Through the windshield I see a figure bundled in black with head down-turned against the wind. Shuffling but bold—a man, trudging through a typical winter storm. There's something familiar in the gait. I try to place it as I slow from my crawl to a stop.
Rolling down the window, I call out, “Need a ride?” The cold slices through the car and scrapes at my eyes until they water. The man turns, stares blankly.
“Need a ride?” I repeat, this time louder. I squint through the dark to see his face, convinced he's someone I went to high school with, but who? Few get out of western Pennsylvania. It's like quicksand. The more you struggle, the more you stick. I'm one of the lucky ones; I return for holidays then promptly leave.
He stands not as though he's considering my offer but that he doesn't understand it.
I reach across the seat and pop open the door. “Come on, it's freezing.”
He shrugs and slips in next to me. Red-rimmed blue eyes, chill-nipped cheeks, prominent nose. I'm right. I know him. Well, knew.
To say I broke up with him cruelly eight years ago would be giving me too much credit. Technically I hadn't broken up with him at all. We had been together for six months, a summer fling that refused to die come September. Our last evening together—a Friday near the end of my winter break, before I left to return to school in Virginia—we parted not with goodbye but see you later. This had been my intent, but, chasing new dreams and heat, I ended up taking a detour eight hundred miles south to Florida.
He brushes back his ice-encrusted hood and confirms: Yes, it's him. I feel sick. How can I get him back out of the car? The only way out is through. With one hand I white-knuckle the steering wheel to steady myself. With the other, I shift into first gear.
“Where am I going?” I ask, throat tight, half-expecting, half-fearing that he's recognized me, that he's going to either curse me or offer up that crooked half-smile of his and say, Oh, you've got jokes? as he used to. I'm not sure which would be worse.
Instead he says, “You know where Barkline Road is?”
“No,” I lie. “Is it far?”
“About fifteen minutes,” he says but then notices I'm inching us forward at twenty miles-an-hour. “Well, maybe more than that. It's across town. Just take this road for a while.” Shifting in his seat, he says, “You're not from around here?”
Slowly, I shake my head. “I live in Florida. I'm visiting for Christmas.”
“Is this the first time you've seen snow?”
His questions bother me not for their intrusiveness but because he's asked me more, as a stranger, than he ever did while we dated. There's no allure, I suppose, in the already gotten.
Or maybe it's because I'm blonde now. There was that one fair-haired girl he introduced me to at a party. Drunkenly, he said, “This is Jenna.” And then later, drunker still, his head on my shoulder, he slurred, “She has my heart in a jar. She refuses to give it back.” The next day, sober, he offered up apologies: He never should have told me that. He didn't want me thinking he didn't like me. Then it was back to sitting next to him on the velour couch with the wildlife-scene print in his father's den. He drank a six-pack of Heineken, smoked Camel Wides and played a cowboy-themed video game while I watched on, silent.
“I've seen snow,” I say. “I don't care much for driving in it.”
He asks me where I'm going. “Attempting the mall,” I say with a small laugh. “I was about to turn around when I saw you. Why were you out in this?”
It feels good to be offering up questions of my own. This was another joke from our past. He used to tell people, “Morgan is the only person who gets to ask me questions.” The funny part being, knowing he didn't like them, I never asked any. Maybe that's the reason I got the free pass.
“Car's broken. It's easier to walk in the snow than bike in it.”
“Shouldn't you be wearing lighter colors? Reflectors or something? I barely saw you.”
“I didn't figure many people would be out driving tonight,” he says and there it is, that grin. That fucking grin.
“I'm Luke, by the way.”
“Jenna.” It slips out before I can think to catch it and put it back and it hooks him. He turns and squints at the side of my face. After a moment he's convinced I'm not his Jenna, but some other. A random Jenna. From Florida.
