“Yeah, he really did harass me about wanting to go get stitches. ‘You’re gonna get that stitched up? Are you serious?’ I never did quite figure that kid out…he even called me once, after I’d gone back home. Left an enthusiastic voicemail. I never trusted his enthusiasm. But hey, maybe I just never trusted enthusiasm.”
Sally laughed a knowing little laugh: a sort of acknowledgment. “Okay, my turn.”
“Wait, wait — the best part is the hospital. I’m waiting for the doctor, right, and there’s this old Southern guy in the bed next to me— you know, a real good ol’ boy — I think there was a curtain between us. I vaguely remember seeing his legs in jeans, but I vaguely remember white stubble, I’m not sure.
“So the doctor comes in, and he happens to be Indian-American. Not Native American—actually Indian. And this old guy starts yelling at him, I mean shouting: ‘Whatinnahell kinda doctor is this? Can’t they get me a ’Merican doctor in here? Whatinnahell are you?’ I forget what else, you know — he probably made a big deal of not being able to pronounce the guy’s name, stuff like that. ‘They don’t got any ’Merican doctors here?’”
“Are you serious?” Sally gasped, laughing for real this time. Even as worn as he looked, he was trying to put a smile on her face. “That’s horrible.”
“Yeah. God it was uncomfortable…but this doctor’s not taking anybody’s shit, right? He tries for a minute, you know, ‘I am an American doctor, sir. I speak much better English than you do.’ But after this old-timer won’t let up, the doctor straight-up tells him: ‘Okay sir, if you can’t behave, I’m not treating you. Have a nice night, sir.’
“So he comes into my little room, and here I am all fresh-faced and young, with this long hair and this big gash on my forehead…and I’m just mortified. I feel responsible by proximity, you know? ‘I’m so sorry doctor…that was so horrible, I’m so sorry.’
“So now first of all, the doctor takes one look at me, and once I explain what happened to me, the first thing he says—literally the first words out of his mouth—‘It’s a good thing you came in. That would leave a very big scar.’”
Sally actually cracked up; the man grinned a little at her laughter and took a sip of his stout.
“Exactly. But that’s not all. So the doctor leaves, the nurse is coming in to, like, give me a tetanus shot because I told them I’m not sure which part of the bass hit me—obviously I’m this panic-stricken kid, sitting there thinking about the fact that the tuning pegs are metal, like that’s gonna give me tetanus—and the good ol’ boy is still talking. He’s got someone else there with him, maybe, or he’s talking to the nurse—I forget.
“And what he’s going on about is how he just came here from his son’s wedding…and it was the first time he’d seen his ex-wife since their divorce…and she was there with her new girlfriend.”
“Oh noooooo!” Sally just about lost her mind with laughter.
“Yup. So he got piss-drunk, caused a scene, and, I dunno, maybe fell down outside or something. The details don’t matter; that was what this was really about. And you know what? When the doctor comes back around, and now the guy has had a little time to sober up, to get his story out—I almost cried sitting there. This white-haired old Southern man, with what reaches my ear as this old-timey prospector accent, does a complete 180: ‘Doctor, I’m so sorry about my behavior before. I apologize. I’ve had a really terrible night. That’s not who I am.’
“And the doctor just goes, like, ‘Okay sir, I’m happy to hear that. Thank you. Now should we see about your leg?’ Or whatever.”
“Oh my God. That’s incredible. It’s like, basically, something out of a—”
“…Yeah. It has a perfect emotional and moral arc. Like this little vignette that gives your character perspective after an alienating experience—it even kind of underscores the themes of all your stories. ‘Everyone is suffering,’ you know? Even the people you don’t get, you know, like that kid. I think he probably looked up to you, but that was probably also scary—he probably felt just as insecure as you did, and as uncertain about your perspective as you were about his.” Sally suddenly heard herself. “I mean, you know, not to—”
“Whoa there…what an analysis. You didn’t just pick up all that vocab on the road, one suspects.”
“Oh…” Sally turned her face toward her rum and Coke, averting her eyes. “I’m kind of a, um…you know, I like to write. And stuff like that. I kind of do that, like—in school I—I want to write, um, these like, maybe on the side or something, you know if I—”
“Ohhh. She’s a writer.” He chuckled nonchalantly as he sipped.
