Empty Passenger Seat
Five minutes down the road, I got that feeling. I know I didn’t leave anything behind; I had all I could possibly take. My small Honda couldn't hold anymore than what I needed, and sometimes that made my trips more enjoyable; not having everything helped my already sky-rocketed blood pressure. There was satisfaction in the simple. But that simplicity came with a price: not always being prepared for what might happen. First aids kits are for schmucks. Seatbelt cutters are useless if you’re already knocked unconscious. Snacks, though, are vital, making the journey just a bit quicker.
My seat dug into the small of my back, but nothing was going to stop me from getting to Asheville. I drove and drove and drove. My back hurt and hurt and hurt. Little rocks skipped up into the air when I’d drive closely behind slow drivers and hit my windshield. Do 90’s Honda’s come with hurricane-proof windshields? Or at least pebble-proof windshields? I thought to myself, as the rocks experimented with the durability of my old Japanese car. Driving out of Florida was a flatland hell—but life changed when I reached the Florida-Georgia line; mountains sprawled up to meet me where I drove. The wind bowed to my passing, shaking hands with the edges of my sideview mirrors and greeting the space between my bumper and hood. My gas gauge sighed slowly, but steadily. I disregarded the rising gas prices, which told me to stay in Florida for the fall, and I told them to fuck themselves with some of the tips I was making at two restaurants I worked at. The tips didn't come readily while waiting tables at Waffle House, but at Chilis, there was a stigma that these waiters worked harder and in a classier manner than those at Waffle House or Denny’s or any other corporate restaurant with no respect for their own food, feeding those with no respect for themselves. My Chili’s tips paid my way from Orlando to a city in western South Carolina named Greenville. I don't know why, but I was expecting those old-fashioned gas stations from old movies that would ding loudly then have a dude in overalls running toward your car with a pump of gas. It wasn't like that.
My car was unfortunately too small to sleep in, so I stopped at one of the millions of motels in Greenville for the night. Yelping motels was always a bad idea; nobody wants to know whether their stay is going to consist of bedbugs or piss-stained sheets. It’s more of a dirty surprise. I found a motel named The Tired Traveler. It’s me, I thought. I’m tired. I’m traveling.
“We only have double queen rooms,” the asshole of a receptionist told me sternly, his brown mustache curling into his chapped lips.
“So, I have to pay extra for your tiny occupancy?”
“You want a room or not?”
I didn’t. I rolled my eyes almost completely out of the socket as I placed my credit card into his greedy sausage fingers.
“Thanks. Room’s down the hall.”
I scoffed and headed towards my room. This must’ve been one of the only motels left that used rusty keys to open their doors rather than a clean card. Just before I reached my door, I remembered that I forgot all of my clothes at home. My feet stopped and I took a long sigh before walking right back down from where I came from, knowing that I’d have to once again Mr. No Single Room.
“Do you guys have shirts?” I asked. What a dumb question to ask a motel receptionist.
“Yeah. On my chest. Want it?” he said. He snarled at me stupidly, as if he’d made the joke of the century.
“Sure! But it’s odd that it doesn't say something cheesy like The Tired Traveler. That’s the only way I’d buy it.”
His grin faded and he reached behind the counter and pulled out a shirt, without even asking for my size. Right before he handed it to me, I asked, “Do you guys carry any underwear too?”
“Of course. Lemme just open up our lingerie section for y—.”
“Okay. I get it. You guys don't have underwear. Just give me the shirt.”
The showers were just as cold as I imagined at a cheap motel and the sheets were perfectly dirty. I switched from the bed closest to the door to the one closest to the hand-printed window in hopes that the sheets would be slightly cleaner and I could rest without worrying about some sort of disease that would come about from sleeping atop cockroaches and puddles of piss. Both of the beds were dirty—I contemplated sleeping on the floor. Anything would've been more comforting and cleaner than the yellow stained sheets I was forced to sleep in. The one thing that I’ll give that hotel is that they have good tiny bottles of liquor and they can get to your head pretty easily.
A mix of a hard-hitting headache and sunlight seeping through the blinds of the window woke me up and pulled me out of bed. Still half-drunk and without my glasses, the room seemed so beautiful. I imagined I was staying in some classy five star hotel in England and took another swig of whatever was at the bottom of the bottle I didn't finish the night before to ease the headache, and danced around the room in my smelly underwear. My two big toes hit almost every corner of everything in the room, but after the first strike against the bed frame, my toes were completely numb and the alcohol cut through the nerve endings from my toes to my brain. I fell against the bed closest to the door and lay there for a few minutes. My big nose rested against the foot of the sheets and I wondered how many feet have touched the sheets my mouth was now rubbing against. I reached for my thick glasses that sat on the table between the beds; I stretched for them, but I knew I’d have to get up to actually reach them. I looked up at the pillow from my spot at the foot of the bed and could've sworn there was a crease in the pillow I hadn't been sleeping on. I jumped up to grab my glasses and swiped them over my face—there was no crease in the pillow anymore. Must be the cheap alcohol messing with my head.
