Have you forgotten something?
Are you just waiting for something?
Did you never know?
Sorry, you say somethin?
I ignored it. I was somewhere else.
Wait, is she awake?
I pulled into the parking lot next to the campgrounds. There were a bunch of picnic tables and a nice view of the valley. As nice as it gets, anyway. There were a couple of other people there, sitting, smoking, minding their own. I got out and closed the door behind me, tried to make sure I didn't look too rattled. I stopped to rub my eyes and opened the door to the backseat. I lifted her head up gently, just enough to settle it back down in my lap. And we talked.
"Were you the one that found me?"
"Yeah" I said.
"Did you call anyone?"
"Nobody knows. Nobody has to."
It was quiet for the next several minutes. Maybe she doesn't feel like talking. Maybe she's trying to keep from crying. Maybe I should give her more credit.
"How far outside the city are we?"
"Not 10 miles. It's about the same distance from here to your place and mine."
"Where were you taking me?"
"I wasn't really. Taking you anywhere, that is. I guess I was just kind of upset, scared out of my mind, disappointed. And I just kind of took off to nowhere like I always do, blowing steam, clearing my head. I just took you with me this time because I didn't want you to wake up alone."
My fingers combed through her hair. Again. Anything to bring out that smell. After that night it was hard to even walk next to you. I kept having to hold myself back from grabbing your head and burying my face in the back of it. I guess I've had similar problems.
"I want to go home" she said.
"You sure you don't want to just eat something? Talk about it?"
"I mean Romulus. I've been thinking about this for a while now. I made up my mind a few days ago, I just--I don't know. I guess it just didn't feel right to just go. It's like, I needed to tell someone. I needed someone to know. Maybe even help."
"So why di-..." I tried to catch myself. She caught me first. So it goes.
"Hah. Yeah, that was always the second choice, until tonight. I guess it just felt like a better option tonight. Almost like I didn't want help. Like I didn't even want to be saved."
She looked up.
"I am glad though." A weak smile. You didn't have to do that. You really didn't.
I really wish you hadn't.
"I need to get out of here, especially now. I need to quit telling myself I can stay here, I need to quit acting tough and acting like I can do this on my own. I need somewhere people know me, and see me, even if they hate me. Even if they don't give a damn. Just drop me off at my house, we'll have lunch sometime or something before the end of the week. But I'll be leaving soon.
I didn't hesitate. I swear I didn't, you bastards. It was a pause, I was trying to give weight to it. "I'll take you. I'll take you now."
She was still. I guess that means she knew what I meant.
"How long would it take you to get your things?"
"Not too long" she said. "There's a lot back there I don't want to remember. But hey - you're not serious are you?"
"Well I'm never really serious, but I mean yeah I'll still do it."
"I'd feel like shit if you had to drop out too."
"What was I doing anyway? Wouldn't have helped me too much to stay. Besides I just lost my lease on Tuesday. Saves me from looking for a place to stay."
"Wait, what the fuck dude? You lost your lease?"
"Yeah I've got another 4 days before I have to move out."
She squeezed at my arm, slow and hard. She spoke slowly. "Why don't you ever tell me about these things?"
"You know I just don't like talking about myself, and I don't like talking about my problems."
"Yeah, I know, I know, you fuckin told me before. About how all you let us talk about are me, and my problems, and you know what? Maybe it isn't fucking fair that you get to hold that over my head. Maybe I'm trying harder than you think to get to know you and I need to--"
"You're gonna wanna drop this, I'm telling you right now."
"It's just bullshit how you try and tell me I don't know you very well when--"
"Look, you don't want to step in this shit even on a good day. And I will not sit here and fight a three-legged puppy especially after I just pulled goddamn needles out of her half-a-corpse."
She stopped fighting. To be honest it didn't matter how bad I felt about it. It did what it was supposed to do.
"I don't want to go back in there alone" she said, after a while.
"I'll help you."
