Exit
Lauren DeStefano

We don’t have nights here.
The word eludes me sometimes, along with the names of those small, living things that would sing to us as we watched the sun melting over the Adirondacks. I keep the image of those faraway purple mountains, and the trees, for an instant at dusk, bursting into red and yellow fire. A trick of the eye. A flaw in our human perception.
But it takes effort to remember. It helps when I focus in on you, holding your mug with two hands and squinting at the day’s last light. For you, time is passing. And when it’s quiet enough, I think you’re listening for the sound of me in the rustling leaves. And I want to call for you, but I have no voice. I want to touch your cheek, but I’ve no limbs. I don’t even have time. After I died, it became just a series of moments that play over and over, like pages of a favorite book. The afternoon you dropped a lilac into the open grave (it hit my casket and I felt its echo), you were thinking of I-91 and I was in that thought. I was speeding by you in the left lane, and we looked at each other through our windows, holding our steering wheels, and we were rocking out to Beat It. There before us was the road, and it could have taken us anywhere. Somewhere inside of you, in a place I couldn’t see until I became a figment in your memories, you thought we couldn’t die until we’d taken all of the exits.
You saw life as all these sentences we would finish.
Now you stare out into this dark thing you call night, and you throw your thoughts to whoever is listening. You say, please be at peace where you are. If only you could see what happens in this thing you call a sky! It is really a network of thoughts and prayers, weaving and shooting in glimmering threads. They pierce us like spears. Every thought you have sent me, I have caught.
Morning comes where you are. Blearily you stumble to the bathroom mirror and say unkind things to your reflection. You shower, shave your legs with a cheap plastic razor. You dry your hair. Zip up your dress. Dab beige cream under your eyes and blend until it’s believable as skin. You fumble for your keys, wear your polka-dot purse like a burden, and open the door. You don’t see the cobwebs of sorrow as your body breaks through it. You step on someone’s broken prayer, like an empty eggshell under your silver heels. It never made its way up, too heavy or insincere.
In your eyes there’s a flicker of a memory of my body, too made-up in the casket. You didn’t like the flowers my mother picked.
Outside in the street now. You raise your arm to hail a cab, and you begin thinking about the smell of muffins coming from the bakery on fifty-third. A child in a raincoat jumps into a puddle. You see him as the cab door is closing, and in every drop there’s an image of me. You try to get a better look. You just want to see if I was smiling, but the water falls flat.
To the office. Up the elevator. Before you’ve even made it to your chair, you get four, “You look great!”s and at least seven “How you doing, honey?”s and one offer for dinner Friday night, which you politely decline. You consider it briefly, though, much later while the workload is slow. But I’m too heavy in your mind, like a stone.
You have a voicemail. Your sister made a dinner reservation for Berticcino’s and she’s not taking no for an answer. The rest of the day, your thoughts are like an electrocardiogram. There are long moments of nothing, nothing, nothing, then a burst of light and sound and noise. Your high school prom. The day you pressed the gas pedal to the floor of the car and shrieked with laughter and freedom. Orange goldfish in a clear round bowl. Your sisters pelting you with snowballs. Red hair ribbons. But the memories are flawed because somehow I’m in all of them. I’m your prom date, ten years before we even met. A passenger in your car. Then again, tall, unshaven with my hands in the pocket of my black windbreaker, standing in the middle of the snowballs. Handing you the plastic bag with the goldfish in them, wearing the blue apron of the pet store employee who was really there that day.
At dinner, your sister (the blonde one) says, “Jesus, you look like hell.”
You say, “We’re twins.”
She says, “Well right now you’d never know. Let’s eat.”
You sit by the window and whenever you try to see the dark city outside, you’re met with a ghost of your own reflection. Your pert chin and high cheekbones. You don’t look that bad, you think. But I’m in all the pearls on your necklace, so you look away.
“So listen, sweetiepie,” your sister says. She calls you this because you’re five minutes younger and this makes you her baby sister. “I ran into Luke last Friday and I gave him your number.”
You splutter. A worm of spaghetti fights its slippery way down your throat. “From high school?” you manage to choke out.
She hands you the glass of water, and it helps more than you thought it would.
“Your old prom date,” she says.
“No,” you say. “I can’t see him. It’s only been a few months!” You sense that the people at the next table are staring at you. You look, and everyone in the restaurant is me. You look away.
“Sweetiepie, it’s been a year.”
“That can’t be right.” You twirl the spaghetti with a fork and hold it up but don’t eat it. Months like calendar pages flip through your eyes. “It’s April?” you say.
“As of last week,” your sister says. She lays her hand on your wrist, which is how you know she’s serious. “I miss you. Come back.”
“Come back where?” you say.
“Back to the living. Back to coffee grinds and apple cores.”
“Poetic,” you say.
“I try. That’s the difference between us.”
“How’s that manuscript coming?” you ask.
That shuts her up.
