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Karen B. Golightly

Karen B. Golightly has won awards for several national fiction competitions such as Zoetrope, Alligator Juniper, Quarterly West, and the National League of Pen Women. Her work has been published in Bluff, the georgetown review, Final Word, and others. She lives in Memphis, Tenneessee where she teaches literature and writing at the University of Memphis. kglghtly@memphis.edu


Driving Home

So, I'm driving clear across the country in a black Jeep Cherokee, the Sport model. And it's hot. The engine keeps overheating, as if the black is sucking the sun right into itself and holding it hostage for a while. We drive for five or six hours and the temperature gauge starts to rise. We try to time it so we're at one of our many pit stops on the way home, but usually it's nine hours of driving per day, and at six, we just end up sitting around some truck stop or country store, while my Jeep, parked in the shade of a tree, cools itself down.

I look at the guy I'm with. His name is Johnny, I keep reminding myself, and although we've slept together, had the best sex of my life, and known each other for eight months, sometimes I look at him and cannot for the life of me, remember the guy's name. He sweats, we both do, and he puts a clammy hand on my arm, my skin sticky to his touch.

"Think of it as time for us to get to know each other better," he says, and runs his hand down to my wrist. He fiddles with the bone there, the one that pokes out on the side. "We've been apart for two months. You, up in Canada. Me, there in Memphis, where all it did was get hotter and hotter every day you were gone."

He wipes the beads of sweat from his forehead. "Shit," he says, though he's not prone to swearing, "it wasn't any hotter there than here. You'd think New York would at least be cool at night. You ready to order some lunch?"
I nod, and the waitress comes over to take our order.

"I'll take the rib eye, medium rare, with a loaded baked potato, and blue cheese on my salad." He smiles up at the waitress. "Sound pretty good to you?" He checks out her name tag and adds, "Wilma?"

She says, in her most deadpan voice, "Sounds fabulous." Then she nods at me. "What about you, honey?"

I'm stuck, though, staring at the menu, wondering why in the world he'd order a steak at a truck stop. Who, I wonder, in the hell am I with? Johnny, I remember. Make a mental note of that, I tell myself. Why is this so difficult?

"Kat? You ready or you want Wilma here to come back in a minute."

I snap back into the truck stop from wherever my mind had wondered and I stumble along, stalling for time, then settle for soup, asking, "What's the soup of the day again?"

Wilma answers, "Whatever your pleasure, pretty much. Vegetable beef, cream of potato, tomato bisque, chicken gumbo. Almost anything that comes out of a Campbell's can, we got it here." She smiles and I see that one of her front teeth is capped and whiter than the others.

"Chicken noodle, then," I say and let out a breath, like I'm relieved or something, glad for that small decision to be over. "Diet Coke to drink," I add before she walks away.

"Make that a double," Johnny chimes in and as soon as Wilma walks away, he kisses me, saying, "Baby, I missed you so much. I'm so glad I came up here."

I nod, and wonder what the hell I've gotten myself into. I wish that I were by myself on this trip, even though I know that I was the one who begged him to fly up and drive back with me. I wish I were alone, though, so that I could cry the whole way home, stopping the tears only at the truck stops when the car got too hot. I'd wipe them off my cheeks as I was trying to drive, the road blurred, not by rain, but by my own tears. The closer I'd get to home, the more I'd cry, I knew. "I can't go home," I'd cry over and over. I wonder how many hours one person could cry. I wonder when it is that you run out of tears.

Instead I'm sweating my way across America, sweating and having sex, and sweating while having sex as the heat doesn't let up for even one moment. I never quit sweating the entire time, even in the truck stops, which are usually cool inside. It's like my body is crying, since I can't, or won't, in front of . . . I hesitate again, Oh yeah, Johnny.

There's no reason I shouldn't remember his name. I used to know it, by heart, when I first met him. But I never said it, only referred to him as J., so my kids wouldn't know who I was talking about. Every night, when he'd call, I'd just say, "Hey, how's it going?" happy to hear his voice on the phone, but surprised every single time I picked it up that he'd be calling me. I shielded the kids from him, thought it was too soon after their father had left. I'd see him only one night a weekend or late at night when the kids were asleep. Strangely, he didn't seem to mind. Evidently, I fit into his schedule fine, and he'd come over around 10 or so at night and eat whatever leftovers I'd made for dinner. He loved those leftovers, and ate them with a vigor, saying, "Man, you're a good cook," as he scraped the plate clean. He ate our leftovers as if I'd made them especially for him, not just stuck in the fridge and reheated hours later. He'd eat anything, I knew, just seemed to love the very essence of food, eating every meal as if it were his last.

