From that memory relayed to the reason why he brought his phone to that camp-out. He never regretted it – he was expecting her to text him – but lying to his hometown friends about it always brought him to dwell on certain things, and those certain things he was sure Kristen would save him from, not bring him closer to them. There were times when he missed Ashley, Kurt and Darren more so than her.
“Come on, follow me.” She said with her hand extended up to him. She used her other hand to guide herself along the railing, down the bar’s steps.
“Where are we going?” Thomas asked. He was reaching for her hand while struggling to put on his jacket. It was black with a firm collar that he always had trouble keeping down.
“My place, it’s just around the corner. You can check out my new couch – well, it’s new to me,” she said with a laugh, “I bought it at the Goodwill the other day.”
She made it down those steps with her high heels like a pro, as if walking a tight rope was something she knew how to do sober; not a stammer in her step. Thomas watched her legs for the most part, due to the angst that was surging through his nerves. George’s words kept repeating in his head: she really likes you.
“What about George and his friend, uhh . . . what’s her name?” Thomas looked back with his hand folded as a fist and only his thumb sticking out, throwing the whole thing over his shoulder as if he was an umpire striking out a home-plate runner.
Kristen backtracked to Thomas and grabbed his reaching hand as the other was still over his shoulder. “Would you just come on,” She said with a playful tone, “you gotta see this couch, there are samurais on it.”
“Oh, then I gotta see this thing!” Thomas forced his sense-of-humor out to submerge his nervousness, “uhhh, will there be penetrating involved?”
Kristen turned around and stopped, then just laughed. “You’re cute,” she said.
Thomas hesitated and quickly thought to himself why he had said that, “uh, you know . . .” he began, “because of the swords and samurais on the couch.”
Kristen led on, “I know you goon,” she said.
They arrived at her apartment without Thomas having any recollection of his getting there except walking through a parking lot and crossing a street toward a sidewalk where row homes were tightly against each other with their stoops spilling onto this sidewalk. There were allies between some of them as others seemed to have shared walls. These allies were all brimstone red, which differed from the buildings’ facades: some were an off-color white and others a lighter red due to their time overly exposed to the sun. There were a few that had colors that only could be described as a mixture of two or more from the rainbow. All of these row homes appeared to have been built from colonial brick but none were dilapidated, yet they seemed ill-kept, never power washed, and chips in the brick were easily noticed. Each of their stoops varied in step-height and width as well as color and shape, and the rails rose to no exception.
“Here we are,” she said as she had her key at the ready to open the door. It swung with a creaky whoosh and she stepped in first with him following her, “and here’s the couch.” She took her shoes and jacket off and sat down on it with a little bounce that was expected from a used couch; its springs had lost their spunk.
“Wow,” Thomas said, trying to sound amazed.
He moved closer to it, walking into the one room that had a ceiling high enough to jump and still not having the ability to touch the popcorn plaster where only one ceiling fan hung. . . rotating. That one room connected to the kitchen, which led to a window facing a 6 foot wooden fence, splintered from the sun. He looked at it with his peripherals passing the dark kitchen’s fixtures and all of the appliances that seemed to be on top of one another. Bars covered that window (the only window besides the brown-paper-covered front window) as it was a neighborhood for such a measure.
“Ah – shoes,” Kristen pointed to Thomas’ feet as he passed the coffee table, heading toward the couch.
“Oh, sorry,” he said as he walked back to the door to kick them off.
“Come,” Kristen patted the cushion next to her, “sit. Tell me what you think.”
Thomas walked over to the couch and prepared to sit down by whipping his arms out as if he was trying on a new leather jacket, and brought himself lower until his ass met the cushion. He embraced every change in his movement toward the couch as if he was assessing each change for better or worse. Finally, when his back made contact with the couch’s he turned to Kristen and said, “This is a nice couch, I agree.”
