If you could hear the wind, you would probably be a bit disturbed by its fierce howls. But you can't hear it - your windows are up and the CD player in your small, bruised Toyota is screaming Guns N' Roses, a parting gift from Nick ("Here, take this. I never listen to that shit anymore"). This is the only time you enjoy screaming. Screaming such as this is cleansing for you. For once, you're not the target; someone is actually screaming on your behalf. You definitely prefer this to the wind.
You look to your right and see Nick's flannel shirt draped over the back of the passenger seat. The shirt, worn and smelling strangely of popcorn and aftershave, has been a permanent fixture in your vehicle for almost two years now. The first time Nick rode in your car, he proclaimed, Jesus…do you always keep the heat up this high? And he removed the shirt, hung it on the seat, and looked much more comfortable in his thin t-shirt. When you brought him back home, he got out and ran up his front steps, leaving you fingering the sleeve of the shirt and saying, Hey, you forgot this to an empty car. The shirt has been there ever since and you can't understand what keeps you from getting rid of it.
You cruise relatively slowly along Route 50, not really paying much attention to your surroundings. All you can seem to think about is the fact that 8 days and roughly 600 miles after leaving Nick, that goddamn shirt is still in your car.
You tell yourself that you're way past the statute of limitations for wallowing in nostalgia over Nick. Maybe it's not quite accurate to refer to it in that manner; it's more like Nick was a part of yourself that you had removed. Not a crucial part, such as a limb, but rather something that had just attached itself to you and was making you ugly and unhappy…like a wart. A Nick-wart.
The sign for exit 29 suddenly looms before you. Food, Gas, Lodging it says proudly. You've been driving along Route 50 for 115 miles now and some food and coffee is looking more and more appealing. You guide your car into the right lane and take the exit. When you approach the intersection at the traffic light, your first instinct is to turn left, and you snap off the CD player, silencing Axl Rose for a time.
You pass a donut shop, a truck stop, and several fast food joints, closed long before, their doors tightly locked and windows dark. You are about to turn around and head back in the other direction when you see a small restaurant called simply The Route 50 Diner. The parking lot is virtually empty, aside from a beat-up truck and a few motorcycles. You pull in and peer through the front window where you see a few people sitting at the counter, nursing coffee. Deciding this place is as good as any, you park your car, get out, and head towards the door.
Upon your entrance, the few sitting at the counter turn around, causing their swiveling stools to squeak. The men nod at you, and then return to their coffee and conversation. One of them turns back around, pats the stool next to him, and winks at you. You immediately head for the nearest booth.
You order a cheeseburger, fries, and a coffee. The waitress who serves you looks as though she's been working here for twenty years without one break - her hair is scraggly and dirty, there are dark circles under her eyes, and her nails are grimy and bitten off. Her name tag identifies her as Maisie, and she doesn't look exactly thrilled that you're sitting at her table nor that you've ordered your cheeseburger well done. She picks up your menu, grumbles, "It'll be out in a few" and walks away, her shoulders sagging with what can only be described as defeat - the bitter revelation that all her years of living have added up to serving cheeseburgers to weary travelers.
Under normal circumstances, you enjoy people watching but none of the patrons of The Route 50 Diner are able to hold your interest for any length of time. The people here are simple - tired truck drivers taking a break from their endless routine of staring at black pavement as it rushes at them, a few more waitresses, Maisie, and a cook that looks as though he may have a nervous breakdown at any given moment. These are not the kinds of people that attract others to examine their lives.
Instead, you sip your coffee (which tastes pretty much like what you would imagine tar to taste like) and drift away on a raft of your own thoughts. Your mind is jumping all over the place as you sit in the booth. You see your father's face, hear your mother's laugh, feel the blunt pain of Nick's fist making contact with your left eye. You see what you make me do, you bitch? He had promised on several occasions never to touch you in anger again; a promise that you stored away in the back of your mind, in a virtual file labeled Nick's Promises. If you could bottle and sell them, you would be able to order the sirloin tips instead of the thin, gray slab of meat between the pale bread that this establishment affectionately calls a cheeseburger.
"Thanks, Maisie," you say, as she half-drops, half-slides your food onto the table. Her dull eyes brighten slightly in that instant, the moment in which you have recognized her as a person and not just as another fixture of the restaurant. You have the feeling it's been a long time since anyone has done this.
"Hey, you're welcome," she says, wiping her hands on her apron, a garment that has scene many battles with various condiments. "Ya need anythin' else, ya jus' let me know, alrighty?" You nod.
As you chew, you think of how you arrived in this place. Your parents, frustrated to no end by your reluctance to leave Nick, have pretty much given up on you. If you don't want to leave Nick even though he roughs you up all the time, then we wash our hands of you. Your father is angry that you are "throwing away your future" by spending all your time with Nick instead of focusing on college. Your mother is now terrified of the person you've become - a person who would willingly enable herself to be abused, a person who would say to someone with her actions, Yes, hit me, hit me again and again. I will stay. I will always stay, and if I finally leave…I will come back.
