Midnight in IA: creative nonfiction

Midnight in Iowa

I am a night owl. Were it left up to me, I’d be up till 2 every morning and sleep until 10. And though I get up groggy and exhausted most mornings, fighting the urge to go back to sleep for another five hours, somehow the last few months have also left me afflicted by an insomnia.

I lie awake in bed at night, sometimes on my phone, sometimes curled up, face against the pillow. Sometimes I stare into the darkness around me. It’s a little scary, the darkness, but I also love the peacefulness of night. The moon and stars outside the window banish the darkness away.

After my sister and I left Nashville last week, we drove through the night. All-nighters are rare for me, despite the insomnia—I can think of one during a finals week in college. I went to bed around 5am.

This time we were determined to drive until we made it home. The drive was fourteen hours.

The sun crawled towards the horizon as we drove—it cast long shadows across the parking lot where we stopped for Subway. The buildings in the surrounding strip mall were pale in the evening light, too bright to look at without squinting. I kept my sunglasses on until they made it too dark to see because the last rays of the piercing sun lingered, pouring through the windshield right up until the stars came out. I welcomed the calming hug of night as it shrugged its way over the tree-lined highway and the triangle of sky above.

We ran into St. Louis, Missouri, and the beautiful glowing arch and high white bridges when it was fully nighttime. I paused the Hamilton soundtrack and stole long glances, enchanted, out the windows as well as I could without veering off the road. I’d always heard Missouri was ugly, but I fell in love with the St. Louis skyline. “Should we stop?”

“No, Dad said do not stop in St. Louis,” my sister said. We drove through.

Suburbs melted into little ramshackle Missouri towns with gas stations that closed at night. Stopping for gas was an ordeal because the towns were not situated along the highway, which, in my opinion, would make the most sense. Instead, they were twelve miles down dusty roads without lights and with farm fields on either side. Turns were impossible to see. They were like pitch black voids branching off the small stretch of road lit by our headlights; we got turned around more than once.

We thought we were in Iowa before we actually were. Northern Missouri and southern Iowa turn out to not be too different. Iowa was long dark roads with minimal streetlights and no barriers. I was afraid of deer running out in front of us, so I turned on the high beams at every opportunity and peered anxiously at the shadowed sides of the road.

Cedar Rapids and Waterloo were both Iowan cities on our route with an hour between them. They were asleep but still shimmered. Cedar Rapids sits on the Cedar River, and we drove over its waters, the concrete overpass basking in the soft light of downtown, the bright dots of buildings and streetlamps and parking garages beaming against a canvas of fuzzy blacks and grays. The lights were on display only for us and for the handful of other drivers passing through—a shining, empty golden gallery on the other side of our car windows.

I’d never been to this part of Iowa, that I could remember, though we’d grown up going to family reunions in the northern half of the state. The quiet fields and roads made me wonder what it was like to live there. To go to Waterloo when you wanted the city and to return home to a farmhouse in the middle of miles of fields when the stars were at their zenith. To watch the sun set over the flat, golden plains and spread reds and purples over the vast expanse of the Iowa sky.

At some point we pulled off the road in the middle of nowhere and switched drivers. I tried to sleep but could not find it in me, as tired as I was.

The sunrise arrived more quickly than I expected, and soon everything was light. There was thick fog along the roads and prairie, settling heavily into the spring-colored valleys as we passed from Iowa into Minnesota. When we took a break at a rest stop it was 6am, and it was bright as day. The air was chilly. My sister conked out in the passenger seat and I drove the rest of the way home—a short trip on familiar roads. My eyelids were heavy, and I imagined myself arriving at home safely. I told myself that what I pictured would become reality, a leftover bit of taken-out-of-context wisdom from a self-help book I recently listened to on CD.

It felt strange to me, coming home, how we were in one place before the night and in a different one after. How driving through strange places could, eventually, bring you back to this little square of place that you know. My whole life, all the houses and jobs and friends and memories and tears, happened in this tiny, flat place fourteen hours from Nashville and twenty-four from Florida. Going from there to here was like driving between two different lives. One has palm trees and sunshine in it, and the other has everything else.

I’ve taken to drinking coffee at my new job. I never did before—my old job let me sleep in—but now I can’t keep my eyes open without it. During my afternoon break, I sit alone in my quiet cubicle paging through the training manual and sipping lukewarm coffee from my Oh, the Places You’ll Go! mug. It is very peaceful, a sublime moment. I feel myself arriving. Where, I am not sure yet.

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