Joyride

by Sonia Christensen

Kevin and I went on a joyride. We had been more or less together two years, six weeks and eleven days and by then we pretty much hated each other, though we also loved each other like crazy, or I loved him. By then we had broken up, gotten back together, lived together, broken up, moved out, gotten back together, gone on a break, been “hanging out” and then gotten back together for one more go ’round.

Kevin picked me up in his old Jeep. I used to love that car. We had gone everywhere in it, done everything in it in better days. It had a smell I loved—it smelled like him, like mint and his deodorant and smoke and something else under that, whatever smell was just him. I could never describe it. That smell always made me feel like everything was going to be okay, even when I knew it couldn’t be.

He smiled at me when I hopped in, said hey gorgeous.

We were headed to the mountains. We had champagne. We were going to find some big rocks and sit on them and pop the champagne and hopefully not fight.

We took the back roads like always. It was the end of an unseasonably warm fall and that night I didn’t even wear a jacket. Just my blue hoodie, the one I knew he liked. It snowed the next day but that night we rode with windows down and it was fine. The warm weather made it feel like there was something magic going on, like as long as the weather held, nothing could possibly go wrong.

Kevin could smoke a bowl and drive at the same time. He offered me some but I didn’t want any. I almost never smoked anymore; it made me panic. We used to do that all the time together, smoke and drive, that was one of our favorite things but I couldn’t do it anymore.

It had been a week or so since we’d actually seen each other so I asked what he’d been up to.

“Working a lot,” he said. He always said that.

There had been a time when we spent every day together and told each other everything. But things had changed and even though we were technically back together again for one more go ’round, sometimes it was almost like we didn’t know each other at all. There were secrets between us. I knew that wasn’t normal but at the time it didn’t seem like there was anything I could do about it—that was just the way it was.

The road was serpentine and lined with trees. It was early evening and the light was deep blue turning black. The trees still had leaves so the sound around us was like a million big maracas shaking in the breeze. I was worrying about the same things as always—about making a mistake, about saying the wrong thing and losing Kevin finally. About not being the person he wanted me to be, whoever that person might be.

“You never tell me anything,” I said.

“Not much to tell,” he said. I knew that was a lie. He wasn’t a boring person. He was always up to something.

Kevin and I met at work. We worked in a coffee shop and I didn’t like him at first. I thought he partied too much. It took me a long time to notice that he was interested in me and even longer to notice that I was interested in him. But once I did, I fell in love in a way I didn’t even know I was capable of. I thought he was so cool. I wanted to impress him. I thought he would teach me how to be like him, how to be interesting and like the right things. We started dating in the winter and I felt for the first time like my life was exactly as it should be. For a long time we had a blast. We went to shows, we went to bars. We had friends. He made me laugh. Everything was perfect. We made fun of couples with problems because we knew we wouldn’t have any. Then there were problems. He was a flirt. I was jealous. I was distant. He felt like he didn’t know me. He partied too much, I slept a lot. We worked on stuff, worked it out, went through hell and back together emotionally. I don’t know who stopped trying first and I don’t know why. All I know is the whole thing, my whole life, started to slip through my fingers, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t figure out how to hold onto it.

We drove for probably ten more minutes without saying anything. The road snaked underneath us and it got cool enough to roll up our windows and I was surrounded by his smell and felt better. He put a hand on my thigh.

We hit a curve in the road and were in true mountain territory. Not on roads that didn’t have names yet, not on roads where there were no other cars, but roads where there were not many cars, roads where you start to feel like you can do anything, be anybody and there will be no one around to see you or stop you. It felt like the vice grip that was always squeezing my heart and making me worry finally loosened its grip just a little. I felt a glimmer of the way things used to be, of the good old days when life was one big party. Carefree, confident, light.

I don’t know why Kevin turned off the headlights, not really. All I know is he switched them off and when I asked why he did that he said, “It’s pretty.”

In a way I guess it was. You could see the black uneven outline of the mountain against the still blue sky. You could see the silhouettes of the trees in a different way than when you looked at them in the light of the headlights. And there was something about being part and parcel with the darkness that I think I would have liked, used to like a long time ago. Like being a dark fish in deep water, invisible. A moving piece of night. But by then I wasn’t like that anymore and I was terrified.

“Turn the lights back on.”

“Aw, come on, have fun.” He started singing “Blue Moon.” He took the curves in a dreamy, loose way, like he was perfectly at ease.

“Turn them back on.”

He didn’t. I got that old, cold panic. “Turn them back on,” I yelped. He didn’t.

The road curved and curved. “Blue moon,” he sang. “You saw me standing alone.” He had a beautiful voice. The black line of the mountain disappeared around a bend and reappeared. The trees shook. “Without a dream in my heart. Without a love of my own.” He took a hit from his pipe and the smoke curled up. Blue moon.

We hit something. Of course we hit something.

Whatever it was that we hit, it was big. Deer big maybe. But in the light that we had, just the blue moonlight, it didn’t look like a deer. We hit it head on and it flipped up over the hood, smashed the windshield, and ricocheted off the car to the left. The sound of it hitting the windshield was apocalyptically loud to me, like all the ice in the world shattering at once. The car swerved into the wrong side of the road and then Kevin overcorrected back, sent us onto the shoulder. I could feel the rocks under the wheels shake us roughly and my head snapped back and forth. There was a sharp, tight pain in my neck and I saw the boulders lining the road loom close. But we stopped in time.