It took me a while to get my hands off of her. I remember sitting there and melting for a little while, glad she had her eyes closed, glad she wasn't waiting on anything. I began to catch myself again. I nearly lost you back there, honey. I'm glad you're taking the time to breathe. Your entire life on my legs, squeezing my arm, going gently up, down. Up, down.
40 minutes at your place, 15 minutes at mine, and we hit the road. The guys over at UNLV might be a little beat up about it. They always liked us, we were those 'why the HELL don't you guys just start dating and get it overwith' friends. We'd smile, and shuffle our feet, and say fuck you, and resume. The band was bound to break up anyway, I was the only one who lived off campus and we had nowhere else we could rehearse. I made the decision that I would call Alex from somewhere in Colorado to tell him where I left the key just as I got to experience the rearview impression of Vegas from I-15 driving away that so many people have felt before me. I took a quick glance to make sure. She was still sleeping. "So long," under my breath. "I guess you were only strong enough to handle one of us. You had to go and break the other one to survive."
It felt...yeah, it didn't feel like anything.
She rode shotgun. She would've taken the backseat again, if there'd been any room. But she'll still get some sleep up here. I like it better this way. I'll look over every 10 minutes or so, just to remind myself why. Here I am again. Taking another hit for you, girl. At first I was really hoping you'd appreciate it. I really wanted you to feel like I was giving you the skin off my back. Now that I'm here it doesn't really feel like I thought it would. I guess I just got used to the idea of being your hero. And now I get to be your captain. Now I get to take you home. It felt...good. It felt comfortable. Like it was something I needed all along. We hit the sunrise somewhere after Richfield, before we got into the National Park land. The sun came gradually, very bright and not very warm. It made me glad we left at night. Nobody should have to live long enough to see the sun rise in Vegas.
Oh-guh-law-luh. I think.
I've stopped twice in the last 18 hours, hauling ass through mostly easy driving, but still. I'm so tired I can't even tell if I'm hungry. The exit signs were forgiving enough to let me know there were hotels here, and probably a few people too I would guess. I didn't check my odometer at the traffic light. I thought it might make me sick. The Comfort Inn was on the right side of the road. Sometimes the decision gets made for you. Most of the time, actually.
I didn't notice she was awake, but when I looked over I knew she'd been awake for a while. At least an hour or so. "Did you pack an overnight bag?" "No," she said. It was the first time we talked in seven hours. It hurt a little to talk. "Get all the stuff you'll need between now and tomorrow morning while I check us in."
When I moved to get out she did something I'll never forget. She grabbed on to my sleeve. I turned to see what she wanted. She was looking down, towards my stomach, looking beyond it. She was mostly expressionless. But her mouth and her eyes were sad enough to tell me where her mind was. This is the first time anybody's ever cared about you more than you care about yourself, isn't it. I knew that if I sat and waited for a minute or a year she wouldn't let go. I reached over and stroked my hand through her hair once. I looked at her. I didn't look her in the eye. I turned away quickly and got out of the car, pinching my sleeve out of her grip.
I told the clerk at the desk that nobody was looking for us, because we weren't here, and that she'd never even heard of us. Naturally, luck as good as mine, there were no singles available, so I took a double queen. I decided I'd better not take my shoes off, or I'd be dead in the water until I woke up. I needed to go back downstairs, look at some of the maps and brochures in the lobby. Walk around, stretch out a little. Collect my thoughts, shuffle some ghosts, decide my emotions before they decide me. She was lying on her side on the bed closest to the window, turned away from me. "I'm gonna go walk around a little while. We can figure out if we want to eat something after I get back." I was turning away as she turned over. It was in the semi-darkness, with the afterglow raining through the drapes, the bathroom light raining through the crack in the door. It was very melodramatic, actually. Her eyes could not have been more clear in that melodramatic glow. They told me the same thing her fingers were telling my sleeve. I sighed, took the car keys out and threw them on the table. I gave her a look of my own. Still don't trust me, huh? Ungrateful little motherfucker. She heard me just as clearly as I had heard her. I saw her face contort. It felt like I was squeezing a sponge. The face of a child who acts angry so she doesn't have to be embarrassed. I felt sick to see it. I'd gladly take the odometer over that shit.
