Photo Credit: Kathryn Harper
My cell phone is nestled inside my knit purse, the purse I picked out because it was like one another woman might wear on summer vacation, sitting on the passenger seat next to me. I’m driving, first on windy Highland Avenue then along grinding Oporto-Madrid. The dirty grey road laps its tongue out toward the horizon in front of me, just for me to drive on. Traffic on either side of me, roadside attractions—most of which are long on roadside and short on attraction—whiz past as my cell phone rings.
I do not jump to answer it. It buzzes and vibrates.
I said, I’m driving.
It’s true that oil burning on asphalt smells like long country drives, that the passing lane dividers pacify me into a restful lull, and that the lives of the drivers on the road are just as real and either touched or left wanting by the Grace of God as my own. It’s only their urgencies, joys, triumphs, and pains are not as loud as my own. I could swear sometimes that the man on the radio is airing my insecurities one by one in agonizing detail. When I listen closer I can tell myself no, it is someone else’s tragedy. I cross my heart once, then again passing under the yellow light in the intersection. I feel lucky for a moment.
The driver to the right side of me is able to keep up with my slow pace. Her permed, dyed-red hair matches her eyebrows. She’s had them done. They’re splotchy like her complexion. Her smile is enviable, in spite of her smoking. She flicks her ashes to the ground from her car window. The sun catches the gold bangles on her wrist. The cigarette is a menthol. I know from the green ring above the filter. I imagine what her voice is like, what words come out of her mouth when she’s not smiling or puffing on a smoke.
I’ll take Marlboros, hon.
No sir, officer. I did not know I was speeding.
I love you, Frank.
Whichever man she loves, I bet his name only has one syllable, and she speaks it like a truck driver. Mine has two. So do “I’m done,” “Want more,” and “Get lost.” I like the second one best. It suggests discontent but leaves mystery around who is discontented over what. A woman could chew over that question all night long and I intended to since I had the entire night to myself.
I lost the flame-haired smoker paces ago, after losing interest in counting bright yellow dashes. I was going somewhere. Twinkling stars, they astounded me. The darkness around them that appears empty reminds me I’m going somewhere, but where was it?
Who cares if gas is precious when you’re outrunning your pain? The buzzer on my phone does its song and dance announcing to me and to the stars, “You have a new message.”
It buzzes again.
You have a new potentially exciting or exhausting message, damn it. If it’s possible, I do not pick up with even more effort than the first time I did not pick up the phone.
I’m driving, I say to the tiny phone still abandoned inside my purse next to my breath mints, last night’s movie stub, and my last speeding ticket from another race against emotion. I slide my purse underneath the passenger side seat. Now it’s hiding.
That phone needs a new personality; a quieter, more thoughtful one, maybe. One that buzzes when I want it to and doesn’t sing the Gloria to the high heavens when I don’t want to hear it. I cross my heart again.
The air is so fresh. What is it with those stars, anyway? Jesus, does air have to be so fresh? Not to be ungrateful. As a child I believed stars twinkled because they were happy. Now I know. They are not smiling brightly. Not tonight. At least not on my behalf. You see, I have this pain, this giant, oaf-like pain wedged inside of me. Open air tempts it to leave. Miles have passed and the dark country roads are empty.
Next I imagine nighttime under ebbing and flowing airplanes on the magic city airport tarmac. Planes like futuristic dragonflies veer off towards the heavens, the roar of their heart engines purr so loudly that it vibrates my entire body right down to my painted pinky toe. The sheer power of it shuts off my noise, the steaming engine of doubt chug-a-lugging through my days. The tongue of the runway rolls itself onward, ahead, into the future—a red carpet of asphalt and light where these memories can gain momentum, race past me and, finally, leave the stratosphere. I feel the vibration and the lightness as they lift.
The convenience store has a sale on light domestic beer, the lights inside are bright and, in contrast to my tarmac fantasy, real. The line is short. For that I am grateful. I quit two years ago, but the circular green line reminded me of forgetfulness, then alertness, then finally bliss and complacency of nicotine slinking its way through my veins like an old toxic friend.
Chill from the freezer nips at my bare shoulder—I reach inside for a bottle of Mello Yello. I catch the pale blue satin petal from my bra strap and the whites of my eyes in the reflective glass set inside the freezer door. The whites pour in all around the dark green circles of my pupils like diamond-bright sand on the edge of a lush and verdant island. I lick my lips and flip my hair. They don’t have Mello Yello. A Fresca will have to do.
I pay for my drink with my check card and return to the car. The cell phone I’ve been hiding from all night has fallen out of my purse and slid into plain view. Where the light is blinking, I know there is a sign.
The message is clear. He called. The door is open. A cool breeze blows inside through the open door. Call me back. I’ve been thinking, he said. He’s been thinking. I could call and run back, return to the life I’d mourned all month. I could call. From my parking spot at the gas station, I stretch myself out across the hood of my car and watch the bright overhead lights reflect in my silver-chrome-painted toenails. I imagine I’m stretched out along a windy stretch of concrete beneath the roar of passing airplanes. I could still call, I think, but I can also sit here for a while, then get back into my car and keep on driving into the night, keep saying good-bye, keep on leaving for the rest of my days.
Stacey Spencer, also known as S. Michelle Spencer, writes from her home in Birmingham, Alabama. When not writing she can be found hiking on a trail, making jewelry or enjoying Mexican food. She would also like to say that if this short story had a soundtrack, it would be “All I Need” by Air. Email: stacey.spencer[at]rocketmail.com