642 Tiny Things to Write About: Lost Highways

You see your old girlfriend at the gas station.  She tells you she is moving away to Tennessee with her husband.  Her nine-year-old son is in the car.  He’s never known that you’re his real father.  What’s the boy doing, right then, sitting in the car?

“Life is a highway/I want to ride it all night long..”.  The music blared out of her family’s car as we stood there pumping gas at the BP station.  I never wanted to return to my hometown, but the family obligations of a wedding set me down that familiar road  once more.   And now as unhappy circumstance would have it, a decade later, next to my old girlfriend and her family at the gas pumps.

She and her husband, like me, were headed out-of-town.  But while I was headed back north to Pittsburgh, she and her family were headed down south to Tennessee.  Her husband had a “good job” waiting for him in Knoxville, and she would be able to finally stop working and be a stay at home mom to her nine-year-old son.   She was excited to leave the past and our hometown behind.

“If you’re going my way/ I wanna drive it all night long”…  The song continued to blare from the car stereo.   I longed to finish at the pump, get in my car and blast any other song to drive what would be an inevitable ear worm for the rest of my drive back to my home.   Despite being surrounded by pop country growing up, it was never big on my personal hit parade.

I glanced over at the back seat of her car to see her son.  He sat playing a video game on an iPhone, singing along to Rascal Flats as they told about true love while traveling the globe.   He smiled up at his mom as she tapped on the car window to let him know that they were almost ready to leave.

His smile was so much like my own it was eerie to see my nine-year-old self reflected back through the window.    While he had his mom’s auburn hair, his eyes and smile were genetic connections back to my very own.   If he had taken the time to get out of the car and stood next to me, the jig would have been up as my Meemaw used to say.

We had  already broken up and she was dating her husband when she found out she was pregnant.  It was in the late Autumn and I was living in Pittsburgh, having transferred out of our local community college to Carnegie Mellon.  I remember talking to her on the phone outside my last class of the day, the smell of the first snowfall sharp in the air.   She told me that she had already talked to her boyfriend and that they would get married at Christmas.  “Don’t worry”, she said “It’s all settled.  I don’t really want you involved at all, but I thought you should know”.   She hung up the phone on her end, and I stood staring blankly at my Nokia as the first flakes of snow fell on the screen.

“I’ll be there when the light comes in/Tell ’em we’re survivors..”

And now it was Autumn once again, a decade later and the son that was mine but not mine sat in a car next to me, waiting on the next big adventure.   For a moment, I wondered how life would have been different, how it would be to sit in that car with the two of them heading off to a new life.   The clunk of the gas hose brought me back to the present and I put the nozzle back into the holder, taking my gas receipt from the slot.

“Bye! Safe travels!”, she yelled from the car,  as they rolled away from the BP towards the Tennessee state line.

I waved goodbye.  The back window rolled down and a small hand reached out, waving back to me.

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