One of Those Life-Altering Decisions

Alan climbed on the bus at 7.32am, just like he’d done every morning for the past ten years.

Staring dead ahead into the grand void of his thoughts, he went and stood in the middle section of the bus, right on the spot that always was empty, as if reserved for him.

He held on to the steel overhead bar when the bus coughed and lunged forth. He swayed back and forth under the constant braking and starting and cranked the music up to eviscerate the chitchat of the two old ladies sitting to his left.

He tapped his foot under Toby Keith’s Strangers Again.

The bus screeched to a halt and he clenched his legs to avoid ending on the lap of the two chatting old ladies.

He lifted his glance and there she was, standing right across from him as she had for the last eight years.

Her ash-blonde hair was tied in a high ponytail; her business suit hugged her body tight and warm. She, too, wore headphones. She stared at her phone, perhaps selecting a song.

Did she listen to country, too? Did she like Hank? Or was she into rock and roll? Stones, Zeppelin…why, perhaps she was the type to listen to Grateful Dead, dreaming of being part of the Merry Pranksters while slaving away behind a desk. Maybe, she was the modern type, listening to Beyonce, Ed Sheeran, whoever else is in nowadays…

He’d never heard her voice. He knew it’d be so beautiful it would make singing angels sound like X-Factor wannabes. And her name was…he had no idea, but there was no doubt in his mind it’d be the kind of name that melts in one’s mouth like chocolate, that warms one’s heart just by uttering it, or even just hearing it.

He glanced at the window the moment she lifted her eyes off her phone. She’d chosen a song; she tapped her high heel on the metal plate of the floor and her foot’s movement did not give away her taste in music.

What if…he shook his head and sank his teeth in his lower lip. They had thirty-three minutes to reach their common destination, the bus terminal. From there, they’d follow each other down to the crossroad, cross the avenue, then he would go to the left and she to the right.

Where did she work? Was her office merely a block away from his? Two blocks? Did she take another bus? He had no clue. Nothing upon her offered even a hint of what she did, who she was.

Just like nothing on him betrayed him being a graphic designer for an advertisement company. Of course, if he was a Mad Man he’d have something to tell her, something to impress her with…but now? What’s exhilarating about designing trite ads for plumping services and furniture manufacturers?

Keith stopped singing and Zac Brown Band, with Alan Jackson, succeeded him with As She’s Walking Away.

With a deep breath, he let his gaze return to her. His heart fluttered at the sight of her soft, calm face and crystal-blue eyes staring into the void, her mind undoubtedly wandering into some dream inspired by whatever music blared in her ears.

He took the headphones off, finally heeding the wise old man’s advice.

For a brief, glorious, moment, their glances met and his nervous system was set on fire.

She bit the corner of her lips. His chest heaved from the abundant air he drew in and he abandoned his spot. The moment he took a step forth, the bus braked hard.

He cursed under his breath as he stumbled forth, almost crashing into her. He regained his balance and grabbed the overhead steel bar with both hands.

She arched her eyebrow and scanned him from head to toe.

He had no idea what he was gonna say. He had never thought he’d find the courage actually to attempt it, to…for eight years he saw her daily, for eight long years he had wondered who she was, what she did, how her voice sounded like, what her name was…

“Hello.” Her lips curled into a smile that could melt steel, let alone his aching heart. Her voice was, indeed, majestic; better music than the best compositions written by the true masters of the game. Had Tchaikovsky heard her voice, he’d have become a blacksmith.

“Hi,” he cleared his throat.  “I’m sorry, I just…”

“We’ve been riding the same bus for too long, haven’t we?” She giggled. “I’ve always noticed you standing right over there.”

“Yeah, it’s…crazy, isn’t it? How many people on this bus we recognize, yet know nothing about them. I…”

“I’ve often had the same thought,” she nodded. “I mean, I stand here, sometimes thinking about what you do, what kind of life you’re leading, all that…God, it sounds insane, doesn’t it?”

“Not at all,” he chuckled. “I do the same; with you, with…yeah. Creating all these scenarios in my head, you know? And…”

“I’m a PA, by the way. In a cargo company. Not as exciting as whatever you might have thought.”

“Well, I’m just a graphic designer. Bet you’d hoped for something else, huh?”

“Could have said the same thing.” His spine shuddered from her wink.

“So…” He stopped, suddenly overwhelmed by the cruel realization that he had nothing to say. It was much easier in daydreams, when no matter what he said, no matter what happened, things were gonna go the way he’d wanted them to.

