It begins in the dark of day. It begins with the turn of a key, a familiar road. The commute, the commute of years, begins without fanfare, without manifesto.
It begins at dawn. Two sisters ride side by side on cold leather seats; sisters sharing the ride to work. The car is a convertible for tooling the English countryside, not for tearing over the back roads of Ohio. The car is an MGA, a car from a time before seat belts, before safety glass.
The sisters are wrapped in scarves, coat collars turned up against the wind. If they had known they looked like Grace Kelly in a romantic movie of the 50s they would have worn big white sunglasses, too. But they ride in silence, tearing over Ohio roads, speeding fast so the spring sleet will hit the windscreen and not their faces.
They are commuting to a factory where young women sit at long tables and dip wires into solvent and burn buttons of tin onto circuit boards. The factory girls make things that go into boxes that go into trucks that go to stores. The sisters work at this factory.
Each of the sisters has a loved a boy. Each has loved and lost. Sadly, the loss does not unite them. Sadly, they ride in silence, each sitting in judgment of the other.
Instead of words between them, a gale roars. Later, years later, one of them will remember the morning and wish she had reached out a hand to steady the steering wheel for her sister. She will wish she had held onto the wheel so her sister could slip on a glove against the cold.
The sisters ride in silence, splitting the path of the storm, each blinded by what she wants to see.
Together but for a moment, blue riders in a dream, never again to share the dawn-spun mist.
In another place, in another springtime, she turns twenty-five.
She commutes from an apartment in Otsukadai danshi to the center of town, a Japanese farming village called Miyazaki. She commutes to a school downtown where she teaches English as a second language. On the trip down the mountainside, she looks out across the valley at the koi-nobori, the carp streamers. Colorful paper fish stream from bamboo poles, their reds and blues reflecting in the flooded rice fields. Overhead, the rain-streaked sky looks just like the rice paddies.
On one hand, she is just one more commuter depositing her coins into the fare box at the front of the bus and then taking a seat on one of the long benches at the side. On the other hand, there is nothing ordinary about being an American in this small town on the south shore of Kyushu. Little boys point fingers at her and cry “Gai-jin.” At first, she is amused, but then she learns what it means to be “gai-jin.” She learns the kanji. The Japanese character for “gai-jin” is the picture of a human being leaning against a crescent moon (外人). The kanji depicts an outlier, one who stands apart, a picture of an outcast who can claim the moon as her only companion. An Other.
She had imagined Japan might enfold her into a world like those on silk kimonos where arching bridges span magenta rivers, where golden boughs hang heavy with cherry blossoms. The commute through the boroughs of this small town, however, shows her a Japan of the real world, a place she could not have imagined.
Once, she slipped away from the concrete highway to find a stone wash basin for purifying the flesh. Beyond the basin she found a land haunted by ten thousand ancient spirits. Now the spirits arrive in the evening, drawn by the melancholy song of the soba man selling noodles from his wagon. The spirits drift in, settle on grassy-sweet tatami mats.
She needs an American translation for this kind of place, but eventually she suspects that some ideas have a language all their own. Every day, she commutes to the center of town where the wide boulevard sports an expensive department store, where the traffic signals play a major or minor key to direct the blind. And everywhere she feels as if she has never truly left the West. Everywhere she feels as if a place like this should be easy to understand, easy to disappear into, but it is not.
On a bus bound for the center of town, she rides across the river, down between the houses crowding up against the barrier of the road, the coins for the toll hot in her hand. The little boys have appeared again. Their fingers take aim just as the bus passes the entrance to Ikime-jinja, a shrine to the living eye, a shrine that beckons to all who wish to see more clearly. The sacred arch is practically hidden in bamboo, but she knows the shrine is there because of the white banners flapping on the poles. The bus passes the entrance while she imagines all those supplicants who come to Ikime-jinja hoping for an answer. They want to see more clearly and will pray to the gods of the sacred tree growing there. Without a warning, the bus driver turns in his seat. He seems to have twisted around to look straight at her. She is paralyzed because she sees the bus driver’s face. It’s as white and smooth and sightless as the calcified shell of an egg.
