James hadn’t said a word to me since we left the Holland Tunnel heading south on I-95. We’d gone up to New York to see a friend’s band playing at a dingy club in the East Village and gotten in a fight. I’d fallen asleep when we left the city, but I woke up somewhere on the Turnpike. I needed to pee. Badly.
“James,” I said, interrupting the rhythmic slap of the tires on the road, “do you think we could stop at the next rest stop? I really need the bathroom.”
“Fucking hell, Ren. I don’t want to stop.”
“I’m sorry. What do you want me to do? Piss myself? I’ll be quick.”
He didn’t respond, but I knew he would stop for me. He wasn’t a total beast. I crossed my legs, then glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. Icy blue eyes, soft brown hair that framed his face, a perfect amount of stubble covering his defined jaw. I looked out of the window and squeezed my thighs together. We drove for about ten minutes until we saw a sign for Molly Pitcher Service Area. It was past two in the morning.
“Thank you,” I said trying to be pleasant, as he pulled off the highway and slowed down in the parking lot. James didn’t say a word. He parked but didn’t turn off the engine or get out of the car, which was a big maroon Cadillac we’d named Grandma after James’s grandmother who gave it to him when she stopped driving. He tapped a cigarette out of his pack, lit it, rolled down the window, and didn’t look at me. He was still mad. Whatever, I thought, he’ll get over it.
I ran into the illuminated building and spotted the bathroom. I raced in, entering the first stall that wasn’t too filthy. I must admit I took my time after that. I was irritated he hadn’t stopped sooner. This was my health after all, so I sat on the toilet and squeezed every last drop of urine out. I’d had three UTIs in the last year and I didn’t want another. I wasn’t getting one on his account. I squeezed and squeezed, then got up, washed my hands, and went outside.
Where he’d dropped me off was empty. A few cars were parked, but no one was around. I wandered over to the gas station, sure that he must have driven over to fill up the tank. I looked for him or Grandma under the bright lights of the station: no, not there. I walked around the entire parking lot. James was nowhere. I flicked through the possibilities of where he could be. I turned around in a circle, scanning the horizon for a sight of him or the car. He’d left me here. “Fucking dick,” I said as I stamped my foot and looked up at the sky. Only a few stars shined through the light pollution of the East Coast corridor. I circled the parking lot again, wondering if he was just playing a mean trick. Would he do that? I didn’t know. “That’s it. We are definitely breaking up after this,” I muttered to myself.
There I was in the middle of the night, wearing jean shorts, a tank top, and flip flops. No money, no phone, just discarded in nowhere New Jersey. I had grabbed the hoodie I’d been using as a pillow as I slipped out of the car, but the pockets were empty. I’d left everything in the car, and he had left me here.
I walked slowly past a row of flagpoles with motionless American flags and entered the rest stop building again. I’d been in such a rush to pee earlier I hadn’t noticed the fading red brick or the dark windows ringed with diesel dust and grime from the Turnpike. I was sure I’d find James there, even though I couldn’t see his car anywhere. He would pop out at me from behind a soda machine and laugh. I’d grab him and yell at him. Envisioning this moment guided me as I searched all over the building: in the aisles of the overpriced store peddling New Jersey souvenirs, where a lone male clerk with a scraggly beard dozed at the counter, down the row of vending machines, in the plastic orange seating by the Roy Rogers, beneath the darkened green awning of a Starbucks. Nothing. I walked past the illuminated map of the Turnpike and New Jersey on the wall and a biography of Molly Pitcher that welcomed visitors to the building. I waited outside the men’s room. It was dead. Everything was closed and no one around.
My heart burned, as though James had thrown it in a bucket of acid. My vision blurred. I saw myself from above: a woman alone with nothing and nowhere to go. Breathing deeply, I sat down in one of the booths near Roy Rogers, avoiding a sticky spot of ketchup on the table. The windows faced the dark, empty parking lot. I swiveled my neck looking from the doors to the window, door to window, door to window, looking for James or the car. I started to concoct a plan. After ten minutes or so, I approached the first female I saw; she had short choppy pink hair and tattoos and stood looking at candy in the vending machines.
“I’m so sorry to bother you. I don’t know what else to do. My boyfriend left me here. He just left me here. I don’t have any money or a phone.” I burst into a sob while my shoulders tightened and lifted. “I don’t know what to do.”
She narrowed her eyes at me.
“Woah, that’s crazy, chica,” the girl said. “When did he leave you here?”
“I don’t know, about fifteen minutes ago maybe?”
