Our car gasps, slows, oozes to a stop.
Twenty years ago, at least. My mom was driving me to school when we saw an 18-wheeler sprawled across the highway. We were either on the 210 or the 134. It looked like everyone in the state had emptied their veins onto the pavement. Red stains crawled towards us.
“Look away,” she said. “Don’t.”
My former roommate thinks that a car killed me in a past life. This is because I cannot help but throw my arm across nearby chests when vehicles scrape by, too close, too close. She lives in Hanoi now. When I visited, she took my inadvertent reach as an insult; as lack of faith in observational skill. That’s not the case, but I learned a long time ago that, generally, she likes to see the best in people and, specifically, the worst in me.
Tonight, I am putting the needles to bed by keeping my body moving. As silver music pulses across a Portland club, someone hands me a glass I want to break in half and swallow, just to believe its edges. Instead, I dance to the fizzle.
Uninvited! An email from NAME REDACTED appears. Look away, I think. Don’t. But you know that I do. The message digs trenches in my forehead, pulling me farther from the age when I liked sticky floors. Even at an apology—overdue, necessary—I squint, step away, sprint out towards traffic.
Sitting in a Hong Kong brewery on New Year’s Eve, my former roommate and I had an argument about names—which ones we have a right to, which feelings we’re allowed to have about them—that became an argument about everything. She slung if/then statements like an angry software engineer. A direct hit: If you were still with [the person you first loved], then this never would have happened. And another: If you were as open to the world as I am, then you’d see that you’re living your life all wrong. But I’ve gotten good at spitting my teeth at those I love too.
The next day, I turned to see a city bus hop the curb.
Look, I said, not out loud. Look.
It was back on the street before anyone seemed to notice. Maybe no one cared. My former roommate looked at my face; at the concrete. You don’t trust anything anymore. Tonight, I am wondering what else I’ve inadvertently done.
After dropping the man who would not become my husband at the airport early one rainy Cincinnati morning, my car spun out. I jittered across three lanes and an on-ramp, hopped the curb, and stopped six inches from the guardrail. The sky was gray indifference. I climbed out of the car, clutching my chest like a rich lady in an old movie. A woman with puffed up bangs jumped out of her car, reached her hands towards me, saying, “I saw the whole thing. I’ve been behind you since you dropped your husband off. I saw everything.” She waited until I caught my breath, inspected the car, then stood firm in her pink hoodie, holding up a stop sign hand towards oncoming traffic until I got my car off the curb and drove 15 miles under the speed limit to the closest gas station. I sat in the parking lot for 20 minutes, drinking weak coffee, thinking of how it felt to spin out, barely stop myself, then drive away without an external dent.
Years ago, stopped at the corner of Venice and Sepulveda, NAME REDACTED sat in my car. As we waited for the light to turn, she let me swing her hand back and forth to a twangy guitar riff. As the song picked up, our bodies bounced. My car swayed so much that other drivers craned to see what shook us. Earlier that day, she told me what was picking through her brain. The kind of laughter we shared was loud enough to change a stoplight, was a specific kind of purging, was one of those things I forgot I needed until we were halfway through. When I hugged her, I told her I was squeezing out the bad. I was sealing in everything good. We both tried to believe it. Neither of us live there anymore.
“Look away,” my mom said, eyes darting to the backseat. “Don’t.” But you know that I did.
As we inched closer, she realized first. It wasn’t blood. It was strawberries. Crates of them. Spilling across the highway, dyeing lane dividers and filling the air with unbearable sweet. Seeds wedged into pavement cracks. Every centimeter of the road’s skin, inked. But I couldn’t shake the panic. Even then, I was no good at differentiating near misses from direct hits. Even with the stains right in front of me. None of this is tragic, but it is a fucking waste. Tonight, I think of everyone who might lick these past months off me.
Leah Christianson’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, River Teeth, The Evansville Review, Fiction Southeast, Storm Cellar Quarterly, and other publications. She received her MFA from Miami University, where she was the editor-in-chief of Oxford Magazine and received the Jordan Goodman prize in fiction.