My car had trouble starting, almost as if to tell me, “Stop. Just don’t go to Asheville.” But my car didn't understand that I had plans. The thought of how beautiful Asheville is clouded the troubles that persisted on me before I got there. After crossing the Georgia-North Carolina line, I could almost taste the thick Asheville air in the back of my throat. The journey proceeded on and on and on. People—usually people without any experience in traveling—told me that the journey is always greater than the destination or some bullshit along those lines. I say no. The journey really didn't tickle my fancy. The destination is the whole point of a journey, isn't it? Why would anyone enjoy going somewhere rather than being ther—
My glove compartment suddenly opened and slammed against the hinges, interrupting these thoughts I had. I glanced over. Napkins from various fast-food restaurants flooded the passenger seat carpet; I always made sure to steal as many napkins as I could hold whenever I ate at restaurants with free napkins because you never know; nobody ever does. I reached over to gather the loose napkins, and just then, the steering wheel turned toward the way I leaned. I looked up and a car whizzed past my door—that car was in my lane coming toward me. The sound of screeching came from my tires and my natural reflexes shut my eyes.
Nothing came back. You know in all of those dramatic movies when the character is experiencing something that smells of death and they start to think about all those wonderful times they've had and even see their kids smiling while rays of morning sunshine are striking the tips of their bony cheeks and maybe see their wife running through the backyard in a long red sundress chasing those kids, looking as merry as the day you married her? That didn't happen. Nothing came back. No kids ran through my mind; no wife. My mind blocked out the family that kicked me out of their house when I was growing up, and I’m so glad it did. The last thing I wanted to see, while my car was barrel rolling over the guardrail that was supposed to protect these sorts of things from happening, was the face of the only girl I ever loved; my mind and soul were broken. I thought of these things because I didn't have a happy flashback. I thought of these things because I wanted to have a happy flashback, but I knew that these were the only things I could have in the jail cell that was my life. I was always imagined how my life would end and how special those last few seconds would be. Those few seconds hurt the most; more than the way the seatbelt cut into the skin below my collarbone, more than the way my neck snapped against the steering wheel when the car would hit the ground every time it rolled, more than when I realized that the radio was still working and playing some shitty AM station that South Carolinians must’ve been fond of.
When the rolling came close to a stop, I was relieved.
I’m going to make it out alive. I’m going to start my life all over again. Life is going to be different now; I’m a changed man with a story to tell.
But the airbags deployed. Gunpowder stung my eyelids and my chest felt like it had collapsed. The outside had stopped rolling, and stopped moving too. My Honda was now wrapped against a tree in defeat. The tree was upside down. My body lay disoriented against the roof of the car.
At least the radio is dead.
With my body sprawled across whatever I could sprawl across, I used my somehow functional hand to reach into my pocket to grab my phone, which I felt had shattered and stabbed its glass into my upper thigh.
I put the phone down somewhere. It kind of just left my hand. I closed my eyes in an attempt to save some energy that I might need if somehow the three numbers I just dialed weren't the right numbers. Right before my eyes shut, I noticed that my passenger seat was still empty. There was no one there to look me in the eyes and breathe their last breath into my mouth as they bled out of the hole in their abdomen. No one. But the airbag deployed on my passenger seat side.
Did my car malfunction? Is it just old wiring?
I stared blankly into the passenger seat. I imagined my mom sitting there, scrunched against the seat, telling me that I should’ve gotten a job. I imagined my sister there, blood dripping out of the corner of her mouth, telling me that I was never good enough and death was the only way to stop the shit show that was my life. I imagined my dad sitting there with his hands pushed against the airbag, scrambling to find the cocaine that must’ve jumped out of his pocket in the crash, telling me that he’s going to be fucked if the cops find his stash.
That airbag was beautiful. It’s fully round shape reminded me that, even in death, loneliness isn't all that bad. It gives you time to think about how grateful you are to not have someone whining about the meaninglessness of their own life, and gives you time to think about the meaninglessness of your own. An axe beat through the glass of my already cracked window and a long arm grabbed my shoulder.
Robert DiDonna is on Instagram (@therobdidonna), Twitter (@therobdidonna), and Wordpress (www.therobdidonna.wordpress.com).