Could Have Stayed On The Highway

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Interstate 5 stretched out before us like a flat black stain on a dingy beige carpet. Desert, industrial orchards, slaughterhouses, gas stations, little shit towns with broke-down cars and rusted bicycles in the weedy yards of clapboard houses: it all passed in the periphery. I didn’t bother to look.

The tires were bald, too bald for the 370-mile drive from Oakland to LA. I could feel their thinness each time we nearly hydroplaned on the wet pavement, each time a semi rattled past and felt like it would blow my little car over.

The wipers groaned across the windshield. I should have gotten them changed too.

“Oooh, I don’t know / If you really wanna rock ’n roll.” Hank sang along in the passenger seat. His left hand was pressed to the dashboard as his right unsteadily painted his nails. Bright red polish staggered all over his fingertips. The chemical smell bloomed inside the sealed windows.

He was doing that thing you’re not supposed to do—listen to a band on the drive to the show. And sing along. It was almost as bad as wearing the band’s shirt to the show. If he’d had a shirt for the band, I thought, he’d probably be wearing it.

“Oooh I don’t know / If you really wanna rock at all.”

I glanced at Hank sideways. His face was paler in the grey light of the December rainstorm, so that for a moment he still looked like that fuck from Twilight.

He’d looked more like him when we’d started dating, when he’d still done his hair in that faux-pompadour. I’d watched him in a kind of awe the first morning I’d woken up in his place, a big rented house in the East Bay hills with picture windows and Bay views—watched him in the bathroom mirror as he spent a good twenty minutes gelling, blow-drying and hairspraying the coif into place.

That vampire guy, my friends called him.

As of late he’d been abandoning the pompadour. He’d started wearing his hair loose and floppy. But it’d been cut for the pompadour, so ungelled it lay strangely, both poofy and limp. This morning, his hair hung flatly around his face as he hunched over his hand.

I rolled my neck a few times, shrugged my shoulders up to my ears and back down again. I prickled my nose from the smell of the nail polish. There was no use in cracking the window—it’d just leak the rain in.

Two hundred miles more.

A passing semi tossed a streak of water across the windshield. The car flinched and the wipers struggled.

California passed.

**

It’d all been my idea—the overnight. A month earlier, I’d read that one of Hank’s favorite bands was playing a Sunday night show in LA. Hank didn’t get much of a chance to go see shows—his work schedule and all—so it’d seemed like a perfect excuse for a quick trip.

Hank was going through a rock ’n roll phase. I was his rock ’n roll girlfriend. He sang in a band, one of those ones you’ve never heard of that plays in grimy corners of local dive bars once every six months. He worked weekend nights and could never afford, he said, to take shifts off to go see other bands play. So most of what he knew about rock he read on Wikipedia; most of the bands he knew he’d discovered on Pandora.

Which was true of We Are The Fury. They’d been on their way to being big—a mention in Rolling Stone and a gig opening for the New York Dolls—but by the end of 2008 it’d all fizzled.  But they were fun in a poppy, manufactured way—and besides, the way Hank would dance around his dirty-laundry-A-bomb of a bedroom in his boxers singing along always made me laugh.

Hank and I had been dating for six months. We’d met at the restaurant where we worked, where the framed four-star reviews on the wall were all from five years ago. I’d started working there under the premise of saving—I’d bankrupted myself backpacking in Latin America and needed to reboot. It was meant to just be a momentary pause in my real life, the traveling life.

Hank had stared at me with puppy dog eyes for six months before I’d finally agreed to go out him. In the beginning, I’d always given him two reasons for why we shouldn’t date: One, we worked together. Two, he had a DUI he’d never dealt with and thus didn’t have a license.

Neither of those things changed when we started dating.

The third reason, the one I never said, was that Hank wasn’t my type. That vampire guy. He’d grown up in the suburbs. He’d played sports and gone to church. He’d never been a punk. He styled his hair into a fucking faux-pompadour.