“Who would do that? This dude sounds like a dick.” I could tell she found my drama entertaining.
“I know. Could I please use your phone to try to call myself at least? He might answer it.”
“Sure,” she said as she pulled a phone out of the back pocket of her black jeans. “Here you go,” she said, typing in her password.
“I really hope it’s not on silent,” I mumbled. I dialed my own number and heard it start to ring. I stared into the girl’s eyes as I listened. I felt my own eyes welling up with tears again. No answer.
“He didn’t fucking pick up,” I said.
“Well, maybe he didn’t hear it. You could try again in a little while. Our car is full, otherwise I’d offer you a ride. Where are you headed?”
“Just outside of DC. Silver Spring?”
“Shit, that’s far. Do you have anyone who would pick you up?”
“I don’t know,” I sniffed. “He’ll come back, right?”
The girl smirked a little. “I honestly have no idea.”
“I don’t know what to do. I don’t have anyone else’s number. They’re all on my phone.”
“Listen, honey, I wish I could help you. But we gotta get back to Philly. I have work in the morning.” She dug in her dirty tote bag and handed me a crumpled five dollar bill.
“Will that help?” she asked.
“Thank you so much,” I said.
“Hey,” she said, still looking in her bag, “Do you smoke?”
I nodded tearfully and she gave me a cigarette and some matches. It gave me a little comfort to have this bill and a cigarette slid into my pocket. She gave me a hug and wished me good luck; I could smell her body odor and a heavy dousing of patchouli oil. I thanked her, then watched her walk off toward the doors. I knew she was going to get back to her car and relate this wacko story to the amusement of her friends.
I stood there for a second, giving this girl time to climb in her car and drive off down the Turnpike. I thought about who I could possibly call: if I could somehow get someone’s number, I could call from a payphone. My mom couldn’t come; she’d been sick for years, recovering from breast cancer and no longer had access to a car. I was too ashamed to call her anyway. She’d warned me not to get so serious with James, or anyone for that matter. My aunt lived in Chicago. Too far. My dad had split when I was five and was currently living in Florida, a middle-aged beach bum. He occasionally sent selfies of himself, sunburnt and stoned. No. The only person who could possibly help was my older brother. But he had two small children and worked two part-time jobs to support them. He wouldn’t be able to miss work. Besides I couldn’t face the shame of telling him what James had done, especially after I had gloated about how happy we were the week before.
I went back outside and stood under the row of flags. I couldn’t stop thinking that in a few minutes I would find James, pulled up in a corner of the parking lot. He’d be sitting there behind the wheel of Grandma, hand with cigarette dangling out the window. I could see it. He would never just leave me there stranded.
We’d been together for six months. When I met him at a party that spring, he was already dating a girl. He ended it with her on video chat with me lying naked in his bed in the next room. I could hear her crying through the walls, a small, shaky voice asking “have you been cheating on me this whole time?” I wrapped myself up in his blankets and felt pretty special. When I told my mom about James, she said, “Never trust a cheater, Renata; never trust a cheater.” She had a saying for every situation I was ever in. From that moment on, I kept James away from her. I’d been living with her while I took a break from college, but I didn’t see her that much.
James and I spent most of our time together. We worked at the same coffee shop downtown. James had gotten a job there after he’d screwed up an internship his dad had finagled for him. They hadn’t spoken since. James glossed over his parents’ new wealth, focusing instead on their blue collar roots down south, how his dad had worked his ass off, going to business school at night while doing construction in the day. James avoided talking about their new rich lifestyle: McMansion in the suburbs, two white matching SUVs in the garage. He never picked up the phone when they called him.
I paced around the parking lot again. But he wasn’t there. I sat down on a scorched strip of grass where I could see the entrance to the rest stop. “Fuck him, fuck him,” I said to myself. “Who would do this to someone?”
I was still cursing to myself when I thought I heard a voice coming from the corner of a bushy hedge that lined the parking lot. “Oh dear, oh dear,” I heard. I jumped at the sound of a voice and squinted at the dark hedge, but didn’t walk over to investigate. My pulse pounded in my ears. The voice said my name, “Renata, Renata. Are you here? Are you there? Here or are you over there?” I felt a chill roll down my spine.
I looked over both shoulders toward the hedge, then spun around. I saw nothing. I turned toward the entrance where cars sped in off the highway. I was hallucinating as I often did late at night on the road. Last week, I’d thought I’d seen an animal bounding across the highway, a deer or something. I’d yelled at James to watch out, and he’d laughed and called me a lunatic.