Hell, in daydreams you can always just skip forward to the good parts.

He cleared his throat and they exchanged a glance, followed by a hesitant twitch of the lips.

“I have to ask,” he broke the awkward silence that befell them like a dense mist, “what kind of music do you listen to? I mean…all these years you tap your foot along some songs, and I never…”

“Oh, um,” she cleared her throat and chuckled. “Well, I love old country music. Yes, I know, it’s weird, it’s…but I love Hank Williams and…what?” She arched her eyebrow and tilted her head sideways, staring at his earlobe to earlobe grin.

“That’s amazing. I listen to the same music, that…that’s why I’m laughing. I always tried to…to guess what you listened to, but I never…”

“You listen to country, too?”

“Yes.” He nodded and, to prove it, he handed her one of his headphones.

“Alan Jackson may be one of the last true country singers,” she nodded and bobbed her head to It’s five o’clock somewhere.

“True. These songs always made me dream, you know? Picture a completely different life, something…”

“I know. Just sitting on a porch, right? Sipping a drink in the middle of the day, having different cares and worries, and…”

“Precisely,” he snapped his fingers. A wave of courage flowed through his veins—the kind of courage that usually requires a few shots of well tequila. “Say, how about we do something crazy?

“How about we skip work? Call in sick, or something. Let’s go have ourselves a hurricane. I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember the last time I had a day off.”

“I don’t think I…” She stopped, bit the corner of her lips, and nodded. “Okay, yes. I’m in. It’s been forever since I last had a day off; I’ll just call to tell them I woke up burning up with fever.”

“Splendid!” He bellowed and for a moment all eyes fell on him. The moment was over and everybody returned to whatever they were doing before he disturbed their peace—some looking at their phones, others daydreaming of a different life, and others half-sleeping—and they both called their bosses.

A lot of fake coughing was involved, as well as simple, impenetrable excuses.

“I’m good,” he grinned.

“Me too,” she reciprocated with a smile that rivaled the sun’s glow. “So, where shall we go?”

“No idea,” he admitted with a heavy sigh. “I’m sure we’ll find something.”

“Well, we do work close to the sea. Why don’t we just take a stroll along the beach, find a cozy place with a great view?”

“Do love the way you think.”

He rubbed his chest as an unprecedented warmth engulfed his palpitating heart and her beaming gaze almost embraced his soul.

Never before had he felt this way. The rest of the bus ride was filled with small talk about nonsensical subjects. All it took was a smile and a meeting of glances to brighten the world up and make it seem as if there was, after all, meaning in being alive.

“Feels weird, doesn’t it?” She giggled when they climbed off the bus and continued straight down to the avenue running parallel to the shoreline, instead of walking up toward the office complexes.

“Yeah.” He drew a deep breath of fresh, salty air and nothing felt weird. It felt like the most normal thing in the whole damn world.

They strolled in silence. The trees rustled from the strong gusts and on occasion a speeding biker forced them to leap aside. Nothing could defeat the joy in their hearts or wipe the smiles off their beaming faces.

“Looks like a neat little place, don’t you think?”

“Definitely,” she nodded.

They settled on the two wooden chairs, just a few feet away from the calm sea.

The waitress gaped at them when they placed their order: a whiskey sour for him, gin and grapefruit juice for her. No one drank this early in the day in this country; the waitress wrote the order down with a smirk that only half-betrayed her certainty about them being highly dangerous criminals.

“We’re both fans of vitamin C, huh?” He chuckled after they clinked glasses and had the glorious, rejuvenating, soul-enervating first sip.

“It protects you from scurvy,” she shrugged.

“Bet that’s how the first cocktails were invented. Sailors adding fruit juice to whatever booze they had laying around to stay healthy.”

“Yeah.” She gazed at the open sea, seemingly trying to look beyond the horizon, and kept the brim of the glass close to her lips.

“Ever thought about just getting away?”

“Only all the time,” she giggled, yet melancholy glowed in her eyes.

“I know the feeling. Where would you go?”

“Far away,” she shrugged her shoulders. “The where doesn’t really matter, as long as it’s not here.”

“I always dreamt of owning a small house on some distant island nation. A place like Palau, Vanuatu, whatever. Just away from everything.”

“You, the sandy beach, and the ocean, huh?”