In another spring, no longer a naïve twenty-something, no longer anything she ever aspired to be, she finds herself on the road again. She is running late for a class she teaches. The professors at the school laugh and call her a Roads Scholar.
She no longer looks at the landscape around her. She knows, for instance, that to the right is the enormous hangar where Goodyear moors its air ship. She knows she should take note because it is so famous, because once, as a little girl, she stood inside the hangar, the memory now so faint she recalls her father’s face looking up into a region lost to the past. She knows only that once upon a time, on this very spot, on any given day, one might see an airship rising into the sky as if on silver dreams, lighter than air, floating on whimsy.
On this particular day, on this particular road, she knows she must ever renew her belief in the fantastic because she suddenly remembers what the inside of the hangar looked like. She remembers standing beside her father, looking up at the space above them. She remembers what it felt like to stand inside the hangar. It was like standing inside the chamber of a silent, once-beating heart.
She leans against the cold wall of the train, peering into the passing landscape, trying to divine the significance of that long stretch of land along the Great Lakes where steel by the yard once poured forth.
This time, she commutes to a small college set amid oak trees and sunflowers. It’s an hour’s ride on the South Shore Line from Chicago’s Randolph Station to Dune Park. The scenery blurs as the train passes the US Steel plant Gary Works.
It’s the last stand of Steel, the last shrug of the big-shouldered city that produced a network of iron rails. She rides those rails now, imagining she can see inside the buildings of the steel mill where molten ore pours down from iron troughs. She imagines ingots of steel. In the pure light of autumn, she imagines she can see incandescent steel.
Of course, all she can see are buildings and half-empty yards. But she imagines the whispers of the lives of steel workers whose sinew and sweat once fused with luminous pig iron. Something should be commemorated here on this shoreline, she thinks.
Why does she feel a need to memorialize not only this steel-making, but also the roads of her past? The pouring out, the incandescence of her life? Life calls to life, road calls to road through all the long hours of staying between the lines, between the lines, the lines. All those years of moving. Her daily travel should mean something. Something more. But what? To whom?
She fears the chronicle of her life is moving on rails more dense than steel. Her life is vanishing in the distance while she remains fixed. Or rather fixated–fixated on the illusion of a journey’s end.
In another springtime, in another place, she lands on a shore, a new shore. She lands like the first Europeans who tasted the blossoms of the New World and surrendered to awe. New though she is, the town is old. Old, old St. Augustine. It’s fitting, she thinks, that she should have landed here, she with the soul of a traveler, landing in this city at the edge of the sea, a city given up to commuting history into the ever-new. A place begun as a wall of rock cut from the seabed for a Spanish garrison, refashioned as a British city, an American city, and now a stopover for wayfarers on their pilgrimage to the Magic Kingdom.
She is determined to discover the layers of St. Augustine on this her new commute. So she becomes a new, blue rider, trading the glass and chrome of a car for the simpler, friendlier pedals and gears of a bicycle. She pedals to the college where she teaches, feeling all too keenly the distance she has traveled over the years, seeing the world with new eyes because she has traveled so far from that first commute in that first blue dawn.
As she rides toward a wine-bright Atlantic sunrise, the pedal pace makes her realize how fast she has been going. In this new city, at this pace, she feels as though that rush of getting somewhere has burned up a lifetime of possibilities. What of all those roads not taken? Regret, like friction, slows her down. Can she follow St. Augustine’s footsteps, that Bishop of Hippo, caught between two cities? Is she caught, too, between past and future, caught in the desire to commute the past into…what?
Lizards scurry into the brush. A thunder shower breaks over her head. Beside her, dry ditches fill with water. Gaunt ibises step into the runoff of new rain.
In the ditches, frogs sing from the banks of their little world, awakened by the flood. Now, each ditch pulses with their calls. Frog chins balloon with throaty songs, happy with green life. Yesterday morning when she passed this dusty basin, yesterday when she had listened here, the frogs had been silent, invisible in their earthen burrows. Now, the world must seem brand new to them. Remade by a fresh filling of water. Refashioned.
She is learning to be refashioned like St. Augustine, learning to burrow like the frogs, burrowing down into the dust of her life. Waiting for the rains.