“The Things We Never Say” by Joseph S. Pfister

The snow comes down in fluffy chunks, making it impossible to see out the windshield.

“For God sake, would you slow down already?” Rebecca says for the third time.

I am only driving thirty, if that. “Can you do something besides critiquing my driving?” I ask, peering over the steering wheel. “Like maybe put on something we haven’t listened to five times already?”

She snatches up the iPod, which has been on the same playlist—Spring Break ‘08—since Indiana. “What do you want to listen to?” she snaps.

“How about something that doesn’t suck?” I suggest fictitiously.

We have been driving for five hours straight. Somewhere around Chicago the gray and blue skies opened, and the storm weather.com had been predicting dumped on us with all its late-spring fury. We’ve gone maybe twenty miles in the last hour, and from seventy-degree temps to thirty all in a day. But mostly, we’re sick of the cramped front seat of the teal-green Mazda we’re driving back from Georgia as a favor to my parents.

“Well, that rules out just about all of your music,” Rebecca says. Brake lights up ahead shine through the flurry of white that hides the Illinois landscape.

“If I hear Miley Cyrus one more time, I’m gonna puke.”

“Shut up. I like like one song,” says Rebecca, sinking back in her seat and putting her feet up on the dashboard, a remarkable feat considering how small the car feels at the moment.

“I was supposed to be in Milwaukee tonight,” she says, bringing up a topic we’ve already been over a dozen times and agreed is not worth discussing again. When we were in Georgia, Rebecca’s father called to warn us about the storm, but we simply crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. So far, the best hadn’t happened yet.

Massaging the bone between my eyes, I guide the car with my other hand as it slices through the slush coating the interstate. Welcome back to the Midwest, I think.

Rebecca puts down the iPod. “I just wanna sleep in my own bed tonight.”

The heater between us—not used to being used in Georgia—is working overtime, and the ice-covered wipers squeak loudly as they cross the windshield. We haven’t shared a laugh since yesterday morning, and I’m beginning to think that spending spring break with my girlfriend instead of drinking beers at the cabin with my buddies was a poor decision.

“Where are we staying tonight?” Rebecca asks, her voice tired and hard. She is looking out her window, though I know she can’t see anything. I certainly can’t.

“A hotel probably. I hadn’t really thought about it.”

“A hotel where?”

“I don’t know. Somewhere. Once we get tired of driving.”

“And when will that be? I’m already tired of driving.”

“I don’t know,” I say, picking up the iPod.

Rebecca gives me a threatening look. “Don’t you dare put on any of that screamo shit.”

Snorting, I settle on the first loud band I can find. I don’t know if it’s because I really feel like listening to it, or if it’s just because she doesn’t.

Rebecca lunges forward and fiddles with the heat, trying hard to disguise the fact that she can’t stand me at the moment.

She doesn’t say anything for a long time, and neither do I.


It is Well after one when we decide to pull off for the night, finding a small motel off I-90, north of Chicago. The first motel we try—a Ramada Inn—has no vacancies, and after a few choice words from Rebecca, we find a motel on the other side of the highway.

The trail of lights from the interstate ignite the dark sky behind us, and the parking lot encircling the low-stretching building is littered with snow-covered cars. Pulling up to the front entrance, Rebecca gets out, slamming the door behind her. I leave the car running and start pulling out our luggage, even though I don’t know if there are any rooms available. Based on the look of the parking lot, though, my guess is there are.

Shit, it is freezing. I have to jog in place just to keep warm. I know getting back in the car seems like the logical choice, but my thighs are stiff from the long drive and I don’t feel like sitting anymore. In fact, I don’t feel like doing anything but sleeping. The never-ending, disorienting swirl of snow continues to fall around me, illuminated in the glow of the humming Comfort Inn sign. The whole scene would probably look beautiful if it weren’t the middle of March.

It was during finals week right before Christmas when Rebecca appeared in my doorway and yanked me from my desk, demanding I follow her.

Where are we going? I asked. Outside, she replied. Should we grab our coats? It was snowing, giant flakes outside gliding past my window. No, she said, leading me out the door. Once we were outside, she broke into a run, disappearing into the wall of falling snow. What’re we doing? I called, trying to keep up. Just trust me, she said. The sudden cold made my eyes sting, and finding it hard to breathe, my jog turned to a half-hearted amble. Rebecca waited for me up ahead in her red sweater at the foot of a large snow bank formed by the parking lot and a rarely traversed path. I wanted to make snow angels, she said, grinning. So we made snow angels right there, in a T-shirt and red sweater in the falling snow. Rebecca liked to do random things. They made her feel alive, she said.

