I ONLY FEEL THIS WAY IN CATHEDRALS
I looked down to check my speed and realized the signal light was on. It must have been on for awhile because I don’t remember turning or changing lanes. Did I not hear it? My forearm was burning, too, from resting it against the window, bare-skinned, under the sun. I rubbed my arm to cool the burn, and pulled the visor down to block the sun. I put in a CD and fumbled with the controls. I don’t know this car. One of the speakers was blown and rattled like wire brushes on a snare drum. I turned it off. No matter, I could see the land was flattening out. I had made it to Hwy 84.
I'm not used to vanishing points. Not in the Hill Country, anyways. Here, the highway disappears into itself, like a pyramid dipping into a mirage, like car video games from the 80s, the dotted lines in the middle the only thing moving on the screen. I looked up, my chin touching the steering wheel, and remembered: Here on the South Plains, there is but one theater. And one stage: It’s always been the sky. The clouds rise with pomp and grandeur, puffing out their chests to collide, only to recede into long, flat shapes, settling in a haze of rays bursting forth and beaming down, in gold bars, to a parched earth.
I only feel this way in cathedrals, staring up at a ceiling that feels like it’s trying to pull me up to its ribbed vaults, as I try to hold myself down, sitting in the pew, looking up at the paintings of saints who look up, themselves, in agony. Am I weightless? sitting in the nave of a church I’ve built in my own mind, driving someone else’s car, following scenes of my life with my old friend, Rajeev, who has just passed away. Scenes from our youth appear before me carved in stained glass windows, the sunlight passing through them, one at a time.
I was always Rajeev’s passenger. We drove together on this very highway many times, heading back-and-forth from Lubbock and Austin. We had just started college and occasionally, I would ride with him to visit when he came down to see his parents. We were young, and drove with the windows down, smoking Camel Lights, talking loudly to each other over the wind, blaring classic rock out of his bronze 4-Runner with the lift kit. I remember one time in Garza County, Rajeev and I cut across a ranch road, trespassing into a red canyon that swirled up a hill, the dust and rocks kicking up clouds behind us. Our tires were right on the edge of the cliffside as he turned to look at me, and smiled, with dirt on his teeth. He was always changing songs mid-song on his stereo, impatiently seeking his favorite parts, his bracelets and watch, a loose, gold Rolex, dangling and shimmering on his wrist. Empty and half-full bottles of cologne rattled between the seats. He was handsome, tall, and jovial to all. A Sikh. A shy man, he always smiled the same way, with an endearing insecurity, every time he was about to confide something to me (and always when we were driving). When I really made him laugh, he slapped his knee letting out high-pitched caws of laughter almost tearing his seat belt and steering wheel off, and falling out of his seat.
I was driving another friend’s car, as a favor, to Lubbock, my wife and son following in her car. He was on vacation in the Pacific Northwest and I was trying to help him get back home to Austin without a fuss, after the funeral tomorrow. Initially, he was going to ride with us, but my wife came up with the crazy idea that I could drive his car to Lubbock so he could drive back to Austin when he wanted, and not cramped in the back of our compact hatchback with coolers and luggage digging in his side. There was only one problem: His car, which I had never seen before, was in the long-term parking lot of Austin International Airport. And, he didn’t remember exactly where it was.
My wife dropped me off at Departures and I strolled past art installations, down the stairs, and past a beautiful baby-blue ceramic sculpture in between two parking garages. It looked like a giant microorganism, a monster lunging for me, trying to thwart my mission. This whole idea was crazy. A long-shot, but I wanted to see it through. I made it to the C Lot. I felt like I was at a car dealership with hidden salesmen watching and following me. I knew I couldn’t just walk around looking for the car. That would be suspicious. I hoped his directions were solid, and the signal from his key fob, strong and true. I chirped that signal up into the air and heard that wonderful beep followed by blinking lights. When I jumped in, I rummaged for paperwork, like Jason Bourne, assuming my new identity. I was now an M.D. who resided in Austin, Texas, returning from vacation with his family on the West Coast. We did it. Mission accomplished. My friend was on a whale-watching tour with his kids, and he’d see me in Lubbock the next day.
Several other friends were coming into town. One from Tucson, a 10 hour drive. He left at 5am and beat me to Lubbock. Two others were coming in from DFW, my wife and I from Austin, and the real doctor was presumably on a 7am ferry somewhere near Seattle beginning his journey. He would walk through the gates of our hotel at 10:12 that night.
The night before the funeral, the seven of us gathered around the firepit of the Cotton Court hotel and caught up. We whispered. We laughed. Talked origins and old times. Bottle caps popped off fisted bottlenecks, and smoke from Parliaments blew straight up with heads tilted back. Of course, we got hungry, and jumped in the car and made a taco run at 2am to Josie’s 24hr burrito stand. I remember biting into those hot tortillas with eggs and melted cheese like it was piping-hot pizza, the smoke coming out of the sides of my mouth. It was now 3:30 am.
At the funeral, an old high school friend of mine, dressed in red, stepped out of the chapel and saw me. In a West Texas accent, she sadly drawled, “We shouldn’t be here, ya’ll.” She sniffled, with a frustrated look on her face. “We shouldn’t have to be doing this.” Her heels tapping on the floor, she walked up to me, gave me a hug, and walked away.
It felt like I was making my way up an escalator full of people going down, before I made it to his casket. My friend Matt was already there. I saw him speaking to him, without words, transported in that cloud we all have to step through, searching with a gaze that pushes aside all of the curtains and drapes of memories of a friend who was no longer there.
That night my friends met at Cricket’s Bar, raising glasses, singing karaoke and laughing, slamming glasses down after every toast, spilling out the foam. My friend, Stephen, sent me out-of-focus pictures of the guys and it made my heart glad.
I was at the hotel pool teaching my nephew how to swim. He told me that watching the stars as he lay on his back, floating on the water, was ‘relaxing.’ I was squatting by the pool’s edge watching him, and smiled. I looked up at the night sky, myself.
The ceiling had now ripped off the cathedral, and I was floating, too, after letting go, spinning into the sky.
Rajeev Singh Gill