He was different from me and different from the boys I normally dated—boys who lived in filthy punk houses; boys who were constantly leaving on tour; boys who were ethically opposed to Valentine’s Day, whose idea of a date involved burritos and public parks. Boys who never said, “I love you.”

But he just kept at it, just kept staring and sighing and saying shit like, “You’re so beautiful” and “All I want to do is impress you.” He’d come to work hungover one shift, skin blotchy from hours of puking. He leaned his pale-sweat of a body against the wall, closed his eyes and said, “Please remember that on most days, I’m an extremely attractive man.”

He grew on me, despite myself, and the novelty of being pursued was exhilarating. It was fun, exciting, a rush like a high. I’d never thought of myself as someone who wanted it—me, the independent tough girl who didn’t need romantic gestures and sentimental declarations. Me, the punk chick; me, the sola traveler.

Me, the girl who’d never heard, “I love you.”

It might be a good thing, I reasoned after we first made-out—him being different. It might be a good thing to stay put, to stop chasing a spindle of open highway on another continent. Maybe it was time to grow up, and maybe grown-ups didn’t live out of overstuffed backpacks for months on end. Maybe they did nice things, like go to spas and drop $100 on a four-star lunch. Maybe this could be fun too.

And at first it was. He bought me little gifts; he held my hand; it was a different kind of exciting. We got dressed up and went to a musical (Hank loved musicals); standing on the sidewalk outside smoking, a debonair elderly man stopped and looked us up and down. “You two look fabulous.”

Hank and I kept dating. The pause lengthened.  I started making decent money, but still couldn’t scrap together enough to travel. Every time I got close to my savings goal, something came up—a fancy dinner, some occasion, a new pair of jeans, a new pair of shoes.

Hank loved shoes. Heels. Hank loved me in heels

Towards the end of the year, the newness started to wear off. But so did something else, something I couldn’t name. Trip dates got pushed back; I missed shows; I forgot to call my friends back. The high subsided, but I kept chasing it. Hank’s pompadour slackened, then he stopped going to therapy. The post-shift glass of wine became a bottle. The pause deepened.

We sank into a life that felt numb, punctuated only by work and sex. The changes happened so slowly—night by night, sitting on his sofa watching old episodes of Arrested Development—that I didn’t notice them. The pause became deafening.

By the time I planned the overnight, it’d been almost a year since I’d traveled. We’d even talked about it once—travel and what it meant to us. It hadn’t been much of a conversation, since Hank didn’t travel. He’d only ever left the US once, three weeks in Thailand from which he’d gleaned the typical stories of beaches and booze, motorbikes and hook-ups, frivolous amounts of money spent.

I’d been trying to tell him about overnight buses, about the strange feeling I’d always have on a dark open road—how I’d stare out of a window for hours; how the highway would stretch out before me like a long skinny prayer; how I’d feel safe in those moments, and calm. I’d feel a peace inside me that I never felt at any other time.

But a feeling like that is hard to explain, so I’d finally just shrugged and said, “I like myself better when I travel. I like the person I am on those buses.”

He’d shaken his head. “I couldn’t afford to be the person I am when I travel.”

I’d bitten my tongue. But you don’t know who that is, I’d thought.

Of course I didn’t say that. Because it seemed like a shitty, mean thing to say. It didn’t occur to me that thinking it wasn’t much better than saying it.

So instead I’d smiled and said nothing. But it wasn’t long after that I saw the show listed and decided to arrange everything—book a chic hotel and get dinner reservations at a swank sushi joint, the kind of stuff he’d like. I did it all in secret, all as a surprise; I did it all for him. I said.

I’d planned it a month in advance, before That Night had gone down. When I was really pissed, I’d thought about canceling, but the anger subsided and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I needed to get out of the Bay Area, its hills raised up like a cage around me. I needed to travel. I mean, you couldn’t call an overnight in LA “travel,” but it was something.

