Post Road Magazine #26

Room For My Knees

Frankie Lopes

Water from foreign sinks never tastes much like water. Something in the culverts turns its texture cloudy and thick. I ran my toothbrush under the flume and lifted it to my mouth. The bristles rubbed roughly against my enamel as the water rose in the basin. My reflection split in the mirror. The cracks in the glass forced the already sullen situation to contort into something even less physically appealing. The half lit fluorescents illuminated the tiles on the wall. I knew the faded green color was chosen to help cloak the grime that accumulates within the furrows. I knew that the fact the pinkish circles in the reservoirs of the urinals were stacked three high meant that no one had cleaned here in a long time. I knew I didn't want to be brushing my teeth here, but I knew I didn't have a choice.

     I spit into the pond of water that had pooled in the bottom of the sink. Something had clogged the drain and I thought it best not to get too curious as to what it was. In the mirror, I guided my other hand towards a slit of skin that had been split open earlier in the week by a bottle of brandy. The blood had coagulated and dried, scabbing over the crevice. While I was examining this, the door to the bathroom was opened by a middle-aged man. He stood in the doorway staring at me. His suit contrasted with my plaid pajama pants and blue zip-up sweatshirt. His polished black oxfords put my beaten sneakers to shame. His face told me that beyond his surprise and discomfort, he had sympathy for the boy brushing his teeth in a convenience store's bathroom.

     Silently, the man turned and left and I rinsed my mouth of toothpaste, placed my toothbrush and toothpaste into a small plastic bag I had brought with me and inserted the package into my pocket. I left the bathroom staring down at my shoes.

     The convenience store had a cast of people I hoped to never see again. I stood in line, playing with the seventy-six cents in my pocket. A few teenagers held energy drinks and bottles of coca-cola while discussing directions to some house party. The group of teenagers paid and left to enjoy a night that they would only remember through photographs and I asked the clerk for a pack of Marlboro Reds. He asked for identification and my last seven dollars and seventy-six cents.

     Once outside, I removed the seventh cigarette and flipped it filter side down and reinserted it with the others for luck. Saving it for later, I chose an unlucky cigarette and lit up. The taste of Wintermint toothpaste overpowered the cigarette. The typically warm robust smoke turned icy and brittle, stabbing my throat with frozen needles and filling my lungs with cancerous snowflakes. With every inhalation the chilled burning became more intense and made the short journey to my car seem to slow down because of a light headed dizzy spell.

     My car was parked on the outskirts of the parking lot, past the customer parking, employee parking, and the dumpster. It rested perfectly between the painted lines, facing outward toward the gas pumps and the highway. The streetlight a few yards away pushed a yellow glow from its mouth that turned the electric blue paint of my car a more mysterious musty blue. I opened the driver side door without using the keys because the locks were broken, and had always been broken.

     The backseat of a 1987 Trans-Am is good for one thing, but I was alone—and the backseat of a 1987 Trans-Am was not designed for sleeping. I squirmed and turned in search of comfort. No matter how I positioned myself I struggled to find room for my knees. I eventually accepted that I would be uncomfortable regardless of how I was positioned. I sat up and stared out of the windshield.

     A dark green jaguar was at the gas pump. The man pumping her gas took extra caution in the procedure, holding the gas cap in his hand to avoid losing it. The sight of the jaguar turned something within me sour. I became fixated on the thought that whoever owned that jaguar had always had somewhere to go home to. I filled with a hollow nausea. I swallowed hard and lit another cigarette.

     The keys to my Trans-Am were more of an accessory. I didn't need them to unlock the doors and I didn't need them to start the engine. Only one key on my key ring had any real use to begin with. I turned the ignition with my fingers far enough to start the battery. The driver's side window squeaked when it rolled down and the radio woke up screaming. I turned it off as fast as I could.

     That night, sitting in the backseat of my car in the parking lot of a convenience store, I felt as if every part of the world was orchestrated and choreographed, but I was the only person in the audience. Now, surrounding me was something worse than darkness—it was a thick fuzzy wall of nothing that acted as the curtain for the play and I was left alone, sitting in the middle of nothing on the side of one of the busiest highways of central New Jersey.

     I turned the radio on and flipped through stations until I found a late night talk show. I wanted company so badly that I was reduced to listening to talk radio. The voice talked of current events whose occurrence I must have been too busy to notice. I stared out of the windshield, occasionally ashing my cigarette out of the window.

     The traffic lights only worsened my mood. It's a curious thing to watch traffic lights at 2:17 A.M.; regardless of any cars, the lights still change. I watched them change colors above whomever waited at the white line, and I watched them change of their own accord when theroad was vacant. I tried to imagine the spirits of cars waiting for the light to change. The gas station closed for the night and the convenience store was empty except for the clerk. I dropped what was left of my cigarette out of the window and watched the lights allow or deny the progression of something that wasn't even there while listening to the opinions of a man I didn't know until I fell asleep sitting up.

     The sun magnified through the windshield woke me up. It was morning and busy. The parking lot overflowed with commuters and coffee. The gas station was crammed with eco-friendly and unnecessary luxury vehicles. The traffics lights changed for a purpose.

