The Drive

My first four days of writing for National Novel Writing Month, representing 6855 words and the first chapter of my novel. Feel free to leave comments below.

It was the second week of December. The semester had finished early, and Collin Nguyen was driving to the Gulf of Mexico. He hadn’t made it that far. He was almost at Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin, a small town where his mom liked to take the casino bus from in order to play Texas Hold ‘em. This was about an hour from his home. So, no, he hadn’t been driving very long, but the idea of driving to the Gulf of Mexico only popped in his mind an hour ago.

His red Toyota Matrix ambled along. Collin hadn’t made good time. Highway 35 ran along the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River. 35 had one lane running north and one lane running south, and the roads were sloppy from the snow. The constant vehicle traffic churned the snow into a slurry that would splash the up into the wheel wells and onto the sides of vehicles. Then at night when the temperature dropped, the road slurry would freeze into a shitty mess. The road would glaze over with ice and the shoulder would be bumpy from all the slurry splashed by the cars, trucks, and semi-trucks throughout the day.

Collin hadn’t made good time, but he was in no hurry. He just needed to drive to the Gulf of Mexico. However, he would stop at a Kwik Trip in Prairie Du Chien. He didn’t need gas. His tank was three quarters full. He needed a sugar-free Red Bull and a pack of clove cigarettes. He was going to smoke. His partner Lyla had asthma and didn’t like when his smoking habits crossed over from the occasional cigarette when he social smoked out at the bars into a cigarette or two throughout the day like a regular smoker. Also, their two sons were at the age when they could smell cigarette smoke on their dad’s breath and on his jacket if he had a smoke with friends at work in between teaching classes. But Lyla didn’t get a say in Collin’s life. If she didn’t love him, then fuck her—she didn’t get a say into his life. Collin was going to drive to the Gulf of Mexico, and he would smoke the entire goddamn way. 

Collin found a Kwik Trip as he was about to enter Prairie Du Chien. They were everywhere in the region. La Crosse was the headquarters and distribution hub for the chain of gas stations/convenience store. There was buy 2 get 1 free sale on sugar-free Red Bull. Collin left the store with three cans of Red Bull and a pack of Djarum Black in a white plastic bag. Collin fished the pack of cigarettes from the bag before tossing it into the passenger seat. 

He took off his black gloves off and stuffed them into one pocket of his black peacoat so that he could unwrap the plastic seal from the cigarettes. He stuffed the plastic into his other pocket and fished out the complimentary book of matches from the recesses of this pocket. He placed a clove into his mouth and could immediately taste its sweetness as the filter mixed with the saliva on his lips. He ripped out a match and squeezed it between the back of the matchbook and its striking strip. He then pulled out the match a flame popped into existence. The flame lit the clove in his mouth, and he sucked on the fragrant smoke. His insides were empty, and his hand was trembling from shock and despair. But the smoke filled the emptiness with something, and the nicotine dampened the churn in Collin’s mind somewhat.

However, it was cold. Collin’s fingers began to dry out from the winter air sucking out the moisture from his exposed hands. He was distraught and wanted to smoke. But there are things older and more primal than one’s need to dwell on why your partner stopped loving you, like the need to stay warm in the face of merciless winter. Collin was distraught to his core and driving to the Gulf of Mexico was a flight response to the fight that he had lost to Lyla, but he still wanted to live and preserve some shred of dignity. So, he decided that he would not stand outside anymore and smoke in the cold. He needed to smoke. He needed to drive and get as far away as possible from Lyla. So, he got into his family car, started the engine, rolled down the driver’s side window and smoked as he backed out of the Kwik Trip parking lot.

– – – –

There was an empty can of Red Bull on the floor of the passenger side. There were four missing cigarettes from the Djarum pack. Collin was snapped to alertness from his energy drink, and his throat was gathering phlegm from smoking four cloves in one hour—though they left a nice flavor on his lips, and his index and middle finger had a pleasant clove smell. 

