This time Ari was on his own, driving west, crossing the country, camping nights. He drank coffee at the western diners he chose for breakfast, and on the occasional bender, beer, at lonely, tacky, cowboy bars. Only two thousand miles into the adventure and already the daily act of filling the tank on the small, black, VW Cabriolet, was a reminder to him that he had come this far alone and that it was hard. But that was what made the trip so powerfully different, and such a severe meditation on the life he’d left behind. Ari blamed Myles, he blamed Melissa, he blamed Banjo, the family’s poor old dog, and he blamed his brother, Jeremy, for making him go.
“Hello?” Jeremy said into the phone, his voice blurred by horns, running motors and sirens. “I’m stuck.” Ari always jumped right into it whenever he was angry.
“I said I’m stuck.”
“No. I can’t hear. You’re breaking—” The call cut out. Ari let out a deep sigh, a very irritable ‘ahghhhhh!’ that was filled with smoker’s phlegm, and he clenched his fingers up on both hands. It was late afternoon. Warm yellow light peered through the heavy gray curtains in his room and when he peeled them further open he could see the fence that hid the rumbling highway at the end of the parking lot, the little square pool, and that big, dirty “Motel Six” sign that hovered above the establishment. He paced back and forth for a minute, grabbed another beer from the stash he was icing in the empty trash can, searched all his pockets for the bronze key, found it on the night stand by the smoky, stained bed, and swung the door open.
Squinting in the bright light, He dialed his brother again.
“A little. Where are you?”
“How is it?”
“It isn’t. There’s nothing here.”
“What’s wrong with the car?”
“Everything. The catalytic converter is gunked up… I was on 90, trying to pass a truck. I couldn’t accelerate past sixty. Practically limped into the dealership….”
“And what? I’m going to kill you when I get home. You said you had her serviced.”
“You mean the car?”
“Yes, the car.”
“I did, but Jesus Ar, you’ve done what, three thousand miles already? So you had a little car trouble. It’s to be expected.”
“Not a thousand dollars worth of car trouble. And that’s not counting what I have to spend on this hotel while I wait for the part to get here.”
“They didn’t have the part?”
“No. It’s in Michigan, and it’s the weekend. It won’t come until Monday. Then they still have to service the engine. I won’t be out of here till Tuesday.”
“Well, are you in a hurry to get anywhere?”
“Not exactly. But it’s four days…. And I’m stuck here, Jer. Have you ever been to Omaha?”
“Look, Ar, I’m driving. There’s traffic and I don’t want to get a ticket. Can we talk later?”
“No. We can’t talk later. This is your fault.”
“Ari. Get yourself some beer. I don’t know, go for a walk? Does the hotel have a pool? At least it must be a nice sunset on the plains… Why don’t you grab a beer and sit out at the pool to watch.”
Pacing, waving arms, shouting into the phone, suddenly Ari realized how pathetic and wasteful his eccentrics were. His brother was in Baltimore. What good did it do to shake and stomp around so violently? Finally, he took a long, furious swig of his beer and hung up. He couldn’t swallow. He swished the beer in his mouth until he could feel the fizz climbing up his nose. Uncomfortable, he spit it out on the sidewalk and started to drain his bottle into a pothole. He was in a daze and he didn’t realize that someone was watching.
“You need lime.” The voice said almost in the tone of a question. It was a quiet voice, colored by a soft, descending, sunburned and patient, Mexican accent.
“Martín.” The tan man with weathered cheeks, thick black sideburns, and a sweat stained, San Jose Sharks hat pulled down over his eyes, was sitting on the back of a red Ford pickup, stroking the ears of his fluffy, mutt dog. He made an awkward wave to Ari as he introduced himself, which was not pleasantly reciprocated. Ari merely waved back, smiled fake and started walking toward his room.
“You have more?” Martín called after him.
Ari was startled at the stranger’s persistence. He turned around quickly and saw the dog look up from his master’s lap and tilt his head with nervous curiosity.
“Cerveza. You want? I teach you something.”
