Michael DeStefano received his MFA from Fairfield University, where he now teaches first-year writing. He also teaches for the City University of New York at LaGuardia and Queensborough Community Colleges. His work has appeared previously in Escape Into Life and Spry and will appear in Canyon Voices this spring. He currently lives in Queens with his fiancée.
Read by Nicol Zanzarella
The fresh air you’re desperate for doesn’t exist here. Still, you fill your lungs. You find a hydrant, ease to the curb next to it, burp, stretch your legs, discover you’re sitting in...something, stand up and lean against a signpost. You ignore your vibrating phone, texts asking where you are, telling you to come back inside. You turn it off.
The cars in front of you barely move, but you watch them. The things you see. Middle fingers flying, bunned heads bobbing, bottles soaring, crashing, lit cigarettes and racial slurs being hurled at cab drivers through open windows, partially-digested three-course meals being hurled out of open windows. Each by itself nothing you haven’t seen before, but everything in one leaning is something new. And new is good. New gets your undivided attention. Fares cut short, screams exchanged, disgraced passengers meandering through the former contents of their stomachs toward you, then turning and stumbling up or down the street. You laugh. You sigh. You shake your head. And if it starts to smell, you walk a block to the next break in parked cars and go back to leaning and watching, view unobstructed.
Traffic’s at a standstill, yet horns ring out non-stop, six-year-olds blasting on trumpets. You wonder what each driver thinks the horn is capable of: the horn is a reminder, the horn is, “Idiot, the light’s green,” the horn is alarming, frightening, empowering, the horn is therapeutic, the horn is motivation, inspiration, magic, the horn is Moses. You wonder how long it takes each of them to regret beeping. You hope regret at least crosses their minds. You could use the company.
You press POWER on your phone, telling yourself it’s to check e-mail or your friends’ whereabouts, but as it goes through its startup song and dance, your body temperature rises, your stomach bubbles, and you turn it off before it ever turns on. You’re terrified of messages that might be there. You’re also terrified they won’t be.
Through three cycles of lights, the silver SUV in front of you hasn’t advanced a car length. You’ve watched the driver move from singing to drumming on his steering wheel to texting to cursing to honking incessantly. His passenger-side window is open. His black hat is turned backwards, and his beard is uneven. You can see every flail of his arms, every face rub, every radio change. Your attention now belongs to him alone.
He puts a clenched fist to his teeth, takes the turning lane, accelerates, and makes a right. You jog after him. The jog was unnecessary. He’s stuck on a one-way, one lane, but it moves a little faster and as he advances, you advance. You’re walking casually, or trying to, like you’re not following him, but you don’t lose sight of him for even a split second. He hasn’t noticed you, but if he does, you seem normal. Your powerless phone is at your ear. Your lips move when they should.
When he gets to the light, he makes a left and stays in the left lane. More traffic. Not as bad as where you came from but not good, either. And you never know. It could get worse. It could get much worse. He bangs the steering wheel, throws his blinker on, and cuts off a cab to middle lane it. Keeps his blinker on, moves to the far right. You debate crossing the street, but a minute later, he’s back. Right next to you. You watch his head swiveling, looking to switch lanes again even though it’s pointless. But you know what he’s thinking. Anything is better than this. You’ve been where he is. You are where he is. You feel his anxiety, his frustration, his helplessness. You wonder for him where he’d be if he’d made different decisions, been more patient, stuck it out. You want to sprint back a block to see if traffic’s moving where you were, but you don’t want to miss a moment of him. You can’t. He has nothing to do with anything, but he’s everything to you. This is everything to you. You need to see how it ends.
His head jerks, he cuts into the middle lane, then left again, and shrieks a turn back toward the avenue whose name or number you can’t remember. You weren’t expecting such a decisive move. You lunge to follow, but you stop yourself. You let him disappear down the street, perhaps into the same rut he’d left not long ago, perhaps into...
The cars he abandoned make it all the way through the next light, a feat that seconds ago seemed impossible. You smirk. You feel bad for him and worse for you, but all you can do is smirk and walk toward these new cars, the lucky ones, then past them, because you chose the SUV you chose and don’t get a second chance at whatever this is. You’re just walking now.