“Take your jacket off,” she said, “get the full effect.” Kristen shifted herself toward him by moving her legs up to the cushion she was sitting on and folded them underneath her. She then moved closer to him and went for the jacket. Thomas didn’t hesitate to take it off. He spun in the direction opposite of her to make the process easier, and as it came off him and as she threw it onto the coffee table, he shifted closer to her by raising one leg toward the back of the couch, onto its cushion. They both comfortably faced each other, then she turned and laid her head on his lap. She drew her phone out of her pocket and looked up at him.
“So, what’s your number?” She asked.
She was so full of spunk then (unlike that couch), always the first one to text him and immediately respond to him after he would devise a well-crafted response to further the conversation in a flirtatious way. It was the couch with the samurais riding horse-back with their katanas raised high above their heads, as if rushing to decapitate a foot-soldier unmatched against such a brutal well-trained force that he always reverted back to whenever he thought about Kristen.
“Excuse me, sir . . .” said the Indian behind the cash register with a look of confusion plastered on his face, “. . . sir, that will be $8.50.”
It was the red and velvet tunic the cashier was wearing that reminded him of the couch; a design that reflected (for an odd reason) the Japanese culture, and it was the assertiveness in his voice that revived Thomas from that samurai-couch induced catalepsy. He searched for his wallet by digging into his right pocket, then into his left and finding it there. He fumbled it to the counter before grabbing it again, firmly this time, and snatched a ten dollar bill out of its sleeve as fast as he went to fold it back up to slide it back into his left pocket. The exchange went the course of three distinct movements after that: the cashier grabbed the ten; Thomas grabbed the cigarettes off the counter; and Thomas leaving without the change, but with a pack of matches that were available in a small box next to the single outdated-looking cash register. The cashier did not argue about the last movement, nor did Thomas make a gesture to correct what appeared to be a forgetful mistake of losing a dollar fifty. The door chimed its bell as it was opened by his leaving the convenient store, finalizing the exchange.
He gave the pack a six-six-six smacking, one for each side, before removing the clear plastic packaging and tossing it – along with the paper platinum covering the neatly aligned cigarettes – into a trashcan just by the door of the store. After taking one out from the pack and bringing it to his face, he discarded the rest. Before he allowed his lips to gently clasp around the sole cigarette, he licked them, then placed it where it hung from his mouth. The matches were in the hand that he claimed to be less dominant and it wasn’t until after he acquired the taste of the cigarette’s butt in his mouth that he began to strike a match against its red phosphorous striker. The match lit with a flare and the scent dispersed on to his fingers and into his nostrils. After the initial inhale to light the head of the cigarette, the scent went from pure burnt phosphorous to carcinogenic toxins and tobacco. No. 27’s always reminded him of the taste of pancakes and maple syrup.
The vomit on his jeans was fully hardened by now and he could no longer feel it against his leg (for the most part, it was dried on that too). He glanced at his watch and it read close to midnight. A time he always found himself wide awake during and unable to sleep, but as the smoke from the No. 27 left his lungs, he started to feel a bit hazy such as the cloud of that smoke plumbing up in the night sky, toward the moon. He took a deep breath and studied that moon until a surge of an old feeling erupted in his chest, and it wasn’t from the No. 27, but from the nights he found himself missing Kristen — he wanted to get back her, and this time he could, so he did.
Thomas embraced the cool midnight air as he gently closed the door on his way out. He stepped forward after closing the door and raised his head with taking a deep breath. He glared at the moon taking each breath in. Its gleaming light illuminated the dark sky along with the thin dispersing clouds and as he scanned the dark expanse, he remembered the last time he went camping. It was the kind of sky he was under when he went with his three friends back in South Jersey. Of course, the light pollution forbade the pleasure for him to marvel at the stars where he knew they rested in constellations among light-years away, but the night along with the moon’s glimmer still felt the same as it did in the middle of the Pine Barrens with those friends. It was the weekend after he received Kristen’s number that week when they first met.
“Hey guys, wait up!” Darren yelled through the cigarette hanging from his mouth. He was flicking the lighter at its tip and as the flint sparked, the cigarette trembled.
Ashley and Kurt were ahead of them on the trail, kicking the dirt underneath their shoes and catching the nearest tree trunk for support against the rugged terrain.
