Just One Question
by John Roberts
"When you die do you want to be buried or cremated?
"Do you need to know right now?"
She laughs, takes a hand off the wheel and covers her mouth.
"You're funny," she says, looking at me. "What, did I say that already?"
I try to relax and look at the road. Maybe then she will too. I press my foot against the floor as she blows through one stop light and slams on the brakes just in front of the next one.
"So we're close to your place now?"
She hesitates for a second. We've already made a decision, and this probably feels like a revisitation.
"I thought you wanted to," she says.
"I do, I'm just asking."
"Are we there yet?" she says. She leans over and kisses me hard. Our teeth click, her tongue pushes deep into my mouth, searching for doubt to erase. She pulls back, answers herself. "We're almost there."
"You are in a hurry, baby."
I'm quiet for a minute. The roads are wet, but the rain has stopped. Sprayed water churns against the bottom of the car. I rest my head against the back of the seat and watch the street lights pass.
"You look so serious, what are you thinking about?"
The question that is, invariably, the price of silence.
"You," I lie.
"Stop lying. And you never answered my last question."
"I want to make sure I don't lie. So I'm searching the recesses of my soul."
She laughs, and it's a nice laugh, adorably seductive. I'm starting to like her again, which seems important. We need to cooperate to make this work, move away from talk about lying. People have to know each other to make accusations-even jesting ones- so not us, not yet, probably not ever.
My head snaps back as she stabs the gas pedal. The wheels spin and then catch as she runs the next red light.
"I won't tell if you won't," she says. She is maybe trying a little bit too hard. What would impress me at this point is some good citizen type driving, but I do still want to get to her place and she apparently makes it home intact on a regular basis, so there it is.
A loud siren whoops behind us. She whispers something and keeps driving, leaning forward and looking into the rear view mirror, as if an instant adjustment to sensible driving will serve as penance, erasing the sins of the previous miles.
"Kim," I say. She ignores me, and my face burns. That is her name, I'm almost sure.
Slowly, she pulls over, turns the car off and stares straight ahead. She takes the key out of the ignition part way then slams it back in roughly; her keys sway with a thin metallic chime until she cups them. High beams bathe us in white. A soft rain resumes, and water droplets gather on the windshield. They collide, meet, run sideways for a moment and then roll down the glass. I put my hand on her shoulder and she flinches.
But she grabs my hand before I can move it, still staring straight ahead, and intertwines our fingers in her lap. We both say sorry at the same time. The gesture feels odd, for despite our intention of future intimacy, solicitous reassurance, most certainly, was not in tonight's plan.
She nods at the passenger door. "You can go if you want."
"What? Careen from the scene? Clyde never leaves Bonnie," I say and immediately cringe. But she laughs that nice laugh again. I guess I sound manly and all, but I'm not about to stagger out in the cold rain and haul ass from the cops when-and this is the most uncharitable thought of the night so far-I am not the one driving drunk. She raises her hands to my face as I'm thinking this and kisses me again. Her hands are cold but her mouth is warm. I grab her hair from the back and pull until her eyes open. Her face is kabuki white. She bites my bottom lip hard; the blood is sour and immediate.
"Hang on Clyde."
She glances into the mirror, starts the car, cranks the lever straight into drive -like a slot machine- and pulls out with no headlights. She's leaning forward as she drives, wiping a clear patch in the fogged windshield above the steering wheel. I'm pressing my forearm against the side window, rubbing with my sleeve, making panicky squeaks. Just ahead we hit the next intersection. She turns right carefully to avoid a skid and floors it down a dark two lane road. We go up a hill, weightless, and crunch back down. She turns left down a residential street and executes a series of seemingly random turns through a working class neighborhood of single family homes.
Silhouettes of angular sedans and pickup trucks loom in driveways, on the streets, and in chain linked front yards. It's dark, no streetlights, though we're setting off motion detecting spots like flashbulbs. Either that or we're approaching the speed of light.
"Nobody behind us, right?" she asks.
I risk whiplash and take a look. "Nope." My feet are pressing hard on the dashboard. We come to a jarring stop against the curb in a pothole pocked cul de sac. The rain is hard and relentless now, hitting the windshield like snapping sheets. I'm in that state of alert, cliff edged drunkenness that approaches sobriety, but only from shouting distance. Sweaty, close call gratitude breaks out on my forehead as she turns off the car. Self preservation and good judgment are still secure hostages, but I can hear them patiently gnawing through their ropes.
"You comin' in, Clyde?"
I follow her to the front door and watch her bend over and curse softly as she fumbles with her keys. I lean against the siding, close my eyes, lift my face, and shake my head like an animal. She's apologizing, but the rain feels oddly exhilarating, and I laugh. Her hair is soaked, hanging in strands around her face; I gently pull it back so she can work the lock.
