Traffic Lights

Catherine Keenan

Photo Credit: David Clow/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: David Clow/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The streets are vacant as Annie drives through the drizzle and into the night. She sits at the traffic lights watching as they turn from red to amber to green, reflecting off the watery pavement and lighting up her face with a vibrancy that does not reach her eyes. Annie drives and drives until she feels her grip loosen on the steering wheel and the furrow between her brows smooth over. The night is vast ahead of her. Raindrops race down the windshield. She pulls off the highway into a diner with a sign reading ‘twenty-four hour’ and walks in with a dull exhaustion in her bones.

Sliding into a red vinyl booth, she glances around the diner. A drunk slouches in the corner, wolfing down pancakes with an untamed intensity. A trucker sits with a lonely cup of coffee. A waitress in a pastel yellow uniform, with the ghost of a whimsical spark behind her eyes, is taking down his order. Annie orders a black coffee in an effort to swat away the tiredness and reaches into her bag, moving her hand through the gum wrappers, empty Marlboro Red packets and old receipts until her fingers close around the broken spine of her book. The pages are dogeared and the text bordered with pencil scrawls. It seems prematurely aged and is already accumulating the musty fragrance of an old book. It falls open at her favourite passage, the most cracked part of the spine, and she reads the words which she has read so many times before: “Nothing behind, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.’ The bell over the door of the diner rings.

“That’s my favourite book.” A man nods towards the black-and-white cover depicting two men. “Sorry, this is probably a bit weird. I wasn’t going to say anything… I just really love that book,” he says.

“It’s my favourite too,” she says, as her eyes tiptoe across his face. His features are too large for his head and his hair is unkempt like he has stopped caring. “I studied Kerouac in school and became obsessed with reading everything he’d written. This one is still my favourite though. I’m Annie,” she says tentatively.

“Julian.” He sits down opposite her and leans across the booth to shake her hand. “So, what brings you here in the middle of the night?”

“Couldn’t sleep,” she says. He laughs as the waitress comes to place a cup of coffee in front of her and he orders one for himself.

“I couldn’t sleep either,” he says. Annie puts the book down and glances up at him. She sips the hot coffee for want of something to do and swears as it burns her tongue. As she does so, he glances down at his watch and looks up again with a sad smile. “It’s official. I’m old. Happy birthday to me.”

“Happy birthday.”

“It’s not a happy occasion. I’m turning thirty.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“How old are you?”

She looks down, a little embarrassed. “Twenty-three.”

“That’s why. You have your twenties to figure out what you’re doing with your life and make your mistakes. My time is up and I still don’t know what I’m doing.” Dust motes dance in the air between them. There is a dull hum of fluorescent lights.

“I think everyone feels a bit like that, sort of lost in their own lives.” She tries to comfort him, a little startled by the openness of the stranger’s confession.

“But I’ve run out of time to be lost. I wasted my twenties fucking around and now I’ve got nothing to show for it.” Tiredness is making him narrow his eyes; it’s a trick of the light, but he looks like he’s peering at something far away. “I haven’t done anything I wanted to do by the time I was 30.”

“Well, what did you want to have done by now?”

He looks down and sighs, reeling off the list as if he had done so a thousand times before, “learn a new language, get a tattoo, learn an instrument, take a trip, fall in love.”

“Well, what’s stopping you from doing any of these things?”

“It’s not that simple.” His surrendered expression and sloped shoulders look endearingly pathetic.

“It can be. Learn a new language, right? Well, I did French in school. I think can remember some of it. Ok, repeat after me: tout sera bien. Je ne suis pas perdu.

“Tout sera bien… Je ne… suis pas… perdu. What does it mean?”

“You can find that one out later. Great, you can speak French. What’s next on the list? Get a tattoo?”

“Yeah. I think that one will be a little bit harder to do right now,” he says, laughing.

Annie jumps up and begins rifling through her purse before producing a black biro. The waitress sets down a cup of black coffee in front of Julian and he thanks her with an easy grin. Annie leans across the sticky counter top and grabs his hand. Her expression laced with concentration, she tucks her blonde hair behind her ear and draws a cartoon dinosaur wearing a top hat and a monocle on the back of his hand. “There you go. Tattoo sorted. What’s next?”

Julian laughs and holds up his hand to admire the drawing. “Learn an instrument.”