It was the dog that won him over. Martín let the mutt loose as he spoke his question, and as soon he did, the dog bounded toward Ari, determined to sniff and to slobber him affectionately. When Ari kneeled down to pet the dog, Martín slowly got off the truck and walked stiffly toward Ari. His jeans were covered in dashes and splotches of white paint and he spun his arm around once as he walked to loosen up his shoulder. Now he gave Ari his hand.
“Martín.” He introduced himself again. Ari looked up.
“Ari. And this is?”
“El Perro? Sí. His name is ‘Cali.’ Is short for California.”
“What kind is he?”
Martín began to laugh and he shrugged his shoulders. Meanwhile Ari stood up. “Maybe some Australian Shepherd?” He suggested, “I like his pointed ears.”
Martín smiled and scratched behind his neck. “Quizás…” He was eyeing Ari’s empty beer bottle and Ari suddenly remembered Martín’s offer to teach him a beer saving trick.
“Ok, alright. Wait here. I’ll grab some more beers for us. I’m sorry, my Spanish is out of practice… Un momento?” He put a finger in the air to show how quickly he would return, turned and darted toward his room.
Ari was in and out but Martín wasn’t as fast. When Ari opened his door to the parking lot again, Martín was gone and only Cali was sitting in front of his door with that curious quirked neck tilting his snout back and forth. Ari walked over to the dog, put the two ice-cold bottles down on the pavement, and gave Cali a good rub behind the ears. Unlike Banjo’s corkscrew curls of poodle hair, Cali had soft shedding fur. He admired the copper coloration around the dog’s paws, stomach and tail and was pleased to learn that Cali knew English.
“Shake?” He asked. “Mano?” Eventually he found the right command and all at once it reminded him of the dog his family had kept before Banjo. The mutt they had bought for ten dollars on that farm in Cortland, New York. The one that was hit by a car.
A door slammed at the end of the hotel block and Martín came out carrying some green limes, packets of salt, a knife and a quarter filled bottle of gold tinted tequila. He had lit himself a cigarette and still limped. Now he ushered Ari toward the back of his truck where Cali climbed up eagerly and was panting. Ari leaned his back against the cabin side, and Martín dangled his heavy legs off the truck, same as before.
“Here.” Martín asked Ari for the two beers. Ari lit himself a cigarette and watched Martín use the plastic covered corner of the truck bed to chip off the tops. Then he handed one to Ari, told him to take a quick swig, and guzzled some himself. “Not so much. Poco…” Martín cautioned as he wiped his mouth and pointed to the level of his beer. Then he took Ari’s beer back.
It was a simple procedure. A slice of lime wedged in the neck of the bottle, a shot of tequila poured through it, then a ring of sea salt spread across the opening. Martín prepared everything delicately, cleaned the knife with the bottom of his shirt, wiped the sticky limejuice off his hands onto his pants, then he handed Ari his bottle and offered a toast.
“Salud. To Omaha.” He said.
“To Omaha.” Ari replied. “Now that’s a name for a dog….”
The sun was sinking. The sky was smearing. Red. Orange. Pink. The whole color spectrum glimmered around the patches of clouds, but there was still an immense blue sky to paint. Cali started to lick Martín’s open hand, his tail wagging as he enjoyed the sour salt that was caught in his fingernails.
“We should walk around.” Ari suggested as he pointed toward the hotel that obscured their view of the sunset. “You can’t see anything here.”
“No. I don’t walk anymore today.” Martín declined. “Duele mi pierna.”
“Where do you work?”
There was a pause. The awkward inevitable pause that came as Martín debated whether or not he wanted to tell what Ari already suspected about his status.
“Here and there. I paint. I do maintenance.”
“How did you end up out here?”
“More work here than California.”
“You came here alone?”
“My wife was here. We have a daughter. She is sixteen now… All grown up. They are both back in Mexico.”
Ari avoided the silence that followed by calling Cali.
“¿Y tu?” Martín asked.
“You mean how did I end up here?”
