He flipped on the blinker and swerved onto the next exit. I looked at him. He looked straight ahead. “I can’t do this. I’m sorry. I can’t.” I went numb.
He turned right and into the parking lot of an open gas station. Though the sky was black as pitch, a visible gloom still managed to linger in the air. Maybe a few more neon signs could’ve liberated this tired little spot from itself, but I doubted it.
We were just past Little Rock, Arkansas, off 1-40, taking this unforeseen break on an already 24-hour drive from California. He pulled up to the pump in silence. I was too exhausted to fight for the remnants of our improbable little love story and he was never the type to observe his emotions rationally. I sat in his car confident in our ending, neither rattled nor phased. Sometimes shock masquerades as indifference, though I wasn’t sure which I felt.
For two days, we’d bound ourselves together with talk, touch, and gentle silence. For two days, he had managed to quell his growing fears of moving to a tiny town in North Carolina and starting a new life – with me. Or, rather, I with him. He had friends there, had signed a lease on a beautiful apartment nestled in the mountains, and was in the process of dissolving his marriage and life on the West Coast. We’d met and instantly connected, both of us dreaming of leaving the city far, far behind.
But this wasn’t my battle to fight. I could do nothing but take his words as gospel and stare blankly in front of me, refuse to lower my chin, and wish that the fluorescent lights of the canopy overhead would soften in what felt like an implacable interrogation. Tears stained his cheeks and shimmered in the glare. If my whole life hadn’t been resting on the wheels of this car packed with all of my possessions, it might have been poetic and somehow gratifying. Instead, it was just boring.
So incredibly boring. Another dismissal. Another “I don’t know if I can do this.” There had been several from him, though none of the previous episodes had left us stranded a thousand miles away from anywhere I once called home. They were in the past, though I had been waiting for him to turn the car around from the moment we left. Hell, part of me was surprised we got all the way to Arkansas. That seemed like a win, really, considering his track record.
Of course, I wanted him to make it – I did – but I only had a velleity to change his mind. “I understand that you have to do what you feel is best,” was all I could muster. It was true and it wasn’t. Yes, I did understand that this just wasn’t something he could do right now, but no, I did not understand why he couldn’t have spared us the months of turmoil, the heartbreak, and the yanking-me-out-of-my-life part. But he didn’t have to hear that, at least not quite yet. In lieu of those words, I decided to open up a package of baby carrots. They were room temperature by then, but the crunching noise, I felt, would say everything I needed to say.
“I hate me so much right now,” he started. “I hate what I’ve done to you. I hate what I’ve done to me. I hate that I’m a blubbering wreck of a man that feels responsible for everyone and everything and I hate that I’ve dragged you into this.” He looked nearly everywhere but at me. His demons radiated from him. Then he seemed to have a moment where the emotion ebbed.
I responded with my carrot. Crunch.
And that released a new wail of hurt.
Being cold-hearted felt good. It felt necessary. When you’re with a person, whether they’re your lover or your reclusive next door neighbor, only one of you is allowed to be a blubbering mess at a time. Only one. It’s like a game of shotgun – whoever gets to it first, wins. The other is forced to be the rock, the voice of logic and practicality, the one with the carrots. Lose, and you take the chance of the blubberer sucking the energy out of your blood. Still, I knew that when his blubbering stopped that we would trade places. But for right now, I had the upper hand.
He looked over at me. “I love you. You know that, right?”
“Yes,” I said. Crunch.
“I just…I have to get my life in order. I have to figure out if I can ever see the kids again. I have to talk to Annie and get her to sign the papers. I have to get my granddad’s desk. I have to be ready. I have so much I have to do and I can’t let go of it and move on until it’s all taken care of.”
Crunch. “Okay,” I nod. Crunch. Yep, Granddad’s desk. Crunch.
We took a moment of silence, presumably a memorial to our happiness. I was almost out of carrots. I wanted to make them last – they were my shield, my armor, my way out of having a premature tantrum. I resigned myself to watching the occasional disheveled and weary passerby stumble in and out of the fluorescent lights. They looked as exhausted as I felt.
“I’m gonna fill ‘er up. You want anything from inside?”
I looked down at the empty plastic bag in my lap. “Maybe see if they’ve got any carrots? I’m all out.”