Luke calls, inevitably. You spend the first five minutes of the conversation receiving his compliments; he’s read the article you published in the Daily Dish about vegan cobbler. He says you and your sisters always did want to be writers but you’re really going for it, and you blush and say it was just a stupid recipe. He says, “Let me be the judge of that, huh?”
You take a long breath. You stand at the big window in your living room and you watch the city seven stories below you. The beauty of the day makes you brave, because on a good one like this you can look into the crowd and not see me in it. You say, “Okay. How’s Saturday?”
Your room becomes a frenzy of clothes. Spaghetti-strap dresses and lacy black bras and torn hosiery you patched with clear nail polish. None of them will do. Too many memories. Your sister lets you borrow a dark blue dress that you think is too short until she says, “You have such nice thighs; let them breathe a little.”
Now it’s seven o’clock on Saturday and your thighs are breathing and you feel a chill running between them. Your left hand sweats in an oven mitt. The vegan cobbler bubbles over onto a sheet of tinfoil and the apartment smells like charred crust and hot blackberry jam. Your long blonde hair is held back with a blown-glass dolphin clip I bought you at Sea World when we took your niece to see the macaroni penguins. You like to keep me nearby, all tangled up in your hair, close to your skull.
The doorbell rings. You take one step forward and half a step back. You don’t feel ready for this. Like how you always check your pocket half a dozen times when you go out, making sure you didn’t forget your keys. Everywhere you go, you worry you’ve left something behind. You have to move or he’s going to ring the doorbell again. “Coming!” you say, and skitter in your heels. Don’t fall, you think. Don’t fall don’t fall don’t fall.
Just before you open the door, you notice the calendar hanging over the key rack. It says it’s April of last year. My name is on Monday the third, a dentist appointment. You flip to the next page. May is empty as a clear conscience.
You open the door. Luke is wearing the grown-up version of the hair you remember from high school. He has one of those faces that never changes much. You almost expect to see braces when he smiles.
He hands you a dozen tiger lilies and says, “How are you, Kit Kat?”
It’s 1995 again. You’re eighteen and happy. Life is an open road. You smile before you’re able to stop yourself. “Come in.” You sniff the lilies, breathe deep. “Come in.”
“You look exactly the same,” he says.
“So do you,” you say. “Except for the beard. That’s new.”
You don’t have a vase, so you put the tiger lilies in the crystal pitcher your niece uses to mix lemonade. Your hand is still in the oven mitt.
I try to remember your niece, while you arrange the lilies. Her red hair and freckles. But she’s an image that gets smaller and smaller as I rise away. I feel myself being banished from your memory of the day we made sandcastles with her. If you don’t hold me in the memory, I can’t return to it. So I linger in your hair for a while, which smells like cobbler and Jasmine V05, while you and Luke talk about things that happened before you met me. I feel like a fetus in the womb, listening to muffled voices of another world.
Then you laugh. It shatters the sky. Your cheeks are flushed. You say, “Oh stop.”
“It’s true,” Luke says. “That was the best day of my life.”
You say more things, but they’re garbled. I get pieces of images. Hands being held. A speedometer pressing 100.
Luke leans across the table to wipe off some cobbler from the corner of your lips. Your laughter subsides. He’s in your eyes, and you’re in his. Then he kisses you, and suddenly I have shot out of your hair and I am hurtled into the stars and watching as you get smaller and smaller. All these thoughts go shooting past and around me in the ether, but none of them pierce me like spears. None of them are you reaching for me.
You’ve cast me away.
I come back gently, much later, just as you’re scrubbing dishes in the sink, and there’s a moment of horrible pain in your heart. I’m sorry, you think. The thought is for me. Your lips are buzzing.
The next time I see you, you’re in a new red dress. You’re staring at yourself in the changing room mirror at Macy’s, missing the feel of hands wrapping around your waist from behind you. That’s for me. Then you practice smiling at your reflection. That’s for Luke.
He picks you up in a car that smells new, and he gets out and opens the door for you under a burning streetlamp. You start to worry about the straplessness of the red dress. Maybe you should have brought a sweater, you think.
Luke says, “You look pretty Kit Kat,” and pulls the car into gear.
You smile. Nobody has called you Kit Kat in years, and you like hearing it again. Your high school self has become an old friend you’re revisiting.
He takes the top down and the wind surrounds you, smelling of spring and damp earth. You think of daisies crushed beneath bare feet. Luke turns on the radio and your hair fills with the sound of rock ballads. The blown-glass dolphin dances among your curls.
Luke says, “It’s a bit of a drive, but it’s worth it.”
You say, “I remember this road.” Then you laugh. “This is the way to the make-out point!”
Luke grins. “Maybe it just happens to be near the restaurant.”
“Oh man,” you say. “Do you remember that night? What were we listening to—Pink Floyd?”
“It set the mood,” he cries in his defense, laughing.