It seemed like the bars around didn't really do much for food, and the restaurants didn't do much for booze. Needless small town compartmentalization at its finest. Ah well, why take the time to hate this place. It's where I'm sleeping tonight. It's home. I felt like tramping around till I got to see another sunrise. I felt like I could probably keep awake as long if I needed to. But as much as I hate myself, I don't really want to torture myself. Not anymore, anyway. I read about a museum down the road from a poster in the lobby. I kind of wanted to break in and stroll around after they'd closed, but I knew better. If this town only had two or three things to be proud of then they're surely well-protected. Just like anyone I suppose. I wound up sitting in the parking lot, wondering how long it would take before I finally picked up smoking for good.
"Hey, are you done in there? I wanted to shower up."
"Let me brush my teeth first." Even though now I had to go back into the room to get my toiletries, unable to hide the fact that I was nervous, pacing, killing time...I mean, I know the silent little games get cute after a while. But damnit, they just suck at first. I pass her on the way out, stroking my hand up her back to help me squeeze through the gap. She turned to look back. She had to pretend she wasn't waiting on that. How much life did you suck back into yourself just so you could hide a playful smile?
"hmmf," through a smile.
"What?" she said.
"Nothing." I wanted to smoke again. "Thinking about shit that would just get me in trouble."
"Yeah, what is it?"
"It's about how this is the second time I've ever seen your hair wet. Just thinking about the first time."
She smiled her unnecessary apology. She was combing her hair. I wanted to do it myself.
"We're never going to talk about it, are we?" I said, trying to match that wry, clever sadness. That sexiness. I wanted to be sexy, so, so badly.
"I'm really tired, I just don't want to get into this right now."
"Okay." No promises, no reassurances that we'll clear the air someday. I didn't expect we ever would, but to be honest I did expect to be lied to, at the very least.
She was sitting upright. Her back was facing me, she craned her head around to look at me while she continued to stroke her hair. Like she wanted it to hurt. She kept looking at me, and down at the bed I had chosen. I can see this one too.
"Look, this is my bed. I am sleeping here tonight. And you can decide for yourself whether you wanna come over here."
She scoffed. "How stupid you think I want to get tonight? What, you think I've been drinking again? You think I'll just let you get what you want again?"
"What about what you want?"
"You don't know what I want. You couldn't know what I want because I don't know myself. But I know I don't want you, kid."
"Not like that," she caught herself. Even she set limits.
I sat there for a moment. It wasn't as tense as I thought it would be. Probably not as tense as she'd hoped it would be either.
"Well," I started in, "you'll just do well to remember that you're the one who started that night with all the stuff about you pretending to be tough. I didn't say that. You said that. Shit was aaaaalll you."
That pressed one hell of a button. "That's not fair."
"That's NOT fair. I told you that because I trusted you then."
"Oh, trusted me with what? Trusted me to not believe you? Trusted me to come over and pat you on the head and say 'oh, sweetie, there there, you're not actually as ugly as you say you are.' That's what you trusted me with?"
I saw a flashing glance of an armoire and a familiar rug. A broken television, a lithograph.
"You're going to expect me to have sympathy because you trusted me to sit here and let you tell me about my world? And about what I want? And then you have the audacity to tell me that I don't know what you want? What the hell makes you think you know what I want?"
Why is my hand starting to hurt?
"What the hell do I have to do to convince you that I wasn't playing you, and buying you things, and being there and listening just so I could get what I want? You think I didn't notice how much you liked me as a person? You think I didn't know how much you appreciated me? I saw how differently you treated me."
I was shouting. My fingers were goddamn screaming bloody murder. Begging.