Months later when we slept together, I would catch myself, careful to call him by the right name. I wasn't used to calling anybody's name in bed. Johnny, I'd remind myself, thinking, What the hell's wrong with me? I'm in the middle of sex, for God's sake. But finally, I fell into "Oh God. Oh God." He seemed to take to that just as well as Johnny.

When our food comes, Wilma plops it onto the table along with a bottle of Heinz 57. Johnny takes the bottle, and drips it onto his steak, which already swims in its own blood. "I love a good steak, you know?"

"Yeah, I know what you mean," but I don't, can't stand the taste of red meat. It's not a health thing for me, and I don't have much compassion at all for cows, but it's just the taste that gags me every time.

He spoons butter and sour cream onto his potato, adding the bacon to the top last. He digs into his salad, the blue cheese dressing practically spilling over the sides of the bowl. That blue part is mold, I remind myself. "This is excellent," he says, and cuts off a piece of steak, covered in Heinz 57, up for me to bite.

"No thanks, really." And I wonder why he doesn't remember that I will gag if he moves it any closer.
"Really, it's so good. You've got to try it."

I hesitate, thinking that if I just take a bite and chew it up, try to swallow it, I won't have to remember his name long enough to explain to him that it will make me throw up if I do it. I sit there for a second, the bite of steak suspended in the air in front of my mouth, and finally look at his face hard, concentrating. It begins with a J, I know. How long will I have to sit here before he takes the bite himself, I wonder.

"Johnny," I finally get out. "I hate red meat. Remember?"

"Oh, Kat. I forgot. It's been too long, you know." He eats the bite on his fork. "Like I said before, I'm ready to get to know you again. That was fun for me, hanging out with you, watching movies and going out to eat, learning what makes you tick. I guess steak is not something that makes you tick, huh?"

"Right," I say, and stir my soup around in the bowl. There are only a few noodles there, and no chicken, and I am almost overpowered by the urge to pick the bowl up and drink the warm, yellow liquid there. Instead, I fill spoon after spoon and sip it quietly over and over.

He finishes and pushes his plate away from him, the baked potato a wreck. Only the skin remains; he's cleaned out the flesh and scraped the sides to get it all. There's Heinz 57 smeared all over the plate, and the steak bone sits there, by itself, the lone survivor of the Heinz 57 flood. The salad plate is empty also, only a puddle of blue cheese in the bottom with a small piece of cucumber drowning in it.

"I'll go check the coolant and see if that's the problem." He downs his Diet Coke, ice clinking against the glass, and gets up to leave the booth.

"I'll be right here," I say, and stop for one beat too long before I add, "Johnny."

He takes no notice of my terrible memory, and I'm overcome by a wave of vertigo as I watch him walk away. I hold onto the edge of the table to steady myself, certain that this is the result of the new birth control pills that I've been taking, not the heat, I convince myself. I haven't mentioned the dizziness to Johnny, afraid he'll jump to conclusions, say I'm anemic, or make me find some strange doctor while we're on the road. But if I turn my head too quickly, things continue to move, even after I've stopped my head. It's been going on for a few weeks, and each morning when I get up, I expect it to disappear. I open my eyes and everything seems okay for a second. Then I sit up and almost fall over from the spinning. I check the glands in my neck to see if it's an ear infection, but I can't feel anything.

After a minute or two, the world stops spinning and things get relatively back to normal again. I look out toward the parking lot, and for one brief second, I think that maybe Johnny has left me, driven away in my car, with all of my clothes, my purse, and the kids' car seats still jammed into the back. I imagine that he's left me with the bill, for his steak, baked potato, my soup. I wonder how I'll pay for it, when I see him through the glass front door. He's divided by the metal handle of the door, and he waves to me, big smile on his face, like it's the first time he's seen me in months. I wave back, relieved beyond belief to see him there. I wipe a row of sweat from my upper lip.

He walks through the door, his shirt spotted with sweat. "So," he says, flapping his shirt against his stomach to cool off, "you decide to sneak off and leave me here while I'm in the bathroom, or you think you'll let me drive some more?" He cracks up at his own joke, then joins me on my side of the booth. I don't get it, I think. He went outside, not to the bathroom. He slides his hand up my shorts, rubbing the inside of my thigh with his thumb. "You miss me, sweets?" He kisses my forehead while he says it.

"Yeah, yeah, Johnny." Now it's my mission to say his name as many times as I can so I won't forget it again. "How much longer on the car, Johnny?"

