The winter you left I thought I saw you in every car crash. The first time in a compact spinning its wheels in the ditch. Tow truck, rubberneckers, gridlock. Snow covering the road, a skin too easily broken. The second time you’d spun out in the center lane, black ice, rearend, one-eighty, still nose to grill with a jeep as I inched by, the driver white-knuckling the wheel in shock while you comforted him from the passenger seat. After that I tried not to peer through windows. We used to count ourselves lucky with each wreck left in the rearview.
The third I’ll get to but don’t rush me. Give me instead the night we dyed your hair, the night I squeezed your hand to distract from the burn of the slick ducktail charcoaling your lathered scalp. We’ll never be too old to reinvent ourselves, you said. But I only held the implements of your makeover: the latex glove, the bottle of milky dye. It couldn’t be true for both of us, could it? You moved, I stayed. Simple math.
But it wasn’t only that. Give me the minute that goateed adjunct whose final I’d spaced intoned you’re capable of more, as if he knew I’d vanish before the year was out, give me his earnest gaze seconds before I threatened to expose said adjunct for hawking prescription meds to affluent students before exams because I didn’t happen to be in on the take. But you were, weren’t you? That much I’d gleaned from the nub of eraser you’d palmed me by mistake, by the flatness in your glance as you mimed tossing it down your throat. Memories like this reminded me of losing you, but I sought them out like a tongue searching the empty socket of a lost tooth.
Then give me that night after last call when I tottered up the back stairs outside your apartment in a state of semi-rotten collapse only to intuit in your listing stance the fading tawdry arc of our future: the accusations the petty fights the sweet apologetic ferment. I couldn’t bear the clear mirror of your eyes that said you saw the same story in my bruised face but read the lines differently. Avoid the convulsing of my shoulders and muffled sounds after you shut the door. Remember instead a better night when you teased nothing like the taste of you as I offered you a drink, then remember the sight of your nose rabbiting as I soured your chapped lips with my own.
Now give me the third time from a camera over the shoulder: you, slumped over the wheel, blonde roots visible at the part, as my double take sent me swerving off the road. Give me one long, juddering tracking shot of my hatchback’s flickering half-life as it bucks the embankment to flee the pavement’s crushing embrace, the interior’s sudden chaos of suspended soda can loose change wastepaper, zero in on the head as it punches the roof, the arms as they flail at the inflating billow of the airbags, slide outside in time to frame the hatchback’s impending failure to convert a half-gainer as it slams sidelong into the tarmac, catch my body penetrating the thin shield of glass as a rush of thought becomes a breath visible in the chill: give me that salt brining your collarbone, give me that blinding flash of release ragdolling through the air, give me younger us, us before all this, give me us years later after this has passed, after you too find some final, imperfect means to escape the prison that is the present moment.
The song “Younger Us” by Japandroids, as seen and heard above, inspired this story of the same name. I read it as part of the Rock & Roll Reading Series at AWP Seattle in February 2014.