Roy calls me on Friday afternoon around four and says he’ll be ready to go whenever I want to pick him up. I don’t even bother reminding him that he was supposed to meet me at my place, because it doesn’t really matter. I still have a blinding headache from our collision at the game two nights ago and I don’t really need to go anywhere this weekend, especially with Roy in tow, but it’s a good excuse to get away from cleaning up the festive destruction that my roommates inflicted on our apartment.
I pack my overnight bag and try not to think about how much it will suck when I come back Sunday night to deal with the remaining fallout strewn across the apartment’s three tiny rooms. When I get down to the Civic I chuck my bag in the back seat, squeeze in behind the wheel, and just try to chill out a bit and wait for the day’s sixth aspirin to kick in. After ten minutes I still feel lousy so I decide to just get going. It’s not as if my headache wouldn’t return once Roy got in the car.
I’m halfway to the dorms when I realize I don’t remember which one he lives in. I cruise the campus perimeter, taking the long way around so I can look out across the bay as it opens out on my left. Pretty soon the swastika-shaped dorms, Anacapa and Santa Cruz, loom up on the right and I figure I’ll just park somewhere out of the way and wait a bit and see if Roy can find me. I pull into an empty spot at the far end of the Anacapa lot, ignore the permit warning sign, and kill the engine. The seat tilts back almost by itself, so I don’t question that and instead swallow another aspirin, close my eyes, and listen to the sounds of the underclassmen outside the car. Some are laying out in what’s left of the sunlight, some pass by analyzing the latest melodramatic development of their shallow, frightened little lives, and some are playing volleyball and basketball on the courts that lie behind me, between the parking lot and Santa Cruz.
I try to relax and not think about anything, least of all the seismic tremors pulsating in my skull, and soon get blissfully close to sleep when a sharp cracking threatens to shatter the fragile equilibrium I’ve barely established. Full consciousness comes with a jerk and I squint up at Roy’s face through the window. He’s just knocked on it with his usual over-enthusiasm, complete with trademark shit-eating grin. I silently hope that there won’t be too much traffic through L.A.
“Hey man!” he says, louder than I expect. I admit to the painful volume with a wince and Roy’s smile loses a few teeth as he cocks his head sympathetically. “Your head okay, Derek?”
I close my eyes again. “No dude, the dome’s still got three different thrash bands running around in there, you know?”
“Oh…well, damn, that’s…that’s too bad. I, um, still feel really bad about that, but…uh, you mind if I get in?”
I unlock the doors and Roy swings around the car and then into the passenger seat. He plunks down and tosses his bag in the back. It lands on mine. He coughs twice and I think I smell beer on him.
“Roy,” I try to ask patiently,”are you drunk?”
He grins again. “Um, well…I’m not exactly sober, man. My roommate and some of his friends are going down to the Rhino tonight and they thought they’d get started early, so I had a few with them.” I become, if possible, even more bored with this. Freshmen bouncing off the walls of a nudie bar is not my idea of fun. At least they’re not my problem right now. My silence unfortunately prompts him for more. “Still, uh, feeling up to driving, Derek? The whole way, I mean? You kinda look a little pale.”
“Yeah, it still smarts, more than a little, but I think I can make it. I’m gonna fuckin’ have to, aren’t I, since you’re ‘not exactly sober’, right?”
“Um, yeah. Thanks, man. Hey, I’m really, really sorr…”
“Dude,” I hold up my hands and stop him, “I appreciate that, I really do, but can you do me a favor and forget it?”
“Oh, oh sure,” he says, looking guilty. “Well, one more thing- if that’s okay- did you…did you ever go to Student Health and have someone look at it?”
“Huh? Uh, yeah… yeah, I did, yesterday.” The lie comes easy as I start the car and back out, making sure not to run over any basketball players. I weave my way through the parking lot and then down the street and try to look like I’m concentrating on driving, but he doesn’t get the hint. “Well, what did they say, Derek?”
“Ah, well, you know,” I stall for a few seconds as we turn onto 217 and pick up speed toward 101. “Those doctors and nurses there, they’re always all, ‘well son, do you want us to take an X-ray?’ or whatever, which I hate, you know?” He nods. “I mean, they’re the goddam medical professionals, not me, so how the hell should I know if I want an X-ray, right?”
He stops nodding. “Um, Derek,” he says uncertainly, “but if you have a big-ass purple bump on your head, what do they need to X-ray for? I mean, it’s right there, isn’t it?”
I don’t respond, wishing Roy would just can it. If I wasn’t so tired and throbbing with cranial pain I might get rude, but right now that’s too much work. “Roy, look, I’m fine, okay? I’m fine enough for you to not worry about it, and, like, mellow out or take a nap or something.” I realize that going on like this might dent his potentially fragile feelings, though, so I try to sound reasonable. “Listen, I don’t mean to be a jerk, okay, but I really need to just concentrate on the road for now, all right? No offense or anything, but I don’t really feel like talking.”