“Yeah.” A dreamy film covered his eyes, as he, too, peered at the sea. “Think of the way people traveled back in ancient times. They just boarded a damn ship and sailed away, most not even knowing where they were heading.

“Nowadays, we’ve got airplanes that can take us anywhere in the world in less than a day, and…and we don’t go anywhere.”

“Back then, it was about the adventure and the discovery of new places and new riches. Now…it’s about tourism, and that’s expensive.”

“Yes,” he hung his head. The smooth whiskey and the sour lemon crawled in his head, making getting away appear easy.

“Doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”

“I know. But, it’s definitely harder nowadays. You need visas, paperwork, money…”

“Still,” she shrugged. The coarseness of her voice was enough to make him understand she had thought about the same things herself and had come to the same conclusion:

Dreams are destined to die. Life sucks, and then you die.

“Wouldn’t that be amazing, though?” He suddenly said.

That what?” She arched her eyebrows.

“To go away; like, right now.”

“Are you drunk?”

“No, no…” He looked at his half-empty glass and smirked. “Not at all. Just…is there a reason to postpone our dreams and just wait to die?”

“I don’t know…how can we do it? I mean…”

“Okay, fine. Maybe not right now, as in this very minute, but…soon. The more we talk about it, the less likely it is we’ll ever do it. I’ve been thinking about it for at least seven years.

“And I’m still stuck here!”

“So…where to?”

“Does it matter? But, since we both like Hank, let’s…let’s go to Alabama. Montgomery. See how it is.”

“I don’t know, I…” She drew a deep sigh.

His heart sank. Another chance for happiness had been wasted. Eviscerated. Craziness does belong in (day)dreams.

Then, all of a sudden, an ear-to-ear grin rekindled the glow on her face. And out of its ashes, like a phoenix, hope was reborn.

“Let’s discuss it over a second drink,” she said and choked hers down with an emphatic smack of the lips.

Of course, the second drink is always followed by a third. And it’s in the fourth all grand dreams reside and come true. Midway into your fifth drink, you’re ready to conquer the world.

With their inhibitions lowered, and with the initial physical attraction already having lit up the first sparks of something greater, they both were ready to withdraw all their savings—nothing impressive even when put together, but enough for airfare to the grand unknown.

“Holy shit,” she exclaimed, as they stood at the airport gate. “We’re really doing it, huh?”

“Kinda late to back down, isn’t it?” He chuckled.

“Gate D7 is now open,” announced the stewardess.

“That’s us.”

“Wait for the others to board. No reason to stand in line.”

Their home town grew smaller and smaller as the plane ascended higher in the sky. The place they both had lived in for all their lives became the toy of a young boy smashing his plastic cars on cardboard streets.

They were above the clouds now; no turning back, unless they were willing to parachute their way back to the place they used to call home.

His heart skipped a beat when she slithered her hand in his. Not a single word escaped their lips. Their gazes did all the necessary talking; and the first touch of their lips was all the communication they required.

The old woman on the aisle seat next to them scoffed when the initial brushing of the lips turned into a passionate tango of tongues. What did she know? She had no idea who they were, why they were sitting next to her. She couldn’t fathom the significance of that kiss taking place thousands of feet above the ground.

“Please,” announced the stewardess through the speaker, “fasten your seatbelts and put your seats back up in an upright position. We’ll be landing at LaGuardia airport in fifteen minutes. Thank you for flying with — Airlines and we hope to see you again soon.”

“I sure hope not,” he whispered and they both chuckled.

They waited for their next flight at the airport bar, sharing a few beers and laughs.

Due to a newly signed agreement between the two countries, they were allowed to stay in the U.S. for a few months without needing a visa. Afterwards…who knew what the future held?

They had no idea and they fucking loved it.

From the moment they arrived at their destination it became crystal clear it was nothing like what they’d left behind. They explored the city sporting wide grins radiating childish enthusiasm. They found a cheap motel where they could stay for a while without worrying about running out of money.

In addition, the motel was located just a block away from a honkytonk; the kind of place where, if you had a couple of drinks and the jukebox cooperated, you could see Hank Sr. sitting in the corner hunkering over a glass of bourbon neat in his cowboy hat and boots.

It could have been a result of jet lag. Maybe, it was the three glasses of Jim Beam in his bloodstream. Nevertheless, he decided to heed the advice he once read; drink on the grave of your hero.

