free-range, so I guess I’ve never experienced this sort of industrial agriculture like this.” He said industrial with judging air quotes and something about it got to me.
“Sure, but, I’m from San Francisco. It’s not like we’re drowning in Chick-fil-A where I’m from either. We have plenty of free range, too, but I know cow when I smell it.”
Mark reached for the volume and dialed it up a bit. “I know, Val,” he said. “It’s just stinky, that’s all.”
He went back to singing.
By now, though, double-digit drives later, Mark is an old pro. “Cow Part already?!” He says. “Are you pulling 80 or something? How are we making such killer time?”
“Ten-and-two and seventy five,” I say. “You know I can’t go more than five over the speed limit. Maybe it’s just a ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ sort of situation.” I take a quick look off the road and over at him. He’s got his hands behind his head and both feet up on the dash.
“That must be it,” he says.
Then he’s silent.