"Not that one," she says, and tries to fit another. I surprise myself by saying nothing. Sometimes a deal breaking comment will slide past the goalie despite my best efforts. She gets the door open, takes a step in and turns so she's looking down at me, slams me in the chest with her open hand, then grabs me by the front of my shirt as she talks. I'm still standing in the rain.
"Listen to me, Clyde, before you take another step. This is my house. I need to be happy here. You come in, you're thinking about me, and only me. I'm the most brilliant, desirable, alluring woman you've ever seen. I could be the one. I inspire awe. Your only desire is to worship me, because you are lost without me. I am your first, last, and only. I've made you wait a long time for this, 'till you can barely stand it. Make me believe it Clyde. Do you hear me? Well...?"
I look up at her face. Expectation, disappointment, challenge, loss, weariness; she's showing it all.
"That's why I'm here."
"Then get you ass upstairs and prove it."
A beam of sunlight through the window heats my face. I remember everything right away, most likely because I am-surprisingly- free of the usual Sunday morning regret. My clothes are neatly folded, dry and warm, at the end of the bed. At this point it is unclear whether this is an unexpected kindness or a prelude to dismissal. I use the bathroom and-old habits die hard-check the medicine cabinet. Nothing alarming from a psychiatric or venereal standpoint. I get dressed. I smell coffee and hear her moving around quietly downstairs. At the top of the stairs, I hold my foot in the air for a while; then take a deep breath and start down.
"Hey, Clyde." She's in a pink ribbed bathrobe, raggedy but fetching, with nothing underneath.
"Good morning." I give her a kiss on the cheek. She starts leaning away slightly but recovers.
"How's the little fugitive this morning?"
"The car isn't registered to this address," she says.
"I was wondering about that."
She doesn't say any more about it. I pull up a stool next to her at the kitchen counter-not too close-and glance at the paper. Maybe there's an article in the Style section on Awkward Small Talk for the Hung Over Couple.
"You want some coffee?"
"Help yourself." She waves at the coffee pot, and the robe slips off her shoulder. She notices me noticing. She snaps the paper and refolds it with her eyes on me.
"By the way, Clyde, Biff's college tuition is due, the dog has a vet appointment at three, and you promised you'd get your ass up on the roof and clean the gutters the past two weekends, but guess what, they're still clogged. Oh yeah, when you stop at the grocery store after the vet, pick me up some tampons and get something for yourself for dinner, it's my bowling night with the girls. We'll be late, so don't wait up."
"What?" I sputter.
" I see those moon pie eyes, Clyde. That's the only place these things go from here, buddy. Is that what you want? Or do you want to call yourself a cab now?"
"Jesus, Kim. You're moving awful fast with that..." I realize what we've already done, what I'm about to say, that I've known her for less than a day, so I save myself.
The phone rings, she raises a finger and heads for another room. She slams the door but it pops back open and I can't help but hear.
"Hey, what's up...yeah...there's somebody here now...it's nobody... you are so bad...okay...yeah, bring the cinnamon ones too...not half as sweet as you...see you then...later."
When she comes back into the kitchen I stand up and replace my seat under the counter. What's the move? Indignation, gratitude, a desire to explain and frankly, still, just plain desire; they're all swirling through my mind. She's staring at me, but softer than before.
She says, "Did you lose someone, Clyde?"
"My name isn't Clyde."
"My name isn't Kim. Answer my question."
"That was your question, right? From last night. 'When you die do you want to be buried or cremated?' Your little compatibility quiz, in the car. I was on the edge of flunking...you said I had to get that one right or..."
Her face reddens. "Oh, God, I didn't..."
"So cremated. Burned down to nothing but dirt."
"Me too, Clyde, me too," she says softly. "Burned down to the ground."
I head for the door, grab my still damp coat off the rack. The sun is right in my face as I step into the yard. I reach in my coat pocket for sunglasses and brush up against my empty money clip and a crusty cocktail napkin with some olive pits spit into it. Most of my psychological needs are more than competently met by bartenders, but Freud's question-what do women want?- pops into my head. My argument has always been that by even asking that question you've already lost the game. You're supposed to know without asking, because the clues are always there. If she asks you if you're hungry, take her to dinner. If she asks you if you've lost someone, maybe she's trying to tell you something about her-something important. Dumb ass. Her doorstep speech from last night comes back to me, and I turn, but the door's already shut and I hear the snick of the deadbolt. There is so little solace in being someone else's mistake. I make a fist and hold it near the door until I feel nothing. Nothing for her, nothing for me.
About the author:
John Roberts lives in Virginia. His short stories have appeared on the web at Word Riot and Monkeybicycle, and in the print anthology See You Next Tuesday: The Second Coming.