“Hey!” Thomas called to them as he stood in between Darren and Ashley and Kurt.
“Yeah man, we are just scoping ahead.” Kurt yelled back. Ashley was laughing and slapping his shoulder. He handed her a joint and she took it without hesitating to inhale it.
Thomas walked toward Darren and raised his hand to his shoulder. “Are you alright man?” he asked, “you know, I told them not to bring it.” He tilted his head and then looked back ahead of the trail toward Ashley and Kurt.
“It’s fine,” Darren muttered through the cigarette, “I just have to get used to it.” He finally lit the thing and the smoke danced in front of his face until it dissipated among the piney canopies.
Thomas looked at the ground and caught a spider scurry over and underneath the leaves. “No man,” he said. He brought his eyes up again to see that Ashley and Kurt were walking toward them, still laughing.
“Guys, why did you bring weed?” Thomas asked as he walked to meet them half way. They kept moving forward, passing Thomas. He walked back toward his friends until they all were close enough together.
“So, why?” he asked again.
Kurt looked at Ashley and she looked back at him nudging her elbow into his arm. Well,” Kurt seemed troubled trying to speak, “what’s wrong with a little weed man?” He lifted his hand to the back of his neck.
“Yeah Darren – besides, no one is out here.” Ashley said. She had her hand clasping her elbow of the arm that extended down with the joint between her fingers.
Thomas looked at the joint then at Darren. “Should I tell them or you,” he said.
Darren just looked at Thomas then reached for the joint with one hand while taking the cigarette out of his mouth with his other hand. “Let me have a hit,” he said.
“Tell us what?” Ashley asked as she handed him the joint. Darren pierced his eyes into Thomas’ before he conjured the words to answer Ashley.
“Nothing,” Darren said, “I just have a drug test in a few weeks for a job, but I’ll be good.”
“Then what’s the problem,” Kurt said, “smoke up man!”
“Whatever.” Thomas said. He lifted his hands to his head and stretched his back as Darren took a drag.
“Take a hit man, Kurt said to Thomas, “You’ll feel – he cracked a smile – nature-fied!” He extended his arms out and moved them like frequency waves.
“Nah, I’m good,” he said, looking into the trees.
“Whao, check that eagle out!” Ashley pointed at a soaring bird that was extending its claws to perch itself on a branch just up and beyond where they were standing.
Thomas looked up and noticed that it wasn’t an eagle, but a hawk. He alone also noticed a nest closer to the trunk of the tree at which it was moving toward.
“Come on let’s go, we are almost to the campsite,” he said.
They continued to walk into the sun’s glow as it was on the brink of its dusk. Thomas led with Darren close behind, and Ashley and Kurt covering the rear a few feet from Darren. Intervals of exhaled smoke trailed them as they hiked for three more miles into South Jersey’s wildlife of the Pine Barrens. The trees were stacked so close together in nothing but mucky shallow marsh and the spacing in between them only revealed more trees as they appeared in the backdrop. As the night settled in, the trail was the only thing capable of seeing passed them and with the disappearing of the sun came the looming light of the moon, casting a glow that highlighted the silhouette of the trail and the shimmer of the marshes surrounding it.
“Hey did any of you bring a flashlight?” Thomas asked. He kept his head on the path and was attentive to the ground on which he was stepping.
A voice came from behind him, “nah.” Thomas discerned it to be Kurt.
“Ashley?” Thomas followed up with asking.
“I was counting on Kurt to bring one, I was supposed to bring the lighter,” she said. Thomas looked back and saw her flicking that lighter to keep it burning for the little light that she needed.
“That’s not going to help Ash,” Thomas said as he turned around. Darren started to pass him.
“No light Tom?” he said as he took the lead on the trail.
“I forgot ok?” Thomas said, following the light of Darren’s cigarette. He grabbed him by the arm, and as he stopped, Darren looked at Thomas. “We should stop here, find a clearing and settle by a fire, and sleep. We’ll head out in the morning.”
Darren jerked his arm out from Thomas’ grasp of it. “Yeah . . . hear that Kurt and Ashley?”