Small talk wasn’t Luke’s forte, mine either, so we drive in silence for about three miles until he asks if I mind if he smokes. I tell him go ahead and he slides the pack from his jacket pocket. Camel Wides, still. He offers me the pack and I brush it away.
“So you were really going to walk?”
He lights his cigarette with the flick of a green lighter. “I don’t mind,” he says. “The more effort it takes, the more I appreciate being home once I get there.”
Drunken Zen philosophies of his like this used to fascinate and annoy me. What must life be like when lived so even-keeled? I suspect, however, that being good either way—his motto—really meant being too apathetic, or inebriated, to give a fuck about anything.
That’s what made it so easy to disappear. I didn’t have to worry about hurting him; there was nothing there to hurt. Six months added up to a mountain of empty beer bottles (his), mounds of cigarette butts (also his) and four journals worth of wondering if ours was a real relationship (mine). After that last night, I decided I got to define a life for myself and that was that. I never expected to see him again, though I had, briefly, those first few months, contemplated calling him. Not to explain but apologize. Black holes are not loving environments, I wanted to say. Black holes cannot love. But who was the black hole? He—or I?
Funny how you can spend almost every day with someone for six months and then not remember her face eight years later but funnier still how you can spend thirty years with yourself and still not know who you are. Or do I mean pitiful?
He holds his cigarette the same, hand curling around it, knuckle pressing against his upper lip. Years ago I flirted with the idea of taking up the habit just so I could hold such a pose.
I follow his directions. If he notices I flick on my blinker one beat before he tells me which way to turn, he hides it well. In time, we’re on the long country road leading out to his father's old farmhouse.
When I ask him what he's doing living so far outside of town, he says he grew up here. “I moved away a while ago but when my dad died, he left me his place so I came back.”
“Where'd you go?”
When he was willing to put down the video games and leave the couch, we used to go adventuring, creeping through the woods at midnight, trekking to the dam to splash in the cold water, joyriding down back dirt roads. He kept our expeditions close-to-home. The farthest we journeyed was to visit a few of his friends at State College for a weekend and even that had set him on edge. He tried to hide it—good either way!—by hitting a bottle of spiced rum hard, but I knew what he was doing. I can’t picture him ever leaving PA.
“Here and there. All over. I went south. Wandered around down there for a bit.”
“Just to go?”
“Sure,” he says with a shrug. “Isn’t that how it is? People up and leave and you never know why?”
I wipe my mittened hand on my knee but he continues to stare out the window. We pass the abandoned farmhouse and it grabs me. I had forgotten about it. I’m surprised it’s still standing, though its tilt is more pronounced now, the light grey paint more chipped.
“What is it about that place?” he says, more to himself. Before I can ask, he clarifies, “That house, the leaner. I could tell you were looking at it.” He glances at me, then swivels back to the window. “I had a girlfriend who used to love it. Every time we drove by, she’d call it her dream house. Can you imagine living like that? With walls about to fall down on you while you slept?” Quietly he adds, “I would’ve, though.”
I see his place and he says, pointing out, “This is me.” I turn onto his long gravel driveway and pull around back.
“What happened to the girlfriend?” I can’t help but ask after he’s thanked me for the ride.
He stares at me a beat too long. “I hear she lives in Florida now.”
He slams the door and tramps up the steps to his back porch where we used to sit in the sun and eat slices of his home-grown cucumber.
I roll down my window and call out, “Lucas, I’m sorry,” but he’s already inside, door closed against the past.
About the Author: Shae Krispinsky (dearwassily.tumblr.com) lives in Tampa, FL, where she plays in her band, ...y los dos pistoles (ylosdospistoles.bandcamp.com), contributes to Creative Loafing Tampa, blogs for ARTiculate Suncoast and The Burger Online, creates zines and is struggling to make a good vegetable stock, so if you have a killer recipe, she'd appreciate it. Her writing has appeared in The Milo Review, The Fiddleback, Connotation Press and more.
Image: (c) george.bremer