You look up and watch as Maisie is furiously scrubbing the countertop. She has found a small stain, and is scrubbing with everything that is in her, every ounce of strength and determination that she is able to muster.
Your meal can only be described as filling, nothing more. The cheeseburger settles into your stomach like a weight, which is an unusually odd feeling since its coupled with the sensation of butterflies fluttering throughout your abdomen.
Since addressing Maisie by her name as opposed to tapping your spoon impatiently against your coffee cup to get her attention, a gesture you're certain she's accustomed to, she has stopped by your small booth in the corner several times. Now she approaches your table shyly, reaching her hand into her apron pocket and retrieving a small, tattered photograph.
"This here's my youngest," she says, handing you the picture. "He's a real smart boy. Says when he's done growed up, he wants to be the President…or a mechanic. Can't make up his mind. Quite a character, ain't he?"
You know this is your cue to make some clever comment about how charming her son must be, but a young man entering the diner suddenly distracts you. You hand the photo back to Maisie.
Your eyes are fixed on the man as you watch him head to the back corner payphone. He lets his backpack slide off his shoulder and onto the floor as he thumbs through a phone book. He begins to appear more and more agitated as he angrily flips the thin pages, ripping several of them.
He is tall, about six feet, and he has broad shoulders that hint he may have been a football player at some point. His jet-black hair is short in the front, but hangs past his neck in the back, and he impulsively runs his fingers through it. You look at him and wonder how someone like him ended up at this place at 3:30 in the morning. This seems to be a place for those who are lost - people who had no concept of home. This guy just didn't fit in; like one of those Guess which item doesn't belong? games consisting of several kitchen utensils and one elephant.
He heaves the phone book onto the floor and sighs. He is obviously distraught but is making every effort to keep his cool. His hand returns to his hair and your own fingertips inexplicably begin to tingle.
He looks around, trying to decide where he should sit, or if he should even sit at all. You resist the urge to stand up and yell Sit with me and you congratulate yourself for your willpower and restraint. Then, to your absolute shock and delight, he approaches your booth. Your hands immediately fly to your hair, which you smooth down self-consciously. You lick your lips and your palms begin to sweat.
"I could really use some company," he says, and his voice is soft and gentle, not at all what you were expecting. "Can't seem to find my friend's number in the phone book and I've got some time to kill."
"Oh? Well…you can sit with me," you reply. He smiles warmly, drops his backpack and coat on the booth, and then slides in next to them.
"Are you sure I'm not intruding? I mean, I know people wouldn't normally let strangers just walk up to them and sit down." He is blushing, and you can't remember the last time you found another person so endearing.
"Tell me your name and then you won't be a stranger anymore," you say, brazenly. Where is this confidence coming from?
He smiles. "Okay. I'm Avery." His hand is outstretched above your coffee cup. You grasp it in yours and shake it firmly. You glance down at his hands and notice how beautiful they are - soft and chiseled, a perfect shape. You see small calluses on his fingertips, making you think that he must play the guitar.
"I'm Martha," you tell him, immediately feeling stupid for having said your name aloud, the one thing for which you can never forgive your mother. It makes you sound like you're pushing 70 instead of 21. Of course you do feel 70; maybe your mother had really good insight. Either that, or a keen and somewhat grim sense of irony.
"Nice to meet you, Martha." You wait for the usual jokes, but they don't come. "Road trip?"
You try to smile but are unable and you're afraid you're grimacing. "Something like that."
"Yeah?" He gestures to Maisie. "Me too. Well, sorta. I'm going to Chicago to stay with some friends. I just quit college, decided to pack up my stuff and go out there, see what that city may have to offer. My folks are flippin' out." He laughs, and thanks Maisie for the coffee she sets in front of him. She gives you a look that clearly says, Where'd the fella come from?
You talk awhile longer and then he decides to order a club sandwich. Thus far, your conversation has pretty much revolved around him, which is the way you wanted it. You have learned that he's 23, the middle child of an older brother and younger sister, was a political science major at college, grew up in Pittsburgh ("the coolest city around"), and drank coffee for the first time when he was six which caused him to have diarrhea for ten days straight, he swears. He also confesses that he stopped at a restaurant the previous morning for breakfast and a two year old girl in the booth next to him had been so enamored with his fuzzy troll key chain that hung on his backpack, that he had given it to her even though he'd had it since grade school. You feel as though you may weep.
"So," Avery begins again, sipping his coffee. "You have quite a shiner there on your left eye. What happened?"
You feel your food begin to rise up in your throat. "Well, there was this…old woman, like eighty or something, and this guy…this really scary looking guy…was trying to…you know, take her purse? So, I tried to get him away from her and he…clocked me one. Right in the eye."
Avery stares at you, seeing right through your lie. He is quiet for several moments, and so are you. Finally, he says, "I hope you tell me you're out here on the road because you left him." His voice is soft, soothing.
You can't answer. Instead, you do something you'd never believe of yourself. You stand and lean over the table, kissing his cheek. He doesn't even seem surprised.
