“You can’t be serious,” I said. “It’s a 90’s minivan isn’t it? Those use gas like crazy, it’ll cost you fifty bucks to get me to O’Hare and back.”
He scratched the back of his neck, fluffing up the tuft of hair sticking out in a bout of bedhead. His smile was warm like wool.
“I don’t mind,” he said, still grinning. “Really.”
I glanced out the window at the limoncello La Croix cans on the wooden railing from the previous evening, before we’d gone out. It was only the fifth time I’d seen him.
“I can get my friend to do it, I’m sure…” I said, trailing off.
“No, no, I want to, Silas.” I despised someone tagging my name onto the end of a reply but it sounded somewhat genuine coming from him. Not forced. Impersonal. I still kind of hated it, but in the way you hate your best friend for buying your six dollar Starbucks order for you.
“If you really want to,” I said, giving in, “sure.” I saw his shoulders relax. “Thank you, really.”
He laughed, “just pray we get there in one piece.”
He had to drive me back to my apartment first. Ever since I moved to the city, I’d become hyper-observant of the ways in which other people live their day to day lives - not necessarily where they go to the gym or what they eat for lunch or where they go for a drink after work, but the places they make themselves comfortable in - their own homes. Maybe it’s because I started smoking weed a few times a week and one time started thinking way too hard about how other people perceived my apartment, but I had to admit, I found it fascinating to hear about my own human habitat from the perspective of an almost-stranger.
“What do you think?” I asked after showing him around the 500-square-foot studio like an eager realtor.
Charismatically, he rubbed his chin between his thumb and index finger like that one famous sculpture.
“It’s bohemian,” he said after a while.
I smiled. “That’s more or less what I was going for,” I replied. “Is it overbearing though? Or subtle?”
“Subtle. I can tell a lot of thought went into it.” A pause. “I like it.”
I wasn’t sure that was a good thing but I said thanks and grabbed my already packed suitcase before making sure the back kitchen door was locked.
I kept hoping he would mention the art on the walls or my music collection, but he didn’t.
“I miss living on the top floor,” he said.
“I’ve never lived anywhere else. Another floor, I mean, in the two apartments I’ve had.”
“You’re lucky. They have like four dogs in the apartment above mine and a baby next door.”
I was actually quite happy with my apartment. He was right - I was lucky. It was the first place I’d had all to myself, to be fair. But at that time I was toying with the idea of moving out already. I’d only been there for a little over eight months. It was early April and my landlord had set the deadline to renew my lease for the 30th. I told myself I had time, something I did for a lot of things. Truthfully, there was only one real reason driving the motivation for me to move. It was my best friend David. In May, he was moving further south in the city because of work. We’d always lived within walking distance since we met. But hated driving so far almost every day of the week. He really hated driving, period. That’s why he refused to drive me to the airport. He’d done enough for me already, so I wasn’t mad. That’s another story, anyway.
The drive started with the windows down. 75 degrees in April was somewhat of a rarity. It could have snowed the next week, too, so everyone was taking advantage. I loved the city especially on those days, so much so that leaving was hard even if for a few days. Early spring was a gem half the time and a nuisance the other half.
I’m still not sure why I decided to take a trip home for Easter. I guess it was so I would have an excuse when my parents asked me to come back during the summer. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family, but you wouldn't dare waste a week outside of Chicago during the summer. You had to savor it all, drink up every single second you could, because soon it would be long gone for months on end.
As the density of the city slowly gave way to bungalowed streets and somehow even worse traffic, I started stealing silent glances at him from the passenger seat. He didn’t look as old as he was, which wasn’t actually that old - Hinge said 32. It was the first time I noticed his hair had a slight red tint to it, especially in his beard. No grey yet. Even I had a couple of them I didn’t dare pluck. His profile looked lopsided from this angle, not in a bad way but in a way that made me feel like I shouldn’t have been looking at him, like he was sleeping or something. He suddenly said he was getting too hot and started to roll up the windows. Surprisingly neither of us were very hungover. In my head I spoke to myself, trying to remember what drinks he ordered the previous night.
