The America highway system is an ocean, a diverse and violent ecosystem supporting all walks of life from PT Cruisers to vegetable oil powered crust punk VW buses. There is a delicate balance here, one that can only be adequately captured by the mellifluous grunting of David Attenborough. So when my friends decided to travel cross country on a road trip, I knew we wouldn’t be returning as we had left, if we should return at all. First among us, our leader, our captain, was Mila. Beautiful and trenchant with hair so long you could sit on it. She was at one and the same too much in her senses for Twitter and yet too little in them for Tumblr. Her gaze was cold and she had about her a certain fixation, not unlike the obsessive mania of a meth user, that compelled her through a given task. In the absence of any protest, there were only mild complaints about the regularity of bathroom breaks, Mila was the exceptionally prickly glue that held our group together. Unfortunately, no matter how much you sniffed her, you would never get high.
Next in the totem pole was Alex. A longish, leanish, lamish young Atlantian, not unnameable, on certain sides, to this classification. He would brook no interruption to the inner machinations of his mind, but for communiques with Brook, his girlfriend, with whom, in the sometimes pathetic sometimes triumphant way the sick learn to live with their disease, he cohabitated. She did not approve of this voyage, seeing it a world of temptation for her man. Sexy hitchhiker sirens and lusty motel tramps waiting to pounce on the bristling desires of a nice young Jewish boy cooped up with gentiles for 18 hours a day. After him was Rachel, visibly absentminded and irregularly clever. The progenitor of wantonness for the crew, always exhorting the recreational use of substances and the substantial use of recreation. When distressed, Rachel would cycle through a series of ticks ranging from benign to vile. To the displeasure of her compatriots, driving was one of her great anxieties.
Last among us was me, the silent helmsman. I have no idea why I was tasked with this job, as I have the sense of direction of a worm that has just bored through peyote. Nevertheless, I sat calmly behind, or rather underneath, the wheel in a constant row with myself about the direction we were headed. We had just left the Natural Bridge, one of nature’s more impressive holes, and were on our way to Colonial Williamsburg. The running joke among us was that this place was an experiment in what would happen if hipsters had been the original European colonists. We mused that it would largely have been the same, but Native American fashion would have been appropriated much faster. In my mind, colonialism seemed the ironically cool dad to the irreverent son of gentrification.
Stricken by a bout of hunger, however, we decided to stop at a roadside fast food establishment (I say establishment because restaurant seems disingenuous). Though limited, the options presented to us were strangely divisive, inciting a contentious debate about the value of each food place. Much was said, things that, without embellishment, shook the foundation of our friendship and called into question our respective humanity. Mila declared Bojangles “facile and iniquitous”, which seemed like a low blow, especially from someone championing the merits of Subway. Meanwhile, Alex, who had been very reticent up to this point, laid at our feet an ultimatum. Due to some un-explicated childhood trauma, he would rather walk home than set foot in Wendy’s. I veered off the highway with this miniature House of Commons in tow.
After much acrimony, we decided to go to Bojangles. Biscuits proved our saving grace. I parked the car and like some touring K pop group, dressed to the twos and moving in synchronous geometric formation, we entered. There is no place quite like the middle-of-nowhere, roadside fast food establishment. It’s physical attributes are disturbing: oddly eroded and stained with little evidence of human habitation, filled with non euclidean plastic furniture that looks more like torture devices meant to induce stress positions than to accommodate the human ass, long, winding queues that have never been filled but are demarcated by bright and hideous railings. All this wrapped in the a box of corporate architecture that somehow resembles the to-go bags of the chain. This is all ancillary to the temporal effect of the place. It seems a lost and forgotten realm, abandoned by time itself. The experience of it is akin to time dilation where those under the influence of, say, a roadside Arby’s, watch time outside of its confines slow down as they themselves age more rapidly. Of course, the inverse may happen as well with time accelerating in the outside world and time within grinding to a halt, preserving those souls in a temporal formaldehyde. Were a given Star Trek crew every transported into one of these places, they would within minutes be ensconced in its mystery, searching, no doubt, for chronoton particles and answers.
