Palo Alto Weekly 21st Annual Short Story
In which Elena breaks Utah state law in a stolen car.
I'm driving south in my boyfriend's Peugeot, thinking about how he is going to look when he wakes up to find me and the car gone. He'll get that look I hate -- that look where I know he's angry but he isn't going to say anything. He'll make a cup of coffee and he'll drink it black even though that isn't how he likes it. He'll put on The Marriage of Figaro and sit and drink his coffee and wait for me to come home.
I won't come home.
I won't go home and I won't think about him. I won't think about him because if I do, I'll regret every decision I made since high school. I won't think about him because writing didn't turn out like I'd hoped and I went from California to Ohio to Wyoming and I don't know how I got here, doing eighty-five at seven o'clock in the morning somewhere in Utah, driving southwest in a stolen car toward an apartment in Oakland where I'm sure I'm not welcome.
I was never going back to California. That was the plan. I swore when I left I was never going back. I was done with Berkeley and with Charles and the bay. I was never going back, but I woke up this morning with Charles' face in my head. Bigger than the Wyoming sky and getting bigger every second I stayed.
I know how it will be when I get to Oakland. I'll show up at his door sweaty and exhausted from fourteen hours of flatness. He'll invite me in for a shower and a cup of tea. He'll make green tea like he always has, and I'll drink it, even though I don't like it. We'll drink our tea and he'll ask how I've been and how writing is going and I'll say, "Awful" and he'll laugh because he won't have to say, "I told you so."
Then, it will be like high school again: we'll talk and kiss and laugh for the next sixteen hours until we're too tired or too cold or too distant from each other to continue. In the morning, I'll put on Charles' favorite sweater and he'll say, "I missed you" but he won't look at me, and when I kiss him again he'll close his eyes and say, "It's all or nothing this time, Nena" and I'll remember how I got there and why I left in the first place.
I think about Charles while I drive. I think about high school. I think about the last few seconds. I think about lying next to him on his bedroom floor and him saying, "Why did I break up with Alice? Why did you break up with Oliver?" I had said, "Not for each other." but I was lying.
Why did I leave Wyoming?
Not for Charles.
Didn't I? It was brave to go. It was cowardly.
I won't go back.
I'm going home now. I'll surprise my mother on her birthday; I'll go out to breakfast with my brother; I'll help my father remodel the kitchen. Charles and I will drive up to Grizzly Peak and look out over our city and our bay, so big and foggy we could never explore all of it.
I cross the Nevada state line around noon. I hate Nevada. Charles once told me that Reno was the most depressing place on the planet.
"It's because they think they're classy there." He had said. We laughed because he was half-joking, but only half.
The Utah desert turns into the Nevada desert seamlessly. Dry counties turn to drunken counties without batting an eye. You can be standing in Utah, with good Christian values, one moment, and in Nevada, where prostitution and general lewdness are legal, the next. It would be amusing if I hadn't been driving through a thousand shades of flat sand-colored nothing for the past six hours.
I just need to get through Nevada.
If the devil was buying up land, Black Rock Desert would be prime real estate. I have only been here once before. Burning Man, 2001. A woman, who wore lead-based paint where clothes should have been, kissed me under the burning neon. Her fingernails were long and painted the color of a green highlighter with glitter and rhinestones along the edges of them.
Charles and I took belly dancing classes and workshops in sensual massage. It was our graduation gift to us.
Happy eighteenth birthday.
You're an adult now, go do something ridiculous.
For one week, we were allowed to be everything we hated about the artistic community. We were theatre kids.
I have to be clear: there are theatre kids, and then there are thespians. The theatre kids were the guys in high school who had read all of Shakespeare's tragedies and used words like "bombastic" in everyday conversation, the girls who wore dresses from other centuries and believed they were destined to become a Broadway sensation. Thespians acted in the plays. Theatre kids acted all the time. That was really the only distinction. You didn't have to act to be a theatre kid, either. You could be a theatre kid who painted or wrote poetry or watched television. Charles could have been a theatre kid with his photography. I could have been a theatre kid with my words.
Thank God I wasn't.
Charles is still in my head when I hit Reno. I drive through even though it's out of my way. A sort of tribute to debauchery. And depravity. And everything I hate about America.
This must be where the theatre kids end up.
It's like Hell on steroids.
I'm driving by the Wild Orchid Gentlemen's club when Patrick calls. When I answer the phone he says, "Where's my car?"
I can see him now. He's got that look - the other look I hate. The look where he's angry and he is saying something, except it isn't really what he wants to say.
"I have it. I'm in Reno. I'm not coming home."
I don't know why I don't just hang up on him. Maybe he'll do something unpredictable. Maybe he'll tell me he's angry. Maybe he'll tell me he loves me and he put cream in his coffee this morning and he's listening to Blonde on Blonde and playing my guitar and thinking about words and how they mean everything and science means nothing. Maybe he'll say, "I'm on my way to church because I'm tired of being closed-minded."
But he'll probably just say, "If that's what you want." and hang up on me before I have the chance to hang up on him, which is what he does.
It's a clear night. It's so clear I let the Central Valley swallow me somewhere between Los Banos and Sacramento. I've never been able to see shooting stars, but I try anyway. I've got a wish I'm just dying to make.
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