The roads are slick, freshly coated with autumn leaves mixed with last night’s rain. The only color to be seen on this drab Monday morning is in the scattered bursts of fallen leaves that litter the tree-lined road into town. As you admire neon orange and yellow against crimson you almost miss seeing Jared—the one young enough to be your son but so mysterious and sexy that you’ve never let this fact bother you when you fantasize about catching a glimpse of his naked body leaving your bed.
Jared pauses on the sidewalk that cuts across the bank entrance. You wave for him to cross before pulling in, and although the smile never reaches his lips, you catch the sparkle of the one playing off his walnut eyes. You wonder how many women rouse that same expression in a given day. You’re sure to check your rearview mirror as you pull into the bank. There it is. The sweetest, tightest ass this town has ever seen.
The spinning ache in your head reminds you of how much wine you had at dinner last night. Yet the thought of leaving that over-priced glass half full, even when you knew you’d had more than enough, filled you with guilt that won out in the end. As you wait for the teller to finish your transaction you remove a stapled sticky note from your purse handle.
Stop at bank & transfer $300
from retirement to checking
You reread the remaining stapled note.
Country fried steak & fresh moigue—
stop at butcher for steak, breadcrumbs,
& fresh garlic
Dinner. You think about how much making up you have to do. The argument you and Tim had on the drive home from dinner last night has rerun in your head all morning. You’re not sure how many f-bombs you let fly as you pointed out it was Tim’s idea you order your favorite dish. While he was probably right about such a dinner being a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, how can he blame you for not being able to enjoy that three-pound lobster at a market rate of forty dollars a pound? To fuel your frustration, you know he will repeatedly tell the story about the time you ordered that $120 lobster until one day the shame of it is sure to blaze you from the inside out. You recount and recount the part where you rapid fired your list of ways Tim misspends the money. How foolish you sounded since he makes the money. If only you knew when to shut up.
It’s sprinkling when you pull back out from the bank. The water bubbles dancing on your windshield are reminiscent of the nightmares you’ve had about being trapped inside one of those ridiculous souvenir snow globes. You wonder if Jared’s made it to his destination or if he’s stuck walking in this rain. And then you spot him walking on the shoulder just past where the sidewalk ends. He pulls his hood over his head. His relaxed pace is enviable.
All you can think about is having Jared in the car with you. You imagine the smell of his trendy cologne as Tim’s reprimands about picking up strangers ring in your ears. You begin to rationalize; although you’ve never talked, knowing his name means he’s not actually a stranger. When someone asks, “Would you like a ride?” you’re not sure whose voice it is. Yet there you are, pulled to the side of the road, your window partially open, those two eyes you’ve dreamt about countless times now staring back at you.
This time the smile reaches his lips and you cannot help but try to read between them. You’re sure your heart, now a blast beaten snare drum, is audible from the other side of the window. But that cologne you imagined sails through the opening, and audible heartbeat or not, you cannot justify another minute with him on the other side of that door.
“Well?” You lean across the empty seat and push the door open. You’re about to say, “You’ll catch a cold,” but think better of establishing age and rank at a time like this.
“You sure?” he asks, sliding into the seat.
“Where—” you both speak at the same time.
“Go ahead,” he says.
“No you,” you say, partly to be polite, and partly because the sound of his voice is doing crazy things to places inside of you.
“Where you headed?”
“To the butcher in the city. How ‘bout you?”
His laughter fills the car. “To the city it is,” he says.
“It’s freezing out.” You laugh that nervous laugh you still haven’t mastered to camouflage the anxiety as you reach to turn up the heat, and hope he believes this is why your hands are trembling.
Out of the corner of your eye you notice he has graceful hands, like his mother’s, like those that belong to a pianist or guitarist. You commit the shape of those hands to memory for later reflection (at least that’s what you’re going to call it lest a single trace of guilt infect this moment).
Now that he’s been in the car for more than a few seconds you pick up the scent of cigarette smoke. Instead of being repulsed by the smell as you’ve been for the past fifteen years since you kicked the habit, all you want is a long drag—the type you inhale so deep, it feels as if you’ve been punched in the lungs and reminds you that you’re alive. “Feel free to smoke if you want.”
You look at Jared as you say this, and for a moment, you catch a flicker of his mother looking back at you. Even though you haven’t dared to look his mother in the face since she dropped out of high school to have Jared, you recall how anxious her searching expression made you.
