Before I met Jonathan, I never drove on I-70 after dark. The interstate turns something pensive and angry when the sun disappears, not the place you’d want to travel. So instead, I’ve always looked for jobs on back roads—roads that you can park in the center of, look up, and turn all northern hemisphere dizzy staring at a sky full of baking soda white stars. I told Jonathan this, and it made him laugh all soft and slow like he didn’t know what to do with me. Jonathan has been taking the interstate on dark mornings and deep nights since he was seventeen, back when he graduated from high school early to start working full time and taking part time community college classes. Back when he was poor. No one mistakes Jonathan for Kansas white trash now, though. I knew he was some type of rich and crazy when he rolled up to our first date and gave me a nice pair of earrings. Like earrings you give your fiancé or your mistress, not some girl you barely know. I’d never had a man give me anything.
Even now, he constantly asks me if I want things—from blouses he’s pulled out of J Jill magazines in the dentist office waiting room to sparkly diamond necklaces he sees on big city billboards to coffee table books about fashion or travel that I don’t have space in my house for. He lays out overpriced shabby chic throw rugs before my feet that he buys on business trips, promises me after we kiss in his car that he’ll give me the happiest, safest, most comfortable life I could ever imagine. His breast cancer awareness keychain swings in his ignition. Outside, storm clouds pucker a bleak gray in the distance, rain peppers his driveway. Outside, vultures pick at roadkill and stare at us with tired, filmy eyes as we drive around in our painted metal machine. Outside, the stars darken themselves to make space for the intense artificial light.
“I think I left my wallet at work,” Jonathan says tonight, as we drive five under the speed limit on I-70. He picked me up from work at 7:00, and now we’re going to a fancy restaurant to celebrate our four-month anniversary. I’ve never been with a man who celebrates monthly anniversaries.
“That’s okay,” I smile, “I could just pick up the check for tonight?”
“Oh no, that certainly won’t do.” He waves the thought away. “I’d never let someone still paying off student loans buy anything for me.”
“It’s the twenty-first century. Most Americans have student loans.”
“Well that doesn’t make it right to have them pay for you, especially if you’re fortunate enough not to have debt.” Jonathan shrugs. “And it’s really no problem. We can just go get it real quick. Breadworld is in this direction anyway.”
In fact, we can already see Breadworld, all lit up by iridescent bulbs hulking proud on its massive metal factory body. My father calls it the iron fist of a terrible god and refuses now to eat bread in his old age, showing us scars on his hands from some time-lost story within the walls of the processing plant. Until his hands failed him, Dad’s greatest love was minimum wage and work boots in the middle of this rural nowhereness. Dawn until dusk, sometimes later. I remember half-sleeping against the front door on school nights, ear pressed tight, waiting for his footfalls. Jonathan told me once that his father was a raging alcoholic, and that in childhood he dreaded the inevitable creak of the door hinges. Didn’t even cry at his funeral, he said. Didn’t cry until much later, he told me, when he was working in the Breadworld processing facilities at the same time as my father. Cried for hours until his eyes burned like dying, but never stopped doing his job.
My father spent his career in labor, but Jonathan moved on quickly. Rose above like he always does. Now, he reaches into the backseat to grab his suit jacket before walking in, slicked-back hair glistening in the parking lot security lights.
“I’ll only be a minute,” he says.
“I don’t want to be alone,” I reply. “It’s dark.”
Like a river of processed grain and heat, Breadworld forks itself into two distinct paths—a modest but attractive administrative building and a much larger labor facility. Jonathan seldom speaks of his time taking the other path. It was brief, after all. He told me once that he always intended to be in the pretty building on the other side of the lot, even when he was just a panicky teenager sleeping on his cousin’s cat piss couch. And why wouldn’t he? A white boy, with big dreams living below the poverty level—smart enough to ride scholarships through community college night classes and rise the ranks of messing around with GMO grains? He told me that before he walked into his first business meeting after the big promotion, he heard the men inside calling him Breadworld’s Cinderella story. Listen to it, they said: some hick from the big processing plant in god-knows Kansas started in the poorest job and rose to become the manager of the plant, married some big Bread boss’s daughter and became some sort of figurehead for the entire corporation. He’s on their national now-hiring posters. He’s doing big stuff now. Overseeing all the production and employees and whatever. Crunching the numbers. Shaking hands. I don’t really know.