“Oh, uh, fine, I guess,” he says, looking as if he thinks he understands. “No worries, man. Hey, um, mind if I listen to some music?” I blanche a little at first, thinking of my noisy, crappy car radio, but then he pulls out a DiscMan and a few CDs and some headphones. I am surprised at how touched I find this gesture. “Knock yourself out,” I sigh, and he cluelessly smiles again. I turn my attention to the thickly-populated freeway, step on the gas, and we head south. Thanks to some shitty commuter traffic it takes us about 2 hours to get only as far as Oxnard, and that doesn’t help my headache, though thankfully Roy has kept quiet.
The gridlock doesn’t let up when we hit the Valley, and I don’t have the patience to see if the 5 is any better, so I try a few detours- 405, 10, 110- all either jammed or rapidly congealing into a sludgy trickle as we drive on. Somewhere in Torrance I let my mind wander and am surprised at how soon the freeway map pops into my thumping head- it’s been there ever since I memorized it in a vain effort to ease my dad’s commute and thus save my parents’ marriage. I laugh ruefully to myself and almost wake Roy to one-up him in geography freakiness, but two semis rumble past on either side of us like Imperial Star Destroyers and I snap back to watching the road.
After the trucks pull away I notice the sign to reconnect with the 405 as it flies by, and I hastily begin the shameful reverse cheese-dicking that is now necessary to make the ramp in time. In the next thirty seconds I swear often as the other drivers yell and honk and bitch at me, and under the din I hear Roy groan a little whenever we lurch rightward into the next lane. I steal a glance at him as we shoot onto the ramp and he’s swaying ominously in his seat, semi-conscious and pale. A warning neuron fires deep within my gimpy cerebrum, but the effort of navigating the interchange is slowing my reaction time.
“Hey, Roy. Roy! You all right, man?”
He answers me by suddenly vomiting his dorm-food dinner up onto my dashboard, and I then do the last thing I’d ever expect to in a situation like this; I burst out laughing. I have to check the mirrors as we merge onto the 405, but when I look back at Roy he’s wide awake and surveying his new creation with all appropriate shock and embarrassment. He moans again and curses.
“Oh shit, oh man…goddammit…Derek, I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sor-”
“Whoah there, man.” I try to sound reassuring as we stay in the right lane, slowing to around 50 as the whole world begins to pass us by. “Just relax, Roy. Are you gonna be okay? Should we, like, pull over or something?”
“No, no. Keep going, I think…yeah, I think I’ll be fine.” He twists around and begins the laborious process of extracting a t-shirt from his bag to mop up the puke. There really isn’t that much, but it’s starting to smell, so I roll the window down and stay behind the mask of mild bemusement. “Okay dude, if you say so. I’ll like, cruise mellow from here, okay?”
Thanks Derek,” he croaks. “I really appreciate that. Hey, let me pay for gas or something, okay?”
I stifle the urge to openly mock him. “You already promised to pay for gas, Roy, and like I said, just chill. Don’t worry about the dash, really. And seriously, don’t feel too bad. That’s definitely not the messiest thing ever spilled in here.” He looks simultaneously relieved, appalled, and curious, so I acknowledge the unspoken question. “Don’t ask. Long story.” If I was feeling normal I would have really freaked out over the mess, but I still have a headache and don’t have the energy to go ballistic.
Roy finishes cleaning up and folds the shirt on itself to stifle the stench, but it’s still pretty rank, and after driving in stinky silence for the next half-hour or so, I exit the freeway somewhere in Irvine before it hooks up with the 5, and we find a gas station to dump the toxic waste and scrub the dash some more. Roy tops off the tank, I swallow another aspirin, and we jump back on the freeway to endure more traffic. I’m content to just drive, and whether from embarrassment or fatigue or something else I can’t divine, Roy keeps quiet, so we don’t have any more real conversation for a while.
The clogged artery that is Interstate 5 eventually dumps us onto the little PCH-mini-freeway in Capo Beach, and though it’s only a little after 9, we thread our way slowly through the foggy, already-deserted streets of Dana Point in case the police are looking to fill their quotas with tired college kids in dumpy Hondas. Before too long I pull into the driveway at Roy’s house and shake him awake. He takes his sweet time to regain mobility and speech, but manages to mumble his thanks and another apology before shuffling around the car, shying away from my harsh headlights on his way inside.
“See you Sunday night, Roy. Gimme a call.” I say, and throw the Civic into reverse, creeping away into a night that, for me, is still far from over.