Skip to content

Promise Land

I wanted this to start with some questions and have those questions lead into a description of an endless traffic jam. The first question was supposed to be: “Do you have any idea how this was supposed to start?” But that’s either trying too hard for poetry or a guessing game, and I hate guessing games. I often think badly of myself. I prepare too soon for failure. It’s insane to me that I have finished things in my life. I am amazed that I can look upon work I have made with pride. I am not a person who has ever figured out what it is that will finally get me over the finish line and into the new world, the one just beyond the dawn. Here are some questions. When was the last time you went on a vacation? What sort of heaven did you think of as a child? Do you think of it now? What is a sea and how does it move? Have you ever wanted to die but found it impossible? These days, does time seem endless or about to collapse upon itself? Can you define for me, clearly, using simple and direct language, the difference between these two things? Do you have a good relationship with debt, in a spiritual or material sense? Have you ever had a honeymoon, and do you know what I’m talking about here? If I were to ask you to close your eyes and picture the Garden State Parkway during President’s Day weekend backed up for miles in both directions, could you do that for me?

Today, the traffic on the Garden State Parkway was backed up for miles in both directions.

It wasn’t always like this, but it’s getting harder to remember that. Fuel and freezer trucks were scattered along the lanes, tall enough that we could no longer see beyond them and into the future. One thing that’s so beautiful about a traffic jam is how much time it gives you. It’s hard to remember this during a traffic jam because it means you’re late, so your rental car will not be returned on time, so you’ll get charged for an extra day, so you’re late getting back to work, so you’re losing money, or—even better!—you’re going to get fired for being so late getting back to work, and dinner will be cold, and then you’re going to lose even more money, and everyone will be worried. All of your time has been lit on fire, and you are watching it burn. What would you do with it? If you could get it back? What could make all of that time into something that you could live inside of?

This is the perfect opportunity for me to introduce you to our heroes, Jack and Diane. They have loved each other for ten years. They’re married. In fact, they got married in the fall! They had a big dinner with all their friends and some of their family, then there was dancing. Jack loves to dance; Diane doesn’t, but she loves to dance with Jack. You understand the distinction, right?

Here are some answers I can give you: These days, debt’s not as terrifying to Jack and Diane as it used to be. They’ve learned to live with it and have worked to find ways to keep it at bay. Is this something you find yourself able to do too? I find it difficult, personally. A honeymoon, to me, is a secret door to an endless and softly lit hallway that removes us from the lives we’ll never stop leading, the ones where we spend all our time working to buy more time. But I think there are other ways of thinking about it. To Jack, a honeymoon’s the moment before waking, when everything is still warm and full of promise; except that moment doesn’t end. To Diane, it’s a moon made of honey; it’s warm, it’s sweet, it keeps away the dark. Have you ever had a honeymoon? Do you know what I’m talking about here? I think it’s important to note that a honeymoon is not the same as a vacation. A honeymoon is a place we build for the two of us in a dream. A vacation is nearly everything else.

These words between us are just one way of burning the air between here and there. We’re filling the time with stories while the jammed-up traffic screams like a sea. One day the cars’ll run out of gas, and the engines will die while the silence fills the world outside your windows. At the end, something else entirely will come to tuck us in.

A honeymoon is a place we build for the two of us in a dream. A vacation is nearly everything else.

Earlier, Jack woke Diane with the smell of fresh-made coffee, and frying bacon, and a plate of toast buttered and jammed and placed by the bed. Years ago, their friends’d rented a certified beachfront property over in Jersey for a long President’s Day weekend, one of those houses with several garages, a large deck off the kitchen, a smaller deck off the upstairs living room, and an even smaller deck up a climbing staircase over the roof. The kind of house with a flagpole you end up feeling responsible for.

Jack’d made ten pounds of burgers the night before so that they wouldn’t have to worry about shopping when they got in. The stores weren’t likely to be open, because it was President’s Day weekend, which is in February, in a beach town, in New Jersey, in the off-season. Fifteen years ago, it’d worked out great, and it’s been working out great ever since. All of them, Annie and Duncan and Rodney and Rudy and Jack and Diane, they cook big dinners, they build fires on the beach, they watch the waves crash, they look for whales, they look for ghosts—and see one or the other, never both—they play cards, they hold each other in the night and in the day, and the waves come in, and the waves go out, and then you’re home. And if you’d ever shared a time like this, wouldn’t you want to find a way to return to it?

Meanwhile, the traffic had not even thought about moving. It didn’t matter that every single person in every single car could think about nothing else. The traffic just didn’t give a shit. People started having picnic lunches on the side of the road, even though it was February, and, as such, no matter what time it was, it would be dark in like half an hour. The Garden State Parkway is beautiful this time of year.

I’m sorry, let me try that again.

The Garden State Parkway is beautiful. Yes, it’s in New Jersey. But out here, trees rise up out of the bones of all that you’ve refused, their branches brush the tops of the trucks that barrel down the Parkway’s lanes, flowers bloom in the sort of weather you’d never bother writing about, and the sun takes on the shape of a new world. Can you picture it? If you close your eyes, can you see it? Go on. It’s OK. It’s so peaceful. You can smell the sea. Dinner will be ready soon. I hope we never have to leave.

