by Anne Savage
Content warning: Sexual content and harassment
You look out the window and say, “It’s going to be bad, isn’t it?” But we don’t know yet just how bad it’s going to be.
The snow started three hours ago. Someone had punched the sky in the nose and now it has two black eyes. In the dark glass of the pharmacy automatic sliding door, we can see our pale, timid faces reflected. As you and I deliberate, we stand just far enough away from the door’s sensor so that it won’t discern our presence.
It was foolish of you to venture out here in the first place, but you had to go to the pharmacy because you had to buy cranberry juice. You had to buy cranberry juice because you have a UTI. You’ve been pissing every hour. It feels like magma and is the color of Coca Cola. As you walked from our house to the pharmacy, you ignored the twinges.
Meanwhile, the snow accumulated on your eyelashes and melted down your cheeks. Between your numb top lip and your nostrils was pure snot slick. After you arrived at the pharmacy, purchased the cranberry juice, crumpled the receipt in the pocket of your thrifted coat with the seventies faux fox fur lining, you called me.
My tips were dismal tonight. Do you know how truly desperate a person has to be to sing karaoke at ten o’clock on a Thursday night during a blizzard? I stashed the bills in my push-up bra (the one with a strap held in place with a safety pin), then I scraped an inch of stubborn ice off my car’s windshield with a debit card attached to an account with a balance of negative twenty eight dollars. I drove to you.
You say, “It’s just going to get worse.”
We decide to run for it.
Then we are in the car, snowmelt running in rivulets down the cracked leather seats. I left the engine running. The movement from the windshield wipers is frantic but the rhythm of the sound comforts me. The dust from the blasting heater smells nostalgic. I leave the pharmacy parking lot with my left hand lolling on the lower half of the wheel. You hold my right hand, rubbing warmth and circulation back into the chapped pink skin (I want to be too devil-may-care to wear gloves).
Under normal circumstances, it’s a seven minute drive from our house to the center of town, less if you run the stoplight. But these circumstances are abnormal. Nobody’s bothered to clear the roads. The men who drive the county plow trucks must love their warm beds and lovers too much.
The snow covers everything. I can’t tell where the road ends and the countryside begins; you can’t either. No one’s come here before us and there’s no predestined tracks to follow or to blame if we crash. With both hands now, I clutch the wheel.
“Tell me a story,” I say.
I can’t see the look on your face because I won’t look away from the road and the snow scintillating in my headlights. I’m driving fifteen miles per hour. I hear you swallow down some cranberry juice before you reply, “What kind of story?”
“I don’t know. Any kind.”
You hesitate. Then: “All right. I have one. Not about me. About Johnny.”
Johnny is your ex-boyfriend. The first time you went out with him, the two of you smoked weed in his car in the unpaved parking lot of a national park nearby. The secluded lot was full of birdsong. Impulsively, you decided to hold his hand and crack his knuckles for him. It was only your four month anniversary that he eventually confessed to you that on that first date, the weed made him paranoid and when you touched him he wholeheartedly believed that you had lured him out there to kill him.
You broke up with Johnny two weeks before the UTI.
You begin, “Last I heard from Johnny, he just joined a finance club.”
“What the hell is that?”
“They sit and talk about stocks. It’s all old men. He also joined Alcoholics Anonymous so now instead of drinking whiskey at parties, he mixes a bottle of cough syrup into a liter of orange juice and he drinks that instead.”
“Orange juice with pulp or without?”
“Why are you even talking to him, if you’re broken up?”
“He needs my help.”
“What are you supposed to be, Jesus?”
“He needs advice. Genuinely. That’s all.”
“What kind of advice?”
“After we broke up, he started going on these… anonymous video chat websites. To meet strangers. You know.”
I do know. “Sure, I saw my first penis on one of those websites.”
“Circumcised or uncircumcised?”
You nod. You place the bottle of cranberry juice between your thighs, then fiddle with the heating dial. You’re trying to melt the condensation that has begun to form in the corners of my windshield, obscuring the road ahead. “Anyway, he met this girl. A little younger than us. Russian, supposedly, but her English was good.”
“Oh my god.”
Johnny is, according to you, a genius. He scored in the ninety-ninth percentile on the GRE but didn’t actually go to grad school because he has rotten luck. Bad, unbelievable things happen to him regularly (approximately one incident per each fiscal quarter of the year). Like the time he accidentally purchased meth instead of molly for your twentieth birthday, or his brief impotence scare, or the time he crashed his car into a tree, and then the next day, when he was borrowing his buddy’s pick up truck to go to Chick-fil-A, he left the engine running and the truck got carjacked.
“What was the Russian chick’s name?” I ask.
“I don’t know. He never said.”
“Was she real?”