In the back seat of Collin’s Toyota Matrix was a duffle bag. In it were hastily packed, clothing items: jeans, shirts, tennis shoes, underwear, socks. Collin had packed the bag as he stormed around the bedroom. Lyla was sitting on the bed watching him and crying. She had gored him with the revelation that she no longer loved him, and now he was going to wound her back. He was leaving. He was going to drive to the Gulf of Mexico. He was going to spend the winter break between his semester on the other side of the country. She could celebrate Christmas with the boys without their father and see what life would be like without him. Maybe she would rethink her feelings about him. Maybe she would have a change in spirit, like Ebenezer Scrooge. She could break the news to the boys when the bus dropped them off from school. 

“Don’t go.” Lyla plead softly.

“Go to hell.” Collin responded as he stormed out of the bedroom.

Collin wondered when he might have to change out of his winter garb and into the clothes that he packed, when he might shed his jacket and boots, for a sweater, jeans, and tennis shoes. Even though it was December, would it be warm enough for shorts near the Gulf?

He imagined the Matrix backed up somewhere overlooking the Gulf. Somewhere secluded so that he could park and sleep in the back of the compact car with its backseat down. He did remember to grab a sleeping bag before he stormed out of the house. The hatchback would be up. He would be sitting on back bumper watching the sun set. Maybe there would be wetlands. Maybe there would be cranes strolling through the grass hunting for frogs or crayfish. Maybe there would be offshore oil drills off in the distance. Maybe here Collin might find enough peace that he needed to repair his life after Lyla upended it with her admission.

Didn’t love him anymore. How could she even say that? After all Collin sacrificed for her.

At Prairie du Chien, Collin had crossed over the Mississippi and was now driving south through Iowa. It was still dreary and cold, but there was less snow everywhere. Just a dusting of whiteness over the desolate fields with dead corn stalks poking out.

He had checked the 2009 Road Atlas that he kept in the pocket behind the passenger seat. His Motorola flip phone had lost service as he crossed into Iowa. He was now out-of-range if Lyla tried to call. He also couldn’t receive texts or check his messages. According to the map, he would take Highway 52 and hug the western side of the Mississippi until he made his way to Dubuque, Iowa. Then he would shoot south to Davenport, then St. Louis, then Memphis, then Jackson, and then he would be in Louisiana. He wouldn’t go to New Orleans because he had Vietnamese family there. They would welcome him, feed him, slip him money, ask lots of questions about Lyla and the boys.

He didn’t want to see his relatives, or anyone for that matter. He wanted to be alone and stare out across the Gulf. He would spend his Christmas by himself while Lyla and the boys opened presents without him. Collins face clenched up and tears ran down his face at the thought of his boys celebrating Christmas without him. Maybe they would open presents first at his mom’s house. Maybe then they would go home and open the presents that he bought. They were sitting in a bag on top of the shelf in the bedroom closet. Maybe Lyla would wrap them and put them under the tree so that the boys could have some semblance of normalcy. Christmas would continue despite their father being somewhere on the other side of the country. 

Or maybe they would sit unwrap in the closet. Lyla wouldn’t even bother to acknowledge to the boys that their father had thought of them and bought them presents before their mother decided to sunder his life and stop loving him. Maybe she would poison the boys and not explain why their father was not around and not show them the presents that he bought. He was simply absent, and they would lie awake at night wondering what happened to their father.

Collin cried. For the past couple hours, he had been trying to deal with feelings foremost, but now other individuals were starting to creep back into his consciousness. Buried underneath his torrent of anguish and anger, he was imagining the looks in his sons’ eyes as they went about their days in his absence. Their consternation as their mom explain that daddy would be gone for a while. Would he be back for Christmas? I don’t know. Where did he go? I don’t know. Is he ok? Yes, your father is ok. Will he ever come back? I’m sure he’ll come back, eventually.

