It was overcast and the heat got stuck above the thin clouds, so he found her just leaning against the side of her goldish Honda Civic in the parking lot of the stadium–just where they’d discussed in the brief phone conversation three nights before.
“You Michael?” she asked, not budging from her repose.
“Yeah. You Brenda?”
She didn’t exactly answer, but popped up off the side of the car as she took out her phone. She held it up and pointed it at his face. He heard the camera make its artificial shutter sound. “Can I see your ID?”
He nodded and fished it out of his wallet, cracking a flake of old leather off in the process. It floated lazily toward his boot’s toe as he passed over the plastic ID card.
She lined it up in her hands in front of the phone and snapped another picture.
“Okay,” she said. “I’m texting these to my brother. He’s six foot four and a Navy Seal. The share-a-ride people have got your info already, but I want you to know that he’s got it too, in case anything happens to me.”
He shrugged awkwardly and nodded.
“I don’t mean to come off as paranoid, but you know, insurance.”
“Sure, sure, I understand,” he said, hands in his pockets.
“Alright, let’s go.” She bounced around the front of the car. He watched as the meat of her fleshy thighs quivered with each step while the pinching denim skirt kept the bulge of her buttocks locked in place.
After throwing his single bag in back, he opened the passenger side door and sat down. Still fumbling to pull back her hair in a band, she cranked the engine with her free hand and then kneed the gearshift into first.
The car lurched forward and she swung toward I-35.
“So,” she began, pinching her lower lip under her teeth for a second before continuing. “You a student?”
“No, just came out here to work.”
“So you’re from El Paso?”
“God, it’s awful to be going back, isn’t it? I wish they’d let me stay in my dorm. I mean, Jesus, who wants to spend spring break in Hell Paso.”
He shrugged and kept his eyes off the peak of cleavage below her violet top.
“You hungry at all?”
“No,” he said, then added, “thanks.”
“I guess we can stop later. I’ve already got like three quarters of a tank, so we won’t need gas until we’re at the ass end of the hill country.”
“I’ve got to warn you, though. I piss like five to ten times an hour, so we’re going to need potty breaks.”
“That’s okay,” he said.
“Geez, man, I’m just kidding with you,” she said. “I was trying to see what would get a rise out of you.”
“How old are you?” she asked.
“I would’ve guessed that,” she said, but then gave up for a time on conversation. Every few miles she would pop in with a comment–on the traffic or some restaurant they had passed or the outlet malls.
He never did much more than grunt in reply.
Past Dripping Springs she started telling him about Austin–“Not the city,” she explained. “That was his name, my ex.” She told him how they’d dated their whole freshmen year, but then spent a summer apart, “to grow,” she said. Coming back that fall, things had been awkward. She’d noticed changes in the way he approached her sexually. “You don’t mind me talking about that sort of stuff, do you?” she asked.
“Nah, I don’t,” he said.
“Good. You never know. Some people are so repressed. I didn’t know if you were unusually religious or anything.”
“No, not really.”
As she talked on, with her eyes always on the road as if it was her listener, he relaxed from the stiff-backed posture he’d held for the first hour of the trip.
“So I really started to wonder if he was gay,” she said, explaining the climax of the Austin story. “Now I’ll tell you what, some guys can take that. Some guys you can say, ‘Hey, I think you might be gay,’ and they’ll be like, ‘No, I’m pretty sure I’m not,” and there’s like no problem. But not Austin. Holy shit, you’d think I’d killed his mother!” She described his fury, the shouting, the feeling she had that he was on the verge of getting physical, leading to her flight from his apartment without her shoes on. “So that was the end of that.”
He was silent for a moment, but he sensed he needed to say something, so he ventured, “Maybe that’s because he really was gay.”
“See!” she shouted. “Thank you! That is what I was telling my cousin just the other day. See what I mean? People are so repressed.”
They drove on through the dusk as the terrain shifted and the green of foliage dropped out of the world in favor of beige horizons dotted by olive-colored desert bushes. Without ever having stopped for the promised restroom breaks, they finally pulled off the road to gas up.
Having agreed that he would pay for the next tank, she left him at the pump, telling him, “Pull it along side the shop when you’re done. I need some privacy.”
Michael twisted his face up in confusion, but she stomped away too quickly for him to complain or question.
