I watch her out of the corner of my eye. She sits in the passenger seat, her feet propped up on the dash in a way that makes me think of broken bones, in the event I crash headfirst into a telephone pole. She is awash with gold under every streetlight, clinging to her skin like gilt. A Greek sculpture made flesh; my own personal Venus de Milo shaped of honey and something sharper, darker—maybe pyrite. Ethereal is the word that comes to mind: delicate and light; too beautiful for this world. But then she shifts, and the illusion is broken. She is human again, if only for the second it takes her to fix her hair in the rearview mirror.
“Stop touching my mirror,” I protest, breaking the silence. It has been quiet since I picked her up in front of her house, a stuffed backpack over one of her shoulders and a guarded look in her eyes. There is a smear of lipstick under her lip. It looks like blood.
I’m going on a road trip, she had announced over the phone twenty minutes ago.
When do we leave? I had asked, knowing the answer. My keys had already been in my pocket. I’d started packing as soon as I’d picked up the phone. I’m ready when you are.
She is a consummate actress, even at four in the morning with no one but me around. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her soft underbelly, only the shine of her armor.
Her sigh had rattled down the line, distorting and falling apart until it was as undecipherable as the background noise. She hadn’t answered, but she’d been waiting when I pulled up ten minutes later.
“You don’t need it,” she huffs, trying for humor but missing by a couple of inches. Her voice is raw from yelling, but her hair is perfect again and that illustrates her priorities better than anything else. “You don’t need it,” she says again, but she puts it back exactly where it was. “There’s no one else on the road.”
“Only idiots drive this late,” I say pointedly. My eyes flick to the mirror—the road behind us is empty, but there is one car a hundred yards ahead taking a right turn. At least three, maximum nine (it was a compact car, good for five people and maybe a sixth, if you didn’t mind sitting on someone’s lap) souls on the road at four twenty-nine a.m. We are connected by our mutual idiocy, that other driver and I, but I’d rather not be connected by our front bumpers, too. “And I don’t want to be rear-ended by an idiot. When you drive you can do whatever you want with your mirrors. Until then, my car, my rules.”
“I’m paying for gas, so I should at least get a say,” she counters, tapping her fingers on the window. Clack, clack, clack. “Ten percent of a say. I’d argue for fifteen, but you’d call me greedy.”
I try not to look shocked. “We’re going far enough that we need gas?” I ask. I’d filled my tank that morning, see, so I was good for at least 450 miles. I think. If I did the conversion from liters to gallons correctly. Math has never been my strong suit.
Her smile freezes on her face. It’s like hitting pause on a movie, all the vibrance and life stopping abruptly, only to be resumed at will by the push of a button. She scares me, sometimes, with how controlled her emotions are. She is a consummate actress, even at four in the morning with no one but me around. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her soft underbelly, only the shine of her armor.
“I haven’t decided yet,” she says, cheerful but not. A varnish of cheer over a gaping wound of fear. “But if we need it, I’ll pay for it.”
“How generous of you,” I grumble. I roll to a stop at a red light and take a moment to really look at her. The red washes her out and blurs her edges, making her look like she belongs in my passenger’s seat. She blends into the window, into the seat, not occupying space but becoming one with the walls. I think that I could look at her forever. But there are more pressing things to discuss than how unfairly beautiful she looks when she melds herself with my things. “You don’t know where we’re going?”
“Eyes on the road,” she says idly. Clack, clack, clack. On the gearshift this time. She has covered the dash in one of those old-fashioned paper maps, with all the streets color coded according to a key too small for me to read. She must have left her phone at home. “I know where we’re going. Of course, I know where we’re going. I just don’t know where we’ll stop.”
I throw a hand in the air. Not both, because my mother raised a careful driver and even with my foot on the brake, I know to keep a hand on the wheel, but one for dramatic effect. “That clears everything up.”
“It should,” she says airily, meeting my eyes. They’re red with the stop light, yes, but unshed tears, too. This isn’t a road trip for her; she’s running away. And suddenly, everything is clear. “Listen, I can get out. We’re near a bus stop, anyway. Pull over here; I’ll walk the rest of the way, and you can go home.”
