November 1st was my first day of total silence. I can’t say total really because I kept forgetting that I wasn’t speaking and random words kept flying out here and there. I said hello to the dog a few times. I asked TD if she wanted coffee. All in all, I probably uttered about twenty or so audible words. I was woefully unprepared for how difficult it was going to be
Robin and I went to the Y that morning at about 10:30 and headed for the machines. I was checking my phone when my coach, Rob, approached and said, “Hey, did I miss you yesterday?” I shook my head no and then he nodded and made a movement to walk around me.
Not so hard. Nod and dodge.
He stepped back. “Do we have a session today?”
I shook my head again and smiled.
He made a face. “Hmm, I thought we did,” he said and took out his phone. “No, you’re not on for today…wait a minute, I do have you down here for yesterday morning at 7:30! What happened?”
I thought about just explaining what was going on, or just answering simple, direct questions like this, and for a second, I nearly spoke. Robin was a few feet away talking to her coach, Nathan, and I flagged her down. I made a gesture with my hand that I was hoping would convey my need for her to explain to Rob that I was conducting an experiment and not speaking for the entire month of November and that I could answer yes and no questions. As this was our very first interaction with the general public, she was caught off-guard and simply smiled. I was looking at her. Rob was looking at me. Nathan was looking at Rob. I then grabbed her shirt sleeve and pointed frantically to my mouth. “Oh!” she said and laughed. “Sorry, she’s not speaking.” She explained the concept in simple terms and both Rob and Nathan had lots of questions.
Rob looked at me as if I had been carved out of a pure block of gold. “Wow, a woman not speaking. I’ve never…”
This would be my very first knee-jerk. A woman not speaking? Intentionally? Meaning what, exactly? Women can’t shut up? Women must have the last word? They’re mouthy, bitchy, bossy, nagging, complaining? Are the depths of silence too still and complex for a woman to navigate without constant narration? I had not been keenly aware of my body language at that moment. Had I crossed my arms? Had I smirked? Did I take a step forward? Or a step back? There was an unexpected, internal struggle. My psychiatrist had already made me promise that if I had been hurt or was in trouble and needed help that I would talk, and I agreed with this. But other than physical reasons like an injury, choking, suffocating, or assault…would there be intangible, psychological moments when it would be absolutely imperative to speak?
We made our way from the Y to Barnes and Noble for coffee in a silence I can only describe as celestial. She drove back roads through Davidson county and outside, everywhere I looked, autumn exploded like a brilliant holocaust. Poplar trees erupted like cool fires. Bloodshot maple trees raged at the stake, courageous in their blazing disintegration. Dogwoods purpled like tender bruises and their anguish was stunning and poetic. I have always felt a sacred intimacy with autumn’s suffering. For a native Floridian raised in a perpetual summer, these colors will not be ignored. But it goes beyond that. Autumn’s dying sacrifice validated my own natural disenchantment. Its courage was vibrant, blasting color, heralding an absolute agony. Nothing else was ever so beautiful, right before dying.
When we got to the book store I headed straight back to US Travel and fished out two books on traveling cross-country in an RV. This actually was one of those flapping bat thoughts. One day last week Robin did one of those crazy Facebook things where they analyze your profile and see who among your friends is in your street gang or part of your mafia family. This one was for an imaginary biker club. She ended up with the name Hot Lead and I ended up on there with the name Shovelhead. I commented, “Hot Lead and Shovelhead sounds like a great title for a book.”
She replied, “Does, don’t it! Maybe you should write it!”
“Don’t tempt me!” I wrote. “A menopausal Thelma & Louise on a cross-country Harley adventure with bad moods and hot flashes?”
The problem with writing a road-trip book is that you pretty much have to go on the road trip to write about it in a truly authentic way. There are too many details and sights and smells and road signs and particulars that you couldn’t account for from looking at a picture of, say, Route 66, in a road Atlas. The timing would be tricky. I would have to know how long it took to get from one end of Route 66 to the other and where I’d be stopping in between. What would I see? Where would I eat and pee? Who would I meet and where would they be going? With the entire universe at my fingertips, it would be difficult, but not impossible, to amass all the details from research on the internet, but it would be much simpler just to take the damn trip.
