By Jo Longley
If I’d had to guess what event in my life would tip me over the scale of sane into sobbing and incapable of moving forward— I wouldn’t have said Tanya. I’d say my mom remarrying, my dog dying, losing a limb.
Tanya is my 1999 Toyota Camry; she’s 140 in dog years and will kick your ass without asking. I’ve driven Tanya for approximately 139k miles of the 289,931 she has on her. Tanya plays chicken with semis in her spare time and never loses. She’s the sister my parents would’ve put up for adoption and the vodka aunt you want at every party. She’s always taken care of me.
She was meant to scurry me from Arkansas to Denver for woodworking school, but a couple days before I’d planned to go, her throttle position sensor went wonky. Anything above 45mph was a crapshoot, and I couldn’t make the drive with her.
Woodworking is a shift for me. No one saw it coming, what with how bookish I’ve always been. In elementary school I skipped two grades, then in high school I did two years of collegiate dual credit, followed up immediately with more college and got my Bachelors in English, straight into a post-grad program in London where masters programs are lightning fast. I got spit out the end: a twenty-year-old with an utterly unmarketable MFA in Creative Writing.
It didn’t stop there. I moved to Arkansas for a year and a half to help my mom through an abusive marriage while working as an Account Executive at an ad agency. Once they were separated, I packed it all up and moved to NYC, worked freelance for a bit and then as a secretary at a non-profit.
Claire Vaye Watkins, an award-winning author from my hometown, wrote an op-ed that was in part about me. She describes me as follows, “A chronic overachiever, Jo’s staggering ambition is exhausting even to relay…She has the ticking clock mentality that most of us women have… sprinting through her education is Jo’s way of buying herself time.”
And I mean, yeah? That article was written six years ago, and if you asked me then, you couldn’t pay me to remember the last time I’d taken a break. I really can’t tell you now.
I can tell you what’s appealing about woodworking, though: using my hands to build something, to craft a thing that is exactly what I want, work that can be lived in— more than pixels on a screen, or ink on a page. Once I learn this I can make a home, exactly how I want it, down to the wood grain.
Tanya was meant to ferry me, along with the rest of the belongings I’d left with my mom, away from the house that my stepfather tainted— fourteen hours away from the deadbolt on my bedroom door, and the oil black piano he’d play worship songs on deep into nights studded with shot pellet stars.
Landing in Arkansas this whirl around, I was frantic with planning, with the going. Folding shirts I hadn’t touched in a year, I remembered The Bell Jar scene where Esther opens her hotel window and lets the breeze take her wardrobe piece by piece. I envied her the view, and her suitcase of avocados, bruising worthless. I tried not to think of the crawl space under my mom’s house with its clingy red dirt and the coolness of space that’s forgotten sun.
One night when my stepfather was filling the house with his terrored melodies, my mother called me from her best friend’s guest bedroom. She’d left to escape his anger; I stayed to defend what belonged to me. Our conversation masked by an overbearing “Amazing Grace” she asked, “Am I a bad mother?”. I told her, “ You’ve always pushed me, but you’ve never protected me.”
The last trip I took with Tanya was an hour and a half drive to meet a cowboy Tinder match I made to fill the time before running. He stuck his tongue out in more than one of his photos, had song lyrics as a bio, and told me (unprompted) that he’s a Leo only a few messages deep. I wasn’t anticipating much, some empty distraction and a night away from the house.
He sauntered into the bar wearing bell-bottoms and a hat I made fun of— a suede buckaroo bolero with a black feather. I called him a hipster, and he told me no hipster would know what subset of cowboys wear boleros, that they wouldn’t know Big Sky Country if they got there: and he’s right.
We talked about ambition and detours; “The problem with me,” he said, “I always seem to skkkrrrtt off road and take them. Hasn’t done me wrong yet.”
As I spent some cigarettes out the window of his truck, he asked what I was thinking: something I always hope dates will ask in wistful clouds of smoke, but I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t put into words the feeling metabolising through me, sistered with the nicotine and gin.
I’ve been wondering why I’ve been running; what I’m running to or from, what have I been buying time for, exactly. I remembered at the start of this plot, woodworking just sounded fun, but now what was it? Some new skill to acquire, a notch in my having-lived-life belt, one more tally as proof of my capacity to run further, more, farther to places no one would expect or believe, building up my resume of candidacy in application to the position of soul-sharer with great female writers of the past. Or was it some new fig to put in my basket, taking Esther’s starving plight one step further. Not letting a single fig go out of reach, but still looking at my basket, starving– never finding any joy in the paths I’ve cultivated for myself. I’ve never been more tired.
Tanya started shuttering on my way home, like she meant to throw me off the road. Google explained that cars like Tanya should get their throttle position sensor changed every 80k miles. To keep driving her could ruin more important parts down the line. I think she did it on purpose.
I’ve postponed school, and I’m going to live in the home that’s here. This weekend I’ll get Tanya fixed up, and she’ll take me to Denver when I am too.
I’ve been listening to the song the cowboy has as his bio: Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live is to Fly”. Folk melancholy, he told me, Townes chased the song and as such was never satisfied.
How tiring it is to stalk the thing you create, to chase the life you’re in the middle of living, rather than just live it. I’ve been practicing scales on that oil slick piano; the keys are forgetting the terror that played them some time ago, and my fingers are surprisingly nimble. There are so many things to make, to play with, to take apart and reconstruct, a lifetime of relationships to restore and enjoy
Last night my mom hugged me tight and told me, “I’m so glad you’re here.” And I am too. I am; I am glad to be here, living now as the woman I’ve built.