There's a perfect moment, just as the sun is coming up; I remember it from years ago. I literally haven't seen it in years.
I'm on my way down the stairs with the suitcase I've packed, and I can just start to see the world outside through the windows of the house, each room dim and cool, warming in the light of dawn. Outside, with the door standing wide open behind me, I'm beginning to understand why people get up this early.
The streetlights hum and begin to blink out as I put the suitcase in the trunk of my car and shut the lid. I've wondered for years how I'd go when I left. Bus, car, airplane. I could have sold the car for money, I guess.
I stand there, one hand on the cold dewy sheet metal, thinking.
I could go anywhere. The world is full of cities. I look up at the windows to our bedroom and I think of Warren. My throat is tight, now, regret spilling into my thoughts. The world is full of cities, I think to myself again, a little less confidently.
I could drive to any of those cities and just stop. I could drive until the car breaks down.
I look down at the car, smiling.
The rest of the morning passes without much incident. I get in my car and drive to work before Warren gets up, knowing that the suitcase is in the trunk.
I leave the house and enter a time of day I rarely see from outside my kitchen window. My car is waiting to take me away, headlights like eyes, watching me from the driveway.
All the way to work, I think of leaving taking the highway out of town. Visions of plummeting to 505 have all been replaced with the memory of me and my car, the vacuum of silence in my wake, a dead empty highway waiting for rain.
I can leave at any time, I tell myself as I pull into the parking lot.
The store is empty of customers, it's still pretty early. I'm not usually here this early. Martha is standing behind the counter, and my entrance is apparently the most unusual thing her obscure mind has had to comprehend all morning.
“You're early,” she says, looking up from the manager book. She's got all my pens from the office fanned out around her on the counter, and I don't want to know why. “Regional manager, Aaron,” she says to me, her voice full of doom. “He called again.”
“Fantastic,” I tell her, pushing past the fryers toward the office. She follows me, puffing and saying things like “the fries need salt” and “We're out of chicken tenders, people are gonna be pissed.”
“Salt and chicken tenders,” tell her. “Got it.”
I sit down at the desk in the office and pick up the phone. Martha is standing in the doorway, and for a moment, we stop moving to stare at each other. Matha's face is full of anticipation. Maybe I'm supposed to tell her I'm okay. After a second, I motion her away, and she leaves.
I dial the number for the regional manager. I'm going to give this dummy a piece of my mind. When he picks up, I say, “What?”
“What?” he says to me. “Who is this?”
“Aaron,” I tell him.
“You are in trouble,” he says, over the sound of distant papers shuffling. “I've received a call from a woman who says you denied her a replacement order.”
“Well, yes. She wants that order replaced every day, though.”
“Well do it!”
“I replace it every day.”
He sighs, and says, “I understand why you did what you did, Aaron. I really do. It's just the way it is. You can't change decades of mistakes.”
“We give her eight large sandwiches every day,” I tell him.
I hear a fist slam against a desk, and papers shuffling. “Aaron!” he says, his voice loud in my ear. My heart pounds in my chest. “Do you think we're actually losing money by satisfying a customer? If we deny her a replacement order, she tells all her friends, and THEN we lose money.”
I sit there, staring at the wall, not caring. Not caring, not caring. In my mind, the wall is on fire.
“Whatever,” I tell him.
“This isn't a democracy. You have been warned. One more incident, and you'll be gone.”
I hang up the phone, and after a very long time staring at the wall, I close the door.
The iced coffee here isn't as good as Starbucks. In fact, today it fucking sucks.
I've been sitting out in the dining room, ignoring the rushes of hungry people and screaming children and limping old people, because the coffee sucks. I've managed to convince myself that I don't want to be a part of a conspiracy to sell ruined iced coffee anymore.
Hours have passed, with me in this booth.
Strangely, I haven't heard anything from Martha. She's handling the store without a single question or concern.
I'm starting to wonder why I'm still here.
I look over at my car, beyond the window, sitting in the parking lot, waiting for me. I can leave any time I want, I tell myself. Then I stand up, throw my coffee away, and go back to the office again.
Martha meets me at the door to the office. She's out of breath, holding the phone. I knew it was too good to be true.
“We got problems,” she says.
The end of my shift comes after a few hours of me sitting with my head down on the desk, interrupted by Martha's tiny knocking on the door, penetrated by the yells and laughter of the kitchen crew and the sizzle of fries going into the fryer baskets.
I've got my things from the office in a plastic sack. I have decided that I'm finished at Burger King. It wasn't even a hard decision to make.
