I sit at the bar in the diner. It's a quiet place off the road to Nowhere; the road is gravel, the signs are hanging by a thread and faded with the past century. The floor is wood, the bar is wood, the wobbly stool I'm perched on is metal. I swing my foot against the wooden bar, facing the faded mirror behind it.
The door peels open with a faint tingling bell. The bell sounds dead and falling.
She takes a seat next to me. Her eyes are brown, her hair is brown, and her jacket is over-sized and navy. She leans her elbows on the bar and stares at the rustic wood. Her sneakers are Converse.
Her sneakers were Converse.
I turn lightly back to my chipped tea cup full of flat water. I stare at it, pensive, like her.
The waitress comes past. She speaks the the brunette, and though I'm eavesdropping I don't catch specifics. I glance back her way once the waitress is gone. I see a light in her somewhere, faintly-faintly-glowing behind her tired eyes and distracted air. She digs in her pocked and pulls out a dented cigarette. I watch her light it, secretly fascinated by the ritual.
She takes a drag then aims the smoke to the mirror across the bar. That faded, extinct mirror.
She takes another drag.
"What are you running from?" I ask her, glancing for a moment to my cup, as if the water within it could make this conversation alright.
She lets out the smoke. I feel the essence of tobacco climb into my mouth and murderously down my throat. I feel my lungs dying as it sticks.
"I'm not running from anything." She says, her eyes still locked on the mirror, as far away as she was the moment she came in.
"Are you sure?" I ask her, again looking self-consciously to my cup. "You seem like you're... lost."
Her eyes peel from the glass and turn to me. I raise my head to meet them. She's not wearing make-up; she's lovely enough to go without. I envy her for a moment. She takes another drag.
"I stopped for a pit-stop." She explains on the exhale. "Just because I'm here doesn't mean I'm running from something. Maybe I'm running to something. Did you think of that?"
She watches me as I change my focal point to a place beyond her head. "We all come from somewhere. If you left that somewhere and are running for somewhere else, I assume you're running away from that other somewhere."
She just looks at me, absorbing my idiotic statement.
"Plus, you don't look like you're out for a vacation. Or on a trip to visit grandma."
Her eyes faze out again, examining the open space behind mine. She takes a drag and pulls herself back to focus. "Alright. I guess I agree." She pauses and looks at the cigarette. "I had everything figured out. I knew where I was going when, and how I was getting there." She turns back to face the mirror, her eyes glassy again, but this time with light, not the muddled darkness of before. "I had a plan-a road map. I had a map, and I had my bike. And I knew where I was going. But there was a fork in the road. There was a choice I hadn't made before, and I had to make it at that moment; there was no stopping to deliberate, there was no driving back to grade school memories and finding the predetermined answer. It was then and there, and that moment.
"And I took the wrong road. I felt like I'd stabbed in the dark it was so wrong. And it's always so much harder to go back than it is to move forward, so I kept moving forward. I kept..." She glanced at me, then the cigarette in her hand. "I kept running."
I watch her in silence, the ashes on the cigarette falling to the bar top, neither of us taking much note, neither of us pondering if somehow they'd catch the bar on fire. Both of us just watch it, and think.
I remember how I got to the road to Nowhere. I remember my own sense of that sinking feeling of failure, I remember that need to run. I don't tell her that, of course. I felt that perhaps I was here at this bar and that moment for the sole purpose of helping her to find how to crush that butt in the ash tray and turn back home. I felt I was to help her learn that what she was running from was really what she needed.
"How 'bout you?" She asks me. I jerk awake from my ash-filled stupor. "What are you running from?"
I gaze back at the ashes. "I guess I'm running from the past. I guess I'm... I'm sick of who I was back there." I found my fingers in the ashes, drawing my story. "At the time, I thought everything about me was perfect, incredible, flawless. But then I realized it wasn't. I realized I hated myself. And that scared me. I changed the way I did a lot of things. I kept hoping I'd find that place where I was happy in myself, but I never did. My happiest moments where when I wasn't me. When I got to truly become someone else and be them, for however long it may be, was when my heart soared the most. And I hated how all those characters I took seemed to not exist, and all the flawless realities I had as them weren't available when I was my true self.
"So I guess I'm running from myself, really. I guess I'm running from me."
She places the remainder of the cigarette on the plate my tea cup rests on.
"Sounds like you need that." She says, pulling another from her pocket. "I wouldn't start with a new one for my first time anyway." She lights it and smokes it, eyeing me.
I pick up the cigarette.
It's warm. And inviting. I hold it awkwardly in my hand, not knowing what to do with it. I bring it slowly to my lips, I can feel it brush them gently. My heart is pounding. Excited, right? Thrilled, right? Ready? Is that it?
I let out my breath and open my mouth. "And I took the wrong road. I felt like I'd stabbed in the dark it was so wrong. And it's always so much harder to go back than it is to move forward..." Her voice echoes in my head and I pull the cigarette from my lips.
She smiles, but her eyes are still sad and empty behind it. "I thought you wouldn't know me." She says, taking another drag on her cigarette. "I thought my eyes and hair would throw you off."
"More than that is different." I say, setting my cigarette back on the bar. "All of you is like another person."
"Well, that's what I wanted, wasn't it? I wanted to be another person. So I did."
"How long have you been on this road?" I ask her as she pulls a wadded dollar from her jacket.
"Too long." She straightens the bill on the edge of the bar and looks me square in the eye.
"It's about time I left."
I slowly stand from the stool as she places the dollar under my cup. "I miss the days I'd drink this." She says, glancing in. She picks up the discarded butt. "I miss the days I did a lot of those things."
I back slowly toward the door.
"Will I... Will I see you again?"
She turns back to me.
"Only if you make the mistake of finding me. I'll be here, at this bar, with this cigarette. And I don't plan on ever having to share."
I nod, understanding. I open the door, with a weak tingling of bells, and head out to the gravel road. I don't look back.
The road to Nowhere is merely a road from somewhere. I stopped there once on a road to somewhere else. But I made the wrong choice there, a stab in the dark, and I ran from that somewhere to somewhere else, but it only ever was the same place.
I've learned that if you take the road to Nowhere, and you stop at the diner just off it, chances are you'll stumble upon the you that's been there before, the you that made the wrong choice before. And that experienced you will offer you the same wrong choice they accepted.
Will you say no to yourself?
I get on my bike and turn it toward the street, hoping to never see myself like that again.