We’ve been dating for almost a year, and it’s getting to that point where I have to ask where this relationship is going. I love Rebecca—and I’m pretty sure she loves me too—but I’m graduating next year and the future isn’t so clear. I try and imagine myself without her sometimes, but I can’t. I don’t know where I am going to live or if I am going to have a career. Rebecca still has another year left of school, and she’s from New York. She loves it there. I visited once, but I didn’t think it was anything special. Every day with her is an adventure. When I think about it, I realize that’s why I love being around her so much—her spontaneity. But tonight that liveliness isn’t there. We both just want sleep.

The car is still running. I want to sleep in my own bed tonight as well, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Traffic is at a standstill, and it’s probably better just to wait out the storm until morning. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Where the hell is that woman? I’m freezing my ass off here in this parking lot that looks like it could be used in a made-for-TV holiday murder mystery. Go in, ask for a room, come out. That’s it. I’m about to stick my head around the corner and look inside when Rebecca’s petite frame appears in the glass doorway. Flinging a key card in my direction, she turns around and goes back inside.

Sure, I’ll just park the car and bring in the luggage while I’m at it. No problem.

 

“Which room are we in?” I mutter, meeting Rebecca outside the lobby elevator, a fresh dusting of snow in my hair. She has put her hair back in a sloppy ponytail and looks as tired as I feel. We both just want to sleep.

“Two-twelve,” she says, as if she can’t believe I am actually asking.

The desk clerk—a middle-aged Pakistani with a craggy face and a moustache—observes us quietly from behind his computer. I feel like a valet standing there with my bag slung over my shoulder and Rebecca’s suitcase in tow. She avoids my gaze, arching her head back and watching the numbers slowly unwind as the elevator approaches. The door dings open, and I follow her in with our bags, saluting the desk clerk who watches us as the doors slide closed, smiling. Glancing at Rebecca, I realize she is smiling, too.

The short ride to the second floor is a quiet one, and we’re too tired to argue. There’s nothing that hasn’t been said in the last eight hours, and Rebecca seems perfectly content to stand silently on her side of the elevator, which is fine with me.

Rebecca had said she wanted to see animals on spring break, so we did. We took my uncle’s car and drove forty minutes south to Wild Animal Safari. She fell asleep on the drive, though I wasn’t surprised. We had to rent a minivan fitted with metal bars once we got there, and we saw animals from every continent—camels, sheep, reindeer, pigs, tigers. Rebecca giggled when a zebra came up to the window and ate out of her hand. She said its breath was warm on her arm and gave her the shivers. Later, she shrieked and cowered against me when two long, sticky buffalo tongues swabbed the inside of the van like strange, hungry eels searching for food. She spent all afternoon tossing pellets to the smaller animals that kept their distance from the van. Her favorite animal was the giraffe.

When the elevator stops, I stumble out, tripping over Rebecca’s rolling suitcase as she leads the way down the narrow, poorly lit hallway.

Looking up and down the corridor, I get the feeling again that I’m in a Stephen King novel or a bad horror movie, and am secretly relieved to see Rebecca stop at two-twelve and slip the key card into the door.

“Son of a bitch,” she moans a moment later, standing in the open doorway without going inside.

“What?” I ask, joining her.

“They didn’t clean the room.”

She is right. A bed with what looks like day-old vomit on the sheets and a rollaway spilling its blankets like guts sits parked in the middle of the pastel-colored room, facing the TV, which is still on. The walls are decorated with tasteless, framed prints of mountain peaks covered in snow.

Dropping my bag, I say, “I’ll go see about another room.”

With an irritated look, Rebecca hands me her key card. “I’ll just wait here.”


The front desk is abandoned, and the square clock on the wall behind it reads quarter to two. Ringing the service bell, I hear shuffling from the back. The smiling middle-aged desk clerk from before appears, though he is no longer smiling and looks as if I have roused him from a peaceful night’s sleep.

“Can I help you?” he asks. He has a thick, foreign accent. All I want is a clean room to pass out in.

“Our room hasn’t been cleaned.”

The clerk looks surprised and gives me a worried frown, as if somehow I can’t be telling the truth. “Which room?”

“Two-twelve.”

He looks up something on the computer that I can’t see. “You said it hasn’t been cleaned?”

“Right,” I say, trying to mask my irritation.

“Okay, well,” he says, looking slightly flustered, “how about two-fourteen?”

“That’s fine,” I say. Exchanging keys, the desk clerk mutters an apology and then disappears, leaving me alone in the empty motel lobby, waiting for the elevator.


The first time I stayed with Rebecca and her parents, I almost killed their dog. It was an accident, though I’m still not entirely sure she’s convinced or has completely forgiven me yet. Rocco. The damn dog’s name is Rocco. I don’t even know what kind of name that is. Sure, Rebecca told me when I arrived at her parent’s place, don’t leave any food out because Rocco will get into it. And, sure enough, he did. We were in the living room watching “Seinfeld” when Rebecca realized that she hadn’t heard Rocco in a while—usually a sure sign that he was into something he shouldn’t be. That something was my gum on the end table in the family room where I was sleeping. Apparently, there is some type of chemical in gum that when ingested in large amounts—like say an entire pack—can be toxic to pets. Xylitol, or something like that. Needless to say, an emergency trip to the vet with a vomiting dog and Rebecca’s parents wasn’t on the itinerary. And what made it that much worse is that that dog is like the son Rebecca’s mother never had. A furry, pain-in-the-ass son who gets into gum instead of the liquor cabinet.

