Continental Divide

By Linda Sanchez

Sometimes late in the day, Marcus and I sit on the median strip and watch the eighteen-wheelers whiz by, tumblers of cheap supermarket wine in our hands, occasionally calling out guesses about each truck’s contents. Right after school and before dinner the trucks tend to carry elaborate quiches and pasta dishes. After dinner we imagine more variety: cases of I’m With Stupid t-shirts, boxes of poker chips headed for Vegas. We sometimes bring a radio out to the median strip and listen to KTNN, “The Voice of the Navajo Nation,” – the only station we get with any decent reception in Continental Divide. The station broadcasts news and public service announcements and interviews with locals. We can’t understand a word of the Navajo language and can barely hear the broadcast over the roar of the highway traffic, yet there’s something satisfying about the guttural stops and lilting edges of the occasional words that make it to our ears. Everything sounds like a question.

There’s a comfort to our lazy ritual. Maybe because it’s the extent of the entertainment offered in the tiny teacherage of Continental Divide. This short stretch of twenty flat white government houses, just removed from Highway 40 by a barely visible turn-off, provides housing for the teachers in the Navajo schools of Thoreau – and nothing else. Marcus and I, like all of the residents, were recruited to teach at Thoreau from the coasts and from the heartland. And like most of the residents we were straight out of teacher college, lured there by the romantic images of the Southwest, the unique opportunity of teaching at a Navajo School, and the promise of adventure.

But living in the modest teacher housing, filling teaching vacancies at the rural schools in Thoreau, our lives have a papery thinness, paled among so much bravado and greatness on all sides. To the north, we’re shadowed by the muscular ridges of the majestic Rockies. To the East and West, we sustain the daily melodrama of sunrise and sunset. And to the South we’re bombarded with the blur of Highway 40; endless eighteen wheelers carrying goods from Texas through New Mexico and on into Arizona. Just the smallest divider, a ten-foot wide median strip – our hangout – separates us from the edge. Instead of feeling part of the grandeur of the Southwest, we feel bullied by it.

Highway 40 controls our lives. It’s a risky, touch-and-go business driving to school every day. Our teacherage is on the highway heading west and Thoreau Middle School, where we both teach, lies one exit east of us. First, we have to precariously edge onto Highway 40, yielding to the onslaught of eighteen-wheelers heading west. By the time we’re situated safely in the right lane, usually with foreheads beaded with sweat, it’s time to take the next, nearly immediate exit ramp, negotiate the wide loop of frontage road leading back to the highway, and yield once again to the eighteen-wheelers heading east. Our escape finally comes in the form of the exit for Thoreau.  That’s a lot of yielding. Marcus and I, both Language Arts teachers, often wax poetic about how much yielding we do. Yielding is the perfect symbol for the cloud of indifference and apathy that has settled over us since we’ve lived in Continental Divide these eight months. Marcus insists we’re living lives of quiet desperation, but I just think Continental Divide and our teaching jobs are pit stops on our way to the rest of our lives. It may be desperate, but it’s also temporary.

We talk often about returning to real life, of leaving Continental Divide and our jobs in Thoreau. Sometimes we wonder about the other two dozen or so teachers who live here. We don’t see much of them outside of school; they get into and out of cars and walk into and out of teacher housing identical to our own. Most people tend to avoid Marcus, and because I am always with Marcus, they avoid me, too. That suits me fine. They’re a blurry composite – teacher/neighbor – while Marcus and I stand out in sharp relief. The only time they emerge from obscurity is when one of them does something at school that pisses us off. Then we slowly shake our heads at the kind of person who would be willing to live in an airless cement structure with avocado green kitchen appliances, just feet from a major highway. There are a few lifers here, mediocre teachers who have found their niche in a school system with virtually no expectations or standards, in a community with no mettle. But like most of our neighbors, Marcus and I will do a two-year stint, pack up our belongings, and head back to the coast. In the meantime, I’m satisfied here. I had spent twelve rigid years wearing Catholic school plaid and another four as a hopeless overachiever at Columbia. I’m aware of having narrowly escaped a life of purpose and am grateful for each hour spent aimless on the median strip, poking fun at the rest of the world. In Marcus, though, a wild restlessness simmers beneath his mocking observations. In hindsight, his visit last night wasn’t really much of a surprise.