“Real as student debt. They talked. Lots of times. Texting, Facetiming.”
“What did they talk about?”
“How on earth am I supposed to know?” You reply with unexpected irritation.
“Sorry,” I mumble as I make the left hand turn onto our road. But almost immediately I brake because the road is swathed with invisible black ice. Then I recoil my foot back again, because you’re not supposed to brake on black ice. The car is already skidding, so I jerk the wheel right– right because you are sitting shotgun. That way it’s my side of the car that collides with the snowbank on the side of the road, where the kid who lives down the road went sledding yesterday.
Upon impact, our heads oscillate on our necks and our brains oscillate within our skulls.
“Jesus fuck,” you say, withdrawing your hands from where you’d braced yourself against the dashboard.
“It’s all right,” I reply automatically. “It’s all right, we’ll take the other way around.” I reverse the car, finagle a slow, graceful three-point turn. My foot is so tense and gentle on the gas pedal that my calf muscle sparkles with pain. When we’re back on the main road, I add, “Finish the story.”
“Are you serious?”
“Finish the story, I want to know what happens.”
You give me a dubious glance, then continue. “He added her on Facebook. They were talking every day. They saw each other’s faces. It was kind of romantic, I guess. So he sent her a picture of his dick.”
The windshield is misting up again, even worse than before. You pull the sleeve of your sweater over your fist and lean over to rub at the glass in wide, wild circles. “He sent it to her. She didn’t reply. Next thing he knew he was getting messages from this Russian dude named Vladimir who was like demanding that Johnny wire him five thousand American dollars. Right away. Or else he would release the dick pic on Facebook to all of his friends. His mom, my mom. Johnny’s pediatrician, his boss. Everybody.”
You cease trying to clear the windshield because as you explain to me what happened, you start giggling and then you can’t stop. I laugh too, breathless and tearing up. This is even worse than the mist on the windshield. I can’t see a thing. For a moment I don’t know if we are moving through the night or if the night is moving through us.
When I am able to breathe again, I ask, “What happened next?”
“He told Vladimir that he didn’t have five thousand dollars.”
“Is that true?”
“He didn’t qualify for unemployment during the shutdown when the government was giving out those six hundred dollar unemployment bonuses. Also, he was sending a bouquet of flowers to my house every week.”
“What kind of flowers?”
“Calla lilies, mostly. Anyway, Vladimir agreed to lower the amount to two thousand. I guess he might’ve been desperate. He told Johnny to send the money through Western Union as soon as he could.”
“They have Western Union in Russia?”
“Western Union, or an equivalent. That’s not the point.”
“What is the point?”
“The point is that Johnny told Vladimir that Western Union wasn’t open yet in America, what with the time difference. Then he waited until it was like 3 AM in Russia or wherever the hell before texting that he was at the Western Union and where exactly should he send the money? But of course Vladimir didn’t read the text for hours and by the time he replied, Western Union was closed again. This went on and on until Sunday, and eventually Vladimir texted Johnny, WHAT NOW. All capital letters. No question mark. Johnny was like, I DON’T KNOW.”
“Oh my god.” I’m still laughing weakly. The snow is still falling.
“So finally Johnny told his mom.”
“I would rather drive this car off the nearest cliff than ever tell my mom.”
“Me too,” you say.
When you were thirteen, you sent your first boyfriend nudes. You dated for two weeks. The morning after you broke up, you walked into first period pre-algebra. Sat down. The guy who sat behind you tapped you on the shoulder. You turned around and on the cracked screen of his iPhone 4, there you were. Naked, thirteen years old, at 8:07in the morning. Everybody knew. Everybody saw. It was relentless. But you still didn’t tell your mother. You aren’t not a fool. You never were. I know this story. You told me and not anybody else.
“What did his mom do when she found out?”
“She called Vladimir pretending to be a CIA agent.”
You nod. “She has a very authoritative voice.”
Poor Johnny and his pitiful, blazing hot, glowing stove top coil heart. “So he told his mom and then he told you all of this?” I ask.
Again you nod.
“Did he tell you this story to impress you? Did any of it even really happen?”
“What kind of person would ever make up something like that? I think it shows how he’s despondent without me. He needs me. He thinks we’re going to get back together.”
“You mean he wants to get back together.”
“No, I mean he thinks it’s inevitable. He makes it sound kind of enlightened. I don’t know. Maybe he’s right.”
I am silent as I make the final turn of the long way home. I can see the most meager little yellow line guiding us now. The snow is lessening. Your lips are scarlet from the cranberry juice and I can feel the blood flowing in my hands again. We’ll be home in a minute.
“Maybe it is inevitable,” you conclude.
“Or maybe not,” I reply.
I shift from first gear into drive.