"Is it so hard for you to believe I was still trying to be your hero? That I just wanted to break down your stupid wall? You ever wanted to be that star so bright it could change somebody's mind? Could you even know how that feels? I wanted to drag you out of it, damn you. I wanted to prove to you this world isn't as cold as you're telling yourself it is. And maybe you did get kicked around growing up, but even you could learn how to love, I know it! And yeah, I blew it! Me! I'm the one who pushed too far, okay? I tried way too hard, I know I'm the closest anybody's ever come to making you a good person, and I blew it because we got drunk and we got complicated."
My eyes were watering. I was standing up. How long have I been standing up? My surroundings were changing. Where the hell *am* I?
"And now I'm taking the hits for you, and I'm taking all the blame for doing everything right because you're so afraid of being hurt. You're too afraid to blame yourself. And you don't have to, right? Now I've gotten what I want, I get to be just like everyone else, right? I'm another stupid boy who wants stupid things, I'm smart, and I'm weird, and I like to help you but there's no way I would try to help you anymore if I can't get what I want, right? May as well push me first, right? There's no loving anyone who's seen you naked, right?
WHY WON'T YOU JUST TOUCH ME?!"
I stumbled back. I saw myself in the window. My cat's in the kitchen. He looks scared. He probably thinks I'm yelling at him, or else he just understands something isn't right.
Fuck. My hair's a mess. How long has it been since I showered? Where have I been? There's a map on the table, a line marked like a belt from the desert across the Midwest.
Where is she?
I turned, stepped, stopped. Am I really going to humiliate myself by looking around? I closed my eyes. I tried to catch my breath. I tried to stop shaking. I looked at the papers on the floor.
I waddled back to my bedroom, the most defeated I have ever been. I stared at the monitor, the cold glow in the room.
God. It isn't real, is it?
It isn't real. Of course it isn't real. It's never real. Nobody makes dreams that small. Nobody gives justice that kind of a sword. Life is not poetic, and that's why you're here. In your own bedroom, at home. Bleeding all over these pages and keys, letting your heart shout out to an empty room. Never been to Nebraska, never saved an overdosing undergrad, never felt her eyes that desperate. Never got to say what you wanted to say. And she will never know. And she will never give you the benefit of the doubt. And she will never look back and think of you kindly. And she will probably never trust you again. Because she's right, even without saying it, you never let her know who you are. There's nowhere to start. There's really nothing to fix, even when plenty of things got broken. Because you were right about something too - she really doesn't want to get hurt. She doesn't want to trust you. She doesn't want to hear. She's finally getting her chance to look at you as something other than her guardian angel, you've finally descended from God status. And she will choose to exonerate you, and to shrug it off, and to point and say "Yes! I knew nothing was perfect! It really is all cold, and I don't have to feel anything!" You threw her that bone, even if you didn't do anything wrong. You gave her that chance. You blew it. And now in the face of things the only ashes you have left to choke on are being able to pretend that you're okay. Say that you wanted to take those hits for her, and that you were trying to all along. Because you're her hero. Right? Her absolute hero, taking bullets in the back, from right here at home, alone, far from Nevada, far from Michigan, as far away from her as anyone down here on Earth is ever gonna be, with blistered fingers choking on a month you never wanted.
What the fuck were you thinking, trying to say it didn't hurt?
Just keep making your world here, keep making your hiding place, it's all you can do. Digging your ditch. Tomorrow comes, with or without you. Reach over that bedside table, over my car keys and weird sketches of suburban Michigan from memory. Kill the light. Blink hard, sigh deep, take your world of hurt. Turn in. Roll over. Get ready for another day.
Ogallala, Nebraska. There's a Comfort Inn on the right side of the interstate from the West. She's passed out on the bed closest to the window. I guess she didn't hear me. I don't really remember. I decided to smile about it. I took my shoes off and laid down on that other bed. It was cool, and clean, and comfortable. But it smelled nothing like you.
And what the hell is this?
Who made this bloody mess?
And someone always answers like a martyr
Is it something you should know?
Did you never do your best?
Would you be saved if you were brave and just tried harder?