There have been certain times in life that I’ve felt shackled, manacled, bound up and tied down. Stuck, unable to pace, or else pacing, unable to escape—mind racing, heart racing. Nausea follows. There is little worse than this, a guest in one’s own prison.
When I Think Back
During the summer of 1985, I drove to the shore with a buddy from college. We took turns, one driving the turnpikes and the toll roads, the other feeding cassettes into the Toyota’s stereo and manning the Styrofoam cooler. Senior year and everything adult was barreling at us like the semis on the other side of the median, and behind that, what? It felt half-exciting, seventy percent fearful. It came as goose flesh up our arms.
Jeff unfolded the map and guessed five hours more. Five hours, three hundred and fifty miles, a twelve-pack away. If our lives were on that map, we would have been tracking close to the edge. Beyond that, the ancient explorers said, there be monsters.
On That Summer Night
We stopped to see Alicia. Her parents’ house was just off the highway, and we had no reason not to, and we were starving. That’s not her real name, of course, “Alicia,” but she really was my girlfriend junior year and I mostly want to make sure that she never reads this. She had a petite frame and big teeth and a tiny voice and a huge heart. Too big, as it turns out, for me. We’d made out many times, tongues wandering, hands wandering, but we hadn’t gone all the way. She was very Catholic, saving for someday, and I accepted that. No, respected it. I’m not sure I ever accepted it.
Jeff and I sat at the Formica table and ate three plates of homemade ravioli each and tried to make her parents believe we were less drunk than we were. Her father was a powerful man who worked with his hands. Her mother was quiet and trusting. I had that gift, even back then, the ability to sway people, to mask my shaky insides beneath a glossy coat. An actor of sorts. A movie prop. This is what I thought about as I worked my way through dinner. I paid little attention to Alicia, busy talking up my history and my prospects, so I can’t help but wonder what Alicia thought right then. If she’d have to look no further. If this was the first dinner of many.
At the ocean, there were girls we’d never have to see again, alcohol and seafood aplenty, too many rays, not enough sunscreen, non-existent sleep.
Jeff stared at the clouds and asked what I thought about Alicia and I rolled over on the sand and said Alicia Who? and he laughed. I can’t remember if I did or not, but there were seagulls circling overhead and the sound they made was sort of like laughing too, so who the hell knows.
If I Missed
Back at college, at the end of August, I was manic. Partied until I puked. Puked myself sober. Studied until exhausted. Slept until hungry, worried about graduation, prayed until despondent, went looking for a party to lift my spirits. Everything aflame, and me the fiddler.
It might have been October before I ran into Alicia. The sight of me threw a shadow across her face. I fumbled around, asked her out. She said no. Then she said okay. I misunderstood her reasoning, so I said great. We should talk. Great.
A Crucial Turn
In war movies, some general or rebel always yells out to the others not to shoot until you see the whites of their eyes. Everyone assumes it’s because shots will be more accurate that way, much more deadly at close range, but that’s not all of it. There’s got to be something else, something important about the need to see those eyes. About reading every bit of emotion that’s left there, right at the end.
And Now None of Us Are Really Living
Two years after Alicia confirmed my dumping of her by counter-dumping me, I found myself in the same big city she was living in. A mutual friend had her address. She wasn’t home. She was at work, copy-editing for a publisher. In some corner I was pleased by that and in another, disappointed, but that’s why humans started writing letters in the first place, for difficult situations.
I wrote that I was sorry. I wrote I was a jerk I am a better person now I know I mistreated you I hope you’re well. That was a lot to slide under a door.
The Life Intended
I am happily married now. You should know this. There is a wife and two kids and a dog and a hamster and a goldfish. I found all this, in the area just off the map, where the monsters are said to be. I don’t deserve it; I just happen to be one lucky explorer.
The internet is a wonderful terrible thing, a siren’s song, a sexy atomic bomb. So easy to find things you probably shouldn’t.
Google says Alicia is back in her hometown. I imagine her parents are about as old as mine. I can see her buying groceries for them, stopping in a few times a week, her dad less powerful, her mom less trusting.
She works in academia. She’s single, maybe divorced, maybe never married. No kids. Funny, I always pictured her with kids. A girl with dark hair and sad eyes, a boy with a love of books and those huge teeth. But no, none of that. Why?
The one thing Google can’t answer.
The Life Resulted
I said before that I’m happily married. It’s a fact that I’ve never cheated on my wife. To say that I haven’t had the opportunity is not quite true and certainly a cop-out. The truth has more to do with fear, fear of losing her, fear of having to Google her, of tracking her down in some strange city and slipping notes under her door. Fear of violating her trust. I can only imagine how horrible it would be, having that conversation, seeing that pain in her eyes. Eyes wet with emotion and bleeding soul. If monsters be anywhere, they be there.
Joe Kapitan lives and writes and splits firewood in northern Ohio. In the past year, his work has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Bluestem, A cappella Zoo, decomP, Wigleaf, Untoward and Per Contra. He visited the UP once and lived to tell about it.