     Struggling in the cramped space, I slid off my pajama pants in exchange for jeans and traded the blue sweatshirt for a black and gray flannel shirt. Changing in the backseat proved to be a challenge—my knees lacked space and pressed against the front seats. Once fully dressed, I left the car and took a few steps; then I returned to the car and put on a pair of sunglasses that hid my eyes and turned the world yellow.

     After the incident with the man in the suit, I decided against brushing my teeth in the bathroom. I purchased a coffee inside of the convenient store and lit a cigarette while standing outside. Things didn't seem so bad. When I exhaled, I was unsure if smoke was leaving my lungs, or if clouds of my breath were freezing in the February air.

     I jiggled and pressed the ignition of the Trans-Am with my fingers and threw it into first gear. Once I pulled onto the highway a sense of nostalgia closed its fingers around my throat. I had trouble believing I was feeling sentimental about leaving a parking lot but the feeling lingered.

     Talk radio still spilt from the speakers and I didn't mind. Gravel crunched and shifted under the wheels when I pulled into the makeshift driveway in front of my old house. I had always loved the sight of that house, but I could never figure out why. It was nothing special—the front of the house had four windows, two on each side and one door in the middle. I was the only car in the driveway and because it was 9:22 I knew I had time.

     I had walked up and down this driveway countless times without ever noticing the jagged rocks it was composed of, but that morning they felt like nails to puncture the soles of my sneakers and prevent me from being near the house. When I reached the front door, I stood still for a moment staring at the doorknob, rubbing the only useful key on my key ring with my thumb.

     I slid the key into the knob and felt the crooked teeth bite into the tumblers. When I attempted to turn the key to the right, as I always had, the key remained in place. The locks had been changed in the course of three days. I jerked and yanked at the knob. I wanted to pound my knuckles into the wood of the door—but I knew better. I pulled the key out of the knob and placed it back into my pocket in exchange for another cigarette. Sitting on the small stepping block to my front door, my knees were forced up near my chin, where there was no room for them.

     After finishing the cigarette I stood and walked around to the side of the house with a clear mind. I pushed up the window to my bedroom and pulled myself through the empty frame.

     My bedroom was no longer my bedroom—it was just a room. A room with a bed and a copy of Franny & Zooey still open on the nightstand. I felt separated from it all. I opened the closet door, grabbed my duffle bag and began filling it. Extra clothing, journals, books, laptop, birth certificate, passport, junk. Every object that I dropped into the bag pushed me further away from the house, until eventually, I wasn't connected to it at all. I slung the bag over my shoulder and left the room without closing the door.

     The creaks in the floorboards began calling out to me as I walked. I struggled to find the light switch to the kitchen, despite the fact that I had lived here for an entire year.

     The faded white light filled the room. The refrigerator looked painfully naked with the photographs of myself no longer held to its white skin. I felt myself grow older. The dishes from four nights ago still sat in the sink, waiting for me. I was the only person in the house, but I could still hear ice cubes cracking in brandy. The way they clinked against the side of the glass when it was tilted and raised. The clumsy thunk when it was placed back down on the old kitchen table.

     I left out the door with new locks. I stopped in the doorway and took what was once the only useful key that I owned off my key ring and dropped it onto the small stepping block. I left the front door wide open. While walking back across the driveway of nails I heard a distinct crunching beneath my feet. I stopped and crouched down to find the remnants of a broken bottle of brandy from earlier in the week. Upon realizing this I knelt down and let my fingers graze the broken shards of glass. The body of the bottle had shattered on impact, creating tiny triangular shards that scattered amongst the rocks. The neck was still in one piece, because it had been firmly held in the hand of maternal safety. I picked it up and felt its weight in my palm. Part of me fell into myself. I unscrewed the cap and tucked it into my pocket, placing the rest of the neck back onto the ground.

     After tossing the duffle bag into the backseat, I lit my lucky cigarette and turned to look at the house. I realized how much I loved symmetry. How I found comfort in the fact that I could picture folding the house into itself—the windows would cover windows horizontally and vertically. I imagined folding the brick structure like a small piece of paper and bringing it with me. Keeping it safe in my pocket with the bottle cap until I was strong enough to try again, or until she was. I turned and got into the Trans-Am, forcing it into reverse. I watched the house shrink backwards as I pulled away. Someone I would never meet told me about vacation spots I would never visit through the airwaves.

     I drove with no real destination for an hour or so, chain smoking and taking small sips of stale coffee. My knees felt cramped beneath the steering wheel – I felt as if the car was shrinking around me. I wondered where I would sleep that night and how uncomfortable I would be. Eventually I passed a sign for a state park and decided a walk would do me good. I followed the sign and parked in an empty parking lot. The temperature had risen slightly since the morning, but I put my blue zipup sweatshirt over the flannel anyway. From the parking lot I walked down a small asphalt trail that led through the woods.

     A vast field rested within a circle of trees. I had lived in central New Jersey my entire life and never knew this place existed. The wind ran its fingers through the dead blades of grass that would soon be lively and green again. There was nothing there, just beautiful empty space and the roar of the highway held back by the wind.

     I rested on my back in the dead grass and felt so beautifully far away from certain things—but so close to something—something that I didn't know. I thought of the teenagers and their party and the enigma in the jaguar. How they were feeling through the darkness with one hand while holding onto something with their other hand, trying to cope with something without losing themselves completely in the process. I stretched and sprawled out. I slept for nine hours in that field, with nothing but room for my knees.

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