Annie thinks again and then grabs a handful of napkins from the mirrored dispenser on the booth. Using the black biro she draws out piano keys on the cheap, abrasive paper and pushes them towards him. Again, she reaches across and pulls his hands towards her, placing them on her improvised piano. His fingers rest compliantly over the hand-drawn keys. “This is middle C,” she says.

He attempts to push the key down. “I think your piano’s broken.”

“Do you want to learn or not? That finger is over D. And the one next to it is E.” She explains all of the notes to him with steady patience as she teaches him the first few bars of Chopsticks.” “Ok, you can play the piano. Not well, but you can play it,” she laughs. “What’s next?”

“Take a trip.”

“Ok. We’ll spend a weekend at the beach,” she says. “Take the train down and swim in the sea and lay on the sand until the sky goes dark.” She could picture them arguing the entire train journey and feeling cold and satisfied as the day ended. She could feel the salt burning on her lips and in her nose and in her hair. She hopes he knows it is an empty plan.

“Ok, let’s do it.” His dull eyes are infused with excitement. It seems a long-forgotten emotion.

“Do you feel better now?”

“Yeah, a little. What about you? What’s really got you driving out into the night?”

“I’m driving cross-country to Massachusetts. I’ve got a job opportunity there. I could have flown but I’m so nervous about this job and the road calms me down a bit.”

“Come on, give me something more than that, Annie. I just sat here and bled in front of you.”

She circles the rim of her mug with her index finger and follows its path with her eyes. “I keep getting hit by a crippling fear that these are meant to be the best years of my life,” she sighs. “I wish no one had told me that. The pressure of knowing that this is my peak terrifies me.”

“Your twenties are not that great. Everyone who says that is in their thirties and forties and is idealising their youth. Your past is always going to be idealised if your present is shit.” He shrugs and continues to move his hands over the makeshift piano. “But what can I tell you? As our friend Mr. Kerouac says, “The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view.”

She smiles at the reference. “I guess. I just hope that this isn’t as good as it’s going to get.”

“I promise you, it’s not. Your twenties are full of uncertainty and self-doubt. You’ve got the pressure of becoming an adult while still feeling like a child and no longer having the excuse of youth. You’re stumbling around blindly to find the light switch everyone seems to have already found. It sucks. It can’t be your peak because you barely know who you are yet.”

“I think you just helped yourself there. You haven’t done the things you want to do because you’re not at the right stage of your life. Maybe your thirties are the new twenties.”

A smile plays around Julian’s mouth as he lifts his coffee to his lips and takes a slow sip.

“Happy birthday, Julian. You’re entering the prime of your life.” Annie lifts her coffee to clink it with Julian’s. “Cheers.”

They talk, as the diner clears, about the family Julian is on his way to visit in Oregon and Annie’s new job in Massachusetts. The early morning air makes the moment seem fragile and the outside world of sleeping bodies lies forgotten beyond the walls of the diner. As they talk, Annie feels the tangible potentiality of their relationship. She can see a lifetime of memories with this man spread out in front of her like the peaks and dips of a tangled duvet: giggles over shared strawberry milkshakes, existential crises over late night coffees, hand-holding across the perpetually sticky booth. She looks up at him with heavy lids, lids she could imagine his lips kissing after a heady, passionate night. She aches a little.

“Look, you’re going east and I’m going west but I… I want to see you again. Maybe I could get your—“

“Don’t ruin it, okay?”

Julian nods as if he had expected her response and Annie can see that he understands what she means. They eventually fall into silence, drinking their coffees as the hands on the diner clock tick forward into the beckoning day, neither speaking for fear that jealous reality will return to force them apart and back to becoming who they are meant to be.

Eventually Annie reaches for her purse and places a few dollars on the table. She picks up her coat, stands up and walks away as Julian follows. Outside, dawn is trickling across the skyline, dousing them both in a dull light. The rain has stopped. Julian pulls a packet of Marlboro Reds from the pocket of his jeans and lights up as they get into their cars without looking back at each other. Annie wonders to herself if Julian is thinking of the same quote from their favourite book: “A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.” Simultaneously, the engines start and they drive away from each other like two trains travelling side by side before being separated by the tracks, their destinations forcing them in opposite directions.

pencilCatherine Keenan is a 20-year-old English Literature student in her final year of university, drawing on her disillusionment with growing older and escaping responsibility wherever she can. She has been writing creatively from a young age, since placing as a runner up in the nationwide ‘Daunt Books Short Story Competition’ 2007, and continues this passion throughout her university career. Email: catherine.keenan1[at]