by Amy Monaghan
Nora had nearly thrown up when she first learned that she and Lewis shared a birthday.
June 8, 1959.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if he’d been just a couple of years younger; somehow she felt that his birth year being in the '60s would have improved things just a bit. But no. Making matters even worse was the fact that they’d been born in the same hospital. She hated imagining her newborn self swaddled next to him in neighboring cribs in some dimly-lit nursery, their little pink hands balled into fists, screaming at the cruelty of being born.
Their waitress, a teenage try-hard with a plastered-on smile, approached the table.
“Happy Valentine’s,” she chirped, pouring their waters. “He getcha something nice?”
Nora didn’t respond and neither did Lewis. A few uncomfortable seconds passed and the waitress gave a nervous laugh.
“I’ll just give y'all a minute with the menu.”
As she disappeared into the kitchen Nora looked across the booth at Lewis, another hot surge of anger rising in her throat. Lewis flipped through the smudged laminated pages of his menu, concentrating as if it were a holy text, his expression otherwise blank. Nora knew he wasn’t reading it. She knew already that when the waitress came back he would order a hamburger, well-done, with a coke and a pickle. He was so boring; so predictably his age — her age. The bald spot on his fifty-two-year-old head gleamed at her in the window light of the shitty little diner. She felt an urge to reach across the table and punch it, but she resisted.
It had been like this the entire drive. Nora had been irrationally enraged to learn that Lewis listened to his music through an aux cord connected to an ancient iPod Touch, just like she did. He liked Paul Simon and The Eagles, just like she did. He said stupid, corny things like “glad we’re not on that side” when the southbound highway was backed up with cars across the median, just like she did. But worst of all, most egregious and unforgivable, was the fact that he kept a small photograph of Becka in his wallet. Just like she did.
A tiny piece of Nora, the piece that was exhausted and grieving and desperate for some semblance of peace, had hoped that Lewis would surprise her. That he’d be unexpectedly funny or cool or charming. That he’d seem younger than her and therefore age appropriate. She’d wanted at the very least to understand what Becka saw, because it certainly couldn’t be this: a shiny-headed boomer with an unironic '90s Patagonia and a well-done burger with a coke.
The waitress returned, looking more wary this time, and Lewis handed her his menu.
“Hamburger, please. Well-done.”
They stayed in a cheap motel somewhere in a barren wasteland outside Salt Lake City. Separate rooms, of course. That went without saying.
Nora couldn’t sleep. In the grim light of the bathroom mirror, she impulsively cut her bangs with a pair of nail scissors. She hadn’t had bangs since she was in her twenties, and it felt like the sort of innocuous life change that people in situations like hers were expected to make. She’d hoped it might make her feel better, if only for a second or two, but when she finished she took one look at herself in the grimy mirror and collapsed into painful, choking, guilt-ridden sobs. Becka had never known her with bangs.
The next morning they climbed back into Nora’s Subaru in silence. Lewis didn’t comment on her hair. He held out a sad-looking cellophane-wrapped muffin.
“From the lobby.”
“I don’t eat lobby muffins.”
She pulled out of the motel parking lot and onto the highway as Lewis picked pitifully at his foraged breakfast. When he was finished he folded the cellophane into squares. Nora glanced at the trash-based origami with contempt and felt she couldn’t contain herself any longer.
“She said you were a movie director.”
Lewis looked up with a resigned yet determined expression, as if he’d been waiting for this and was prepared.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“I didn’t find you on the Internet.”
“It’s been slow the last few years. I used to do music videos. Some ads here and there.” The cellophane crinkled between his fingers. “You’re in finance, right?”
Nora recognized the attempt to turn the conversation towards herself and decided not to allow it. She ignored the question and fell back into silence, her knuckles white on the wheel.
