They sat across from each other at their little round kitchen table, wrinkled fingers curled around the stems of near-empty wine glasses, when she said she thought she'd overstayed her welcome in life.
Her hand fisted around her glass so tight her veins swelled even more. His hand curved in a gnarled C, thumb resting against his glass stem's base. But she smiled a little when she spoke, and he smiled a little back, shook his head, and said no, she hadn't—he hadn't either. And there was the problem: Life still wanted them to stay a while, and they only wanted to stay long enough to polish off this last bottle of Merlot.
They'd only drunk down to the top of the label so far, a late bland dinner half an hour behind them: steamed vegetables, boiled chicken, and the pills from the Thursday sections of their trays. Doctors and warning labels strongly discouraged them from drinking any kind of alcohol with their medicine, but she poured them each another glass, and he pressed his between both quivering palms to take a sip.
She asked him if he wanted to go for a drive later; they used to do that all the time, heading nowhere in particular, but lately they'd had a special one in mind. He said he'd like that. Their doctors told them they really shouldn't drive anymore, with his arthritis building a stiff nest of pain in his hands, with her eyesight blurring away.
They'd carried out this conversation over many nights, in many pieces, as the heaviest discussions should be held: not just with words but with looks and silences and little acts of rebellion. With their glasses clinking together in a question—are you with me?—and the answer one long drink, both of them at the same time—yes.
The bottle of wine, half-full, became an hourglass, its time pouring down their throats at whatever speed they chose, though it couldn't ever be turned over again. After she topped off their glasses, it was a quarter to label's bottom. They talked about the past. He remembered bringing egg salad sandwiches to work every day, how hard it was to build skyscrapers floor by floor but also how he could twist in his harness to see the whole beautiful city when he needed a break from bolts and beams. She remembered filling her free time with painting and dancing, knitting and writing, bird-watching and piano-playing, all her little hobbies that never grew into more—but she wouldn't have loved them so much if they had. They talked about when the children were still children: Kenneth giving them such an easy time that they weren't prepared for Anthony, oh no they weren't, and Rhonda turning out with a little of both brothers in her—sometimes Kenneth-calm, sometimes Anthony-wild, and always Rhonda-spunky.
At twenty past label's bottom, he asked her, what would their children think? They'd feel sad, they'd regret things, they'd get angry. They would definitely be shocked. She agreed they'd be all those things, but they would also be all right. And then she finished half a glass in one go and brushed the corner of her eye with her fingertips and asked him please, please not to bring up the children again, or the grandchildren, or their great granddaughter. This night belonged to the two of them and the two of them alone.
At ten to the bottom of the bottle they started to talk about the present: all these doctors and pills and aches, and poor eyesight, forgetfulness, sitting around. Retirement just didn't suit them. They should have kept working and working, they joked. So his body became too stiff for big building construction? Work on cracked and potholed pavement, then just hold the STOP and SLOW sign, then think up skyscraper designs to be made real by others. So she couldn't read her high school students' tiny handwriting? Descend through grades at the pace of her vision's deterioration, all the way down to kindergarten where the letters filled three lines. But instead they'd quit, and their jobless days hardly seemed worth discussing, so they spent several minutes sipping in silence, smiling over how sad and silly the present seemed.
The bottle empty, their glasses flecked with dregs, she suggested they pack bags. She liked the idea of making it like a vacation, making it seem like they were taking a road trip around the whole country, or heading to the airport and some tropical island or foreign city full of history. He said he liked that too, except he thought they should take only one small bag each and fill it with a few things that really mattered to them and a few things that didn't matter at all, and after they climbed into the car and before they drove off they would look in each other's bags and guess what was important and what wasn't. It would be like a game. She grinned so wide he could see fake and real teeth, and she said yes, except they wouldn't do the looking and guessing part—that would be too easy. Whoever found the bags later would do the looking and guessing.
So they got to their feet, his hands pressing on the table for support. He headed for the bedroom, she to the closet to dig out two suitcases, but before she closed the door she put one back. They packed the significant and the insignificant into that single musty bag together, his and her choices mixing, every item important or unimportant to them both: the analog clock from the mantelpiece, birthday-gift ruby earrings from Kenneth, gray wool socks. They tucked in plastic loops from a six-pack of soda cans, a flyer from the first house Rhonda ever sold, a map of Rome, Anthony's Little League Polaroids, crossed-off grocery lists tucked between the pages of a hardcover Fahrenheit 451, a handful of colorful two-holed buttons sprinkled on top before they zipped everything shut.
He helped her find her coat, and she helped him into his. She carried their suitcase out the door, his arm around her shoulders to guide her down the steps. She smiled and said see, they didn't need the children or anyone else to survive. They still got along just fine this way, thank you very much.
They climbed into a blue sedan as battered and sturdy as their marriage, him in the driver's seat and feeling a new fondness for the touchy pedals and rasping engine as he pulled out of the driveway. His hands hardened and stuck around the wheel, became a rigid, aching part of it, but the pain would have gone in their bag as one of the insignificants, and so would the thick haze her vision threw over the houses sliding past. What really mattered stretched before them on the dim, deserted highway they turned onto, rang in the unfamiliar radio music she twisted louder, crept out of their cores with the small and bursting child's spirit that even the oldest people keep tucked away somewhere safe.
The dashboard clock read one-oh-five and so did the speedometer when he rested his hand on hers over the center compartment in that same question, are you with me?, and she gently squeezed his fingers in that same answer, yes. And at one-oh-six he yanked a hard right on the wheel and sent their little world veering off the road and straight into a power line pole with a sharp, roaring clatter. Then nothing but smoke.
But for them, the impact felt too slow and gentle to be called a crash. For them, the front of the car curled in a weary U around the pole much like their hands around their wine glass stems so many hours ago. Windshield and windows spiderwebbed and crumbled, and for a moment the headlights beamed face to face to form a pale tunnel of captive light. Then the engine faded out. Man and woman sat in a still and silent metal shell on the side of a still and silent highway, gripping strong and painless hands, staring at each other with wide, bright eyes.
Eventually he asked her, what now? She turned her head just enough to look at the car embracing the pole in twenty-twenty clarity, gazed past that to the open road and its stepping stones of streetlamp spotlights leading east. She said the sun would be rising in a few hours, and wouldn't it be nice to walk on and meet it at the horizon?
That sort of thing seemed possible now, as they left their car with the doors hanging open and what used to matter sitting in the back seat. They walked straight down the double yellow line, sensing not a single car would come. They didn't know how far the road went, where it led, or whether the sun would even rise here.
They did know, without any exchange but their smiles, that neither really gave a damn.
Kayla Tostevin has had several poems published on thecatharsis.net and a few short prose pieces printed in other Emerson College publications, including Gauge Magazine, which is where this piece is also published. She calls both ends of I-90 home and calls writing bios "uncomfortable."