A Fleeting Acquaintance

By DERRICK BARNES | Published: January 21, 2012

“Why do I always feel like the biggest—

“You do this every single time. It’s all great until—

--asshole around you. And everything is always my fault, even when—

--you remember or notice the first thing that isn’t exactly--

--I know I’m not the only one to blame—

--what you like or want. You see the World—

--because God knows neither of us is perfect—

--in some sort of idealized, Titanic love story way, but it’s the story you—

--even though it appears I’m supposed to bow to—

--want to be and the way you want me to be in it. You are the most selfish—

--you, Goddess divine.”

—arrogant ass. It’s no wonder my--”

“STOP!” I yelled. “This is absolute madness. We’ve got to just stop.”

“If you weren’t so incorrigible none of this would be happening. I should’ve listened to what all my friends said. This was a mistake.”

“It was a mistake, but it is not all my fault and it never has been all my fault.” With a sigh I turned away from her to look out the windshield at the football players running drills on the practice field. We were right back where we started: sitting in my Volkswagen at our old high school bitching at each other. I felt as though I sixteen again. She was sitting two feet away from me yet I was alone.

We both watched the typical high school late afternoon scene unfold to avoid looking at each other. Athletes finishing various practices and kids with nothing better to do sitting on the hoods of cars talking about nothing. After a time she finally said, “Bullshit.”

“Well, I guess we’re done here.” I just wanted the situation, this disastrous mistake, to be over.

“Goodbye Keith.” She opened to car door, got out, and slammed it in my face.

Fuck you too, I thought as I watched her walked away. The sun had almost set and the brightest stars were beginning to shine. It took a moment to get the Beetle to turn over and then I was gone.

I made my way across town on the expressway with all the Friday afternoon commuters. All were about to cash in five days of work for two of freedom. They accept this inequality because everyone does. Everyone always has. They are happy, or at least satisfied, in blissful ignorance of what life could be. I have never figured out how to live this way. I think too much.

Soon I pulled into Neal’s driveway and parked beside the giant utility van he drives to his forty hour a week job fixing air conditioners. Then I walked in the house through the side door. Neal’s house is ascetic. Only half the rooms have finished floors, there is no stove or oven, he has no real furniture, and the place smells of stale beer and cigarettes.

Neal was sitting on the floor of the kitchen working out some riff on his acoustic guitar. He looked up and said, “I didn’t expect to see you tonight. I thought you were hanging out with Simone.”

“It’s not going to work out.” I walked over to the fridge and grabbed us both a 24-ounce can of Heineken. They were undoubtedly supplied by the Mexican coworker Neal gives rides to in exchange for alcohol purchases. I handed him one the beers and moved his rather unfriendly cat, Maya, off a lawn chair to sit down.

“I could’ve told you that,” he said after cracking the beer and taking a long drink. “You guys have dated on and off for years. And it’s the same story every time. It goes well for a while and then you both get sick of each other. You’ve got to stop fucking around with her. It’s a waste of life.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I always know it’s a bad idea, but it one of those habits you can’t kick, you know. We met up in the school parking lot too.”

“Why the hell would you go back there?” He said raising an eyebrow.

“I have no fucking clue. Halfway between our parents’ houses I guess. It made me feel like nothing’s changed in the three years since high school. I was right back there and now I feel like a fool. The past few weeks were a waste.” I looked away and to stare at the white wall behind Neal. “But fuck it, I guess. I shouldn’t dwell on it. It’s done.”

We didn’t talk about Simone anymore. I know Neal was as tired of hearing about my bullshit with her I was tired of myself creating the bullshit. We listened to Mice Parade on his boom box and quickly drank the beers. Then we went to the Waffle House to meet up our friends David and Kevin and eat some disgustingly greasy food. David and Kevin are both dishwashers at a fancy restaurant in town. They’re happy and have no drive to move beyond minimum wage food service. Everyone around me is happier than me because they just let themselves be happy. I over-analyze everything and talk myself out of even having a chance at being happy.

