What I Don’t Know About Love: A Novel by Tom Nawrocki
Thursday, March 12, 8:31 a.m. EST
“If we had left at six, like I wanted to, we’d be in Delaware by now,” James said quietly.
“You asked me to do this yesterday!” Michelle squealed. “How long did you think it would take me to get ready?” She thrashed around in her cramped seat, frustrated and cloudy-minded after three hours’ sleep. She was not going to take the blame for this. Leaving at six would have meant a completely sleepless night.
“We don’t have any stuff to pack,” he said. “I thought it wouldn’t take you more than a day.”
“It didn’t take me more than a day. I’m here, ain’t I?” Exhaustion always made Michelle revert to her native Louisiana syntax. The Southern-hick accent she had been working to get rid of for six or seven years now was creeping back into her raspy voice. She turned and squinted out where the brick warehouses of lower Manhattan were inching along past her window. Cars fought for position on the street like basketball players in the low post, but the jockeying was not going to do anyone much good. A flotilla of cars filtered into two lanes of tunnel, and it was just going to take time. Lots of time.
“All right, whatever. Let’s just get moving.”
“We are moving.”
“Not very quickly, on account of the fact that it’s already 8:30.”
“Yeah, I know. Whatever. I’m going to try to sleep. Wake me up if you get anywhere.”
James lifted his cardboard cup out of the holder on the dash, gripping it by the white plastic rim although the sides weren’t hot enough to burn his fingertips anymore, and sipped again at his rapidly cooling coffee. A jagged corner of plastic poked at his dry upper lip. He could never get the trapezoidal flap to tear off the lid right. Plastic couldn’t be perforated, he had reasoned after many mornings with an improperly ripped flap, so there was no hope of creating an evenly torn, easily sippable opening. Not only that, but he knew that his awareness of the imperfection of the tear-off coffee lid would keep him from ever gracefully detaching the allegedly removable part. Construction workers had no problems with their coffee lids. They probably didn’t think about it as much as James did. He also noticed that his coffee seemed to cool more quickly when the lid had an improper, uneven tear. He wondered if people drank coffee like this in other cities, and hoped it was just a New York thing.
James set the cup back into its black half-cylinder and figured he could take maybe two more slugs from it before it would be undrinkably cold. That might not even last him into the Holland Tunnel. What a relief it would be to be outside New York City, where a car could actually move unimpeded on the street. While the Honda was stopped, James struggled to free himself from his bomber jacket, which he knew was too warm for L.A. but which he’d need for at least the first couple days of the trip. The seat and the shoulder belt made him feel as if he were in a straitjacket. Michelle ignored his thrashing; she was much more comfortable in her denim jacket, softened collar turned up where it was still sufficiently stiff. James remembered how there was always one boy in high school, inevitably the coolest guy in the class, who would show up the day after a snowstorm in a jean jacket with a white T-shirt underneath. As a concession to the cold, he would button the jacket all the way to the top, turn up the collar, and stick his hands in his jeans pockets, while James and his ilk swam around inside huge parental-bought nylon parkas. He tossed the leather jacket into the back seat and wondered if Michelle had been the coolest girl in her high school class. He wouldn’t be at all surprised if she had been.
Four more days of this, Michelle thought as she lay her head in the crevice between the seat and the door and tried to sleep. It had just been the day before yesterday when she had run into James at lunchtime and found out he was heading out to California to try to make it in television production. She had been thinking for a while about going out to the West Coast herself, and she wanted to make her break before she could talk herself out of it. That meant spending four days alone in a car — and maybe in a hotel room or two — with a guy she had only gone out with a couple of times. Okay, she hadn’t even gone out with him except as part of a group of friends, but by all accounts he was normal and harmless. He was even kind of cute; though that dirty blond hair always looked like it needed to be cut, his eyes were a deep blue, and his smile had a lopsided informality that made him seem exceptionally sincere.
There was that one night with the group of seven or eight at Arturo’s in the Village, when she sat right next to him but hadn’t heard a noise out of him until after the pizza was finished and he had suggested yet another bottle of red wine. He didn’t speak directly to her until he offered to refill her glass. Even then, he didn’t know what to say; she had to ask him what he did for a living to find out he was a disgruntled peon in the advertising world, making sure point-of-purchase outlets throughout New Jersey and Delaware were fully stocked with Chapstick or some other pointless pharmaceutical-related gewgaw, when what he really wanted from advertising was to flex his creativity a little. He actually said “flex” unironically, which she thought was cute and very Midwestern of him. He was from a suburb of Cleveland. Cleveland!
“When do you need to be there again?”
“I have my interview and drug test at Paramount on Monday,” he said. “Didn’t I tell you this?”
“Yeah, I guess you did. Are we going to make it?” Michelle stared at the buildings drifting by, too tired and irritated to think about things with any sort of logic. She started to open the window until she got a burning cloud of bus fumes in her nostrils. The chill in the March air didn’t help either. She was tempted to leave the window down until James was forced to complain about it, but she couldn’t wait that long. She rolled it back up.