I was sleeping soundly during one of Northern New Mexico’s coldest nights when I heard Marcus’s telltale tap-tap and then “Hey,” through the glass of my bedroom window. Even through sleep, I recognized Marcus easily. “Hey,” I heard again. His voice had a glassy cold-watery sound. Groggy, I found my slippers and padded the few steps to lift the window a few inches. The tiny crack let in a gust of cold wind and I woke instantly, wrapping my arms around my shoulders. When I made out his form in the darkness, I hopped and shivered a bit for extra show. In an annoyed stage whisper, I said “What!? What is it?” I didn’t think Marcus was crazy, as most of the residents of Continental Divide and many of his students did, but I knew he was outrageous – and completely self-centered. Often I was up for his schemes, but not in this cold, not at this hour. He had crossed a line, even for Marcus, and he knew it. His usual thoughtless bravado gone, he simply said, “Come out, meet me outside.” He paused. “Please.” 

“No way! It’s freezing!” I argued. I knew there was no fighting against Marcus’ will, but I put up a good show, raising my arms and lowering them in exaggerated gestures of frustration. I stomped around noisily in search of a sweater to pull on over my pajamas, threw a scarf huffily around my neck. As I reached for the bedroom doorknob, I saw him turning away from the window to meet me at the front door.  I considered sliding back into bed and forgetting this had ever happened. But Marcus would be back for sure: tap, tap, tapping on the window. Whatever scheme Marcus was spinning into motion this night would play itself out. I, like it or not, had already been cast as a major player. I looked longingly at my bed and went out to meet him.

Marcus and I had taken to meeting each other on our communal front lawn, at our cars, at windows, or at the median strip. A curious unspoken taboo had developed between us; not once since the sweltering July day when we had discovered we were neighbors had we entered each other’s houses. There was a flavor of childhood friendship between us. Being with Marcus evoked summer nights spent in improvised games, the utterly unselfconscious freedom of running in the twilight, and the keen awareness that we could be called in at any moment by parents.  Inside always felt stuffy after being with Marcus.

We had seen each other first at a new teacher orientation meeting, our eyes meeting several times over the crowd as we stifled yawns during the superintendent’s pompous welcome speech. During a break, we met more formally at the refreshment table, both of us eyeing the last chocolate donut. Marcus had reached for it, set it reverently on a napkin and said, “Arm wrestle me for it.” He was wiry and strong and held nothing back; it wasn’t much of a fight. He didn’t even have the good grace to share the damn donut with me. He ate it in three bites while I picked at one of the reject plain ones and eyeballed him. He was tall and awkward, graceless and quick in his movements, like a 12-year-old grown to adulthood overnight. He had an unkempt tuft of dark hair and a wide-eyed expression that belied the intense and dramatic bent I would come to know so well.  As we talked–or, as he talked and I listened, we realized that we were not only colleagues at Thoreau Middle School, but neighbors in Continental Divide. And although we’ve spent nearly every waking hour since then together, at school, commuting, out on the median strip, and weekly trips to the Super Wal-Mart in Gallup for provisions, we’ve never been inside each other’s houses.

Last night was no exception and I quietly let myself out the front door to meet him. My breath, crystal in the cold night air, hovered in front of my face as I looked up to see Marcus there, one hand raised in a quick greeting or an even quicker thanks. As I approached, he said earnestly, “I needed you. I needed you to come out and hear me. Hear my plan.” 

I puffed my cheeks out and slowly exhaled a frosty cloud in his direction. Always dramatic, he had an intensity that I both loved and feared; it had no limits. It never seemed to dawn on Marcus that what he wanted he might not get, and this attitude prevented the other teachers from appreciating him or even getting to know him. They thought him outrageously arrogant. I chose to think of him as having a dogged sense of righteousness. He refused to believe that his plans would not reach fruition, and he considered all resources at his personal disposal – like the energy of the fossil fuels waiting around to be harnessed. All practical matters disappeared when Marcus had a plan and tonight was no different; though quiet, his energy was so high he seemed suspended a few inches above the ground.  I was starting to come under his trance, waking up, and feeling stimulated by the night air. Marcus had an uncanny sense of timing. He knew the right time for speaking and he knew the right time for quiet. This was a time for quiet. He let me come to him, leaving space for me to warm up to his idea, even though I hadn’t heard it yet. 

“We’re going to cross the highway,” he said finally.

I stared at him blankly. Blinked once.