They would still go to school, play with their friends, sleep in their rooms, but they would carry their questions about their absent father with them throughout the day. 

For the past several years, as Collin was trying to complete graduate school, he hadn’t been a great father or partner for that matter. He had been at campus for most of the day. When he came home, he really wasn’t home. His mind was still at campus. He would be thinking about the class that he needed to prep for, the books that he needed to read over the weekend, the paper that he would need to hammer out by next week. After dinner, if he was home by dinner, while Lyla got the kids ready for bed and read the boys their stories, Collin would disappear in the basement to read the Jstor articles that he printed; to read the annotated edition of Shakespeare, Twain, or Joyce (whatever seminar class he was taking that semester); to read files of freshmen papers that were uploaded to D2L and needed his feedback and grades in a timely manner; or to read into an interaction with one of his professors—did he do something to create unnecessary political umbrage?

This had been the routine for the past two years as Collin struggled through graduate school at Wanetta State University to earn his master’s degree in English Language and Literature. He earned his degree. Then he was awarded a fixed-term position for the year. Then he discovered that he received a tuition waiver as part of his contract. Collin decided that he would also work on a master’s degree in English TESOL as well. This decision did not make Lyla happy.

There was not much to see on Highway 52. It was like any other highway in Iowa in the middle of December. It was after 4pm and starting to get dark. There was a blueness to the flat landscape surrounding the highway. Just the lights of oncoming traffic and passing signs to delineate the drive.

Collin was now drinking his second can of Red Bull. He didn’t need the stimulants, but he didn’t know what to do about with the weight of his feelings and the doldrum of the drive. He was down to half a pack of cloves at this point. They sat in the cupholder with the matches. Collin had become proficient at lighting a cigarette with the matches while he drove. He wanted to make sure that he only took both hands off of the wheel for the minimum amount of time to prevent his car from hitting a patch of ice and drifting out of the lane. Again, Collin was at his lowest, but he kept bumping into barriers of self-preservation that he didn’t know existed within him. 

– – – –

Earlier in the day, Collin and Lyla had the morning free. He had submitted his grades for the fall semester and the last paper for his one TESOL class for the semester. Lyla had gotten the boys ready for school. He was sitting upstairs in the bedroom drinking coffee and reading a graphic novel that he was considering incorporating into his freshman composition course at some point. 

Collin listened to the commotion of the boys getting ready for school. They were wearing their winter coats, snow pants, and boots, so there was a whisp whisp of their jackets and pants rubbing as well as a clomp clomp every time they stepped on the hard floor. The oldest boy, Zak (short for Zachary), was telling his mom about some Yu-Gi-Oh card his friend had. The youngest boy, Ryk (short for Ryker), was whining because he could find his hat in gloves in the basket that held all their winter accessories.

“That’s because it’s in your backpack.” Lyla said.

“Yeah, Ryk quit being so blind!” Zak chastised his brother. 

Ryk then whined to his mom. It was one of those mornings where he was being sensitive and was one mishap or harsh word from his older brother would trigger his tears, and he would whine to his mother. It irritated Collin how Lyla coddled their youngest son, almost enabling him to whine about everything. The boys did not whine when they were alone with him.

Somehow Lyla placated Ryk before the bus arrived. “Boys, the bus is here. Say goodbye to your dad.”

“Bye, dad!” They yelled upstairs.

“Bye, boys!” Collin yelled downstairs.

Collin could hear the clomping of their boys’ steps outside in the snow, and then there was the rumble of the school bus driving off. Now Collin and Lyla had the morning to themselves. 

After a few minutes Lyla, came upstairs. The warmth that she exhibited with her sons was now gone. They took with them most of her emotions and empathy, what remained at home with Collin was a shell of Lyla. Still, after 10 years together, Collin thought that there was something still inside her that he could reach and repair.

“Everything ok with the boys?” He asked.

“Yes, Ryk is just being emotional, and Zak doesn’t help things with his comments.” She responded. “Zak needs to be a little more sensitive to his little brother.”

