[size14 Emilio was stretched out in the back of an ancient SUV. The back row of seats had been taken out and the entire space, trunk included, had been filled with blankets and pillows. His eyes fluttered open to look at the stained roof, barely hanging on to the frame of the vehicle. He was listening to his friends argue over something completely arbitrary. And he smiled.
Every once in a while this would happen, as he was sure it happened to every single person in this car. It was an overwhelming sense of calm. Happiness. They had made it.
They had all been, at one point or another, in such a low place they never thought they would be able to climb back out. And sometimes, like a soft whisper, Emilio could feel the lightness of his being. Because somewhere along the way, and with a little help, he managed to find himself.
Ten years ago he was taking his first shot of testosterone, wondering how it could all be so simple. All those years in pain because he was denying his own truth…
“Pull over, I gotta piss,” Delphi said, ruining the moment.
“Yeah, me too,” Emilio said, sitting up.
“Dammit, okay. Let me find an exit,” Nathan said. Emilio couldn’t remember how they all collectively agreed to let him drive. He was a hurricane: a disaster just waiting to happen. And if they were going to be driving with someone illegally riding out of a seat, they should probably have someone competent in the drivers.
“There hasn’t been an exit in two hours. I’m gonna piss myself,” Delphi groaned. “Pull over here. There’s bushes.”
Nathan did as he was asked, looking at Marcel like the two people jumping out of the sliding door were insane. Linds just shouted for her wife to be careful before continuing to play games on her phone.
Together, Emilio and Delphi jogged for the bushes lining the highway. There was not a lot of traffic and Delphi was hardly one to be concerned with propriety, so she yanked down her pants and got to it.
Emilio was not so shameless. He found a much larger bush before doing the same. He and Delphi looked over at each other and laughed. Delphi had known him before he transitioned. Before he changed his name. Before he was who was. She was the one person he actually discussed his surgeries with. She went with him to drive him back from top surgery and helped him through his recovery when his parents needed an extra hand.
The fact that her wife was trans also helped her understand a lot about him. He didn’t want, nor care, about bottom surgery, but the world told him he had to. It was why he hadn’t had a lot of luck on the dating front. He was either repulsive, or a fetish. Or just a quick fuck as a queer experiment.
He didn’t know what he would do without Delphi. She accepted him fully.
She tossed him hand sanitizer when they got back to the SUV and he rubbed it into his tan hands as they set off again.
“We should probably switch drivers before the sun sets,” Delphi said. “No offence, Nate, but you have terrible vision at night.”
“Shut up. I’m a great driver,” he said, then paused. “But, yeah. I’ll take the next exit and we can switch it up.”
“And get some dinner. I’m starving,” Marcel added, his hand resting on Nathan’s neck.
An hour later and they were all crowded into one booth at a mom-and-pop diner. Marcel was looking at Google maps on his phone trying to calculate how much time it would take them to get to California if they just never stopped driving and only rotated drivers. They argued about this, all saying they had been over this. They needed to stop at motels at night, if only to stretch their legs. Besides, they would get there too early for the pride events if they drove straight through, anyway.
“Half the fun in the road trip shit, anyway,” Emilio reminded them as he sucked down the last of his coke.
“Yeah, but [i four] days?”
“Michigan to California isn’t a trip for the weak, Marcel.”
That earned Emilio a fry to the face.
“Excuse me,” Emilio said to the waitress as she came by to pick up their trash. “Is that motel across the street okay? Do you know?”
She looked at them a moment. She couldn’t have been more than 20. “Yeah. I mean… It doesn’t have any bedbugs that I’ve heard but…” She looked from him to the others, glancing at their hands held together. “I would go down the street a ways to the Motel 6.”
She smiled at them in a sad kind of way, before walking away. The group looked at each other, then at the motel across the street. Linds slowly released her hand from Delphi’s and let it rest in her lap. Suddenly, at if a spell was broken, they could feel the looks they were usually immune to on them like headlights.
“Let’s go, you guys,” Emilio said, standing. Delphi glared at the faces around them and he wished she wouldn’t. The last thing they needed was to be stuck in a religious town at night [i and] have the residents all actively hunt you down because you looked at them wrong.
They went to the Motel 6. A tired girl was at the counter, close in age to the girl at the diner. He wouldn’t be surprised if they knew each other. Maybe they were even dating and had to keep it a secret in this awful town.