“Tonight. On foot. Now,” he continued, eyes bright, eyebrows raised.

“Goodnight, Marcus,” I deadpanned, turning to leave, my trance dissolving.

“No! No! It’s going to be miraculous!” He grabbed my shoulder and turned me back to face him. No way! No way!  threatened to shoot from my mouth, but something in his face silenced me. Behind the excitement, I read desperation and a vulnerable, acute need. I looked around at our neighborhood, the small rigid houses quiet and dark, the sad square of front lawn upon which a science teacher from North Carolina had cultivated a few oddly shaped cucumbers and peppers. I looked down at the asphalt we stood on, not five feet from the stoop of my house and not twenty feet from the relentless whizzing traffic of the highway, and I could almost understand the sanctity of Marcus’s plan.  If life were fiction, I thought, this would be a quintessential moment of climax. I felt myself succumb to the intensity. I knew I was going to go through with it. It was a simple equation: Marcus needed action and I needed Marcus. Sensing my acquiescence, he beamed and shouted, “Come on!”

We walked to the edge of the median strip and looked out: three lanes heading east and three lanes heading west, a 20-foot grassy expanse between the two. The traffic felt nearer to me than ever; the force of each truck’s passing sent a rush of cold air slicing through my sweater and thin pajamas. I felt my consciousness rise just a few inches above my body to view myself down there, cold, scared, confused. Time felt suspended. A banner of uninvited alternatives ran across my mind as I stood mute on the median strip. I could forget all of this. I could be back in bed in one minute. I could book a flight and be back in New York in six hours. I was filled with a deep sense of unfettered possibility and longing as I saw myself packing my bags, shirts folded neatly, bottles of toiletries closed tightly to avoid spillage. I could see my parents’ faces, so relieved to have me back in civilization. Dad would whisper in Mom’s ear, “I told you she needed to work this thing out and would be back.” I would rent an apartment in a big Victorian building with a bookstore/café on the corner, and enroll in graduate classes for next fall. I would get pedicures monthly. I would date someone whose arm fell casually and easily around my shoulder and whose warm laughter comforted me. We would light the candles at night and talk about our day.

When Marcus grasped my hand, I started – suddenly alert, jarred back to the moment – and found myself shouting as a thought occurred to me. “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You know, once we get across, we still have to make it back!” Marcus threw back his head and laughed then, exposing his canines.

“Exactly!” he smiled wildly, “Exactly!” And he led me out to the edge of the median strip, the trucks already bearing down on us.

I can’t remember much of the crossing in terms of physical sensations. I had abandoned my body completely by then, shaking my head ruefully from above at the foolish antics of two people in pajamas and sweaters. I watched from a safe distance as Marcus and I streaked across the three lanes heading west, hopped impatiently at the grassy median strip between the lanes, and then made a mad sprint across the three lanes heading east. I did dip down into my body for a moment – felt my heart in my mouth – when my right slipper flipped and skidded off my foot. I had to leave it behind and that slight hesitation ruined my timing. The headlights of an eighteen-wheeler bore down on me as I raced across the final lane. The indignant bellow of the truck’s horn, unmistakably male, resounded long past the glow of its lights.

It wasn’t until we stood panting and spent at the shoulder that I realized, throat parched and voice hoarse, that I’d been screaming the entire time. I gulped air and tried to get my bearings; Marcus was trying to catch his breath while making feeble attempts at whooping and jumping. I looked down at my naked right foot – Cinderella meets Evil Knievel – and it dawned on me how reckless and stupid our action had been. I screamed then, consciously. I screamed and screamed and screamed there on the shoulder of Highway 40, and although it was barely audible over the sound of the traffic, it was the loudest sound I had ever made. Marcus was initially elated, mistaking my outburst for exhilaration, but soon concern dotted his face, making his eyes smaller and his mouth wider. He shook me gently once, twice, and said something that was lost in the sound of my own wailing. He shook me again, forcefully this time. I grew silent finally, gasping for breath, choking back tears.

A somber mood settled over us as we caught our breath and silently reflected on our journey back. A switch had turned off in my head and pure and complete exhaustion was all I could access. Marcus and I looked across the expanse of highway at Continental Divide, facing it from a perspective we’d never seen before. Through the rush of trucks heading east and west, all we saw were twenty square boxes – flat, small, innocuous – grey silhouettes under the skinny light of two streetlights.

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