I shook my head to distance myself from the voice and thought about how to get back home. If James was coming back, he’d first continue south and wait until the next exit to turn around. Then he’d have to double back to get on this side. I was sure this would take at least half an hour.
I lit the cigarette that I’d bummed off the woman. It was a menthol. I’d heard that menthols contained fiberglass, which I imagined as little knives in the smoke scraping my insides. But the mint was refreshing, the cigarette company. I remembered the old Newport ads on the buses: always such happy people. They’d rarely be smoking, they’d be at the beach, smiling, looking healthy. This one was a little stale. I felt dizzy as I inhaled and exhaled. After a few more puffs, I dropped it and ground it into the cement with the bottom of my flip-flop.
“Yeah, good idea. Smoking’s bad for you. But you know that of course.”
I froze. The voice again. Not an unfriendly voice. More of a breathless, high-pitched squeak, a baby’s voice if a baby could talk. Or an adult who had just breathed in some helium.
Someone was there in the bushes.
“Who said that?” I hissed. What was this voice? Had someone been watching me? Was it James in the bushes? I shivered. I could feel my pulse rise again, the blood now strongly pumping through my veins. Once again, I imagined myself from above, a vision of a small woman next to the bush zooming out. I saw my face, my brow crinkled, my lips turned down. The response was silence, then a rustling of leaves, more rustling, and then quiet again. I shook my head and said, “Whatever. When is he going to come back? God damn him. What an asshole.”
The sound in the bushes stopped, and I didn’t hear the voice again. Maybe I hadn’t heard anything after all. I was delirious and exhausted. It was the end of a warm September, but the nights had been getting cooler. I was glad I had my hoody. I shoved my hands in the pockets. My legs had goosebumps, but I didn’t feel particularly cold. I started to think about my options. Hitch-hiking. I could approach another woman, ask her for a ride to a bus stop, ask to use someone’s phone again to call myself. Why had James left me here? It wasn’t enough just to have a fight like a normal dysfunctional couple. Disbelief washed over me, and I started talking to myself again:
“What the fuck. Why?”
“You’re really in trouble, aren’t you?” It was the voice again, this time with a gravelly laughter following the question. My chest ached; my face grew hot in spite of the cooling air around me. I started to cry. Was I losing my mind?
“I’m fucked, truly fucked,” I said aloud.
“Well, well, we could go through your options. You could walk! How many miles is it anyway?”
“Who are you? Why are you talking to me?”
“That doesn’t matter, Ren. Just tell me how many miles it is to your house,” the voice insisted.
I trembled and felt more tears falling down my cheeks, but I found myself whispering, “Over a hundred. I can’t walk. It would take me days.”
“Okay, scratch that. You could call a friend, or how about family? This is a job for a nice aunt or an older cousin, someone who watches out for you. Don’t you have anyone like that?” The voice had now gained the tone of a know-it-all relative, rattling off advice.
I sighed and sat down on the curb next to the hedge, my eyes still trained on the entrance ramp to the rest stop, expecting to see big old Grandma pulling in. I’d grown distant from most of my friends. My best friend wasn’t talking to me after I’d left her alone and drunk at a party: I’d ignored her most of the night and had snuck off with James. The moment I got a boyfriend I put all my energy into him, letting my friendships crumble, never returning calls or texting back. James and I had gone from meeting at a party to being in a serious relationship in about two weeks. I’d barely seen my mom or my brother or his kids, let alone friends. I thought about what I’d do when James came back to get me.
I heard a little titter from the bush. “You could climb in silently. Never say another word to him. Or perversely you could refuse to get in the car with him,” the voice cheeped.
I shuddered at the voice. “Who are you?”
“Oh dear, oh dear, I’m sorry, don’t turn against me. I’m all you have right now. Anyway, no walking, no one to call. How about hitching a ride?”
“I never hitchhike. My mom told me a story when I was little about a friend’s brother who was killed, dismembered, and left in the desert by a hitchhiker. People don’t do that anymore. Normal people don’t at least.”
“And you are normal?” the voice giggled at me.
“Yes, I’m normal.”
I heard leaves crunching and some movement in the thick hedge. Then that high-pitched giggle again.
“What? What are you laughing at? The only thing weird about me is that I am talking to a bush right now. Who the fuck are you anyway?”
“That’s not very nice, but don’t worry I don’t offend easily.”
I was losing it. How had I ended up here? Abandoned at a rest stop. No way to get home. Now I was hearing voices in the middle of the night. Was it a creature? A person? I felt myself pressed as though I were in a vice: James’s abandonment on one side and this voice on the other, my brain flinging back and forth while wishing for James just to roll up and take me home. I would change everything after this.
