This was the first and only story that kept me awake for weeks, and also the only one I have ever truly tried to make perfect.
It was around Spring, and I was following a bird flying off in the distance. I would say about 15 feet above us; brown, could fit inside the palm of a child’s hand, and graceful. How it found the bright idea to come across an ocean side highway was beyond me? It was a little thing, out of what could be its comfort zone, but more excited and determined to fly through the wind than I could ever be while sitting and making conversation in a passenger seat. We always took this route. The same highway, with the same traffic, with the same waves that crashed along the ridge of the highway. This long, but welcoming sight of a road was placed perfectly between a mountainside of trees that would make Seattle proud and the comforting sway of the ocean.
There was always traffic, but that day seemed different. The cars moved at a smooth pace, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I remember looking over at her and asking, “So, we pretty much are experts on one another, right?”
She turned her head to the side, “What do you mean ‘experts’?”
“I mean that we already know about one another.”
I was hesitant because I knew the right and wrong things to say. The buttons that could be pushed and the anger that could come down on me like a well timed lightning bolt.
She laughed, “I don’t think you know everything about me.”
“I know that you are the master of changing lanes, and scaring me half to death.”
She laughed again, “I just do that on purpose to see you worry.”
She was beautiful, and wanted to see me watch my entire life pass before my eyes. Now that I think about, she was right for me.
A grin dug it’s home on my face, “So, you do want to see me scared?”
“Well, yeah,” she said, “I think everyone should see all of the emotions from someone they care about. So, yeah. I want to see you scared because I don’t think you’ve been really scared.”
She didn’t know it at the time, but I was always afraid. There wasn’t a day where I would see her and know that things would be fine, and that scared me all of the time.
“What did we do last time we were on our way to the beach?”
After a short pause, she said, “Oh yeah! We talked about growing up, high school, and why you know Spanish and can’t speak it. I think it’s great that you know it, even though you probably don’t.”
She laughed, and I looked back at her with an even bigger grin (at this point, my face resembles more of a psychotic clown than a happy man). I was beyond happy, “I love you so much right now.”
She held her laugh and asked, “Why?”
“Because who else is going to tell me that it’s great, but a shame. Like I know I take digs at you, but I never expected to get hit by a 2×4 from you.”
“I didn’t hit you.”
I laughed, “No, it’s a figure of speech.”
We continued down the highway, about halfway from our spot. Nothing was off limits for us. We talked about our religious choices, although I never told her mine as of now. We talked about politics, and why it was always a disappointing discussion. We even talked about what our deepest desires were.
“So that’s why you traveled?” I asked.
“Yeah, it was a family thing and we would go.”
“Languages, what do you know?”
She giggled, “I know the one that matters. I’m kidding, I didn’t mean it.”
When we first met each other, she was very cautious about what she said. She was kind and caring, but never wanted to get a reaction from anyone. I’d like to think that I corrupted her pure and innocent mind.
“I know you’re not that mean,” I said, “I am.”
“You know and don’t know Spanish. You could show me a little something something,” she laughed again.
“We could try. So, follow my lead. Cómo estás.”
“You did that on purpose, didn’t you?” I laughed, “What aye?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean there was an aye. You know what we’ll try again.”
“Okay,” she looked down.
“It’s okay, I’m just being difficult. Có-mo E-stás.”
“Cómo estás, that’s what I said. Right?” She focused on the road with the corners of her lips pulled high like balloons on 3 year old hands.
“There was an aye in there. It was almost like you’re trying to speak Spanish and be a pirate at the same time.”
I always loved to poke fun and make her second guess herself. Yeah, I’ll admit that it was a bad joke done on repeat. But, it was our thing and she was getting into the habit of poking me back. Like everything else, this day was different.
“I wasn’t trying to be a pirate. I was trying to get it right.”
It was a moment like this where I had to pull back the reigns and catch myself.
“You know I’m kidding. You’re my caramel macchiato with extra whipped cream and extra caramel.”
“Okay, I get it now. You can stop, please.” Her face flustered, and I sat back with a terrible grin. I mean it was awful. It was like an old mastermind finally catching the hero in a trap, but he doesn’t know how to celebrate.