After eating and playing a number of annoying country songs on the juke box for some twisted form of amusement, the four of us drove to a farm outside of town. One of Kevin’s friends was throwing a huge party. The location was remote enough that is was unlikely the cops would show up to fuck with us.

We rolled over a cattle guard into the farm. A mix of preppy kids from town and red necks from the sticks were already working their way into a blissful drunken oblivion. I looked at my phone; it was just after nine. After we parked the car by the farmhouse, we walked over to the pavilion where the keg and DJ were set up. Along the way I saw a couple of no doubt creepy middle-aged men ripping a bong with two girls in their late teens.

The classy ones of all ages are out tonight, I thought. Kevin introduced me to the guy who threw the party. I didn’t get his name. He wore boots, jeans with holes at the knee, a faded plaid shirt, and a scraggly beard that didn’t really work. I knew right away he was another stereotypical asshole looking the get trashed and fuck some girl whose name he wouldn’t waste the brain cells to remember.

Neal and I waited in line to get a beer and then stood on the fringe of the group for a time. We talked to each other and caught up on his work and my school and avoided talking to anyone else as much as possible. I have always hated parties. Neal does too. They’re a great social function if you’re outgoing and can easily talk to people you barely know. I’m only comfortable in small groups and I hate meeting new people. Within fifteen minutes of our arrival I was already wishing I had stayed home and was at that moment reading some light-hearted novel.

“I’m gonna go smoke a cigarette. Do you want one?” I said after a pause in conversation.

“Ahhh no. I’m good; you go ahead,” Neal said and headed over to talk to David who was sitting on the hood of a car rolling a joint. I walked out away from the group and down to a small pond below the farmhouse. It was a crisp, clear December night. I looked up at the full sky of stars. I took note of the Little Dipper, the only constellation I’ve ever been able to see. We were far enough out of town that the city lights didn’t obscure the view. Only the terrible DJ playing incredibly loudly back at the party ruined the moment.

I took out a Parliament and lit up. I instantly felt the calming alertness that comes with smoking a cigarette after drinking in a crowd. I don’t normally smoke, but I love it. I regret it as soon as it’s done. Smoking is one of many vices I invariably come back to, much like Simone. She is comfortable and it’s easy to be with her, at first anyway. Then the reasons it’s never worked before come back, more intensely every time. I always come back to easy, comfortable, and destructive habits.

I had no business being at this party. I had no business even talking to Simone again four weeks ago. I had no business being in this town anymore. I needed to leave, to start over, to try to get some feeling of control back. I could never be happy or even satisfied living this way. My whole life was a joke, and I was doing nothing to change any of it. The worst part of it was I knew all of this, but I had no idea how to change.

I was deeply mired in self-loathing and was working out a way to convince my friends we had to leave this nightmare of a party immediately when she said, “Can I get one of those?”

She didn’t even startle me. I turned to my right to see her standing a couple feet away looking out across the pond. The only light was from the half moon and the stars, but I could tell she was wearing tight jeans with lots of holes and a plaid button-up shirt. Her hair was long and down and I couldn’t make out her face.

“Sure, why not?” I grabbed the pack from my pocket and pulled one out for her. I had been so lost in my own thoughts I had spared no attention to the likelihood this was really weird and I had never seen this girl before in my life. At any other time I would have acted unapproachable and distant. Now I just felt like I didn’t give a shit. After pulling the lighter out of my other pocket I turned towards her. She turned to me as well and I finally saw her face.

Even in the dark I could tell she was beautiful. Amazing. The perfect mix of understated natural beauty and total carnal sexiness. She had piercing eyes and a beautiful smile. Her breasts were small, but not too small. And she was very thin and just a few inches shorter than me. This girl was just my type. And I was involved in such deep self-loathing there was no doubt in my mind this was the type of girl I had absolutely no chance with.