The bush rustled slightly.
I asked, “No, really. Who are you?”
“Oh, me? Let’s not worry about me now; you’ve got your own problems. Isn’t that what your mom used to say to you, mind your own beeswax, isn’t that what she’d say to you, isn’t it?”
“Stop it. How do you know what my mom said?”
I spat at the direction of the bush, then stood up and glared toward the entrance. Every time I heard the sound of a car driving up the ramp, my heart jumped. He’d come back. Of course, he’d come back.
“Don’t be so sure of that,” the voice said. “This has happened before, you know. About once a week I’d say. Usually a young woman like yourself. Left here by a boyfriend. No money, no phone. Just lots of tears and disbelief. Walking in circles around the parking lot.”
The little voice squealed and trailed off into more rustling and then silence. Cars flicked by on the highway. My thoughts drifted off. I replayed the night in my head. It’d been a spur of the moment decision to drive up to the show. We’d had fun on the drive up; we’d listened to four Talking Heads records in a row, ate lots of candy, and smoked cigarettes. We stopped at a rest stop just like this one; we bought curly fries and iced coffees. I popped fries in his mouth as he drove. He’d called me his co-pilot. I could smell the trace of gasoline in the air in the car.
At the show, James spent the whole evening with his hands all over me. He was always very physical with me in public. He liked us to be a unit: his arm hooked around my waist or my neck, our fingers interlocked. He’d wait outside the bathroom for me. Anyone who started talking to us, he’d immediately hold me tighter. I’d always liked how much he touched me: it confirmed his affection for me. But something was off that night. I stood next to James while he talked to a friend of his. The music was loud and I couldn’t hear what they were saying, so I looked around the small club at the other people there. Every other girl in the audience stood nodding her head to the music, taking photos, drinking beer, talking to friends. James’s arm slung across my shoulder felt heavy, so I wiggled away from him and went outside to smoke a cigarette.
I stepped out onto the street and almost immediately a guy came up to me. He’d recognized me from our high school in Silver Spring. I didn’t remember him, but we started talking about mutual friends. He said he’d noticed me and James downstairs, and he raised his eyebrows and gave me a look through the corner of his eyes that said girl you got something crazy going on.
“What?” I asked laughing.
“Lemme guess, you and that guy just got together?”
“No, we’ve been together for about six months.”
“His hands are all over you,” he said. “Don’t let the sparks dim too quickly.”
His honesty surprised me, but I laughed again and said, “Oh no. We’re super into each other. I am so in love.”
“All I’m saying is love doesn’t have to look like that.”
I shook my head at him and said, “Whatever.” We heard music coming out the door and went in, where I found James looking for me. “Hey where were you?” He asked me suspiciously.
“I just went outside – you were talking to your friend. I was bored just standing there.”
It was too loud to talk, so he put his arm around me and tapped his hand to the music.
After the show ended, everyone piled outside, smoking and deciding plans for the rest of the night. We were driving home. The same guy came up to me while we stood with a group of James’s friends, and I stepped away to say bye. I gave him a hug, and we exchanged numbers. From the corner of my eye, I noticed James staring at us. When I turned around, his eyes looked ablaze with the lights from the streets.
He glared at me as we walked to the car. “Who were you talking to back there?” he’d hissed. I rolled my eyes in response and added,“It was some guy from my high school. What, I can’t talk to other guys now?”
“Why didn’t you introduce me?”
“You could have come over like a normal person, and I would have introduced you.”
But I hadn’t. I wanted to show myself that I was still free, still myself. The guy’s words nagged at my mind. Why did his hands have to be all over me all the time?
In the car, James got more annoyed with me because I kept asking him if he was tired even though he insisted he wasn’t. I admit I was paranoid: a friend from high school had crashed falling asleep at the wheel. I drifted off eventually and woke up on the Turnpike, needing to pee. And now here I was.
“Ah, I see. No, no, he wasn’t tired,” the voice said.
“Stop it,” I grunted.
I continued, “He’ll be back. Who would do that? Who would just leave someone here?”
The voice squeaked, “Well, you don’t know him very well, do you?”
“You sound like my mom,” I said. My mom had always told me to look out for myself first, that boyfriends would come and go. A flash of rage shot through me. “And you know what? I am sick of this. I’m sick of you. I’m going to go sit on that bench. I’m sick of this dark corner and I am sick of talking to a fucking bush.”
“I am not a bush.” The voice sounded offended.
“What are you anyway?”
