#FOLLOWMEBOOK – AND THEN CAME THEN
This is the second essay in Michael J. Seidlinger’s ongoing exploration of the boundary between social media and the road.
You begin to fear what you used to look forward to. All you ever talk about seems to be the one thing that grows to be the biggest hurdle to overcome. It exists just around the corner, the sort of thing that makes you count your days, extend your nights with another nightcap, one last smoke, one last conversation, one last hour before the night is no longer a night. This project, this use of social media, is your idea, nobody else’s. It was yours, you try to remember, during those more anxious moments, to begin with, and yours alone to enact it—because you totally could just not do it. And you’ve thought about it, especially during the final days of May.
You thought about just getting sick, calling it without ever making an announcement. Remember that essay, the thing I talked about for months? Yeah, not going to happen anymore. Oh, stuff got in the way. I got sick. New deadlines. Work made it obvious that it was unrealistic. I had prior obligations that—until this moment—I seemingly forgot. The excuses could roll on and on. There are countless reasons to never actually go through with this. It’s expensive. Every dollar spent here is from the meager book advance you got for a book coming out this Halloween. Every dollar from a book that’s not even out parlayed on a book that is as much a concept as it is a capstone for what has continued to tax the mind.
You’re restless. That’s what it really is. You can keep talking in the second person, and maybe for another few sentences, until you get to the part about where you don’t succumb to the anxiety, to the uncertainty, the fact that for every mile traversed, and every meal consumed, its one more dollar spent, one more gesture made, on a project that puts yourself out there so much, it’s essentially what you’ve been doing for years online, this time swapped, placed in the real world, a world that most likely doesn’t give two shits about you.
So yeah, you wake up. Enough with the second person. It’s June 1st. Early. 7AM because you couldn’t sleep last night and because you couldn’t sleep last night, you fear something you haven’t thought about until now, altogether too easy to ignore until now: You’ve never been able to sleep while traveling. In the past, traveling has always been maybe a weekend, a week at most. I’ve never been flying or on the road for any longer than that. The longest I’ve ever operated and functioned even remotely well, while traveling, was somewhere around four days. I still remember how the ground shook, every blink of the eye hopelessly never the one that keeps my eyelids closed; every blink another in an extended, never-ending marathon of half-awake, partial functionality. Not to mention just how much my body shook by the time day two and three took hold.
But I had never driven during these stints. I had never been behind the wheel for more than an hour or two, and not for at least six months. There’s a reason why I am awake so early, Thursday June 1st, checking email that doesn’t exist, double checking that I have everything I need, rereading texts I sent to the anchors that reached out even before this project started, promising me a place to stay if I made it to their city. The door to my room locked, I can hear my roommates rummaging around, beginning their day. I lie back down and pretend to sleep, as if I’m already being watched (when are we not watched?), as if by doing so my nerves would relax enough to feel better.
But that doesn’t happen and soon I’m on the road to Trenton, NJ, first stop, driven by Jessica Rao, one of so many kind people, a part of the community that has existed and embraced me like so many others in the constant, sometimes depressing and debilitating, act of promoting literature, and more so indie lit as a whole; we chat about the project, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense to her until I went into depth, discussing how the intent is as much a measurement of the community online, to be portrayed and explored geographically, as it is a project about how social media connects and disconnects us, the segue between being and brand. In the couple hours we have together, we chat about why we even bother writing, as if it is ever a question, and we talk about the uncertainty of any project. Because we have an idea, one that’s enough to convince us that we must continue.
Jessica is enthusiastic about the project. I’m a little too tired, a little too shy and uncertain, to meet her at that level; however, I am humbled by the enthusiasm. I look at the road ahead, as she drives me to the car rental company, every stoplight like it might be my last. Whenever we hit a red light I exhale, my body slackening. Each red light adds a couple seconds, maybe thirty. When we get lost a mere minute or two from the rental place, ending up taking one of the infamous New Jersey jughandles, going in circles, since you can’t make left turns in the state, I take this momentary misstep as a reprieve. The same happens when we’re sitting around waiting for the car to be driven up to me. I pretend that none of this is actually happening.
But then the red Ford Focus appears and everything kicks into overdrive. Pictures are taken. Pictures are posted. Jessica and I chat and exchange hugs. She wishes me good luck, her smile and enthusiasm, I wish I could take along with me but instead I fixate on the sensitivity of the gas pedal, the GPS that lags all of a sudden as it tries to sync up to the car’s dashboard. I drive on as if I can’t wait around in the parking lot, configuring everything. I end up driving a good 20 miles with the steering wheel maladjusted, the right side-view mirror calibrated for a much larger person, forcing me to look manually every time I merge. I rush into things fearing what seemingly is always there: The fact that I do this to myself.