They weren’t far off from the lead Thomas and Darren had on them and they caught up momentarily through the thicket of the night, bumping into Thomas. “Yeah, I can’t see jack,” Kurt said while finding his balance in the darkness.
“Please,” Ashley insisted, “I’ll roll another once the fire is started.” She walked to the closest tree and leaned against it and started to flick her lighter again for some light.
“Alright, I am going to see if there is a clearing passed these trees.” Thomas brushed against Ashley only to pass her to move into the woods.
“Hey, easy there cowboy,” she said as she shoved herself off the tree trunk.
“Relax, it’s only me.” Thomas said. Darren flicked his lighter to his face and as the small flame formed, he moved it toward Ashley.
“Nah,” he said, “these woods are alive.” he let out an evil laugh that had Kurt kick the dirt around his feet in an attempt to shake the fear off.
“Shut up man, you’re freakin’ me out. . . no damn flashlight, how are we gonna find fire wood without a flashlight?” Kurt said.
“That’s a good point Thomas.” Darren said as he moved the lighter to his face.
“I have an idea,” Thomas reached down to the ground. They watched him as best as they could in the dark, then Darren followed him to the ground crouching with the lighter still on in his hand.
“I’m trying to find a stick.” He said to Darren and the others.
“Ahh, a torch! Nice,” Kurt said. He moved closer to Darren and the lighter.
“Two’s better than one,” Ashley said as she moved toward the ground while flicking her lighter, until she truck the flint to catch the gas.
“How about that one,” Kurt said as he pointed to the first stick he saw.
“Nah, it’s too thin,” Thomas said, “I need something that I can wrap my shirt around.”
Darren stood back up and looked off into the darkness. “I guess it’s worthless to say that we should have brought our phones, huh?” he said.
Thomas stood back up and faced Darren. “Well this whole trip lost its worth when those two brought weed,” he pointed to Kurt and Ashley, “and you smoking it, come on man!” Thomas said with his teeth grinding in between breaths.
“Wait,” Kurt stood up, “what are you guys talking about,” he said scratching his head.
“Yeah,” Ashley chimed in still searching for a stick with her lighter, “I thought we were going natural with this trip; no technology, just good times.”
“I also said no drugs, and you brought drugs.” Thomas said, still searching for a sturdy stick.
“Hey, weed’s not a drug man,” Kurt said, throwing his long blond hair back and out of his face.
“He’s got a point,” Darren said.
Thomas shook his head and paused to wipe the fatigue from his eyes. Then, a ding noise came from his pocket.
Darren’s lighter went out, but his eyes still fell upon Thomas. “But you brought your phone, uh?” he said.
Thomas kept looking at the moon with his mind on that time and off of the throw up on his leg and shoe. He reached into his back pocket and drew his wallet to find that he had just enough cash for a trip down to the corner store for a pack of cigarettes. The cement steps felt harder than usual as he joggled down each one with his soles clapping against them, and upon hitting the sidewalk, his arm swung out with the rest of his momentum where the clapping form his soles hitting the cement turned into short thumps.
Tom reached for the keys near Kristen’s collapsed legs. They were sprawled out in a neat row with each one overlapping a portion of the other, like a revealed hand of cards. The key-chain was at the other end of the key-ring; as if it was trying to escape the bind it had with the keys. All were sharing this ring like a disproportional solar system, where all the planets were the keys, and the key-chain was the sun. And all seemed to be striving to hide from this sun. When he grabbed them, they all collapsed into his hand.
Tom rose with his other hand extended toward Kristen and offered it to help her up as soon as he arrived at his feet. She ignored it and instead reached for the doorknob.
“Here,” she brought her hand that wasn’t on the doorknob toward the keys in his, “you don’t know which key it is.”
“You’re right, I don’t,” he said.
Her eyes were transfixed to the welcome mat as she gently moved to grab the keys. There was a pause before Thomas dropped them into her opened hand and another pause after they fell into her palm. She slowly turned away from him and toward the front door’s keyhole with little movement from anything else besides her waist and feet. Her movement did not gradually mature either as she shifted through the keys. Thomas watched her and noticed that she was just flipping them over each other with no attention to which one she was looking for, so he made an effort to interfere.