“Did I go too far? Was it not good enough? Am I just another disappointment added on to your list of head shakes? Shall I walk into the midst of battle with nothing, but my scraps on and hang my head lower than a dog that heels out of fear? Should I -”
A beaten down Corolla. A fading green in color, like that of a fading tree in fall with the bumper that looked like it had been in a fight against cannons, gently swerved into our lane in hopes of beating the line of cars heading the same direction. Amateur racers, but of all things a beaten down Corolla that carries the scars of failure. Here’s the thing, it wasn’t the car that scared me, but the way it looked was a dead giveaway that this person shouldn’t be driving.
She slammed on the brakes, and for two seconds she met fear in a million cases all the same.
“I’m sorry, are you okay?”
She looked more afraid than I could ever handle being.
“I’m fine,” still with an unsure grin, “They just don’t drive often, or at all. But are you okay?”
She let out a sight, “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Perfect. You know what, we’ll be at our spot and the carnival in no time, and everything will be okay. Like the past twenty times that we went.”
She didn’t know, but I figured it would be the stupid things that I could say that would call her down.
“Yeah. Okay. I’m really sorry though. They just came out of nowhere and I-”
“I know. Things like this happen all the time. Is there something wrong with my face? Any bruises or scratches?”
“No. Why are you hurt? Do you need-”
“Then we’re golden! Because you still have your glow and not one hair is out of place, and I’m still me!” Hardly. “Ready for another quick lesson?”
“Sure.” And sure enough, that smile came back.
“Umm, since that car cut you off and almost killed me. (Believe me, you would’ve been fine). They are a pendejo, or a pendeja if they’re a lady.”
I clearly had no clue what I was talking about.
“What does that mean? Those words.”
That was the beginning of a long day.
We spent hours upon hours together. Staring at the ceiling. Watching the ripples of the lake. We’d walk and I’d stumble over a pebble, and she’d laugh and try to contain her popcorn joy. There were nights where I’d send her a song or two, just to listen to and nothing more. What would be 10 minutes of mindless copy and paste, would end hours later with a drawn out conversation of “yeah”. The days spent together, the laughs, the questions through eyebrows raised, all would be flowers blossomed in the garden of Spring.
The night so vivid, a night so clear, that I look back and grit my teeth as to know true fear. This night pains me in ways like no other. I still feel the anxious waves that grab hold and never choose to leave. The doors stand open, and still it refuses.
As I sat still in the passenger seat, the red brake lights melted with white headlights and the orange lamps that lit the highway. A wintery finish and black streaks separated us from the other tired eyes that sat in midnight traffic. The radio blasted at a comforting peak, and she sang on as we moved slower than a snail curled by salt.
“You’re tired, aren’t you?”She had no plans of sleep, but could see the seeds of drowsiness being planted.
“No, I’m fine. I’m just staring at the old people. I think they’re old. You know what, you never really know.”
How I came to put words together, I’ll never know.
“You know what I think? I think you need to nap until we get home. That way you’ll be good.” She lunged towards my seat lever, and I fell into comfort.
“I guess, if you insist. But I’m not tired. I’m just deep in thought.”
I was falling asleep while staring at the cars that entire night. But the faces were fixed and had no desire to look over at the faces that would pass. They were statues gone to the agenda of time.
Beside me was a sight of romantics, the fair face of poetic portraits. Brown eyes and a warm smile, that’s what I remember the most. Nearing sleep. I looked at her, and I could see each strand moving slowly across her eyelids. Falling, fainting. A masterful creator painting each feature ever so gently. Eyes that could melt the most hardened shell of men. A petite nose that called for a boop every now and then. But it was a smile from ear to ear, blossomed under the moonlight as each note rang out in harmony like a sudden breeze in the Spring, that fixed my eyes like that of those chained to cave shadows. I couldn’t stop my stare. Only when I forced a turn to glance at the night sky to see the melting metals of light stiff onto massive trailers, where I caught my break and knew childish joy. Yet, my eyes were fixed on the back and forth, from an innocent sound to a fixed creation.
Then a loud shot broke my fixation on her. A scream from her and a yell from me. I slid upward, nearing the backseat. My shoulder was badly bruised. Her head shook as she slammed on the brakes.
I got up angrily, shouting blindly in curses, “What the hell was that?”