Between the two of you, you have left Maisie an eighteen dollar and thirty-eight cent tip. She walks over to your table and mistakenly thinks this money is to pay the bill. Avery smiles at her, revealing his dimples, and tells her it's her tip. A smile spreads over her face, and she stammers with pleasure.
"Thank y'all. Thank y'all very much. I sure do appreciate it." She keeps smiling and nodding at the two of you. You have been in The Route 50 Diner for five hours now. You feel as though Maisie is a relative of yours and you've just given her a birthday gift. You stand up to leave and impulsively hug her. She stumbles backward, caught off guard, and then begins to hug you back.
"He's a fine boy," she whispers in your ear, referring to Avery. "Reminds me of my son." You smile widely at her, as though you are in a position to take credit for what kind of person Avery is.
You look up to see that Avery is holding the door open for you. You walk towards him and the two of you enter the crisp morning. The sun is not fully up yet, and the parking lot is drenched in a heavy fog that clings to you like a second skin. You're following Avery as he walks to his car, and he's holding your hand.
"I'd like you to give me your opinion on something," he is saying as he opens his trunk, retrieving a guitar. You were right.
"Of course," you say. You watch him intently as he runs his hands over the guitar, a gesture that can only be described as loving. He slams the trunk shut and takes your hand once again. "Come here," he says, leading you through the parking lot and behind the building. There is a large hill that overlooks portions of the city, which is slowly becoming illuminated by the quickly rising sun.
You sit down on the grassy hill, not minding the dew seeping into your jeans. "Okay," you say. "I have lots of opinions. Which one do you want in particular?"
Avery grins. "I wrote a song awhile back," he sits down next to you and begins to strum his guitar. "I was camping with some friends and I woke up before they did. I grabbed my guitar and took off, just to be on my own before the others got up. I just wanted some time for me…the dawn and me. Anyway, I sat down and as the sun started to come up, I began to play this song. It wasn't something I had ever played before; the chords were just coming to me as I watched the sunrise. When the sun finally came up, I changed the chords and that was the end of the song." He pauses to smile, remembering. "I was playing so loudly at that point that my buddies woke up and started bitching at me for making so much noise. I'd like to play it for you. May I?"
You nod slightly, trying to swallow the lump in your throat. Avery begins to play and you study his every move. You watch his eyebrows furrow as he concentrates, the way the muscles flex in his arms when he changes chords. He is pouring everything he has into this song - into playing this song for you. Your hand moves up to caress your blackened eye.
When he finishes, you are fighting back tears. "What's it called?" you manage to ask.
"That's certainly appropriate." You smile at him.
"Yeah," He puts the guitar down on the ground and scoots closer to you, draping an arm over your shoulders. "Martha…I'd like to ask you…ask you if you'd like to come with me. To Chicago."
Your eyes widen and your pulse begins to race. "What is there for me in Chicago?"
He shrugs. "I don't know," he says, honestly. "But you could find out. The whole world is out there." He pauses, and reaches out a hand to touch your hair. "I wish I could give you the world."
"I don't need the world," you say.
"Well," he says. "Then just the parts you like."
You are running up to the front door of The Route 50 Diner, your mind spinning. You bust through the doors, shouting "Maisie!"
She comes up to the front, wiping her hands on her apron and looking at you strangely. "Sweetie? What's wrong?"
"Nothing," you tell her, leaning on the counter and grinning. "I need two coffees for the road."
Maisie smiles widely and says, "Is that so? Well, ain't you just the cat who got the mouse, huh?"
"Yes," you say. "I am. I'm the broken one who has been repaired." Maisie nods as though she understands, and walks off to get your coffee. You stand there at the counter beaming at all the travelers who are enjoying their eggs and bacon.
You grab the coffees when Maisie returns and slip her another twenty. What the hell? You think. At this point, does it really matter?
She squeals with delight, kissing you on both cheeks. "Good luck, sugar," she says and you are waving all the way out the door.
"Here ya go," you say, sprinting back to Avery, who is leaning against his car. He takes the coffee, puts it on the roof, and envelops you in a hug.
"You sure you don't mind leaving your car until we can get back to it eventually?" he asks, for the hundredth time.
"No," you say, smiling, happy for the first time you can remember. "I could care less."
"Okay," he says. "You ready?" he looks into the back of his car. "I managed to fit all your stuff in there."
"Wait," you say, suddenly. "There's just one more thing." You run back to your car and throw the passenger's side door open.
You grab the flannel shirt from the seat and pull it out. It dangles from your fingers, limp and lifeless. It no longer controls you. You are in control now.
Your hands fly out and aggressively grab hold of sections of the shirt, tearing and ripping with all your might. Since having it in shreds is not enough for you, you throw it onto the ground, stomping it hard, harder, harder until your feet ache and there are tears in your eyes. You look over at Avery and you are laughing, crying.
The sun has fully come up now and slivers of it are falling across Avery's face and causing his hair to glisten. It causes him to look ethereal as he stands in The Route 50 Diner parking lot and you run towards him, calling his name.