Ok so, we both had a La Croix on his balcony. Well, balcony, if you want to call it that. I hate La Croix, why did I drink it? Then he made us each two strawberry daiquiris each at his and then a shot of vodka before the bars - that’s odd, looking back. I don’t know why, but it just was. Once we got to Sidetrack, I had a gin and tonic and he had...what? A vodka red bull? Maybe he was tired, I don’t judge. Then he had another one, which was admittedly kind of extreme but whatever. Then he had three more vodka sodas. That’s right.
We weren’t back to his terribly late, maybe two in the morning, but the moment I tried to think back and remember climbing into his bed I started to feel nauseous and downright nasty. This gross, husky feeling arose in my throat. I leaned my head against the window, but as soon as I did we dipped into a massive pothole. My head left the glass and slammed back into it a second later. I felt the van swerve to the right.
“Fuck,” he growled, almost childishly. We weren’t even going thirty miles an hour and were less than a minute from merging onto I-90.
The car stumbled to a stop in the right lane, between a 7-Eleven and a closed-down laundromat. I had to tell him to put his blinkers on. Once he got out I stared down at my phone. A lonely notification read boarding for United Airlines Flight 2811 starts at 12:50. It was 11:47.
He walked around the whole car with his hands on his hips and nearly got hit by a Taurus before climbing back into the driver’s seat.
“Well?” I said.
“Well we have a flat tire,” he said, placing both hands tightly on the steering wheel and gazing down the road.
“Okay, no shit,” I laughed. “Do you have a spare? Do you know how to change a tire?”
He pinched the earring in his right lobe, not smiling. “Do I look like I know how to change a tire?”
Truth be told I really wasn’t fretting at that point. I could get an Uber. But I couldn’t just leave the poor guy here, could I?
“Neither do I. Do you have Triple A?”
“The roadside assistance company…I don’t know. My friend David has them.”
“Well no,” he said. He seemed irritated now. “I don’t.” He suddenly opened the door again and walked around to my side to open the door. “Get out, come on,” he beckoned.
I looked at him blankly, unbuckling. “Why?”
“We’re going to that 7-Eleven.”
Five minutes later I was back in the van, sitting in the front passenger seat with an empty Three Musketeers wrapper clasped in my fist and a still-flat tire underneath my feet. He was sitting on the rear bumper talking on the phone to somebody. I wasn’t sure who but I had a slight feeling it was his dad. I was slipping into misery already.
A bus roared by. In my head I was debating pulling up Uber and just ordering one, but I still felt bad for leaving him there alone. It was clear he didn’t know what he was doing. I got the inkling he’d grown up rather wealthy. He said he was from the northwest suburbs and that he used to play golf and ride horses as a kid. The more I thought about it the less I understood why I had agreed to go out with this guy in the first place.
My mind began to wander as I stared down the wide road in front of me, all the cars passing us on the way to god-knows-where. I was sure some of them were on the way to the airport. I chuckled at the idea of hitchhiking in 2023 in the middle of Chicago.
I felt so still and helpless then, like all of a sudden I wasn’t in control of my life. Perhaps it was the strangeness of being inside somebody else’s car and noticing the old thrift shop receipts and coins in the center console from a time before I knew him. Or perhaps it was that I sensed an important part of myself diminishing in the company of the man I could see in the rearview mirror, behind his broken-down van. A pang of dreadful worry struck my chest. How many times had I been in this situation before? And how could I stop it before it was too late?
He got back into the car. “My dad’s coming.”
I stared at him. “Your dad? Isn’t he in like Highland Park?”
“Yeah but he knows how to do all this stuff. It won’t be long, don't worry.” He leaned over and gave me an awkward kiss that for some reason made me feel like we were performing on stage. I felt nothing. Then, I knew I wasn’t going to wait for his dad.
The sun began to shine through the windshield in that peculiar way that always made me feel sick and hopeless. I opened the door and absorbed the fresh air.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
I didn’t want to explain the dry, boiling feeling inside me. “Fresh air,” I said.
With the door open I got out and leaned against the van, stretching my arms above my head. The side of the van was so dusty I could write my name in it. I felt like throwing up. Sometimes this thing happened and I felt the same way I did back in my hometown with my parents, this utter constraint and despair like I consistently had nothing to look forward to. It happened with certain people in certain places. It happened when I went to the suburbs or gas stations. Now I felt that with him, almost this fight or flight. Guttural, instinctive.