Of course, it wasn’t the surprise I’d meant it to be. He’d figured it out the week before. At a slow point in a shift we were working together, he leaned against the wall in the bus station and said, “You know, We Are The Fury is playing a show next week.”

I squinted my eyes. “I know,” I answered flatly.

“I was thinking, maybe…”

I scrunched my face. “We’re going,” I told him.

I didn’t tell him the rest—about the hotel or the restaurant. The fact that I’d be driving the entire trip, both ways, went unspoken.

I watched his face change as it dawned on him what I’d arranged. Something more than gratitude swept over his features—a kind of tenderness I’d never felt directed at me. I almost couldn’t bear it.

I’d left the bus station before he could say anything. I threw a smile back over my shoulder.

**

We arrived at the Downtown Standard just before dark. It wasn’t even 5 yet. It’d been dark and stormy all day, all the way through the state, and it felt like the daylight that had been struggling behind those clouds had finally said “fuck it” and decided to give up early.

When I pulled in the lot, the guys at the valet rushed up. Their windbreakers were red and shiny with rain; they held an umbrella over me as I stepped out.

I looked at Hank and raised my eyebrows. I’d never used valet before.

The lobby of the Standard was minimalist-chic, like a hip IKEA showroom. There were glittery mirrors reflecting lights that blinked with an opiate slowness. The reception desk was all muted colors and straight lines. Two orchid stalks arched out of a clear vase, some corporate designer’s imitation of Ikebana. The space was mostly empty, and the entire effect was something like an aging child star—Lindsay Lohan with a smoker’s voice.

I’d picked the Standard based on stories tattooer friends had told me of the rooftop pool, the insane parties that would go down up there, with C-list celebrities and coke-thin teenage models, Botox and calf implants. It’d sounded like proper LA ridiculousness.

It wasn’t till we’ were riding the elevator up that I realized all those stories were five years old. Which is a long time in LA.

The room had an iPod dock. I remember that, because I hadn’t really seen one before and it impressed the shit out of me. At Hank’s suggestion, I put on T-Rex.

There wasn’t much to the room, other than the mattress and the iPod dock. There was an orange accent wall and windows that overlooked the grey parking lot. I looked for my dingy car, but couldn’t find it. I tried not to think about how much I was spending.

It was no use. Two hundred and fifty bucks.

You could live for weeks on that in Colombia.

“She could have layed / Could have stayed on the highway.” Hank sang along with a British inflection. “I could have loved her / O yes I coooould.”

He winked at me. I gave my eyes an exaggerated roll. He knew I hated that line.

I watched him get ready. He’d packed a special “showing going” outfit, his approximation of Bowie-era glam. I watched him pull a pair of tight red pants on, the red of his fingernails glinting as his fingers fastened the button.

I knew those pants—he’d worn them for shows he’d played. They were too tight, a little too short, and I’d have to look away as he’d trot around the barroom, sipping free drinks—nervous at first, then liquored and relaxed.

“I’ve never felt comfortable enough with a girl to dress like this,” he’d told me one night “backstage” (between the amps in the bar’s dank corner). “I love that I get to be myself with you.” He was wearing the pants when he said it.

I hated those pants. But how could I say that? So my reaction was just to talk louder and laugh harder, to make up for it. It was more or less the same thing I’d do when he was drunk, which was more and more often—assert myself more, draw attention away, cover up from him. It’s what I’d done That Night.

Tonight, I rubbed my temples. The back of my eyes hurt and I still had more driving to do.

“Will you help me with my eyeliner?” Hank asked, looking at me in the mirror.

I pulled his lid back with my thumb and scrawled the liner across; the wrinkly skin fluttered wildly. “Hold still,” I told him.

“I’m trying,” he said. His eyelids fluttered harder.

I leaned back, surveyed my work and sighed, “Well, it’s not great but I did my best.”