Jonathan takes my arm as we walk down the sidewalk to the building where he works. Outside, a security guard smokes another cigarette, cell phone glowy in his fingertips. We pass without question into the now barely-lit hall. Jonathan hums something Americana, probably Emmylou. Unlike the processing facility, which lumbers on busy and full of life for all twenty-fours of the day, seven days of the week, there is little life left here after hours. In a closet-like room just to the right when you walk in, a security guard watches some two dozen screens. Other than him, I think we’re alone. He doesn’t acknowledge us, doesn’t take his eyes off his post. The security camera footage screams artificial light and factory floor and bodies, all moving like ants carrying the great brown-yellow treasure.
“I remember back when they got those.” Jonathan grins, pointing at the screens. “Back when Fran had her accident, you remember? No, actually you were just a baby then. But I’m sure you heard the story—that one woman who fell off a silo ladder into all the grain?”
“No, I don’t think I heard it. Did she die?”
“Yeah, and everybody went crazy. The plant didn’t run for like a whole day.” He pauses. “I mean, grain entrapment is a really serious thing—I think it killed like twenty-six workers nationally last year. None here of course, now that our surveillance systems are so good. They made such a big deal about telling all us workers about this big new safety measure.” Jonathan laughs, shakes his head. “I forget you weren’t around sometimes.”
When Jonathan introduces me to his friends and colleagues, the story of how we met always shifts and changes, like blurry vision in the first seconds after you wake up from a deep sleep. Oftentimes, it’s a friend-of-a-friend situation. Other times we met in a coffee shop in the city: he sees me in line and buys my latte, and we fall into some sort of silly fairy tale love.
“It’s not weird to say we met on a dating website,” I used to tell him. “People meet online and fall in love and get married literally all the time.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” He’d shake his head. “It just seems a little scandalous.”
“You’re just trying to move on,” I’d reply, “there’s nothing wrong with that.”
At this, he’d always frown and shift uncomfortably, fix his eyes at something far out in the distance wherever we were. I don’t think he’d ever imagine things would be this way. At his house there are still family photographs everywhere—him and Amy and their handsome twin sons, now freshmen in college. Sweet Amy, who triumphed over stage 3 breast cancer only to have a tractor trailer truck on old I-70 rear-end her little smart car at twenty over the speed limit, launching her straight through the front window all the way to heaven. She looks so beautiful and modest in all the photos: blue-eyed and blonde, soft cashmere sweaters and big pearl necklaces. She looks like a perfect person to share the world with. Most of all, she looks his age—certainly not some back road sad girl fifteen years his junior, certainly not thirty-something and still working at the gas station on Brown Street. Online, there aren’t very many matches to be made in this area. People tend to marry out of high school. When we first found each other, I was surprised there was anyone else around here looking for someone. We sort of stumbled into each other anyhow: Jonathan, who looks younger in photos when he smiles and me, unintentionally appearing older with that diva-type frown to try to look pretty. We were both so lonely—now we’re lonely together, which is really much nicer.
When Jonathan introduces me to his friends and colleagues, they look at me with big pitying eyes. They share their own memories with Amy, tell me they’re so glad he moved on, that after four long years of lovelessness they never imagined he would. Some less tactful golf buddies tell me I have big shoes to fill. Amy was everything, they say: pageant queen, mother, Mary Kay consultant, princess of Breadworld and the wasteland Midwest.