Sally turned in silence, staring into her drink. She didn’t know quite what to say.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” he picked up again. “It happens to the best of us. Hey, maybe literally.”
Sally smiled, still red in the face, peering back at him from a sort of martial-arts defensive posture over her glass.
“No, but seriously—my condolences. You’re in for a terrible life,” he laughed. “I’m glad you’re coming to terms with the sick, degenerate proclivities of your nature. It’s a terrible disease to be born with.”
As he closed his eyes and took a deep swig of beer, Sally looked on differently, wondering.
“And not only is it incurable,” he continued, “but the indulgence of all its most crippling symptoms is the only treatment.” He turned to her more pointedly. “So. Why are you out on the road, anyway? I can tell from your stories that you don’t have a destination, and I hope you didn’t think you’d make it through this whole conversation without getting grilled a little.”
“Oh…well. I don’t know. Things were…just not going anywhere for me. Everything in life has been…I don’t know. I had quit school, I didn’t have a job anymore, I had some money saved up—Lord knows my family’s a total mess, so—you know, I just had very little tying me down. And I’d thought about it for a long time, since I was a teenager, so…
She hesitated: “…I just left.”
He looked at her kind of funny.
“Yeah, that’s what happened to me,” he digressed. “The first big trip, anyway. Drove around the country for three weeks, ’bout the same age as you. Changed my life. It’ll change your life too.” His confidence was reassuring even though Sally didn’t really believe it.
“Well…wait,” she replied. “What about now? Why are you out here now?”
He grew suddenly quiet. He stared down into his beer for a moment, looking for the words; Sally grew very interested. “How…how long have you been out on the road?”
“I’ve uh…well—I’ve been traveling, let’s say, for…twenty years. Sort of.”
“Twenty years? What do you mean? What about—”
“I don’t mean since that first trip I just mentioned—that was years before. What I’m saying—it’s not like how you think it is, but…well.” He tooke a deep, slow breath and huffed it out. “You know. I was born with that same disease as you. Sometimes people like us get sort of…lost, you know?” He had not made eye contact with her since she had started questioning him. “Sometimes, even if we get on the right track for a while, we can still get knocked off course.”
“So…you were a writer?” Her eyebrows furrowed. “I thought you said it was incurable.”
For the first time in their conversation, as he stared straight through the bar—past it, as though the world around him were an illusion he could see behind—Sally felt that this man was not present in the room with her.
“So you live out of motels?”
He shot back quickly, still vacant: “Don’t you?”
Sally felt a little sting. “I mean…technically, sure—I guess. For, you know…for right now. Not for decades.”
“You sure about that?”
Sally froze with both horror and guilt — she had been harsh. Clearly this man hadn’t chosen the road he was on; she wondered if it was even possible to choose such a thing. She turned back to her rum and Coke, unsure, anxiously fiddling with it as he too faced dead ahead in his seat, away from her. Then, unable to sit still, she turned back.
“Um…I feel kind of…cliché asking this, but…are you on the run?”
The man cracked a funeral smile. “Not like that, no.”
Sally quietly swiveled back to her drink, ashamed of probing but burning to understand. This was not how most of her days had been ending, she thought, to say the least.
Just as Sally’s mind started to drift away from the room to thoughts of her life back home, he began again, turning to her with a sudden focus:
“Let me tell you another story. This is about someone I knew. I had this friend once, a long time ago—in fact,” he interrupted himself, “believe it or not, I had an experience just like this once, except from your seat: I was young and miserable, I went out to a bar alone one night to commiserate with myself, and I met someone who was old and miserable.
“And he was born with that same disease that you and I were born with. Except his condition was a lot more advanced—he’d been managing it for years by indulging the symptoms very intensely. He had even made quite a career out of it—quite a spectacle—out of the progression of his condition. You might say that by the time I met him, he was terminal.
“We spent an entire night just like this one, stayed out just as late, talked about everything under the sun, every sorrow…shared drinks, shared stories—just like we’re doing. It went on and on. Later on, we even wandered out into the street for a while, drunk as God must always be, acting like a couple of real assholes…it was wonderful. We understood each other implicitly, even though I understood later that we were very different in a lot of ways.”
Sally listened with rapt attention, though skeptical.
