I hadn’t considered that Rob would just disappear. Not until he had been gone for five hours, on a trip that should have taken no more than two. He had my car, and I was left sitting on a white plastic chair outside of a motel room in St. Albans, Vermont.
We were almost out of cigarettes. There were still a few beers sitting on the table by the window, we hadn’t bothered to open them. “Could he have stolen the car?” I asked Claire.
Rob had asked questions about the car on the drive up, he wondered how many cylinders it had, what the horsepower was. I didn’t know the answers. I told him it was just a car. It had an engine and wheels and generally speaking it went where you pointed it. That was the extent of my knowledge.
“There has to be something we can do,” Claire said.
I tried to call Rob again. The phone rang and rang until it connected to the default voicemail message.
Rob worked with us at the Black Cat, a fairly well-known rock club in Washington, D.C. He had started a few months before the trip. It was 2007 and I was 23 at the time, working as a bouncer. The day I first met him, a bunch of us doormen were out front before we opened, smoking and bullshitting. He rode up on a scooter, hopped off, and ignored us. He knocked on the locked front door.
“Can we help you?” I asked him.
“I’m Rob,” he said, holding his helmet in one arm and extending the other to shake. “I’m here to work.”
He was short, balding, with thin wire-frame glasses. He’d been an amateur boxer and came from London to try his hand as a boxing coach in America. He had some friends in the business and got set up with a few under-the-table gigs at bars in the city. But he didn’t have a work visa, and he was doing this all on the sly with a six-month tourist visa.
Rob would often get breakfast with Claire and I after our shifts. We’d drive to one of the all-night diners. We’d spend hours talking about everything. Claire would read us her stories and poems. She was several years younger than me, with magenta hair and a tattoo of birds on a power line on her forearm. We made an odd crew, but that was one of the things I loved about working at the Cat.
My wife, Rachel, worked the night shift as an x-ray tech, and wouldn’t be home until 8 a.m. at the earliest. Sometimes all three of us would drive over to the hospital to pick her up. We’d get breakfast from McDonalds and listen to music in the parking lot while we waited for her to come out.
By June, Rob’s visa was about to expire. He heard that if he left the country and re-entered, he would be given another six months. That could be enough time to get a work visa. I suggested a road trip to Vermont, where we could cross the border to Canada near St. Albans.
Claire and I picked up Rob around 9 p.m., after he finished a shift at another bar across town. We drove through the night, switching drivers at the service plazas. Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, up the turnpike and into New York.
The dawn was purple-grey when we pulled into a service plaza along the New York State Thruway. I headed to the first open fast food joint and bought a round of coffee. I found Rob by a claw game near the door. He played three rounds trying to win a New York Giants plush football. Claire drew a heart in the fog on the door to the food court. Outside, the sun was rising and the fog lifted to reveal the Adirondacks and a route of high voltage power lines cutting up and across them. “It’s magical,” Claire said. She took Rob by the hand and danced through the parking lot to the car.
I insisted we take the scenic route into Vermont, past Lake George, through Ticonderoga. I’d figured out the route while driving a big loop around Lake Champlain the year before. We stopped at the Walmart to use the bathroom, and Rob wandered wide-eyed through the store. Claire took a picture out front of Rob with the “Supercenter” sign in the background.
When we reached Middlebury, I pulled off the main street and parked the car. “I want to show you something,” I said. I opened my door and we could hear the rushing water from the Otter Creek falls.
“The falls? Let’s go!” Claire said. She grabbed my hand and we took off running down a gravel road. We turned the corner and Claire stopped in her tracks to watch the crashing water. We walked over to a little wooden overlook where we could feel the cool mist. She let my hand go and walked to the railing, getting as close as she could.
I had invited Rachel to come along to Vermont with us, but she declined. She suspected I was in love with Claire. We got married a few days before my 21st birthday at the Cook County Courthouse in Chicago. We had only been dating for about three months. I was a junior in college, still living in the dorms. She was living with her parents in the suburbs. They were the prosperity-gospel type of conservative Christians who rented a large house they couldn’t afford and drove a used Jaguar. Though my wife wasn’t as conservative, she had always wanted to be married. When she began researching which places had the least restrictive marriage processes (Las Vegas, Reno, Chicago), I didn’t know how to say no. Or, more precisely, I was afraid to say no. She had told me that her parents were abusive, and that she needed to get out. I don’t doubt that they were. I thought that I was equipped to handle the situation. I would come to the rescue. I was afraid if I said no, I would be failing someone, either her, or perhaps more accurately, myself. I didn’t want to get married, but I still went to the courthouse and I still said the required words in front of a judge on a freezing December afternoon.