I could feel my eyes getting big and my throat starting to clamp up as she said, “Thanks.” She quickly and skillfully lit up and took a long drag. “Nice lighter man.”

“Oh yeah,” I said, totally caught off guard. I had no idea what was going on. “It was some sort of American pack. One had a ground hog on it and this one has the apple pie.”

“How clever,” she lightly laughed. “So, are you having a good time?”

“No, not at all. I’ve actually been standing here trying to figure out how to make a break for it.” I had no why I felt comfortable talking to her. I rarely felt comfortable talking to anyone. Maybe I had truly hit the bottom and nothing mattered anymore.

“Shouldn’t be too complicated. Just get in a car and go.”

“I didn’t drive here and I doubt my friends are interested in leaving as yet.”

“Ahh, the plot thickens,” she said taking another long drag. Then she sat down on the grass Indian style. Shrugging, I sat down as well.

“Truly. What about you? Having the time of your life?”

“Not particularly, no. But it’s okay. These things go that way sometimes.” We were both looking out across the still pond now. It felt as though it was getting colder by the minute. I pulled on a stocking cap I had in my coat pocket and huddled tighter into my coat. “At least this scene is beautiful. I love it here,” she said.

Her optimism seemed so simple and real. It wasn’t contrived. This girl was no hipster fool; she was cool. I couldn’t help but smile. “You’re right,” I replied.

“Yep. I know. Well, I’ve got a car. You want to split?” The question came out of nowhere. I had no idea for sure, but we couldn’t have been talking for more than several minutes. I had no idea what to think, so I didn’t. For the first time in forever, perhaps a lifetime, I just went with it.

“Sure,” was all I said.

“Alright. Let’s hit it.” She stood up and walked off. I quickly followed noticing her long, thin legs and swaying hips. We headed back past the party where some girl was attempting to chug straight from the keg tap while two guys held her upside down in the air. We climbed into an old, black Chevy Blazer and took off.

Neither of us said a word for quite some time. I didn’t mind. I felt serene and content. It was enough just to be driving across country roads in the dark with a girl whose name I didn’t even know. She may have been the only person that wanted to spend any time with me. But tonight it was enough.

The radio was on the public radio station and turned down low. Smooth jazz could just be heard over the noisy and obviously ailing engine. She was staring intently ahead at the road, paying absolutely no attention to me. We were flying across some back road I had never been on before. I decided not to ask where we were going.

“I’m going to drive up to the Parkway. One of my favorite overlooks isn’t far from here,” she said suddenly turning to look right at me.

“Sounds perfect.”

“I thought so. Are you in school?”

“Yeah, college. Just got in for Christmas break yesterday. What about you?”

“No. I may go later on, but it’ll be on my terms. My parents weren’t happy when I decided to move into an apartment by myself and work at UPS.”

“I bet not. I’m glad you did what you wanted to though,” I said, smiling. She was perfect; I couldn’t see a single flaw with this girl. “I probably shouldn’t have gone myself.”

“It’s never too late to change what you’re doing. But I don’t want to run your life.” Ahead I could see the sign for the Blue Ridge Parkway. We pulled up the onramp and headed up some mountain. It was pitch black outside; I couldn’t see anything. We were really out in the country. Briefly I wondered what we were going to be able to see at an overlook in the middle of the night, but again, I decided not to question it. After another pause she said, “So what’s your story? You looked totally miserable back at that pond. Way more bummed than just about some stupid party.”

“My life is a joke. I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going. I have no idea how to be happy.” There it was. I put it all out there. She didn’t speak for a while afterwards. The silence was deafening. I turned away to look out the passenger side window. I lived without her before tonight. If she thinks I’m crazy, I’ll just be back where I was, I thought. I guess none of it really mattered.

“Perfect,” she said.

“What?” It was the absolute last thing I expected to hear.

