This short story was originally written in 2006, back when I was in grad school in Philadelphia. Only a few edits have been made since then. Feedback is appreciated.
GAS, BOOZE, CIGARETTES, herb- anything else that could distract us was in short supply. I was beginning to think that either God wanted us to be together forever like happy, little Eskimos or for one of us to be dead before morning. This car wasn’t going to run on emotion. It wasn’t going to run on our desire to be happy and free and mindlessly in love with each other. No, this dusty ol’ Caddy ran on pure gasoline and was all we seemed to have left in the world besides each other and the few possessions we had tossed in the back seat long ago when the sun was rising three days earlier in the sweaty panhandle of Florida. There were three thousand stars in the sky and Utah was just south of Mars. I honestly didn’t have much hope. Rose didn’t have much hope either. She gave me a variety of reassuring smiles and ran her warm, soft, painters’ hands through my hair, but I could see the look of defeat in her shiny, hazel eyes. It was as if the sun had punched the moon in a bar fight and the moon hadn’t been the same since.
A car came up along side us and its headlights briefly illuminated the inside of our car. Rose used the opportunity to take the Marvin Gaye cassette out of the deck and quickly shove in Otis Redding’s greatest hits. As the car passed, I felt her head softly slide onto my shoulder.
“You’re the best Sammy,” Rose whispered. I put my arm around her, holding her tight. Soon morning would come and another greasy diner and scrambled eggs and coffee that tasted like wet cardboard would follow. I looked forward to the daylight and the company of the rest of the world. I wanted to pass other cars and stare blankly out at the blurred scenery that screamed past. The lines in front of us could lead to the end of the world. Beyond our one headlight that still worked could be a land without gravity and soymilk, and we were heading straight for it without a clue as to what we were getting ourselves into. I strengthened my grip around Rose’s shoulders and felt her body move when she inhaled and exhaled. I could imagine seventeen million other places I’d rather be, but no one I’d rather be with.
ROSE WORKED AT a small bakery across the street from where Sam tied up his boat, Tallboy, when he wasn’t taking tourists out tuna fishing. The bakery was always uncomfortably hot and made his eyes water, but it had great coffee and chocolate chip cookies that usually had burnt edges. One day Sam went in and said a quiet hello to Rose. She smiled back and asked if he needed anything.
Just a cookie today, Sam said laughing. I always feel a little ridiculous ordering a cookie.
You look a little ridiculous ordering a cookie, she quickly responded.
IT WAS THREE-THIRTY in the morning. We were almost halfway through Utah, and in another day and half we would be in the blissful wilderness of rural Oregon. Everything we knew would be left behind and the change of scenery was going to be our catalyst towards the blissful happiness we whispered about lying in bed back home. We both longed for days when we were someone else, the days that only started because we were able to be who we wanted to be, not who we had to be. To go back in time we had to rush into the future and the only future that existed in Florida was longer hair, bigger bellies and days without talking. We would rather die than live a life headed in that direction. Deep down we felt we existed in a world parallel to everyone else’s. Unfortunately our time was running out like a pack of smokes and something needed to happen for us to stay there or for the real world to pull us back. We couldn’t go back in time, but we would try and recapture it to save ourselves. So it was on to Oregon and if that didn’t work, the best we could hope for was to die on the way.
Just two more days and this would all be over.
ON THEIR FIRST DATE Sam had a big, red, handlebar mustache that he had grown because some friends of his had started a mustache club. Rose liked it because it made him look mysterious, like he had something to hide.
All he had left to hide from her was his middle name.
AROUND DAYBREAK MY eyes burned from lack of sleep and my mouth tasted like an alien had crawled in and died. Rose raised her head, patted down her rumpled brown hair, and squinted in the early morning sun that was exploding behind the hay bales and farmhouses. She kissed me on the cheek and sighed, exhaling with a silky good morning.
“You wanna change the music? I’ve been listening to Otis nonstop since you fell asleep,” I replied, the words stumbling out of my mouth as if they were drunk. A slight pang was dinging in time on the walls of my head. Rose’s head cocked to the left and her mouth ran up the right side of her face.
“No, you’re cranky.” I leaned my head against the door window.
“Nope. I feel fine.”
“It is, yes.”
My head felt good leaning up against the ice-cold window, the cold clawing through my hair and stretching outside across my scalp like barbed wire tentacles. I briefly thought about opening the door and barrel rolling my way to freedom, although I would probably have trouble successfully getting out the door and would most likely kill us both. Logistics win.