If possible, Rebecca looks more infuriated than she was when I left, and doesn’t say anything upon my return. She hasn’t moved from the spot where I left her and doesn’t appear to care if she does. Scooping up my bag, I nod down the hall. Lugging her suitcase with two hands, she reluctantly falls in line behind me as I lead the way to two-fourteen.

Inserting my key card and giving Rebecca a look, I shove open the door. Holding my breath, I flip on the lights.

The room is—clean.

Plowing inside, the unmistakable stench of cigarettes stops us before we can even close the door.

I drop my bag with a sigh. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”

“Gross,” says Rebecca, shooting me a savage look, as if all of this is my fault—the weather, spring break, the motel, all of it. The reek of cigarettes from the last guest still hangs in the air, attaching itself to the drapes and walls like mold.

“At least the room’s clean,” I say.

“I don’t know if that’s the right word for it,” she says darkly, dragging her suitcase onto the queen-size bed at the center of the room. Extracting a small perfume bottle, she moves around the room, filling the air with a Burberry London mist. After a good dozen squirts, the room smells like an Abercrombie & Fitch store that has just recently allowed smoking.

Grimacing, I empty my jean pockets of spare change, watching out of the corner of my eye as Rebecca pulls out her pajamas and starts to undress. Once she realizes I’m watching, she turns and heads into the bathroom.

I finish changing, and plugging in my cell phone to charge overnight, I whip back the sheets and fall into bed. The sheets are stiff, but I don’t complain. I have a bed, finally.

Peninsula State Park, Rebecca said, is something everyone should see, especially in the fall. We went up to Door County with my family, and the morning we decided to climb the observatory tower it was cold—the kind of cold you feel in your bones and makes you wish it was still summer. The 75-foot observatory tower soared above the trees in their autumn suits. Every inch of the painted, mud-brown tower was covered with names encircled with hearts, or couples with FOREVER carved beneath them. We added our names. When we reached the top, we could see for miles. The sea of trees below us roared in flames of red, yellow and orange, and we pointed out which islands on Lake Michigan we’d build mansions on someday. As breathtaking as the view and jagged coast looked in the late morning sun, we didn’t stay long.

Rebecca reappears from the bathroom in an old T-shirt and sleeping pants a moment later. She has let her hair back down, and reluctantly lies down on the bed beside me.

“The sheets smell like cigarettes,” she says.

I nod, my face still buried in a pillow, facing away from her. “I don’t wanna think about what else they smell like.”

The fatigue from the day has finally hit us full-force, and even the silence feels exhausting. Turning off the lamp on the nightstand, we lay in silence, listening to the heater on the wall sputter. Rolling over, I can see that she is lying, arms folded on her stomach, staring up at the ceiling.

It’s not often you get a perfect day, she said, but this was close enough. It was our last day in Savannah—part of our mini-vacation while on vacation—before heading back to my uncle’s. We had the day to do whatever we wanted, and Rebecca was happy just to sit in one of the squares. Savannah, she said, was the most beautiful place in the world. That’s why we went there in the first place—because she wanted me to see it for myself. We sat in the green grass beneath the sprawling oak trees coated in Spanish moss and old-fashioned lampposts, listening to the life around us. The mood to draw struck Rebecca, so she pulled out her drawing pad and pencils and started sketching away. I didn’t learn until a truck stop in Indiana that with all that beauty surrounding us, she had chosen to draw me instead.

“We’re never staying at a Comfort Inn again,” says Rebecca.

I nod in the dark of the room, a smile I can’t help spreading across my face. It begins as a chuckle, but soon we are both shaking with laughter.

In the morning, the sunlight on the snow outside our window is blinding. We dress quietly and check out before ten, the night before feeling like the remnants from a night of heavy drinking where bad decisions were made and have to be faced. We say nothing to who we assume is the desk clerk’s wife, and after loading our luggage into the Mazda, we drive across the street to the BP we somehow didn’t see the night before. We get breakfast—Pop-Tarts and Mountain Dew and a copy of The National Enquirer that Rebecca grabs—and as we pull out, destined for the barren vein of interstate that cuts the snow-covered landscape, Rebecca reaches over and clutches my hand. She is reading about cyber-hookers, and that is when I realize she is probably the best thing that will ever happen to me.


 

Joseph S. Pfister is a senior majoring in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a member of The Madison Review Literary Magazine.

 

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