If you leave Charlotte and are headed to Columbia, SC, you only have two ways to go. The first is I-77, a bone straight blade of highway that cuts through Rock Hill and leaves its tip in the meat of Columbia. The second, I-485, hooks from Charlotte and moves through Spartanburg like a pipeline, rusty, useful, and bending with asphalt plugs to stop leaks. I was leaving Charlotte, headed to Columbia to see my parents. It was the middle of June and the sky was wide like a newborn’s eyes. I was facing this same decision: 77, or 485. The knife, or the pipe. I chose the pipe.
Walking up to my parent’s house, the streetlights were like the amber that holds dinosaur insects. I felt like the air around me was transposed of glass and I was catching cracks as they appear. I remembered what I was doing in Charlotte, out of school, buried in self-pity, watching decisions slip through fingers, jobless, barely moving, waxing and waning through weeks and months. Around the corner of my parents house, I saw a car I did not recognize.
My mother was an incredible. Her chin was high, but her heart was low. She kept it by her shins so that it was easy to reach. My father was a horse; working for forty five years on, sweat always on his lips. Fort, a friend of my parents, was a man that I did not know.
Fort was thirty two, a few inches taller than myself, loud, Carolina southern, and built to be a friend. If Fort had stayed in my parents’ home any longer than that night the walls would be smiling, and after about five minutes of his time, I was smiling. It’s as if he were a biscuit, an entity that if you were to see it anywhere would make you feel like you were in the right place.
Fort’s cheekbones and shoulders were sharp, but soft, designed in that paradox to be sturdy, but approachable. Fort introduced himself with a grin that was larger than what I was used to. He grabbed me by the arms, and in his bubbly molasses accent told me how excited he was to finally meet me, that my parents had said so much. He told me about me, talked about the poetry I wrote, the books I like, what instruments I played, and told me about his job, how he works with my dad, and how though he is younger than my father, is incredibly proud of him.
In moments I was enamored by this young man, much older than me, but so much younger. He told me about his wife and children, things that I figured he would be too young to have, but he spoke of them with warm eyes and his head would tilt towards the ceiling when he said their names. His shoulders would rise when he talked about his life, about the decisions he had made. The only time his body drooped he was talking about his addictions, mentioning the shake that occurs when you’re alone and directionless. He said that you can’t feel it, but you know it’s there, like shadows in summer. He cut through me with his words like the I-77 knife. I had felt that shake, I knew that shake, and realized in that moment that I was a universal shake. I felt such strong respect for such a new acquaintance, like he was doing right, like he was talking to and through me, like he was on my side too.
After about three hours of pushing my parents and I to smile like we had never before, Fort decided it was his time to leave. He said that he was a little drunk, and wanted to walk it off.
Before he stepped out of the front door, he stopped at the end of the hallway. It was as if he knew that the frame he was in was perfect for a statement. He turned his head; he kept himself slightly angled, in between straightforward and coy. He said,“Hey Ethan, why don’t you join me for a cigarette out front before I go?” My parents didn’t know that I smoked cigarettes. They had no idea I had a pack in my car for when it’s past twelve and I can’t sleep. Fort saw right through me, and he called my habits and addictions from down the hall.
Fort and I sat on the stairs of the front porch. From the porch there was a short walkway lined with succulents leading straight to the street. It reminded me of I-77, to the point. No playing around. A knife and its meat. Before we lit our cigarettes Fort sat up and decided we should go stand by the street. I obliged without question.
Sometimes, you forget how many decisions you make. Sometimes, you forget that you’ve even made a decision in the first place. Sometimes, it feels like there are nothing but decisions, nothing but pressing questions hanging on your back from the hooks in your shoulders. It felt like I hadn’t made a decision in a long time, but I decided to follow Fort to the road.
“Ethan, what do you want to do with yourself? What are your dreams like?”
“Well, I don’t know. I don’t think I have any. I just want to write. Most of the time I just want to sleep.”
“When you came in I had a feeling about you; I’ve never met you, but I had a feeling.”
“What kind of feeling?”
“Like, hmmm, like you didn’t know where you were.”
I felt the street lights get hot. I felt the glass and amber that preserved the moments warming up. I felt the insects inside start to regain strength, to begin twitching in the air again. Fort turned to me with his cigarette drooping out of his mouth like his shoulders when he talked about addiction. In that moment, in that turn of the head, infinity wrapped around us; it cupped me in seriousness, in weight. It felt as if we were the only two people alive in the world, and we were alone together in a very small room.
“I don’t know you, but I care about you.”
“I know it may sound crazy Ethan, but it’s true. It’s important to care about people, but what’s more important is to make the decision to care, to make the decision to feel one way or another.”
“What do you mean?”
“The hardest part of life is not what you have to do, it’s the decision. It’s the decision to not quit on something once you start it; it’s the decision to follow through. When it comes down to it, one opportunity is the same weight as the other, every decision is the same as the next, just with different pro’s and con’s. You need to quit wiff-wafflin’ around.”
That was the last thing Fort said that night. The orb lamps on the road broadened their light, and dimmed. The insect climbed out of the amber. As the words slipped past the cigarette I knew what I heard was important, I knew that it would save me one day like accidentally carrying a pocket knife into the woods.
“Every decision is the same as the other.” I refused to forget that phrase. I refused to forget that phrase as I took the I-77 blade to Charlotte from Columbia, as I turned the knife around and pointed it towards new fare. I still refuse to forget that phrase with every move I make.
Fort told me to quit “wiff-wafflin” over two years ago. I will never forget Fort. I won’t forget his drawl, the shine of his cheekbones, the smile that was nearly imprinted on my parent’s walls, or the advice he gave me, the advice he gave to a stranger that he cared about without having to know. I think of the amber insects crawling out from lights. I think of streetlights pausing to sweat. Every day I think of Fort.