You are leaning on a guardrail, a handful of exits from the I-476/276 split–where the Northeast Extension feeds into a major artery of Philadelphia. You were looking at apartments and second interviews at two professional writing jobs–one at a university, the other at a home electronics company. Center City. Broad Street. Ben Franklin Bridge. Cheesesteaks. South Street record stores. The Phillies. The Eagles. The Philly Museum of Art. The Mütter. Somewhere in the gridlocked nest of highways and bypasses, there was a place for you–an undefined claim to be staked. But instead, it is you and the guardrail. It is you and the guardrail and the ’96 Chevy Beretta. You, the guardrail, the Chevy, and burnt out mapping sensor rendering the Beretta a two-ton candy apple red paperweight. And you wait. And wait. A tow truck. A friend in Manayunk. Miles, days, parts, and labor doing exponential math. You’ll call your parents to bail you out. You’ll end up bailing on so many things. This is before driveways and silence. Before The Hold Steady and The North American Review. Before long hair and locks of love.
Pennsylvania truck stop. Converted trailer with a neon cross sells plastic rosaries.
She woke up before you did, got dressed for work in the dark. Dirty work shirt smelled like fried food, barbecue sauce, and stale beer. The apple print apron with one good pocket. A pair of Uni-Ball pens holstered. Clung by their clips to frayed cloth lips. The clatter of her bracelets. You sat up and already knew what those kinds of kisses mean. You had already drawn a her a map to you, but an arrow’s direction depends on your proximity to it–how it points not who it points to. She would tell you later about the road you didn’t choose. You were the yellow in her teeth. You were the slight unsteadiness in her wrists. You were every single point at the end of her index finger. You were all that flattened in the wake. You were sorry in every way you could be, except out loud. This was before fingernails and hair dye. Before cancer with friends. Before benefits with friends.
Collect call from a California payphone. The last button to unbutton.
It’s a sad and simple fact: if you have a truck, you will be asked to help someone move. Your dad’s Dodge Dakota was as much yours as his–especially in the summer. You were loading up parts of her life that would soon become parts of your very own. When she walked away from her second life into her third printing, you were both keenly aware of revisionist history. You weren’t old enough to know that the names carved into family heirlooms had longer memories than either of you. You disassemble a chest of drawers, quietly considering how she would fold your clothes at the laundromat. You destroyed one futon together, slept on couches alone. A mattress and boxspring on the floor. This was before whiskey and bed frames. Before benefits with friends. Before jobs with benefits.
Fluorescent lights. Wedding cake with the rest of the leftovers.
You are wide awake with the knowledge that there is nothing below you but 3000 feet and the Atlantic Ocean. You fell asleep not much later, after the plane began refueling in Milan. You think about how this first flight to Europe was spent seeing the world from windows, air conditioned cabins, buses with broken windows, and improvised cabs that smelled like fried food and stale beer. You will be landing in JFK a few hours from now. You will stay at a friend’s apartment in a part of Brooklyn at an altitude beyond your self-esteem. A few days later, you’ll meet her in some coffee house that serves micro brews. You will not be ready. You will not be ready to go before these days are done with you. Before you are twisted cheap metal in a single car pile-up. Before you are stranded by another exit with a car full of you.
Empty cathedral. Throwing rocks through stained glass windows.
Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals including The North American Review, [PANK] Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and The Minnesota Review. Follow him on twitter @whoismisterjim.