Diane is thinking about how the thing about a traffic jam is that it is a thing with an end, just like a honeymoon, she is thinking that it ends with this vast and once-endless sea breaking up like an ice floe, and everyone heading out, peacefully, with great calm in their hearts, and with her and Jack pulling up to the beach house in February and bringing out the burgers just as the grill is getting hot, and the two of them saving the day, and then, after dinner, she leans into him around the fire, and after the fire he goes down on her until she comes so hard, two cars pull out onto the shoulder in front of them and gun it to freedom, scattering picnickers and baskets and blankets and children. A whole roasted turkey flies through the air. Diane looks at Jack. Jack is thinking about if this counts as a honeymoon. Can a honeymoon be two people in love, in a rented car, drowning in a sea of traffic? He looks ahead.

This is America, and in America, there are so many ways to riot. In a traffic jam, one of the ways to riot is to fucking gun it, like those two cars, who will end up making it maybe fifty feet until they explode and burn up and small children gather, and dance around the flames. It is three thirty in the afternoon. They’ve been stuck like this for five hours.

The traffic is a riot and death is a riot and even our dreams can be a riot if we do them right. Jack and Diane are dreaming right. You’d better believe it.

At dusk, before all its splendor, Diane scans the radio for news. Instead of news, the radio is playing doo-wop on every station, warped and wild. She settles in as night drops itself like a body on top of everyone’s weekend. A group of nuns has blocked off an area where a bus used to be. Nobody knows what happened to the bus.

“I’m just glad we’re here together,” says Jack. Diane leans against him. She sidles up. She’s glad they’re here together. Their whole lives are before them. The moon glows, low and warm, above them. Who would you honeymoon in a traffic jam with if you could honeymoon in a traffic jam with anyone on the planet? Diane asks the moon what it’s doing, and the moon tells her. It tells her every secret it’s ever known. She’ll never remember more than one. We weren’t meant to know the moon like this.

I feel like I should tell you that the world has always existed as it does in this moment, right in front of you. Meanwhile, the traffic continues. Meanwhile, their dear friends Annie and Duncan and Rodney and Rudy have been at the beach house for God knows how long already and will never be heard from again.

There are so many things I’d like to imagine for Jack and Diane. Vacation after vacation after vacation! A honeymoon in the desert under the warmest moon you ever saw, the two of them fucking under the stars, skin touching skin touching skin forever in the desert. Ten years from now in Iceland, where they stay long enough for it to go from always night to always day. They walk under the stars, then dive into bed, they sit in the sauna, they jump in the sea. Twenty years from now, in Rome, for a month, before tourist season, wandering around, stumbling into the narrowest church they’ve ever seen, with immense vaulted ceilings, the whole thing done in purple and cream marble, a gold bolt of light branching out in the back. The air is alive. It breathes alongside us. Who among us has not longed to be changed, if only for a moment?


Jack and Diane’s dreams got married. They’ve been collecting dreams about somewhere like Joshua Tree or Palm Springs, the kind of places that only exist in dreams, somewhere you can take a bath under the stars near the sort of dust we could all feel a little better about returning to someday. It’s a good dream.

All around them was the traffic. You would be amazed at the sort of movement you see when all movement stops. Look around you. Here, on the Garden State Parkway, where we have always lived, the fuel trucks stalled along at regular intervals were doing a brisk business. No one had ever seen traffic like this. No one would ever remember a time when things had been different. Bodies lay between the cars, smoking and welted. It was a form of thanks until it became something else. You know what I’m talking about.

I’m sorry. I’ll stop talking like that.

The cars were on the Parkway and the stars were in the sky. That was the whole world.

It was still winter, I think. It was still winter, Jack and Diane think. Snow fell lightly on the Garden State Parkway. The cars idled like an offered prayer. This was the world. It was all there was of it worth telling.

Somewhere on this graveyard of a parkway is an enormous freezer truck. Everyone says it’s full of ice cream. Nobody will ever know. After the laughter comes the tears, and after the tears comes the traffic. There’s a man over there that plucks birds out of the air. That’s just fine.

Jack wants to tell Diane, “New Jersey is for the dead. Its ghosts will eat you whole. Its gardens will grow into your grave. All that’ll be left is a whisper on the winds off the shore.” The lights go dim. The sea begins to slumber. When I say the sea I mean the traffic. You can see that, can’t you?   

Diane sits up. She looks straight ahead. She reaches into Jack’s pants and fumbles around for his dick, she squeezes playfully, this is her favorite time, before it gets really hard. The skin’s soft, it’s waking up, it’s nearly alive. “Early on,” Diane said to Jack as she told him the story of their lives here on the Parkway on this endless honeymoon while he grew hard in her hand, “People tried driving on the shoulder, but the shoulder gave way. After that, people drove on the new road paved with the cars that sank into the shoulder. The on-ramp was a graveyard and the off-ramp was a myth. All around this endless stoppage, cars were flipped frequently just for a change of scenery. Soon, local elections would be held.”