Upon entering, I felt the dread of the entire trip grip me. Perhaps it was the fluorescent lights or the mumbling drifter erecting a makeshift dwelling in one of the booths, I couldn’t be certain. Regardless, I felt the overwhelming urge to flee. While my friends ordered, I trotted to the bathroom in an attempt to deal with my emotions. I went in and tip toed across the brown tiled floor. The murky mirror reflected my blood shot eyes back at me and a sonorous stream of piss resonated from the solitary stall. As I contemplated, a man emerged from the stall, a grizzled fellow with a glint of glintiness in his eye. He wore a surgical mask and latex gloves, which, although probably not the worst idea in this cesspool, seemed quite odd to me. I stepped aside and granted the man access to the sink. He removed his gloves and methodically washed his hands before turning to face me. “Another satisfied customer.” At first I thought he was talking about the toilet in which he relieved himself, but then, to my astonishment, another man emerged from the stall. His face was wrapped in toilet paper and he had the distinctive grin of someone whose flesh had just been lacerated. He gave his stall mate a warm and approving thumbs up before sauntering out of the bathroom.
Their exchange was disquieting to me, not in the least bit because, despite my better instincts, I could not help but imagine the what really had taken place in that Bojangles stall. Some intersection of gay sex, body modification, world weariness, and cajun fries presumably. My fears, however, were quickly allayed. “My urinal side manner is telling me I have a patient in distress.” This was addressed to me. Apparently, the man was a wandering plastic surgeon, barred from the American Medical Association years earlier for allegedly grafting a half dead cat onto the back of her loving and obsessed cat mother. The operation was a success, but the cat sued for damages, bankrupting Fred in the process and forcing him into this itinerant lifestyle. Fred confessed to me that it wasn’t all bad, though. He was no longer beholden to the rules and “ethics” of such trite and self-important institutions as the Hippocratic Oath. He could now pursue his passion which, seemingly, was pro bono cosmetic surgery to insecure, and often pee shy, restroom goers the nation over. My interest evidently piqued, Fred showed me his portfolio, a black binder filled with his greatest triumphs: face grafts of unimaginable complexity and questionable taste, experimental collagen injections, face lifts, butt lifts, nipple drops, eye brow reversals, and even some crude tattoo work. It occurred to me then that, much like an aging trophy wife, my salvation would come through plastic surgery.
I texted Mila. “Huge bowel movement. Eat without me. I’ll get something to-go.” Fred nodded at me knowingly and ushered me to his operating room, the fetid bathroom stall. He rigged the toilet seat to recline like a dentist chair so that I might have some modicum of comfort while he tore off my face. “Any requests?” He was referring to what face I might want. “I have some wonderful One Direction visages. They’re very in this season.” “Surprise me” I said. Fred winked and wiped out a small radio. He turned on NPR and giggled with glee when he realized “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” was playing. Together, we listened intently and just as I was about to answer a question about the sexual orientation of Obama’s dogs, Fred blew a cloud of ketamine into my face. Almost immediately, I blacked out.
I awoke with a start, my face wrapped in toilet paper and bleeding from a new series of orifices. Fred stood over me, admiring his work. “You’re going to want to put some ice on that when you get a chance, and some Gold Bond.” “For my face?” “No, for your balls. I had some leftover skin, so I threw in a little something extra. Compliments of the house. It’s damn fine work, if I do say so myself.” I shook Fred’s hand in gratitude and clambered off the toilet. He smiled and nodded once at me as I left the bathroom. The world felt new, everything seemed different. Even my gait, which before was a kind of club footed electric slide, changed into a flamboyant geriatric shuffle. I passed my friends who were gabbing and eating at a table. Rachel was building a siege tower out of french fries and Alex lamented the loss of high browbeating someone into reading the New Yorker. In stride, I espied them and walked out of that Bojangles. I knew I would not see them again. As I approached the road, I thought of my new life, what mysteries and sorrows it might contain. I did not know. I just hoped Fred had made my face look like Jeff Goldblum.