We’re driving down the road, going fast but not fast enough, and it’s pouring rain, and I’m fucking terrified; he’s driving because I’m still shaking ever since we got the call, and I’m sure he’s scared too, but lord knows we’re not going to talk about it, because all we ever do is talk but never about anything that matters. It’s dark, so dark I feel like I can’t see anything at all, not even myself, and our voices hang in the air like they’re the only part of us left.
“Are your lights on?” I ask.
“If they weren’t on, we wouldn’t be able to see the road at all.”
“Oh. Okay. Just wanted to make sure.” I pause. “What about the defogger?”
He gestures at the windshield. “Do you see any condensation on the windshield?”
“No,” I admit. “But… that doesn’t answer my question. See, maybe I don’t see any because there isn’t any, or maybe I don’t see any because you have the defogger on, and I just want to get it straight—”
“No. No condensation. No defogger. Just rain. That’s why the windshield wipers are on. You can see that they’re on, can’t you? Or do you need to ask me?”
“Okay, sorry,” I manage. “I just… wanted to check.” I don’t know what to say, but I feel like I need to say something.
“Listen, I know this is… really hard for you, but I don’t need you policing me as I drive.”
“I’m not,” I say, though I’m not sure if I believe it. Maybe I am just making up imaginary problems so that we can solve them, so that we can distract ourselves from talking about anything actually real. We sit in the silence a while. I can’t handle the silence. I can’t handle having to listen to the sound of my own mind.
“Do you mind if I turn the radio on?” I ask. He doesn’t respond anyway, and I flip it on. It’s some AM news station. I turn the knob—sports. Keep turning, pausing for a second or two, only catching fragments of garbled language, until—
“Hey, will you stop fiddling with all the buttons?” I freeze and take my hand away from the knob. It’s a static channel. We listen to the static for a few seconds until that too gets painful.
“Hah,” he says all of a sudden, with a little laugh that feels so out of place. It’s like it’s a sound I don’t even recognize. “Now I feel like I’m in Poltergeist or something.” He laughs again. I don’t. I move to turn it off. “No, no, leave it,” he stops me. “I kind of like it. Some white noise. You know, I’ve been meaning to try out one of those white noise machines for a while. They’re supposed to help you sleep better.” He turns to me, as if anticipating my response. “Not that I’m going to fall asleep right now, before you say anything. Relax.”
We sit in the silence that’s not silence anymore. Eyes focused on the road. Ears focused on the static. “I never saw it,” I say finally.
“I never saw it. I never saw that movie… Poltergeist.”
“Huh,” he says, surprised, and turns his head to the side a little like he does when he’s thinking really hard about something. “Didn’t we… didn’t we go see it when we first started dating?”
“Did we?” I can’t remember.
“Yeah, I’m sure we did. It was a special Halloween screening. I remember the guy in front of us got so scared he left halfway through. Oh, and remember you spilled the huge tub of popcorn when we sat down? And then you made me go back and get another one.”
“Huh,” is all I say. “I don’t remember. Maybe, uh, maybe you were with someone else.” I try to offer an explanation.
He just shakes his head in a very matter-of-fact way, and then he frowns. “No, I don’t think so.” He’s still looking straight ahead. I notice his grip tighten on the steering wheel. He turns the radio off.
“Hey,” I say, turning to face him. “What’s your favorite movie?”
He doesn’t look back. “What?”
“Just answer quickly. All-time favorite movie.”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Come on, what’s your favorite movie? You have to have one.”
“You know what kind of movies I like.”
“But I don’t know your favorite.” Nothing. “Please? I’ll tell you mine. Do you know mine? Come on, you have to know mine.”
“Really? You don’t? It’s Citizen Kane.” He’s still not looking at me. “Did you know that?” I say. “Citizen Kane. Love that movie.”
