Sometimes her silences make me feel like I’m underwater, reaching upward through murky dark. My extended fingers reaching for a surface, trying to break through the invisible hydrogen bonds that separate air from sea. I can hear the echoes of my question, rumbling in my ears like the high pitched hum of pressure against my eardrum.
“When will I see you next?”
Drowning in the passenger’s seat, I draw, tuck my knees into my chest. On the dashboard, my feet rest flatly across the panel that covers the airbag. The little sack is nestled somewhere in the bones of the Chrysler Van that Eileen’s navigating through the snow.
If the airbag activated, it would crush both of my legs into my chest.
“Eileen?” I ask.
Away me, across the little valley that divides our two chairs, Eileen’s face is blank. The pale fullness of her chapped lips is drawn in a taut line. On her left cheek, a mole that usually sits at the bottom of a dimple lays flatly across her skin. I can’t see her eyes; they are hidden behind her glasses, unreadable. Bright blue reflections of the car’s interior lights dance across her lenses.
To figure out how much pressure is required to fill an airbag, one can perform a simple mechanical analysis. The bag will inflate in milliseconds, and according to Newton’s law of inertia, it would only be able to stop an object hurtling at it with a show of equal or greater force.
Eileen takes a hand off the wheel and reaches through the valley between us. For a moment, I can see the dark ridge of her eyelashes and her brown eyes, nearly black in this half light. Eileen turns the CD player up and then returns her hand to the wheel, holding two and ten o’clock.
Against the dashboard, I shuffle my feet. The soles of my sneakers are wet; they squeak like church mice against the airbag. Eileen and I are driving at about 70 miles an hour. If the van’s tires slipped in the slush on the 90 and veered into the guiderail, the airbag would have to inflate at least that fast. I wonder if my knee caps would stay attached to my calf bones, or if they would snap off when my legs crashed into my breastbone.
I can feel the words bubbling in my chest, but even I’m surprised at how hollow they sound when they spill from my mouth.
“It’s only going to be a month,” I say, “We’ll be together just before Valentine’s Day.”
Eileen turns her face towards me; the light runs from her glasses and I can see her eyes again as her mouth smiles a practiced half grin. Beneath her eyes, dark half moons have started to form. The medication is starting to take its toll and the blueish light from the dash only makes her look more tired, more frail. Like her face has started sinking into itself.
“Yeah,” she replies, “It’s only a month.”
I smile back at her. When she turns again to the road, I rest my face on my knees and stare ahead into the swirling flakes. It’s five in the morning. Eileen shouldn’t be driving me to the airport. She should be back at her parent’s house, sleeping in the bedroom at the top of the stairs. She should be at the hospital, with one of those needles in her arm and a button to overpower the pain in her abdomen. Driving me to the airport, taking care of her neurotic girlfriend – these are the last things that she needs to be doing.
I suppose I shouldn’t be saying that there is silence between us. Silence implies a lack of noise. With the CD player going, the whirring of the engine, and the steady swish of the van’s tires against the slushy highway – the ride is full of plenty of sound. But Eileen is quiet. Her quietness seeps out of her, sifting through the sounds of the drive like a cold draft.
She rolls down the window, lights a clove cigarette with the quick flash of a Zippo, and then offers me both the pack and the lighter which I accept wordlessly, nodding my thanks. The van fills with the sticky sweet smell of Vanilla – Eileen’s signature smoke.
Before clove cigarettes became illegal, you could find them relatively cheap at the Indian reservations. I’d started smoking cloves a few years earlier, happily telling myself that they weren’t real cigarettes because they tasted nice. At the rez, you could find Djarum Blacks and Specials – they smelled and tasted complicated like Church incense. Frankincense and myrrh, nutmeg. Really strong stuff. These were the smokes that I preferred. The ones that made you feel like you’d burned your lungs when you woke the next morning. The ones that made you remember the night before.
Eileen smoked Djarum Vanilla, a blend as soft as its smell. Though she smoked them in her apartment, you’d never have known. The Vanillas burned you quietly; their smell evaporated from your clothes as you slept. When you woke up congested in the morning, you had to remind yourself that it was the cloves and not a cold.
