Published in The Tishman Review Issue 1.4 (October 2015).
The Story I Will Never Tell My Son
“I thought you said you could take care of this, Sean.” I hold the smooth, tri-folded piece of paper in my hands, the typewriter marks crisp and apathetic next to my pink fingernails, the paper’s sharp corners vibrating with the rumble of my little Dart’s engine. I told him this would happen. A bubble of stomach acid creeps up my throat and I swallow it back down.
“I did, baby, I am,” he says, his words running into one another. “Olivia, there’s nothing to worry about, don’t worry about it. I’m not going to Vietnam, baby, no matter what that letter says—I’m not getting shot by some goddamn communist.” He grips the steering wheel until his knuckles glow white on his chapped, red hands. Sean hunches forward, a bulging blue lump of ski jacket with a brown cap on top, glaring through the lazy falling snow as if he hasn’t been driving through weather like this since he was fifteen, even if he is six years younger than me. I watch him reach up to wipe the fog from the windshield with his puffy sleeve. “Goddamn hippies in Ohio. I wrote essays for them, hundreds of essays, and now those goddamn draft dodgers don’t remember my name. They said we all believed in the same shit, that non-violence could overcome a war, and then they apparently all forgot who the fuck I am.” He hits the steering wheel with his fist, wipes the windshield again, and fumbles to light a cigarette as another acidic swell gurgles in my stomach. “Not even goddamn Tommy Hill, the one whose dad is a general and could cross anybody’s name off the goddamn list.” He exhales a roiling ball of smoke and cranks down the driver’s side window. “Not even that fucker, who promised I’d be fine.”
Frigid air stings my face as I lean over to rest my forehead on the window and look up into the falling snow and at the tops of the tall pines on the edge of another town. I could really use another beer—the last six-pack died an hour and a half ago and a salty, dry taste is creeping through my mouth. I glance over at Sean, his eyes wide and agitated. I’ll be thirty in two months. Why am I doing this? We’ve been driving for three hours at least; he wouldn’t tell me why at first—“Just want to drive”—and didn’t even give me time to change clothes after work. But I knew what was wrong once I saw the military emblem on the torn envelope on the floorboard.
The last road sign told us we had just entered Troy, a hundred and sixty miles from Providence and our little apartment with the peeling floor tile in the kitchen and the tiny bathroom he painted blue last August; from Scooper and Tramp, who are probably yowling with hunger by now. I set the clean-white letter on the floor, swallowing hard as a cold sweat coats the skin of my neck and face. I lean back in the seat, grit my molars together and tap the fingernails of my right hand on the cool glass window. Click, click, click. Click, click, click.
“Will you fucking stop that? Please.” Sean tosses his spent cigarette out the driver’s window, the air frosting his breath.
I sniffle, wipe the cold bulb of my nose along my wrist, and pull my green coat tighter, fastening the zipper right up to my chin.
“Not that cold.” He shakes his head, streaks the fogged windshield with his bare hand and reaches for his cigarettes. “But maybe this is best, Oli. I mean, goddamn, it’s how we survive, by being scared, by feeling like we don’t really know what’s going on, you know? Maybe it’s the only thing that keeps us moving.” He lights a new cigarette, the first acrid, hazy breath filling the car, before slapping his palm against the curve of the steering wheel. “That’s it, Oli,” he says, not looking at me, “there has to be fear inside your heart for you to keep going—there has to be.”
The bitter smell of smoke reaches my nose and my throat spasms as I turn from Sean, his face flushed and smooth, to rest my chin in the hollow of my palm. I force myself to smile as I look past the dark gray dashboard and busted radio, back to him. “I love you, kiddo.” My left thigh sits just beside the front seat crevice and I picture him reaching over to clasp my knee while he smiles at me like he always does and tells me he loves me too.
His eyes flicker toward me in the shallow reflections from the headlights, and he breathes smoke out hard through his nose. He grips his cigarette in his front teeth, both hands on the wheel, his clumsy lips slurring his words: “No room for love unless there’s fear, baby.”
I hold my eyes closed for a second, lifting my head from the cold zipper pinching against my neck as I shift to face my reflection. A quiet, burning belch rises in my throat. I watch the snow fall in clumps that collect in the corners of all the windows, framing my face and dark curly hair, Sean’s silhouette behind me. He could’ve at least said it back.
When we first moved in—back when he convinced me we could save money living together and would surprise me with dinner or shelves he built for the bathroom, back when he crawled into bed when I did to hold me—we used to lie out in the snow when it fell, those first few years. We haven’t had the chance this year to wander out to the picnic table in the little fenced-in back yard and hold each other, all bundled up in our coats and scarves and gloves, as the snow slowly erases everything around us. My stomach knots up, this time tighter and higher up, as I think about the heat of his arms and breath on those snowy days; I remember waiting until the numb prickles rose to my knees to go inside and warm up. Feeling small beside him used to be so natural.