“I think so. I’m sorry it had to be on such short notice, but I needed to get my car and some of my stuff out there, and this is just sort of the way it worked out. I didn’t want to wait any longer, so anyway, I really appreciate you being willing to head west on a day’s notice.”
Michelle smiled, though not so that he could see. Okay, he was kind of sweet. Here she was complaining, even though she was the one tagging along on his dream.
The traffic finally coalesced into single file as it dipped toward the tunnel. Living the physics principle that James could never remember the name of, the cars mercifully picked up speed as they crept under the cement overhang. “Here we go,” he said as the light of day dimmed, replaced by yellowish-orange light bulbs. “Buenos dias, Nueva York.”
“Great,” she said, and turned so that he could see her smiling. “No more New York City.”
What replaced New York City was a forbidding claustrophobic tube with fluorescent lamps strobing past when the car was moving, providing a sickly hospital-type glow when the car was stopped, which was most of the time. James could never understand why this tunnel seemed twice as long as the Lincoln, its sibling two miles to the north. It twisted and veered its way under the Hudson River until daylight finally leached into the far end. The car poked its head out into the sunshine again, and Michelle eagerly looked around at what awaited her on the other side of New York: Jersey City. A forlorn gas station perched on a corner. Liquor stores dotted the landscape. The traffic remained heavy.
“This is it, huh?” she said quietly.
“Welcome to New Jersey,” James said. “We won’t be stopping here.” The car elevated onto a ridiculous length of on-ramp, then settled into yet another line at the tollbooth for the entrance to the New Jersey Turnpike. Michelle nestled a little lower into her seat and closed her eyes.
Thursday, March 12, 9:58 am.
James reached under the seat and felt around on the filthy carpet for his box of Pop-Tarts. He came up with several cookie-like morsels and some shreds of paper before latching onto the opened top of the box and pulling it out from under the seat. There were three chocolate vanilla-cremes left. He wanted to offer one to Michelle, but she was sound asleep, her cheek pressed against the cold window, so he let it pass and ate one as silently as possible. He had gotten used to untoasted Pop-Tarts in the city — even if he had sprung for a luxury like a toaster, there was no room for one on the virtually nonexistent counters of his kitchenette — but he thought that once he got to L.A., it would be nice to start toasting them again. The apartments there must have at least half-size kitchens like the one he had his senior year in Evanston, with enough counter space for an appliance or two. He tried to remember the kitchens on Melrose Place: did they ever actually show the kitchens on that show? Josie Bissett didn’t do a whole lot of cooking.
He looked over again at Michelle. A hank of her chestnut hair had fallen over her left eye, but he could still make out the handful of freckles smeared across the wide bridge of her nose. Her eyes, closed now, were a rich chocolate color and seemed bigger than they were, being set so far apart from each other. Her mouth was set in a natural smile. Now she, James thought, would certainly know what the kitchens on Melrose Place looked like. But she was so cute, huddled up and snoozing; no way would he wake her up for trivia.
“Bernoulli,” he said, half out loud. “Bernoulli’s principle.”
Thursday, March 12, 12:14 p.m. EST
Michelle woke up in some hills that were threatening to turn into mountains. It was chilly in the car, even though she had taken her jacket off and covered herself with it like a blanket. A heavy gray sky loomed before them, with an occasional flurry of snow blowing across the road.
She blinked her eyes and moved her tongue around inside her mouth. “Where are we?” she said. She expected to be saying that a lot for the next few days.
“We just crossed into Virginia,” James said. “You ready to get some lunch?” He turned the radio up; Michelle hadn’t even noticed it was on.
“Yeah, I guess,” she said. “Christ, it’s after noon already. At least the time’s going fast.”
James smiled a twisted smile, keeping his eyes on the highway. “That’s what happens when you sleep all morning.”
His remark made Michelle feel like she had insulted him. She wanted to apologize but she couldn’t figure out what for.
“We need gas too,” James said finally. He took an exit with a blue GAS-FOOD sign and rumbled into a crossroads with a couple of gas station/mini marts, a Burger King and a Taco Bell. After going seventy for hours, they seemed to be going very slowly on the side road.
“Burger King okay?” James asked.
“Fine,” Michelle said.
“Cause if you want Taco Bell, there’s one here.”
“Burger King’s fine.”
James swung into the parking lot for the Burger King and pulled past the drive-through window and into a parking lot behind the building. “Did you want to get drive-through?” he asked. “I thought we ought to stop, use the bathroom, stretch our legs.”
“Stop, definitely,” Michelle said. “We don’t want to eat in the car. Besides, it’ll take us, what, a half an hour? We can spare that over four days. And I do have to pee.”