Utah air was crisp and full of razor, sharp teeth when we parked. My stiff fingers struggled to stretch out enough to light my lighter and my elbows and arms had problems connecting with the cigarette that bounced and rattled between my lips. There was a lightness around me, an unsettling feeling that made my legs feel like withered carrot sticks. I leaned against the Caddy and stroked my chin and the stubble collecting. I wanted a beer, something to settle my stomach. It had started acting up around 5, when I started thinking back to when things felt right, when thinking of Rose made me smile innocently. Stuck here in the middle, that sense of fulfillment was starting to seem unattainable, but both the memory of it and the hope of tomorrow stirred recklessly within me and made me restless. It was as if the questions were right in front of me and someone was whispering the answers into my ear. I felt strong and able to hog-tie big, fat clouds and use ‘em as pillows. It was pleasure-filled madness, and it was bouncing around in my stomach like someone had fed it pot brownies unknowingly. Rose got out of the car and I could hear her yawn, but I didn’t look over. I was in a trance and all I could think about was that I was close to something and it wasn’t just breakfast.
SAM WAS AT Rose’s apartment one night after work and saw a poster of his band on her door. He asked her where she got it.
I stole it from your room after you left this morning, she said.
I would have given you one.
I just figured I would just you know, take it.
Sam started leaving poems he had written or photos he had taken lying around his room with the hope she’d steal them.
She stole his favorite lighter, but never anything else.
THE TABLE AT THE diner used to be white and the chairs squeaked and called out every time Rose and I shifted our weight. At first it was funny and we took turns making jokes about it.
“God bless you,” Rose said after I moved.
“Are there ducks around here?” I said, looking out the window after Rose had shifted slightly. She giggled.
After a while the squeaking became the only noise and our food arrived and we ate in silence. Halfway through, I stopped eating and placed my fork down. I buried my head in my hands. I felt my fingertips run across the greasy strains of my brown hair and my nails dug into my scalp, hoping to draw blood. Rose ignored me and kept on eating her oatmeal. I raised my head and looked at her, her dark skin half-glistening in the morning sun and it’s rays that pierced the diner’s windows, showing flurries of dust bouncing off the glass. For a few moments I couldn’t take my tired eyes off of her and she kept on chewing, looking straight back at me with wide, refreshed eyes and an expression that could fill a vacant lot with a million flowers. I raised my fork and the piece of scrambled egg still perched on it.
“You want some of this?” I asked.
“You know I don’t eat eggs, Sam”
“True. But I thought, everything else was fucked, so why not your diet.”
“One needs stability, especially when times are fucked.”
“One needs a lot more than stability, Rose.”
My eyes dropped down and ran across the table. The waitress had given us three forks.
“Challenges? No. I don’t agree with that, honey. Nope. People need stability. Stability first and then after that comes challenges. Would challenges even exist without stability?”
“You know I love you right?”
“I love you, Rosie. I love you, a lot.”
“I love you too.” I stared at her and she smiled and pointed her spoon at me. I then watched the oatmeal drip off and fall onto the table. It dropped fast and splattered onto different parts of her placemat. Soon a Jackson Pollack painting of oatmeal was strewn around her bowl. It made me laugh and wish that I read his autobiography instead of just stealing it from the bookstore.
ROSE WOULD LIE IN bed and talk about how much she missed living in Boston.
People there wanted to do something, she would say. They had ambition. People down here, they are just so content. There’s so much laziness that it makes me sick.
Sam loved the Red Sox, but he couldn’t fucking stand Boston.
ROSE OFFERED TO drive after breakfast. She rubbed her belly and joked that she was so full. I’m so fat, she whined. I couldn’t help but crack a smile. She was a beautiful woman, the most beautiful woman I’d ever been with. Rose was an album you never stop listening to or a road you always want to drive down. She was the first nice day in summer and the unseasonably warm day in the middle of winter. If the ocean dried up because the Earth accidentally tipped over in a drunken stupor, Rose would be the solo cup of spring water it needed in the morning to sober up. Rose is more words. She is one too many books. She’s another set of watercolors. She is the most beautiful necessary distraction in the whole wide world and her breath smelled like stale oatmeal.
WITH ROSE DRIVING and the Band now in the tape deck, I quickly fell asleep. My head was a roller coaster and it wouldn’t stop, it only got faster and faster. I was alone and the safety bar flew off, leaving me to hold on to the cart tightly as it zipped around turn after turn. The coffee cup shaped cart flew past billboards with ex-girlfriends faces plastered on them and bad covers of Led Zeppelin songs blasted over speakers underneath the seat. I tried to close my eyes but the whirling colors I saw when I did made my stomach even more upset and I felt vomit inch it’s way up my throat. My head dropped down and my chin collapsed against my sternum sending a shockwave of pain through my chest. My heart pumped and convulsed and I felt my ribs separating. Throwing my head back again, the roller coaster had stopped and all the lights and the music had turned off. My skin felt like curdled milk and my tongue ran across the slippery fronts of my teeth, knocking them out one by one.