“Car broke down. I’m driving west.”
“I don’t know. To get away. My dog is dying.” Ari nearly laughed at himself. “That was one thing…. He has cancer.”
“I see. You like dogs.”
“Who were you talking to before on the phone?”
“That was my brother. It was his idea for me to drive west. I took his car. I was mad at him because it broke down. I was over-reacting.”
Their beers were going fast. Martín took the tequila bottle and offered to top Ari’s off with another shot. Ari nodded and the lime sizzled as the sharp drink trickled through.
“Give it…you shake, como así.” He showed Ari how to swirl the Tequila into the beer. Ari thanked him and sipped cautiously. Now the drink was very strong and very flat.
“I was sure it was a woman.” Martín reminded Ari what they were talking about.
“You mean before?”
“Sí. When you were on the phone.”
“No. No it wasn’t a woman. I don’t call her anymore.”
“Why? Because I can’t… I mean, what the hell—”
“Lo siento. Never mind.” Martín retreated, waving his hand as awkwardly as he had when he first introduced himself.
“Look. No. It’s alright. It’s a simple story. I was engaged. My best friend, Myles. He slept with her. I had to get away. My brother lent me his car for the summer. And now I’m broken down. It adds up you know. It’s been a rough stretch.”
“What was her name?”
“The girl?” Ari considered lying and naming her after another City or State. “Melissa.” He said, finally, and finished his beer in one tough gulp. Cali was startled by the force with which he dropped his bottle.
“Lo siento.” Martín said again. It was all he could say about the situation. Then he asked if Ari wanted to see a picture of his wife and child.
“Sure, quickly though, I have to make another call soon.” Ari was feeling buzzed and tired at the same time. He wanted to take a shower.
His joints lubricated by the alcohol, Martín was suddenly spritely. He hopped off the truck and eagerly went to the side door where he fumbled through the glove compartment in search of the picture. Then Ari felt the car battery click on. Martín was rolling down the windows and putting on some Latin music. When he came back around he was smiling and looking at the picture of his family. He didn’t climb back on board the truck. Instead he reached up and put the photo in front of Ari.
“Mira. Mi esposa, Inez, y nuestra hija, Raquel.” The Picture showed Martín, at least ten years younger and without his hat. Inez had dark hair and a plump figure. Their daughter was wearing a red flower dress, had curly black hair and a baby’s smile. The picture was very faded.
“How long ago was this taken?” Ari asked.
“She is three.” Martín pointed again toward Raquel.
“Are they coming back?” Ari asked about Mexico.
“No.” Martín shook his head and started to return to the front seat to replace the photo in the glove compartment. When he came back he finished his story. “She has new life now.” He said about Inez. “I was the one who wanted to come to California. She never want. Now I send money for Raquel and she lives with another man. I forgive her.”
Strange. It was so easy how he said that. “I forgive her.” Now Martín climbed slowly back onto the truck and Ari offered him a hand.
Cali came over and nuzzled his snout against Martín’s neck. Ari wanted more information.
“Do you call her?”
“And she will talk to you?”
“We’re still very close. Familia. Only it didn’t work out.”
“And don’t you want to go back and see your daughter.”
“I leave, I lose everything here. My truck, Cali. No. I can’t go back now. I don’t want. Too hard to cross again.”
It got quiet after he said that. Quiet except for the steady traffic that kept rumbling across the highway and the poppy, salsa fused Mexican music that was playing. Cali rested his head over the top of the truck, curious about all the vibrations.
“Lo siento.” Ari said anyway, even though he didn’t fully understand Martín’s decision to stay in the States.
“Sorry for what?”
“About your family. I’m sorry you had to choose.”
“I didn’t.” Martín insisted. “Una mujer siempre sabe lo que quiere…”
“Lo siento?” Ari didn’t understand the comment or the smirk.
“I said woman always knows what she wants. Inez no want me or America.”
Ari was confused, or he disagreed, he didn’t know why, but Martín’s passive character made him feel uncomfortable.
