He drove to her house. The summer lightning filled the sky like crackle nail polish and the thunder shook his lungs while the rain pounded his windshield. He didn’t need the GPS anymore, didn’t need it after the first time and now he can drive there without thinking. But today he’s thinking more than he has in a while.
Thinking about the party or kickback or whatever she called it where he didn’t know her name just her smile. They played quarters and he slid the glass to her and she finished it, staring at him the whole time while she caught the quarter between her teeth and grinned.
They played until his knuckles cracked into canyons of blood and the rivers ran across the coffee table but it was just from Ikea, right? so he wrapped his fingers in gauze until he could feel his heartbeat in them and blood bloomed across white. She grabbed his hand and could probably feel his heart too, could probably feel it dance as she laced her fingers in his. The sliding screen door rasped open and she led him outside. The grass was already wet with the next morning’s dew but they lay down side by side anyways and he didn’t mind when the blades painted his corduroys dark gray and dotted his arms with droplets because she was still smiling.
They traded secrets while Orion watched from above. Secrets he hadn’t told anyone else; secrets she hadn’t told anyone else, until her voice got quiet, quieter than it had all night, and she asked if she could stay over because she didn’t want to go home and he gave her a hug and fished his lanyard and keys out of his bag.
Rocks were scattered across the road and they jeered at his wheels, desperate to punch a hole in each of his tires and leave him stranded by the bridge under the train tracks. The train tracks they would stand on in the summer until the catenary wires buzzed above them, the tinny metal sound reaching deep into their ears while a group of boys played chicken until the train reached the bend a quarter mile from the station and they backed off one by one. The sun peered through a gap in the clouds and illuminated the road and for a moment the rocks were fragments of light.
The light that her eyes would catch and hold tight while she looked over at him as he drove down the highway or freeway or parkway or whatever she called it, probably too fast but there wasn’t any traffic which should be celebrated with the speedometer edging 90 and her singing along to a band she told him he hadn’t heard of, but it was just Fountains of Wayne so “Valley Winter Song” played and he pretended not to know it. He looked over to see her brown eyes fill with honey and her grin spread across her cheeks and for a minute he didn’t care that she’d break his heart.
They talked about their future (a loft with hardwood floors and themed dinner parties and maybe a cat if he’ll take an antihistamine) but she always led with When we get out of here and he chewed on his cheek because her family wanted her gone and his needed him to stay. It was never explicit, but each time he slid his biweekly check from the restaurant in town, the fancy one with white tablecloths and two different forks and coffee after dinner, his parents gave him a relieved smile. He had dreams, sure, but it seemed like every day they were pushed towards an indefinite later, when his other responsibilities would melt away and he’d stuff his suitcase full of sweaters and corduroys and a raincoat and he’d close his eyes and throw a dart at a map and buy a one-way ticket wherever it landed.
Her dreams were abounding like she was searching desperately for a piece of her that a past life had flung across the country and forgotten to pick up on its way back. It all had an air of transcendence, and he felt out of place for being constrained to where he was, like his brain hadn’t fully developed and he, too, should be searching for some abstract “more.” But it wasn’t all self-actualization for her. Some nights, nights when she couldn’t take the fighting anymore, she would show up at his house and they would drive for hours until her gas light interrupted the music and she handed a 10-dollar bill to the pump attendant. They must’ve driven every road in the county four times over by the time the leaves stitched a yellow and orange quilt over the asphalt.
He finally told her he was staying once his molars broke through the skin and his mouth filled with metal, liquid and heavy as if mercury coursed through his veins. She got quiet, quieter than he’d seen her in months and he asked if they could please talk about this and she said there’s nothing to talk about. I don’t see what I’ve done wrong here; my family needs me here with my grandmother and my job and I’m sorry we don’t have the same situation but
Situation, really? she countered and he knew to shut up.
Tears weighed down his bottom lids and maybe they were made of metal too, dripping down his cheeks and leaving behind twin mercurial scars. He could tell she was crying too but she just pretended to squint at the sun, pulling down the visor.
Welcome Interstate Managers must’ve been on shuffle because “Stacy’s Mom” came on next and he couldn’t help but laugh as the chorus punctured the space between them that was full of something verging on finality. She started laughing too and the tears multiplied.
