A short story by Mike Lee
We were on the road again, with Kansas nothing flying by on the narrow
Interstate strip, barreling toward Salina, to take the turnoff south through Oklahoma, and to old homeland Texas.
I sat in the back with my daughter, both of us bitching about the cold. Won full custody of her the month before. Child protective services said it was cool to take this trip and not inform the mother of our plans, reminding me that the court removed her parental rights.
Dorrie, my daughter, returned to her book, wrapping herself tight with the blanket Lia gave her. I pulled my black leather motorcycle jacket together, zipping it up. I looked out through the window staring at some exposed rock on the side of the road.
I felt loose at every inch, thinking of American mermaids I dated that could have been Dorrie’s mother. Instead, I picked the Irish bottle-stashing drunk who I caught choking the kid. Had mom led out in handcuffs, slapped papers on her while she was in rehab and ground her through the family court machine back in New York.
I hated every minute of it. I may have fallen out of love of my estranged wife, but I did marry her, put up with years of bullshit, and let things slide to apocalyptic lows. But I am a man who causes trouble for himself, and at the moment while staring at flat fields of prairie spotted with exposed glacial stone, I committed the guilty sin of dragging the innocent into my bad decisions.
Lia was driving; her glasses slightly askew while her husband read the book lying on his lap. Lia asked him to change the music on the iPod attached to the cigarette lighter.
The music was some Americana band I had a vague affection for, Wilco, and I recognized the song. Dorrie’s ex-mother liked that song. I liked it better. “I’m Always in Love”—that certainly wasn’t the problem for anyone but me because maybe it was not true. Maybe for one, someone whose heart I continue to beat for.
Could have been Lia. I knew her since she was fifteen, but she is married to Tad, and though she bailed me out of this jam, she is glued to the man. I accepted the help, but this still felt weird relying on girlfriends from 30 years ago.
No, it was someone else. She was before Lia, and although she was not the first girl I kissed, she was the one I fell in love with. This distinction belonged to that American mermaid dream with green eyes who was Texan with each hand gesture and in the tenor of her voice.
While Heaven loves that driver, the one I wanted behind that wheel was that Texas girl; she may still be around once we arrive in Austin. I’d look her up, but she has a boyfriend she told me she liked in an e-mail she sent when troubles formed like thunderstorms on the horizon.
The backseat where this new family sat was getting slightly warmer. The heater kicked in big time by the turnoff toward Oklahoma. It spared that lucky child, Dorrie, who let the blanket drop while silently reading her book.
I thought to ask the woman I loved to please let me in, but knowing she may say no, I shifted my thoughts back to the road ahead. We were looking at twelve hours through Oklahoma, then across the state line and on to a hotel in Georgetown.
Closed my eyes and leaned back in the seat, slumping against the cold glass. I pushed my hat aside to keep my head warm, and fell asleep.
When I woke up it was getting on sunset. I pulled my cell phone out and took a couple of photos of the draining sunlight on the far western horizon.
The faster Lia drove, gunning it up to make Georgetown, the closer to home and green eyes from teenage years I felt.
Maybe I will look that girl up. Won’t tell anyone. After we check in, I will tell Lia I need some air. Knowing her, she’ll be tired and crash out while Tad goes on his laptop and plays all-night online bridge while lying in the bed next to his wife. Dorrie will be in her room, probably still with her novel, maybe watching television.
I will go out into the Texas cold, flip open my phone and look for her number. I have it written on scrap folded neatly in my wallet.
I did not call her during the hell-time. I did not want to be a bother.
Fumbled for the number. Could not find it. Frustrated, I sighed and walked to the gas station for another pack of cigarettes.
I sat on the curb, smoking nervously, wondering how I could have lost that
number. Felt like I had let that connection become severed, and for no good reason.
Instead, I made up a poem on the spot, reciting the words I knew I would forget before I went to bed. The girl in my memory would hear it, though, as I lost myself to the cadence of my feelings and lit one smoke after another.
In Austin, I will be with Lia and Tad. Dorrie. Lia’s mom had arrived earlier, with her daughter and son-in-law’s children. I will have no time to find the girl I actually really did love.
Perhaps just being in Austin will be enough. It is possible I will run into her and finally tell this woman face-to-face how I feel, boyfriend or not. I shall even say it in front of him, if need be.
I finally finished reciting my poem, and bid her good night with a sweet, lingering kiss into the winter night.
I slept through until half past dawn. The best, restful sleep I had in years.
So be it.
Mike Lee is a writer, labor journalist and photographer based in New York City. His fiction has been published in West Trade Review, The Ampersand Review, Paraphilia, The Airgonaut, Sensitive Skin, Reservoir, The Avenue, and others. His photography is currently being exhibited at Art Thou Gallery in Berkeley, California and as part of a group show at Darkroom Gallery in Essex Junction, Vermont, curated by Bruce Gilden.