“So, we stayed friends for a while. We got mixed up in some other things together, you know. We were each at sort of a crisis point. Anyway, even though I haven’t seen him in a while, well…I still think about that first night that we met.” He looked right at her for a slightly long moment. “All the time. Every week. Maybe every day, if I really add it up, I don’t even know. The way that experience affected me is beyond measure, and I think he would say the same. Imagine if you tried to write out the conversation we’ve been having tonight—imagine if you tried to take every moment of it, every story, everything we’ve found in common or out of common—if you tried to write it out like a story and then map each of those moments to every time we’ll ever think of it. Every time we’ll ever act based on even a feeling that arose from this experience, much less a thought, or a specific statement, or a lesson learned.
“Imagine if you tried to write out the rest of our life stories from this moment forward, with perfect detail—perfect detail in terms of how our meeting has influenced each of us.”
“It would be…impossible, I guess. There would be too many connections.”
“Right. Even if the experience wasn’t as memorable as this one will be.”
Sally felt a little flattered, but she didn’t want it to be visible: “Okay, okay. So…what exactly are you telling me about this?”
The man turned slightly away again, just for a moment—this moment was long enough for Sally to notice all at once the way the light hit his longish stubble; the familiar, tired sunkenness in his eyes; the wear on his clothes; the tattoo on his hand—then turned back and continued:
“Here’s the thing about my friend. It was kind of like there were two versions of him: a good one, and a…you know, I hate to say it, but a bad one. Maybe a happy one and a sad one. Those are all the wrong words, of course—both of him were terribly depressed. He was in a lot of pain. But one version of him was able to more or less cope with his feelings, most of the time, and the other wasn’t. One version of him was a kind, caring guy, and the other, as much as I loved him—that writerly compassion was there, but it was buried under a bitter, angry, self-hating drunk. One of him just lived with regret; the other took his pain out on himself and everyone in striking distance, all the time. His pain was so great and constant that he was afraid to stay still, afraid to be in silence, afraid to be alone even though he hated people; at any given moment he had to be escaping—escaping that moment. Whether into writing, drinking, sex, drama, ego…even into regret, into this fixed image he had in his mind of the past.”
“But why? What happened to him?”
“That’s the easy part. He spent decades hating himself for the way he’d treated someone he loved.”
“What? That was it?” Sally was dumbfounded. “That doesn’t…I don’t know. That doesn’t seem like enough to ruin someone’s entire life. To split someone in two. I don’t think…”
“You sure about that?”
Sally stopped cold and stared. The man continued, solemn: “Listen, I’m being a little flippant. Great storytelling—truthful storytelling—is the same for real life as it is for art: it’s never really about what happened. It’s about people, the way they felt, the choices they made; it’s about something more ineffable, the spirit of an experience. Maybe you could say that every great story is about the interior world, even when it isn’t. The point is, my friend didn’t spend decades hating himself over the girl because of what happened with her; he spent decades hating himself over the girl because he hated himself. He had been taught too much guilt, too much shame, too much doubt to ever feel secure in the present moment without his eye on the doorway out of it.”
Throughout this speech, Sally had been staring down at the ice that remained in her glass, slowly melting. After a long pause, she began again, half in whisper:
“Doesn’t…doesn’t the pain of things go away with time?”
“Sure, if you let it. But it’s hard to stay stitched up when you keep pulling at your wounds—or when you won’t stop moving.”
Sally’s eyes had been welling up with tears for quite a moment, and there was nothing she could do to hide it anymore. Simultaneously, she understood the truth of his words; considered how trite they would sound if someone wrote them out as the turning point of her story; felt guilty for thinking that; and seemed to remember every moment of her entire life at once.
He started to avert his eyes—maybe this was a courtesy to her—but she turned impulsively toward him, and he had no choice but to meet her gaze. Sally spoke without hesitation.
