“Nah, you shouldn’t feel weird,” he says. “It’s just a car. A precious antique that my dad would string your ass up from a ceiling fan for if he ever knew you were behind the wheel, but I would totally let you drive it.” Even in the shadow, I see the right side of his mouth pull into a devious grin.
“Well, I’m not so sure I want to anymore.”
“He’s dying, remember? What’s he gonna do?”
“That’s not funny, Andrew.”
He knows it’s not. I’m fully aware of the game he’s playing with himself, always looking for anything to help him cope with what’s going on but coming up short. I just wonder how much longer he’ll be able to keep this up. The misplaced jokes will eventually run dry and he’s not going to know what to do with himself.
“We’ll stop at the next motel,” he says, turning onto another road. “I’ll get some shut-eye there.”
Then he glances over at me. “Separate rooms, of course.”
I’m glad he had that part sorted out so fast. I may be driving awkwardly across the U.S. alone with him, but I don’t think I can share a room with him, too.
“Great,” I say, stretching my arms out in front of me with my fingers locked. “I need a shower and to brush my teeth for about an hour.”
“No arguments there,” he jokes.
“Hey, you’re breath isn’t all that great, either.”
“I know it,” he says, cupping one hand over his mouth and breathing sharply into it. “It smells like I ate that horrid shit casserole my aunt makes for Thanksgiving every year.”
I laugh out loud.
“Bad choice of words,” I say. “Shit casserole? Really?” I mentally gag.
Andrew laughs, too.
“Hell, it might as well be—I love my Aunt Deana, but the woman was not blessed with the ability to cook.”
“Sounds like my mom.”
“That must suck,” he says, glancing over. “Growing up on Ramen noodles and Hot Pockets.”
I shake my head. “No, I taught myself how to cook—I don’t eat unhealthy food, remember?”
Andrew’s smiling face is lit up by a soft gray light pouring from the light posts along the street.
“Oh, that’s right,” he says, “no bloody burgers or greasy fries for little Miss Rice Cakes.”
I make a bleh! face, disputing his rice cake theory.
Minutes later we’re pulling into a small two-floor motel parking lot; the kind with rooms that open up outside instead of an inside hallway. We get out and stretch our legs—Andrew stretches legs, arms, his neck, pretty much everything—and we grab our bags from the backseat. He leaves the guitar.
“Lock the door,” he says, pointing.
We enter the lobby to the smell of dusty vacuum cleaner bags and coffee.
“Two singles side by side if you’ve got them,” Andrew says, whipping out his wallet from his back pocket.
I swing my purse around in front of me and reach in for my little zipper wallet. “I can pay for my room.”
“No, I got it.”
“No, seriously, let me pay.”
“I said, no, alright, so just put your money away.”
I do, reluctantly.
The middle-aged woman with graying blonde hair pulled into a sloppy bun at the back of her head looks at us blankly. She goes back to tapping on her keyboard to see what rooms are available.
“Smoking or non-smoking?” she asks, looking at Andrew.
I notice her eyes slip down the length of his muscled arms as he fishes for his credit card.
Tap, tap, tap. Click, click, click. Back and forth between the keyboard and the mouse.
“The only singles I have right next to each other are one smoking and one non-smoking.”
“We’ll take them,” he says, handing her a card.
She pulls it from between his fingers and all the while she watches every little move his hand makes until it falls away from her eyes down behind the counter.
After we pay and get our room keys, we head back outside and to the car where Andrew grabs the guitar from the back seat.
“I should’ve asked before we got here,” he says as I follow alongside him, “but if you’re hungry I can run up the street and get you something if you want.”
“No, I’m good. Thanks.”
“Are you sure?” He looks over at me.
“Yeah, I’m not hungry at all, but if I do get hungry I can just get something from the vending machine.”
He slides the keycard into the first door and a green light appears. He clicks open the door afterwards.
“But there’s nothing but sugar and fat in those things,” he says, recalling our earlier conversations about junk food.
We walk into the fairly dull-looking room with a single bed pressed against a wood headboard mounted behind it on the wall. The bedspread is brown and ugly and scares the crap out of me. The room itself smells clean and looks decent enough, but I have never slept in any motel without stripping the bed of the bedspread first. There’s no telling what’s living on them, or when the last time was they were washed.
Andrew inhales deeply, getting a good whiff of the room.
“This is the non-smoking room,” he says, looking around as if inspecting it first. “This one’s yours.” He sets the guitar down against the wall and walks into the small bathroom, flips on the light, tests out the fan and then goes over to the window on the other side of the bed and tests the air conditioner—it is the middle of July, after all. Then he goes to the bed and carefully pulls back the comforter and examines the sheets and pillows.
