The thunderstorm was just across the four-way stop. There should've been a crossing guard there, tapping the east/west traffic like a faucet, but I guess they don't get paid enough to work in this weather. Instead our cars were dashing across one at a time into the dim, beaded curtains of rain. I was picking at a bra strap, picking at a zit, waiting for my turn. My left foot was cramping from holding down the clutch. I was thinking, as I shifted from first back to neutral again, about the last ten minutes at the office and the next ten once I crossed into the rain.
My boss had said, "Its come up a storm," and I wondered if this was some kind of southern way of putting it, or if he was just stalled and speechless by the beautiful woman at my desk— a tall, irresistible blonde, hugely pregnant. He warned us both, "Its come up a storm" and "and be careful out there" and later asked me her name. "I think I went to high school with her," he muttered. No doubt, she was a homecoming queen, the kind you remembered. I stayed ten minutes late to help her; I would've done anything for her.
In the parking lot, the yellow wind stirred dirt into my hair. A boy behind the restaurant next door waved at me as he dropped the lids of an enormous dumpster. We both turned our faces towards the freight of clouds. Thunder ruffled the asphalt. The thunder made me love him, just like the pregnant woman, because we were there late together and got to see this thing coming. I whooped into the blocky air. What is the opposite of loneliness? Communion?
The clouds command an audience. This summer they are my skyscrapers. They are my Grand Tetons, my French Alps looming over I-75. I had forgotten these southern summer storms— the invading height of cumulo-nimbus, whipped and piled and shellacked on slate coasters. Every afternoon they pull up out of nowhere and gangbang just one corner of town. The paved and unpaved alike are left steaming. Each storm is a temporary beach rain, summer camp rain, rain visited from behind a screened in porch. Rain noise sealing off each blue tarp and tin awning and car roof.
Finally, I had my turn at the stop sign and the gates of water. As I lurched forward, takeoff jolted the faulty window sealant of the driver's side window. Something touched me. Two drops of ice water fell on my shoulder where the sleeve was rolled up, mingled with the blood I had drawn there. God, what if people could see this? We were all together now, switching off our radios and leaning into it. Our windshields a dizzy paisley of gray. The daily thunderstorm is about the only time I feel it in this county: the opposite of loneliness.
Traci was irresistible back in high school. She still is, no doubt, the kind of woman people stay late for. I called her when I heard she was pregnant again. I left a sunny message on her sunny answering machine, states away, feeling like an old flame. It took a few weeks, but she did call me back. I was— where else?— in a car in a storm on I-75 again. The car smelled of somebody else's wet cigarettes. Jason drove while I sulked with both feet on the dashboard.
Her name registered on my cell phone and I answered, like we talk all the time. "Hey Traci,"
Right away I notice that she giggles a lot. Traci creates a wallpaper of astonished giggles. So she's seven months pregnant now, its going to be a girl, and they're trying to get moved into their new house before the big day. Elijah is walking, talking, was the hit of Vacation Bible School. I remember to ask about all these things, concepts. She's sorry it took her so long to return my call, but it's been such a crazy summer already.
We are cruising under the last suburban overpasses and each one creates a skip in the soundtrack of rain. I recount my last 8 months too, all the insignificant maneuvers. My toes leave glib little steam prints on the windshield. The word "heartwarming" keeps coming to mind, and I tell her how I miss her. It hits me that she'd probably love the new thrift store in our old neighborhood.
"Traci, you would love it. It's like the thrift store of my dreams. Everything is choice, everything is like one dollar, and best of all, the sisters who run the place are a couple of original Forest Park skanks! They're like, 'We love Fawrst Park and we ain't goin nowhere!'"
She giggles harder, "I'm so glad I got out of there!"
"That so could've been me!"
I let her giggling fill up my ear. It has been 22 minutes already and the phone is hot and glowing against my cheek. I keep trying.
"But it's so inspiring. Its like, these girls had a dream and they're doing it. They opened their own thrift store. I love it."
"Right. That's great. It's just, I'm so happy with what I'm doing with my life right now."
No, this is not the reaction I was going for. I could hear her Rottweiler barking in the background.
"They named it Thrift Score. It's hilarious. I told them they'd be seeing a lot of me. It makes me really really happy."
I'd been thinking about the thrift store owners all day— their fried out hair and cutoffs. The younger sister had been mopping the tile floor while the other distributed armloads of clothes on the chrome racks. You could tell that they had both been really something at Forest Park High School, the kind that got I.S.S. and got fingered and wore lots and lots of Rave hairspray. And now they're young entrepreneurs. Plus, for less than a dollar, I acquired a seafoam green polyester sundress that makes me look like a 1979 starlet. Doesn't Traci, who once ruled the local Value Village with me, at least see the brilliance in this?
"No, I mean, there's nothing wrong with opening a thrift store. It's just that I'm so happy here. I'm about to have the house I've always dreamed of and two little babies in it. That's just what I'm about right now and its just great." Pitiful, relentless showers of giggles.
Her voice is like a song. And I could hear myself wound up so tightly, spewing explanations. How that was cool, of course, but this was cool also. Because, see, I'm all about Forest Park right now, and starting a business and finding role models. I felt the moment slipping by, the chances of relating. Like the time, 5 years before, when she told me she wouldn't be coming over for movie night because she was a married woman now and she belonged at home with her husband. I needed to understand that she didn't go out to punk shows anymore, didn't stay out late in smoky clubs and all that.
I was a married woman now too. And my husband was aiming us off the freeway and towards the blinding light of a Waffle House. Traci and I would need to slather another 15 minutes of chatter over that weird, offensive misfire. I paced one corner of the drenched parking lot while Jason stepped inside the fogged windows to get a table. I talked too much. Fried butter lingered in the drizzle.
"A waffle and some hash browns," I told him through the plate glass. "Would you like a waffle, Traci?"
"Don't even joke, I am so pregnant." And for once, I pictured her on a real couch with her round belly. Her husband was out with the boys, her baby boy was mash-cheeked in slumber, and a tiny girl was tumbling inside her. Impossibly lovely.