“You’re a crazy person if you think I’m going to do that,” I raise an eyebrow, feeling inexplicably fragile. I am ice as her fingers leave the gearshift and cover mine on the steering wheel. It’s an awkward reach for her, but it’s the thought that counts. Her hand is almost uncomfortably warm, and I melt into water, pooling in the footwell when she smiles like I’ve said something right.
I can tell when the light turns green by the way it paints her skin. Lime over the arch of her cheekbone, viridian in the hollow beneath. Forest where her jaw cuts away to her neck, and chartreuse on her full lips. Hunter on the right side of her face, the side that faces away from the light and blends with the shadows of the seat. A masterpiece in monochrome. I think I might love her.
I’m tempted to wait, to watch her smile in shades of green until my eyes burn. I’m tempted to wait and learn what she looks like cast in amber, then red, then stare at her in green again and see if it matches what I remember. I could do it. There’s no one else on the road, no one honking their horn and telling me to move because I’m blocking traffic. We could stay here forever, her and I, or at least until the morning rush.
My foot stays on the brake. I wait for her to make a choice. We could exist in the red yellow green glow of this traffic light. We could live in stasis. But have we run far enough? Will it ever be far enough? Can we ever stop running, now that we’ve started?
“Turn left up here,” she directs, breaking the moment. She takes her hand off of mine and it hurts, like pulling a splinter. I flick on my turn signal to distract myself and turn without checking the intersection. A reckless decision to match my wildly beating heart, but not too reckless, because it’s not only my life that I’m playing with. The intersection is empty, anyway, and on some level, I knew that before I turned.
Now we are headed west. West, where the sun kissed the horizon hours and hours ago. West, the historic lands of opportunity! We are manifesting destiny, tired pioneers in a twenty-first century covered wagon. Visions of us panning for gold, her in her heels and me in my beat-up Converse, knee-deep in a muddy stream, fill my head and I have to laugh. Absurdist humor, I think, but I indulge it anyway. She’d find the biggest piece, I know, because she’s always been lucky like that. She’d toss it back, though, because no one does self-sabotage like she does. But we’d be gold rushers and maybe that would be enough.
“Shit,” she says. “Wait. I had the map upside down. You were supposed to go right.”
East it is.
East towards the sunrise, though it is still dark now. I can’t think of much else that lies to the east, except maybe the coast.
“Are we going to the beach?” I ask. I didn’t pack a swimsuit, and I’d rather not be vacuuming sand out of my car for the next year, so I hope not. But it’s the only thing I can think of that would be east of here, unless she has suddenly developed an obsession with the cookie cutter suburbs of New Jersey.
“You hate the beach,” she says. The map is right side up now, though I can’t tell the difference. I don’t offer to turn on the GPS, though.
I swallow, finishing my U-turn on an empty road. My headlights float like the eyes of some monster, scaring away any deer that would dare challenge me. The late hour scares off the other cars. It’s the perfect recipe for solitude on the road.
“But I’d go for you.”
“I know you would.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Are we going to the beach?” I repeat. The answer, we established, matters not at all. It serves only to sate my own curiosity.
She laughs. “God, no,” she leans back in her seat, giving me a quicksilver smile. “I have no desire to grow a third eye or something from swimming in Jersey seawater. Maybe if we drive to California, we can go to a beach there. I’ve always wanted to go to a California beach.”
“We’re going the wrong way for California,” I point out, both playing along and not. The joke is that I would drive with her all the way to California, just so that she could go to the beach. The joke is that it isn’t a joke at all.
“Next time,” she promises.
It’s that simple promise of a future together that steals my breath. I love her, I realize. Something in the Pandora’s box of my ribs flutters to life. Elpis. Hope, I think. The last evil left when Pandora set them all free. The one that hurts the most.
