Having a mild form of Asperger syndrome makes socializing difficult for Levi. During summer vacation between his freshman and sophomore years at college, he falls into a casual relationship with a local girl and he mostly goes with the flow. Shortly before Levi is supposed head back to Stanford for school, however, his girlfriend drops a bomb: she’s pregnant. Full of doubt about whether he wants to be a father and knowing he’s not willing to give up a full ride scholarship, Levi has a lot to think about. As it happens, he gets a chance to mull things over on the open road when Levi answers an ad placed by another Floridian looking for someone to drive a van cross country.
He may be young and inexperienced, but Terrence is committed to realizing a romantic relationship with a California man despite only chatting a handful of times online. His aging grandparents are the only thing holding Terrence to Florida—and they’ve decided to move into assisted living. Why not embrace in inevitable growing up and cohabitant with his soon-to-be boyfriend? He’s just got to get himself and his van to wine country to start his new life. The only caveat is actually getting the van there because Terrence’s license has been revoked. He takes out a personal ad in the newspaper and through it, meets Levi.
The two young men come face to face for the first time in Terrence’s driveway. Both men start off shy and quiet and the road trip promises to be uneventful. Once they set out on the road, however, the dynamic begins to subtly change. With nothing to do but hours of driving, both Levi and Terrence have time to think, both silently and out loud. As it turns out, Levi isn’t the most socially awkward person despite his Aspergers and Terrence isn’t exactly desperate to get away from Florida. Perhaps it’s the built-in ephemeral nature of the trip—Levi and Terrence will only be together for the four or five days it takes to drive from Florida to California. Perhaps is the semi-anonymous nature of their brief relationship. Whatever it is, they fall into a quick camaraderie that transcends notions of sexual orientation and norms. The problem is…how can they grow a friendship made on the fly?
The deep structure of this book was more or less enjoyable. There’s the whole get-to-know-your-trip-mate bits where we get to experience the nice and easy way Levi and Terrence form a connection. I liked watching the slow transformation they go through as they get closer to California. There’s also the happily ever after we enjoy at the end. While this does form the meat and potatoes of the story as a whole, there are a couple of side elements that super got under my skin: how all the characters immediately involved react to the unwanted pregnancy and how Terrence handles his actual romantic relationship versus his budding friendship with Levi. More on that later, but first…here’s what worked for me.
In a nutshell, our two main characters are blandly likable. I’m no expert in behavioral disorders, so I have no idea what real Aspergers may present like. I can tell you that, as far as Levi is concerned, if the reader wasn’t told up front that Levi had this disorder and had trouble interacting with people, I would not have guessed it. Actually, throughout the car journey, Levi is the one who shows the most responsibility, common sense, and leadership. Arguably, these are qualities that require someone to be able to identify, understand, and react in social situations. If there are “tells” about his having Aspergers, I guess you’d have to know more about the condition to pick up on it. All in all, I found him presented more like something of a golden boy—the kid who’s got “all American” good looks, blessed with a free ride to an elite school, and handles the kinds of real-life drama of others (accidentally picking up a runaway, coming to terms with his newfound feelings for another male) with aplomb. What balances this out is his thoughtfulness and his open-mindedness. He doesn’t care that Terrence is gay (as I would expect in a book marketed as M/M) and he has fun with the road-games they play (ends up with someone else’s booger on his nose).
With Terrence, I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s a shrinking violet. He shows remarkable resolve to up and leave Florida to go live with a man he’d literally only chatted with a few times on the internet. Despite a clear lack of real-world experience, he’s shown to be a young man who’s ready, willing, and able to try new things. For example, he takes Levi up on the suggestion to camp instead of spend money on hotels for their journey. Terrence doesn’t mind socializing with other people at the camp site and enjoys a few rounds of “truth or dare” both with Levi in the car and others at the camps. All that said, they way he’s depicted in the prose left me with a strong image of “shoe gazer.” He’s constantly being described as looking down and he blushes a lot. Part of it might just be me projecting “clarinetist” onto him. Although we watch him mull over his decision to jump into a relationship with a stranger and the doubt is nearly palpable, we don’t learn a lot about why he thought this was a good idea. The whole road trip set up also primes me for Terrence to fall for Levi—which is why it was sort of odd that the California boyfriend thing actually does happen. Still, he is also shown to be a thoughtful, considerate guy who’s open to trying new things despite acting like he’ll die of embarrassment every five minutes.
