He slumped in the back of the cab, watching street lights whip past the salt encrusted window.
It was the first true moment of pause he’d had in weeks. And in the moment, he was acutely aware of the ache that was still present in his chest.
The ache that had been there for months.
The cab driver’s heavy accent brought him back to the now, back to the cracked vinyl bench seat of a Crown Victoria on the far side of 200,000 miles. Crying? Was he crying? Was he?
“No.” He leaned forward, pushing his face between the two front seats and into the oncoming glare of a pair of headlights, as if to prove the point to thickly mustached driver.
“You are crying.”
“My nose is running.” It was. But his eyes did feel like they were floating — as if they were being forced to open against a stiff, bitter breeze. They’d felt like that all day. All week, now that he thought about it.
“It look like you are crying.” The world’s most interpretive cab driver looked him in the eye though the rearview mirror. It was a firm gaze — there was no laughter in it. “Is it a girl?”
“Is it a girl?” The vinyl creaked under his weight. “There’s a girl. But I’m not crying.” He stated it firmly, hoping his intonation would settle the discussion.
It did not.
“Are you running?”
“My nose is running.”
“No. Are you running?” The cab driver met his eyes again in the rearview mirror, then changed lanes.
“Am I running?”
“Are you running — to her? Away from her? Which way?”
He opened his mouth to answer, then shut it. Which way was a valid question, and it was a question he didn’t think he could answer.
Finally, he decided to answer the only way he could. With the truth.
“I don’t know.” And he didn’t.
The cab driver’s head bobbed with understanding.
“It is like this with them. The girls.”
“I ran away before. I was a coward.” The admittance burst from him before he thought to contain it.
“So what way do you think you run now? Think!” The cab driver raised his fist and shook it imperatively. It grazed the air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror, and the yellow tree bounced wildly from its elastic tether. “Think!”
The breeze striking his eyes was blowing harder now, even though the cabs windows were shut against the cold. “I think I’m running so she can find me.”
“Ah.” This convoluted answer seemed to satiate the cab driver. “I see. A circle.”
“Perhaps.” Light flooded the cab as it trundled into the sphere of illumination vetting from O’Hare. Traffic was light. Only a few were traveling this night.
Only a few were running.
“Where are you going?” the cab driver asked.
“Ah. California.” The driver nodded and turned into Terminal Three. “Santa Barbara. Santa Clara. San Diego. Bakersfield. You like Bakersfield?”
“Never been.” He hadn’t.
“There are many girls there.”
The cab driver slowed the rattling Crown Victoria to a stop in Terminal Three. It was empty. Three American Airlines sky cabs lounged up against the curbside check in, looking terribly bored.
There was a dull thunk as the cab’s trunk unlocked, and the cab driver turned to face him, for the first and last time. They sat for a moment, two strangers, looking at each other in the eye.
“Maybe you meet a girl there. In California.”
“But I think you do not. I think — I think the circle.”
He paused for a moment, and fished out two twenties from his wallet. A wallet he kept because it had a pocket. A pocket in which he kept a ring.
A pocket in which he kept the circle.
He handed the two twenties to the driver, and opened the door. It was cold. There was a breeze. And his eyes still felt as if they were floating.
“I think you’re right.”
He stepped out of the cab, shut the door, grabbed his bags from the trunk, and ran.