She heard the heavy, thumping bass of the music first, throbbing as a headache. Then the door opened and a couple spilled out and trailed behind them the familiar acrid smell of the beer-soaked interior that always made her think of sticky linoleum floors, and the clash and clank of billiard balls. Inside, the sounds and smells were punctuated by the hazy, shimmering grey cloud of smoke from all manner of things being smoked. Outside it rained, cool and refreshing. Inside, it looked like a bleary dream. She didn’t want to be inside.
But she had to be. She was supposed to be with Mark — they were supposed to be here together, tonight. She kept telling herself that — there was a way this was all supposed to be — kept repeating to herself that it wouldn’t do, make sense, help anyone to cry.
Not here. Not now.
Mark took hold of her hand and led her across the sticky linoleum floor to a small table in a corner under a ceiling lamp like an upturned champagne flute that lit up the smoke and made it glimmer, exposed its dizzy dance. He pulled out the glossy wooden chair with the dried varnish petrified in its run down the spokes that lined up to make the back of the chair. The dusty droplets, like frozen tears, reminded her of the dusty photographs of her childhood in the softening shoeboxes under their bed. Arrested development become old.
“Gin and tonic?” Mark asked as she sat down, his eyes hovering just over her head where the flyaway hairs glowed, like a halo, not looking in her eyes.
“Yes,” she mumbled, and nodded, in case he maybe didn’t hear her. But he’d turned away toward the bar. He didn’t need the confirmation. He needn’t even have asked. He knew what she wanted, it was always the same thing.
And she didn’t care, anyway. Not today.
She didn’t want to be here. She wanted to be alone. She wanted to cry.
Not here. Not now.
She watched his back waiting for their drinks at the bar. And then she watched him walk back to her. He set her drink down before her and she took off her leather jacket and draped it over the weeping back of the chair. He and his IPA sat down across from her with his eyes focused on something behind her head, at the other side of the dim, happily buzzing room. She turned and followed his gaze. It was fixed upon a group of men and women laughing and drinking and jovially touching each other’s arms with a sparkle in their eyes. The tallest one of them in a pale blue t-shirt and a mess of curly blond hair seemed to feel their gaze. He looked their way and raised his beer in their direction. Mark raised his IPA at him and nodded and smiled.
“Why don’t you go say hi,” she said more than asked.
He looked at her as though he wanted to say something to her, something he’d been wanting to say to her for a long time. Something honest and not nice and that might make her cry. “Are you sure,” he said after a moment, after looking away from her eyes and back at the flyaway halo above her head.
“Yeah, sure. Just don’t send any of them my way.” And she huddled over her drink with her elbows on the table, trying to get her mouth to the straw without having to use her hands, but as her lip grazed it the straw lolled to the other side of the glass. She brought the straw to her mouth with her hand.
She downed half the drink fast as Mark left her with his IPA. She didn’t want to be here. She put her jacket back on, wanting to disappear, wanting to cloak her bare arms against the slimy feel of others’ eyes on her. She felt gazes, but she didn’t look up to confirm, didn’t want to see them seeing her. She closed her eyes and fought against the cry that was clawing up her throat, and swallowed hard against the dull pain at the back of her eyes, an elastic pain, from trying to keep her tears from spilling.
For the past week it had been the thought of the two parakeets she’d gotten for her thirteenth birthday that had brought on the sadness. The memory attacked her after a dream she’d had, a dream about watching so very many different kinds of birds flying away simultaneously — up, up, and away into a wide, wild night sky lit only by a full moon through a gauzy veil of clouds.
She’d spent the summer before her thirteenth birthday begging her mom to get her two parakeets, because her friend Tracey recently got two parakeets. She’d begged and pleaded and did all the chores, even ones she wasn’t asked to perform. And her mother pretended all the while to be unstirred toward any serious deliberation, when really she’d acquiesced from the very beginning. “That’s parenting,” her mother had confided to her many years later, as if passing on some mystical heirloom.
But the parakeets got away. She’d only had them for about a month when, one hot afternoon, when the flat sunlight seemed heavy, she was cleaning their cage in the backyard. The birds were inside. But she’d forgotten to latch the screen door. First one then the other jumped out onto the grass. She chased them all over the grass, they leapt deftly. Eventually one flew up onto the fence, and then the other followed. And then they both flew away, leaving her alone in her backyard with a hosed-down empty cage, tears streaming down her face and sobs bursting out from her in languished gasps. She cried and cried, kept asking her mother how they would get their food, how they would be safe, so far away from home.
When she was first hit with this memory she fell to the floor in the bathroom and wept. Mark was loading the dishwasher. She’d been performing her nighttime skincare routine. She’d crawled out of the bathroom on her hands and knees and onto the bed where she lay crying. Mark was confused — he stopped asking her what was the matter when he saw that she wouldn’t be able to speak, to tell him. So he just lay down behind her and held on to her until it stopped. Until they both fell asleep. She woke up still in his arms and with swollen eyes and a pain in her throat.