For these reasons, I thought the two main characters were mildly interesting. I appreciated the slow build of their relationship and even though I know they only spend about four days together, the way their time is spent makes it feel longer. Part of why it feels longer is due to how they pass their time. I thought it was sweet that Terrence would play his clarinet in the van for something to do/listen to. They divide the camp duties and work well as a pair setting up/striking camp. Despite being shy, Terrence has no problem busting out his clarinet to play songs for anyone who wants to hear (and has this odd habit of announcing the name of the song and the composer, even for songs literally everyone would know by name alone). Another reason why it feels like they spent more time together than they did was the prose itself. It gets a bit repetitive—it seems like it was a requisite to tell the reader the day “started to warm up” at least once a chapter. There are also a lot of references to passing time in silence, and the making-camp routine helps stretch the time.
Insofar as this is a story about two strangers who meet by happy accident and discover they might have deeper feelings for one another, I was satisfied with the read.
The less impressive side (though refreshing for challenging me to step outside my own echo chamber on these issues) was how Levi’s girlfriend’s pregnancy is handled. There is blessed little straight up on-page discussion about how unfair it is that Levi be held at all accountable for knocking up his girlfriend (maybe this was something that could have been associated with a poor understanding of social relationships? That case wasn’t really made though). That said, Levi is pretty adamant about wanting his girlfriend (?) to get an abortion (and even briefly wonders if the baby is even his). The flip side is that the girlfriend comes off as a far bigger dick because she seems to be using the fetus as way to force Levi to at least stay with her, if not marry her…and when he’s not willing to give up college, she’s willing to (and does) lawyer up to hold Levi accountable. It all gets more-or-less happily resolved, but again…maybe this is not an uncommon way for kids to handle pregnancies. Still, the inclusion of this bit of drama didn’t really add anything to the story and just…well, roundly lowered the character in my estimation.
The one other WTF thing was how Terrence handles his relationship with his California man while continuing his friendship with Levi. The thing is, it gets to be more than friendship between Terrence and Levi. Sure, it’s totally understandable that Terrence would feel confused about how he should feel for his boyfriend and how he actually feels for Levi. I can also see how someone with zero life/romantic experience like Terrence would end up in the situation Terrence ends up in: for all intents and purposes he’s in a relationship with California guy, but his heart longs for Levi—and Terrence just happens to fail to notice when the friendship with Levi tips into something more. That said, I would have thought even Terrence (who’s just socially awkward, not clinically diagnosed with any disorders) would figure out he needs to do SOMETHING when he and Levi have sex. But no, Terrence says nothing to his actual boyfriend. Hell, I’d even give Terrence a one-time-mistake card, but Terrence and Levi apparently continue their friends-with-benefits relationship like, on the regular. It’s perfectly clear in the story that Terrence and his actual boyfriend are not working out. We are told how controlling the boyfriend is (he sort of acts like Terrence’s sugar daddy, demands Terrence spend weekends with him, gets uppity when Terrence wants to “hang out” with Levi [and my inner cynic is thinking that’d be a euphemism for “bang”]). But the thing is, Terrence and his boyfriend have not broken up. Terrence is just straight up two-timing. Come to think of it, Levi seems to be okay with this (but he sort of plays the Aspergers card on this).
Like Levi’s reaction to his girlfriend’s pregnancy, Terrence’s infidelity doesn’t really add anything to the story. Arguably, these events “round out” Levi’s and Terrence’s milquetoast characters, albeit with broad strokes of “douchebag.” These events didn’t really add anything to the main threads of the story, so I’m left bitching about what a pair of dicks they are when I could have just give a banal “they’re cute.”
Overall, the main story is a pretty down-to-earth, slow and easy get together. Our two main characters are clearly flawed, but when it’s just them and they can forget their troubles (i.e. their own fuckups of impregnating a woman and jumping into a relationship with a stranger), I liked how they interacted with one another and how they viewed their slice of the world.