He looked at himself in the mirror. Then he turned around, brushed the hair from my face and kissed me.

We didn’t have much time then. I pulled on a pair of boots, scrunched my hair with wet fingers a couple times. I glanced in the mirror and thought Good enough.

We headed out into the rainy night.

**

It had been rainy That Night too—three weeks ago, in the driveway outside my parents’ house.

It was a big party we had every year on the day after Thanksgiving. Who knows when or why it’d started, but by now it was a tradition; friends I’d grown up with, who I didn’t see any other time of the year, would come through with Pyrex dishes of yams and eggrolls and bread pudding. My parents’ little house would swell with 60-some people, laughing and eating and reminiscing.

He’d been nervous to meet everyone, but I’d told him not to worry. And at first it’d gone great—Daphne pulling my elbow and whispering, “He’s so dreamy!”; Jamal eyeing him, “He’s hella clean. For the guys you usually bring around.”

That vampire guy.

But I hadn’t been watching him, not like I should have. So it wasn’t until it was too late that I realized he’d gotten shit-faced.

I was on damage control. I’d ushered him outside “for fresh air,” after I’d overheard him telling my dad some choice details of our sex life. That’s where we were standing, under yellow streetlight sliced by rain, when he’d said it.

I was pissed. “You’re mad,” he gushed.

“Yeah,” I crossed my arms over my chest. “You could say that.”

“I fucked it up. Like I fuck everything up.”

I rolled my eyes. “Spare me.”

“All I want is to impress you,” he blathered. “All I want is for your family to like me. And your friends to like to me.” He paused. “Because…”

The air twitched. The rest of the sentence hung between us, swollen and waiting, like a bubble before it pops.

“I love you,” he said.

I felt the anger in me shift. It’s what I’d been waiting to hear, my whole life.

It didn’t occur to me until much later that it was a shitty, manipulative way to tell me. But it did occur to me—in some deep inarticulable place—that it wasn’t the tough sola traveler Hank was talking to when he said he loved me. It was the paused version of me, the girl I was with him.

The next morning he’d apologized to my family and by the next week, things were more or less back to normal. Except that now we said, “I love you.”

We never talked about That Night again.

**

I’d made dinner reservations, but when we showed up at seven the place was near empty. A hostess with tired eyes jumped a little, as though we’d caught her texting. She led us over to a table—a corner booth with slightly faded cushions.

Hank ordered a cocktail. He always ordered a cocktail when we went out for a nice dinner—a Negroni to start, then something different, whatever the house specialty was. I ordered “a virgin something” and “something” ungodly sweet and electric blue showed up at the table. I took a couple sips and pushed it aside.

It was one of those joints where celebrities are supposedly spotted. A Google search of its name had led to old articles from Us Weekly and Star. The restaurant also purportedly flew seafood in from Japan, though I didn’t see anything on the menu that indicated as much. Maybe the flights had ended when the celebrities stopped coming.

Hank chatted excitedly, the liquor loosening his speech. I tried not to count the number of drinks he had.

It was no use. Four.

He got up to pee. I watched him walk across the room—heeled boots and floppy hair, clothes a bit too tight. I looked away.

He was smiling when he sat back down. “Those people over there,” he leaned in and whispered low, “I heard them talking about us.” He paused, drawing out the suspense.

“And?”

“I think he said, ‘I wonder who they are.’ Like that—‘they.’” He leaned back, smiling in satisfaction. “They think we’re famous.”

I glanced over at the couple in question. They were early-middle-aged, absorbed in conversation. “They do not think we’re famous,” I declared. I quickly added a smile.

“You didn’t hear them,” Hank said defensively, taking a sip of his cocktail.

I paused, sighed. There was no use. “You’re right,” I said. “I didn’t.”

I looked at the couple, talking intently. I looked back down at my plate, a spattering of sashimi and pickled ginger.

There was no use. For any of it.

Hank’s nails glinted in the lights.

