An excerpt from Girls Aloud
And we’re off!
I crossed the New York State line, and I’m feeling great. No problems, no snafus, no aches or pains. I know I’ll hit roadblocks—both figuratively and literally—along the way, but so far, so good. I found a clean, inexpensive motel just up the road from a McDonald’s. Of course, “just up the road” could be a several-mile stretch, but this time it wasn’t. I made it to the McDonald’s and back on my own power, which is the whole point. Making it on our own power.
McDonald’s is not the most carbon-neutral eatery. But what the hell. I was hungry, and there it was.
Time to call my wonderful girls, and then I’ll shower and get some sleep. Back on the road tomorrow.
Ellie hadn’t expected this.
She had assumed a handful of people might show up to wave Scott off. A few neighbors, maybe a couple of his students. Not what appeared to be at least half the student body of the Shelton Middle School, some carrying a banner reading: “Mr. Gillman Is Our Hero!” and some, no doubt members of the school chorus, serenading Scott with a surprisingly sweet rendition of “What a Wonderful World.” Also, a dozen of his former students, high-schoolers now, one armed with a trumpet on which he played the familiar military bugle fanfare that was usually followed by a commanding officer shouting, “Charge!” And, a van from one of the local Boston TV stations, which disgorged a cameraman and a reporter who had make-up as thick as stucco slathered on her face and a hairdo so heavily lacquered that the steady breeze roiling the morning air couldn’t budge it. Also, the three pint-size Girl Scouts in uniforms who insisted on donating boxes of Thin Mints and Samoas for Scott to snack on along the way.
The atmosphere reminded Ellie of a carnival, minus the Ferris wheel and the corn dogs. However, a real dog was present—Lucy, who romped around the front yard, sniffing at people’s ankles and toes in search of anything that smelled edible.
The reporter was babbling into a hand-held microphone, but Ellie couldn’t hear her above the cacophony of cheering, singing, and trumpeting fans gathered in front of the house, eager to wave Scott off and wish him well. “Daddy’s going to be on TV.” Misha, standing to Ellie’s right on the front porch, looked awed. “That is so cool.” She punctuated her statement by clapping her hands and executing a little kick-step.
Abbie stood to Ellie’s left, not clapping or kicking. At fifteen, she was five years older than her sister and much too blasé to be easily impressed by transient television fame. “I hope she doesn’t interview us,” she said, glaring in the direction of the reporter. “I’m not wearing any mascara.”
“Which is very fortunate,” Ellie said, “because if you were, I’d make you wash it off.”
Abbie sighed dramatically. Life was tragic when you were nearly sixteen and your mother didn’t let you smear cosmetics all over your face as if you were, for example, a TV reporter.
Across the front yard, in the street, Scott basked in all the attention. Attention was what he wanted, why he was pursuing his mission. Bicycling around the country to raise awareness of climate change was important. It was noble. It was also arguably insane. But the whole point was to gain attention, and he was succeeding.
Thanks to the money he had raised on a GoFundMe page, he had bought himself an elaborate recumbent bike for the journey, along with a trailer to carry his gear. “It’s called a ‘Beast of Burden’,” he’d informed Ellie and the girls as he hooked the trailer to the bike and then attached a bright orange flag to the trailer’s bumper to make him more visible on the back roads and byways where he would be riding. Misha had helped him to adorn the Beast of Burden with signs. One side held a silkscreened cloth reading “Save The Planet,” the other a graphic rebus of sorts, with the letter “I,” a picture of a red valentine, and a blue circle with latitude and longitude lines superimposed on it, along with silhouettes of the western hemisphere’s continents. On the back, below the orange flag, another silkscreen, bright red letters on yellow fabric read “RE:CYCLE!”
“Get it?” Scott had beamed a bright grin, obviously proud of his pun. “Regarding the cycle, and recycle! I’ve ordered some T-shirts that read ‘RE:CYCLE’ too.”
The shirts had arrived a couple of days ago, sunshine yellow with blood-red lettering, like the sign on the Beast of Burden. Scott was wearing one of the “RE:CYCLE” T-shirts now, layered over a long-sleeved Henley shirt because the late May morning held an unexpected chill. He had stashed half a dozen other “RE:CYCLE” shirts in his duffel so he could rotate through them while he rode.
This bicycle trip was his crazy, glorious idea. He had planned and prepped for more than a year. He’d studied maps, coordinated routes, contacted supporters in towns across the continent. He’d trained for it. As a science teacher, he understood the threat of climate change to the earth’s future on a deeper, more technical level than most people, and he felt compelled to do something about it, something beyond eating vegetarian twice a week, watering the yard less often, and making sure all recyclables were disposed in the green trash bin with the big black triangle on it.