The auto-catch on the gas pump was missing, so he stood beside it, holding the lever in place to fill the car up. The rhythmic pulsing of the fuel flowing through the hose seemed unusually slow and his eyes began to wander. First over the white edges of the gas station sign at twilight, then over the distant ridges of the horizon. Finally, he looked inside the glowing white cube of the shop. Brenda was at the counter with a pile of chips and other junk food. The clerk, a middle-aged woman with graying hair was laughing at something the girl had said. From outside, they looked like life-long chums.
The pump stopped. Despite shaking the nozzle against the inlet, a drop of gas still caught his boot as he hung it up. Inside, he saw Brenda was still talking to the clerk–her groceries remained heaped in front of her on the counter. He did as she’d asked and brought the car around to the side of the shop.
A few minutes later, she came around the corner toting two plastic bags and smiling.
“Everything good?” she asked.
“Yeah, all done.”
“Great, feel like a break?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
She twisted and squeezed her torso into the space between the two seats, brushing up against his shoulder in the process, and fished out a plastic bag from one of her suitcases in the rear.
Next, she produced some rolling papers from the little compartment behind the parking break and raised her eyebrows to entice him.
“Nah, I shouldn’t.”
“You don’t get high?”
“Trying not to.”
She shrugged and lit the joint, inhaling a long draw and popping the seat back in a single motion. “Oh, sorry,” she said, scrambling for the window control to add some ventilation.
She enjoyed another hit before looking up at him, sitting erect and silent again.
“So what’s up with you? What’s your story?”
“No story,” he answered.
“Everybody’s got a story. You’re not a student, but you’re going back to El Paso. Is it home?”
“It was, yeah.”
“But you left.”
“So, why’d you leave?” she asked before placing the joint back between her lips.
“Things just got messed up. I wanted to leave and some friends of mine were going to go to Austin, start a band.”
“And now?” she asked, peering through a haze of her own exhaled smoke. “Why’re you going back?”
“It was time.”
“That’s mysterious. There’s a girl, right?”
“What?” he asked with sudden alarm.
“There’s always a girl. Go on, tell me. What happened?”
He sat back in the chair and shook his head with a huffing laugh. “Might as well,” he said and then began. He first told her about meeting Selena, about how he knew she was too young, but thinking it would be alright, that it was just a little fun. Then it was more than a little fun and they’d ended up saying how much they loved each other. “And I did,” he told Brenda. “I loved her a lot, but she always wanted to hang out. I had work and my friends. We fought a lot, but I did. I loved her.” When he graduated from high school, though, and she was only a sophomore, he thought it was time to move on. He hadn’t done it well. Just stopped calling. Started messing around with other girls. “Then one day, I just saw her. I saw her at the mall with her parents and I saw her belly.”
“She didn’t tell you?”
No, she hadn’t, and yes, it was his. The scene in the mall had been ugly. Her father had shoved him. Michael had taken a swing in return.
It was his parents who had forced him to sit down with Selena’s family about a week later. They spent a few hours working out a plan for the two of them to “take responsibility” and “create a life together…for the sake of the baby.”
They’d lived with his family. When the baby was born, things had seemed manageable. They started saying they loved each other again. Selena, holding him and the baby at once, had said one night, “Maybe this was right all along. Maybe we were supposed to be together.” And they had smiled at that, both of them.
But then she went back to finish high school, and his mother pressed him to take care of the baby alone. “My mom said she was too old to be starting over and that it was my responsibility.” The tension started to build. Selena, worn out from feedings and colicky fits, struggled at school, and she brought the stress home. “I knew it was wrong, but I just never wanted to go back there, never wanted to be shut up in my old bedroom with a crying and fussing baby and its mother. All the disappointed looks. My mom and her would look at me the same way whenever I walked in the door.”
Brenda laughed. “They say you marry your mother, you know? You always pick someone just like mommy without meaning to.”
He continued, “After work one day I went out. At first there were a couple of us all together, but eventually it was just me at this one girl’s apartment.”
“Oh shit, I know where this is going.”
“So she left. Selena took the baby and went back to her parents’ house. My parents acted like they hated me, so I left. I crashed with friends for awhile, but eventually I just cut out of town.”
“The last few weeks, I’ve been talking to her.” Selena had gotten her G.E.D. She wanted to go into nursing. She could do it alone; she always could have. But she could use a partner. It could be him. “I talked her into giving me another shot,” he told Brenda.