I grab a black sharpie from the desk on my way out, and I'm heading around the fryers now, with Martha assigning the night crew to positions. I brush past her without a word, and then I put my things down on the counter and stand, staring at the wall, wondering what to say to her. She's the Burger King, complete with deep fried throne.
It's a role we both know and occupy, by pride or by shame.
We all do it, eventually.
I just can't do it anymore.
“Martha,” I say to her finally, over the roar of the teenagers and deadbeats I employ. She looks up at me, having picked up the manager book to show the new girl around.
“Aaron,” she says to me, her eyes suddenly large. This is suddenly the most poignant and ridiculous moment I have ever experienced. I almost want to hug her.
She continues to look at me.
My lungs are full of acid. “You're in charge tomorrow,” I tell her.
She smiles, and I turn to leave. I'm out the door to the dining room, pushing past customers to the doorway leading to the restroom.
I've still got that sharpie, pitch black and full of evil. I lock the door behind me, eying the toilet and the urinal and the sink. Fuck you, fuck you, I think. Sharpie in hand, my heart pounding, I press the black tip to the tile of the wall and I write. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, I write on the walls, over and over until the back wall is covered with F-bombs and my hand hurts from writing, then I step back and I look at what I've written. I put the Sharpie back in my pocket and I unlock the door, wondering what to do now.
I leave the mens' restroom, and behind me through the door, I wonder how many customers see what I've written.
I'm out the door that leads to the parking lot, my car, my suitcase, and my freedom before anyone can say or do anything to stop me.
The message on my phone is simple. Subway, it says. From Harrison.
Subway, I think, with my car already on the way.
This is stupid. Really, really stupid. We've been here for over an hour.
I'm sitting in this booth like I expect something from him.
Harrison, his hair bright green and close cropped, shining in the sun from the windows across the store, talks to me about college and video games and I just sit there, waiting.
“Harrison,” I say to him finally, stopping him in mid-sentence.
He looks up at me from the table, where he has mutilated a pair of chocolate chip cookies.
“What is this?” I ask him.
He stares at me, his eyes wide.
I gesture between us. “This,” I say.
“What?” he asks me, picking up part of a cookie. He looks down again, smiling his half-smile for only a second, raising an eyebrow, and then looking back up at me.
I put a hand down on the wrapper of my sandwich, my insides beginning to bubble. “What are we?” I ask him again, more quietly.
He stops smiling altogether, his face serious, and sits back in the booth, letting the cookie fall onto the table again.
“Aaron,” he says, finally.
I'm waiting for him to say it. I'm waiting for text to become reality, birds to sing, something stupid like that.
“I was kind of out of it last night,” he says quietly, looking away. He takes a deep breath and says, “I'm sorry for texting you. I hope I didn't cause any problems.”
Exploding birds, my phone in flames.
The other customers bleeding from gaping, slashed throats, their screams transformed into gurgles of panic.
I'm waiting to be impaled.
Of course, that's just my brain.
It's all my brain.
“I see,” I tell him, my voice calm.
We stay there a little while longer, but I can't remember what we're talking about.
On the way home, I think about all the time I've spent pretending I live in the house I share with Warren. Going about life, straightening pillows, doing dishes, wasting time, my life passing a minute at a time, month after month. Five years worth of nothing.
It's almost dark, the streetlights humming to life around me, cars rumbling past me on the street, beer bottles along the curb.
The houses are silent monuments, looking on.
I'm suddenly terrified of dying. All those times I could have done it; I couldn't now if I wanted to. I'm scared of not being remembered, a life of doing nothing closing over my head. Reduced to a little stone in a green yard full of little stones that all look the same, the world continuing as though I hadn't been born at all, much less lived in a house and washed dishes day after day.
Who am I?
I'm starting to have the slightest pinpricks of an idea of how to answer that question.
I've got my hands in my pockets now, and I'm almost home.
This house, standing green and black against the sky, complete with garage and broken dreams. This life, full of roads ignored, pathways neglected and overgrown.
I'm almost home, now, my mind filling with dark, bitter regret, twisting around the gutters and the door knobs and the bed upstairs, drawing me closer with ravenous tendrils of normality.
But maybe that's my brain, too.
I make as quiet an entrance as possible. Warren and I barely speak as I make dinner, then we eat, and finally, I am reduced to dishes again.
Boiled down to a lonely piece of shit standing in front of the sink, washing spaghetti off of plates, soda out of cups.
This life is absolute bullshit.
I do a lot of thinking now that we have separate rooms.
I can see the siding of the house next door as I sit on the bed, and I know that something's about to happen. There's a train rumbling huge and distant, closer and closer in the back of my mind.
Something's about to happen to me, and I have a suitcase packed for when it does.