Ellie was proud of him. She felt deeply threatened by climate change, too. She hearted the Earth. A part of her wondered whether biking across the country would change anything, but the fact that he was trying, exerting himself, attracting the attention of so many people… Well, that was why she loved him. He did things like this.
Scott was certain his trip would make a difference in Mother Nature’s grand scheme. “I’ll stop at schools and town centers along the way. I’ll talk to people. More than five hundred people sent money to my GoFundMe page. This is going to be big, Ellie. Writing letters to the editor and calling our representative’s office—that’s too localized. We need to make our case to the nation. I’ll prove that we can travel without polluting the atmosphere. If I can bike from New England to the West Coast without spewing greenhouse gases, it will open people’s eyes. People will see me or hear about me, and they’ll think about using their own muscles to make trips,” he predicted. “Every able-bodied adult should have a bike or a three-wheeler with a trailer. They could pedal to the supermarket and back. Think of the exhaust fumes all those cars in the Whole Foods parking lot pour into the atmosphere. If those shoppers biked instead, our air would be a hell of a lot cleaner.”
Ellie wished Scott’s enthusiasm was contagious. Sometimes she allowed herself to be caught up in it. Other times, apprehension overtook her. What if he got hurt? What if he skidded off the road and fell into a ditch and lay there, undiscovered, for days? What if an eighteen-wheeler smashed into him? What if his GPS developed a glitch and sent him in the wrong direction, and he passed no eateries for days, and he perished from starvation? So many things could go wrong.
He assured her nothing bad would happen. “It’s all going to be great,” he’d insisted. “I’ll be heard. I’ll raise the nation’s consciousness. I’ll meet new people and open their eyes. I’ll be fine, I promise.” As if he could promise that no eighteen-wheeler would flatten him beneath the deep treads of its oversized tires.
He was so passionate about this trip, so confident, so fervent. His passion, confidence, and fervor were a large part of why she’d fallen in love with him so many years ago, why she still loved him today. He had a vision, and he was committed to it. He was taking action. Biking across the country to alert people to the threat of climate change was his dream, and he was making his dream come true.
Between her job and her daughters, Ellie wasn’t even sure what her dream was. Some days, her dream was only to make it through the day without needing a nap. Sometimes she felt envy when she thought of Scott and his coming-true dream. Sometimes she simply felt awe.
The reporter made her way up the front walk to the porch steps, the cameraman traipsing along after her, his camera perched on his beefy shoulder and his eyes shielded by sunglasses with mirror lenses. From the bottom of the porch steps, the reporter called up to Ellie: “You’re Mr. Gillman’s wife, correct?”
Ellie smiled and nodded, and wondered whether she should have put on some mascara. Abbie might have spoken the truth about the importance of appearing well groomed on TV.
“May I come up on the porch and ask you a couple of questions?” the reporter inquired.
“Say yes,” Abbie murmured. “You don’t want her aiming the camera up at you from the bottom of the steps. It’ll make your nostrils look gross.”
Ellie hesitated. Inviting the reporter onto her porch was nearly the same as inviting her into the house. Too intrusive. Too intimate. But she didn’t want her nostrils to look gross on the local news, either.
She descended the three steps to the front walk. The reporter’s smile widened. Ellie wondered whether the woman gargled regularly with bleach; her teeth were blindingly white. Abbie remained on the porch, out of camera range, but Misha followed Ellie down the steps, her steps bouncy and her cheeks dimpled from her grin.
“Your name is Ellie, correct? That’s what your husband told me.”
“Eleanor,” Ellie said. People she invited onto her porch or into her house could call her Ellie, but this reporter, with her pasty cosmetics and her rigid hair and that phallic-looking microphone clutched in her manicured hand, did not fall within the category of personal guests.
The reporter’s smile remained rigidly in place as she rotated to face the camera. “Scott Gillman’s wife, Eleanor, is here to wave Scott off on his cross-country bike trip. Eleanor?” She thrust the microphone at Ellie’s chin. “How do you feel about what he’s attempting?”
“There’s nothing more important right now than reversing climate change,” Ellie said. The words sounded rehearsed to her, and perhaps they were. She had certainly heard Scott speak them often enough. “It’s Scott’s dream to do something big, to make people sit up and take notice of the peril our planet is in. If we can’t save the earth from the devastating effects of climate change, nothing else matters. To Scott, this isn’t just an adventure. It’s a crusade.”
“And he gets to go biking every day, and meet people all over the country,” Misha said, unable to contain her excitement.