“Here let me,” he said.
Thomas extended his hand to grab them, but she found the front door key when he began to move his arm in her direction. His arm didn’t stop but followed hers as she brought the key to the door; however, it did stop when she slid it right into the door’s lock. The noise it made, the clunk as the dead bolt disengaged from the strike plate right after she twisted the key had brought his arm back to his side. When she stepped through the threshold along with the door in her wake, her heel struck the wooden floor with a clack, which caused him to remain silent. Her heels continued to clack against the floor as loud as the first as she walked further into the living room – the room where she left the front door agape for him to enter – and toward the kitchen. They hit the wooden floor with intervals that were consistently apart and he followed them into the house.
“Shut the door,” she said as she threw her purse on the couch continuing into the kitchen.
Thomas didn’t say anything as he was doing so with a steady motion, following the door until it met the threshold and his palm on the door’s edge met the inside rosewood frame. When he turned around to face the kitchen, he saw that the fridge was open.
“This is a nice place,” he said trying to refrain from looking at the hanging pictures on the walls.
Thomas’ attention away from the walls was sustained by focusing on Kristen. She didn’t answer as she was skimming the refrigerator door’s contents while leaning back on one foot and supporting her head by the chin with her hand. He couldn’t see but deduced that her arm was resting on the other as it may have been tucked into her abdomen for her to appear in the way that he saw her, behind the fridge door. He walked past the couch that was across from the television on an oak washed cabinet and continued into the dining room with a table set for four.
“So, your mother still makes pottery in her spare time?”
“What?” Kristen didn’t look up.
“These plates and bowls.” Thomas moved his hand over the dining table as if a wand was in his hand, swirling it around.
“Yeah,” she said. She paused a moment as if something in the fridge caught her attention, “she sent me a set last Hanukah,” she continued.
“It looks nice,” he brought his hand down and stared at the set for another moment, watching the dust particles float and fall onto each piece – one settling next to the other before it.
“Do you want anything to drink?” She asked.
“I am OK, thanks though.” Thomas took his jacket off and draped it over one of the dining room chairs while still staring at the table’s display.
The sound of her heels against the kitchen tile stole his attention from the pottery and onto the opened refrigerator door. Kristen had a bottle of wine and was walking to place it onto the small rounded kitchen table across the fridge. It was pressed up against the only window that overlooked the backyard.
As she walked toward the table, Thomas walked toward the opened door of the refrigerator. It rested against the kitchen’s wall that was shared as the dining room’s wall from the other side and it only took him a few extra steps before he was right above the door. His approaching the door caused her to turn around after placing the bottle on the table. He was about to shut it.
“Hold on,” she said.
The sound of her heels clacking against the tile intensified as she walked to the door until they abruptly stopped when she grabbed a store-branded water bottle from one of the shelves. She ferociously untwisted its cap and brought the opened nozzle to her lips followed by a satisfying noise as she drank. Right after the first gulp, she waved her free hand laterally, indicating to Thomas to shut the door. Her eyes widened after a few passes of her hand and it only took a few more for him to understand what she meant by the gesture. He raised an eyebrow and with a smile, gently pushed the door with his index finger and as the door met the frame of the fridge, rattles from every glass bottle and jar in the shelves of the door synchronized to one shaping sound. The simultaneous rattling ceased almost instantaneously when the sound of her throat gulping the water down ended, when she finished the bottle.
She crushed the plastic-bottle after drawing it away from her mouth and tossed it into the recycling bin next to the back door. The sound of the empty trash bag’s sides grazing it as it made its way to bottom of the bin echoed after it landed.
“Hey, uh . . . Kristen,” Thomas moved toward her as she grabbed a wine glass from the cupboard.
“Tom, I don’t want to talk about it,” she said.
“Then why am I here?” Thomas snapped, but with little effort to sound frustrated.
“I just don’t want to be alone,” she moved the glass from the cupboard above to the counter below. Thomas moved to lean on the fridge door, putting his hands into his pockets.
