The first time he heard, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” by Taylor Swift, Josh was waiting for his mom to come out of the bathroom at the Streetside Café somewhere in Indiana, finishing up his third cup of coffee. The waitress had stopped coming around to their table, but occasionally she glanced over at the surface, then up at Josh, quickly looking away again to carry on about her business.
The girl was pretty, he thought the way her dark hair kinda fountained out of the ponytail, her cream complexion working together with the V of her teal polo, the way she said “menu” with her teeth showing slightly, then her lips pursing into a pucker. He imagined asking what time she’d be off, having her climb into his Camry, apron flung into the back seat, driving her off to whoknowswhere, maybe some fancy restaurant or a drive-in, the kinds that still had vintage cars parked up and old movies still playing.
He folded the napkin so all the corners touched, and mom came back out of the bathroom, favoring her left leg, the one Josh told her to get checked out, but she wouldn’t because she said it’d be “Just fine.” He pretended like he didn’t notice her approaching the table, but he could feel everyone in the diner string at her. Sure, she was a little loafy, but we’re not talking about Shamu here.
Josh wasn’t really embarrassed about his mom – only when she sighed and grunted when sliding into a booth, or when she talked to him about his job, or how much time he had left with her before she died, or when she talked to others about his teenage years or current living arrangements, especially when she talked to pretty girls about how much of a catch he was because he looked just like his dad.
This was day two of the road trip, and this was the fifth time they’d stopped to “grab a bit to eat and catch up on things.” Josh had resolved to say as little as possible on the way there to avoid his mother’s introspective self-loathing, the kind of poetic drivel you might hear in a Counting Crows song. His mother wasn’t too keen on talking either – at least this week. She wanted more family time, as she put it, but she placed a high priority on playing and singing Elvis hits to herself in the car, quietly addressing each of the rolling hills they passed on the highway.
“Did you tip her?”
“I said, did you tip her?”
“Mom, we haven’t left yet.”
She shrugged, looking at the car through the window.”
“You ready to go or something?”
“Sure, I guess so.” Josh peered around the diner. He didn’t see the girl. Maybe she was on a break. Perhaps she was too young for him anyway.
“You’re not in in a hurry, are you? Where—where are my keys?” She fumbled with her purse.
“I’m driving, mom, remember?”
“Yeah. Did you bring any change?”
“We’ll tip her when we leave.”
Josh hoped his mom wanted one more cup of coffee, but she seemed ready to go, getting all fidgety there in the booth.
They would be reaching Springfield the next day, most likely, assuming they’d stay on schedule. Josh’s mom grew wary of flying after 9/11, so she insisted on driving into Illinois to see the grave of her late ex-husband, Josh’s father, and in order to keep his sister company after a trip to the mortuary, according to Josh’s mother, but Josh knew it was because his aunt had a sum from the inheritance and she was afraid to send money in the mail.
The road remained boring. Josh intermittently looked at the speedometer, seeing if he could keep the car at 65 miles per hour without using the cruise control, while his mom maintained a steady yet blank gaze on her phone, occasionally sighing at her lap.
The hotel Josh intended to stay at was about 67 miles off – he’d planned each stop to conserve as much time as possible while getting somewhere before his mom decided to doze off in the car, but her insistence to stop and the late hour had put her in a position to begin the descent into slumber already. Josh tried to whistle to her, which sounded more like the whirring of an old air conditioner, attempting to startle his mom awake a little bit, but she was on her way to Graceland under her eyelids.
Dismay poured over Josh’s countenance. He’d taken a week off of work at the bank for this. It’s true, he felt sorry for his mom, though, even in her lack of motivation to eat foods that didn’t come individually wrapped or microwave-ready, even though she told his brother the blanket she was making for his son would be done last Christmas, but now little Jason was turning three and was becoming fascinated with Spiderman, not Bob the Builder. Josh even offered her some money to buy a new outfit at Target, but she insisted that he needed to save it for “that dream house you’ve always wanted,” even though he’d never said anything of the sort, instead romanticizing about a high rise apartment somewhere in Chicago down the street from a stadium or museum or something.
“Only You” was finishing up, and Josh restarted the CD he’d burned for her, and he’d forgotten the first song on the CD was “Hound Dog” and quickly turned down Elvis’ booming tenor intro so his mom wouldn’t wake up and get crabby. The road straightened out, and he pushed the gas a little bit harder to get to the hotel before 9:00.