We were silent for a while. There was still smoke hanging in the car and Kevin flipped the headlights on finally.

He said he was sorry.

I didn’t say it was okay because it wasn’t okay. My neck ached and my heart was hammering like a rabbit heart. “What was that thing?”

“I guess we better go see.” He turned to look at me and I realized it had been a long time since we made any real eye contact. He looked like a kid, like a scared kid, like he had the first time he told me he loved me, when he wasn’t sure I’d say it back. I was so angry at him for being reckless, for being stoned, for being out of his mind and stupid.

“I guess we better.”

We got out of the car. It was still warm enough, and the trees still shook like maracas but it didn’t feel magical, not even close. We didn’t have flashlights so we held our cell phone lights out to the road looking for the thing that we hit. It was big, it should’ve been there. It should’ve been right there in the middle of the road. We hit it so hard it should have been motionlessly lying there, a black lump in the road, maybe still alive but probably just barely.

We got closer to the spot where the thing should’ve landed, approaching slowly even though it was obvious there was nothing there. I thought for a frantic second that maybe we hadn’t hit anything at all. That maybe somehow the weblike lines on the windshield were all in my mind and we could get back in the car and get up to those big rocks and pop our champagne and not fight maybe everything would be all right.

“Where is it?” Kevin said. “It should be right here.” The beam from his cell phone cut back and forth across the road, illuminating first the trees on one side and then the rocks on the other. There was nothing there.

“Did it run off?” I asked.

“Do you think it could have?” Maybe it was the moonlight, but he looked pale.

“I don’t know. We hit it pretty hard.”

“That’s what I was thinking.”

We looked in the trees. We took our cell phone lights into the trees and investigated, looking for a big, black shape that could have been anything as far as we knew. We just kept saying, what was it, what was it we hit. Like if we knew it would make it any better. We got far from any road, stepped over fallen trees and rocks, went down a steep hill. I stumbled and twisted an ankle and my neck still hurt but we just kept looking. We didn’t find a thing. I think I heard it though. I kept hearing something—steps—to the right of where we were, heard something brushing against the leaves. We went after it, it wasn’t there. It was always just ahead of us, just out of our reach.

We looked at each other when we got to the bottom of the hill and came up against a river. It was no good—we had to go back and we both knew it. It was so dark.

“Why did you have to do that?” I said. “Why do you have to be so stupid?”

“I didn’t mean to—”

“You ruined everything. You ruin everything.” I was getting pretty worked up. I’d never said anything like that before—I always thought he would leave if I did. “Why does every single thing you do have to turn into a train wreck? Why can’t you just do something right for once?”

“I’m sorry, I guess.”

“You guess. You could’ve killed us. You maybe killed something.” I hate you, I thought. I hate you, I hate you. I looked at the river rushing so I didn’t have to look at his dumb face. “That could’ve been a person.”

“It wasn’t a person.”

“Well maybe it was.” I mainly said that to hurt him and I think it worked.

We climbed back up the hill and into the old jeep. His face was scratched from some sharp twig and I ran my finger over it. He looked like he might cry. I told him he was stupid again and then I cried and then we kissed.

The car was all messed up; we knew that without even really looking at the damage. We weren’t going to make it to the big rocks. So we popped the champagne in the car on the side of that road, drank it straight out of the bottle, talked about nothing, about music. He sang “Blue Moon” and I hummed along even though I still hated him. I didn’t know what else to do. I was confused. It was pretty, with night finally fallen. The stars came out and we could see them all the more clearly for the darkness. We didn’t talk about what we hit. Hopefully whatever it was it got away.

We drove back into town in spite of the shattered windshield. It was pretty touch and go the whole way down—my knuckles were white with holding onto the door handle, with fear. We didn’t fight any more but when we kissed goodbye I could feel that something was different, that the bottom had finally fallen out for us. That wasn’t the last time we saw each other; we probably hung out three or four more times. I remember buying him lunch once at some sushi place and pretending like everything was normal. He pretended everything was normal too, but we both knew it wasn’t. The last time we saw each other we fought—one of those big knock-down-drag-outs that can get really ugly. We pretty much had to do that, just to get rid of each other. We said a lot of messed up things but neither one of us mentioned the joyride. It wasn’t worth it.

If he ever figured out what we hit he never told me. I don’t know if he still thinks about it. I don’t even know where he is or what he’s doing. I know think about it, all the time. I think about the windshield shattering and the smoke in the car and the trees and the steps I thought I heard. I think about “Blue Moon” and I miss Kevin sometimes, sometimes still feel lost without him, sometimes catch myself trying to be the person I was when everything felt like it was exactly as it should be, even though I know that’s not who I am anymore.

I drove up that road once by myself in the day in the spring. I got out of the car and everything, walked around the trees with their new leaves expecting something to finally be there, bones or something, but of course there wasn’t.

**********

Sonia Christensen lives and works in Denver, Colorado. Her stories have appeared in Devilfish Review, First Stop Fiction and Confrontation, as well as in a few other journals and magazines. 

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