Have you ever tried to tell a story about your life where everything turned out different? And, when you did, did you wind up back where you started?

Diane leans her head against Jack’s shoulder. She hikes up her skirt. His fingers find her, and he picks up her story, “Three days into the sea,” he’s tired of saying it and I am too, “Having stopped its sailing, snow fell. It made sense, being late February and all. It made more sense than the world itself. The snow fell everywhere. Cars on the shoulder were emptied and flipped off the parkway to make room for a party. People broke out the booze they’d brought for the weekend. The children built snowmen. ‘TAKE US HOME,’ they screamed. ‘NEVER,’ the snowmen screamed back. Then the children screamed at the snowmen,” Jack finds something he has been looking for his whole life inside of her as she holds him in her hand, and she says, “Jack,” and Jack says, “They tore off their heads. Their parents stood and watched. Those who felt pride in their eyes would last the winter. Those who didn’t hurled themselves into the tall grass in hopes of a greener bed and gentler dreams. Years later the Garden State would grow over their cars and over their bones. It took every dream ever dreamed there, and it planted those dreams in the ground, and they never took root. The Parkway cracks as flowers bloom and blight the asphalt.” He tells her, softly, “In the meanwhile, the snow’s melted. It’s spring. People have gutted the lining from their coats, and model their light jackets along the promenade.” The world stops. All is light, and silence. Something finally comes loose inside them.

They close their eyes, and they’re on the perfect honeymoon. Please close your eyes and attend the perfect honeymoon. Jack and Diane’s perfect honeymoon exists forever in their dreams, which are also married, just like they are. It will live inside them forever and change them in ways I will never be able to articulate, no matter how hard I try.

“JACK!” shouts Diane, grabbing his arms, as she opens the door, turns, and runs.

Let your blood mingle with the stars here on earth as they settle in the trees to watch our dreams.

He sees her in the crowd, her hand held out for him, he reaches for it and misses, stumbles, hasn’t moved his legs in hours, his blood’s a symphony, his body’s a tomb. Diane’s making her way through the sea, and Jack’s right behind her, but she’s gone, he’s losing her, the radio’s playing “I Will Follow Him” because of course it is. Jack turns around, and Diane’s vaulting the highway. She hits the ground. She’s running. This is just a story. I’m telling you all about it. Jack’s whole life is an off-ramp, and off he goes, down the Parkway, past the sleeping sea of cars, the nuns on the perimeter wave him on by, screaming his name, setting fire to the scenery. He’ll never see a single car for the rest of his fucking life. He needs a drink of water or he’s going to throw up. He is pretty sure he is going to throw up. Diane’s outside a crab shack. She’s by a bike rental store closed for the winter, and a tanning salon/laundromat open twenty-four-seven. She’s up a flagpole, she’s in a mailbox.

Jack and Diane are asleep on the Garden State, dreaming of escape. In the dream, their bed is green, its canopy is green, and it stretches forever into the sky, where the moon and the sun and the stars and all the planets live and orbit until it all collapses. When I close my eyes, I dream of a world where I tried my best and everything worked out. The moon hangs low tonight. I could tell it every secret I have. This is exactly what I do. Listen close, please, because I think I can only say this once.

It’s been night all day. Jack and Diane are asleep in their overdue rental car on the Garden State Parkway, in the very same spot they were when we began. Above them is the moon, and past that, the stars. Next week, on the Garden State, local elections will be held. Treaties will be drawn up, resources allocated based on need, and possibly merit. Close your eyes. Open them again. Watch as moss begins to cover the cars. In a week’s time, this will all be a garden. This sea of ours will bloom in ways wondrous to behold. I want ask you a question. If you knew that you could give something this beautiful to the world, would you? When you look to the stars, what do you see? Close your eyes. The car’s covered in moss. Your blood’s changing. Jack turns to Diane. Diane turns to Jack. The car turns to moss, and all eyes turn to the sky. The rental car companies will never recover from this.

Listen. Years from now, the state’ll be scouring the Parkway, horses dragging a gutted-out U-Haul, choppers in the sky with candlepower you wouldn’t believe, a spotlight on your secrets, spilling out for all to see. We are all the Parkway now. You see? We are all of us watching this unfold under the light of the world to come. The nuns stand in prayer, their mouths full of flowers. Their petals spell out the word of God, the word says Behold, you are so beautiful my beloved, so kind, and our bed is green. Lay here beside me in the grass. Let our green bed swallow your heart. Let your blood mingle with the stars here on earth as they settle in the trees to watch our dreams.

“Our bed is also green,” says Jack to Diane, through the moss of his mouth. The petals of her eyes flutter and flirt. They spell out how handsome, beloved, how pleasant, how kind. At the beachfront property, footage of the Sea of Traffic, the great Garden State, is on every channel. The town dynamites the bridge. Not today, they say. The sea, the true sea from which all creation sprung and into which all creation will one day return, will come one day for what it’s due. But tonight, the whole town’ll grill and revel in this victory against nature and traffic and mystery itself.

Diane is a tree, and Jack is an apple. When Jack falls, Diane will grow.