Along for the Ride

Author: P Hana

Page 62


He put the box down, then came over to the opposite side of the island. He didn’t try to reach out for me, or touch me. He just stood there, near, as he said, ‘Who was fighting?’

I swallowed. ‘My dad and Heidi. Things have been pretty bumpy since Isby came, and tonight I guess things just blew up, or something.’

God, I was still blubbering. My voice was all choked, coming in little gaspy sobs. Eli said, ‘Just because people fight doesn’t mean they’re splitting up.’

‘I know that.’

‘I mean, my parents used to go at it sometimes. It just kind of cleared the air, you know? It was always better afterward.’

‘I know my dad, though,’ I said. ‘I’ve seen him do this before.’

‘People change.’

‘Or they don’t,’ I replied. Finally I made myself look at him. Those green eyes, long lashes. His haunted face, not as haunted anymore. ‘Sometimes, they don’t.’

He just stood there, looking at me, and I had this flash of us, here in this little garage apartment, in the middle of the night. From up above, in a plane passing over, you’d just see one little light in all this dark, with no idea of the lives that were being lived within it, and in the house beside, and beside that one. So much happening in the world, night and day, hour by hour. It was no wonder we were meant to sleep, if only to check out of it for a little while.

There was a sudden crackling pop from the stove, and Eli looked over his shoulder. ‘Whoops,’ he said, turning back to the saucepan and pulling it off the heat. ‘One sec, let me just finish these.’

I wiped my hand beneath my eyes, trying to collect myself. ‘What are you doing over there, anyway?’

‘Making Rice Krispie treats.’

This seemed so odd, and incongruous, it almost made sense. Along with everything else that night. Still, I felt compelled to ask ‘Why?’

‘Because it’s what my mom always did when my sisters were crying.’ He glanced back at me. ‘I don’t know. I told you, I never have company. You were upset, and it just seemed…’

He trailed off, and I looked around the room, taking in the plain bed, the one chair. The single light outside the door, glowing yellow and bright, all night long.

‘… perfect,’ I finished for him. ‘It’s perfect.’

Of course, nothing is really perfect. But Eli’s Rice Krispie treats were pretty close. We ate half a pan while we split the pot of coffee, using the one chair as a table, each of us sitting on the floor on either side of it.

‘So let me guess,’ I said, putting my mug on the floor by my feet. ‘You’re a minimalist.’

He glanced around the room, then back at me. ‘You think?’

‘Eli,’ I said. ‘You have one chair.’

‘Yeah. But just because all the furniture at my old place was Abe’s.’

Hearing this, it was all I could do not to start, or jump, so jarring was it to hear him say his name, after all this time. Instead, I took another sip of my coffee. ‘Really.’

‘Yeah.’ He sat back, picking a bit of sticky crumb off the side of the Rice Krispie pan. ‘The minute he made some prize money riding, he was all about decorating our place. And he bought the stupidest stuff. Huge TV, singing fish…’

‘A singing fish?’

‘You know, those plastic ones that you hang on the wall, and when you walk by they start singing, like, some Motown song?’ I just looked at him. ‘Okay, so you don’t know. Consider yourself lucky. Ours was, like, the center of our apartment. He put it right by the door, so it went off constantly, and everyone had to listen to it.’

I smiled. ‘Sounds interesting.’

‘That’s not the word I’d choose.’ He shook his head. ‘Plus he insisted on buying these big papasan chairs, you know the ones that are circular, filled with squishy cushions? I wanted a plain, normal couch. But no. We had to have these stupid things that everyone was always getting sucked down into. No one could ever get up and out of them on their own. We were always having to pull people out, like a freaking rescue mission.’

‘Come on.’

‘I’m totally serious. It was ridiculous.’ He sighed. ‘And then there was the whole water bed thing. He said he’d always wanted one. Even when it leaked, and gave him a crazy backache, he would not admit it was a mistake. “I must have spilled something,” he’d say, or “I really pulled a muscle on that last ride.” He was hobbling around like an old man, complaining constantly. All night long, all I could hear was him thrashing around, trying to get comfortable. It was, like, an endless squishing.’

I laughed, picking up my mug again. ‘So what happened? Did he finally give it up?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘He died.’

I knew this, of course. But even so, hearing it this way was like a shock to the system, all over again. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I –’

‘See, but that’s the thing, though.’ He sat back, shaking his head. ‘Everyone always wants to tell these stories, all the stories. It’s all anyone wanted to do at the funeral, and after. Oh, remember this thing, and this, and what about this? But the ending to every story is the same. He dies. That’s never going to change. So why even bother?’

We were both quiet for a moment. ‘I guess,’ I said finally, ‘that for some people, it’s how they remember. You know, by telling the stories. It keeps the person close.’

‘But I don’t have that problem,’ he said quietly. ‘Not remembering.’

‘I know.’

‘You want to talk about failure?’ He looked up at me, meeting my eyes. ‘Try being the one who was driving. Who got to live.’

‘Eli,’ I said. I tried to keep my voice low, even, the way his had been when he’d been reassuring me. ‘It wasn’t your fault. It was an accident.’

He shook his head. ‘Maybe. But the bottom line is, I’m here and he’s not. And everyone who sees me – his parents, his girlfriend, his friends – they know that. In all the uncertainty, it’s the one thing they know for sure. And it sucks.’

‘I’m sure they don’t hold it against you,’ I said.

‘They don’t have to.’ He looked down at his mug, then up at me. ‘The whole do-over thing, that’s all I think about since it happened. What if we’d left that party earlier, or later. If I’d seen the car coming at us and not stopping, a moment sooner. If he’d been driving instead of me. There are a million variables, and if even one was different… maybe everything would be.’