“The boys at school aren’t going to be sensitive to Ryk.”

“Well, school is school, and home is home.” 

Things weren’t going the way Collin had hoped. He and Lyla were slipping into one of their disagreements about parenting styles. He took a more stoic approach to his sons because he grew up with brothers and mostly uncles. There was much more competition and silencing of one’s emotions in his formative development. She, on the other hand, only had a sister and aunts and female cousins. There was a lot more empathy and discussion of feeling in her formative development. Collin decided to circumvent this pointless argument between them.

“Why don’t you join me in bed?” He offered.

“No.” Lyla responded in an irritated manner. “I am not climbing back in bed. I am taking a shower.”

She then headed to the bathroom in the neighboring room. From the bedroom, Collin listened to Lyla shower routine. He heard the shower turn on. The rings of the shower curtain slid. He imagined Lyla naked climbing into shower. She took a while in the shower. She must have shaved her legs. He imagined the smoothness of her skin. 

When she emerged from the shower, she had a towel wrapped around her body and towel wrapped around her wet hair. Collin was waiting for her. Lyla seemed to know that he was waiting for her and dreaded returning to the bedroom. She entered the bedroom not making eye contact with him, heading straight for the dresser.

Collin climbed out of bed and approached Lyla from behind. He clutched one of her breasts and reached around waist. She went rigid. He kissed her neck, but she pulled away. 

“No.” She sternly admonished, “I am not in the mood.”

“Why not?” Collin returned. “What’s wrong? For the past month, you have been cold towards me. I try to initiate sex, and you rebuff me or just lie there.”

“I just haven’t been in the mood. That’s all. Do we have to discuss this now? I need to get ready.”

“Ready for what?”

“I promised Mr. Garcia that I would help him.” Mr. Garcia was the boys Taekwondo instructor. They started lesson at the beginning of the summer. 

“Oh, really? Is there something going on that I should know about.”

“No.” Lyla answered angrily.

Collin stared at Lyla, but she did not break eye contact with her. He was not comfortable with the amount of time her and the boys’ Taekwondo instructor had been spending together, but her insistence mollified him slightly.

“Then what is going on? I’m on break, and I try to spend time with you, and you’re too busy. The other night when you came home from work and I was watching TV with the boys, I saw a look in your eyes of disdain. What’s going on?”

“I’m just dealing with things.”

“Dealing with what? Is there something I did? What’s the problem?”

“I don’t love you anymore.”

– – – –

Collin had pulled off of the highway and stopped at a Wendy’s. The Redbull and Djarums were making him sick. Plus, he hadn’t eaten all day and was starting to get weak, but he had no appetite. Lyla’s words still resounded with him. 

Again, self-preservation from his lizard brain kicked in, telling him, “You gotta eat, man. How you going to make it to the Gulf of Mexico if you don’t feed your body?” Collin listened to this voice and reflexively ordered a Spicy Chicken combo with unsweetened iced tea.

The cashier was a nice Latina with a tattoo on her neck. It said “Ride or Die” in an ornate cursive script. “We need to fry up your chicken. It’ll be about 10 minutes. You can have a seat, and I’ll bring you your order when it’s ready.”

Collin obliged and took a seat nearby. He was in earshot of the cashier and the other staff members. He didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but he had nothing else to do.  The cashier and another African American woman were discussing their hours. One of them needed more hours, or she might consider a second seasonal job. One of them mentioned a court date and getting some fine paid off. One of them mentioned a father having custody of the kids that weekend and plans to go to a Nike store at an outlet mall and buying Christmas gifts for the family. Her sister was going to give her a ride since her car was acting funny, and they would shop together.

Collin sat there imagining their world. How would they feel if they had a man in their life like him? He had a good job, he was ambitious, he accomplished things, he was a loyal partner, he helped raise his kids, he didn’t cheat. Would these women be able to love him? Or was there something fundamentally wrong with Collin that prevented normal women from loving and staying in love with him?