“What about George, where is he?” he asked.
Kristen placed both of her hands on the edge of the counter shoulder-width apart and leaned forward until she was just above the empty wine glass.
“He’s,” she let out a faint sigh, “he’s at his parents for the weekend.”
“Does he know what happened to you, about the . . .”
“No,” she interrupted.
“When did it happen?” Thomas pushed himself off of the fridge with his hands still in his pockets, “did you tell him?!”
Kristen turned her head toward him while still leaning over the empty glass.
“Hey Tom,” her voice started to pitch, “you’re not the police, or my mother you know – OK – I just need someone here. That’s all.” Thomas peered down to the floor.
“Please,” she said as she turned her head toward him, “no more questions.” Her eyes pierced into his as he brought his head back up to look at her.
“Listen,” he said, “I don’t mean to pry, but uh . . .”
“What Thomas,” She snapped.
“I, I want to do something about it,” he said as his frustration subsided into a grave concern.
“There’s nothing that can be done!”
She snatched the glass off of the counter and stormed toward the wine bottle she placed on the table across the kitchen. Her heels crashed against the tile that created a jarring noise in Thomas’ eardrums. The noise coerced him to follow her with one of his hands out of the pocket and in her direction. She grabbed the bottle to lift it and pour its contents into the glass.
“Who was he Kristen, can you at least tell me who?”
“UGH!” Kristen poured the wine to the brim of the glass, “even if I tell you – what happened, who it was – what are you going to do about it?!” She raised the glass to her mouth without spilling its contents and catapulted half of it down her esophagus. Thomas watched her swig until she lowered the glass to her hip and leaned against the lip of the table. She held the glass with poised elegance as she locked her eyes with his while she continued to speak.
“What will it prove to you anyway? – That I am still that fucking whore you wanted to marry so many years ago?!” Her face didn’t express any vile disdain; she just shrugged her left shoulder up toward her head accompanied with a spontaneous frown.
Thomas’ hand fell against his thigh and his posture sagged a bit toward her along with his jaw slightly dropping.
“I never called you that – ever.”
Her eyes fell to the floor and it seemed to Thomas that she was about to cry. Her face held a gloom and it grew darker and darker as her head began to follow the path of her eyes down to the floor. Under the pale illumination of the kitchen’s light and with the rotation of its blades, Thomas took it upon himself to embrace her, but just before he was about to engage, she directed her head up toward him. She wasn’t crying.
“Well, I am not telling George,” she swigged the last of the wine that was in her glass and then firmly placed that glass next to the bottle without turning around.
A silence followed her remark until it was broken by a sound of a ping from the clock on the stove. It was midnight. Kristen looked at the time while Thomas kept his eyes on her with a tendered gaze.
“Why are you cheating Kristen?” he asked.
Kristen whipped her head back at him and glared.
“Get the fuck out,” she yelled, “just get out.”
She brought her hand toward his face, but didn’t touch him and he didn’t wince. He just kept that gaze upon her and listened.
“If you are going to keep asking questions about it – I am not going to answer I – I just want to forget!” Her glare started to rattle and her teeth started to clench, “UGH, I should have never called you!” Her suspended hand clenched as well, into a fist and she brought that fist down swiftly through the air. She turned and slammed her hands on the lip of the table and peered up at her reflection in the window. His reflection was right behind hers.
“Hey,” Thomas moved a bit closer, “hey I’ll stop, OK?” He said.
Her eyes met his in the reflection of the window.
“How about I just go for a walk and when I come back,” he shrugged his shoulders, “I’ll just stay down here and you can go upstairs and sleep or something.”
She tilted her head down toward the windowsill for a minute seemingly in catatonia.
“What about your pants,” she said. When she looked back up, Thomas was opening the front door.