Slumped down in the cart lifelessly, but shivering and shaking, I was quickly awoken by floodlights suddenly turning on and Spanish music came pumping through the speakers- mariachi men yelling and strumming their guitars, singing something about being sad and lonely in the company of loved ones. But I don’t even know Spanish. I don’t know anything. I don’t know words or pain or thought, nothing. I tried to sing something else, something to calm me down, but the mariachi singers got louder and louder until it felt like the whole fucking band was practicing in my eardrums that had the acoustics of a goddamn missile silo.
“I DON’T FUCKING KNOW SPANISH!” I yelled, waking up with a manic jerk. I looked at Rose, who was looking back at me with a confused, sympathetic stare.
“Neither do I.”
“No it’s…never mind. I was dreaming.”
“About speaking Spanish?”
“That sounds fun.”
“Not so much,” I sat back in the seat and lit a cigarette, zoning out into the swirling smoke that looked like early morning sea smoke. “I don’t like dreaming about people singing songs to me in Spanish.”
“I’ll sing songs to you in any language you like.”
“And that’s why I love you.”
“Because I’m a multi-lingual songstress?”
“I don’t even think songstress is a word, but sure.”
“No, I don’t think so. Songstress? It sounds almost like a word, but not quite.”
“Can we just make it a word?”
“Do you want to come up with one?”
“I will. I want to think about it.”
“Oh come on, Sam. Thinking takes the fun out of things.”
“You bet. Let’s never think again, okay. It’ll be more fun that way.”
“I suppose. I won’t have as many headaches.”
“Oh baby,” she coo’d, leaning over and kissing me. Her lips felt like ice cream and ash fell onto my knuckles. I closed my eyes again and felt her unique energy flow into my body. I was happy. I was excited and ready for us to get to Oregon. I thought about swimming in rivers and falling asleep underneath a 700 foot tall tree with Rose in my arms. I was going to chop wood all day and grow a big mountain man beard. At night we’d take long walks or drives up and down dirt roads on someone’s motorcycle and we wouldn’t wear helmets because we didn’t have any fear of dying. We wouldn’t have any fears at all because we had each other and while alone we could be mighty, together we were infinite. Our wine would be mixed with invincibility and we would drink it all day and night. I’d learn how to play guitar so I could sing her songs and she’d write poems she wanted me to sing to her. We kept kissing and I felt like the key to happiness was hanging around my neck.
ROSE MOVED INTO Sam’s apartment at the end of January. They watched the Super Bowl together and threw her pots and pans into trash bags. At halftime, Sam asked her who she was rooting for.
The Steelers, she said. I like their uniforms.
Sam went to the bathroom and punched the wall. He hated the Steelers.
MY STOMACH JILTED and I felt the Caddy swerve and a loud horn started to blare. My eyes kept closed. Our lips were still together. There was no fear. There was just us, Rose and Sam, champions of conquering our past by driving straight through the future!
Suddenly my body went crashing through the windshield. Shards of glass tore through my body and I skidded across the pavement, finally coming to a stop in a puddle of cracked, frozen mud. I ran my tongue across my slippery teeth to see if they were still there.
SAM AND ROSE WENT out for Valentine’s Day, but by that point things were largely for show. Sam’s bed had become the largest bed in the world and they had picked sides miles apart.
The restaurant was called Barbara’s Kitchen, but Barbara was home sick with cancer. A friend had told Sam to make sure Rose ordered oysters.
Dude, they’re an aphrodisiac, Greg said.
Rose ordered the spinach soup.
MY NECK WAS TWISTED and blood was dripping into my ears. From somewhere I heard sirens, a woman crying, and a kid asking Rose to blink if she was alive. All I could see of the Caddy was one of it’s wheels still spinning in the air like a ghost with no one to haunt. Hands touched my back and told me to stay where I was and not to move. The paramedics are coming, they continued. Their voices weren’t as strong as their hands and I could hear the quivering commas in between each word.
“You’re lucky to be alive,” I heard a woman’s voice say. I saw her sandals and her painted toe nails. Each nail had a cross painted on it.
“Your toes,” I mumbled. “Nice crosses.”
“Are you a religious man?”
“Probably not,” I said, closing my eyes again and dropping my head against the pavement. I started to sing to myself in broken Spanish. Something about being sad and lonely in the company of loved ones.
I couldn’t hit the high notes; I could never hit the high notes.
Sleep never felt so good and I decided to finish the song tomorrow.