Collin and Lyla had met the summer after he graduated from high school. She was two years younger than him. She was also the girlfriend of one of his friends at the time. They made out at party that Collin threw out in the country at his stepfather’s house.

When Collin went off to college at the end of that summer, he made a crucial mistake—he foolishly remained in a long-term relationship with Lyla throughout his college career. Maybe it was because this was his first serious relationship; maybe it was because Lyla came from a broken home, and he felt he needed to save her; maybe he wasn’t strong enough to walk away and be single. Regardless, he and Lyla strained under the pressures to maintain a relationship while one person was off at college and the other was bouncing around from different family members’ homes trying to finish high school while her parents going through a bitter divorce.

Lyla came to live with Collin after she graduate from high school and did nothing to solve her and their problems. The problem was that they were both too young, and their lives were meant to head into different directions, and yet they stayed tethered together out of sheer stubbornness. 

Then Lyla got pregnant in the middle of Collin’s senior year of college, and when he graduated, because he unwisely chose to be an English Creative Writing major, he went to work at the CD store at one of the malls and prepare for his impending fatherhood. A decade later he was waiting for his spicy chicken combo meal at some unfamiliar Wendy’s in Iowa.

“Here’s your order, hon.” The Latina with the neck tattoo interrupted. “Sorry about the wait.” She slid the tray with Collin’s order on the table.

Collin said thanks and stared at the food. He wasn’t hungry but felt that he had a duty to eat because that’s what humans did. They ate so that they could nourish their bodies so that they continue living their stupid lives staying with their high school girlfriends, raising kids with her, working shitty jobs to put food on the table and buy the kids Christmas gifts, struggling through graduate school, and then finding out at the end of the it all your partner doesn’t love you. Out of duty and a vague sense that this used to be his favorite Wendy’s meal, Collin took a bite out of the sandwich. However, because he had been chain smoking for the better part of the day, he could not taste the meal—it was just material in his mouth for him to chew. He took a few bites of his fries. They were hot and salty, but beyond that, they were just material as well. Collin compliantly ate all the material and drank some of his iced tea. Then he took the rest of his drink with him as he went back to his car.

Collin placed the drink in the second cupholder next to his cigarettes. The ice in the beverage clanked around in the cup. Instead of feeling energized after eating his meal, Collin felt exhausted. From the moment Lyla told him that she did not love him, his body had been running on flight emotions, clove and nicotine, and whatever constituted Red Bull. It was depleted by this expenditure. Now that he had eaten, he had reset whatever base human functions needed resetting, and his body told him that it was exhausted and wanted to rest.

Can’t though. Need to drive to the Gulf of Mexico. So, Collin wearily resumed his drive.

– – – –

“What do you mean you don’t love me?” His question was laced with both shock and anger. “After all we’ve been through?” Collin hands were on Lyla’s upper arms. His grip tightened.

She pulled away from him and steadfastly repeated. “I don’t love you.” They stared at each other furious but unsure what was to come next. 

After a long pause, Collin prodded, “When did you decide this?”

“I don’t know.” Lyla responded. Her defenses soften. “Things between us haven’t been right for a long time. We’ve been growing apart.” She sat down on the bed still with a towel wrapped around her body and a towel wrapped around her head. Collin stood in front of her looming but not crossing into Lyla’s space. He was wary of provoking further heartbreaking surprises from her. 

 “I’ve been in graduate school.” Collin pleaded. “Do you know how stressful that was for me?”

“Do you know stressful that has been for me and the boys?” Lyla quickly retorted.

“You have no idea what I had to do in order to make it through. You never completed more than one semester of undergraduate classes.” Collin knew that he was poking at one of Lyla’s sore spot. The few times that she had been out with him and his grad school cohort, she had expressed deep insecurities the next day because she felt inadequate amongst his hyper-educated peers.