“Do you like to bike?” the reporter asked, lowering the microphone to Misha’s chin.
“Of course,” Misha said, her tone implying that she thought the question was inane, which it was. “My daddy’s a hero. See the sign?” She gestured toward the banner the students in the street were holding up. “Oh, look, Mom—Luke is here.” With that, Misha bolted across the lawn, Lucy racing after her as she vanished into the crowd of school children. Luke Bartelli had been Misha’s best friend since they’d wound up on the same pee-wee soccer team when they were in kindergarten. This year, as they’d graduated to playing on the larger soccer fields, they’d joined a league that offered only single-sex teams, all-girl or all-boy. It was the first time since they’d both fallen in love with soccer that they were not on the same team. But they were still best friends.
Misha wasn’t really a tomboy. She loved sports, especially soccer, but she had also enjoyed ballet the three years she’d studied it. She had especially loved the tutus and the sparkly tiaras she and the other dancers got to wear during their recitals. And she had eagerly adopted the nickname her teacher had given her. “My name is Michelle,” she’d told Madame Coursey.
“I shall call you Misha,” Madame Coursey had declared, “after the greatest ballet dancer of all time.”
Only later did Misha learn that the Misha Madame Coursey had referred to was actually a man—Mikhail Baryshnikov. But he was a revered ballet dancer, and Misha had insisted that the nickname sounded more like a girl’s name than a boy’s name. When she was in third grade, her ballet lessons conflicted with soccer practice, and Ellie told her she would have to choose one activity or the other. Mikhail Baryshnikov notwithstanding, she’d chosen soccer. Fortunately, she didn’t ask people to start calling her Pelé. She remained Misha, and she carried her ballet skills onto the soccer field, her posture ruler-straight as she ran, her fingers arched elegantly, her toes pointed as she kicked the ball.
Ellie spotted Misha amid the teeming mob of middle-school students clogging the road. This coming fall, she would start middle school herself, and she seemed to fit right in with the older students. Ellie experienced a pang at the realization that her baby was growing up, that soon Misha would be an official teenager, demanding to wear mascara.
She glanced behind her at the porch, where Abbie remained, her hands on her hips and her lush brown hair fluttering in the breeze. Abbie’s gaze was locked on her father, who chatted with the Girl Scouts. He was probably explaining the ozone layer to them, or the perils of fossil fuels. They were a cute trio in their matching khaki vests, and they peered up at him with intense, slightly giddy expressions, as if he were the lead singer in their favorite boy band. Soon they would be teenagers, too, happy to dismiss anything adults told them.
“Are you worried about your husband’s safety on the road?” the reporter asked, dragging Ellie’s attention back to her.
Ellie tried not to wince. Scott’s safety was her biggest fear. But the viewers of this reporter’s news story didn’t have to know that. “He’s very careful,” she said, “and he’s got that bright orange flag. I’m sure he’ll be all right.”
“I bet you’ll miss him, though.”
“I’ll miss him very much,” Ellie agreed. Those words didn’t convey just how much she would miss him. He would be gone for three long months. His hope was to be back home in time to resume teaching in the fall term, although the Shelton Middle School principal had lined up a substitute teacher in case Scott’s return was delayed for any reason. “What you’re doing is educational, too,” Scott’s boss had assured him. “And you’ll be sending regular tweets for the children to follow, doing those remote zooms and whatever. But I’ll need a warm body at the front of your classroom if you don’t get back to Shelton in time for the fall semester.”
Unfortunately, the school department would not be paying Scott’s salary if he was somewhere in Utah or Alabama next September, zooming and sending tweets back to the middle school. Thank heavens for the GoFundMe page and Ellie’s salary. Unlike him, she would be working at her job all summer, taking care of the girls, maintaining the home front. Making sure the lawn got mowed. Making sure the bills got paid. Making sure Lucy’s poop got scooped up and thrown away.
Observing Scott’s bright yellow shirt and his brighter smile as he explained the recumbent bike to a cluster of teenage boys, she acknowledged that she would miss him for a whole lot more than the fact that until he came home, she would be in charge of everything that went into keeping the Gillman household functioning. No fellow adult to lean on, to turn to, to make sure the girls disposed of Lucy’s poop. No man in her bed at night. No silly puns. No one to back her up if she had a conflict with her daughters. No one to rant about fossil fuel companies over dinner. No one to wrap his arms around her every morning, kiss her cheek, and say, “Love you, sweetheart. Thanks for breakfast. Have a great day.”
Abbie and Misha never thanked her for breakfast or told her to have a great day. She tried to remember the last time either of them had said they loved her, and came up empty.
