U.S. Route 160

by Sangita V Nuli


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A brief slice of running away, November 27, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

We've all had those involuntary moments where maybe we misunderstood or misread a work, but it was powerful to us in some way. That happened here with R160. You open your eyes in the hospital and the text says SHE'S HERE. I thought it was the narrator's mother, one of two main antagonists. But it was actually the person you loved. It shook me. This was a high point for me in IFComp and R160 as well. It's deserved, even if R160 doesn't soar. It reminded me of old fears and how I'm at least glad some of them didn't come true. Some remain. They're nothing as harrowing as escaping from a preacher you don't love, whom you're engaged to. Not only that, but you don't like men, period, which is another strike against you.

So it's a cliche we're all running from something. And driving's a good way to do it. I remember driving around through some curves in college, curves a friend three years younger than me told me about. It felt like I was dekeing some problems or other, or I hoped I was. I soon realized I wasn't. My problems weren't as serious as the main character's. But we had similar abstract concepts we were running from. "Be grateful for what you have, you barely deserve it" guilt trips. It reminds me of my fears of marriage, too. There are all sorts of jokes about picking the wrong person, but I found it easy to picture that a spouse would either be not right for me, or for my family or, as a horrible compromise, nobody. Of course, along the way, I chose bad friends, not to be rebellious, but just, well, I was used to certain things, and there were certain faults I felt I should be able to forgive.

These days there are more late-night bike rides or walks or even visiting the athletic club, too, about this sort of thing, but they're not as intense, and often it's about getting ideas. But R160 brought back some of the thornier bits I'm able to deal with now.

These days the driving around curves is replaced with late night bike rides or walks where I can reflect on things that don't bother me any more and
problems worth bouncing in my head. There are always writing notes to type into my computer when I get back. But certainly the fears in R160 have loomed in different contexts.

The plot itself can be oversimplified into continuing your flight or returning home or stopping for a break. If put that plainly, there wouldn't be much there, but based on the scenery you choose to concentrate on, different memories pop up. And with them, we don't get much of a view of the groom, but what there is, it's hard to like. The main character is obviously escaping more than heteronormativity. That's a word I hate, and I wish there was something shorter, but maybe such a concept deserves to sound ugly. She realizes her fiancee sees her as an accessory, too, and not even one particularly to be proud of. Someone convenient, maybe even a trophy. Her mother does, too. The narrator's being pulled into a life of apparent relative ease, certainly better physically than she's told she deserves. Based on the brief character sketch, I imagined the fiance cheating on her and blaming her or, at the very least, lying to her in the name of the Lord. Whether or not he knew she was not attracted to men. It didn't matter. There's ambiguity why he chose her, which seems intentional. The possibilities are disturbing both ways. That's how it is, fearing someone with power.

I suppose I'm a sucker for lines like "He argues with you about your withdrawn silence. / It's ironic that he never lets you get a word in." because they describe so much more than romantic failures. The sort of thing it took me too long to realize, and once I did realize it, I wondered if I was being snarky or ungrateful or nitpicky. This was more effective to me than the poetry, where the author resorted to super-short sentences once too often, which broke up some good observations.

There are three endings without a whole lot of branching, and there's no appreciable puzzle-solving, but here, there probably shouldn't be. You're making impulsive choices, but they are based on the characters' neglected fears and desires. Not even the best ending is fully happy, but each in its way dealt with non-romantic fears I had and even have. Maybe I was ready to laugh at the own weirdness from my life--like how my parents loathed fundamentalists, but don't go listening to that heavy metal music just in case there were Satanic lyrics. (It was too loud, anyway.) Or how elder family members had reservations about the Wisconsin (or was it the Missouri) Lutheran Synod. Eventually, my parents divorced and remarried non-Lutherans. My sister's husband is Jewish. This wasn't truly funny until I heard Emo Phillips's canonical joke on religion. (It's best in his voice, but it's good on paper, even/especially if you see where it's going!)

It wasn't just about religion, either. I picked the wrong college sports team in my adolescence: Purdue, where we used to live) and not Northwestern, the smart kids' school. Not quite picking a life mate, but not something you should have to justify to anyone, and I did. Peers and teachers found it odd. Others at school were upset I quit an extracurricular activity because I felt I didn't belong. They played the "it's the best you can do, really" and "what are you looking for, anyway?" angle. I felt like a bottom feeder in them, then felt lost away from them. It definitely depicts a moralistic community without being moralistic, and that certainly gave me space to consider far less drastic things than a failed marriage, and I never felt the story saying "You think you were lost? Look at the protagonist!"

If you want a robust story, US ROUTE 180 might not be the work for you, and the poetry didn't work well, either, but the core but it was remarkably effective at reminding me of some horrors I escaped, and which frustrations mattered and which didn't, and other ways I even compromised saying, well, I've found enough of myself, and that's enough, right? Some might find US Route 180 a bit too overgeneral, and I can see that. But it hit a sweet spot for this never-married, never-engaged person.