Series I: Stand Off – Chapter 2: No Turn On Red


After Thomas hung up the phone, he took the ear buds out of his ears and watched the street lights through the window of the moving bus. They were like spurts of illuminating orbs. As one disappeared, another took its place just as bright and luminescent. Each light shined an orbital rainbow glimmer in the window that prevented him to see beyond the street lights, but he concentrated to see beyond them.

A humdrum settled in the bus with only the sound of its engine disrupting the silence, and he calmly sat in peace until the bus arrived at the San Francisco station, near Montgomery. The time was a little after eight. As it pulled into the lot, the bus rumbled and rocked until it came to a complete stop. Thomas took his ear buds off from around his neck, unplugged them from his phone and wrapped them around his finger to store them back in the small shoulder pocket. After he zipped the pocket closed, he glanced up and out through the window at the empty lot. Then he faced the front of the bus and wiped his hands on his jeans. This time he glanced through the window for more than a second, and a red car – Kristen’s red car – was there with the lights on. Immediately, a surge of feelings he had repressed for so long rushed in, as a wave would upon the shore. It turned his complexion pink and he turned away, stood up, and checked his pocket to make sure he didn’t forget anything before moving his feet to leave the bus.

He darted a prolonged glance through the window toward the car as he started to walk down the aisle, and continued to glance twice more as he made his way to the door, shifting his head’s direction from the front of the bus, to the car, and then back again. He didn’t see her. As Thomas passed the driver, the doors swung open. He was adjusting his jacket around his neck before he turned his head down the steps.

“Have a good night,” the driver said.

Just as he turned, before he could acknowledge the driver’s response, he was facing Kristen, and all else fell into silence; all else was secondary to his attention.

“Oh my God! What’s that on your leg?!” She said.

Her jet-black hair was longer than he remembered, but her eyes were still as green as they were when he would lose himself in them years ago. “Thomas, you reek of spew — don’t tell me you’re drunk!” She said while Thomas was still motionless by her just being there. The way she held her face expressed less assurance than confusion, with her eyebrows cocked and her eyes opened wide. Her mouth was half as opened.

“No, haha,” — Thomas began to stutter — “no I just huh, had a stumble with someone who was.” He slowly walked down the step and off of the bus.

“Oh, well . . . what did you do — are you OK?!”

Thomas slightly shook his head in sheer amazement of her caring. “Relax, I’m fine. And I appreciate your concern. Now, what’s up?”

“Ummm — ugh!” She shook her head that brought her hair to slightly move with the motion as she clenched her teeth down together. Her aggravation followed with a stomp by her right foot that made a defined click from her boot’s heel as it made contact with the pavement.

“Let’s just go.” She said. Her face was firm and her eyes rolled as she started to turn toward the front of the bus to walk around it to her car. Thomas just stood there and watched her walk for a moment, then he caught up from behind and to her side.

“Hahaha, hey,” he subtly leaned toward her as he walked with his hands in his pockets, “you’re still a pistol, you know that?” He looked at her with a smirk and then slightly up to the sky. “So . . . what’s up?”

Kristen didn’t change her demeanor; she just yanked at his shoulder, “come on, it’s freezing,” she said. She was ahead of Thomas by just a foot until Thomas made eye contact with her car, then the distance increased between them. He looked at the car, then at Kristen, and as he started to remember, he started to slow down even more until he stopped. He looked at her again as she was just a few more steps to the car’s door. He noticed that she still wore her scarf the way she always did; tightly around her neck where her head was snug in the middle of its coil. If it wasn’t for the longer hair, he would have thought he was still dating her. He would have believed that she wanted him to drive. His eyes started to dry, and he blinked a few times to wet them. In doing so, he forcibly opened and closed his eyes a few more times to snap him back to reality.

“Hey, you’re still driving this thing?” He said.

“Yeah, come on; get in.” She opened the driver door, and just as it slammed shut, Thomas was making his way around the front of the car where the headlights were still burning the cold air. He noticed the steam floating off from them, and the beam that the light created was a bit intensified by it. He reached for the handle as he neared the passenger door, pulled on it and jerked backward without the door opening.

“It’s locked,” he said as he leaned in and tapped on the glass. He heard the door unlock and yanked it right after that.

“Hurry, it’s cold,” Kristen said. She was adjusting the vents to direct them toward the passenger seat.

As soon as Thomas hit the seat and swung into the car, he shut the door and looked forward. His eyes naturally gravitated toward the dashboard, and they settled on a photo that was pasted there; right next to the air vent on the right side of the wheel. Thomas didn’t want to say anything about the photo. He just looked the other way out through the passenger window.

Kristen put the car in drive, performed a K-turn and exited the lot only to be halted by a red light at the end of the block on Main Street.

“So, what’s up?” Thomas said as he still was staring out the window.

“Can we just get to my place before I talk about it . . .” Her voice dragged off, and then picked up again. “How are you — are you taking care of yourself?”

“I’m OK.” Thomas said with a slow nod.

Kristen quickly looked at his pants, “ew, you smell . . .” she said with a low voice. She looked back up at the road, “sorry,” — her voice raised — “what happened?”

Thomas laughed a little, “nah, don’t apologize — hanging in there, you know . . .” His voice then trailed off and he reverted right into answering her last question. “At the bus stop in Fremont, a drunken slob came right up to my bench to sit down and, well before I knew it, he chucked all over me.”