In your mind, the memory of that night sparkles. Your prom dress; the city lights miles below the cliff where Luke parked his blue Ford Escort; his teeth when he smiled at you; the bubbles in the bottles of amber beer. Pink Floyd sang about his hands feeling just like two balloons.
I leave you for a while. I watch you speed down the ribbon of highway, which is empty except for you and Luke and rock music from another decade. Your laughter echoes through the stars.
You drop the napkin on the table and say, “I’m stuffed. The tiramisu was amazing.”
“Is tiramisu vegan?” Luke says, as he takes the check from the waitress.
You shake your head. “Has mascarpone. But it was so worth it.”
You go back to Luke’s car. It’s dark now and the wind has picked up. Invisible prayers flurry around you like fallen leaves—some of them are yours. Luke brings the top up, and for a while you both sit there, wearing your seatbelts. Finally, you ask aloud a question that has been haunting you since I died. “So now what?”
“We could go to the make-out point,” Luke says. He’s joking, but it’s the first concrete answer you’ve heard and you embrace it with both hands.
“Okay,” you say.
“Okay?”
“Yeah.” Your smile is full of teeth and glitter. “Let’s go.”
But as the car starts moving, terror seizes you. Your heart is palpitating. Your hands sweat. You think of my funeral procession, the click-click-click of your hazard lights as you wove your way to the cemetery. You aren’t ready to arrive at the destination, yet you know it’s important. You know it must be done.
How do I let you go? you ask me. I’m unable to answer.
Luke puts the car in park, and flips through the radio stations, but there are only commercials and some blond, distant opera in a language neither of you can decipher.
You say, “Look—I suck at this.”
He says, “What?”
You say, “This—being alive. I forget sometimes.”
You become aware of the sounds of insects, and faraway winking lights that are always shifting and moving. You think this must be how the world looks from heaven, and that I must be up there watching you. You don’t realize that it’s your will that keeps me here—that I’m the heavy lump in your chest making it hard to breathe.
“You look alive enough,” he says. He places his fingers to your neck. “Still have a pulse.”
You touch his neck, too. You feel his heart thrumming there.
Somehow, you’re sitting closer to each other, your knees pressed together, your foreheads almost touching.
“Hey,” he whispers.
“Hey,” you whisper.
You are eighteen. You are Kit Kat. You are alive.
You press forward and kiss him, and there’s a sob hidden there in your little gasp. I am thrown into a memory of a very blue sky with clouds speeding across, and grasshoppers, and our hands touching under a dinner table. Then I am gone.
I come back when you say, “I’m sorry, I just can’t.”
It hurts to breathe, and your gasps are worrying him. He pushes the hair from your face and his fingertips drag over me, the blown-glass dolphin in your hair, like the giant hand of God sweeping the sky.
“Are you okay?” he says.
You put your seatbelt back on. It seems like the safest thing to do. He’s asking if you need an inhaler, a hospital, an EpiPen. You shake your head. It’s me that you need to be rid of. An inoperable tumor you once wanted to marry.
How do I let you go? you ask me again. Your thoughts are stabbing through me, so many memories at once. You watched the priest close the casket at my funeral, which was full of baby’s breath and roses and that picture of us at the beach. You imagined me in that darkness with silk walls. And when they buried me, you hyperventilated and haven’t really been breathing right since.
You ask, “Do you have any Michael Jackson?” You say this like it’s the difference between life and death, and Luke hurries through the CDs he keeps in a book under the seat. Before he can hand it to you, you see it. You put it in the CD player and flip through the tracks until Beat It is coming through the speakers.
The rhythm fills you. Your shoulders move. You close your eyes and say, “Drive. Okay?”
“Okay,” he says, but you can barely hear him.
I am speeding beside you in the left lane on I-91. Your hair is yellow in the sun and we bob our heads and wave. It’s a beautiful day, with such a long road, and so many exits, so many places we could go. Over the music I hear your voice. I can’t make out the words. You motion for me to roll down my window, and I do. You say, I’m going to take this exit. You point to the green sign with the arrow pointing to the off ramp. Okay?
I nod. You smile and we wave goodbye. Then you turn the steering wheel and disappear past the guard rail. I’m still driving, into forever, into the perfect blue sky, the music blasting.
The daylight’s gone. It’s this thing you call a night, and I see you speed down the road in the passenger seat. Luke holds your hand and you look out the window at the left lane. You almost expect to see me there.
But I’ve moved away from you by then. I’m on my way back to my heaven, where there are no names for things like grasshoppers or music or mountains. I belong here, in this web of thoughts, and, sometimes, in your memories.
You belong there, on the planet earth.
“Take this one,” you say, pointing to the next exit. I can hear the excitement in your voice as I slip away.
Luke turns the steering wheel, driving you down an exit you’ve never taken.



©2008-2017 Lauren DeStefano. Layout by Harry Lam.
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