It was 9:06 when they arrived. They checked in, and Josh pulled the bags while escorting his mom, still lethargic from the eggs over easy and French toast with both sides burnt, to the elevator and into their second-story room facing the parking lot. Josh opened up his laptop and sat at the desk, while his mom took another trip to the bathroom for a spell. The room was plain at best, but still evoked nostalgic feelings in Josh, the way the drapes and sheets bore a similar mauve tone, like all the others in the hotels he’d gone to with his dad. The cities in the Midwest all blended together in his memories of distance from home, nothing unique or surprising, like the fresh but somehow worn-out sheets of a three star room in Colorado Springs, and the cool vacancy of their home in Peoria when his dad quietly moved out with his girlfriend from Boston.
When Josh’s mom came out of the bathroom, she rolled into bed and flipped on the TV, found a Kojak marathon and stared up at the ceiling. The blue glow of the TV contrasted the lamp’s orange hue, splitting the aura of the room in half, and Josh’s side even seemed warmer than the other, proverbially reflecting each occupant’s respective countenance. Josh appeared preoccupied – although he always seemed to be, about something – leaning at a slight angle in the desk chair toward the laptop, almost like he was ski jumping into the wireless cloud of data. He scanned the monitor up and down, pausing briefly, then typing furiously. His silence radiated into the other world his mother dwelled in, drawing her to investigate curiously, but without great effort.
“Josh, you can’t be working—“
“Not now, mom.”
“The least you can do is talk to me if we’re going to share a room.”
Josh sighed. “I didn’t want to share a room.”
“Then… then get another one why don’t you?”
Josh paused to appear focused on the task at hand, but the screen appeared blurry. He couldn’t focus. That was the problem. Focus.
He held his ground through four more Who loves ya babys, his neck locked and rigid. He refused to look at the bed until he knew for sure she’d forgotten the question. He’d brought it up, before the trip, and twice in the car, but his mom wanted to save the money for something important, she said. He’d begun to question whether she even knew how to weigh significance. She hadn’t even weighed herself for at least four years.
After the standoff, his communication embargo, he swiftly shut the laptop and pulled it off the desk, under his arm, and headed toward the door. He thought about looking back, but didn’t, and he was around the corner before the door clicked shut behind him. After the longest elevator ride of his life, Josh found himself in the lobby, and had at first intended to camp there for the night, or at least for a couple of hours, but he felt compelled in his bones to keep walking, walking out the door, and now he was running across the parking lot toward the car. He realized he’d forgotten his jacket just as he unlocked the car and slid in, started the engine, located the freeway and gunned it east.
He didn’t know how fast he was going. When he looked back at this whole scene, which read like a fairy tale in his mind, it could have been 80 or 120, but the point is, he’d lost complete track. The road rolled past him, the dashed white lane lines blending into one. But it didn’t matter; he’d found the focus, and he was determined, now, to return to the diner to find that girl. Was her name Alyssa? Alicia? He liked Alicia better, and he said it a few times to get used to it when he’d introduce himself and finally whisk her away from the grease and steam of the diner forever.
It was probably 10:40 when he arrived. To his relief, it was still open; he remembered about fifty miles back that he’d seen the “open 24 hours” sign during the last visit, but became nervous about it at about twenty miles away. Was she still there?
He parked, turned off the engine, and sat in the car for a moment. He watched the gnats swirl around the sole parking lot light near the corner of the restaurant, about fifteen feet from the entrance. Maybe she’d come out for a break, or notice his headlights were still on. Regardless, without question, this was the most insane thing he’d ever done. He thought about what his mom would have thought; she was likely still lying on the bed, the M*A*S*H* theme song humming from the TV, snoring away with all of her clothes still on. Or maybe she was still awake, alarmed by his sudden departure, now sitting up on the bed and looking out the window where his car was once parked at the hotel. Was he coming back? Josh sensed the possible anxiety coursing through his mom’s body. She was helpless. She’d lost her husband five years ago, and permanently two weeks ago; now her son was leaving. In a life of embarrassment and regret, he’s all she had left.
Josh peered into the diner, squinting to see through the slightly foggy windows of the restaurant. He thought he saw a girl with dark hair facing away from him, maybe wiping a table or adjusting a chair. She seemed a little bit shorter than he’d remembered, or a little bit older. Before he could get a fair assessment, the girl inside strolled out of sight and carried on with her business.
The keys still hung in the ignition. He took one last breath, and then reached for them. He wanted one glimpse, just to see if the girl in the diner was still there, but he felt compelled to stay in the car. And then, he found himself reaching for the keys, turning the ignition, and backing out of the parking lot once and for all.