He's a little puzzled, but grins like I'm playing some kind of joke on him. "I'd guess about thirty more minutes, Kat," he says, mimicking me. "Just enough time for a piece of lemon meringue pie."

He motions to the waitress, who comes over to the table with her pad. "Come here often?" he teases her and she rolls her eyes and asks, "What'll it be?"

She doesn't add "Johnny" or "honey" to the end of it like I thought she might, just lays "What'll it be?" out there in the air, and leaves it hanging for a while.

"Lemon meringue pie. And make it the biggest slice you got, Wilma." He smiles up at her big, and his braces glimmer in the florescent light. He squeezes my knee.

"Anything for you?" she says, ignoring his comment.

"No, I'll just have a bite of his," I say and look up at his face, trying again, to imprint Johnny on his forehead so I'll remember it.

He frowns at me, then looks up at Wilma who starts to walk away. "Make hers a slice of that peanut butter pie. Is that pretty good, Wilma?"

She nods in answer, her body half-turned to walk away.

"Great," he says. "And make hers the biggest in the house also."

She nods again. "Okay, two big pieces of pie, bigger than the house. Anything else to drink?"

"Just a refill on this Diet Coke for both of us. You do give free refills on Diet Coke, don't ya?"

She ignores him again, and says as she writes on her pad, "Free refills of Diet Coke in Booth 6." She walks away.

He eats his pie and all but two bites of mine in about five minutes. It's good, the pie, but I didn't want it in the first place. I sit there and play with the chocolate chips that top my piece for a minute while he finishes his. Even the pie is sweating. I look over at his. The meringue has beads of sweat all along the edge of it, where the knife cut through it to the lemon filling. He eats it without noticing, then turns to mine. "You going to eat all of that?"

I push it toward him, knowing all along that he ordered both pieces for him, not me. I had no real say-so in the pie event, I know. I'm just the other person there who holds onto the pie until he's finished with his first piece.

"Thanks," he says, and leans toward me to bite my shoulder. It's not hard, just enough so that his teeth leave a pink imprint for Wilma, and anyone else who wants, to see. "You're so sweet, you know. I could eat you up."

I try to smile at him, Johnny, that is, but I can't help but think to myself, That's all we've been doing, consuming each other for the past three days.

It was three days ago that I picked up Johnny at the airport in Montreal. He'd flown in on the last day of my residency there, into the same airport that I'd left my children in the hands of my soon-to-be ex-husband. I couldn't stay with them, standing in line to check in at the counter, while my kids hugged their father and talked about the trip to the beach they would take. I couldn't stop crying, and my daughter, who is six, looked up at me and said, "Don't be so sad, Mommy. We'll never really leave you." But they were. They did, and it had been three weeks since anyone had wiped a mouthful of chocolate on the only clean shirt I had left.

I saw him across baggage claim, one eye on the moving carousel, one eye on the crowd, looking for me, I knew. I kept dodging behind people, wanting to get as close as I could before he saw me. I reminded myself again, It's Johnny. Don't forget that. Johnny. Johnny Morano.

Finally, he spotted me and walked the few steps toward me before picking me up in a hug. He was a big guy, Johnny Morano, bigger than any other guys I'd ever been with. Much bigger than my soon-to-be (not soon enough) ex-husband. He was 6'2" about 200 pounds and he picked me up and kissed me there in baggage claim like it was our first kiss. I waited for the hairs on my arm to stand up, but they didn't. I knew they should. I willed them to, as he slipped his tongue into my mouth, kissing me deep and hard, then pulled back to look at my face. "Man, I missed you."

"I missed you, too," I said, and meant it. I did, I knew, even if I couldn't hold onto his name.

"I missed your skin so much." He buried his mouth in the hole above my collarbone. "I missed the way you smell, too."

He finally stopped, as if caught by the fact that people were standing all around us, waiting for their luggage, pushing ahead to try to grab their bags off the conveyor belt. He looked at my face again. "Hey, Katherine Weatherby."

I could follow this one. "Hey." Again it stumped me. "Hey, Johnny Morano." And I liked this practice, this getting to know each other again. It seemed about the right pace for me.

But out of the corner of his eye, he spotted his bag, a red duffel bag, about to pass us on the carousel. He said, "Hold this," to me and handed me his briefcase, then jumped in front of two people to grab his bag with one hand. "Okay, I'm ready to go now." And then we were off.

Things sped up for me, then, the walk out of the airport, finding the car in short-term parking. We finally found it, after about 15 minutes, my black Jeep sitting there like it was saying, "Where you been for so long?" We loaded his bags into the back of the car, and I got in the driver's side, saying, "You want to drive, or you want me to?"
He got into the passenger side and said, "I want you to drive, but not now. I can't wait another second. It's been too long, Kat." Then he started unbuttoning my shirt.