“Why didn’t you say, ‘hey man, get away,’ or something?” She said with a gruff in her voice.

“Hahaha, I don’t sound like that.” Thomas shifted a bit in his seat.

“Ha, yeah you do,” she let out a short burst of laughter, but then caught herself and fell silent.

The silence triumphed and Thomas found himself appreciating the car’s aesthetics to occupy his mind from wandering. He didn’t want to look at the photo again, but against his own will, he did. He soon shifted his eyes up toward Kristen. She was focused on driving.

“Are you finished at SFU, with huh,” Thomas was tapping his finger on his right knee while he straightened his arm to lock his elbow.

“Yes, I have my Masters in Public Administration,” she said.  She didn’t take her eyes off the road.

Thomas turned to center his head directly with the road in front of him and an intersection up ahead..

“Right, right,” he said.

The glimpse that he gave her brought him to reminisce the times they shared and how in all the years passed, she hadn’t changed one bit. He became aware of this reminiscence as fast as these memories bloomed inside of him and he tried to keep it from collapsing into a quixotic plea, so he just kept looking outside of the car at the street signs, the people walking on the slanted sidewalks; anything to derail his train of thought. He thought about the blood running through the veins of everyone in the cold weather; how its temperature allows them to endure even the harshest of the elements. He thought about the anatomy of the human body and the circuitry of these veins within it, which led him to ponder the anatomy of trees and their distinct circuitry. He began to concentrate on the core differences between the two, and compared the relatable terms of which conjured in his head: photosynthesis and gastroenterology; heartwood, sapwood and skin, bone; Pollination and coitus; and then he grew envious of the trees and their inability to love as humans do.

“You got here pretty fast, huh.” Thomas said.

“Yeah, I huh,” she paused as she looked left, then right before making a turn at the red light of the intersection, “I had a good parking spot — I didn’t park in the garage.”

She looked right one time more than she looked left, and made the turn as she neglected the second glance.

“Um, Kristen you know you can’t,” and just as she turned Thomas finished his sentence with a shout: “Car!”

He flinched but sustained his focus on the approaching headlights. The blinding light from the oncoming car  was covering  the short distance that was between them and the car. A distance of what a bowling ball would cover by a toss of it from a middle-school child whose physique would be that of a spelling-bee champion.

Thomas shot his arm out across the dashboard which caused Kristen to look left.  She still had her foot on the pedal and the wheel rotated at 11 o’clock. The fast approaching car screeched with a prolonged honk and its headlights lit up the entire interior, almost blinding Thomas and surely Kristen as well.

Instead of stopping, she floored it, turning close to the curb and nearly hitting the traffic-light pylon. She did not hesitate, nor did she take Thomas’ intervening lightly.

“What the fuck Tommie, I saw the damn car!” Jus-just get your hand down!” She said, as she leaned into the turn while raising her head, now facing the street, to see over his arm.

“Yeah — but . . .” He was cut off by the initial force of the turn and he quickly retracted his arm back to the middle armrest, where he gripped the edge of the armrest tightly.

As Kristen made the turn, the inertia swung not only them to the right side of the car, but also all the items that were loose in the car, and most of those items — pens, coins, used tissues, the EZ-Pass sensor — traveled toward Thomas. And of the items that made it into his lap, the photo was the most profound one. It landed face up. He gripped the handle just above the window to fight the pull from the inertia and he tucked his head down. It was when he opened his eyes after the centrifugal force of the turn had gone that he noticed the photo.

“UGH, I know how to drive Tom.” Kristen said. She was moving the hair away from her face to the back of her ears.

“I’m not questioning that,” he said, lifting up his head. He  extended his left hand as if he was about to accept a hand-shake. “The sign — you didn’t see the ‘no turn on red’ sign?”

There was a brief moment before she responded.

“Ohh.” She said. She quickly looked at him, then back at the road.

Thomas lightly laughed and looked back down, and grabbed the photo to hand it to her, “You never called me that before,” he said.

“Called you what?” She lifted one hand in the air. He looked at her and finally noticed that the city lights made her face glow, which brought a small smile to his face.

“Tommie,” he said, now with his smile at a comfortable completeness.

She looked at the photo and took it from his hand that was now extended from the support of his elbow on the armrest.

“Thanks,” she said as she put the photo in her purse, “and sorry.”

“For what?” He was still looking at her with his body slightly leaning toward her.

“For yelling at you — I don’t know,” she shook her head with her shoulders shrugged and with her voice backed by a kick. Thomas continued to smile.

“Hahaha, you’re fine,” he said, “and hey, I’m sorry too. I should have known to bring my helmet.” Thomas winked as she playfully slapped his shoulder.

“Hahaha, stop it,” she said with a smile.

Thomas leaned the other way toward the passenger window that brought his elbow off the armrest as Kristen continued to drive. He looked out and watched everything pass by, like a roll of film on a reel. He was just capturing pictures of moments as they were occurring and only caught them as fragments to every person outside of the car who owned them — he dreadfully wanted to know more about the fragments, more about what they meant and what they meant to their owners; much more than what he saw in the photo. He wanted to hop out of the car and ask them, “do these moments amount to anything?”

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