“What are you lookin’ for?”
He says without looking at me, “Making sure it’s clean; I don’t want you sleeping in any funky shit.”
I blush hard and turn away before he can see it.
“Kind of early for bed,” he says, stepping away from the bed and taking up the guitar again, “but the drive did take a lot out of me.”
“Well, technically you haven’t slept since before we got off the bus back in Cheyenne.”
I drop my purse and bag down on the foot of the bed.
“True,” he says. “So that means I’ve been up for about eighteen hours. Damn, I didn’t realize.”
“Exhaustion will do that to you.”
He walks to the door and places his hand on the silver lever, clicking it open again. I just stand here at the foot of the bed. It’s an awkward moment, but it doesn’t last.
“Well, I’ll see you in the morning,” he says from the doorway. “I’m right next to you in 110, so just call or knock or bang on the wall if you need me.” There’s only kindness and sincerity in his face.
I nod, smiling in answer.
“Well, goodnight,” he says.
And he slips out, shutting the door softly behind him.
After absently thinking about him for a second, I snap out of it and rummage around inside my bag. This will be the first shower I’ve had in couple of long days. I’m drooling just thinking about it. I yank out a clean pair of panties and my favorite white cotton shorts and varsity babydoll tee with pink and blue stripes around the quarter-sleeves. Then I find my toothbrush, toothpaste and Listerine and head to the bathroom carrying it all with me. I strip down nak*d, happily pulling all of the days-old dirty clothes off and tossing them in a pile on the floor. I stare at myself in the mirror. Oh my God, I’m hideous! My make-up has completely worn off; I barely even have any mascara on anymore. More wandering strands of blonde hair have fallen from my braid and are smashed against one side of my head in a rat’s nest.
I can’t believe I’m been driving around with Andrew looking like this.
I reach up and pull the hairband from the braid to release the rest of the hair and then run my fingers through it to break it all apart. I brush my teeth first and leave my mouth full of mint Listerine long until after the burning has already stopped.
The shower is like heaven. I stay in it forever, letting the semi-scalding hot water beat on me until I can’t take it anymore and the heat starts to lull me to sleep standing up. I clean everything. Twice. Just because I can and because it’s been so damn long. Lastly I shave, glad to get rid of that gross wig I was starting to grow on my legs. And finally, I turn off the squeaky faucets and go for the white motel towel folded OCD-like on a rack over the back of the toilet.
I hear the shower running in Andrew’s room next door and I catch myself just listening to it. I picture him in there, just showering, nothing sexual or perverted even though something like that wouldn’t be hard to do at all. I just think about him in general, about what we’re doing and why. I think about his dad and it breaks my heart all over again knowing how much Andrew is hurting and how I feel helpless to do anything for him. Finally, I force myself back into me and into my life and my issues, which really have nothing on Andrew’s.
I hope it never comes down to me being forced to tell him my problems and all of the things that led me on that road-to-nowhere bus trip, because I will feel so stupid and selfish. My problems are nothing compared to his.
I get into bed with wet hair, combing it out with my fingers. I turn on the TV—not tired at all since I just slept most of the way from Denver—and flip through the channels, eventually leaving it on some random movie with Jet Li. But it’s more for background noise than anything.
Mom called four times and left four messages.
Still nothing from Natalie.
“How are you doing in Virginia?” my mom says into my ear. “Having loads of fun, I hope.”
“Yeah, it’s been great. How are you?”
My mom giggles on the other end of the phone and instinctively it repels me. There’s a man with her. Oh gross, I hope she’s not talking to me in bed, nak*d, with some guy licking her neck.
“I’ve been good, baby,” she says. “Still seeing Roger—going on that cruise next weekend.”
“That’s great, Mom.”
She giggles again.
I scrunch up my nose.
“Well, baby, I need to go (Stop it, Roger).” She giggles again. I’m going to throw up in my mouth. “I just wanted to know how you were doing. Please call me tomorrow sometime and give me an update, alright?”
“OK, Mom, I will. Love you.”
We hang up and I let the phone fall on the bed in front of me. Then I fall back against my pillows, instantly thinking about Andrew being in the room next door. He may be leaning his head against the same wall. I flip through the channels some more until I’ve been through every one of them at least five times and then just give up.
I slump down further and look at the room.
The sound of Andrew playing the guitar pulls me out of myself and I lift my back slowly from the pillows so I can hear it more clearly. It’s a soft tune, kind of something in-between searching and lamentable. And then when the chorus comes around, the speed picks up just a fraction only to lament again for the next verse. It’s absolutely beautiful.