There’s a quiet that comes with rubber-necking. The “shh” that’s more thought than heard, but everyone abides as their necks twist and break and snap. The traffic comes to a stop because of a fender-bender, but ten feet past the flashing red and blue lights, it flows normally. Once I saw a car on fire on the freeway and most cars were pulled over, but no one was out of their car helping. Sure, maybe someone called 911. I considered it myself before I hit the gas and passed by. Someone else likely made the call. Someone else is probably helping them.
There’s coffee in front of me and a sloshing flask pressing against my right ankle. My tongue licks at my teeth, a plea, but not with so many people around. The man across the table from me watches each move I make.
“How long this time?”
Three hours, if I’m being generous. “Fifty-seven days.” I breathe through the lie. “I’m making amends. I owe you a lot of…amends.”
His eyes narrow but don’t blink.
I did too much walking today and my sock is falling down, the flask nearly dropping to the ground. I try to still my ankle beneath my whiskey; it twitches anyway. The metal tilts away from my skin and my body stills against the threat. A long half-second later the metal touches back and I can breathe.
His breath catches and I’m done for. He saw. He knows. It’s over, last strike, I’m out, he won’t forgive me. But then he lets it go and I’m free.
“Fifty-seven days is longer than last time.”
No, it’s not. “Yes, it is.”
“You’re still going to meetings?”
Not in months. “Twice a week.”
I clench my right hand in a fist and let it go. I repeat it with my left. My fingers rest around my Styrofoam cup.
The bell chimes and a woman enters the coffee shop. She’s pretty with long hair but she’s pale. Her eyes are red and maybe she’s been crying but they aren’t puffy so maybe not. She undoes the top button on her shirt as she gets in line but it’s less immodest than desperate. Like the button was strangling her. Her steps are unsteady when she moves forward. She shouldn’t be wearing heels, she’ll break an ankle.
The eyes of a few patrons follow her movements. She steadies herself on the glass case filled with pastries and her cheeks flush. She reaches the front of the line and she starts sweating. A nervous hand wipes at her forehead.
He’s watching her too and maybe now’s my chance, but all-too-quickly he returns to me.
“What makes this time different?”
Nothing. “I don’t know.”
The woman orders a frappuccino-extra-caramel-extra-whip-cream. The barista asks if she’s okay. “Yes, oh yes, I’m fine,” and drags herself to where the finished drinks are placed. She’s holding on to the counter top. Her knuckles are white.
People are inherently fascinated with death and destruction. At least that’s what a psychology professor said once. Quick to watch, slow to help. We’ll stop for the accident, for the flaming car, for the fender-bender, but rarely will we get out of the car and do anything about it. It takes a certain kind of person. A person like the man in front of me, with a serious case of Florence Nightingale Syndrome. He tried to save me once. Twice. Three times. Then he stopped.
“Why should I forgive you?”
The woman sways, the shop quiets rubber-neck quiet.
There’s a thud and some gasps and someone screams.
The eyes that have been so focused on me snap behind him and he’s up and on his feet and pushing through the crowd that’s already gathered around the unconscious woman. All I see is an ankle and her stupid heels.
“Stand back, give her space, please. Someone call an ambulance. She needs sugar. Does anyone have apple juice?”
People herd away a little, but not far enough, someone’s shrieking into a phone and a barista is handing him a kid’s green juice box and a cool cloth. People crowd my ability to see him.
My own ankle shifts. The first time since I’ve entered the coffee shop, I smile. I relax. I grab the flask and unscrew the top. My nose is burning as the amber liquid gargles into my black, black coffee. I slip the flask against my sock. When it’s secured, I pick up my cup. A long gulp, and I’m walking out with it cradled in my hand, holding the door for the paramedics.
There’s a break in the group to let in the medical help and he looks up. For a moment, I stare at him.
He shouldn’t forgive me. And he won’t.
The alcohol warms my insides as I step into the cold.
Allison Pangborn is currently finishing her BFA in Creative Writing at Chapman University, and when she's not writing or studying or interning or serving tables, she can be found at Disneyland.