After the cold mist began to soak our clothes and hair, we returned to the car and headed north on Route 7. By early afternoon we arrived in St. Albans. We checked into the Econolodge, which from the street appeared to straddle the line between charming and seedy. On closer inspection, it was just seedy. The room was tiny with two double beds and a slight odor of mildew. There were two plastic chairs outside the door, facing the parking lot.
“Why don’t I go real quick now? I’ll drive across the border and come back,” Rob said.
“Let’s explore first,” Claire said.
We drove to downtown St. Albans. It was cute in the way a depressed main street can be cute. We decided on Mimmo’s Pizza for dinner. The tables at Mimmo’s had vinyl red and white checked tablecloths and I wondered how old the crushed red pepper was. I sat next to Claire in a booth and listened as Rob tried to explain cockney rhyming slang. “If I say that’s nice Steffi, for example,” he said.
“What?” asked Claire.
“Steffi Graf, rhymes with arse, Steffi!”
“I understand that one, but only after you explain it. How would anyone know what you are talking about?” I said. I was lying a bit, I didn’t think that how he said Graf rhymed with arse at all. I never understood his jokes and I would pretend that I couldn’t hear him over the noise at the club.
“I don’t know mate, they just do,” he answered.
We returned to the motel and I suggested a quick nap before Rob tested the border patrol. Rob wanted to go right away. I was too tired to put up much of a fight and was more than happy to avoid a possible confrontation at the border.
“I’ll go by myself, if they stop me then we won’t have to worry about our stories matching up. Wouldn’t want to drag you guys into this. I’ve got this, mates.”
I paused before handing Rob the keys and told him, “don’t get arrested.”
Claire and I waived as Rob drove off. We took a walk around the neighborhood near the motel. I had my camera out, catching shots of the sky, and Claire, as we walked. We stopped in a parking lot near the motel. We could see Lake Champlain across the road. Claire took the camera and directed our scene. We walked towards the lake and down some wooden steps. Halfway down the steps Claire said, “Stop. Right here.” She pointed the camera straight down and took a picture of our feet, side by side. We headed down into a grassy area. We laid on our backs and lit cigarettes. We blew the smoke into the air. The clouds diffused into nothing before Claire could get a photo.
Four hours later and with night falling, Rob was overdue. I worked through the possible scenarios: he had been in an accident, he had stolen the car, or he had been stopped at the border. I had been chain-smoking in one of the chairs outside the motel room, and soon realized I had lit the last one. I turned empty pack of Camel filters around and around in my hand before tossing it in the trash.
I decided to call my wife. I wanted to forget that anything outside of the motel room existed, but dialed anyway. “Listen, Rob is missing. He took the car. I don’t know what to do,” I said.
“So, it’s just you and Claire, alone?”
A beat. Two.
“That’s not the point. I’m worried.”
“You should be.”
I hung up and tossed the phone on the bed.
I was mad at her for not understanding, or more accurately, I was mad at her for being mad at me. It was not my plan to send Rob out to wherever he had gone just so I could steal a few hours alone with Claire. But it fit a pattern. When at all possible, I sought any time away that I could get. When I was away from my wife I could imagine what life could be like had I made a different choice at the courthouse. If I had walked away. I put myself into a very strange place where I wanted to rearrange things so I could live like my marriage had never happened at all. That, of course, is impossible when you are still married. It was no surprise then, when before I started working at the club, my wife made a prediction. She said I would meet an artsy hipster co-worker and leave. I would leave and she would unravel. She would die. My role, I concluded, was to keep things together for her. I had stopped making any real decisions about my life. I worked the door at a rock club and tried to believe I could be content with that. I felt like I could only make changes at the margins, that I could never end what shouldn’t have started. I would instead retreat to secret conversations with friends about how I was miserable. I would tell them that this was not an outcome I had ever predicted for myself. I would put so much onto this, this being a courthouse wedding I did not want, this being staying in a marriage I did not want to stay in, this being a state of wanting everything to change without having to change anything. This, I believed, was one of those potential paths so unlikely that it happens only in one out of an infinite number of universes.
Five hours had passed since Rob left. I inventoried the motel room. I saw my duffle bag, the beers, and my camera. Claire. Miranda July’s book, No One Belongs Here More Than You. Some snacks. We had stocked up the night before at Safeway. The night manager had opened the express lane for us, he knew me as a regular. I introduced Claire as my sister. I don’t know why. He said he could see the resemblance in our cheekbones.