“If your life actually sucks that much right now, which by the way I guarantee it doesn’t, you have nowhere to go but up. It should be easy too. It won’t take much to make life a whole lot better.”

“Well, perhaps you’re right.” Every other thing that came out of her mouth threw me for a loop.

“Of course, I’m right. Life isn’t that complicated. Everyone makes it out to be some great mystery. But we’re all livin’ it, whether you like it or not.” I didn’t say anything in reply. I couldn’t think of any defense to her painfully simplistic and truthful logic. Silence was my only affirmation.

She kept winding back and forth up the mountain as I began to feel vaguely carsick. I stared straight ahead and hoped she would reach her destination soon. With a sudden stomach-wrenching lurch she pulled off into an overlook I hadn’t noticed. She stopped the car facing straight out into something. The sky was so black I couldn’t tell what we were overlooking. There were no lights in sight either. She had led me to somewhere truly remote.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I felt my stomach calming after all the back and forth motion. She turned the engine off, but left the radio on. The tune was quiet; a pianist was taking a minimalist solo with only drums and bass for accompaniment. The clock read 12:37.

She turned her head directly toward me and said, “You can do anything you want to. You’ll have to take it because no one will give it to you, but it’s yours for the taking.”

It took me a moment to recover from the sudden return to conversation. “I know you’re right, but it seems to be easier said than done.”

“Ahh, you’re in denial,” she replied with a faint smile that made my pulse quicken. “But you know, I think you’ll be okay. I love how honest and direct you were. And trusting. You’re not as fucked up as you think you are.” She turned around and rummaged through the floorboard of the back seat, all the while muttering expletives under her breath. After about a minute she finally pulled a bottle of cheap looking red wine. “Would you like a drink?”

“Of Course If you’re offering,” I said as she was already unscrewing the cap and taking the first swig. She passed it to me and I tasted the bitter wine that had to have cost less than five dollars. “I appreciate your faith in me. It means a lot.” And it did. It was good to know someone could see things working out for me, even if I didn’t believe it myself.

“Well, I only speak the truth.”

“Nonetheless. Anyway, why this overlook? There doesn’t appear to be much to see.”

She smiled big and only said, “Just wait for the sunrise.”

We didn’t talk anymore after that. As we passed the wine back and forth I faintly realized this was the time to make a move on her if I was going to. I never did, but I never really decided not to either. I just let it go. We finished the bottle quickly and soon I was beginning to doze. After one brief glance to see she was still staring straight out the windshield I leaned my head back and quickly fell asleep.

I woke up suddenly. I felt as though I had just closed my eyes. The sky was graying and I could tell the sun was about to rise. Out in front of the car I could just make out a long, tree-covered valley. The sun was going to rise directly in front of us.

I stretched my arms and felt the taste of stale, shitty wine in mouth as she began to stir. She woke up fast and stretched a bit and turned to me and said, “Come on. We’re right on time.”

We got out and bundled up against the cold morning air. She jumped up on the hood of the blazer. I followed and sat beside her. We watched the sky redden and the sun rise as a bright red orb. There were no clouds in the sky. The valley was filled with fog beginning to burn off. It was completely covered with green pine trees as far as I could see. The view was absolutely pure; no buildings or fields or any kind of human doing touched it. It was beautiful.

I couldn’t help but smile. I was cold, tired, and hung over. It was the perfect strung out feeling that made you feel as though the night was worth it. I thought about Simone and the mess of my life. Then I let it all go. I thought about what she had said and I knew she was right. I would be okay. At least at this moment I was, anyway. I turned to look at the beautiful girl and tried to burn the sight of her into my brain. I somehow knew it would never work between us and I knew I wouldn’t see her again after this night. I knew she wouldn’t tell me and I decided not to ask her name. It didn’t matter. I wanted to preserve what cannot be preserved. But at least we had this night. One night I could look back on and smile. One perfect night.

It was enough.

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