The reporter remained on the lawn, yammering about what a brave journey Scott was undertaking. Ellie shifted her gaze from the reporter to Scott, who had plucked Misha from the swarm of children and led her up the front walk to where Ellie was standing. He held Misha’s hand and Misha peered worshipfully up at him. As he neared Ellie, he beckoned to Abbie to come down from the porch and join them. She made a face but complied.
“I’ve got to leave,” Scott said, once their little nuclear family was gathered on the front walk. The reporter was only a few feet away, and Ellie wanted to order her back to the street, but she couldn’t do anything that might wind up making her look grouchy on the evening news, so she did her best to ignore the woman.
Scott wrapped one arm around each of his daughters. Lucy scampered over, apparently sensing that this was a family conference and staking her claim as part of the family. The dog head-bumped Ellie’s shin, then sniffed Misha’s canvas sneakers and Abbie’s sandaled feet, her toenails polished a bright purple. Eventually, Lucy discovered Scott’s streamlined bike shoes and rested her head on his insteps.
“I was thinking, maybe the girls could grab their bikes from the garage and accompany me as far as the town line.”
“Yes!” The idea pleased Misha so much, she gave a little jump.
Scott pivoted to Abbie, who nodded.
“Go get your bikes and your helmets,” Scott said, nudging the girls in the direction of the garage. When they were gone, he turned back to Ellie. “You’re going to be okay?”
“We’ll be fine,” she assured him, swallowing the catch in her throat. Sure, she and the girls would be fine. But she would miss him so much. Her hero, her environmental warrior, her partner—he would be gone all summer, dodging malevolent eighteen-wheelers and pedaling through rain and sleet and snow and hail—or at the very least, occasional rain. His absence would leave a vacuum which would fill up with worry about everything bad that could happen to him on his journey. Nature abhorred a vacuum, after all.
He eyed the reporter, then shrugged and gathered Ellie into a tight hug. “I’ll phone every day.”
“You don’t have to,” she said. “Seriously. If you’re tired, or you’re doing an interview or whatever… We can follow you on that biking website.”
“I’ll phone.” He touched his lips to the tip of her nose. “Thank you for letting me do this.”
“Someone’s got to save the planet. It might as well be you,” she said.
He shot the reporter another quick look. She was watching them intently, as if she expected them to do something newsworthy, like exchange body fluids in a steamy farewell. He sighed and gave Ellie another light, chaste kiss, this time on her mouth. “Too many people around,” he murmured. Evidently, exchanging body fluids would have suited him if they’d had a bit of privacy.
It would have suited her, too. But not on the front lawn, in view of a television camera and all those cheering children. She and Scott had indulged in their passionate farewell last night, after Abbie and Misha had gone to bed and Scott had reviewed the contents of his bags one last time. Ellie had tried not to cling to him afterward, not wanting to burden him with concern about how much she would miss him, how much she would miss their lovemaking, how big and empty and lonely the bed would feel for the next several months while he was away. But they’d cuddled together, his breath whispering over her hair as he’d drifted off to sleep. She hadn’t slept much at all. She’d wanted to remember every minute of that night, every ounce of warm weight as his arm looped around her rib cage, as his chest pressed into her back.
She could either smile or weep at the memory of their final night together. She smiled. “Go. And be careful. There are a lot of crazy drivers on the roads.”
“Come on, Daddy!” Misha hollered from the driveway.
Ellie looked past the reporter to the driveway and saw both her daughters straddling their bikes, wearing their helmets. Abbie’s helmet was royal blue, slashed with jagged stripes of silver lightning; Misha’s was plastered with so many decals, it was impossible to determine what the helmet’s actual color was.
Scott gave Ellie a final brisk kiss, then waved the girls down to the street as he jogged across the lawn to his bike. The crowd parted for him, the trumpeter played another fanfare, and the children holding the banner began undulating it as if it were a dragon at a Chinese New Year parade. Shouts of “Good luck!” and “Go, Mr. Gillman!” rose from the throng like bubbles from a street-wide vat of seltzer.
Ellie remained by the porch steps, watching as Scott mounted his bike. Flanked by Abbie and Misha, he started slowly down the street, his Beast of Burden trailing behind him, its orange flag fluttering cheerfully. They reached the end of the street, turned the corner, and disappeared from view.
A wave of pride washed over Ellie, followed by a wave of…not quite grief, not quite despair, but soul-deep anxiety.
He was a hero, but he was also her hero. He wanted to save the world, but he was also her world, hers and Abbie’s and Misha’s. He could pursue his dream if he had to, but right now, her only dream was that he return in one piece, soon.