“And whose fault is that? I moved after high school to be with you. I got pregnant.” This was somewhat true, but Collin always felt she moved away to escape her dysfunctional family. In fact, her moving to be with him wasn’t an easy time for him. It felt more like an imposition on him at the time.

“Don’t blame your education fiasco on me. I encouraged you to go to school. You dropped out.” This was true. Lyla enrolled at community college classes during Collin’s junior year at the university. She had a lot of difficulties with the prerequisite math, history, and writing classes. She didn’t see the point in them. The only thing that piqued her interest was her psychology class, and that was because it was a foothold into understanding the problems that her parents’ dysfunctional relationship cultivated in her.

“I wasn’t like you. I didn’t have parents supporting me, like you. I wasn’t ready to go to school.” This was quite true. Even though Collin’s parents were divorced, they were on amicable terms, having put ugliness of their failed marriage behind them long ago. Collin’s mom had remarried and Collin’s father and stepfather were on friendly terms.

“Well, don’t hold it against me because I went back for more school. I went back because I was going nowhere in life. I was working a string of temp jobs just to make sure that the bills were paid, and we had food to eat. I was miserable.” This was very true. Before Collins decided to go back to school, he used to excuse himself after the family dinner and go for a drive. He had no friends in the town where they settled after Zak was born. The only reason they were there was because his mom lived there, and it was cheaper for them to live there. Collin would drive around the town hoping to discover something that would give him a momentary reprieve from his depression at being a young father who had to work jobs that he hated. He never did.

“But at least you were around,” Lyla countered.

Collin stooped to his knees and grabbed Lyla’s hands. “I am around now,” he offered. 

Lyla pulled her hands away from him and said, “It’s not the same. I don’t feel the same way. It was just me, and the boys for the past two years. You would be off at school, and we would be here. When you came home, you would be distant or crabby towards us. Everyone had to give you your space. On the weekends, you would need to read or write or grade. I would take the boys to the park or with me on my errands, and you would be in the basement doing your thing.” Lyla shared this information like a witness delivering testimony at court. She was calm, composed, sincere.

“I made sacrifices for you and the boys. You don’t think I recognized what was happening to me? You would bring coffee to me in the morning while I was writing my thesis. At night, the boys would come down into the basement to say goodnight to me and give me a kiss—even after I had been an asshole all day. I did what I had to do for a better life, a better life for all of you.” Collin was impassioned but candid with his counterargument. 

“You did what you did for yourself. Don’t try to say that this was for us,” Lyla bluntly stated. Her words made Collin rock back on his heels. He slowly stood up. He was silent. Then hurt and anger filled in the hole that been punched inot him. 

He went into the closet and grabbed a duffle bag.

“What are you doing?” Lyla asked.

Collin started grabbing items out of the dresser.

“Tell me, what are you doing?” Lyla repeated.

Collin went into the closet and grabbed jeans that were on hangers.

“I can’t stay here.” Collin uttered. “I can’t stay here if you don’t love me.”

“Where are you going?” Lyla asked.

“I don’t know. I just need to get away from this. From you.”

“How long are you planning on being gone?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll come back after Christmas.”

“What will I tell the boys?”

“Tell them whatever you goddamn want. Tell them that you don’t love their father anymore. Tell them you don’t want us to be a family.” Collin finished the last of hurried packing. He retrieved a sleeping bag from the closet in the hallway.

He returned to the bedroom with Lyla sitting on the bed to confront her one last time.

“I’m going now.” He coldly informed her.

“Don’t go.” she plead softly.

“Go to hell.” He responded as he stormed out of the bedroom.

– – – –

Collin had made his way to Dubuque and was now on the outskirts leaving the city. He was on Highway 61 heading for Davenport. It was night, and there was a light feathery snow fall. He had been driving all day in a haphazard manner and felt that he was no closer to the Gulf of Mexico and the respite that he believed would await him there, a haven where one can go to process painful truths and not be torn down from the inside by feelings of failure. If such a place existed, it surely must be on the other side of the country.

