“From the Passenger’s Seat”–Ashley Gray

We turned onto the gravel driveway and stopped just before the cluttered garage. Your hand rested hesitatingly on the gearshift. “What time do you have to be home?” you asked.

“Why, you going to kidnap me?” I tried to joke.

Your mouth twitched tolerantly, and you put your little blue Chevy in reverse. I could feel the engine shudder as you whipped back among the small one-story houses of your block. We passed the neglected lawn equipment on unkempt grass, the explosion of Playskool vehicles that crowded the yards of your neighbors. Dogs without leashes barked at us. An old Toyota cut us off and you slammed on your breaks, muttering something unintelligible.

“You were speeding,” I teased. Your eyes scanned ahead—never to the rearview mirror—as though you couldn’t make up your mind. Which road to turn on? They all led back to five-lane roads with fast-food restaurants and an on-ramp to the highway. The world was so flat here.

Your shoulders were tense, boney, hunched guardedly over the wheel. “She’s never even home,” you said without preamble, your long fingernails skirting across the steering wheel. It always baffled me how rarely you cut your nails; sports every season and still you kept them long, always shocked when they broke. Even when the split went so deep your finger bled you would never start trimming them shorter. As you squeezed the leather tighter I watched the smooth color of your hand transform to a stark contrast of red and white, like someone being strangled. I’d never heard you speak so lifelessly before.

“And Dad, well, he’s given up.”

I shot you a sideways glance. You took a hard right, the seatbelt dug into my collarbone, and we entered the community college parking lot. You nudged the accelerator, and I wondered whom you were testing. I braced myself against your speed.

“I mean,” you continued, “what else can he do? Fighting with her only makes it worse.”

I ducked my head slightly, almost ashamed. I felt as though I’d unintentionally eavesdropped on a private conversation and my name had been mentioned. In passing, out of context, but I’d heard, and I shouldn’t have. I was a part of it now, as I had always been, gazing at you from the periphery as at a car wreck.

“When she is home, all she does is yell,” you explained. “Did you know we can’t even see the Crawshaws anymore because of her? She does it in front of them, now. She accuses Dad of having an affair with Kim in front of the Crawshaws’ own kids. It’s so bad, Ash. She doesn’t even bring up counseling anymore. She just…screams.”

You pursed your lips and punched a few buttons on the stereo, turned the music up as high as it would go, snorted when I cringed and covered my ears with my hands. Sounds were your way of numbing yourself. My head throbbed, and you lowered the volume until it was almost bearable for me. We barely paused at the stop sign that signaled the completion of our circle around the campus. There were few cars in the lot at this point in the afternoon, so we traveled that loop several more times, cutting across the yellow parking lines. You slipped on your sunglasses.

“What a good girl, what a smart girl, what a pretty girl,” the Barenaked Ladies crooned over the speakers. You rolled down the windows, blasting the song over the empty campus. With one hand on the wheel, you stretched your other arm outside, cupping your palm against the rushing air.

You’d always told me you wanted to be a surgeon. When I thought about surgeons, I pictured a scalpel slicing through flesh to reveal the esophagus and the stomach and the intestines—inches upon inches of that slimy oozing rope that’s supposed to keep you alive. As you began to hum along, I clutched the seams of my shirt, hoped the fabric would keep me from spilling out. The chorus hit and I watched it: like the prayers you mouthed in the dark, the prayers you once trusted, “Bear it with me, bear with me, bear with me,” you repeated.

You turned the volume up a few notches. I raked my fingers through my hair, feeling the wind streak up the tangled strands. The grass was a dull green, the thin plotted trees wilted in the last of summer’s daylight. Slowly I reached my hand out the window, too. I closed my eyes, leaned forward in my seat, breathed it in: the cheap gas, the whir of your tiny engine, the whisper of your lips around clenched teeth.

ASHLEY GRAY recently graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in English and dreams of becoming an editor. Predictably unemployed, she currently lives in the Chicago area, where she spends most of her time reading, baking, and ranting about comic books when she should be searching for gainful employment.

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