I love her. It doesn’t change anything. She is still herself—untouchable, an icon in my passenger’s seat to be worshipped. The patron saint of wanderers, beautiful disasters, and any amalgamation of the two. A goddess of her own making, ruling over the barren wasteland of the highway at five in the morning and demanding tribute from plain girls with car keys and a full tank of gas. She is still herself, and I am still me.
I love her. I keep driving.
“Next time,” I agree, choking around all the words I can’t say. I want her to hear it, but I can’t bear for her to. It’s Schroedinger’s confession: I tell her that I love her by not telling her that I love her. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe the cat is just dead, and she is just loved, whether she hears it or not.
“Take this exit,” she says, and that’s that.
I don’t know where we are. It’s still dark enough that we could be anywhere. All towns look the same before they wake up. The buildings are looming ghosts with dead neon signs. They are a blur in the rearview mirror before I can try to read them. Why bother? They aren’t our destination.
“Can I have a hint?” I give her a pleading look, one she has long since grown immune to. It is still worth a shot.
She makes a face. “Let’s get a little closer,” she says. “Then I’ll tell you. I want it to be a surprise.”
“You have no idea where we’re going, do you?” I turn to face her. One eye on the road, of course, but the other on the arch of her cheekbone, the strong line of her brow. She is a million shades of green that I can’t identify, and I want to paint her. I want to capture her in some tangible way, just to show that I have seen her. But I have been here before, I think. Deja vu. I have been here before, and so has she. Suddenly and all at once, I remember.
I try to get control of the car, but how can you control a disaster? How can you wrestle chaos and win?
I want to scream, but she is still smiling like she knows something I don’t. She never fixed her lipstick; her lips look like they’re dripping blood. I would do it for her, but my hands are glued to the wheel. I wish I could do it for her. I wish she would put her hand over mine again on the steering wheel. I wish she’d be impulsive and yank it to the side, just to see us swerve and scream and get our blood up. But we were both raised to be careful drivers and she keeps her hands to herself. She is still smiling, because I’m the one who knows something she doesn’t.
What she never remembers is that we’ve relived this night a hundred times. I never remember myself until it’s too late, until I’m in the intersection already. We are bathed in light and I wonder how I could’ve ever forgotten this. The sight of her, so bright it hurts to look at. I look anyway. I can’t bear not to.
In this second, she is immortal. A mosquito in amber—frozen forever in a moment in time. She is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Fine art, I think, worthy of the masters; no, better than the masters. Da Vinci couldn’t have painted her better than this traffic light. Donatello would’ve messed up her nose. Botticelli doesn’t even bear mentioning. I would live in this second forever, but that isn’t how time works. The second passes, bleeds into the next, then the next, then the next, dragging me kicking and screaming through time. There is nothing to hold on to but memories.
“Oh, ye of little faith,” she complains fondly. “We’re going to—”
What I’ll never tell her is that we don’t make it past this intersection. We didn’t that first night, and we haven’t every night since. The light is green and there are no other cars. Except, that’s not quite true. The light is green and there’s another car, black with its headlights off, and the driver is drunk at the wheel. I don’t know this when I hit the gas. I don’t know it until it plows into the passenger side of my car.
I try to get control of the car, but how can you control a disaster? How can you wrestle chaos and win? Broken glass stings my hands as I swerve away. I hit the brakes and my arm goes out to stop her from flying through the windshield, the way my Driver’s Ed teacher told me would happen if I stopped too abruptly. But I am too late.
My arm hits the fake leather of the seat, not a warm body. I flinch from the unnatural coolness and look just in time to see her smile dissipate like smoke. Her eyes, so bright in the artificial light, are the last to go. They linger, piercing, accusing. They are sharper than the glass that peppers my right side where her body didn’t shield my own.
Screams are caught behind my teeth, pleas for her to come back, please, I’m sorry, I should’ve looked more carefully, it’s my fault. Don’t leave me, I beg. Come back. I love you. I’m sorry.
But apologies mean nothing to the dead, do they?
In the amber glow of the burgeoning sunrise, she fades into nothingness. I am driving alone.
I never found out where we were going.