Memorial Day

Posted on: August 11, 2015

Nadine had foolishly decided she would join her sister down at the beach for the long weekend.

“No, no, I can leave on Friday. It’s fine,” she’d said. Her sister laughed and warned her about the apocalyptic traffic, but Nadine didn’t mind. It would be worth the hours on the Bay Bridge to see her sister and feel the sand baking the soles of her feet. It had seemed like a good idea a few days ago.

The highway leading to the bay was a parking lot. An accident was only a half mile or so away, and Nadine watched an ambulance wedge its way through the traffic. A school bus merged onto the shoulder, its windows gaping open with teenagers hanging out, watching the scene.

The air conditioning roared, but Nadine’s face still felt sticky. She stretched her hands, popping her knuckles. She had a habit of clenching the steering wheel as if her car might drive on its own and careen off a bridge. Her jaw felt tight, too, another sign of her anxiety and stress. Unlike her sister, Nadine could never be accused of having “resting bitch face”—instead she had a sort of “resting Frankenstein face”—a jutted chin, teeth clenched. When she felt her face hardening, she would wiggle her jaw until her face softened, reminding herself to loosen up.

That’s how she met Dale.

In an effort to relax a bit, Nadine went out to the karaoke bar with some co-workers. “Friends” wouldn’t be the right word for those people, but she liked them well enough, and she had hit her limit with binge-watching sitcoms. When her co-worker, Hannah, lamented how pretty and boring Nadine was, Nadine felt a twinge of agreement. She accepted the invite for drinks and karaoke, surprising both Hannah and herself.

She felt self-conscious walking into the bar, like someone might look up from their drink and shout, “Hey—she doesn’t belong here!” It’s not that Nadine was anti-social, but she preferred to be alone most of the time. Her sister—older, prettier, bossier—seemed to be the sole owner of chattiness and volume, and Nadine was happy to be the quiet, “pretty enough” sister.

When Nadine spotted Hannah and her other co-workers, she felt relief. In the back of her mind, she’d always suspected that she’d end up like Carrie: covered in pig’s blood and humiliation and friendless. She had no reason to think this other than too many hours of high school TV dramas. Hannah waved her over, sliding a beer toward Nadine. “We ordered for you. Hope that’s okay.” Nadine thanked her and took a sip of the beer. The icy bubbles tasted good, and for a moment, Nadine felt some relief from the late May heat. She reminded herself not to clench the bottle too tightly.

After the group chatted about the day at work—the boss is an asshole, those customers were rude huh?, I can’t wait for vacation—they turned their attention to the stage as the lights were dimmed. “Hey everyone, I’m Dale!” The emcee raised his beer and continued speaking,

“Welcome to Karaoke Night. If you’re new here, be sure to talk to the DJ and sign up for your song.” He pointed his beer toward a booth off to the side of the stage. “If you aren’t new, do us a favor and sing something different!” He laughed awkwardly, his breath hitting the microphone a bit too hard. He put the mic into the stand and called up the first singer. A young woman in a bachelorette sash climbed on stage and began her shout-singing rendition of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

The emcee walked over to the group and leaned onto the table. “Hey, Hannah. Can’t get enough of this place, huh?” He leaned closer to her, a dopey grin spreading across his face.

Hannah responded with an exaggerated groan. She nodded toward Nadine and introduced them. “You can have him, Nadine. I’m going to the bathroom.” She slid off her barstool, and Dale sat down, now grinning at Nadine.

“Nice to meet you, Nadine.” He shook her hand and took a long swig of his beer. “Are you new to the group? I see these guys here all the time.” Nadine immediately liked Dale. He was friendly and attentive, and Nadine didn’t understand why Hannah seemed so dismissive of him.

The rest of the night was a blur. She felt her cheeks ache from smiling and giggling with Dale, and when she’d spilled her beer on his lap, he didn’t even flinch. He laughed it off and bought her a new drink. Nadine was pleased with herself, pleased with Dale’s kindness, pleased with the evening overall. They went home together that night and settled onto her couch, Dale polite as he kissed her. They made love that night, and it was sweet, restrained, and appropriately quiet for Nadine’s liking.

They parted ways in the morning with a kiss, and Dale promised to be in touch soon. Nadine believed him. He seemed so genuine. At work that day, she fended off Hannah’s questions and criticisms of Dale. Nadine felt special—not weird, like usual—and she wanted that feeling to last. The work day dragged on, a blur of collating and stapling, and Nadine hadn’t heard from Dale. Her phone buzzed with a reminder to pack that night, but no other message appeared. She worried he would forget about her while she was gone for the holiday weekend.

She had plenty of time to obsess over Dale now that she was sitting in Memorial Day beach traffic. She kept reminding herself that it would be fun. She wanted to tell her sister about her adventure. Nadine was giddy at the idea of shocking her.

The traffic inched on slowly, and Nadine’s car was almost to a large overpass. She wanted to be out of the direct sun, and the promise of shade was only a hundred yards away. And then she saw it: the overpass and the enormous scrawled message. I <3 U. The fuzzy black letters emblazoned on the grimy concrete. The letters were so scraggly and misshapen, she imagined the painter hanging upside down to get the right angle.

She thought of Dale the night before, his slow fingers tracing lazy hearts on her shoulder, how he said he loved her serious eyes. She imagined Dale’s hands swooping together two pieces of a heart on the overpass. She imagined him standing back to survey his work, nodding to himself, and praising his work. The flutter of imagining made Nadine flush with embarrassment.

But why? Why should she be embarrassed? It was possible that a man could become infatuated with her and that he might want to share that with her and everyone else on the highway. He felt so confident that she would know this message was for her, from him. Had he pictured her sitting in her ’98 Corolla, pondering life and traffic, then her serious eyes moving upward to the declaration?

Nadine thought of taking a picture, and for a moment, she clutched her phone, angling it toward the overpass. No, she put the phone away. Free of criticism or speculation—she wanted to keep this for herself.

Written by: Whitney G. Schultz
Photograph by: Matt Crump

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