“Huh. Weird.” He looks like he’s going to say something, then stops himself. I can tell that he wants to say something. I can always tell, but I can never tell what he’s actually trying to say. Why don’t I ever know? He turns to me. “Well now I’m embarrassed. I mean, your favorite is this old black-and-white movie, and mine’s something stupid—”
I turn the radio back on. Country rock. He snaps it off. He doesn’t finish his sentence, and so I feel compelled to fill the silence, and I just started talking. “I hate it when someone pretends like they don’t know you,” I say. “When a person you’ve definitely met a bunch of times before asks ‘What’s your name,’ or says ‘Nice to meet you,’ after you interact, when you both know that you’ve met before. I mean, sometimes I give people a break—sometimes people genuinely don’t remember. They’re not the ones I’m angry about, though. The ones that make me mad is when someone says ‘Have we met?’ when we both know we’re friends on Facebook or fucking LinkedIn or whatever. It’s like we don’t want to admit that we remember someone, that we recognize them, as if remembering just their fucking name is admitting that we think about them, that we care about them maybe too much, and lord knows we can’t admit that. No—the worst is when someone averts their eyes when walking past you to pretend like they didn’t see you. You lock eyes with the person for a split second. You both see each other. You both know that the other person knows you’ve seen each other. But then you both pretend otherwise. I do it all the fucking time too, and I hate it.”
He says nothing. We just sit there. Then, finally, he coughs loudly, a dry, hacking cough, and says, “My favorite movie’s Titanic, for the record.”
“Really?” I say. “Interesting. I’ve always wondered how it felt for the people making that movie. Like, the ones who played all those people dying. Was it weird for the actor to pretend to die? Is it any weirder than actually dying?”
He shifts in his chair, and I hear him swallow hard. “I don’t know. Don’t you think we should, like, maybe not talk about this?”
“This is what I want to talk about. Like, it’s pretty fucked up, when you think about it. Hollywood is so quick to monetize any tragedy—”
“The movie came out, like, a hundred years after the ship sank.”
It’s so dark that I can barely read the road signs we pass. STAY AWAKE, STAY ALIVE one reads. Good thing neither of us could sleep even if we wanted to.
“Hey,” he says to me. “You remember when we went to Medieval Times?”
I smile a little. “Yeah.”
“Now, that was weird. I wonder what it’s like, for those actors, to be pretending to be knights—”
All of a sudden, I notice something on the other side of the road. A few cars. Lots of flashing lights. “What was that?” I say.
“Accident,” he says simply, as if that says it all.
I look at him. He doesn’t look at me. Just stares straight ahead. He shuts his eyes for a moment, and at first I’m afraid he’s not going to open them again. “I love it when you share a knowing glance with a stranger,” he says. He doesn’t look at me. “I love it when something weird happens that nobody else seems to notice, and you have this brief moment of connection with the one other person who does, like you’re the only two people seeing what’s in front of you. Like when I’m walking down the street, and an absurdly tall man walks by, or an old man whizzes past on a unicycle. And nobody else turns their head to look, nobody else seems to notice, except for me and one other lady who’s stopped dead in her tracks. And then the two of us lock eyes for just a second, and our smiles spread. We both have a little secret laugh, and then continue on our way. I love it when you’re the only one to get a joke. Nobody else gets it, and nobody else needs to.”
He starts laughing. At first a giggle, then a chuckle. Louder and louder. “This traffic is ridiculous,” is all I say. “Where did all these cars come from?”
He’s not laughing anymore. “Nothing we can do about it.”
“Do you think we should take a different exit? Get off this road?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, it’s already eleven o’clock. We can’t really afford to get held up here—”
He takes one hand off the wheel and suddenly jerks his head. “Hey. Don’t you think I already fucking know that? Don’t you think I’m already trying to get there as fast as I can?”
“You were barely cracking sixty-five before—”
“Because I didn’t want to get pulled over! That’s the last thing we need right now.”
It’s quiet again. So quiet that I’m afraid of shattering the silence, but also afraid of letting it last for too long, because maybe then we’ll never be able to say anything ever again. My voice is barely a whisper. “Do you… do think we’ll make it in time?”