They bought a fifth of Old Crow from a liquor store and in the dead of the night, when the air was chilly and damp, they sneaked their way to Hank Williams Sr.’s grave.

Getting drunk in the dead of the night in the middle of a cemetery in a strange city of a foreign country was, perhaps, not the brightest of ideas. However, and as one of the greatest writers of all time taught us, life should be an adventure that sees you emerge out of a cloud of black smoke all banged up, and not an attempt to arrive at the mortician’s table in pristine condition.

Come morning, they glanced at each other while still in bed and exchanged a warm smile that proved a better hangover remedy than a screwdriver.

Montgomery had something, but not what they were looking for.

Of course, they didn’t know what they were looking for; at the same time, they knew they’d recognize it the moment they found it.

Instead of slowly spending their savings in motel rooms, they exchanged a big part of it for an old car.

On the Road, neon light style. He got behind the wheel, cranked some Hank up on the radio, and hit the gas. They soared through highways and small roads; the destination never truly mattered, as long as there was a parking lot to sleep in after spending a few hours in a bar that could have been the inspiration behind Keith’s I Love this Bar.

Perhaps, that was what they were looking for: the sense of belonging, of entering a place, smiling without even wanting to, and realizing it’s the place they were meant to enter.

While some places came close, nothing was it. It was alright. They had a lifetime to search for the dream.

After all, did the great adventurers of the past think of death when they sailed into the great unknown? No, they dreamt of the great riches waiting just beyond the horizon.

Some adventures have happy endings, others end in an early grave. No adventure ends with a mortician shaking his head in pity.

“I’m pregnant,” she announced one night in a small motel room outside Denver.

The whole world collapsed for a horrifying second; he remained frozen, petrified, and his brain refused to process the new information.

Her beaming smile, the glow in her eyes, and the warmth of her soft caress on his cheek pulled him into the new reality. And it wasn’t a crash landing.

“What do we do?” He asked, already knowing the answer.

They had roamed the country, had seen many bars, honkytonks, and dives, and hadn’t found one to call home. They had done too many smalltime jobs to get by; washed dishes in Oklahoma and swept floors in Albuquerque.

The time to settle down had come. A new adventure began and they sought the perfect spot to call home for decades to come.

In the same old car they had since almost the beginning, they drove around, bypassing the neon signs that had once called upon them like Ulysses’ sirens.

It was love at first sight: a small valley by a river in the middle of nowhere. Nothing but small towns around; no metropolises, no heavy traffic, nothing even remotely similar to what they’d left behind a lifetime ago.

A tiny two-room house with a big yard next to the river; the epitome of perfection. And well within their limited budget. It wasn’t on a tropical island, as he’d once dreamt of; it was even better.

It was hard work balancing the arrival of their child with fixing and expanding the house while living off the land.

It’s never hard work when it’s toward realizing the great dream. He collapsed on the bed every night at nine, yet one kiss sufficed to wash the exhaustion away and it made every drop of sweat shed well worth it.

The house turned into a home fast. Two small children played and ran aloof in the yard. She did all the housework and he worked the land. They never sold their old car, not even when they bought a station wagon.

They kept the relic as a memento; after all, the old car was what had allowed their dream to come true and had driven them to their happily ever after.

In between planting and harvesting, he made sure to keep the old car in a running condition. When they reached a ripe old age—and their children got married and had families of their own—they climbed back into the relic of simpler times.

Time had come to rediscover the neon lights, to embark on one final adventure. They left the house behind—keeping it as home and shelter for their children in case their dreams didn’t come true—and roamed the vast highways and tiny dirtroads, feeling just as young and full of dreams as they had the day they landed on Montgomery.

Jackson’s Here In the Real World came up when the bus stopped at the terminal. He shook his head and rubbed his eyebrows. She was already heading out of the bus, squeezed between the rest of the passengers.

A heavy sigh quivered his lips and shuddered his chest. With long strides, he caught up to her and stood right next to her as they waited for the green light.

For a moment, he opened his mouth. No words escaped his lips. The light turned green, they crossed the avenue side by side, and went their separate ways.

George Gad Economou holds a Master’s degree in Philosophy of Science and resides in Athens, Greece, doing freelance work whenever he can while searching for a new place to go. His novella, Letters to S., was published in Storylandia Issue 30 and his short stories and poems have appeared in literary magazines, such as Adelaide Literary Magazine and Modern Drunkard Magazine, and his first poetry collection is slated for publication in 2021 by Adelaide Books.