The ride was silent with Thomas still watching the lamp posts as he and Kristen passed them, driving down Geary Street. He counted them to himself until the numbers collectively became one drawn-out sequence, and as each number he counted began to lose its place-value, the sound of each number began to lose its meaning; until, all he found saying to himself were mumbles. Eventually, Kristen turned right off Geary Street and onto 17th. She pulled up to the rear of a car that was in front of a parking space, the space Thomas assumed she had left earlier to pick him up, and jerked the gearshift to reverse. She lifted her head up and rotated it toward the right passenger window to attempt to see the other car’s taillight. Both of her hands were still on the wheel at 11 and 2 o’clock.
“Tom, how close am I to that car’s taillight?”
She kept her head up and her chin out while both of her eyes danced along the right sides of her eye sockets in search for a clear view. Thomas swung his head around in the same direction where she was looking. He shifted his body in his seat by rotating himself toward the passenger seat behind him to get a better view of the distance between both of the cars.
“Yeah, you’re clear.” He said while still looking through the window.
Instead of Kristen easing the pressure on the acceleration pedal, she applied too much pressure on it, which throttled the car into the space prematurely.
“Easy, you’re gonna have ta . . .” The jerk from the sudden stop interrupted him, and simultaneously, Kristen expressed her frustration.
“I KNOW,” she said.
Thomas returned to sitting forward in his seat with his teeth clenched together and without anything else to say. She adjusted the car’s position for a second attempt by vigorously rotating the wheel in the opposite direction, and just before she applied the appropriate amount of pressure to pull forward into the street, a car zipped by, honking its horn.
“Jesus, Tom!” She slapped his arm with force. “You could have told me there was a car coming!”
The moment her hand made contact with his arm, a pervasive sensation of ire flourished him. The tension did not gradually increase. No, that would have given him time to cool down, to catch the tense surge before exploding. No-no, this strike was all that it took.
“WHAT THE FUCK KRISTEN!” Thomas’ voice rose to a new level, a level which reverberated off every surface in the car and crashed upon his and her eardrums like shock waves, “every time, every – fucking – time you do this!”
Kristen turned toward him and her face froze with a frightened yet appalled expression. Her jaw slowly dropped that exposed just a slim section of her upper teeth. Along with her jaw slowly dropping, every other nuance that gave her face life — what culminated to the image of her bubbly yet assertive personality — seemed to die.
The deathly expression in her face brought Thomas’ explosive response to asunder as well as his feelings that put the force behind it. They fell apart and dissipated into his now clammy countenance, which portrayed the fleeting of his anger. The red in his complexion turned to white as quickly as he digressed to wait for her to say something; but nothing was said, she just sat there like a deer in headlights.
He looked down, and stared at the dirty floor mat that his vomit-covered shoe barely touched. He wasn’t aware of trying not to touch the mat with that shoe until now. With this sudden realization, a relief of stiffness was lifted from his leg.
“I-I-‘m sorry,” Thomas said as he scratched his temple. “I’m sorry Kristen . . . it’s just that every time you get frustrated . . .”
As he spoke, cutting through the doldrums of the car, where the air hung thick with the scent of vomit and all that seemed to be moving was the heat flowing out of the vents, there was a whimper . . . a faint muster of a whimper.
” you, uh . . . seem tooo . . . ” Thomas continued, but then stopped at the sound of that whimper.
And then suddenly, what started as a mere whimper matured into a quick jarring sound that ruptured the silence and that ultimately flabbergasted Thomas. It was a short burst of distress vocalized through a sobbing mess. Within seconds, Kristen’s dead expression was soaked with tears. She didn’t move, just the tears did as they streamed down her face. They dropped with a trickle that ended with a “flop” onto the part of her jacket that folded outward as she started to slump over, right into Thomas’ lap.
“I was raped,” she said through the tears.
After those three words registered in his brain he fell apart inside and almost immediately felt as if he tore open a wound that he couldn’t have known existed until now.
Emotions surged, and he was filtering through almost every one. And as they did surface, he tried to dismiss them as post-counter-parts of himself – the person he used to know – the person that would have caught Kristen as she fell into his lap. But, those counter-parts opposed to his contemporary self were released the moment she called him earlier that night. They were just dormant until now, yet he fought the urge to catch her so suddenly. He remained silent and motionless as she gently collapsed toward him. As she neared, he gently lifted his hand over and onto the top of her head.