I pulled up Uber, watching him scroll through Instagram in the driver’s seat. His hunchback posture was going to come back to bite him in twenty years, I could tell.
“Hey,” I said out of nowhere, “you should lean your seat up a bit so it's flush with your back.”
He looked at me, blankly.
“My dad’s a chiropractor,” I lied. “He told me your car seat’s angle should be like 100 degrees.”
“Oh, really?” He fished around for the lever and moved it forward, then started looking at his hair in the shade-blocker mirror and pulled a tiny comb from the passenger glove-box.
I got the sense that I was being alarmingly intrusive as a shiver rushed over me. I looked down at my phone again. There was an Uber just three minutes away. I ordered it.
“Could you open up the trunk?” I requested after two more minutes of silence. The sun had gone behind the clouds and I was feeling worse than ever.
“Wait, why?” he exclaimed, taking off his sunglasses.
“I ordered an Uber, it’s almost here.”
“Oh, right. Okay.”
In the end there was nothing particularly special about the way I left him there on the side of the road. He didn’t make much of a protest, though nothing he could have said would have prevented me from climbing in the Uber. I presume his dad showed up a little while later and fixed the flat. I never found out - neither of us texted one other again after the failed airport drive.
I sat in the Uber feeling bad for what I’d done, feeling like I was someone else, like I’d just escaped this new reality that was shining right in front of me like a yellow brick road. There was nothing wrong with him really, nothing I could put my finger on. So why had I left him? Why hadn’t I apologized for leaving him when he was all alone, helpless on the side of a busy road? And why hadn’t I texted him?
I began to think more about everything as the airplane took off. I was watching the way the sun picked the places on earth it would shine and the places the clouds blocked it. I knew it didn’t actually work that way, but it was nice and entertaining to think about.
I felt so transient then, like I did so often during that period of my life. I felt like I was constantly walking past open gates and shutting them without looking inside or entering. I was so bored with everything around me but at the same time so fascinated by the fact that I knew exactly what I wanted for these miniscule windows of time, like I just had on the side of the road.
I still knew what I liked. I knew when to stop pretending. I knew when to go to sleep and when to wake up. I knew what to eat in the morning and how to hold a wine glass when it’s chilled. That all was true.
But there were so many things I didn’t know, so many ways in which I felt inferior or undeserving of the futures that were ahead of me. I wanted to just live in the past, in the memories I had, back where everything was comfortable. I didn’t know why, but I really wished I hadn’t met him, I thought as I landed back in my hometown. I felt so contradictory, hating my hometown and loving what was comfortable. There was still so much of myself I didn’t understand.
I did see him again, actually. Just once. Coincidentally, it was at Sidetrack one hot night, deep in late summer’s grasp. I shouted at him drunkenly from one end of the bar as I waited for David to return from the bathroom.
“Hey!” he grinned, warm as wool, like I remembered. He had a sweating vodka red bull in his hand. The music was loud, a Rihanna remix. “Did you ever make it to the airport?”
I laughed and said yes, thanking him for the half-ride there. He introduced me to his partner, a muscular redhead wearing a bandana and a crop-top. They both seemed genuinely happy. Between their heads I could see David walking back down the stairs.
I glanced back at the redhead. “We’re going to go to the dance floor,” he said, patting my arm gently, “it was great to meet you! See you round.”
And with that, they disappeared into the sweat, lights, and dancing bodies.
I sensed, standing there alone and letting the remnants of a smile soak into the seconds before David was back, that there were no hard feelings between us whatsoever. Sometimes there never are. Sometimes things are just things and they happen because they need to. They happen to get you somewhere. And I guessed, in that moment, that the van had broken down for whatever reason and he and I had found different ways forward because we could. Because we had the ability to move. To thrive. To choose.
David saw my smile and asked “Ooh bitch, who was that?”
I chuckled. “It was just that guy I sort of ‘dated’ last spring. The one with the 90s minivan that broke down.”
“Oh him,” he said. “I remember. I could tell you guys weren’t right for each other at all.”
I smiled again, feeling distant but good. Like I knew myself fully, even if I didn’t understand it all. That was enough then.
“Yeah I know. We really weren’t.”