Click of a cigarette lighter makes me turn my head– you aren’t supposed to do that here, are you? I thought that was a thing you weren’t supposed to do here, and I think there are signs here that say that, but the man in the red pickup opposite me doesn’t care one bit because it isn’t a cigarette-lighter he’s holding, it’s a clothespin. He’s squeezing it open and letting it snap shut– click!– over and over– click! There’s an anxious misery to it.
I don’t know. I really don’t know. It’s one of those things. Have you ever remembered that you forgot to lock your house?– it’s one of those things. You’ve got to go back and do it, you can’t just leave it as it is. The way he’s clicking that clothespin, if I let him drive away from here without saying anything… I really don’t know.
He doesn’t look over, and that’s not surprising, really. Women don’t talk to men at gas stations, so I can’t possibly be talking to him.
“Hey.”– a little louder. I must be talking to someone, and whoever it is, they haven’t answered, and so now he’s glancing out his window to see who that might be, but all he sees is me staring at him from the driver’s seat of my Toyota. “Are you okay?”
Almost immediately, he starts crying. That’s not surprising, really, either. I’ve seen it happen before, when you ask a guy if he’s okay. They aren’t used to being asked that, they’ve got no defenses– all it takes is just the tiniest tug and the coiled rope slips clean off from around their hearts, and the coil-bruises ache and ache and ache like a leg you’ve been sitting on once you finally stand up, and he’s just sobbing, sobbing– he’s trying to talk, but it’s not coming out smooth. There are cars behind both of us, waiting for their turn at the pump. The SUV behind me honks, the pickup behind the pickup man’s pickup doesn’t– and I think maybe that’s because they’re both pickup trucks. It’s a tribal thing, maybe. I give a little nudge of my neck towards two empty parking spots off to the side next to the air-hose for refilling tires. I pull in to the left, he pulls in to the right, and after the keys are out of the ignition I slide over to my passenger seat so that we’re close, window-to-window.
I’ve got a better look at him now. His hair is alright. His eyes are puffy red around the edges, but towards the inside, soft jazz green-brown. The dark circles below run all the way through to the back of his head. I think he’d have a nice smile if he were smiling, probably, but it’s hard to really know. “I’m Ava,” I tell him.
I’m not. I’m Sarah. But he’s a man at a gas station, and I’ve always felt like an Ava.
“I’m Huck,” he answers. I wonder if he’s actually Huck. He doesn’t look as much like a Huck as I look like an Ava, but maybe that’s just his parents’ poor judgment. I want to think the best of Huck.
“Did you come here from the laundromat?”– I glance at the clothespin in his hand– he’s stopped clicking it, he’s just sort of holding it now like a tiny remote-control for one of those overhead projectors.
He shakes his head– “No.”– and I should have realized that already, shouldn’t I? They don’t have clotheslines in laundromats, that doesn’t make any sense. “I was hanging stuff out to dry in the backyard, and my wife was in the kitchen, and…” he trails off.
Wife. He definitely has a nice smile then– all the nice smilers get snatched up right quick, that’s how it goes. “And what happened?”
“I overheard her on the phone with her sister, talking about…” he trails off again– and then he picks it back up, he’s gathering the bits of himself, little by little– “She isn’t happy. She hasn’t been happy in a long time.”
I nod. I pause. I think.
“And are you happy, Huck?”
His name really is Huck– look at how it slips so softly into his ears and his face doesn’t budge one bit– it’s exactly the name he was expecting to hear, the name he’s used to hearing. “I think I’m happy,” he says. “I think I definitely want to be happy.”
There is something precious and beautiful about him, giving his real name like that. I make a decision. “You know how sometimes something is just nothing but it changes everything but also it doesn’t really change anything at all?”
Huck blinks once, twice. “…no?”– he says it like a question and the question is what the hell am I talking about? I click open my passenger door, step out onto the pavement. He stays put, just watching, because what the hell am I talking about?
I lean in through his open window, and I kiss him. I kiss him deeply, tightly, I kiss him all the way down into the bottoms of his lungs, and the rest of the way until everything up to his fingertips gripping the steering wheel is just the warmth of my breath, and then I step back, I give him a nod.
Silence, silence. I wonder what the people driving by must have thought. That we were married, or dating, or just now-and-then lovers, but we’re none of those things, and I don’t think there’s really any sort of word for what we are, Huck and not-Ava. Finally, finally, he nods back to me, and we understand each other perfectly. I circle back around to the driver’s-side of my car, and by the time I’ve got my seatbelt back on and the engine started back up, he’s already gone, he’s already pulled out of the gas station, he’s on the way home to see his wife and make her happy again. Me, I’ve still got to buy groceries. It’s getting late.
Matt Cantor is a surrealist from Boston, Massachusetts. He has been lucky to work in the past with extraordinary filmmakers, musicians and artists, and he’d be nowhere at all, of course, without his partner and his dog. It all comes from them, and he hopes someday it comes back to them. His work traffics in the strange, or even the absurd, as well as the bittersweet, all of which also describe his cooking.