TWO - I Drove All Night

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I had to escape

The city was sticky and cruel


It was on our first 'After Nathan' Christmas that mom gave me her old Walkman. Funny how life had been reduced to Before Nathan and After Nathan. As if he had that much power over us. I hated him and his thirty dollar haircut.

She'd wrapped the gift in newspaper-an ad for Al's Pawn where the bow might have gone (if this was a Before Nathan Christmas)-there were tears in her eyes as she put it in my hands.

One pathetic strand of white lights circled our window like a mourning shroud, casting long shadows across the ceiling, making the bruises on her cheek seem darker, though they were nearly healed. She was always touching her face, as if she could put things back to the way she used to be through the power of her palm and the strength of her wants. Being pretty was what she was best at. She didn't know what to do now that he'd taken that from her.

I took my time opening the gift; slipping my finger through the spaces between strips of tape; opening it like I wanted to save the paper because it was too lovely to throw away-the way my grandmother used to do before the life insurance made her rich.

Mom sat there holding her face together and when the present finally rested open on my lap, she burst into ugly sobs. "I'm so sorry, Char!"

We were poor. We could buy groceries and pay the electrical bill because she had a job, but there were no bells and whistles anymore. Nathan took the fun away.

I'd already unwrapped the gift my father sent in the mail. An iPod. "Merry Christmas!" the card said. "I know how you like to rock." There was an iTunes card taped beside his cliche message. I hated it.

I traced my fingers along the yellow plastic of the Walkman. A piece of scotch tape held the tape deck in place and the headphones had little foam covers that looked like something had chewed on them. Janet was written in marker just below the Sony logo. I could tell she'd tried to clean it off but it still boasted her name clearly. There was also a circle that said Peter with a big X over it. I didn't mind. I appreciated the nostalgia of it. There was a cassette inside and I opened it to see a tape with my mother's handwriting across the sticker: Girl Power, 1993.

My mom spoke through her tears. "I would sit on the basement floor with your Uncle Pete's ghetto blaster in front of me. When a song came on that I liked, I'd push record. My friends thought I had a great sense for playlists."

I could picture it clearly, and everything about the image made me happy. I took my dad's present and stuffed it under the couch cushion. Mom sat down beside me and removed the Walkman from my hands, pressing play before setting it on the coffee table in front of us. Annie Lennox started walking on broken glass. Sound leaked out of the headphones like a secret. Mom curled her legs up under her and laid her head on my shoulder and we stayed like that until dinner time, not speaking, barely moving, listening to the very quiet anthems of girls who didn't back down ooze out over us.

On Boxing Day, I took the iPod to Al's Pawn and traded it for a gold necklace. It had a delicate chain and a dainty horseshoe charm. When I gave it to my mother she'd laughed and said, "well, now things will get better." I thought she'd be mad about the iPod but she just hugged me. "They're dishonest, Charlotte. Music deserves more than to be condensed into a tiny white square."

______________

The bus lurched and I startled awake, my heart rushing in a panic of butterfly wings against my chest until I remembered where I was. It smelled like old towels and new sweat. My guitar case remained firmly planted between my legs, my duffle bag on the seat beside me like a rumpled boulder. The Walkman pulsed Cyndi Lauper against my skull, which meant I'd been asleep for nearly the entire B-side. The man across the aisle was snoring. A child was leaning over the seat in front, grinning at me, blowing a pink bubble that smelled like a carnival. My stomach turned and I pressed my forehead against the window, the cool glass helping me to centre.

I was dreaming while I drove; the long straight road ahead, un huh...

The countryside flew past in a blur. It was nearing dawn, the sky just beginning to lighten. I'd caught the 3am bus from the Brooklyn station which meant I'd arrive a few hours before the audition call. I didn't know what to expect. I'd grown up in the city, though it never really felt like home.

"It's a small town," I'd told my mother when I called to tell her I was chasing after a job. "It looks cute."

"You'll be bored," she said. "What if you want to go to a movie at two in the morning? Or what if you want to go out and see a band? What if you want to meet a man?"

"They have movies."

I could hear the click of her laptop in the background. "Ha! They show classic films at 'Black, White, and Read'. A bookstore theatre. I've never..."

"It's charming," I said.

"You're going to be so bored."

I'd only wanted her support.

I settled back in my seat and touched my earlobes, a nervous tick that always came out when she frustrated me.

______________

I stepped off the bus at the same moment the streetlights clicked off. The first thing I noticed was the silence. When the bus rumbled away I was left standing on the sidewalk with everything I owned, looking for a fresh start, and being met with an unsettling stillness.

I turned a slow circle. There was no denying the beauty of the place but I didn't know what to do without noise. I started to hum a Beatles song. I felt like Eleanor Rigby, just another one of the lonely people. But it was my mother who kept her face in a jar-at least the memory of it-and there was no way I'd let myself ever be buried along with my name. "I'm Charlotte Flynn," I whispered to the morning.

Nice to meet you, the crickets said.

There was no quiet in New York. Even the buildings talked. The only crickets I'd ever heard were on old Saturday morning cartoons and I'd thought they were something made up by a sound engineer.

When I find myself in times of trouble...

"Okay," I said out loud. "Now what?"

A bird sang somewhere over by the pretty gazebo in what had to be the town square. I wanted to cup my hands around my lips and shout, "Hello?" but I was terrified no one would answer.

Then I was terrified someone would.

I played with my earlobe and thought of my mother. A slow burn of fury started to boil in my belly. What if she was right?

If I were Elton John I'd be Rocket Man-ing my soulful lament to the quiet streets. And I think it's going to be a long, long time...

There was a loud slam and I jumped, turning from the gazebo to face the opposite street where a man in a flannel button-down was tossing a garbage bag into a dumpster. He walked back into a building that said HARDWARE, but a yellow coffee cup hung by the door and a vinyl decal over cafe curtains said 'Food'.

I hoisted my pack onto my shoulder and lifted my guitar case.

Coffee time, my dreamy friend...

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