The air was black when I woke in the gutter; my mouth caked closed with blood. I stumbled back to the car, taking breaks at a few sign posts to steady myself. I thought about using a restaurant’s bathroom to dress my wounds but decided to get away as quickly as possible instead. I drove for nearly an hour until I realized I could not outrun my dread. Scrambling to find the road map on the floor, I swerved the car with the pitch of my body. An irritated horn blared from my blind spot. I took a breath and allowed the bright streak to pass before pulling onto the shoulder. This was far enough.
My good eye winced when I turned on the light to decipher the folds of paper. Lines on the map veined out in all directions, thinning into capillaries. Switching off the light in frustration, I closed my eyes, sat back, and breathed: in through the nose, out through the mouth.
When I finally opened them, my eyes focused on the exit sign up ahead for Santa Marita/Valencia. Imagining a land of citrus orchards, I pulled into the lot of the first cheap-looking hotel and sat staring into the lobby, considering. Perhaps it was the suggestion of semi-permanence, extended stay, that compelled me to go inside and see about a room.
A young couple had just finished checking in as I arrived. She was lovely, tall and blonde. He seemed outgoing but not forceful. Both dressed well, yet exhibited their own signs of weariness in the wrinkles on their clothes and grease in their hair. Witnessing this “normal” couple caused me to shudder. I looked wretched: Both my jeans and flannel shirt were ripped. Over my left eye, I held a wadded up grey shirt that was stained with blood. My shoulder and left knee were slumped with pain. I caught hold of the door and steadied my feet.
I had slept so little over the past few days and constantly had been in the front seat of my car. The easy comfort of the man and woman taking their keys from the receptionist brought me close to tears. The otherwise excitable receptionist’s eyes sank at the sight of me. In the midst of initialing the hotel’s policies page, the man before me continued speaking casually.
“Just out of curiosity,” he said, returning his credit card to his wallet, “what difference does the CalArts rate have on the usual price?”
“About $20,” she responded, clearly startled by my appearance.
Noticing, he turned to me. Without making eye contact, he shifted his gaze to his wife, who had already begun in haste to the elevator.
“CalArts rate for me as well,” I said, forcing a smile. Shuffling around for my wallet, I extended one of the many credit cards I had signed up for in exchange for a frisbee or bag of candy in the lobby outside the college cafeteria.
“You OK?” the man asked, stepping aside.
I ignored him. Everything is normal, I told myself, pretending to examine the policy sheet. The clerk ran my card, and without flinching, handed it back. After initialing where necessary and satisfied the screen, I accepted the key to the room and walked on without looking back, wondering what CalArts was.
The next morning, my head felt like there was a wrecking ball swinging on a pendulum between my temples. Splashing cold water in my eyes, I winced at the sight of the eggplant-looking bruise on my face. The air was already hot when I went out to snag fresh clothes from the car. Back in the room, the light from the slit in the curtains revealed cranberry-colored stains on the carpet by the foot of the bed. Another blemish in the corner, between the fading recliner and the wall, and just above where an outstretched cup of coffee might dangle, revealed bits of pale green shag eaten away as if by acid. Pulling the chair out of the corner, I covered up the worst bit, wondering how many corpses had been melted and drained out of rooms such as this.
The rest of the furniture was functional but depressed. The art above the bed consisted of a seemingly hurried impressionistic landscape of flowers. It had dabs of paint too large to complete the dreamlike illusion.
In the closet was a thin robe. Stripping down, I threw my clothes in the tub, sank the plug, poured out the small container of body wash, and turned on the water. Donning the robe, I made coffee and switched on the television. A newscaster beamed coverage of yesterday’s gathering.
“What started as a peaceful protest erupted into a riot after anarchists began throwing stones,” she reported. “Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets before any more damage was done to local businesses. And when we come back, Brock Jones has the latest in college basketball, and we’ll take a look at the surging number of new military recruits: Why some locals enlisted in their own words. Don’t go away.”
I switched it off and fell back onto the mattress. With my eyes closed, I imagined an army of tiny elves picking up the pieces of my mind, like kindergartners, and setting them back into their prescribed molds. In through the nose, out through the mouth. A barrage of images stared back: the concern in the receptionist’s eyes when she’d checked me in, the woman being kicked and pulled by her hair through the street, Grover screaming out the car window, Mrs. Warburg breaking the news to my students about how I’d punked out and wouldn’t be coming back. With each breath, I tried to relax a new set of muscles, beginning with my feet. I thought of the letters my students had written to themselves, sealed in the shoebox on top of my dresser back home. Finally, in that image, I found relief. I hadn’t let them down completely, not yet. Five years from now, I would redeem myself.
Hunger woke me in the afternoon and forced me to brave sore limbs. Otherwise, I may have slept away the day. Donning my last clean pair of underwear, I covered them with jeans and a light green T-shirt before dashing off to the chain restaurant at the other end of the parking lot.
Heading back to my room after a hot meal and couple of beers, with the recovered cell phone and a to-go bag of nachos in hand, I wondered what CalArts might be like. By the time I crossed the parking lot, I’d repeated my pledge to have fun and take life less seriously close to 15 times. Why not stay another night to recuperate before heading up the coast? I had nothing else to do. Besides, the petite bartender—blonde with dark roots, athletic body, cute but acne-scarred face—had smiled when I’d asked if we were close to CalArts.
“Oh, yeah,” she said, “I party there all the time.”
Joel Finsel is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane,” and writes creative short stories, essays and musings every other week in encore throughout 2014.