A. C. Peterson
“I’m serious! I’ll hitchhike home!”
And Marlene might. Or more likely, she’ll threaten to hitch home in her red velvet dress and her perfect ruby lipstick and her plush ermine coat until you stub out the cigarette, hang you head low and tell her, ‘I’m sorry, baby.”
Has she always been a blond? Under the streetlight, you’re not so sure.
“I’m going home with the next maniac along this road. I swear it!” She waits, “Because at least he’ll be more compassionate than you!” And she throws her meticulously polished pointy black shoe at your midnight blue metallic car door. You can’t bear to see if it’s left a mark. Not tonight. You just won’t look.
The left shoe is poised. Is she doing this more often? Or are you simply caring less?
You know the right answers. Yes, dear. No, dear. I’m sorry, baby. That’s the script. Just say the line, get in the car and put up with the long ride full of, “You knew I was right.” That’s the way this scene is supposed to go. You know it and she knows it. It’s just a matter of time.
The pause is too long. She begins to look perplexed. You have yet to put out the cigarette, yet to hang your head low, yet to utter condolences for her embarrassment of dating a clod like you. A clod who embarrassed her in front of her father, who said hi to Betty too enthusiastically on the way to the car, who looked at her the wrong way over dinner. You’ve already forgotten what you did wrong this time. Or maybe you never knew. That happens sometimes.
And still your cigarette loves your hands, kisses your lips. You stare at Marlene, her voice shrill, screaming nonsensical threats in ever raising octaves as she stomps her one bare foot on the sidewalk, her delicate stocking snagging on rough concrete.
'You want me to leave! That's it! You want me to get carved up by some maniac and found in pieces by the riverbed!”
Instead of offering the standard apologies, you take another drag off the cigarette and swing open the passenger door.
The plush interior is light blue, like her eyes. Milky blue, pale and cold. The eyes, not the seats. The seats are as warm and as comforting as anything can be. Marlene's eyes are never soft. Her smile is never comforting. Her intentions are always far from pristine condition.
So, this is what it will be like, you tell yourself. You finger the box in your pocket with your left index finger. Soft like the interior. Soft like your spine.
You open the box just the width of your index finger and the lid snaps back to bite as you pull your hand out to grab another cig.
For once, you've managed to pull the cigarette with your front teeth the way your father always did as he spoke. The light from the back seat makes a small ray of asphalt glow, butting heads with the streetlight over tattered grey sidewalk.
She squints. A sure sign of disapproval. It leaves the most unflattering lines in her face. She frowns the way her mother does. And eventually, the milky, white flesh arranged into the sort of curves that kill race car drivers will rearrange into the drooping sack of wet, rotten potatoes that makes up her mother's form. Eventually, that bottom lip pout will sag and wrinkle and be sickening and pathetic. Someday, she will be more horrible than her mother. Simply because she will be all yours.
There's no leaving her at the roadside. There's no telling her you have to work early the next day just to slip back into the world without her.
It'll be that sour face you see over breakfast.
It will be that stale pout when a drain spout breaks.
It will be those red-clawed hands that hold your children.
With her dark brown roots and the beginning of wrinkles, one shoe off of a snagged stocking, she stands there, your future.
She's waiting for an apology. A confession. A lie.
“I just don't understand how one man can-”
You stumble onto your right knee. No doubt it's probably the wrong knee.
You stub out the Lucky Strike as you gain your balance down low. You pull the box from your pocket. As you flip it open, you can't see the sparkle. Only the possible rent payments. Only the responsible paychecks. Only the cost of buffing out the shoe dent at the body shop. Already a heavy burden, even laden with the meagerest of stones.
“Janine! Dammit, Joe! Can't you get anything-?”
You interrupt her for the first, and probably last, time in your life.
“Will you be my wife?”
“It's about time,” as she snatches the box from your hand. She won't admit happiness, but her voice licked a few fewer shrews on the way to her tongue.
Marlene slips the ring on her finger herself, the burden glimmering in the streetlight, burning into your eyes. She's tilting severely, shifting to the side without the heel on her dainty right foot.
You're not smiling. She's still talking. Is it bigger than Rachael's ring? Was it more expensive than the one Derek got for Sally? She is smiling. She peers down at you, your dress pants still on the pavement, she casts down a mix of pity and doubt stronger than the tungsten glow pouring down.
She sweeps her wide skirt into the seat as you stand up to close the door.
“But my mother shouldn't have to pay for everything since your family-” The door shuts. Her mouth is still moving, but her voice is muted by the thick Chevy glass. Perched there, she's a wind-up doll. Her hair, still perfect. Her nails rapping on the dash, perfect. The ring parked elegantly on her left hand – there couldn't be anything more perfect.
'Til death do you part.
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