Berfrois

Juan, Actually

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by Christopher Gonzalez

Juan is mulling over what Carla said at the party about not fearing death when his Lyft driver bodies a cyclist. Actually, it’s a delivery guy. A working man. Juan sees two plastic Have a Nice Day smiley face bags wrapped around the handlebars before he sees the body, its legs unnaturally splayed out on the pavement, an arm tangled in the front tire’s spokes.

The street is empty: at almost 4 a.m. there is only the wind, the background roar of cars along the main stretch three blocks away, and the Lyft driver screaming, Shit. No, no, no. God, no. Please, no. Not again.

Juan leans on the car for support. He’s never encountered a limp body like this. He watches the driver kneel down to check the delivery guy’s pulse; he listens to the driver count, the seconds coming out in huffs.

I’m calling an ambulance, Juan says. He struggles to retrieve the phone from his pocket. There’s so much blood mingling with the chow mein and shrimp fried rice that exploded onto the pavement—Juan is having a hard time.

The driver is up, he slaps the phone from Juan’s hand. Help me get him into the car, he spits. We’ll handle this.

Juan’s immediate thought is, I’m not giving this man a tip. I’m not paying him at all. Maybe he’ll get my first one-star rating. But the driver’s glare is persistent, fire fueled. Propelled by the urgency of the situation, Juan joins him on the ground. He pulls the delivery guy’s arm free from the spokes, and all those thoughts of annoyance, of come on really? how did we end up here?, are replaced by the mild, steady rush of white hot fear.

*

Where had the night gone wrong? Surely, this was Juan’s fault.

The party had been on a rooftop. Carla’s twenty-seventh birthday. Not a huge milestone—no Hallmark cards with a particular snark about the big 2-7 available at CVS, no new legal status unlocked—but seeing the other side of another year feels like an accomplishment when the world is burning. At 10 p.m. she said it the first time: I’m not afraid to die. Someone in the group who drinks too much and is motivated by an ugly need to one-up everyone replied, That’s truly the wildest thing I have ever heard.

Then, at 1 a.m., Carla whispered the words again to Juan. He smiled, finished his second IPA; the hops weren’t as bitter as he expected. He had always admired Carla’s bravery, which he attributed to her Leo rising and Leo moon. He followed her lead whenever possible. Since college, they had acted insufferably rather than authentically. But they had done so together. The togetherness was key.

Seriously, Carla said. I’m not scared of dying. The act of it, the reality? I’m not scared to say goodbye to this world.

*

Blood isn’t quite gushing out from the delivery guy’s head, nor does Juan consider it sluicing, but there’s still a flow. Actually, it’s making a mess all over his lap, the entire backseat. Is it dickish to send a Venmo request for the $10 minimum Juan pays at his neighborhood wash-and-fold? He cradles the delivery guy’s head, presses his hand to a clump of sticky, matted hair, and mentally deducts the amount from the Lyft fee.

The delivery guy’s mouth opens and closes, like a suffocating fish. He looks young, maybe teen-aged, way too young to be working this late, and yet. Life is filled with so many and yets. Juan says, You’re going to get through this, you’re going to be O.K., which he doesn’t believe, not even a little.

The driver speeds down side roads and squeezes through narrow alleyways. Keep him awake if you can, the driver yells, give him a shake. Don’t let him slip away. His eyes flicker between the road and the rearview mirror, to Juan.

He’s going to be pissed about his bike, isn’t he? Juan asks. They had left the crumbled frame on the sidewalk. Tossed it onto the curb like trash, like nothing.

The driver looks ahead. Let’s not worry about that, he says.

How many cyclists have you hit? Juan asks. Is this like a thing for you? Have any of them died?

They approach a red light and the driver raises the volume on the radio.

*

Toward the end of the party, Juan had been relatively sober. His choice. He watched Carla dance with her partner Sophie against the backdrop of a flashing neon deli sign. It soothed him.

Their swaying, their happiness in the moment was overwhelming. Infectious. Juan could have giggled to himself, but then he would have been that guy at the party, instead of that quiet guy. What stuck out to Juan wasn’t that Carla was happier than him—no, actually, that was part of it. It made him sad, all too self-aware if he focused on it. But he was happy for her, even if on the surface he was tripped up by the idea that Carla thought nothing about opening her life to Sophie. She barreled forward without any doubts holding her back: she liked Sophie and told her as much and the two entered a relationship, emerging as a couple. Juan blinked, and there they were. Juan blinked again, and he hadn’t moved an inch.