The couples got the beds. There was no cot, so Delphi let Emilio squeeze in next to her, which he was grateful for. Even after just one day on the road and his body was exhausted. Early the next morning, he woke them all, eager to get out of this town, only to find that someone had spray painted over Marcel’s pride bumper stickers in the night with obscene images. And along one side was the dreaded word they hated to see: [i Faggots].
“What the fuck,” Emilio breathed.
Marcels eyes were brimming with tears, but he knew it was anger that caused them.
“Well, go on then,” came a voice from behind them. They all jumped and turned. A large man in his 60s leaned against the building.
“Did you do this, you old fuck?” Delphi shouted and Linds had to pull her back.
“Nope, but I watched the kids who did. We put people like you back in your place around here,” he said.
“Just get in the car,” Emilio said, pushing Delphi back. Doors opened and slammed shut and without another, Emilio was pulling away from the man.
“It- it’s okay. We’ll just wash it off,” he was saying, but his voice was trembling.
“You don’t just [i wash] this off!” Marcel was shouting. He knew what he meant. The paint could be removed, but the hatred couldn’t.
There was a sudden [i ding, ding, ding,] and Nathan cursed. “It’s the tank! Remember? We needed to fill it last night. I was riding on empty.”
Emilio glanced down at the dash to see he was correct. They couldn’t even make it to the next town let alone the next gas station if they didn’t take the first one they saw. “[i Fuck!] He looked up and immediately turned, tires screeching into the next parking lot and pulled up to the closest pump.
“Nobody move. And lock the doors,” he said, opening the door and climbing out. He was aware that all eyes were on the graffitied SUV. On [i him]. It was like a walking [i kick me] sign stuck to his back. He fumbled with his card and struggled to click the payment options.
[i Card read error. Please see cashier.]
“What the fuck. No. Please,” he begged under his breath, feeling a sense of urgency rise inside him, almost like bile. He tried again.
[i Card read error. Please see cashier.]
He was having a panic attack now. He glanced up. Everyone was looking at him from their cars or over their pumps. Some were taking pictures. He took a deep breath to steady himself, headed for the gas station’s doors.
Was someone following him?
“I need twenty-five on pump- uh- three please,” he said, having to peer outside to check the number.
The cashier, luckily, was too bored with his job to notice anything that had been going on outside. He took Emilio’s card and ran it. Then ran it again.
“Do you have another card? It’s not reading this one for some reason.”
[i Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.]
Oh, wait. There it goes.”
Emilio could have died then and there. He snatched his card back and weaved his way back to the doors, only to be obstructed by a huge figure booming with laughter to his smaller friend. “Getting to be more and more like a circus every day around here. I say we just put up signs to keep them all out.”
Emilio was not a tall guy. No amount of testosterone could make his 5’7” frame any taller. So when this man looked down at him, he felt like the smallest bug on earth. He ducked around him and back out into the parking lot, running full force for the SUV.
The entire time he pumped the gas he was hyper aware of everything and everyone. Every gallon the machine counted took centuries. He thought about bailing and taking the loss: getting just enough gas to make it to the next town, but he didn’t know how far away that might be.
When he finally heard the thump that told him it was finished, he replaced the pump, unlocked the door, and threw himself inside. He was just about to slam on the gas to get the hell out of there when a massive truck stopped dead in front of them, cutting them off. Emilio panicked. He started to back up, but another truck stopped him there, too.
“Oh, fuck,” he heard himself say, hardly over a whisper.
The door to the truck in front of him opened and the man in a sheriff’s uniform stepped out, putting on a hat.
“Wh-what do I do?” Emilio asked as he stepped over to the driver’s side window. Everyone was watching.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Delphi said. “Remember your rights.”
Slowly, he rolled his window down.
“Now, you know driving around with nasty words all over your vehicle isn’t appropriate,” the man said, his gray hair poking out from under his hat. Emilio knew he was trying to get under his skin. He didn’t put the tags there and the sheriff knew that.
He swallowed hard. “We were tagged. We were going to wash them off.”
“You afraid of me, son?”
“Am I being detained?” He asked, knowing he was not allowed to be held here. His hands squeezed the steering wheel. He could not look this man in the eyes.
Emilio was not religious. But he would give anything for an angel to come save him from this moment.