By Andy Bodinger
That morning, as I was mopping persistent footprints from the gas station floor, equal parts slush and red clay, my aunt texted me: on our way to the hospital. My pregnant sister had gone into labor exactly on schedule—just in time for us to leave town. I kept this from Lucas. He was waiting outside in his jittery silver Honda after my shift. The car skittered on as he turned the key, and then finally, we embarked east from Oklahoma. I tossed my phone into our thicket of luggage.
As we drove, we munched from the cooler ready-packed with last night’s leftovers: green apples, cold hash browns with tabasco, hummus smothered across corn tortillas, home-fried drumsticks. Sipping sparingly from mason jars of kombucha, I tried to keep Lucas entertained. I told him that the only Portuguese word I knew, saudade, evoked an image of Brazil that resembled those videos of traffic in India. He and his mother had immigrated from the southern province of Paraná twenty years earlier. Our trip marked one year since her passing. I recounted my imagining of Brazil: cramped roads, car horns honking, though instead of holy cows inciting traffic jams, female pigs. I imagined drivers swerving around idle swine on the road, yelling, sow-dodge, sow-dodge! Lucas lifted a smile, strained like a crack in a terracotta soldier.
We slept in the lot of a Mississippi travel station. We taped tattered sheets over the windows and unfolded a skeletal travel mattress in the back. I realized, trying to sleep covered in a disquieting mélange of chill and sweat, that I was an uncle. My sister’s kid had been extracted, covered in fluid, wailing—absolute wailing—that rang like tinnitus in my ear until we reached the Georgia-Florida border the next evening.
We followed the length of the Keys and landed in Key West, the southernmost point. We parked at the beach and I struggled into swim trunks. I let the outdoor shower hose off days of grime, then laid on a ratty bath towel, sand cresting at my feet. A French couple in navy bathing suits a few yards away talked animatedly and laughed between themselves, too Parisian for my high school fluency. Lucas floated into the water, cleansed of his white-knuckled tension. We had successfully fled our lives for a little while.
An hour or so passed, and when Lucas emerged from the water, he asked if we wanted to find lunch since our cooler was nearing depletion. As we collected our things a few splinters from the French couple’s conversation collided gently into my comprehension: changement climatique and vasectomie, the latter so similar to its English equivalent but defamiliarized as his voice glided past, as if uncommitted to any particular syllable.
“I have a niece, now,” I told Lucas as I sat in the passenger seat. “Or a nephew. I don’t know which.”
His hands gripped the steering wheel ten to two; expression puckered like a swelling bruise.
“Babies are fragile,” I told him unprovoked. I told him that fragile things are dangerous. I had my examples lined up like army men. The shards of a broken vase. Shrapnel from a pinless grenade. A single drop and bang—your family is never the same. Besides, my sister had a lofty family tree peering after her. Who did Lucas have?
“We should leave tonight,” Lucas said. The reason didn’t matter: he was an accessory to my escape. He turned the key. The engine replied with a sputtering mess. He turned the key again, and the minivan shivered. Lucas turned the key again, his muscles straining as if it was due to a lack of effort that the car would not start. I reached for my phone that had at some point slid between our seats. I tried to turn it back on, but the remaining battery had drained in its slumber.
I unbuckled my seat belt and walked to the shore. Wading into the water, bending down, I dunked my head under. I just needed sixty seconds; mimicry of a yogic gesture attempting to rewrite the imbalance I wrought.
Ten seconds. Sounds needled into vibrations. Twenty seconds. Cold, strangled nerves. Easy, thirty seconds, warmth tickled my back. At a mere forty seconds, I felt a pull from my arm and then my hair. I was removed and exposed to the humid air. I looked back. The French couple was on either side of me, first speaking to me and then to one other. Sue-ee-see-day, sue-ee-see-day, they repeated.
They escorted me back to the beachside like bouncers, as if I was liable to bolt back into the water. As we got close, I saw Lucas, still in the driver’s seat, turning the key over and over. He hadn’t noticed I left. It wasn’t for a while that he called it quits and threw his head back into his seat. Then, calming himself, he apologetically rested a tender palm on the dashboard, unaware of me dripping in the sand. Our friendship felt like a bungee-cord stretched beyond its talent, which had snapped as it bridged the journey from the sand-soaked parking lot to the waves. I rehearsed my lines for returning to the passenger’s seat, for returning to Oklahoma, ignoring greetings and apology and instead brandishing a lilting, where to? and offering it like a treat from a worn-out cooler.