by Damon Srignoli
My right arm is beginning to turn a slight pink from hours of resting it on the rim of the car’s windowsill. At my left, driving, is my ex girlfriend. She steers the car down an eerily straight two-lane road in incremental S-curves while the radio is tuned to a 90’s pop station, 101.9 The Heat. It’s churning out chart successes at a rapid pace. My ex seems to know the words to most, and does a fine job singing them. Her voice is better than I remembered.
I’m happy that the radio is up loud—too loud to speak, and that the windows have remained open the entire time. The noise frees me from the need to say anything of substance.
I used to know her well. Shit, I used to know everything about her, what she liked, what she didn’t, but over the years we lost touch; after she graduated from tech and up and moved to work at some doctor’s office in Nashville. After that I let most of the good stuff slip away like a quick dream during an afternoon nap.
A song blares from the overexerted, assembly-line speakers. I look in her direction. She tilts her head back, allowing the Midwest air to make floating chaos of her caramel strands. During the chorus she flirts with me by jabbing her slender finger into my thigh each time it repeats, “If you want to be my baby, go ahead now.” I return a stiff, guarded smile.
I was leery about seeing her again. I guess most people in my circumstance would be. It wasn’t until last week, on the phone, that I’d heard from her in years. It wasn’t until, out of the blue, she asked me to accompany her on this trip.
On the phone she explained that, in her opinion, her boyfriend would make a “lousy travel companion,” and her family would not want him around for this—“they always considered you part of us…you know?” I believe I was to take this as a compliment and thank her. Instead I just said, “I’m not sure.”
I’m currently employed as a waiter at Larry’s Silver Bullet, a truck stop near the southern tip of Mississippi in the drab outskirts of a nowhere town called Taylor. It’s a place most people pass through on their way to the oasis of Oxford, with its fraternity parties and puffy southern blondes beaming in flowing gingham dresses.
Considering the limited responsibilities that a part-time employee like me has, I agreed to meet her in Memphis before we hung up, and that’s why I am seated in a cobalt blue Chevy sub-compact, with a fiery burnt arm and an ex-girlfriend, driving to her little sister’s funeral.
Throughout the trip she’s been amusing herself by pointing out different oddities along the arid landscape: a tired old man fixing a truck’s tire, bent at the knees, his rear peeking from the lip of his belt, and a billboard advertisement stating “Ninety-Nine Cent Packs of Marlboro Reds!” She leans into my ear, yelling over the stereo, “We should hit that on the way back!” I nod. I don’t smoke, but it seems an appropriate response. Although we’re not speaking much, I feel the tension lessening between us. Subtle gestures of kindness are becoming more common as the miles of hazy road blur behind. Spongy rectangle logs of watermelon gum are offered. Sips of oversized convenient store soda are shared from the same candy-striped straw. We begin to divvy up the responsibility for changing radio stations when one of us dislikes a song.
Earlier, she cut her thumb pretty awful while opening a soda tab. It was the kind of cut that produces copious amounts of spurting blood without it being very deep or all that painful. I held her finger with a yellow fast food napkin I found in the glove box. I held it there until the wound stopped gushing. Then, for some reason, I kissed it before giving it back to her. It scared me that I did that, and my insides felt scrambled like I was going to throw up.
Since I can think of, she was always the type of girl that never grossed me out; the kind of girl where her worst is still better than most peoples’ best.
Just a minute ago, while I was thinking about her, she said, “You always were so introspective—I always loved that about you.” Now I sit in silence picking over what she just said, like scraping crumbs from a table—doing my best impression of being absorbed by my thoughts.
Throughout the day she has assured me that going to this would be much tougher on her if it were not for me coming along. “My family always thought it was crazy that I never stayed with you,” she says. I’ve reassured her that it is no big deal and she would do the same for me. She shakes her head in a swift motion, “No, no—I don’t think I would,” she says.
We’re making good time, she updates me that we still have half a tank of gas and that barring any stops we should be there within an hour, two at the most. She looks out the window for what seems like forever, says, “I’m just mad at her, I’m just mad she made such a mess of her life—such a fuckin’ mess with them drugs.” I tell her that she always tried to help her sister, but sometimes people don’t change. They won’t. My ex keeps one hand on the wheel, looks into the distance, says, “I know that’s true. I tried—I sure did.”
My back is sweating profusely, soaking completely through my Bill Elliot T-shirt. I pray it dries before we arrive at her relatives’. I assume her family will come out of the house to greet us. They will be pleased she came. They will give her lots of kisses. This will be followed by surprised, awkward smiles in my direction. They’ll think, “After all these years she brought him. What an odd choice. She brought him to the funeral of her sister.”
My ex hands me a Dorito from a tiny foil bag. We laugh and sing the next song in unison. I do my best to let go of my feelings about the past and try not bringing up the thousands of things I want to say that will surely erupt into awkwardness.
Everything seemed so big and heavy when we were young and stupid in Concord, Arkansas. Our world crashed into a million particles with every late-night teary conversation on the front porch of her parents’ house; those inevitable yelling matches over the payphone, drunk on $1.50 Budweisers outside of Miller’s.
That was years ago, I tell myself. My sole reason for being in this car is to support her. It’s not about you and her; how, yeah, she really screwed you over by leaving for Tennessee, but you’re over it. Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself. At least.
The air coming through the window begins to cool. Early evenings in the Midwest are calm—every home, every convenience store looks as if were a set, constructed for a made-for-TV movie about the United States. The Midwest’s distinctive characteristic is its muted dullness. It is nice that it has stayed that way.
She fumbles with a small scrap of paper, “The directions,” she says. She’s sure we’re close. We turn off the highway onto a dusty two-lane spur. She clicks the radio until the display fades to a pale green. It’s the first time all day the car’s been silent. My ex comments, “Isn’t it funny, how people turn down the radio when they’re looking for something?” I nod. It is.
She makes a sharp left turn, then a wide right. She slows the car to a crawl. We search for the address jotted on the paper that’s balanced carefully in the ashtray built into the console.
I begin to notice the rows of sensible mid-western cars lining the cul-de-sac ahead. In the distance, I spot the address we’re searching for. I point. I focus my eyes on the neatly tied black balloon affixed with care to a glistening red mailbox. The car comes to a slow halt. She grins, pats my leg in a reassuring swirl, says, “Really, thanks for this,” before she takes a long, heavy breath.
We open the car doors. Her family members stream out one by one from a faded, grey, aluminum-sided home in neat procession. Hugs and kisses commence. Tears of sorrow are running down pale cheeks. I hang against my side of the car, waiting. My back is still sweating. I lift my shirt at the bottom, attempting to fan air inside like a balloon.
My ex finds me, wraps her right arm around my waist as she pushes me towards her family. Her white, sleeveless shirt is decorated in tiny specks of dried blood and dark soda stains. Black mascara is running along the deep canyons of her forced smile. She takes a good hard look at my face, then licks her non-cut thumb and gently wipes the creases of my mouth clean. I don’t move an inch. When she’s done, she holds up both of her thumbs. One is covered with the orange dust of a Dorito, the other a drying cut that is beginning to scab.
She leans the weight of her body into mine. I brace myself and push one of my legs deep into the gravel. Her lips press against mine and I taste the salt. She backs away as we simultaneously reach for each other’s hands and begin to walk together through the screen door decorated with carnations strung together in a heart shape. We enter like we’re gliding, as if we’re suspended in the air, drifting from the past. The screen door closes behind us with a dull thud. I’m happy again and all I can focus on are the creases in her cheeks when she smiles. I am here for her and I have her hand so tight in mine, so tight that I might not ever let it go again.