We take many journeys in our lives.
Margaret wanted a trip to LA. Donna still dreams of going to Hawaii. Sam will travel to anywhere where there’s sunshine, or the chance to wear matching Tommy Hilfiger sweaters. The longest journey Josh Lyman ever took was in the back of an ambulance from Rosslyn to George Washington. Jed Bartlett wants to see Rome again and then spend another summer in London; his wife wants to go to Lourdes but will never say so. The summer he was 49 Toby finally made his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. CJ says that one day she will go to St Moritz for winter sports – snow, Swiss chocolate and handsome ski instructors all in one package. Annie spent the year after college backpacking in India and Nepal; her mother’s longest trip that year was to the mailbox waiting for letters. Leo travelled across the world to fight a war no one was sure was right and later travelled even darker ways. Mrs Landingham lived her sons’ journey to Vietnam and then died on a trip across town.
Zoey knew all this, knew too that she took her own true journey the year she turned 19. It wasn’t that Charlie was black; well, it wasn’t just that Charlie was black. It was that he was Baptist, not at college and worked for every dime he had. It was that he grew up around gangs, instead of just reading about them in R.E. lessons. It was that when he was 13 the coolest thing in the world to own would have been a knife, not a pony. It was that he lived in a part of town she wouldn’t have been allowed to walk through even before she got her own protection agents.
Zoey gazed out the window and traced aimless patterns on the misty window in a way that would have earned her students a reprimand from her. 2100 miles from a junior high in Cottonwood, Idaho to Washington DC – flat fields, corn stubble, piled rolls of hay, empty towns, parking lots and malls, truck stops with rose scented toilet freshener and sad looking bagels, rusted cars besides faded grey houses and long avenues of trees with leaves curling yellow on the edges. Around her, the faces changed – tired, sad, excited, hopeful and worried. She read her book, gazed out her window, tried to avoid conversation and tried not to think about the journey she was taking.
When she closed her eyes in a restless sleep broken by swooping headlights and the rumble of truck brakes, she saw a clear night and a hail of bullets that poured down from a building. There were sirens and shouts and flashing blue and red lights, the smell of fear and vomit, and, somewhere distant, a whimpering voice that said ‘Dad?’ That night the two and a half miles from Rosslyn to the White House turned out to be a distance further than Zoey had ever imagined travelling.
When she woke, she thought of Charlie and how that night they had stood on a common ground of fear and danger – and intended death - and of how after that they found only differences. She thought of the slow almost unseen drifting apart of their relationship: of phone calls not returned, of words no longer understood, of silences that hung, sharp and awkward, between them. She shrugged her hands into her jeans pockets – court shoes and skirts shed back in Cottonwood as if a skin she was no longer sure fitted her – and tried to make herself believe in this journey.
Donna had written that Charlie was single again; his fiancée had moved back to Maryland and the wedding was off. She wrote that it had been three months and he spent his time nagging Deanna about her career and drinking Miller Lite with Josh over ball games that neither of them cared about. She wrote that he asked about her.
Zoey traced meaningless letters in the tacky pile of the seat in front of her. Our lives form strange patterns and now after 11 years, she was travelling across the country to see if there was anything left of what there had once been. You might call it quixotic… or you might call it crazy. She worried it was conceited to think that there could be anything left.
Charlie had stayed part of her life because he was a part of her father’s life until he’d retired. After that, she’d seen him occasionally - Toby’s fiftieth, her father’s book launch, a hospital corridor when CJ was having chemo, a Democrat convention where somehow they’d both been embarrassed to recognise the other, and Sam’s inauguration as Governor. She’d spent the last three years in Idaho, though, teaching French and history and trying to avoid politics and recognition equally. Since then Charlie had become someone she heard about from others. Once there had been a mention in a Washington blog of ‘this talented new counsel at Legislative Affairs’. A picture of him and is fiancée had appeared in ‘The Democrat Daily’. Her father’s letters mentioned any successes and sometimes passed on news from Charlie’s own letters. Occasionally he would get a mention in an e-mail from Josh – usually about where he fitted into Josh’s schemes. It was Donna’s letters that told her the most – through them she heard about illnesses, new suits, progress up the ranks of party Democrats, sibling fights and the time he almost got caught on the edge of a scandal about private work and public money.
As the bus slid through the outskirts of Pittsburgh past bulk good stores, lumberyards and wire-fenced factories Zoey leant her forehead against the window and blinked back tears. Did she even know Charlie any more? Greyhound was taking her two thousand miles across the country – but how did she travel back eleven years in time? The bus eased to a rumbling stop in the transit station and Zoey got up to join the queue of people waiting to claim luggage. With an hour and half to wait for the last stage of her journey, she stowed her bag into a locker and took her cup of weak vending machine coffee out to the street.
The sky was a dark steel grey between the buildings and the chill that heralded dawn crept around her. Across the road showroom lights shone out between the dark shapes of parked cars. Patches of red and white light spilled from the lines of cars on the road at the end of the cul-de-sac. Shivering a little, Zoey walked the block, each step an argument. Turn around – or catch the bus and be in Washington in six hours. At the end of the block, she slowly walked back. At twenty-five, her father had given her an airline ticket to England and told her to travel for the journey, not the destination. She would go to Washington; in Washington, she would see Charlie and they would have the conversation they hadn’t had in the silence that followed the bullets. Maybe it would only be about the past and the journey they took that night in Rosslyn. Perhaps they would talk of a future they might still share. It might be their last conversation until her father’s funeral or it might be a beginning, a first handful of a hundred dozen words that would spill across phone lines and through cyberspace and whisper on hot steamy Washington summer afternoons.
We take many journeys in our lives; some will mark our lives forever.