In finance. It was the sort of vaguely accurate description of her old job that Nora could imagine Becka telling him, although she hadn’t worked in several years. Not since Eddie’s death and the settlement. They’d been married twenty-eight years when he’d gone in for a routine dental procedure and the tech had overdosed him on anesthetic. Nora hadn’t had a cleaning since. She wondered if Lewis knew all that.
Lewis unfolded the cellophane, then folded it again.
“I don’t mind driving for a while.”
He never let Becka drive when they went places together. It was an issue between them. One she wasn’t supposed to know about but had pieced together from fragments of phone conversation overheard through thin walls that week last spring when Becka came to visit.
Nora would have run them off the road before letting him spend a second at the wheel.
The landscape outside grew greener and more wooded as they ascended into the mountains. And then, too quickly, they were there.
At the top of the winding highway was a wide overlook that stretched out above the peaks below. Nora and Lewis got out of the car and stood by the edge. A layer of clouds hung in the air beneath the dropoff. For a strange moment Nora remembered being a child, when she thought that clouds were like pillows you could rest on if you climbed too high.
She walked back to the car, her body moving of its own accord now, and reached into the backseat, where she’d placed the box that contained Becka’s ashes.
Lewis was staring down at the clouds when she returned.
“They look like pillows,” he said.
An emptiness settled over Nora and suddenly it felt like all her rage had evaporated in the thin mountain air. There was nothing left in the well of silent mockery. She was coming up dry and somehow it was worse.
She held the box out to Lewis, and he stared as if fearful of a trap.
“You,” she said simply.
He took the box.
The act itself took seconds. Becka’s ashes swirled in the breeze and disappeared into the clouds. Gone as quickly as she’d come, not even thirty and already dust. Lewis was crying, but Nora’s face was dry.
“Thank you for letting me do that. Letting me be here.”
He really did seem grateful, but Nora didn’t give a shit. It was just that if the task had been left to her, she’d be standing on that mountain until the earth itself stopped turning.
The sun was setting as Nora looked over at Lewis from the driver’s seat. He was sleeping, his head pressed against the window. He looked like that vision she’d had of him as a baby: her neighbor in the hospital nursery on June 8, 1959. He looked just like a child. The unfairness of it all made forward movement seem impossible. She pulled the car to the shoulder, parked, and opened the door to step out. Lewis did not stir.
The winding mountain road smelled like juniper and fresh rain. Nora stood stock still and stared into the distance, seeing everything and nothing at the same time.
Years and years ago when Becka was fourteen, she had taken one of the floral-patterned kitchen knives that Nora had bought on sale from a catalogue and used it to cut her wrists. Eddie found her in the bathroom covered in blood and they rushed her to the ER in a nightmarish haze. White gauze soaked with red, careful quiet whispers from the nurses, a referral to an in-patient program. But the next day was picture day at school, and, inexplicably, Becka had wept at the thought of not making it into the yearbook. The psychiatrist found this encouraging and suggested Becka’s treatment be pushed back just one day so she could have her photo taken. She wore a long-sleeved purple dress, smiled too wide, and wound up looking slightly manic. It was the photo that Nora had kept in her wallet ever since, and also the photo that Lewis now kept in his. She imagined Becka giving it to him and wondered if he knew the story, if he knew about the floral patterned knife and the white gauze and the careful quiet whispers. For a second she thought of asking him, but just as quickly changed her mind. It didn’t matter now.
Nora climbed back inside the car and found that Lewis was awake. She looked him over: from the creases by his mouth to the sparse forest of hair on his head. Somehow in the span of a few minutes, everything childlike about him had vanished. And Becka would never get to look that old.
Lewis held out a pack of gum.
Nora felt her jaw clench. She ignored him and put the car in drive.
Amy Monaghan is a queer Los Angeles-based writer with an MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA. Her fiction has appeared in publications such as Witness Magazine, Mulberry Literary, Cagibi Lit, and The Write Launch. In her free time she enjoys road trips to towns with one gas station, reading books about tragedy, and collecting pinecones in the park. Learn more at amymonaghanwrites.com.