We searched for a gas station or a convenience store so we could buy more cigarettes. We walked up the street and Claire noticed banners for the town’s Maple Festival starting the next week. “We’ll miss the Maple Festival,” she said.
“Maybe we’ll still be here.”
We found one gas station, already closed. It was barely even 9:30 p.m. We walked a bit farther and all we saw were houses.
When we returned to the motel, Claire opened her Miranda July book and started reading the stories aloud.
“We should sleep,” I said. “Tomorrow will be a shit show.”
Rob’s suitcase sat on the other bed, along with my camera bag and Claire’s duffle bag. I made no effort to clear it. Claire continued reading her book. She wanted to stay awake until we heard from Rob. We were in the same bed, and I knew I should keep some distance between us. We fell asleep next to each other, in our clothes, at around 1 a.m. I didn’t end up getting any real sleep at all. I’d wake up and stare at my phone, trying to will it to ring.
At around four in the morning, it finally rang. It was Rob. “So I had a bit of trouble at the border. They won’t let me cross. I’m still in Canada,” he said.
“Can you come and get me? I’ll try to find a motel near the border. I have your car, everything’s fine. I just can’t come back to the States.”
He had told the border agents he was doing some sightseeing in Canada and wanted to see Quebec before he flew back to London in a few days. Then they searched his backpack. He had brought his work schedules with him and he didn’t have a plane ticket to London.
I had no idea what I was going to do, but I lied and told him that it would be okay and that I’d figure it out. He gave me the address of a motel right across the border. He would wait there. In the morning, I would take a taxi to the border, get the car, and figure out how to deal with Rob being stuck in Canada with nothing but his backpack. I sat outside in one of the plastic chairs for a while. Sunrise was still a few hours away and the sky was pitch black.
I didn’t tell my wife about the plan. I’d like to think it was out of self-preservation, but maybe I just wanted her to assume the worst. Maybe that the car had been stolen, or wrecked, or that I was sleeping with Claire. I was, in the way that stupidly foolish men do, still making my wife the cause of all of my problems. It was easier to believe I was nothing more than my bad decisions than to believe that I could move past them.
Claire and I tried to get back to sleep, this time on opposite sides of the bed, without much luck. In the morning, we walked to downtown St. Albans. We found an open gas station along the way. Everything was brown and dusty in the harsh midmorning light. The cashier asked for my I.D. when I bought cigarettes. He’d never seen a Washington, D.C. driver’s license before. He asked why we were in St. Albans. “Just on our way to Canada,” I said.
We got sandwiches at a deli on the main street, near Mimmo’s Pizza. We waited for my cab in a plaza with a park and an old picnic table. The taxi pulled up and I gave Claire a hug.
“Tell Rob I love him and that we’ll figure out a way to get him back,” she said.
I got into the taxi and noticed how different it was than in the city. There was no bulletproof glass separating me from Linda, my driver. She was in her forties with a bit of greying hair, wearing a short-sleeved flannel shirt and jeans. She explained how the border crossing would work. “I can only take you to the border. Homeland Security makes it hard for me to take a fare across. You can cross on foot and meet a Canadian cab from there.”
As we drove out of town and onto the highway towards the border, I stared out the window, thinking about what would happen if I stayed. I knew it wasn’t at all possible but I thought about just going to Burlington and starting over.
At the Highgate Springs border crossing, I paid the fare and Linda gave me the number of a Canadian taxi. I didn’t have a passport so I carried my birth certificate folded in my pocket. I walked into what looked like a large waiting room. It was the processing center for bus passengers. “We can’t process you here, you’ll need to go to the other side,” a voice called out from somewhere.
To cross the border on foot, I would need to walk up to one of the tollbooth-style lanes for cars. I walked up to one of the booths, careful to avoid being hit by a car. I told the Canadian border officer that I was catching a cab to meet with a friend, who had my car on the other side of the border. I tried to tell the story as if I did this all of the time. The officer wasn’t much older than me. She just looked at my birth certificate, handed me a piece of paper with a stamp on it, and wished me a good day.
A minivan taxi soon arrived, with another middle-aged cab driver. It was a man named Pierre. I gave him the address of the motel. It wasn’t too far, a ten-minute drive from the border. After dropping me off, he gave me his cell phone number, in case I needed another ride. I looked for my car in the parking lot. There was no sign of it. I called Rob, no answer. I paced the motel’s gravel parking lot.
