You see the wreck while driving through the storm on the S-curve before the turnoff to your half-country neighborhood. Coming home from that party, the one meant to ‘get your mind off’ the hippie’s daughter. Thinking about the last time you saw her, on the mountain where her father grew soy (and pot), when she talked in the cabin about staying forever. Remember how ambition made you falter. You pull over into the long grass by the willow tree. The ass end of the car is boxy as ever, just splattered in the mud that it carved through on its way to the willow. The car’s mouth has the tree in an awkward death-grip; really the two halves that nearly meet look like stingray wings, trying desperately to hug. You notice these things pointedly, before referring to the license plate or the cracked windshield. You try instead to recognize the dings and scratches the two of you racked up before, just driving around, listening to CDs, trying hard to look at the trees and not the forest. You don’t want to be sure.
You punch out the windshield with the handle of your clasp knife and see her face scrunched up against the steering column. You touch her hair and her head lolls back. There is less blood than you’d imagine, just a brown smudge above her right cheek which you try to rub away but can’t. You remember thinking when you left, we coulda been something.
We coulda been something. An old man’s regret in a young man’s chest. What a fuckin tragedy, you think, which it is. But these things occur to you weeks later, while you’re doing laundry or homework and you can’t decide whether it’s the situation or the remembrance that is absurd when the banal underthings are right there, and she is so fiery and far away.
Coulda been something comes back to you, briefly, while you’re babysitting your little sister (12) and younger cousin (7). A Thursday night, which means it’s almost Friday, as your older friends say. You have finished your homework and stolen a beer from the pantry so you are inclined to believe them. You are sitting on the couch and playing Smash Bros with your sister and cousin, winning without trying, winning even though you are buzzed, a buzzed little seventeen-year-old, when you really should be letting them win. But you’re not really thinking about this dilemma, or the oldness of the game, or its message from the past, its ghostliness. You’re not thinking about your parents, or the kids at school you talk to or the girls you half-look at. When you beat off these days you aren’t sure who to think about. This is not the worst of your problems. This is not a problem and anyway you’re not thinking about it. You are thinking at this moment about your cousin and your sister. A little of her. Be hard not to.
You get up to get another piece of pizza and maybe another beer when you realize you have to piss so you start the half-flight climb up to the bathroom in the hall instead. Off-white suburb carpet covers the floor, the kind that reminds you you’re not a farmer despite your pickup truck and part-time farm-hand job. The carpet lightens your last footfall even though you’re half-tripping onto the top step. Because she’s standing right there, in the white nightie she was in the night you lost your virginity.
You wobble but don’t fall to your knees, guessing it would be too cheesy which she would’ve hated (would hate). But maybe it’s right, since this is all a bit cheesy, you don’t know. Your cousin and sister yell at you to start the next game.
“Hey,” you both say. You start crying a little. You wonder if you’ll be able to hug and stuff because her nightie is ragged and the legs sort of not there floating but you touch her and she touches you. You are both a little cold. You wonder if it’s just the A/C.
“Come see cuz and sis,” you say. She nods. The smudge is still there. She goes down the stairs before you.
“What.” She turns around funny.
You take her back to the couch where once you made out. She says she doesn’t want anything, doesn’t need any of the refreshments you offer her. Your cuz and sis start making fun of you again.
“You got a girlfriend,” says cuz.
You look at her face, in profile, and wonder if this is true.
Your first worry is that you are dreaming. You have dreamt her coming back before, have woken at three-thirty, sweating, eyelids snapping up like a pair of yanked window shades. Have shut your eyes, hoping to go back, instead staying wired til the morning bell.
You tell her to pinch you and she kisses you on the temple. Young cuz is repulsed by this but lil sis shushes him. Sis seems to have a handle on things. You almost turn back to ask her, the ghost, extra-casually, how long this visit will last. But really you know you only have tonight. This is your second and recurring preoccupation, the one that sticks.
You hit on it again while eating ice cream at the counter. She does not sit with you all but semi-stands next to the counter and eats the ice cream with the scoop straight from the tub. This is the kind of thing that made her wonderful but also grating. Right now it is mostly just nice. It seems a little silly though that you two are not working anything out but are just letting things be nice.
“This is nice,” you say.
“Just let it be nice, then,” she says.
“It just seems sort of silly.”
“That’s all there is,” she says. “It seems sort of silly and then you die.” You picture her rain-driving and crashing and wonder if that was the silly part too. You start to whimper a little (she is gone, after all) and feel a little embarrassed, then realize the feeling embarrassed and the working your muscles in the sun and the trying to get out of this podunk town is all bullshit, and you cry like you did when you were a child. Your cousin joins you in weeping and your sister goes to her room, disgusted.
She takes you upstairs to your parents’ bed. You remember it being nice up there. You almost think coulda been something again but realize this would be missing the point.
You have the ghost-sex. You feel a little bit of you go and then you’re lying back on the bed saying to yourself, oh well. Ah shit.
“We coulda been something,” you say. You feel bits of her going too. First is the weight she puts on the bed.
“We were something,” she says.
“I guess.” You half-feel her fingers in yours.
You might have fallen asleep; you’re not sure. All that is left now is her scent through the open window, and all your silly memories.