She shook the cobwebs and asked, “Are you okay?”
“What do you think?” I said, “I’m sorry, but I’m okay.”
I pulled my seat up and placed my hand on her shoulder to let her know that I was still there. We both opened our doors, hers calmly and mine blasted by might. It was like I switched in a matter of seconds and my eyes looked for anger, and my fists were balled into hammers for whoever put her in danger.
“What the hell is your problem?” I looked into panic and witnessed true fear across the faces of the others.
She pulled me to the side,”Please stop. I don’t know what’s taking over you, but stop it.”
I paused and moved away. There were two girls, college aged and frantic. The first got out of the car looked like she was in a full nightmarish apology mode; and the second was breathing heavily in a fidgeting worry and still strapped by the belt. The second grew even more afraid at the sight of my fists and cursing shouts. She couldn’t have been more than 20 years old and curious to the nose, but she was afraid of me. A monster I became. Luckily, I was moved. My brown eyed savior moved me to handle what I couldn’t. I just kept hearing her way that it wasn’t that bad and it was okay, but the girl was in a slowly falling panic. I don’t remember how much time passed, but I just remember her hugging the panicked girl and smiling. How? How could she have been so calm?
I watched as she walked to the driver side and found her seat. I didn’t know what was to come from it. She tested the ignition to see if everything was okay, like I said it would. Without any sounds of concern, she merged back into the dense traffic of before. The radio played loudly in comfort, and she sang without a missed beat or off rhythm.
I looked at her in disbelief, “How did you do that?”
She looked over with her eyebrows scrunched, “Do what? Talk to the girl and not yell?”
“I’m sorry, but yeah.”
She smiled, “It’s about how you interact with people. You know you can’t be mad because something happened.”
I loved her more than I thought possible.
Slowly, the lanes cleared. The cars that hugged the lanes had disappeared along with her cheer and her smile. We sat in movement broken by the silence. No words said and no lives lost, but it all seemed to turn downward.
We continued on our way home. Clear road and clear skies, but I noticed that her hands shook without control. Her eyes that were filled with comfort had been replaced with worry. I knew the grounds would bleed a soft red, but the flushed face of hers had me question what laid ahead.
I asked, “Are you okay?”
Clearly she wasn’t.
“No. I’m just losing it a little bit.” Her hands shook and her breaths became heavier than the last.
I wasn’t prepared, but I knew that I cared, “Water. Want a water? Anything?”
I wanted to calm her down, the same way that she stopped me from regret.
“Yes, please. Thank you.”
Polite, even in a struggle.
I handed her a water, and we got off the off ramp. We pulled into an empty lot, one where it seemed there had been no cars for months. She sat in fear and I sat in worry. None the same, none different.
I opened my door and gestured her to the passenger seat, “I’m driving now. Get some rest over here and I’ll get us home.”
She only nodded her head.
Now I sat in fear, and she was in comfort. I found my way to the road home, and the rest of the drive was silent. She sat with her eyes closed. Brown eyes and the strands of an artist’s brush combing his masterpiece. I sat through open lanes and only saw worry in a car that jerked from right to left, and thought I cant have this happen again. Two lanes over, I got passed the reckless end to our night.
“We still haven’t talked after that day. At least not as we did after that day.”
“What do you mean like you once did?”
“We’re you not paying attention? To go from speaking constantly to a dead silence that’s only cut by ‘Hey’ or ‘okay’. Do you see what I’m getting at?”
John didn’t know any better, but he would listen, “I know that, but to not talk after that? It just doesn’t make sense, and you won’t tell me. But, how long has it been?”
“Months, but I still worry,” I shook back and forth,” You didn’t see her face. No one saw her worry.”
“But she’s okay now, right?” John asked.
“Well, yeah. We just don’t talk.”
I dread to look back, but speak upon it at every chance I get with whoever would listen. Whether it’s John, other friends, or my dad. I stand balcony side and watch the stars to hope that she’s well. I’ll never know for sure, but I could pray and hope that she’s okay. I wish that there was a way to bring comfort back to a warm smile. Yet, we can hope and only pray to achieve. Some might say it’s sad, but they’ll never know. You’ve seen this, and you don’t even know. Maybe we’ll have answers some time along the way, but that’s all I have. The last time I was with her.