They walked into the side door of the Burger King, and Michelle headed straight down the corridor toward the restrooms. The handle on the women’s room felt sticky, and she braced herself for what might be inside. But it was relatively clean, just some stray toilet paper lying flat on top of the water in the bowl. She arched herself over the toilet, relieved herself without making contact with any porcelain or porcelain substitute, then teased out a fistful of rough white paper from the black plastic Darth Vader-like holder. She rinsed her hands with tepid water, punched the liquid soap holder several times to no avail, then looked around for something to dry with. With nothing else at hand, she drew out another handful of toilet paper, found it woefully inadequate, and dumped the whole wet, lumpy mess into the metal trash opening in the wall.
Wiping her hands on her jeans, she sighed and walked back to the counter, where James was already in line, squinting up at the menu boards over the high-school kids in their paper hats. As if he didn’t know what they had at Burger King.
“Aren’t you going to go?” she asked.
“After we eat,” he said. The man in front of him, with a colored-pencil illustration of a race-car driver named Mark Martin spattered all over his shirt front, leaned on the counter with both hands and began ordering immense amounts of food. As he bent over, a sliver of hairy belly peered out from under his T-shirt.
“I guess they don’t have salads or anything,” Michelle said with a frown.
“You agreed to go to Burger King,” James said. “We didn’t have to go here.” He was suddenly afraid that it sounded meaner than he intended; he was just providing her with a point of information. “A Whopper has lettuce and tomatoes. You could get one of those and pull the meat off.” That sounded less funny than it was supposed to. Mean again. He decided to shut up for a while.
The Nascar guy slid to the side to wait for the bulk of his order. James asked for a Whopper with cheese, no tomatoes, and a medium Coke. He ponied up his three dollars and twenty-one cents — so much cheaper than the one on 14th St.! — and waited for his order. He realized he should have let Michelle go first.
Michelle ordered a cheeseburger, a small order of fries, and a diet Coke. Like James, she was just handed an empty cup in lieu of a drink.
“We gotta get our own drinks?” she mock-whined.
“Yeah, we do,” he said. “It’s not even fast food anymore. It’s how fast can you get your own food.” Michelle smiled at this, and James felt a little better about his earlier comments. Maybe they weren’t as bad as he had feared.
After they collected their sandwiches, each made their own way, James and Michelle settled into a booth next to a window. The restaurant was filled with mothers chasing after two and three children at a time, kids requiring cheap plastic toys since their lunches weren’t distracting enough, kids making finger paints out of packets of ketchup. Michelle watched the panorama of youthful exuberance as if it were a reminder of a dream, something half-remembered from her childhood. She hadn’t seen these kinds of families since she arrived in New York three years before — no, since she went off to college four years before that. Surely, she wasn’t like this as a child, was she? She remembered her mother taking her and her sister out for fast-food lunches and barking at them if they ever gave any indication of leaving their seats. And McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried was such a treat that they quietly, obediently savored each trip; it would have made as much sense to act up at a birthday party. She finished her cheeseburger and realized she had hardly said two words to James.
“Want some fries?” she offered hopefully. James had been eating them already anyway.
The Mark Martin guy had sat over at a table with a cornucopia of sandwiches and fried foods set in front of him. As he inhaled his lunch, a truant couple at the next booth started throwing French fries at each other, the boy with more accuracy than the girl, whose tosses started ending up on Martin-fan’s table. He turned on them and spoke, clearly and distinctly, to the male half: “Tell your girlfriend to keep her food to herself.”
About sixteen and in a blue-and-gold letter jacket, the high school kid felt a tentative need to defend her honor. “You lay off of her,” he said, almost completely disguising the quaver in his voice.
“James,” Michelle whispered. “Is there going to be a fight?”
“Matty,” the girl said sternly. “I’m sorry sir,” she told the Martin fan. “I’ll stop.”
“This guy doesn’t tell us what to do.” By now both males had gotten up and were facing off in front of the entrance to the playground area.
“James, you gonna do something?” Michelle was just egging him on now, for no good reason other than her own orneriness.
“Should I get the manager?”
“What? All right, Michelle…” He stood up and surveyed the antagonists. They were thrusting their chests at each other, nearly touching, not saying a word. The girl was crouched on a booth bench, repeating, with more disgust than fear, “Stop it, Matty, stop it, Matty.”
Other diners were looking over at them, wary of getting involved. A mother began shooing her children in the general direction of the door. James took a couple of steps toward the fighters, only to get pushed aside by a shove at his right shoulder. Spinning to see who else was entering the fray, he saw a middle-aged man in a short-sleeve polyester shirt, a tie, and a nameplate.
“All right,” said the manager. “Both of you, out of here.”
“I didn’t do nothin’,” whined Matty. Martin-fan scooped up half a Whopper and a carton of fries and left without a word.
“Let’s go, Matty. We’ll finish our lunch in the car.”
James turned back to Michelle, who had a hard time keeping her grin from exploding into laughter. “My hero!” she squealed. He may not have actually accomplished anything, but he looked like he might have been willing to, which was almost as good. At least he wasn’t one of those jerks who rooted for a fight.
“Yeah, whatever.” He slumped back into the plastic booth. “You ready to go?”
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