The little voice repeated “I am not a bush,” and then erupted in giggles, this horrible wheezy gasping giggle.
I trembled a little at the sound of the sick laugh. “What are you?” I asked again but didn’t wait for the answer. I stumbled away and sat on the bench. A few people came in and out of the building, but mostly the tall lights shined down on empty spaces.
The initial adrenaline had now faded. I sat on the bench and nodded off. I woke up with a start and jumped up. It was still dark. I had probably been asleep for a few minutes, but I felt fully disoriented. The little sleep allowed me to experience the horror of my situation afresh. I listened to the cars on the Turnpike shooting by. Everyone, everyone passing me by. I checked the entrance for cars again. No headlights coming. I looked the other way and saw a line of trucks, all pulled in for night, the drivers taking naps in their beds in the back.
I started to cry again. My throat felt dry and scratchy. I went inside and spent one dollar and forty-six cents on a bottle of water. I thought I could perhaps speak to the clerk at the shop, but he gave me a creepy stare as I passed him. Then, in some illogical hope, I thought I’d take another walk around the parking lot. Maybe James had pulled in while I was sleeping. Maybe, at this moment, he was getting out of the car looking for me.
I’d fall asleep in the car, on the soft fabric seats, breathing in the stale air of gas and ash and Grandma’s old air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror. My phone was there. My money. My keys. James. He’d rub my leg as he drove us home. He’d tap his fingers on the steering wheel; he’d push his soft brown hair away from his eyes, daintily ash his cigarette out the cracked window. He’d return. Of course he would. I left the building with a renewed sense of optimism. Yes, he would be here now. It had been long enough. I hadn’t been vigilant in my watching for his car. We couldn’t miss each other. If he didn’t find me, he’d assume I’d left somehow and drive home.
I hurried outside and did a lap of the lot. No one. He wasn’t here. I sobbed. I looked over to the dark hedge. There was the patch of dried out grass next to it. I went over and sat down.
“You’re back.” The voice again. The leaves rustled against each other. “No luck?”
“No luck,” I said and a chill ran through my body. My heart ached like something had scraped out my chest cavity.
I folded up my sweatshirt into a makeshift pillow and lay down and cried silently. I heard the raspy voice again, “There, there. Don’t cry. Go to sleep. I’ll keep watch for you. If anyone suspicious comes over, I’ll rattle the leaves to wake you up.”
Too tired to argue or question anymore, I took a sip of water and put my head down again and closed my eyes.
I woke up to a blazing sun.
A cop stood over me. “Excuse me, miss. Miss! You need to get up.”
I sat up, shook my head, and rubbed my eyes. I looked around. The parking lot was getting full again, people and cars coming in and out. The eyes of travelers bored into me, a spectacle on the walk from car to building.
I grabbed my sweatshirt and took a swig from the water bottle, the water now growing warm from the morning sun.
“Miss, you can’t sleep here. We’re going to have to give you a fine for loitering.” The officer already had her ticket pad out and was writing on it with a ballpoint pen.
“Why didn’t you wake up me?” I hissed at the bush.
I turned back to the cop.
“Can I explain what happened? I just need some help actually.”
The cop stopped writing, looked at me suspiciously.
“Okay, shoot, you have exactly one minute. What happened?”
“My boyfriend left me here. We were driving home and I had to pee and he drove off without me. I was sure he was coming back, but he never did. Then this bush started talking to me and and…” I spluttered into sobs again, tears streaming down my red chapped face.
The police officer looked at me completely unsurprised. But she put her pen away and escorted me to a makeshift office in the rest stop. I sat down on a cold leather brown chair with rips across the back. She let me use the phone. I called myself again. It rang and rang. I was sure James wasn’t going to answer.
But he finally picked up. When I heard his husky voice say “Yes?” a wave of rage shot through me. I could have eaten him alive over the phone. I breathed in deeply. “James,” I said, my face cracking into a grimace. “Where the fuck are you?” I looked into the eyes of the police woman who sat across from me and heard James sigh. I started to say: “How could you’ve—?” but then I stopped. I steeled myself and took another breath. “I need you to give me some numbers off my phone.” From the corner office I could see the bush and the yellowed spot of grass where I’d slept. Now I could move on.
Raquel Vogl is an American writer and musician living with her family in the North of England. Since moving to Sheffield from New York six years ago, she has learned the joy of running across the windy moors in every season. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories. You can listen to one of her musical projects: peoplehere.bandcamp.com and find more of her writing here.
If you enjoyed ‘Rest Stop’ leave a comment and let Raquel know.
Photo by Ximena Aragone
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