I jam my key into the ignition, starting the car and wishing I had five minutes earlier to give it a chance to warm up. The car alarm beeps for a moment. I snap my seatbelt on, cutting the noise. The steering wheel feels like ice against my naked fingers. If I were in a rush, I would just bear the cold, but I’m not in a rush. I’m about to slip a pair of mittens on, the ones I keep in my coat pocket for this very reason, when the scent, seemingly pumping out of my car vents, catches me off guard.
I know that smell, crisp and just subtle enough not to be overpowering. It takes my brain a moment to find its name: Black Ice. And it takes my brain mere seconds to locate all the memories I have with this scent as the backdrop.
It’s 2016 again and I am walking through the school parking lot, where the seniors park because that’s where my ride to work is located. My palms are sweaty and I’m scanning the figures spilling out onto the highschool’s campus, trying not to appear like I’m searching for someone. But I am. I don’t remember how I managed to get rides to work from one of the seniors, except that this particular senior and I work at the same place, have worked the same shifts since the restaurant opened several weeks ago. After one shift together–my first–I knew I couldn’t work with anyone else. I’ve been rosy-cheeked ever since. I’m looking for James Docker, feeling important and light-hearted, something I haven’t felt in such a long time, the emotions make the snowy, March-Michigan world feel fresh and new.
God, I think as I pull my car out of the driveway, what kind of car did James drive, again? It was a big deal, I recall, a source of pride for him, but I can’t quite put my finger on the make and model. I remember his license plate, though, a clever combination of chemical symbols and roman numerals. Well, maybe I just thought it was clever because I was chemistry-obsessed my sophomore year.
Before I can stop myself, I set my mittens aside, pick up my phone, and dial Dre’s number. He was a mutual friend, though I haven’t seen him in a year. I haven’t seen James in longer, and I couldn’t really tell you why, either. Different directions in life, I guess.
Dre picks up on the second ring. There’s murmuring in the background, heavy beats characteristic of college parties. At least, I think. I’ve never actually been to one. Too busy.
“Mace!” I hold the phone away from my ear, startled by his voice and the use of my highschool nickname. No one’s called me that in a while. When the phone is still inches from my ear, I hear him ask, “What is up?”
I don’t really do small talk. “Hey, do you still talk to James?” I make a right turn, momentarily focused on merging onto the highway that I don’t quite catch Dre’s answer.
“I’m sorry–driving. What did you say?”
“I said,” he drawls, stretching the syllables with characteristic happy-to-talk-to-another-soul voice that always reminded me of a puppy being freed from a day of lockdown-kennel, “Kinda. Where are you right now?” Something about the way he responds tells me I shouldn’t ask any more about James. I mean, last I heard, his ego was big enough to occupy an entire school bus.
I remember exactly where I was the last time I spoke to James, how he said we should catch up but we never did. I was too busy, then, focused on finishing my senior year at high school. That’s an understatement: I was too busy coping with having seen a dead man on the side of the highway during one of my clinicals for my EMT course, all the while maintaining a 4.0 in my other classes, babysitting every day after school until I was too emotionally hollow to recognize myself as a human being anymore.
I had been sitting, in the five o’clock autumn dark, at the dinner table in the family home where I babysat three kids. I wasn’t doing homework or reading a book. I was fantasizing about the impact a man’s body would have on the front of a semi-truck going highway speed. When James’s name popped up on my phone, I felt like myself again. Like that girl who couldn’t stop smiling. I forgot about the children for a moment, my AP calc exam, and all the images I had of that dead man.
I’ve been fantasizing about death all morning. Like I had been doing in 2016 until I met James Docker and learned that boys are easier to keep as friends than girls are. We started going to the gym after our shifts at the restaurant. I had the slightest suspicion James was self-serving, that he invited me along just to flex his biceps, stare at my ass in one of the many mirrors lining the gym walls, and gawk as my nipples poked through my shirt before I realized that’s what pre-workout did to my body.
But then Charis was killed and James was the first person to tug me through my grief like a steamboat pulling a rowboat to shore. He endured the long road trip to her grave, the sunflowers, my tears, my running-mania and school-skipping phases because I wasn’t myself for a couple of weeks, until I wasn’t really me at all. Different, changed. But James was there with bad rap music, Blender Bottles, and an all-access pass to the gym so we could get in past closing hours, often there until long after midnight. We tried getting Dre to come with us, but he always flaked out last minute.
“Um,” I pull myself out of the reverie, still smelling Black Ice in the air, “I’m on my way to my boyfriend’s. Where are you?” I already know the answer, by the sound of the pulsing music in the background.
“Kalamazoo. I’m really drunk right now.”
“Oh.” He doesn’t catch the edge to my tone, though Sober Dre would have pestered me until I elaborated. I doubt I would have told him the truth. Drunk. The last time I was drunk, I was alone in a hotel bathroom, head hanging over the pristine toilet bowl, mumbling Spanish verse between each gagging round. It’s a long story, I guess–Any story is long until you find the right words.