She took a deep breath and opened her eyes and was relieved when no errant tears fell. She took another deep breath and looked around and saw that no one was paying her any attention. She turned and saw Mark laughing.
She hadn’t seen him laugh in a while. She liked his laugh. She missed it. She wanted to cry when she thought about how she hadn’t given him occasion to laugh. But every week of late seemed to drag in and then pummel her with a nervous and embarrassed thought or memory she hadn’t thought or remembered since she was in college. Something long forgotten, something she thought she’d battled and destroyed when she’d thought she’d become happy, when she’d met Mark, would every week rise up again and knock her down. She didn’t know why — why it was happening now.
Maybe she’d stopped being happy.
She didn’t know. What she did know was that she felt sorry for making Mark’s laugh go away. She felt so guilty she wanted to cry.
Not here. Now now.
Maybe she could go for a drive.
“One of your drives again?” Mark would ask her when she’d get in through the door after an hour and a half. He’d look at her in that meaningful way of his, not saying what he’d wanted to say because he didn’t know if he could, how much he should. And she’d feel sorry and guilty and she’d reprimand herself for the waste — of gas, of time. But then she wasn’t so sure if it was really a waste of time. Of gas, sure. But time? Was it really a waste of time if she liked the way she spent it, if for the first time in hours, days she could breathe, drown her thoughts in the blast of air rushing in through the open windows and surging through the car as if ablutionary.
“Why do you do it?” Mark had asked once as she took off her parka and tried to smooth down her windswept hair. He’d translated one of his meaningful looks into an actual question, shyly.
It made her feel calm. As she drove she felt she was driving further and further away from her mind. Mark didn’t understand. When he drove, he said, he’d get lost in his thoughts, remembering too late to make a turn.
She just shrugged and smiled at this their difference.
She didn’t know how, or even if she wanted, to explain it to him that once she started the car, she was able to run away from her brain because she needed to be present in her hands and feet performing the necessary manoeuvres, craning her neck to make sure her surroundings were clear. And then she would go. In her body, there wasn’t time enough to listen to herself. She would allow herself to flow into her senses and when there it was easy to remain. The driving carried her away.
In her body speeding down the empty two-lane highway meandering up away from their small house and into farmland, carving like a tributary the green fields, separating the wheat from the corn, from the lazing cows, the grazing sylphlike horses. The highway with its ghosts — the thick clouds of fog that would lounge around like the farm animals, and that as she drove through them felt like she was driving through so many different ghosts. The wraiths of the place.
No one drove that highway. Of course, there were the tractors and trailers at noon and early morning and late at night. But no one drove that highway at dusk. And so she would drive at dusk. When the sky would become purple as the sun drained it of its vibrancy as it set in a furious rage behind her, and the trees and farmhouses and silos and fences and mounds of dirt would stand like paper dolls, black and flat against the cold plum sky.
With the light behind her and the darkness growing ahead and beyond, in the glow of her headlights that lit up only the road immediately before her, she felt as though she was going nowhere. The wind remained cool and fast like a river and her body remained alert, now pressing down, now easing off, now turning the wheel left, now right to flow into the bends and twists in the road.
With all this going on about her, through her, she wasn’t really going anywhere, and in this she found tremendous peace — the calmness of nothing much happening. There wasn’t anything here that she needed to ponder, to bring her mind to, her mind that would bring with it her violent and sharp thoughts.
Some nights, those cloudy wild nights when there seems to be too much air and all the branches shudder and whisper, and the clouds run in low to meet the horizon, as if the road ever ended, with the thunder at their tails; these shadowy nights lit up desultorily by lightening were her favourite. For driving through such an alive, feral night, she could the more easily, completely forget.
She wished she could be immaculate of history. But she couldn’t be. She couldn’t stop thinking, remembering. She couldn’t stop getting dirty. She washed her hands too much and in the wintertime they bled. But driving, especially through the feral nights, she didn’t have to bleed to be clean.
Simply thinking about the cool rushing air the province of the two-lane highway that was her domain for an hour and a half every other day at dusk made her happy, was the only thing that did. Made her not want to cry, was the only thing that did. She looked down at her half-empty drink and thought about how she was still good to drive, if she wanted to. But Mark had the keys. And she couldn’t just leave Mark here. How would he get home?
She turned and saw him laugh and bend over the billiards table. He was having a good time. She wondered why she couldn’t. It made her sad to think she couldn’t enjoy herself with him for a moment. She drained her glass, got another drink, and put a smile on her face.
Maybe if she tried to have a nice time she could feel nice, she thought to herself as she walked with her drink toward Mark and all those people she once knew. She would try to pretend like she didn’t want to cry and maybe, eventually, believe herself.
Alisha Mughal's work has appeared previously in Five on the Fifth, The Nottingham Review, and Menacing Hedge. She has a BA in Philosophy from the University of Toronto and she currently resides in Ontario, Canada. She was born in Pakistan.