I'm practically a silhouette against the last light of day outside the window, the siding bare and sanded down beyond.
I've come up here to find Warren on this bed, asleep. I guess I should lay down, too. It's not late, but I'm tired.
I wake up to find myself alone. Warren's gone back to his room, I guess.
I get up and go to the bathroom, afraid not to look in the mirror, my heart pounding.
My cheap hair color is fading, and so is my bruise. It's almost gone.
I touch the mirror, and I swear I can feel the pulse of the guy in the mirror, looking at me.
“You need a new hair color,” I say aloud to him.
After packing another suitcase, I take it out to the car, and I decide to go get some hair dye.
My car is cold and loud on the way to the all-night grocery store. They've got a hair dye section full of the reds, blondes, browns and blacks of conservative hair color. I've got a box of black in my hand, and I'm almost to the register, the candy and chewing gum and energy drinks closing in from both sides.
The woman ahead of me has a cart full of beer.
The boy behind the register looks at me with little to no interest, scanning my box of black and telling me I owe him five dollars.
That's freedom. Five dollars, and I'm on my way to my car with a reason to be okay again. This is life, hair color bought in the cold silent grocery stores of early morning, before the birds are awake to sing.
Absolute adulthood is about making choices like this. I know this now.
The lady with the beer is trying to fit it all in the trunk of her car, and I'm standing outside my open driver side door, wondering what's next.
It doesn't really matter what bathroom I dye my hair in. Hair dye is magic. It erases everything on the outside.
I'm home now, staring at my reflection. The box is in the trash, and there I am, reborn, a man with black hair. The blue is gone, and a change has come about.
I put my shirt on and go downstairs to eat cereal.
At the table, my bowl and my spoon making the nice little sounds of breakfast at 3am, I find myself staring at the house next door, and I know we're the same, it and I.
Maybe I fucked my own life up. I fucked it up pretty bad. Things are clearer now than before, though. I've got cereal, and my hair is a new color. I'm full of life and wonder just now, and maybe it doesn't matter.
My phone vibrates in my pocket.
I take it out and look at it. HARRISON, it says.
Harrison is on the porch when I open the front door.
“I had to see you,” he says.
I close the door behind me and we stare at each other.
Then, with no warning, he pulls me toward him and we're embracing, long and deep and sad. I've barely got my arms around him when he's crying, and I have no idea how to deal with this.
“I'm sorry,” is all I know to say, so I say it, but I'm not sure why I'm sorry.
“Don't be sorry,” he tells me, his voice thin and low and full of things I'll never hear in real words. This is all I get: a sad early morning front porch reunion.
We stand there in the glow of the buzzing porch light, our hands in our pockets, and after a while I say to him, “I'm leaving town.”
“Where are you going?” he wants to know.
After a moment, I say, “Away.”
A couple minutes later, after he stops crying and can stand on his own, he backs away, and he looks at me, smiling a half-smile.
“Maybe I am, too,” he says quietly.
And then he's gone, having turned and run down the steps and across Bernard street. I can barely see his dark form before it's swallowed up by dark, for a moment half-hidden by garages and parked cars and trees, almost lit by streetlights, then gone. Suddenly, I'm alone on the porch.
I stand there, wondering if I will ever see him again. When I've squinted into the darkness long enough to convince myself that he's gone, I go inside. I barely know my name anymore. Maybe I'll forget all the names of all the people I know, and I can start over.
As I fill the sink with water, I look up once in a while at the house next door, the exposed wood of the siding barely visible beyond my own reflection, bright and vacant in the glass of the kitchen windows.
I wash the bowl slowly and deliberately, making sure to get even microscopic bits of unknown dinners long ago out of the tiny cracks I cant even see, and then, carefully, I put it in the strainer.
The end of the road.
I sit at the table for maybe an hour, thinking of all those places I should be by now. I think of the suitcases in the car, waiting for me to get in the car and drive.
I think of Warren upstairs, his sleeping body curled on his side of the bed.
At last, I get up and I go to the doorway that leads to the hallway, lingering for a moment, and then I turn off the lights. I can see the siding clearly now, rough and ugly and changing. I think of my hair, and I reach up to touch it. The kitchen looks faintly alien in the cool dark of night, all of the normal fixtures hidden and replaced by the gleaming phantoms of domestic life.
I'm smiling, because I know this place.
I look directly at the house next door beyond the wet dish rags and the empty sink.
“You aren't the only one changing colors, house,” I say to it, my voice loud and ridiculous in the quiet kitchen, and after a second or two, I go upstairs.
Tomorrow, I'll do something.
This bed is warm, and this house is familiar, but I don't belong here.