I was lying across my bed later that night in what I like to call the “total surrender pose.” This can be done lying or sitting and has more to do with your overall attitude and facial expression than it does with your actual body position. The presentation is slack, apathetic, and hopeless and carries with it a strong, overwhelming indication that you are fine with whatever happens next be it cake or a sudden household uprising as long as you are not required to do anything. That’s when the bat flew in. It would be much simpler to just take the damn trip. Why not just take the trip? I wasn’t working. Sophie didn’t need me in her daily life. For that matter, why not just take a few years and see the United States, on my own, by myself? Not only would I not have to talk, I wouldn’t have to listen to anyone else talk either! I could get one of those adorable little vintage travel trailers, hook it up to the back of a Jeep and head west. But who would drive? The physical therapist did say that my car could eventually be adapted to accommodate left-foot driving. As far as I was concerned, the matter was settled.
Not even five minutes later, sitting at the kitchen table in front of the laptop, I stared in shock and awe at Amazon.com. There, from my first search, shining in all its glory like a diamond in a goat’s ass was the book, “For Women Only: Traveling Solo In Your RV—The Adventure of a Lifetime,” by Margo Armstrong. People were doing this. Women were doing this. Women were out there doing this alone! And not just for vacations. There were hundreds of books on the subject. People were selling everything and hitting the road, living in their RVs , and home was wherever they parked it. Some people followed the weather; some followed cold, some hot. Some people followed certain fairs and festivals. One older couple followed Billy Idol. Another couple with a massive family spread out all over the United States made a perpetual circle visiting relatives throughout the year.
I told TD I was going to drive cross-country in an RV and see America. She said, “By yourself?”
“You won’t make it off this street before you’re spewing sewage down the road.”
She was right about this.
“I’m going to learn how to do all that stuff.”
She gave me a kind, patient smile.
At Barnes and Noble’s, Robin and I sat at a table in the café, sipped caramel coffee and shared a pumpkin-spiced cupcake, and I poured through a travel book about the best places to set up camp if you’re traveling cross-country in an RV. I couldn’t explain why the idea appealed to me on such a deep level. I was never that crazy about traveling. When I was a kid my family and I rented RVs for vacations all the time. We camped and fished and traveled to local places around Florida, but nothing extravagant or far away. I was starting to get the feeling that this wasn’t about traveling or seeing America at all. This was more about my response to the fucking monkey wrench fate had flung through the windshield of my life.
I texted Robin a message on her phone. “Let’s go look at campers.”
We were half way to Greensboro when I texted TD to let her know that we were going to Camping World. Robin’s phone rang immediately. She laughed and answered, “Hey, Tracy.”
“ROBIN! DON’T LET HER BUY ANYTHING!”
“No,” Robin said. “She just wants to look…”
I could hear the screaming over the radio. “NO, LISTEN! SHE DOES THIS! SHE’S PURCHASED FOUR BRAND NEW VEHICLES AS IMPULSE BUYS, LIKE CANDY BARS AT THE FUCKING REGISTER!”
I smiled to myself. What kind of self-respecting bipolar would I be if I hadn’t?
I fell in love with the first camper I saw. I like the travel trailers. Motorhomes are too big. Fifth-wheels are intimidating. The pods and vintage trailers are too small. The Coleman travel trailer welcomed me in, offered me a seat and I looked around and felt…home. Little did I know, I was mere moments away from my second knee-jerk. Robin had found a salesman and they meandered over while I sat in the trailer and fantasized about writing my book at the table and tending to my little Pomeranian and taking the pup for a walk around the quaint little campsite and driving over mountains in Montana when I heard, “What do you mean she doesn’t talk? Is she stupid?”
“No, she’s conducting a social experiment.”
He was a huge man and when he stepped into the trailer the entire thing swayed to the side. His voice was booming and intimidating, but I liked him right away. “You not talking?” he asked and sat down on the couch. “Why not?”
I didn’t answer.
“Okay, okay. You getting paid to do this? Is it a bet?”
I shook my head.
“I don’t get it. Did you fall on your head or something?”
I crossed my arms and raised my eyebrows. Insults fired the words in me. I had no problem holding my tongue in any other situation. Earlier that morning, the comment about women not speaking, and now this, not speaking because I was stupid…the insults made me want to unleash a torrent of invectives that wielded enough power to eviscerate them both at the jugular. I started this experiment thinking that I was doing it because words no longer meant anything to me. They were empty and useless and they could never express what you were really feeling so why bother using them at all? But maybe the opposite was true. Maybe a spoken word could carry the impact of a cannon blast. Maybe our words were exploding all the time like tiny little bombs. Maybe words could cloak people in soot and residue and render them nothing but casualties of careless vocabulary. My first day of not speaking and already the inside of my mouth had been chewed through and there was a constant taste of blood spreading over my tongue like a sauce.