Twenty minutes later, Rob called. He had driven up to the nearest town to find a travel agent. He needed an airplane ticket back to London. He’d be back to the motel in just a few minutes and he’d need six hundred dollars.
When Rob returned he told me he needed to take a bus to Montreal and then fly to London. He had one hundred dollars in his bank account and everything he owned was back in his apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. I’d need to buy his plane ticket and he’d pay me back whenever he could. “Sorry I worried you. Bloody bad luck. You Americans and your security,” he said.
I drove Rob back to the travel agent. When we walked in, she was on the phone, speaking in quick French with a client. She motioned for us to sit down. I tried to follow the French she was speaking, but my one semester taken five years earlier couldn’t keep up. She finished her call and pulled up Rob’s reservation on her computer. “That will be six hundred and twenty-seven dollars, Canadian.”
I took out my credit card and told the agent to buy the ticket. I didn’t have the money, but I had the credit card. She took the card and looked at Rob. “You have a very good friend,” she said.
I made sure Rob was set to go to Montreal. He would take the evening bus, and fly out the next day. He could sleep at the airport. “If they ask you questions, just play like you don’t know. I told them you had no idea about my visa problem,” he said.
I got into my car and I drove back to the border as quickly as I could. When I pulled up to the American side of the crossing, the man in the booth asked for my identification. I handed him my driver’s license and birth certificate. He checked something on the computer. “There’s a problem with the system,” he said. “You’ll need to park and go inside.”
I walked into a waiting room. Customs agents were standing around the counter. A few other people were sitting in plastic chairs. It felt like an emergency room waiting area. I wondered if I would need a lawyer. I was pretty sure I hadn’t broken any laws. After thirty minutes, a man in a suit asked me to come into an office. “So, why did someone try to cross the border in your car last night?” he asked. I said I had no idea and I was just as confused as they were. I was in St. Albans, visiting friends, and Rob asked if he could use my car to run out for some snacks and cigarettes. I said I didn’t know Rob would be going to Canada.
“He’s not a very good friend.”
“I guess,” I said.
“We have to check a few more things,” the agent said, leaving me in the small, empty office. About ten minutes later, he returned.
“Okay. Everything else looks clean,” he said. I had no idea what everything else might be.
“Am I free to go now? Can I cross?” I asked.
“We’ll just need to take a look at your car. Make sure he’s not hiding in the trunk.”
We walked out to the car and I popped the trunk for the man. He looked around with a small flashlight. Satisfied, he nodded and said I could go. I drove back to St. Albans. On the way, I called my wife. “I got the car back, and put Rob on a plane to London. I’ll explain later. We’ll be home tomorrow.”
“I see. Well, you know, if I had done the same thing,” she said. “You’d be screaming at me non-stop. I just can’t believe you.”
I turned off the phone and threw it onto the passenger seat. I want to say I didn’t hate her and that I couldn’t blame her for how she felt. I would be lying. The truth is that I was angry and I was hoping I was giving us both another reason to leave.
Claire and I had the motel room in St. Albans for another night. She wanted to leave right away. I fought her on this for a while, suggesting we go down to Burlington, or drive around Lake Champlain. We went back to Mimmo’s Pizza. I grabbed the Burlington alt-weekly and we sat in a booth and worked on the crossword. For a moment, I tried to ignore everything that had happened. Mimmo’s was the new routine. This was where Claire and I go for dinner. We work on the crossword. This was normal.
We got on the road to Washington late, after 8 p.m. I drove the way I knew, back down to Burlington then Route 7 and through Middlebury to the Champlain Bridge. It would have been faster to go up through Rouses Point, then down the Thruway, but I took the scenic route even though it was almost dark.
After 11 p.m., we pulled into the Walmart in Ticonderoga, this time without Rob. I used the bathroom and found Claire by a claw machine game. I could see her staring through the machine, out into the parking lot. Her hand moved the lifeless machine’s joystick.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
We walked back to the car in silence.
I knew we couldn’t finish the drive without stopping. We pressed on through the winding roads near Lake George on New York State Route 9N. The water was so close to the road. Claire told me to stop the car. I pulled over to a gravelly spot, right alongside the lake. “We should go swimming,” Claire said, heading towards the water.
It was nearly pitch black. I could see some lights in the distance across the lake. I hesitated. I stood on the shore and stared into the black. I wondered if the water was cold. Claire stripped down to her underwear and jumped in. She was someone who could do that. I stayed by the car.