“What kind of question is that?” he snaps. “How am I supposed to fucking answer? What do you want me to say? No? No, we won’t make it. We’ll be too late. Too fucking bad for us.”
“Hey, I’m sorry—”
“And you don’t think I’ve already thought about all this? What if we are too late? What if it’s really as bad as they all said and she’s gone before we get there? What the fuck are we supposed to do then? Just turn right back around and go home as if nothing happened?” His voice reverberates around the car, but I can’t raise mine even if I wanted to.
“Stop it, please. It’s not going to be like that—”
“You don’t know. You can’t control it. You can’t control any of it. Stop pretending like you can—”
Out of nowhere I notice more flashing lights on the other side of the road. “Wow. Another one.”
“Yeah,” he says.
It’s raining harder now. “Really coming down,” I say, watching the rain hit the windshield. His response is to cough again, this time even louder. He turns on the radio. Instrumental music. “I mean, will do anything to avoid interacting with you,” I say, picking up my rant where I left off, as if the whole conversation in the middle didn’t happen. Maybe it didn’t. He’s not listening, at least I don’t think so. “People focus on their phone, fix their hair, stare off into space; anything to not look at you, not make eye contact. And of course, you do the same, but as you approach, you keep looking back at them, hoping they’ll wave or give some signs of recognition, because even though it’s not like you’re even good friends with the other person or it’s not like you’re in love with them, it wouldn’t hurt to acknowledge one another, but then you both just end up walking past one another. And then the next time it happens, you don’t even fucking bother to look at them, or, god forbid, say ‘hi.’ Because nobody wants to do that, because we all want to seem so aloof and so unconcerned with the other people around us, wanting them to all recognize us but not wanting to recognize them, because admitting that is somehow admitting we care about other people, as if that’s the worst thing in the world.”
He blinks a few times and rubs his eyes. He yawns. “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he says, finally.
“I… I don’t know either,” I say. I didn’t think he’d want to talk about it. I didn’t think I wanted to either, not really.
“You know what your parents should do? They should sue that family for all they’re worth. Honestly.” It’s like he’s energized all over again. “Who the hell leaves a gun out where kids can get it, what kind of fucking hillbilly trash owns a fucking gun in the first place—”
“And of course, it’s not like their kid was hurt. No, those idiots just let their inbred son roam freely around, letting him pick up a gun and shoot kids all willy-nilly—”
I feel my throat getting all scratchy. “I told you before to stop this—”
“My question though—why was your sister hanging around with those kind of kids in the first place? I mean, Sasha seems like a pretty smart girl, but stuff like this makes you wonder. When she gets out you’re really going to have to talk to her about the people she associates herself with. I know she’s young but she’s got to have standards—”
“I feel like I’m going to throw up,” I say and roll down the window and stick my head out. The rain and the wind sting. I pull my head back inside and roll the window back up slowly. I look at him. He doesn’t look at me. I turn away, stare at the road, stare at my shoes, trying to find them in the darkness of the car.
“I’m sorry,” he says finally. “I really am.”
I squeeze my eyes shut tightly. “Our exit’s coming up.”
“I know,” he says. “We’ll be there soon.”
The song changes to some acoustic guitar tune. It goes on for several minutes. It gets progressively fuzzier as we keep driving, fading in and out. “We’re losing the signal,” I say.
“Should I change it?”
I consider a moment. “No, leave it. The other stations are probably all like this anyway.”
We sit and listen as the black road stretches ahead. A few notes are clear here and there, but eventually the song turns to static completely. I reach to turn it off, but then I stop myself. I turn the volume up a bit instead. He looks at me for a moment with that same look from before, like he’s about to say something, but can’t quite find the words. I know now he won’t find them. I look back at him for a moment, until he returns his eyes to the road. We both stare ahead as the static fills the silence, until it drowns all our thoughts out completely.