Now, Amy is all history and static, like momentary glitches in the factory surveillance playback. While Jonathan ventures deeper into the dark hallway to wherever his office is, I wait at the open door. The security guard still doesn’t look at me, instead slouching in his chair as he faces the dizzying light head on—crunching salt and vinegar chips, two empty bags already on the floor. The darkness doesn’t slow the buzz of activity at the plant. People move like hyper speed ghosts, like clockwork. Like my father as a younger man once did, carrying his aching hands from room to room, dreaming of a different world where everyone can become like Jonathan Conolly: the corporate Cinderella who speaks perfect English, lives the rags to riches dream.
“What are you looking at?” Jonathan asks suddenly. He’s back, flipping his wallet open and closed with his fingers, obviously ready to leave.
“Nothing. There are just so many people. Makes me think of all their families. Like dad, you know?”
“Yeah, it’s pretty great. We bring a lot of jobs to the community.” Jonathan grins, taking my arm again to walk me out.
“Is everyone safe now?” I ask.
“Of course. I mean, things have gotten better since I got the manager job. And I always try to communicate with the higher ups about making more improvements, but it’s all a slow process.” He pauses as he closes the door behind us. “It’s hard because a lot of people in leadership just care about money and not employees. People who have never actually worked. Like, I remember what it was like to be back there. Our employees deserve to get paid more and feel safe and stuff. That’s why I don’t think I’ll ever get promoted again.”
Jonathan shrugs. “Well, with Amy gone and her dad retired I don’t really have any big corporate connections, and you kind of have to sell out anyway to be super successful, so I think I’m just going to stay happy where I am.”
“You make a lot of money,” I reply. “More than anyone I’ve ever met.”
“I could be making a lot more.”
There are no stars over Breadworld, and no moon tonight either. The new moon sky holds a black soup of everythingness above us, only illuminated by the giant parking lot lights. When I was small and still believed the world was a magic thing built just for me, I would sneak out of my house all alone at night and swim naked in the pond behind the trailer park, probably toxic with Roundup runoff and dead fish. But I didn’t care. I swam there like I was the only person in the world who existed and everyone else was a ghost, or maybe I was the ghost all along? I remember never going out on nights like tonight though─nights without moonlight where I couldn’t even see the ground below me. Back then, I had a calendar to track the moon phases, to figure out when I could wander, when I could feel all magical and free.
At dinner, Jonathan orders a salad, partially because he is vegetarian and partially because he always orders the cheapest thing on the menu. He still doesn’t quite function like he has money—or at least, he doesn’t seem to ever allow anything special just for himself. He went vegetarian after Amy died, told me when I asked him about it that he never wanted to eat another thing that had a mother.
“See, what people don’t tell you is that dying is the easiest part of being alive.” When he told me this, we were sitting at the foot of the bed he once shared with Amy, her Bible and little tortoise-shell reading glasses still situated on the left bedside table like a museum exhibit, dusted and treasured four years after her departure. I felt so ashamed then that I perhaps was in some strange way replacing the time he once spent thinking about her with my own antsy Millennial mediocrity. He continued, “What people don’t realize is that dying just happens—it hurts, it sucks, sometimes it’s slow, but it knows when it’s supposed to arrive and take someone away. And then that person doesn’t hurt anymore. Being left behind, though, that’s the worst part. Alone. And no one really knows how to respond because no one has the exact same experience with death.”
“Did you feel like that when she died?”
“Oh, you wouldn’t believe it.” He cracked his knuckles. “People don’t know what to say when your wife gets slaughtered by some drunk dumbass truck driver.” Outside, their old dog barked and pawed at the door. “For so long all I wanted was for I-70 to take me next.” He whispered, then stood up and left.