*

The blue-black sky passes on all sides of the car. The Lyft driver blows through another red light and a few stop signs, past a group of drunk white people stumbling toward the train. Some are exiting their own Lyfts and Ubers, their destinations exactly where they expected. When the driver cuts off someone else on a bike—this one a non-working cyclist who doesn’t topple but manages to throw up a middle finger and a Go to hell, fuckwad!—Juan inspects the car’s backseat, which is only enough room for three bodies if two of them aren’t already bleeding. He slides a thumb to the delivery guy’s throat, then, to check again for a pulse, and he considers his own life, the blood-pumping pulp of it. He’s always lived like he’s strapped down to a conveyor belt headed for some obvious inevitability. Of course, he likes to think he takes risks: He walks home from the train at 2 a.m. with music blasting through his headphones, a hoodie pulled over his head—a moving target. He visits C-rated diners and orders the calamari. He sleeps with men who hide their faces, buries all of his vulnerability inside their slick warmth, quickly and recklessly, unprotected, because it’s exciting, because it can feel like a game, because sometimes a shock to the system is necessary for enduring. But, otherwise, the march toward death is slow. Lonely, actually. That Juan runs toward it feels like the result of a programming error, especially now, as the delivery guy begins crying out. Vibrations shoot up Juan’s arm into the thick of his chest. If he is afraid of death, of dying, every possible act of it, shouldn’t he be unafraid of the opposite? Shouldn’t he be doing all he can to run in the other direction?

*

After all the guests had left, Juan smoked a joint with Sophie and Carla. He hardly ever smokes, but this was a special occasion. Sophie showed them both a new kind of high that involved taking a hit then leaning back over the roof’s lip. They were to hold the smoke in until after their heads fully dangled over the edge and the city appeared upside down, and all the pressure had built in their noses and eyes and ears, and they felt a kind of drowning without water, a total submersion in the night chill, until releasing the smoke became an involuntary action.

*

The delivery guy is screaming when the Lyft driver opens the backdoor. Doesn’t stop when the driver reaches for his legs; Juan continues to keep the delivery guy’s head in place, pinned down to the seat. The delivery guy flails and kicks wildly in all directions. They are parked right outside the Emergency Room, so close to the entrance Juan might laugh. He could spit and hit the revolving doors. If we could just roll his ass through those doors, Juan thinks, if we pounce on him, wrestle him into submission and strap him to a gurney, this whole night will have been worth it. Why else would Juan have stayed along for the ride? Wasn’t this his choice?

*

Sophie and Carla had managed their hits better than Juan. He coughed, his eyes stinging, the red pigment in his skin rising to the surface. He rushed to sit up and the city flipped around. All the blood flowed into the rest of his body; his arms and legs buzzed back to life. The stillness within him had snapped in two. And he felt like he was spinning in place, slowly, all zero-gravity in his hands and in his head, his heart rotating on an axis, like he would never know the comfort of a stable world again.

Carla kept her head craned over the edge. Her face flushed pink. The veins in her neck and forehead swelled up,. And Sophie, a trooper, held her position at Carla’s side. I could stay like this forever, Carla said, finally, releasing the smoke in a glorious ring.

And, actually, Juan wished he could too. But once he stood and saw Carla and Sophie with their necks craned over the edge, their hands joined, he felt like he had been putting off the rest of his life. It was time to leave.

*

The delivery guy’s foot cuts across the driver’s face, his elbow meets Juan’s mouth, which fills with hot blood, a loose tooth. The delivery guys falls forward onto the asphalt, then picks himself up, screams louder, more fearfully than in the confined space of the backseat, and he breaks off into a run around the corner, away and away. Gone. When the sound of his footsteps dissipates, Juan is overcome with relief.

Fucker, the driver says. We were trying to save him and he didn’t even appreciate it. He doesn’t understand what we did, what we didn’t have to do. We were great, he says, and Juan is stuck on the we of their night, the city turned upside down within it. We’re heroes, dammit, the driver says.

The driver steps away from the car, his hands on his hips, mouth hanging open to welcome the murky dawn. Juan walks up to the driver, pulls him in for a side hug. They don’t stand there to watch the sun break open the sky. They don’t get back into the car and complete Juan’s original ride either, though later, when Juan wakes around noon, he will wonder about all the million ways that could have played out, if they had crossed the finish line together. But for a hug, at least, and the moments after, Juan is fine with being blood-stained and sweaty. Tired. Banged up, just a little. Not defeated in any major way. Not looking down when he should be looking up, or looking backwards. Actually alive.

 


About the Author:

Christopher Gonzalez (@livesinpages) serves as a fiction editor at Barrelhouse and a contributing editor at Split Lip. His stories appear or are forthcoming in a number of journals and anthologies, including Best Small Fictions 2019, Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction, Lunch Ticket, Wasafiri, Third Point Press, and Cosmonauts Avenue. Cleveland-raised, he now lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY. Learn more at chris-gonzalez.com