At Night

At night I drive down the vacant streets of a sleeping city, flickering street lamps lighting the way. My eyes are trained on the road but my mind is elsewhere.

A decade; that’s how long it’s been. Ten years since she drifted into my room, told me she bought a plane ticket, said to me she’s leaving tomorrow.

I pass a darkened sign welcoming drivers to a stretch of road paved high above the city’s wetlands. A familiar smell manifests in the damp air.

We use to drive down this road every day on the way to and from school. Sometimes my mother would drive us, sometimes hers. I recall how the musty stench of earth and water would drown the scent of their cheap perfume, as I wondered what horrors lay beneath the static gloom. One humid afternoon I asked what she thought. She was sitting behind the driver’s seat, picking at the pilling on her school skirt.

With unflinching eyes she turned to me and said, “There’s no monsters there, stupid. The inertia is the monster.”

We were thirteen at the time - the same grade and age but she was years of intellect above me; I had no idea what inertia meant.

“The swamp,” she explained casually, “It’s the monster and it keeps the city still, trapped in mud.”

“Really?”

“Yep.” 

I remember the sun peering from the blurred tree-tops beyond the car’s window, her profile pulsing against the intermittent light. 

“You better do what you can to get out,” she continued, “Or it’ll swallow you whole.”

I didn’t understand what she was saying but the swamp made me feel uneasy thereafter. She was always pulling shit like that.

And so I speed down the elevated highway a little over the limit, driven by years of unfounded fear.

I leave the swamp behind and in the distance see the humming lights of the city’s airport capping the shadowed horizon. My phone vibrates on the passenger’s seat, writhes around and flashes its blue lights. I know who it is and I ignore the call, figuring that soon enough she’ll find the note I left amongst the aimless waves of the bed we shared, explaining where I’d gone.
 - -
In the Arrivals area I turn a corner and see her standing there, bags idle at her feet. She smiles widely when she sees me, and the years of anger I’d built up just blows away.
 - -
We make our way back to my house where she’s staying because she doesn’t have family in this city anymore. She spends the drive condensing the past decade into one animated conversation - telling stories while making wide gestures, talking about everything she has now and nothing of what she left behind. She fell into a career and now works as some kind of consultant. She’s lived in countless cities and thinks she might’ve found one where she feels at home. Her skin is a little darker, her hair a little lighter, her voice more assured. Somehow, I smile through it all.

“So you’re an engineer?” she asks after a lull in conversation.

I want to say I have been for quite some time, which she’d know had she bothered to get in touch. “Sure am,” is what I go with.

“The kind you wanted to be?”

“Process, yeah.”

“That’s great,” she says, genuinely happy for me. “You were studying so hard when… Well, I’m glad you got what you wanted.”

“Life’s pretty good.”

I wonder if she notices the lack of conviction.

I slow at a set of lights even though we’re the only car around. She laughs as she rolls down the window to let in the cool evening breeze and the smell of the wetlands.

“Oh god,” she exclaims, face coming alive. “The swamp!”

“The swamp,” I echo.

“Never thought I’d miss it… The odour of home.”

I steal a glance and she’s looking out into the night like she’s seeing the place we grew up for the very first time. I feel a large, empty space between us.

“It’s still here,” I say. “Nothing’s changed.”

She turns and offers me a thin smile. “Some things have.”

At night I pull into the drive, show her the guest room, kiss her on the cheek and say goodnight. She thanks me for inviting her. I tell her it’s no problem; I’m glad she came. Then I leave and slip into bed beside the woman I’ll marry tomorrow with some hesitation. I think about my childhood best friend, and wonder if the version entombed in my memories will also turn into a stranger with time. I close my eyes and dream of walking into the murky waters.

A Fictional Tale by Gale Garcia

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