Sitting across from Eileen, I hold the Vanilla clove between my fingers and watch its little red ember glow. Outside, the sun is about to come up and the whole everything – the sky, the snow, the road – has a cobalt blue tinge. The snowdrifts roll by like waves. In my hand, the ember is conspicuous in all this blue; a flare gun. I press it to my lips and inhale.
Eileen smokes her clove slowly and deliberately. I watch her hands to see if they’re shaking. It’s the first one she’s had in days. Neither of us smoke in front of her parents, but it’s been easier for me to sneak one in. She’s been the one who had to be discussed, the one who had to be decided about. Do we go to the emergency room? Do we drive to a specialist?
Being the subject of all these important questions, Eileen had to sit and listen while her parents decided how to fix her body. Being the girlfriend, the guest in her family’s home for the holidays who happened to be there when the medical situation arose, I was asked my opinion and then promptly ignored. The family had dealt with Eileen’s health before; they were the experts. I was the amateur. Therefore, when the questions turned from emergency rooms and operations to insurance and co-pays, nobody noticed when I slipped away from the table to smoke.
Maybe if I’d stayed at the table, they wouldn’t have scheduled the surgery for the week after I left.
I finish my clove before Eileen does, roll up my window and resume hugging my knees to my chest. The sun has finally crested, rising behind us. Light spills through the rear window, streaming across the brick-a-brack that’s scattered in the back of the van: empty soda bottles and cigarette boxes, stray shoes, a blanket we were supposed to return to her mother, my overstuffed suitcase. A rogue sunbeam crawls through to the dashboard, making the letters of the airbag warning label sparkle.
If my legs broke through my ribcage, could my bones pierce my heart?
Eileen signals and we exit the thruway. She’s still slowly smoking her clove when we start making our way around Buffalo, edging closer to the airport. I stare at my sneakers and tuck my knees farther into my chest. I can feel my kneecaps beneath my jacket. My hands are sweaty. I wish I still had my clove. I always smoke too fast.
“You’re going to let me know how you’re doing, right?” The words escape my lips like a gasp for air, “You’re not going to pretend it’s OK when it’s not because you don’t want to freak me out?”
Eileen sighs. She doesn’t want to talk about her health again; she takes a pointedly slow drag on her clove before she responds. “April, it’s going to be OK,” she says in the same expert tone as her mother, “and I’ll call if it isn’t.”
I look across at her; we’re close to the airport now. If it weren’t for the snow, the sky above us would be laced in vapor trails. Her face is still stoic, but in the daylight the circles under her eyes seem smaller. Her cheekbones are less fierce. But now there’s no grin and her eyes are hard.
Suddenly, as if my feet have finally reached sand, I realize that this is the last time I’m going to see Eileen.
It’s not her health, Eileen won’t die in surgery. It’s not that she’s tired because she’s sick. It’s not that she’s quiet because she’s suffering her abdomen pains in silence. It’s that I can tell she just wants to get to the airport. She wants me to leave.
Somehow, in the last few days, I have changed. I have crossed the line from the casual girlfriend she wants into something more. I have been a part of serious family discussions. I have held her hand in the emergency room. I have seen her slow and deliberate smoking and watched her hands to see if they were shaking.
We arrive at the airport. Both of us get out of the van; I take my feet from the airbag and place them on the ground. I gather my suitcase from the brick-a-brack. Eileen finishes her clove, throwing the butt into the slush on the sidewalk.
Our bodies come together in a fluid embrace. Jackets rustle as our arms encircle each other. Her cheek is warm against mine. Cars drive by us, whispering across the wet pavement like tide caressing the shore.
The blue starts leaking from my eyes. I sniffle. Eileen turns, bringing a hand to my chin and holding it steady so that we’re looking into each other’s eyes. Her mole disappears into her dimple and she kisses me softly, the roughness of her chapped lips tinged with Vanilla.
“It’s going to be ok,” Eileen whispers over the rustle of our coats as she holds me again, firmly one last time.
I grab my suitcase and smile, appreciating the lie.