“I’ve got to go. I’m sorry.” He sought an end to the beleaguered conversation. There was simply no point in hearing each other’s confessions.
“Gracias for the tequila.”
“Gracias por la cerveza.”
“Mucho gusto?” Ari searched long and hard for that phrase in Spanish.
“De igual. The same, the same.”
“Hasta luego, Cali.”
The dog turned his head briefly before returning its gaze toward the highway.
“Buenos noches, Martín. I wish you luck.”
“De igual. The same, the same.”
The sky was a blur of warm colors with shadows surrounding the horizon. As Ari got off the truck he waved again to Martín and quietly retreated to his hotel room. A short struggle with the key, then he slipped inside, closed the door quickly and was glad to be in the relative dark. It took an hour for him to settle down. He showered, brushed his teeth and got ready for bed. He set an alarm on his phone and left it on the nightstand. Afterwards, the television went on and off again several times before he realized he could fall asleep. The tequila buzz had faded to a vague delirium. He slept and he dreamt, and everything he dreamt felt very real.
Hours later, he couldn’t figure out who had called whom but he woke up on the phone with her. Both their voices were scratchy so they spoke in sleepy whispers.
“What time is it?”
“Where are you? It’s me.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m in New York. I haven’t gone anywhere.”
“Of course the City. Where else would I be?”
“I don’t know. I miss you. I want to see you.”
“No. Not tonight. When I get back to New York.”
“You’re not here?”
“Where are you?”
“Nebraska? How did you end up out there?”
“Jeremy. Ask Jeremy. It was his idea. I was mad at you. I left.”
There was a pause. Then Melissa took charge of the conversation.
“Ari. Are you awake? Are you drunk? I’m wondering if we shouldn’t talk still. At least not until you’re back east and we can talk in person. Myles left, you know? He went abroad.”
Another long pause, then Ari asked her if she missed him.
“Of course I do.” She was confident. “I miss you like crazy.”
“But you won’t forgive me?”
“I don’t know.”
“Will you forgive me?”
“I… I don’t know yet.”
“Ari you shouldn’t call me until you’re sure of everything. Isn’t that what we decided. There was too much uncertainty before. That’s why this happened.”
“I don’t know.”
Melissa yawned, and Ari yawned. He had climbed out of bed and turned on a light. His face in the bathroom mirror was yellow and bearded. A little water and his voice grew stronger.
“What do you miss?” He asked her as he sat down on the chair by the window. He thought it was a good question but somehow Melissa seemed too prepared to answer.
“I miss you… I miss waking up with you. I miss you coming to my performances. I miss you and Myles, the three of us going out together.”
“Please don’t mention Myles.”
“Oh Ari, you’re angry. Please don’t be angry still. We have to get past that part if we’re ever going to be close again. You know it didn’t mean anything…”
“But can’t you at least miss me separately?”
“I can. I do. I miss you holding my hand when we’d go for walks in the park. I miss your mix cd’s. You know I can’t listen to them without you… I miss you making pancakes on Sunday, I miss picking you up after work on Friday’s, I miss so much, Ari. I miss you all the time….”
“You went so far away that last month we were together.”
“You’re far away now too.”
“I had to. You know? Jeremy was right. I had to.”
“But did you have to go so far?”
“Well, I couldn’t, I mean, damn-it Melissa. I didn’t understand what you wanted from me. It was too many games.”
“I didn’t want anything Ari.”
“Then tell me why it happened.”
“I can’t. I can’t explain it.”
In a rush of blood to his face Ari turned angry. He knew that if he yelled at her she would hang up.
“No. You can.” He started “Why can’t you? Tell me what I did already! What was my mistake?”
He yelled that into the phone several times, demanding an answer from the voice he no longer felt close to, but there was only static coming in reply. Slowly he calmed down again. In his hand he held the curtain. Gently, he peeled the blinds open and witnessed the first glints of yellow light spread out over the parking lot. A sunrise. Morning. Welcome. Three days left to wait. He was glad to see Martín’s red truck and Cali outside eating breakfast.