"Okay, wait. Wait. I've got to think this out."

"Let me get you naked. Then you can think all you want."

I watched his hands move down my shirt, undoing each button quickly. He smiled. "Tell me I can have you here. Right now. Don't tell me I have to wait any longer."

"Okay, " I said, and turned around in my seat to move my kids' car seats to the hatch of the Jeep. "Let me just move these, so we can get back here, and have a little room, at least."

"Go ahead." He kept his hands moving as I tried to unbuckle the seats, unhooking my bra, reaching under my skirt to pull down my panties. "Will you keep your skirt on for me?"

I got one car seat unhooked and into the back and stopped. He was already kissing my breasts and trying to undo his belt at the same time. "Okay, Johnny. One thing at a time, all right?"

I pulled away from him and crawled into the back seat. He kept undressing as I struggled with the last car seat and pushed it into the now crowded back. "Okay," I turned around, out of breath, to face the front of the car. "I'm finally ready."

He was naked there, Johnny Morano, which startled me at first, naked in the front seat of my car. There seemed something moderately illegal about it. So, I glanced around to see if anyone was near us. He crawled over the seat then, and it seemed, directly into me. It was fast, too fast, and by the end we were both sweating. I sat on top of him, face to face, in the small space between where my kids usually sit, where they hold hands or pass the View Master back and forth. My black and white flowered skirt was spread over his stomach, so we couldn't see, but I could feel him, so close inside of me, that it made me catch my breath when he moved. He kept nipping little parts of me with his teeth like he was taking off a bit of me for later, my shoulder, my breasts, my neck. "I'm hungry," he said. "I've missed the way you taste."

But I didn't know how to react, just kept saying, "Oh God," trying to remember, Johnny Morano's name.

Now, somewhere in the middle of New York, we're eating pie and waiting for the Jeep to come to its senses and take us home. He pays the bill and pulls me toward him. "Kat, I can't get over kissing you." He presses his lips into mine and ends up mostly kissing my bottom lip. "I didn't realize how much I missed kissing you."

"I know. Me, too," I say, and I'm spelling in my head J-o-h-n-n-y.

People look at us, thinking we're newlyweds, perhaps, but surely seeing no wedding rings to bind us together. It's just the Jeep, its temperament, its reluctance to take us home that keeps us together. I feel stupid, in a way, thinking we could make something out of this, out of missing each other while I was away. There were long phone calls, two dates for him, none for me. He probably saw that as dedication, but I knew better. I wasn't available; I'm still not.

We get in the car, he in the driver's side, while I take the passenger role. He likes driving, and it's one of the reasons I asked him to drive back with me. The drive up almost killed me, 12 hours in the car one day, just to make it to Philadelphia for a good night's sleep at some friends'. I had both kids in the car then, and as long as I kept feeding them, they were good, my daughter wiping the Cheetos residue off my son's hands and mouth with a wet paper towel. "Why don't we have diaper wipes in the car anymore, Mom? We sure could use some."

She was right, I knew, but I wasn't completely sure how to answer her so she thought that I was right. "Well," I started. "Nobody in our house wears diapers any more. Let's give a big cheer for everybody who doesn't wear diapers in our house any more." They fell for it and soon, my son was clean and the diaper wipe issue was no longer.

"You ready, babe?" he asks me and puts the car into drive, then slips his hand down my left thigh. He's easy with my body, like it's his own, almost. He's not possessive, exactly, just touches me like it's no big deal, like he's been doing it for 20 years or so. Two months, I think, but not out loud. Two months he's been touching me, and for the first few weeks it was only to rub my feet. I melted pretty quickly, though, under his hands, and by the time he massaged my back while I was standing at the kitchen counter, I was ready to take my clothes off for him. He took a genuine interest in looking at every part of my body up close, like he would find something there if he took a closer look at it. He traced the stretch marks that run down my stomach to my pubic hair with his fingers. He followed the curve of my breast down under my arm, all the way up to my breastbone. He ran his tongue along my collarbone, up my neck, behind my right ear. It made me wince, kind of, the way he took my body like that, but it felt so nice to be wanted that I gave into it again and again.
"Yeah. You sure you're okay to drive? I don't mind, you know."

He knows that I'm lying and laughs a little. "Yeah, right. Like you haven't already driven enough. Want to go for a leisurely Sunday drive or what?"

I nod my head and soon we, Johnny Morano and me, are headed down the interstate, bent on making it to Philadelphia before the Jeep gets too hot again.

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