The sobbing stopped and Thomas felt it right to ask, “it wasn’t George, was it?”
“No,” she said through the sobs, “can we just, make it inside, please.”
“Yeah,” Thomas ran his fingers through her hair and ravished in the silky smoothness of each follicle. He tried to ease the seriousness of her confession, but not in any vocal way. He just wanted to distract himself. He leaned toward her ear.
“Hey, uh Kristen, that vomit . . .” He said with the most sincere voice that he could muster.
She lifted her head up which made Thomas move back toward the head rest of the seat.
“yeah . . .” Kristen sniffled and wiped her nose, “yeah.”
Thomas turned his head toward the street and noticed the faint street lamp brightening a small radius of the road, where her car wasn’t blocking, and of the cars parked on both sides of the road in an off-yellow light.
“We should park the car,” Thomas said.
Kristen looked around as she finished getting up from his lap. She seemed disoriented but aware that the car was still angled halfway out into the street. She wiped her face one last time and quickly put the car into drive, pulled it up a few feet, adjusted the wheel to the right angle – as if she knew the exact point where to stop the wheel – and then in one last fluent motion, she shoved the gearshift into reverse and reared the car into the space without any hesitation. The maneuver was completed before Thomas had time to say anything else about her car obstructing the street. Then she opened the door and shut it equally as fast, but just before she did, she managed to say,
Before he followed her with the same fluent exit from the car, he whispered an assuring, “alright” to himself.
Thomas stepped out of the car and studied her place from the curb. It resembled the architecture of a Victorian painted lady row-home with bay windows on the first and second floors. The design of the building’s facade was symmetrical from left to right and in between the bay windows there was a circular mural carved into a wooden piece that gave the home a warm sense of character. Along the bevel of the roof and all along the home’s edges were intricate inlays that appeared to replicate the growth of vines. Their color was white and complimented the painted bricks. They were bright olive green where the white trim of each window contrasted their color to an even more brightness. These bricks were fashionably layered and it was by this layering scheme that gave a youthful portrayal of the home. Houses of similar Victorian design were on both sides of her home, stretching down the block to its end. The colors of them were different, but none of them were as dull as the next one, and each had their own unique antiquated appeal, but revitalized for this century. Some had garages that were just feet away from the sidewalk with a stoop to its left that led up to its front door, while others only had the stoop up to the front door and no garage.
Kristen was already at the top of her stoop, flustered in the act of searching for the right key to open the front door. Thomas heard the keys clash together as he was approaching the stoop until he heard a final clash by the keys hitting the ground. She had dropped them and it was at this point that Thomas made his way to the top of the stoop. He did not hesitate to bend down for the keys as she did so as well.
“Hey, uh I know you aren’t OK, but just, try to relax.” He said as they both went toward the keys.
She started to sob again as she descended to the ground and as she bent her knees; she slipped her feet out from under her, which caused her to sit on the cemented stoop with her legs folded together along the right side of her body. Thomas followed her down to the cement and sat next to her, brought her close to him by wrapping his arms around her chest, where she nestled her face into his chest and cried.
“It’ll be alright Kris, it’ll be alright.” He said as he brought his head close to hers.
After a mere minute of listening to their garrulous talk,
their vainglory had no place for the wretchedly involved,
These wretches cared not for the words,
but only for the melodies from the caterwauls that they had caused,
by a guillotine of sorts, like an anvil in the shape of a sword,
with a swinging repetition a lasso would have,
before falling around the neck of a horse.
Deeply harmonized, yet subtly diminished
were the spaces in between the sounds of the carnage:
the bashing of bones, the ripping of flesh; it was a mess,
like mangoes crashing through canvas.
What separated each painful cry were these brief moments of silence.
It replaced their continuous pompous prose,
and as those brief silent moments began to grow,
they were given to the squawking crows.
It was with the crush of each skull
followed by the severance of each limb,
one-by-one reminders accumulated to the others:
to speak out of line again will be followed by dismemberment.
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?”