“I miss you so much!” Dre’s voice cuts through my thoughts. I bite back sarcastic laughter. “We need to hang out. I haven’t seen you since you lived in the dorms.”
“I know,” I don’t say I miss him because I don’t.
“Man, why do you sound so depressed?” The background noise fades away. I wonder if he’s wandered into a different room.
“I’m not. I was just–Do you remember how the three of us used to work late at the restaurant, James counting the money, you and me preparing the late-night orders before closing time?” I don’t know where this nostalgia comes from, not really. I don’t miss working at the restaurant. I don’t really even miss James. If I’m being honest, I just miss who I used to be: vibrant. Like tropical fish glinting under the sun. These past four years, I’ve dried out.
“Yeah,” he sounds suddenly solemn. I killed his buzz. I tend to do that. Too serious, one my patients once told me. Actually, several of my patients expressed the same concern: Why don’t you smile more? Because things are changing right before my eyes, like watching a dead racoon decay in fast-forward.
“Anyway, sorry for interrupting your party. I was just thinking about you and James, is all. Not sure why,” that’s a lie, “but I hope you have a good New Year’s. Don’t let any boys take advantage of you.”
“Blah, blah,” he shoots back, slurring the sounds. “You know…”
“What?” I put my turn signal on and pass a Corolla only going 60. God, that irritates me. I speed up to 85, eyeing the slick ice on the side of the highway. I’m not invincible. I just don’t care.
“You know when I was in Colorado and you and me, well… When I came back, we were going to–”
“Yeah, I remember that. We were both lonely, weren’t we?” I force a laugh but it rings hollow. Sometimes, I confuse friendships for having potential to be something more. But I don’t like needing people, so I retracted my offer of going out on a date when Dre got back in state. I put distance between us and made up excuses for reasons why he couldn’t drop by my dorm before classes anymore. I’ve done that routine to more people than I care to admit.
“Right. Anyway, I’ll let you go, attend your boyfriend and all that. Happy New Year!”
“Happy New Year,” but he’s already hung up.
I glide onto the off-ramp, decelerating from muscle memory. There are sixteen fire hydrants from the off-ramp to my boyfriend’s apartment, something I always meant to tell him, but somehow forget by the time I arrive.
I used to know how to manage my loneliness. Accept it, even. I realized this morning I lost that ability somewhere between June and December–the months I’ve had time to properly (or improperly) attach myself to my boyfriend. I think I need him more than he needs me, as evidenced by the fact that he comes to bed hours after I do. I lay there, holding myself, forcing my eyes shut and my thoughts to quiet because hearing him up, in the other room, reminds me how we never used to be like this. We used to go to bed together, limbs wrapped around one another, collecting sweat from our mingled body heat, all night long.
These kinds of thoughts make me reckless, the kind that typically follows with a collection of morbid, depressing poetry and doses of distance to protect my heart from what could be mere fabrications, derived from my insecurities, but which feel all too real. Poetry helps empty my head of these irrational thoughts, but they come back all the same.
But I’m not a poet. I wrote a book, once, but I’m not sure I’m that ambitious anymore. That was the first thing my boyfriend said to me on our second date, when nightfall came and the kitchen was cleaned of our spaghetti-making messes. We were sitting on the futon in the living room of his new apartment, sipping coffee under orange lighting. He said out of nowhere, his tone something soft and vulnerable, “You’re a good poet, by the way.”
Immediately, I shot him a look of disbelief, “I’m not a poet.” I picked my coffee mug off the carpet and sipped from it some more, my attempt at escaping the moment. Because it meant he had–on his own time–read my blog, the metaphorical dump I sent my sad poems to when pencil and paper weren’t banishment enough. He saw me, then, and if I had known any better, I would have lathered and soaked in his comment. If I had known how rare it was for him to see me at all.
I make my last right turn. I’ll be at my boyfriend’s in six minutes–I’ve done the math. I haven’t heard from him all day, but he knows I’m coming over. If he remembers, that is. If he cares. “Emotionally unavailable,” my sister called him one afternoon, matter-of-fact. I forgot to tell him that, too.
I’m getting in my own head again.
I have my new Polaroid with me. Maybe I’ll finally take some shots of him. I’ve been meaning to but never get around it. Never get around the fact that we sit in the same room for hours, without a single word passing between us, my face in a book and his in a screen. We’re so distant, these days, I’m beginning to think a six-month study abroad program wouldn’t make much of a difference in our relationship. I have the application, opened in a tab on my laptop, half-filled out. He said he would miss me if I left. I’m not sure I believe him.
I’m suddenly too hot, sweat soaking the fabric under my arms. I turn the vents down to Low. My car doesn’t smell like Black Ice anymore. I don’t think it ever did.