I drop my face into my hands, dragging my fingertips through the thin sweat on my forehead to my jaw, resting my fingers along the smooth boned line. The low grumble of the engine and the sound of wind through Sean’s open window fill the small, cold space between us. The last time we had a good conversation was weeks ago. He writes to so many papers and articles about the war that there’s hardly any of him left for me. He hasn’t even noticed my skin, how clear and soft it is, or my good mood, how cheery I’ve been for at least a few weeks, almost a month, or how I take longer to get ready in the bathroom each morning, coughing quietly. He might never notice; might not get the chance now. I let out what sounds like a small laugh and rub my knuckles against my eyes, wiping away water. I guess I have to tell him, but he won’t want to hear it anyway. He’ll tell me I must be wrong.
“Hand me another pack of cigs, eh, Oli?” His right hand sits out, upturned, waiting.
I lean forward to the glove box and tug the handle, opening the smooth, cold little door. “Where are they?”
“No more in there?”
“Look in the back, there should be some in a bag back there.” His hand jerks toward the backseat, thumb extended. “Behind my seat.”
His seat. Sometimes I think he forgets whose car this actually is. I turn around to look and, as my vision turns from the road, my stomach goes cold and coils up again, grinding tighter this time. I push my feet against the floorboard to wiggle into the shallow space between us and reach the plastic bag I can see peeking out from beneath the driver’s seat. I pull back and set my jaw as I push my knees onto my seat, stretching over the back support and down to the floorboard in the back, the top of the seat round and firm against my queasy stomach.
“What the hell are you doing? Can’t you just squeeze your small ass between the seats?” He snorts and flinches away as my hip grazes his shoulder.
I get a hold of the thin, crumpled bag, pull it from under the seat and toss a pack of Camels over my shoulder into his lap. “There,” I say, dropping the crinkling bag back onto the floor. I bend and maneuver back down to a sitting position, huffing as I put a hand on my seizing gut and pull my hair back from my face.
“Open it for me,” he says, not even asking.
I stare at him for a second and then snatch the box from his lap, peel off the cellophane wrapping and place it in his outstretched hand. I look out the window again, at the glow of a city just on the other side of the dark pines, at the slowly falling snow. Maybe if I just don’t say anything, we can go back to how we were—before this letter to him and this change in me. Sean’s lighter flicks in front of another cigarette and the flash illuminates my small car for a second, defining the door beside me, the stippled dashboard and, in the edge of my vision, the small space between our seats. We could just drive, maybe head south where it’s warm, and make our way to Mexico, hopping from resort to resort and beach to beach, drinking piña coladas and changing our names in each little city. A gas station sign shines ahead, the snow around it turning red and orange, the 76 white and clear. My stomach squeezes taut, hollowing itself out, and I swallow back another sour burp. I can drive when he gets tired and he can drive when I do; we’ll always keep moving, and just forget about the world and the war, stay on the road as far as it goes. “Sean, pull in here. I want to get a beer.”
He pulls right up to the building, headlights searing the red brick wall, and turns off the car. He begins steadily tapping his fingers on the steering wheel and the sound fills the quiet space like a drumbeat in an open plain. “Hurry, Oli.”
I take a breath, my stomach still and settled for a second, and push open the car door, squinting as the bitter breeze pushes my hair into my face. I get out with my purse and walk around the car to the door of the store. I turn back to my Dart, the heavy glass door to the shop halfway open. There’s Sean: this kid driving my car, his hazel eyes showing yellow in the fluorescent light as he stares ahead, zoned and scared. He looks addicted, or at least manic, off somehow. I turn into the shop as the letter on the floorboard pops into my mind and my guts do another cold, acidic flip. I told myself this would happen. I clear my throat as the door shuts behind me with a chilly breath.
I walk slowly down the aisles, pausing in front of the glowing beer freezer along the back wall, the white lights shining off of colored glass and curved labels like streetlights across the bottles clinking in the floorboards. I bite my lip and push my hair behind my ear before moving further down, past the alcohol, and tugging a green pop bottle from a little cooler brimming with crunchy ice. I wander through an aisle of candy and cheap toys up to the cashier and show him the drink. As I hand him a ragged five, I glance around for the metal racks they always have just by the door. When the grinning man hands me my change, I smile back widely and thank him, moving toward the exit. I glance out at Sean—his glossy eyes not even seeing me. I swipe a free copy of Northeast Real Estate, Inc.—the pictures of empty houses on the front fuzzy but bright—and stuff it in my purse with the money in my hand.
“Sean,” I say, knocking on the driver’s side window.
He quickly rolls it down and looks up at me, his eyes open too wide—showing too much white—his mouth slightly open, silent.
I swallow hard again, the burn easing quicker now, push my hair behind my ears, and motion with my head toward the store as I speak. “Hop out. My turn to drive.”