It was 8pm, and Collin was exhausted from the ordeals of his day. His throat was phlegmy, and his gums felt like beef jerky from all the smoking he had done. There were two cloves left in the pack. His face felt tight from him holding in the emotions that were racing through him. Anger. Sadness. Remorse. He had been in his head the entire drive and had a throbbing headache. His mind could not take any more thinking.

“Maybe you should check into a motel and get some sleep.” His lizard brain reasoned with him. This seemed like a sensible suggestion. It was dark, the roads were icy, Collin was tired. The last thing he needed was to get into and accident or end up on the side of the road. His emotions were so frayed that he would be able to handle the stress of dealing with an accident. Collin saw a sign for a Best Western and turned into the next exit.

There was young woman behind the counter working as the night clerk. She was wearing the company suitcoat. Collin tried to talk with the woman like he was a normal person, not someone whose partner didn’t love him and was racing any from his problems. 

To the woman, something seemed off about the man. Not like in a dangerous or crazy way, he had an emotional stink about him. He wasn’t bad looking, and she could have a conversation with him, but she would never be able to let her guard down and relax around him.

“Hi, sir.” (Collin didn’t like when younger women called him sir. However, it was happening more and more at his age.) “How can I help you?”

Collin held up his duffle bag. “I would like a room for the night.”

“Will it just be you?” She innocently asked.

Collin dwelled on the phrasing of “just be you.” He tried to answer, but his voice cracked. “Ye—ahem. Yes.”

“Ok.” The woman responded trying not to react to the strangeness of the man’s answer. “Let me see what single occupancy rooms we have available.” She busied herself typing information into her computer.

Single. The word reverberated in Collins mind. He took a deep breath to restrain his emotions.

“We have one room with a master bed available for tonight.”

“I’ll take it.” Collin just wanted to hide in the room at this point. He was not fit or able to handle basic human interactions in his state. However, the woman handed him a form that he needed to fill out. 

So many boxes. So many questions. Collin looked at the form like it was filled with calculus problems and didn’t know where to start. The woman sensed his bewilderment and added, “Please just fill in your address and phone number. You don’t need to fill out your credit card information. Will you be paying with Visa, Mastercard, or some other credit card?”

“Mastercard.” Collin dug out his credit card from his wallet.

“One second while I run this.” The woman was polite, but the man was acting weird, and it was making her feel slightly uncomfortable.

Collin resumed the mental gymnastics of writing out the address where he and Lyla lived without breaking out into sobs.   

– – – –

When Collin woke up, he had to remember why he was in a motel room. Oh yeah. It came back to him. He had no idea how long he had been asleep. He felt somewhat rested, but his head still had a dull throb from all the mental processing he had done. His feelings had settled somewhat as well. He no longer felt the certainty of emotions that was propelling him south. He had lost that momentum during his slumber in the unfamiliar motel bed. Now he felt alone, sad, and uncertain what his next move would be.

Collin flipped open his phone to check the time. It was 10:14. He had been asleep for little more than an hour. The events of the day were transpiring slower than Collin would have liked. If he had his way, he would have elided over all the pit stops, human interactions, and motel stays between home and the Gulf of Mexico. He would simply be there eating a sandwich or throwing rocks into the water. Instead, his flight was becoming like Zeno’s constant. Before Collin could arrive at the Gulf, he had to get halfway there. Before he could get halfway there, he needed to get a quarter of the way there. Before he could get a quarter of the way there, he needed to get an eighth of the way there. And now he was stuck in some stupid motel room.

Collin was wallowing in despair when he noticed that he had an alert for 2 new voice mail messages on his flip phone. In his current location, he received one bar. Through this weak signal, during the time that he slept, two phone messages had managed to find their way to him. Collin’s heart raced and tears welled up in his eyes. He didn’t know what tidings these messages would bring.