Now, things are better, I think. He’s dating me: a moderately attractive local girl who’s made a career of selling cigarettes and bubblegum, a girl who hates driving on the interstate. His friends have a different girl to talk about him with, one who isn’t dead. I don’t feel pitied anymore, he tells someone on his landline while I pour us glasses of wine and watch the Chiefs and whoever they’re playing beat each other up on his flat screen TV. (I feel pitied sometimes, but I don’t tell him this). His doctor told him last week that his clean eating has really positively affected him, that he was pleasantly surprised to see a man Jonathan’s age with his sad story taking such an interest in his health. Jonathan said he didn’t care about what he ate when he was my age and younger, but that the world was so different when he was a kid that there’s no way to compare those times to now. He says he doesn’t exactly know which version of the world is better, the present or his boyhood one, but he thinks this one is. He’s certainly adapted to the modern, though, with his designer vegetarian diet and energy efficient car. When he golfs every Sunday afternoon, he scoffs at old fat men driving gas-powered golf carts, scorns clubhouse men with big trucks. “I try to stay in the know as much as I can.” He says, “I know I’m not perfect, but I really do think when people just start just settling to act their age, it’s kind of sad.”
Tonight, Jonathan looks older though. His eyes are Thursday-tired—hazel brown and fixed on his small meal. A sad rain falls outside, peppering the windowsill and all the worn cars lined up obediently in the darkness as their owners earn their car payments in the warm orange-magic light.
“What are you thinking about?” I ask and take a bite of my steak.
He smiles and picks up his fork, poking quietly at his plate of green. “Nothing really. I was just thinking about different places we could go for my birthday.”
“You said you wanted to take a trip somewhere out of state, right?”
“Yeah,” he yawns, “I was thinking about New York City.”
“I’ve never been to New York City.”
“Actually, no,” he replies suddenly, “New York City’s such a basic vacation destination. And it’s so big. No, I want to take you somewhere different—like Savannah or Boston—or maybe we could visit Williamsburg, have a nice visit with Jack at William and Mary, and then explore the city on our own?”
I have never met Jack, the older of Jonathan’s twin sons, but according to his father he’s certainly the smartest kid ever. The eloquent history major-type. His other son is the backup quarterback for the Kansas Jayhawks. Sometimes I wish I could’ve gone to college so bad that it makes my chest hurt, but I don’t even know what I would have been good enough at to study. Even if I had the money, I can imagine dropping out—letting myself and all my big dreams down like a sky falling.
“I’ve never been to the east coast,” I say, “anything would be exciting for me.”
In barely a month Jonathan will be fifty years old. Half-way to one hundred years on the planet. It’s strange to think about. Only a handful of decades, and already he has the most full life I’ve ever seen: poverty and riches and weddings and promotions and children and love and loss and everything. I asked him once jokingly if he thought he had a midlife crisis, and he responded: death. He’s hard to be funny with sometimes; I understand why. Death pervades his narrative—from Fran to Amy to the factory world itself. But he’s still here nonetheless—picking up the check and smiling at me, planning vacations. The first time I met his younger son, Dexter told me to watch out, said Jonathan would marry anyone half-decent in a heartbeat to just not be alone anymore. Said it took a while, but he was positive that his father was fed up with solitude. And it figures.
Sometimes among Jonathan and his colleagues and his friends and his children I feel like a vessel of nothing—moving through the world with people who are infinitely richer and smarter and more privileged than me, holding hands with the great success story of Breadworld who received infinitely more opportunities than anyone else on the factory floor. I imagine how the stars looked back when Jonathan lived in trailer parks in our neck of the woods. When he slept on the couch, drank milk from the carton because he was that hungry and thirsty and tired all the time. Jonathan was right, the world has changed somehow since then. Maybe we’re changing right at this moment: in a restaurant, in a car, watching the interstate and factory lights and people moving around all the time. I think I’d like to change somehow. I don’t know how transformational life experiences work, really, but I think I want to be loved by Jonathan until one of us dies and go meet his other kid or whatever and see all the fancy east coast places. I think I want to feel radically unalone. I think I want to go swimming again.