Late Night on Route 17

The man was homeless, probably drunk, pushing a Stop ‘n’ Shop cart filled with empty beer cans collected after college graduations and weekend revelry. Every town has at least one; but we were so far out of town that we weren’t sure where this one belonged. Warwick? Liberty? Some small one-stoplight village that went dark at 9 p.m., unnoticed to us driving by at 65 miles per hour near midnight?

I remember the man’s grey beard. I remember that The Killers “Mr. Brightside” was playing off the CD I’d made Dwight on the last leg of his London semester, a poisonous reminder that I knew he was lying to me about not getting drunk and banging other American exchange students when his letters declared his heart belonged only to me. It was the early days of Facebook, when a little surveillance with a well-worn copy of The Long Goodbye in my thrift store handbag netted me more blackmail than I could ever find use for. If he knew that I knew, he didn’t pony up any apologies or explanations.

Things had been weird between us since he got back. We gauged each other’s moves a little more carefully, as if we weren’t sure if we were still allowed to kiss, to grope, to touch anything other than the top fronts of our bodies when we hugged goodnight. Dwight was the first and only man I’d ever let hit me; hard slaps across the face because we’d decided that fucking would fuck up our friendship. So kisses turned to blows, my wrists held hard above my head against cheap carpet, him stiff through his jeans as he pushed against my tights, lips tight and stinging between his teeth. All his pent-up frustrations, sexual and suburban, came out in sweet violence. Sometimes I wonder how I survived the ecstasy intact.

But we hadn’t had any of that since he got back and without it, I wondered if we really had anything. I was his girl when we ran out of movie quotes and story ideas, and now that he’d seen the whole wide world, I was terrified he didn’t have any bottled anger left to let out. And without that, he had no use for me.

It had been an awkward weekend at his parent’s house. No sneaking into each other’s bedrooms after everyone had gone to sleep to drink another bottle of wine and writhe on the carpet with my pajama top unbuttoned and his gray tee-shirt crumpled up in the corner. No kisses stolen on walks to the convenience store to get candy for the movies, no long, slender fingers light on my inner thighs beneath a conveniently tossed blanket at the drive-in. Even our conversations had too many awkward pauses unfilled with quotes from Sin City or Tommy Boy.

But then there was this homeless man on a dark empty road, and somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought, we could hit him. We could probably get away with it. This wasn’t our town. There were no witnesses, no cameras, no streetlights. We would have never been caught. We would have never confessed.

We could hit him,” Dwight said without looking at me. “And probably get away with it.”

That was love. This was an intimacy that sex couldn’t match. He was stripping naked for me, revealing the veins of wickedness that cut like iron through his soul. He was risking that I would bolt, tell all our friends he was a monster, call the cops and report where the bodies were buried. He handed me his darkness, trusting that I could take it the same way I took his palm across my face, his torturous silence, his gossamer lies. He let me have it because he saw my own darkness staring back at him, that same coal-streak that just moments ago had held the same murderous intent.

The homeless man grew smaller in the rearview mirror, never knowing the fate he was spared. I knew then that I loved Dwight. I knew then that it couldn’t last.

***

Eighteen hours later he was working the summer lunch shift in costume at one of those kiddie pizza-and-game joints left over from the 80s. There was a new girl there, an undergrad, a blonde, with a fake ID and ambitions of Girls Gone Wild fame, all the stuff that fucking bores me. But it was hard for Dwight not to want her; she didn’t ask questions, didn’t require complex answers. She probably wouldn’t have cared if he had murdered that homeless man—at least not until it could have landed her on the cover of the Press & Sun or a tear-filled interview on the morning news to describe how she felt when she found out her boyfriend was a murderer.

He stopped coming around for dinner, quietly canceled movie nights and forgot about bubble tea dates. Our conversations became idle; him swooning aver her, me strapping silent anger against my chest like TNT.

And then one night he was back in my doorway with her poison on his mouth and his heart in his hands, fingers dripping blood and brandy on my carpet. He kicked the door closed and yanked me in close and kissed me until I swallowed her name, another secret never to be spoken.

After his headlights were gone from my window, I counted my kitchen knives, took inventory of blunt objects, checked the tags on my neckties to see which ones were machine washable in case she got a nosebleed while I was cutting off her air supply. All he had to do was ask. He knew the answer was always yes.

***

Seven years later, I still wonder if we should have killed that homeless man. In the end, Dwight had to choose between another dizzy waitress with easy legs and the complicated mess that was me, and he made the obvious choice. I don’t regret telling him I thought she was a cumdumpster because, well, she was. But deep in my gut, I still regret not committing us both to that one sin. Our shared secret would have bound us together in a way no woman could have ever broken. On what number date do you confess that one night you murdered a man just to see if you could get away with it?

In the back of my mind I still create late nights in dingy apartments, his head in my lap, my hands in his hair, assuring him that we were safe from the devil, just so long as we stuck together. But the wretched truth of it is that we never spoke of that night again and I wonder if he even remembers it. He smiles in photos now, all that darkness tamped down like a locked chest. If I was anything to him, I’m sure I was the only girl he ever struck.

Maybe he’s told a hundred people about it since then, laughed about his murderous youth over pints of Guinness at after-work pub sessions. I haven’t told a soul. I’ve kept our secret all these years. Burying a body was the least I could do.

About the Author

Libby Cudmore

Libby Cudmore’s stories and essays have appeared in Big Lucks, Chamber Four, The Vestal Review, PANK, The Citron Review, Kneejerk, Connotation Press, Postcard Press, Umbrella Factory, Independent Ink, The MacGuffin, The Yalobusha Review, The Chaffey Review, and The Southern Womens Review, as well as The Writer, Mixitini Matrix and ARCANE II (with Matthew Quinn Martin). She is currently spending a year living by vintage beauty and dating guides at www.geekgirlgoesglam.com.

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