She was immediately out of the water, freezing. We headed back to the car and she got dressed. “I probably shouldn’t have done that. You’re married.” she said.
We made it back to the Thruway and headed south. There were many hours left to go. I could keep the car straight on the road, but I began to lose track of where we were. I couldn’t remember the last few miles I had driven. I pulled off at a rest area. “We can’t do this, we need to stop. We need to sleep,” I said. Claire got out of the car and walked over to a grassy area.
“I think we can do it. We should keep going,” she said. She sat down on the grass. I sat next to her. There was fresh dew in the grass. “We’ve made it this far,” she said.
“I don’t want us to die. I’ll pay for the room. We’ll leave first thing and get home by afternoon.”
“I know what you’re doing.”
We got back on the road. It was only a few more miles to Saratoga Springs. I turned up the air conditioning to keep myself awake. About fifteen minutes later, we exited the highway and I spotted a Super 8 motel. It was after 1 a.m. I parked the car and walked in. The night manager was a man in his late twenties with a few tattoos on his arm. I asked about a room. “You don’t want to stay here, it’s too expensive—the racetrack and everything. It’s a hundred and twenty for the night. Drive a few more miles down the Thruway. Trust me.”
“Shit. Really? We’re just passing through. We need a place to crash for the night. It’s after one and the room would just sit empty. Can you help me out?” I said.
“Let me see what I can do,” he said as he punched away at his computer. He seemed to type forever. I wondered how searching for a room could require so much typing. “Well, I don’t want you to get into a wreck. What about seventy-five?”
I went back to the car. Claire was asleep. I gently woke her and we walked to the room. “We didn’t need to stop,” she said, before taking a shower.
I didn’t bother calling home. I had turned my phone off back in St. Albans. I grabbed the ashtray off the desk, lit a cigarette, and pulled out my camera. I looked through the photos on the camera’s LCD screen. Claire and Rob at the service plaza at dawn. Our feet on the wooden steps in St. Albans. Lake Champlain.
Claire came out of the shower and sat down next to me on the edge of the bed. “What are we doing,” she said, half-asking.
I put the camera down. “It’s okay, we’re fine. We’ll make it back,” I told her.
“I know that. I don’t know anything else,” Claire said. “This isn’t about you,” she continued, “this is about Rob. We’re going back without him. Do you understand?”
She was right.
I wanted to stop because I wanted one more day away from everything. I thought I deserved it. I imagined waking up in the morning and hearing the news that Washington had been destroyed, that I was finally free, from something, from everything.
I wanted to remember every single moment I had spent trying to escape, trying to start again or just to start at all. I wanted to tell all of that to Claire, or to someone. I wanted to say that I was realizing that my wife was trying in her own way to do her best, and I was refusing to be honest with her. I wanted to say these things out loud, because maybe I had finally found the words for them, and if I could speak them then something inside of me would change. Things would finally be different because they had to be. But I said nothing.
Claire looked at the pile of bags on the other bed and said, “I see what you did with the suitcases.”
It had been easier when Rob was missing, when we were scared, when we thought we needed each other because there was no one else. I didn’t want to be alone, but I knew this wasn’t about Claire. We both knew it. Claire fell asleep next to me. I tried to commit to memory exactly the scent of her hair, and the way this moment felt, but soon enough I was asleep.
When I think about it now, I think about how young we all were. I think about what I might have said or done that could have been different or right. I had been making it so complicated when it wasn’t. I had made a bad decision. But I did not have to live with it. Maybe we give ourselves exactly what we think we deserve. Maybe I was choosing to punish myself. We’re almost never fair to ourselves. I wasn’t fair to myself, or my wife. I wasn’t willing to grant ourselves the possibility of being more than the sum of our mistakes.
Just after 8 a.m., Claire and I got back on the road. We sped south, across the rest of New York and through New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. When we got back into the city, we drove straight to the Black Cat to tell everyone what had happened. We worked that night on barely any sleep. In the back stairwell, one of our co-workers had an old film camera with him. He asked to take our picture. I pulled Claire in close for the shot, in the grey cement stairwell.
In the end my wife was right. I would meet a hipster co-worker and I would leave her, in that order. But not for Claire, or for anyone else. A few months after the trip, just before my 24th birthday, I would be divorced.
Dave Stroup is a writer living in Washington, D.C. He has previously worked as a political campaign staffer, local journalist, doorman at a rock club, and manager at a hardware store. He is working towards an MFA in nonfiction writing at George Mason University, focusing on personal essay and memoir.