He wished he could package up these moments and rewatch them forever. Memories didn’t have the permanence and solidity he craved. It was like when he was younger, when his family drove an hour east on the weekend to go to the beach and he built sandcastles, picking up fistfuls of sand and carrying them back to his semisolid constructions. Somehow the tighter he squeezed, the more sand spilled out.
He knew that, eventually, the grains would slip through his fingertips, through the bandages, and there wouldn’t be any memory left.
One day she ran. She promised she wasn’t running from him but he wasn’t sure so he couldn’t stop crying and his nails dug into his cuticles and she wasn’t there to tell him to stop so blood dripped onto the carpet, dripped until his grandmother came in and noticed the blood but not the tears and yelled at him for the stain. She kept saying how much she hated blood. She couldn’t look at it. It grabbed a fistful of her stomach and squeezed until her last meal came up and iron memories flipped through her mind like some sort of twisted View-Master.
The smell of OxyClean filled his head until he felt like he was going to float away. His sudden weightlessness grabbed his collar and lifted him to his feet, ignoring his grandmother’s protest, and he took the lanyard from the hook next to the toaster, the car keys clinking as he swung them circular and the worn fabric hugged his knuckles like a makeshift bandage.
She promised she wasn’t running from him but her family questioned him anyway and he told them he didn’t have any notice or information and their anger at her must’ve gotten all mixed up and misdirected. Their shouts suffocated the foyer.
They were at the train tracks one day, a summer day so hot the heat threatened to snap them in half and leave them scattered across the shimmering pavement. Pregnant clouds watched from above and the world baked in the humidity.
She informed him of her departure as matter-of-factly as the weather forecast. All he could say was I think it’s going to rain and the sky tore open but she stepped on the train anyway and he was left all alone, the buzz fading and his hair dripping as her body hurtled down the coast in an Amtrak coffin. He’d tethered himself to her, a thread that could stretch across town, across the ten-minute drive over the mountain but couldn’t stretch to the point in the distance where the train and the horizon blurred no matter how hard he squinted. It snapped and he sat on the platform with his head in his hands while the rain patted his back. He touched his nose and the pad of his finger bloomed red but he just let the blood drip down his philtrum and pool in the indentation between his lips. The blood was comforting and he wrapped himself in its red blanket of humanity. He sat there until it got dark and his hips ached and his ankles were covered in mosquito bites and he couldn’t bear being alone any longer.
He finished looping around the mountain and by now the sun was kissing the horizon, the clouds a shocking pink and orange against gray-blue. He wished it was as simple as Fountains of Wayne had made it out to be, where he’d write her a valley winter song and a loading screen would appear like they’d just hacked the game and their wallets would be full and they’d each be happy forever.
He went under the tunnel and the rocks bit at his tires, the low tire pressure warning lighting up the dashboard but he didn’t care because he was almost to his final destination. No one was at the train station. It was after 7 p.m. They were home from work and sitting down to dinner.
He got out of his car and put four quarters in the meter. He wasn’t sure if it would be enough time before his grandmother came to pick up the car but it’s all he had in his wallet. Blood dripped down his right thumb and he wiped it on his jeans, leaving behind a crimson scar on the thigh, and he jogged up the stairs to the deserted platform.
He stood on the tracks while the rubber soles of his sneakers warped around the crosstie. He traversed the rails like a tightrope, closing his eyes and pretending the electric buzz was the roar of a crowd and he’s done it again, another flawless routine. The buzz grew louder like it was two flies who teamed up, one in each ear, buzzing closer and closer until he swatted his ears but it kept getting louder because it wasn’t flies it was the train on his left and he’s braver than the boys they saw in the summer, their backs freckled and burnt by the sun, because the train has less than 400 yards as it passes the bend. 200 now. He closed his eyes. Should he be praying right now? He wasn’t sure. He forgot to think about this part.
But he wasn’t braver than those boys. He couldn’t imagine himself as braver than anyone as his brain yanked him back, scolding him for thinking he was some sort of movie character where one thing goes wrong and he throws his hands up in the air and steps off the edge of a cliff. The train roared past and his nose started bleeding. He reached into his pocket, his hand covered in a gross layer of sweat from his almost-stunt, until it reached the parking receipt which he stuck in his nose to stop the blood from dripping onto his shirt. He got into the car and shoved the key back into the ignition, cursing himself for the flat tires he’d have to fix, and drove home as the twilight swallowed the sun.