“That’s what you want?”
“Yeah,” he answered. “Austin didn’t work for me. I lost two jobs. I was never happy. Nothing was right.”
“Without them,” she corrected.
“How long you been in Austin again?” Brenda asked.
“About a year.”
“She’s taking you back after a year?”
“A year that shouldn’t have happened,” he said.
“Definitely. I screwed up.”
“So, you’ve changed, huh?”
“I’m going to.”
“I don’t mean to piss you off,” she said, letting out a long trail of smoke between her grinning lips. “But people don’t plan to change. That shit happens, or it doesn’t. So either you’ve changed, or you haven’t.”
“I’ve changed then.”
“If you say so,” she whispered, closing her eyes. He watched her breasts heave up and down with each breath, wanting to throttle her.
“Let me drive,” he said through his teeth.
“Yeah, okay. I feel like a rest.”
He tore the Civic onto the road after they switched seats, but if she was aware of the driving expressing any emotional message, she gave no indication. Saying nothing more, she rolled into a ball against the passenger side door and dozed.
For two hours they rolled through the dark. The radio stations evaporated in the black and he rifled through a stack of unlabeled CDs looking for something to listen to. In the end he shut it off and drove in silence. He looked over at her every few minutes and muttered “bitch” under his breath, but each time he also looked at the back of her calves tucked up close to her. Occasionally, he would catch her stirring in the dim light and see locks of wavy hair slide over her cheeks. He fantasized repaying her for her remarks with debasing sexual acts and gripped the steering wheel tighter.
He wasn’t watching her when she woke suddenly and moaned, “Dude, let’s pull over.”
She startled him, but he made an effort to hide it, saying quickly, “We don’t need gas.”
“I need to stretch my legs,” she countered.
Van Horn was just ahead. As they pulled off, he turned the nose of the car toward the nearest gas station, but she wagged her finger and pointed away from the lights of the highway. “Over there,” she yipped. “Over there!”
She led them to a small adobe bar sitting among some sparse, low grass on a side street.
“We should keep going,” he objected.
“You’re not even 21.”
“I haven’t met a bartender I couldn’t charm,” she said and slammed the car door behind her.
He made a show of dragging his feet behind him as she pushed open the dingy wooden door of the bar. There was hardly any activity inside. Two different couples sitting in booths along the wall looked up at them, but the patrons at the bar itself–three men in boots, but no hats–didn’t react to their entrance.
Brenda strutted past the bartender with a wink and disappeared inside the bathroom in the back. Michael sat down without ordering.
“Did I piss you off or something?” she asked when she returned.
“I didn’t like what you said.”
“What did I say? Shit, man, I’m sorry, when I’m high I don’t know what I say. Come on, let me buy you a drink…friends?”
She placed her arm around him and grinned madly.
He agreed to a shot or two. She began prattling on again, and as the warmth of the tequila hit his core, he found himself watching her mouth move while she talked.
She tried chatting up the bartender, but he was late thirties going on fifty from hard, leathering days in the sun, so she stayed in orbit of Michael.
“We’ve got to enjoy our last stop together,” she told him.
“We’ll still need gas,” he said, but his voice was light now and she laughed and he laughed back and they were friends now, drinking and enjoying one another.
“One of us has got to stay sober,” he reminded her after another pair of shots.
“We can just sleep it off,” she said before crossing to the jukebox and queuing up a rock ballad no one had heard since the late 80s.
She swung her hips from side to side in a parody of a music video half-remembered from their youth.
He laughed on with her, remembering the shape of her legs in the night outside.
Before he knew why or how or when, they were there again, outside in the dark, leaving a trail of boisterous goodbyes for the barkeep and the quiet couples and the silly old jukebox and laughing again as their feet crunched the gravel in the parking lot.
He climbed into the driver’s seat and she giggled her way into the passenger side. He tried to say two or three times that he shouldn’t drive, but never did. As he made the attempt, her chuckling subsided and they found themselves alone together in the shadows.
She turned toward him in the faint orange buzz from some lamp outside and he saw what was going to happen. He saw all his resolve melt and he knew, knew that somehow this would be the end of all his aspirations, of everything he hoped for.
He reached across the parking break and laid his hand on her hip.