“Today I sat in the parking lot of a McDonald’s, alone, staring at my blank notebook and crying. Just crying. Alone. I didn’t even eat my food until it was already half cold. I couldn’t stop. I do this weird thing when I cry where I freeze up and feel numb all of a sudden, and then it starts again in a minute, right when I’m ready to move on. This happens to me every day. Everything hurts. I don’t want to wake up in the morning. I hate my parents even though I feel bad for them. I have no future. I quit school. I always get a Big Mac because it’s like a comfort blanket. I do everything like that and it scares me. I was a terrible sister to my younger brother growing up, yet they always treated me like the golden child who could do no wrong. I didn’t ask for that privilege or the pressure, but now my brother hates me for that, and I can’t say I really blame him. All my stress, all my anxiety, my desperation for a sense of control, all of that spilled over on him. And I have a kid sister who’s really little and looks up to me so much and always wants to spend time with me and I try, I really try, so that she can have the, like, one dependable adult in her life that me and my brother never had, but how do you explain to a four-year-old who wants to play toys and games with you that you barely have the will to live? How do you perform functional? Yesterday my mom called me and told me my sister asked ‘if I even like her.’ Just like that. She did the voice and everything: ‘Does Sally even like me?’ I screamed at her for making me feel guiltier than I already do about taking this trip, but really it was because I do feel like a terrible sister.
“How can you please everybody? How can you do everything the world wants from you? How can you be everything everyone needs from you? How can you be, how can you—you can’t, can you? It’s not fair, it’s not fair that I feel like a failure constantly, I—what are you—what are you supposed to do when you’re—”
Nearly hyperventilating, Sally lost her train of thought and began to cry intensely — a forceful, hiccuping cry — slumping herself onto the bar. It felt good, she thought. Sometimes it felt good to cry.
The man put his hand on her shoulder gently and kept it there, waiting patiently in silence; she was glad he knew not to pat her or say anything.
After a deep, continuous flood of tears, she began to cool down and to breathe. She picked herself upright again, took her notebook out of her backpack, and regarded it without expression. Laying it next to her glass of melted ice, she gazed ahead, staring right into her reflection in the mirror behind the bar:
“When I was done eating today, I sat there for a while longer just looking at my notebook. Nothing ever seems good enough to put in it. I felt like such a failure, like always. Then something funny happened. I don’t know where they came from—it was so sudden, it was like I was waking up from a trance—I don’t remember which came first, my looking up or my noticing them—maybe it happened all at once—I looked up, and just at that moment, a whole big flock of birds came up from out of nowhere and swooped right over my car. Right up close to me. It didn’t make sense. It looked almost like they were coming up at me from below, like as if they had swooped down almost to the ground just so they could whoosh over me like that. It was so unexpected and beautiful, I just froze—I completely forgot about everything. When they were gone—I didn’t even look back to see where they went—I just sat there in silence and fell asleep with the notebook in my lap.
Sally turned to face him, gazing not vacantly but peacefully: “I don’t sleep well. Sometimes, even back home, I’ll go driving and park somewhere when I want to sleep. I don’t know why, but it’s easier in my car. Even in broad daylight. It feels safer there. It’s not where I’m supposed to fall asleep.” She breathed for a moment. “Something about that strikes me as really sad.”
The man looked right back at her and only said, with an even, measured pace:
“I’m so sorry, Salma. You deserved better. You really did. I know you think you’ve fallen through the cracks, but one of my favorite flowers grows from the cracks: the dandelion. Everything that you need is already inside you, and all of your struggles are secretly gifts, and everything the world has to offer you, you will find. There is nothing that you need to do. The light that glows from within you can never be extinguished, and there is not enough pain or darkness in the Universe to block that light from shining on the world.”
Tears filled her eyes; she remained looking into his for a moment longer, breathing.
Wordlessly, she excused herself.
She didn’t know why she had gone off to be alone in the tiny, black-walled restroom; she didn’t feel embarrassed by her tears. Staring into a crooked mirror, she became startlingly aware, to the exclusion of every other thing, of how quiet the place had been compared to what she expected from a biker joint.
The last complete thought that formed in her mind was that, if she wrote this out like a chapter in a story, this was where she would have to end it. She considered that this already made for a scene with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and then that made her feel a little sad, which made it feel honest; in reality, she went back out to the bar and spent many more hours of the night getting relatively drunk with her new friend, trading more stories of the open road, learning more about what they had in common or out of common, until it was time to somewhat hesitantly say goodbye.
It wasn’t until the next morning, after she had packed up her things again, checked out of the motel, and thrown her little carry-on in the trunk, that she was sitting in the parking lot of a rest area holding a coffee from Starbucks and found the napkin tucked into her notebook with the note:
“I woke up that day ready to die.”
Stefano Black is an NYC-based writer, filmmaker, and flock of seagulls.
He is available for hire or hugs, but this is a privilege, not a right.
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