I was home from college because it was Fall Break, a holiday that doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves, barely even heard of, unlike the flashy, high-powered beach-hopping, binge-drinking, rowdy Spring Break. It was after 2:00am on Sunday morning, just hours before I’d be heading back to school and I needed to get home and pack and maybe get some sleep, but for now my friend John and I were on the road between Franklin and Nashville, having just gone to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. We were having our usual post-Rocky debate, which we’d had thirty or so times before, but which we always had even though the singing, dancing, and general rowdiness left us exhausted. The debate was about whether there was any meaning to the movie. John argued that it was a nonsensical assemblage of songs and silliness, that it was almost random and certainly meaningless, which you’d think would be an argument-stopper, but he loved to debate. John was studying to be a lawyer, and had known he was going to be a lawyer while most of us were only thinking about whether the school cafeteria was going to be serving pudding that day. Even before starting high school John had a life plan: what classes to take, where he’d go to college, where he’d eventually go to find a law firm and what kind of cases he wanted to take. His plans didn’t always pan out but I envied him for having plans. Anyway my side of the post-Rocky debate was that there was a theme running through the movie of innocence subsumed by darkness and cynicism, as foreshadowed by the opening in which Brad and Janet sing their way to an engagement while the wedding decorations are replaced by funeral ones. It was a bleak and bitter interpretation even though I didn’t think of myself as a bleak and bitter guy, but still it was the best I could do. And then on this particular night I added something else: that innocence is fleeting and that once it’s lost we have to struggle to find meaning in amidst the uncertainty of the world. It was a bit heavy-handed, but still, at the very end, when the Criminologist says we are “some insects called the human race, lost in time, and lost in space, and in meaning” he leaves the globe lit. There is still a light in the darkness.
John was considering his response when the car shuddered and the engine knocked. He pulled over to the side of the road and the tires crunched over gravel before coming to a stop.
“Oh,” he said, “we’re out of gas.”
We were in sight of Exit 69, and John set out for a nearby gas station, leaving me with the car. Alone. A cop car came by and shone a spotlight on me without stopping. I waved, unsure what to do. At that point I felt unsure about everything. My sophomore year of college was not going well. I’d just ended a long relationship, some good friends I’d made as a freshman had transferred or dropped out, my classes were boring and I felt like I wasn’t learning anything new, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, what I wanted or what I could do. I was literally and metaphorically stuck and the road ahead, also literally and metaphorically, was dark. The woods were tempting. I started thinking about a childish fantasy I’d had for years, that I retreated to whenever things got tough. I thought I could slip off into the woods, abandoning everything. I could build a fire, make a shelter, find food and water. What else did I need?
I stepped back out of the woods when a pickup truck pulled up on the other side of the road and stopped. A guy got out of the driver’s side and John got out of the passenger’s side, carrying a gas can. We thanked the guy and he brushed it off, saying he was going our way anyway, and a few minutes later we were back on our way.
And without really knowing why I suddenly felt better about the road ahead. It was still dark, metaphorically but not literally, but all I’d needed was to stop and refuel.