Nobody is forcing me to do this road trip. Maybe nobody cares. It seems so different the moment I’m on the road. In those weeks and months leading up, after I tell people about what I’m doing, I got nothing but excitement. Even now, fast forwarding a number of stops, to day 7, June 7th, as I write this in the back seat of that car rental while I have a few moments, after having revisited Baltimore due to the graciousness of Michael Tager, who reached out and told me I could crash in his guest bedroom in Hampden; after visiting a dear friend, Chiwan Choi and his wife Judeth Oden Choi, complete with a surprise visit by my the one friend that has saved me from not only giving up but death itself, Janice Lee; after passing through Beckley WV to visit Juliet Escoria and Scott McClanahan, going cemetery hopping and falling right into one of those conversations where time seems to stand still and I stop worrying about whether or not I’m talking too much or not enough; after heading to Atlanta GA to end up drinking way too much and having way too much fun with Jamie Iredell, Blake Butler, Adam Robinson and more, I feel like I’m becoming the one person that isn’t excited about this project.
I am the one more afraid now more than ever before. Of course it becomes a conversation piece; of course, there’s discussion about what’s happening, the intention of the trip, and more so the sudden impermanence of social media and what this project is exploring about the very platform that—now more than ever—feels like it’s consuming us. I kind of wanted people to doubt me the way they’ve done so much in the past, with other projects and books, with life decisions, with something even as stupid as choosing to drink or not one night. I kind of wanted people to look at the project and tell me it wasn’t possible.
I kind of wanted people to doubt my ability to do this so that I wouldn’t have to, maybe something like how I’m not a capable enough driver, not strong enough of a mind to spend so many hours in the car alone, not a good enough writer to write about it all. Hell, even tell me that all I’d end up doing is not sleeping for a week and end up driving into a ditch, or off a cliff, and getting into a horrible car accident. I expect—fucking hell, I am used to—the negative and the shade. I am used to barriers placed everywhere I might want to walk and explore. Instead, I got support from countless friends, members of the literary community, and people I have only met in the aftermath of the project’s announcement.
I want to displace myself from it all, return to that comfortable and convenient second person, and talk about how it’s not going to work out. My mind goes back to a conversation I had with Scott McClanahan not long after I rolled into town, maybe an hour after I arrived, sitting on their couch, half looking at the bookshelves, eyeing different volumes while also looking out the various windows in the room to the relative calm of the neighboring street. Occasionally I’d see a cat run past, the barking of a dog, but otherwise it was serene, truly calming.
Scott asked me about the duration of the trip and the project as a whole. Nodding and admitting to it being quite the drive while also giving me some tips about best routes going forward, Atlanta being my next stop, he chuckled and said, “What if you drove a couple miles out and then just said ‘fuck it’ and drove back.” I grinned, “Right?” Scott added, “Drive back to Brooklyn and then keep posting and tweeting from your apartment, pretending you’re still on the trip.” There was laughter now, and Juliet Escoria added, “Use Google Earth to take photos of streets and landmarks. Maybe get really ambitious and Photoshop yourself in the photos.”
During the loneliest moments on the trip, mostly when between tracks loading on Spotify, and when I notice a few notifications on my phone but can’t check them without endangering myself and the other cars by looking away from the road, I wish so much that I could. Scott had said something like, “It would be interesting because it would comment on the trip in an entirely different way.” You know, turn around. Go back. Drop off the fucking car and just get back to reality. Do something else. My mind draws a blank. I don’t what what that “something else” is. Back to second person.
But then it happens, and before you know it you’re in the car, alone, the road opening up before you. And you can almost get used to it. Almost. Instead you keep looking in the rearview mirror, afraid of what might sneak up on you. You wr.ite this essay expecting there to be some grander message but really, you’ve only just begun. The road seemingly comforts you, and you fear what that means, being so willing to go the long hours without a word, the hours even longer where you have nothing but your own thoughts to haunt and hide what will inevitably be your (maybe) unknown destination. But you’re driving. You’re heading out. You’ve already merged into the far left lane, and no amount of worry about whether or not anyone will be following, much less anyone will be there at the end, keeps you from continuing to watch those miles roll over on the odometer.
You’re driving. It almost feels like you’re getting somewhere, even if you haven’t a clue where that is. You got the road and, thankfully, it gives you another day to figure it out.