He knew the drive from Oxford to Athens perfectly, the five major roads that separated him from his high-school-sweetheart-turned-long-distance-college-girlfriend. He drove it every other Sunday and he always drove this direction at night. Unlike nearly every other drive anywhere, he didn’t need his GPS for this one. He’d be on the road for just under an hour, home before ten p.m., ready to sleep in his lofted bed for a few hours before his eight a.m. Chemistry class Monday morning. It would be nice to get some rest, since they’d spent all day wandering the small Oxford campus, staying out of her roommate’s way. Sitting on benches, walking to various buildings. They had driven into the Covington square for ice cream at Scoops around five, then meandered around campus until nearly eight.
He passed the weird intersection and got onto the third of the five roads that stretched between them. Highway 78.
The last hour they’d spent in her dorm, sitting under her loft bed, talking about school work, flipping through her journals and notebooks, and looking at the dumb doodles she’d scribbled during class.
Highway 29 was the shortest route before the Loop, but it had the red lights that he was most likely to get stuck at. They were salt in the wound of driving away from his girlfriend. “You’re not with her, and you can’t even get back to your own bed,” they taunted him.
At nine forty-five, he pulled off the Loop and turned onto East Campus Road, leaving the fifth of five big roads behind him. Three minutes later he had parked his car on the bottom level of the parking deck, a small miracle on a Sunday night when everyone had mostly already gotten back from their weekend fun. He reached into his pocket to text her that he’d made it back safely and realized his phone wasn’t in his pocket. He checked the front seat, and between the seats and his other pocket, and his back pockets and realized he knew exactly where the phone was: in the big green fuzzy papasan chair under her loft bed, where he’d been sitting with her until the very last moment.
Fifteen minutes after she had watched him climb into the Jeep and head left on Highway 81, she realized his phone was still with her, leaving her no way to let him know. She briefly considered just driving after him and dropping it off, but she knew if she drove to Athens she wouldn’t get back to Oxford until nearly midnight. That would not work with her eight a.m. class the next day. She barely made it through poli-sci drinking the swillish cafeteria coffee as it was. She shot off a quick email so he’d get it when he got back to his dorm.
Hey, you left your phone here. Maybe we can meet somewhere in the middle tomorrow after class?
She thought about texting his roommate from his phone, but Michael rarely got back from home before midnight. Sometimes he didn’t even drive in until a few minutes before his first class on Monday morning. In fact, she wasn’t sure that he really existed at all, as she’d never seen him on any of her Sunday trips to Athens.
She pulled up her history midterm paper and antsily pretended to work on it. As it neared ten, she swapped back from her word document to her email tab every few seconds in case he showed up as online in g-chat. She hoped that since they spent nearly as much time on g-chat as texting that he’d think to check in quickly. His status clicked to green a few minutes after ten.
E: Hey, you’re back! You left your phone here.
Z: yeah… i was wondering about that.
E: Yup. But I was already thinking we could meet in the middle. Or I can drive it to you Tuesday morning. What do you think?
Z: let’s do tomorrow. I have class until 2:30, so I can leave here at 3. Let’s meet at that Chick-fil-a at that weird intersection. Where that weird building is. That mexican restaurant.
E: Is it maybe a pawn shop now?
Z: I thought it was a gun store.
E: Safe to say I know what Chick-fil-a you’re talking about.
E: Is that actually in the middle tho? I don’t want you to have to drive too far.
Z: It is and if it isn’t, it’s still convenient.
E: Okay, that’ll work. Chick-fil-a tomorrow afternoon. Sigh. I guess it’s bed time here. I gotta go. But I’ll SEE you tomorrow!
E: On a MONday!
Z: goodnight, I love you. See you tomorrow :)
E: Love you too
She got on the road right at three Monday afternoon because she didn’t want to be late. But she also didn’t want to be early. She wasn’t as sure as he was that this was right in the middle of the drive. It felt like it was closer to Oxford. It was at the end of the second big road. Right where she would get off of 138 and onto 78 when she drove to Athens early on Sunday mornings. And all the roads after that weird intersection were too long. Every road seemed to take more and more time, until she got to the Loop and the speed limit seemed less important.
She triple checked that she had his phone in her purse before she left her dorm. As she got into her car, she put her own orange, slide phone in her pocket, and slid his full-keyboard flip phone into her cup holder. She knew herself, and if she couldn’t see it at all times, she’d freak out about every other minute and think she’d left it.
She giggled driving down highway 81 towards him and fought the instinct to speed around the curves of the road. Locals and cops didn’t love the out-of-town college students speeding down the highway on their way to Athens. The afternoon sunlight glared in her eyes and her mirrors. The jarring busyness of the Monday afternoon disrupted the pale peacefulness of the country highways that she had come to love on Sunday morning.
The radio stations near Oxford didn’t get any good service, so she drove in silence.
He’d felt out of sorts all day, particularly between classes. A year and a half of a long-distance relationship had made him accustomed to constant updates and quick texts throughout the day. He was used to using g-chat during class, and while he studied or played video games, but the phone in his pocket was an ever-present connection to where he really wanted to be. School was lonely. His roommate from freshman year had put him at a disadvantage, feigning social anxiety but ultimately poaching all potential friends. His chemistry and biology classes got harder sophomore year while the people around him kept taking squishy and manageable courses, but the casual pings from the phone in his pocket made him feel less isolated. They reminded him that while four years was a long time to be apart, at some point, they’d be back in the same place at the same time, all the time. No more early Sunday morning drives, or late Sunday night drives. No more long goodbyes in the open car door.
He hopped in his Jeep right after a sweaty walk back to his car after class in the insensible heat of a Georgia October. The local Athens radio station was already blasting when he cranked his car; it was something melodic with a strong beat that he hadn’t heard before.
East Campus was less than a mile from the Loop, the fastest of his five roads, both in length and the speed at which he could drive. He hit nearly 75 mph before he had to exit onto 29. He cursed under his breath as he hit every red light. The exit onto 78 brought him better luck with red lights, but worse with his radio station. He clicked it off as he approached the Madison exit. He was nearly there anyway.
They both ordered chicken noodle soup, and he got a large fry for them to split. They didn’t really need food at four in the afternoon, but with a half-used gift card they figured they could eat an early dinner and get an extra dinner at their dining halls when they got back to their respective campuses. They smiled, laughed. Mondays were always hard apart, so this was a totally different type of day. Something they’d never experienced before, and so never categorized. The soup was comforting, as was getting to hold hands across the table for forty-five minutes. He put his phone in his pocket as they wistfully decided they should probably head out. Monday didn’t have the freedom that Sunday did either; they both had due dates that demanded attention. While they agreed to ignore them on Sunday, they just couldn’t on Monday.
They lingered at her car door.
“You have your phone?” she asked, grabbing his back pocket.
“This time, yeah,” he laughed. He kissed her, squeezed her close to himself until it was just a little too tight and said, “Drive safe. See you Sunday.”
The sun glared in his rear view mirror as he drove back to Athens. He didn’t usually keep his phone in his back pocket, but the slight offset of his hips in his seat reminded him that he was continuously connected again. He wasn’t used to seeing all the landmarks from this side so well-lit. He realized he didn’t like seeing them in the light of day. Much better to head back to Athens having spent every possible moment of the day with her. No wasted daylight. Two and a half more years of these lonely drives.