He went to the voice mail screen and punched in his password.

“First message at 4:27—” It was his mom.

“Collin.” The sound of his mother’s voice saying his name made him break down into deep sobs. “Hope everything is ok with you,” she continued. “Just remember that you have two beautiful sons. And they look up to you and love you. And I’m here for you if you need anything or need to talk. Please call me when you can and let me know that you are safe. Love you. And take care.”

Lyla must have talked to his mom. Collin allowed himself to cry until his feelings tapered off into controllable weeping. He then steeled himself to listen to the second message that awaited him.

“Second message at 7:13—” It was Lyla.

“Collin…” Lyla voice was quiet and sad. She had been crying. “I am sorry for what I said to you…” Her message was broken with pauses as she tried to compose herself to say what she wanted to say next. “I miss you… the boys asked about you…and I told them that you had to go away for a work trip…I hope that you are ok…if you get the chance, please call me…I would like to work on things…on us…ok…bye.”

Collin could barely get through Lyla’s message he was crying uncontrollably with the phone pressed to his head. He was sitting on the bed buckled over. The anger, hurt, sadness, that he had felt throughout the day was lessened by the realization that his partner was reaching out to him. That she was feeling some form of pain too from the argument that they had and his departure. That she was leaving a door open for him, if he could work through his emotions, if he wanted to return home to her and their boys. There might still be hope for them.

Collin went to the landline phone that sat on the desk. He read through the instructions for placing a collect call. He called home. Lyla answered.

– – – –

The night clerk was filling out some paperwork when the weird man approached her.  His face was red and puffy like he had been crying. “Is everything ok?”

“Yes, everything is fine, but I would like to check out.” His voice sound different. It had a little more energy to it. Almost hopeful.

He had only spent three hours in his motel room. “Ok, but I still need to charge you for the night.”

“I understand.”

– – – –

In comparison to the winter in the Midwest, the December temperature in Louisiana felt warm to Collin. The sheriff who approached Collin was wearing too heavy a jacket for the weather in Collin’s estimation. In the sheriff’s estimation, Collin was underdressed for the weather. That was the tip off that he was not from around these parts—plus, the license plate on the red Matrix said Wisconsin.

The sheriff had driven by Collin twice and was wondering what he was up to. Strange car parked by the side of the road usually meant someone was in trouble or up to making trouble.

Collin explained his story, and the sheriff understood. Said that his brother-in-law had a hard time when his sister told him that she didn’t love him anymore and wanted a divorce. However, his brother-in-law was a drunk who had been out of work for the past three years. He should have seen it coming. 

They later found the brother-in-law pulled over on the side of the road with a bullet hole through the back of the head. 

“You don’t have a gun in your car, do you, son?” The sheriff asked in a southern drawl. 

“No, sir.” Collin answered.

“That’s good. Your kids shouldn’t grow up without a father. Don’t make a bad situation worse with decision that you can’t take back.”

“I won’t, sir.” Collin and the sheriff were watching the sun set over the water.

“You can enjoy God’s gift a little longer, but you can’t spend the night here. I would recommend that you find a campground to shack up until you’re ready to return home. There are two nearby. I recommend Briar Campground, not the Acorn Campground. Briar is less trouble. Too many pedos and other undesirables at Acorn.”

“Thanks, officer.” Collin responded.

The sheriff started walking to his squad car. “Son, one more thing.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re young. You’ll be fine. Just ride out the storm with your missus. Another one will be waiting when you’re ready.”

“Thanks, officer.” 

This is what Collin’s lizard brain wanted Collin to hear—if he would have continued driving to the Gulf. Collin did not. 

He drove back to his home with Lyla after they talked on the phone that night. It was early in the morning when he arrived. He and Lyla patched things up as best they could. They made love, it was tender and nice. They fell asleep next to one another. The boys said goodbye to their sleeping father the next day before school.

Life resumed as best it could for the time being.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

1 thought on “The Drive”

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