**

The club was on Hollywood Boulevard, which I thought was a total hoot. The security guards made us stand in the drizzle behind a fake velvet rope while VIPs sauntered past. They weren’t real VIPs—19-year-old girls with feather earrings and fake IDs, their skirts too short and their make-up too thick. I snickered to myself, looked over at Hank to make a shitty comment.

His face was enthralled.

He ordered a drink once we got inside, I don’t remember what. He clung to it self-consciously, eying the crowd.

We didn’t see a stage anywhere. We milled around then sat on a cushioned bench. A DJ was playing House, and we had to shout over the throbbing eunc-eunc. I felt like I was in a party scene of The Real World.

We kept waiting for the band to come on. He kept looking around expectantly; he ordered another drink. At 11 we finally asked someone. “The bands are playing in the back room,” they gestured absently to a door in the corner.

By the time we got in, We Are The Fury had already finished. They hadn’t even been headlining.

Hank wobbled a little in his heeled boots as he stood at the merch table. He handed me his drink as he opened his wallet.

His nails shone in the light.

He bought a t-shirt. I offered to put it my purse. It wasn’t so much as a nice gesture as a way to ensure he didn’t put the shirt on, right there. I wasn’t going to be with that guy.

I handed him back his drink.

**

We got back to the Standard after midnight. It’d stopped raining, but the rooftop pool was closed by then anyway.

Hank wavered as he peeled off his clothes. He began to draw a bath.

“What are you doing?” I asked, crossing my arms over my chest.

He shrugged sloppily. “Get in.”

I did. While I was soaking he called room service. I’d never had room service before, had never even looked at a menu. But Hank waved his hand. “It’s on me,” he said grandly.

It arrived thirty minutes later—three trays with little metal lids over the plates, just like in the movies. There was also a bottle of Prosecco. With two flutes.

He wanted me to take a picture of him—drinking from a flute in the tub, nails red around the stem and eyes still ringed with liner.

I did. I chattered loudly, laughed harder.

He pulled me back into the tub and started to kiss me. By that point I couldn’t even taste the alcohol.

Then he stood up. He tried to pick me up and carry me to the bed. He staggered and I fell down on the soft mattress, laughing.

He looked in my eyes—tender and glassy. “I love you,” he said.

He passed out a few minutes later.

**

I woke up before him.

I usually did, on nights he’d been drinking. Usually because he’d have been snoring all night, and it’d have kept me awake.

I rolled over and stared out the window. Past the faded walls of the overpriced room, LA sat grey and dingy, everything muted under clouds.

The pause was deafening.

I turned back to Hank. His face was puffy and pale in the half-light, his eyes shut and lips parted like a stubbly-faced angel. That vampire guy. The bottle of Prosecco sat empty by the bed.

It would follow that I left him, right? That I drove us back to Oakland but that I didn’t stop there–that I kept going, that I stayed on the highway. Or at least that I dumped him, quit the dead-end job, booked plane tickets and became again the version of me that I loved.

Well, I didn’t. Hank and I stayed together another seven months and when we did finally break up, it was him that said the words. I spent most of those seven months feeling like I did that morning in the Standard: not angry, not disappointed, not even trapped anymore. Just deeply and profoundly numb.

I stopped missing the open road and I stopped missing the real me. The pause grew up around me, until I couldn’t see out of it anymore. I didn’t even know I was in it.

Maybe that morning was the last morning I still did. Maybe there was an inkling, in that deep inarticulable place, that I was choosing this all: the room, the band, the long drive through the shit weather, the credit card bill that would be coming.

If there was an inkling, I don’t remember it. Just that I lay there and watched him sleep–watched the breath go in and out, his hair flopped over his cheek.

Under his chin, his hand curled. His nails gleamed red.

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About Lauren Quinn

Lauren Quinn is a writer and kindergarten teacher currently living in Hanoi. She will always be an Oakland girl at heart.

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