“You’ve got to have goals. Everyone has goals!” she insisted, looking at me through the steam of her cappuccino. She had been holding the tropical jungle mug in front of her freckled nose for some time now, turning over my comment in her mind. Her pale forehead creased with concern.
She slipped a wisp of red hair behind her ear (the one with seven piercings), and took a sip, still examining me though her fogged glasses. “I mean, what about career, and getting a house, and family, and marriage, and kids?” She asked.
An elderly man in worn khaki overalls pressed his lips together and concurred with a loud country, “mmmm-hmmm.” Then he turned the page of his newspaper and shook the publication, working the folds back into alignment.
I shot him a curious glance, but he raised the print above his downcast eyes. They were green, I think.
On the maroon wallpaper behind him, a wooden plaque read No Coffee, No Workie. Old Idaho potato plates lined the cedar ceiling.
“Ok,” I said, “my goal is to be present in this moment.” I set my pen down and returned my attention to my breath.
“That’s not a goal! You can’t have goals that happen now, you can only make them for the future.”
I smiled, hoping she just realized the truth she’d uttered. “Exactly!”
“Exactly what?” She was deeply worried I had no goals.
“I see the value in goals, but I also realize that they are just thoughts. If I’m always thinking about the future, I can’t be fully present now. Here. With you. And when the future arrives, I don’t enjoy it because I’m already thinking about another goal. It becomes an endless avoidance of now. Of reality.” A powerful sense of peace enveloped me.
This was all too much for her. She stood, zipping up her wet orange rain jacket. “My main concern is making sure I make a future I can be proud of. Thinking about now seems like just, I don’t know, lazy. I mean, who cares about now? It’s the future we need to worried about. Look at the news!” She threw her finger at a TV like a prosecutor pointing at the shiny murder weapon, but it was just a commercial for Dick’s Sporting Goods. The old man groaned out another mmm-hmmm and showed his eyes. Yup. Green. He also had big bushy eyebrows that began black, and quickly turned grey as they stretched toward his temples. I think he hated me. I kind of liked him. A warm soul wearing an angry-old-man costume.
I thought I was confident in my convictions, but after she left the cafe, questions rushed in. What if she’s right? Maybe I’m making a huge mistake. Maybe I should end this road trip, get a normal 9 to 5, get the house, get the family.
It was like the universe had placed her here to test me, and I felt I had failed. Anxiety invaded my chest. My spine ached, and no chair twists could release the tension. My whole being was sore. I could use a massage.
Finding a place down the block, I walked in without checking reviews. Not a good call. The masseuse covered me with a thin cream blanket, and spent the next hour walking all over me. Literally. I laid there as she rested her foot on my face and pressed it into the padded table. What the hell is going on? Is this what passes for a massage in Idaho? I felt like the dirty doormat of a busy corporate law office in Manhattan.
An hour later, I collapsed into my car, feeling horrible. It wasn’t even noon, and already I felt like I had been stepped on; figuratively and literally.
To make it worse, a friend who is checking my mail back in California sent me a text: your license was suspended. The DMV says they need proof of insurance. Sorry.
Can this day get any worse? I did have insurance. As long as I didn’t get pulled over, things would be fine. I’ll mail in proof tomorrow.
By the time I saw him, it was too late. Pulling off the highway, I slowed to a stop on the grassy shoulder. I rolled down the driver’s side window and smelled the road, wet with rain. He pulled in behind me, red and blue lights still flashing.
I pushed my face into my palms and massaged my eyelids. Really world?
He waited for the passenger window to roll down, then he squatted down, filling the open window with his blue State Trooper sombrero. “Do you know how fast you were going?”
My mouth hung slightly open, at a loss. The taste of fresh rain rested on my tongue. He looked just like me! Same age, same soft face, same jawline, same thickness of neck, and clean-cut military inflection of voice. I caught myself staring. “Sorry, yeah, I was going 78.”
“You know the speed limit is 70, right?” He pushed his head further into my car and looked at the mattress and heap of blankets in the back. The camp stove. The books on the bookshelf. “You livin’ in here?”
“Sort of. I’m on a road trip.” I released a sigh and let my shoulders slump.
He nodded, feigning approval. “Where’s the end goal?”
“I don’t really have one.” Normally this admission doesn’t bother me, but suddenly I felt a pang of deep embarrassment. Like a young orphan admitting he had no parents.
“Limit here is 70.”
“Thought it was 80. I apologize” I said.
“In Idaho. Not here.” He pulled out his yellow notepad, removed the red pen cap with his white teeth, and and scribbled something down. Grey blue eyes, just like mine. Weird.
“Wait. We’re not in Idaho?” I squinted at his badge. He said it aloud as I read: Oregon.
“You also changed lanes without signaling. Sit tight. I’ll be right back.”
I watched him in the rearview mirror as he ducked into his cruiser. He left the door open, one boot pinning down a clump of wet grass.
My car was still. The engine off, the softest breath of rain-cooled air slipping across the highway, and across the back of my neck. Quiet rain drops gathered on the windshield until their weight carried them down in silent streaks.
He’s going to run my plates and see my license is suspended. Under the heavy weight of the day, I sunk deeper into my seat. Deeper into depression.
But then a wonderful thing happened. I noticed my breath.
I watched it flow into my nostrils. I felt the exhale.
So what? So I get my car taken away. If it happens, it happens. Am I in harm? Not at all. In fact, I’m rather comfortable.
My attention buoyed to my breath, my mood gained buoyancy. A voice whispered in my mind. Everything is fine. As it should be.
And so I did. Closing my eyes, I pulled my bare feet up onto the seat. Crossed my legs and rested my hands in my lap. For ten minutes I returned to the present moment, to the breath. Gradually I felt my anxiety dissolve. Before long, I was sitting in the warm glow of presence. Opening my eyes, I glanced back at the trooper. He took a swig from his water bottle, and continued speaking into his radio. I watched his mouth move. His eyebrows twisted up in thought.
I resumed my meditation, but this time I focused the good energy and intention toward him. I spread my peace out to him. Loving kindness meditation. I could feel it working.
I checked the mirror. Here he comes.
Looking to my passenger window, I waited for him to reappear. First I saw the brim of his wet blue hat, rain spilt off the front as it tipped down. Then his face, wet with sweat or rain (not sure which). He smiled, showing teeth, holding back a laugh. Something had changed. It was as though he had dropped the tough-guy Highway Trooper facade. No longer was he the authority figure. Suddenly, he was just a guy peeking into another guy’s car. And apparently he thought this was all pretty silly.
I smiled back, my eyebrows raised. Well?
“Ok,” he began, “So normally it’s like…” his voice trailed off with a gust of wind that almost took his hat with it. He laughed under his breath.
“With the speeding and the lane thing…and your license is, you know…suspended and stuff…” again he grinned, fighting back a laugh. I continued to watch his (my) blue eyes, my soul connecting with his (mine).
“Three hundred and eighty dollars is the fine…usually…but…” a snort laugh finally escaped out his nostrils, and he gave up. A gale of laughter left his belly. I laughed a little too. A pickup truck sped by, its hissing tires leaving two lines of chest-high spray.
He peeked into my car one more time, as though he was looking for the magical stick of incense that was making him feel so good. Not finding it, he pulled back, tapped the top of my Toyota, and said, “Well, I guess…have a good day.” He handed me my license, got back in his car, switched off the lights, and drove off.
I just sat there a while. A huge smile spread across my face. I looked out at the peanut gallery of cows on the far side of the barbed wire. Did you guys just see that?! One mooed in confirmation, and resumed chewing.