Jared scans the immaculate upholstery as if to gauge your sincerity, then looks back at you with that edge of curiosity. And although it occurs to you he’s probably just trying to figure out the motivation of such generosity, you pretend for a moment he’s undressing you with that look.
He pulls a pack of Camel Lights from his Army jacket and cracks his window. After a few puffs fill the car, you extend your hand and ask, “May I?”
Instead of handing you one from the box, he passes you the cigarette he’s been smoking and pulls another one out for himself. When your lips touch the place his have just been, you feel a confidence rise up in you like you’ve never felt before. Three drags in and the euphoria is so intoxicating, you wonder if the lightheadedness now flooding you might blow into a full blackout. Your speed is now just above the speed limit, and as much as you don’t want this ride to end too quickly, your resolve not to appear old outweighs all other desires.
Before you know it, you’re pulling into the city. “Where am I dropping you off?”
“No need,” he says. “It’s a block or two from Rowley’s.”
As you get out of the car, Jared lights another smoke and passes it to you. You take a long drag and pass it back. He smiles before turning to walk away. No fanfare, no goodbye, no thank you: he just walks right out of your life like he was never there.
Yet, while you stand at the meat counter, the vibration still pulsing through you is a reminder that he has just been there. It’s his eyes staring back from the fish section window—row upon row of hollowed sockets reflecting his mysterious eyes back at you.
Your thoughts now leaden, you go through the motions of buying the ingredients for tonight’s dinner and shuffle back to the car. Something you hadn’t anticipated—Jared waiting there—confuses you. You blink, but when you open your eyes he is still standing there, waiting for you to get closer before he speaks. And you wait for him to speak first as words and thoughts and concepts aren’t coming together very well for you.
“My buddy’s not there. Mind if I ride back with you?”
“Not at all,” you say, popping the trunk.
The entire mood has shifted during the ride back. Jared’s tone and gestures are playful. It makes you want to be reckless. What would it hurt if you surrendered to this feeling for one minute out of an entire lifetime? Like one of those “once in a lifetime” moments Tim is always ranting about?
So you drive a little slower, no longer caring how it might make you look. You laugh a little louder, and even strum a rhythm along the edge of your cup holder to the beat of the song Jared just tuned the station to. You feel so awakened that you want to scream and laugh and cry.
As you pass the corner cemetery and car wash—where Jared has worked since he was seventeen—you wonder when you’ll get to see him next. You’re driving through the speed-restricted part of town sooner than you hoped to be. Yesterday, Indian summer temps had people out cleaning their yards, and the sidewalks were cluttered with couples walking and kids racing their bikes to and from the school playground. Today the village seems deserted.
A squirrel darts into the middle of the road and looks at you as if to say, “What are you gonna do about it?”
All the times Tim has popped one of these critters off for tearing up the bird feeders and patio wiring come to mind. Although you’ve never really cared for squirrels, you cringe at the thought of the dead bodies that are left in the yard for days as “reminders to the rest of the clan about what happens to shithead pests.”
Before you can change your mind, you hit the accelerator and run that squirrel over so fast it doesn’t have time to react. Through your rearview mirror you watch its body—now half plastered to the road—spasm. The haunting look of fresh death plays from its eyes.
The shame and guilt of what you’ve just done rush through you. You suddenly find it difficult to breathe, and then you remember: you are not alone.
Looking up, you find Jared’s face fixed on yours in bewilderment.
“I’m so sorry,” you confess.
His laugh is now the one that’s a little nervous.
You shake your head. “I can’t believe I just did that.”
Without another word about it, Jared asks if you can drop him off at the gas station in town. He picks up the conversation where it left off, but you remain floating somewhere between worlds.
While he’s getting out of the car he says, “It’s been real, Donna.”
You aren’t sure what is more exciting: the fact that he knows your name or knowing how much mileage you’re going to get out of hearing him say it. Either way, the sound of your name rolling from his tongue plays on repeat as you pull away. The knowledge of soon being alone with this thought in your darkened bedroom, under the refuge of your silky sheets, tickles you with such intensity that you cannot get home fast enough.
Leaving town, you pass by what remains of the squirrel. This brings you back to what you did. You slow down and dare to look at the squirrel’s glazed, lifeless eyes and squirm in your seat. Looking away, you take yourself back to those earlier fantasies, the ones where Jared’s naked body is in your bed. During the ride home you cling to this image as if life relies on it. But no matter how hard you hold onto it, your mind keeps flashing back to the last gruesome moments of that struggling squirrel, and it’s always Jared’s eyes that stare back from that mangled face.