"Red Light"

Kat Jones

Kat Jones is a writer, artist, and theatre artist based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is currently completing her Combined Honours Degree in Contemporary Studies & Creative Writing at Dalhousie University and the University of King’s College.
“‘Red Light’ uses footnotes to reference works of art (film, fiction, and music) that enrich character and embed a secondary narrative within the story.”

Tomas’s nail polish has already begun to chip pink flakes by the time I pull the car into the drive-in. He used too much of his sister’s glitter polish. I told him to go easy, but he argued he ‘never does things half-arsed’ before slopping it on.

“I haven’t seen Grease since I was a kid!” Tomas exclaims, “and I’ve never been to a drive in.”

“Most people haven’t,” I don’t really look at him as I maneuver into a spot. On our left there’s a massive pickup so tall I can’t even see in the windows. To the right a bright red 2013 Ford Focus facing backwards with the back open and the seats down. A short girl with her hair in pin curls uses rope to tie the trunk down while her date kicks her kitten heels off and sits down in the back.

I wonder if that would’ve been better, to sit in the trunk of a car in the open air. I could’ve brought blankets, maybe it would make for a more intimate date.

I cut the engine and peer up at the dark screen.

“Do you think we’ll be able to see like this?” I ask.

“Should be able to.”

The Nissan’s seats are deep, there’s ample room for my long legs and for Tomas’s height to fit comfortably under the dash.

Tomas turns and grins at me. The rose blush I painted on his cheeks glows in the light from other car’s tail-lights.

“How do I look?”

“Beautiful,” I reply, and he grins wider.

More cars pull in in front closer to the screen. I realize we’ve parked in the ‘couple’s area’ of the lot. It’s darker here, furthest from the lights of the pop-up concession or the dirty cinder-block bathrooms.

“Do you still want to do the after-party?”

“We got dressed up, didn’t we?” I can’t help but reach out to adjust my hair in its tight ponytail, we’d tried to get the front to puff up in a greaser-esque fashion, but it feels like it could flop at any moment.

“We did,” he leans over to adjust the collar of my leather jacket and flakes nail polish glitter onto the shoulder in the process.

“We don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”

“No, I want to, plus we already told the others we were coming,” I brush off the nail-polish chunks and reach over in turn to adjust the collar of his pink-polo shirt and tug on the black kerchief so it’s just off center.

He smiles at me; the eyeliner makes his bright eyes shocking blue in the dim light as ads begin playing on the outdoor screen. He ties his hair back often, but it looks smoother than the normal unbrushed waves. A pastel scrunchy holds the shoulder length hair in a smooth and shiny blonde mass over one shoulder. I want to touch it.

I try not to flinch away too quickly as I take my hand from Tomas’s neck and flick on the radio.

“What’s the station they gave us?”

Tomas pulls the small slip of paper and reads off the number. I focus on the feeling of the dial twisting under my hand and watching the numbers fly up and down as I hunt for the right station.

The sound blasts and we jump back as I turn the radio down so far that the car is silent once again.

Tomas giggles. [1]

It’s the same way he giggled two weeks ago when we had our own movie night wrapped up in blankets on his bed. He laughed when I reached for him, giddy, overjoyed when I knocked his giant English course reader and stack of books with French titles to the carpet. He laughed when I pulled him to lay down in bed with me while our movie played.

I slowly inch the volume up until the sound fades into a smooth background noise so I can still hear him if he talks but if we’re silent we can hear the film.

There is nothing easy about this so I try to settle back into my seat, but I can feel the smooth slide of his bright pink bomber jacket on my arm as he leans over into my space so we are shoulder to shoulder, arm to arm, wrist to wrist.

We’ve sat like this to watch movies what feels like a million times over. I let my mind go blank and watch the screen ahead of us. I ignore him inching closer even though I know he knows that I know.

I know that he’s moving slowly because he’s thinking of what happened two weeks ago. We took it slow then too. Watched the robots and the violence of the film until slowly I was only looking at Tomas and the show provided background noise and colour when we kissed.

The robots clash on screen with whirlwind and screaming. Why did I pick this show? [2]

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I am frozen to the spot.

He’s sitting on my lap, long limbs bent up at awkward angles to put his face close to mine. His lips run down my neck. I feel cold.

The arm that was against mine slinks around me to my other shoulder and I try not to feel pressed down by the weight. [3] I imagine a weighted blanket, a calming pressure, a cat wound round my shoulders.

It feels good.

I lean into it.

I don’t pay much attention to Grease. I’m too busy enjoying being close to Tomas.

At least forty-five minutes have passed when he speaks again.

“That’s you,” he points in the general direction of the screen.


“The one in the leather jacket.” He points again.

I laugh, “They’re all in leather jackets.”

“Okay, well you’re the hot one then.”

I don’t say anything, his fingers tap along my bicep as his arm shifts on my shoulders, I feel fingertips faintly through the leather. I wait until there’s a moment of all pink outfits on screen.

“That’s you.” I don’t bother pointing, I just nod towards the screen.

“Which one?” His voice is right next to my ear.

“The hot one.” I turn my face as I speak, and he’s right there.

He’s so close I can see the faint scar on his chin where he told me he fell face first ice-skating in the second grade.

The confidence I’d had in flirting drains from me when I’m faced with the eyeliner. I drew it on him in the living room of the apartment he shares with his sister. It looks a little patchy up close. I wonder if he’s been picking at it.

He’s so close I can feel his breath across my lips and his eyes are so big when they’re looking at me like he’s asking, and I want to say yes.

I wonder what I should do. Like I wondered where to put my hands back then, so I put them in his hair. It was soft, the screen poured red light over us. [4]

He leans forwards, eyes slide shut.

“Uh—your eyeliner is patchy.”

It takes me three tries to open the door and flee the car.

I stumble into the bathroom. I lock myself into the rust coloured stall and stand with my phone in hand. I would sit, but the toilet looks suspiciously wet and does not have a lid.

I dial Lily. She picks up on the last ring.

“Hey! Aren’t you at the movie? I’m only getting dressed for the party now, I’ll be a bit late just so you know.”

“Yeah… I’m just in the bathroom.”

“What happened?!”

I tell her quickly and quietly. I can hear someone singing about dropping out. Which doesn’t help me feel any better.

“Was he trying to kiss you or were you guys both mutually going to kiss?”

I make a face; she scoffs as if she can see me.

“There’s a difference you know.” [5]

“Probably the second one.”

“That’s good! What do you want to have happen?”

“I was hoping for a classic drive-in makeout, obviously that didn’t work out.”

“Is it because you’re scared.”

“I’m scared of being scared! I can’t function if I freeze up every time he touches me, but I think about how I won’t function, or I’ll freak out like I have all those other times and then I freak out.”

“Sounds like you have an anxiety problem to me.”

“I already know that why do you think I go to therapy?”

“What would your therapist say?”

“Intimacy is about feeling safe to feel vulnerable.”

“Do you feel safe?”

“Yes.” [6]

“Then don’t overthink it, just repeat it like a mantra. You’ll be alright,” she crackles off at the end when someone yells her name, “I’ve got to go Bev, text me if you need anything okay? You can bail on the party if you’re not up to cathart with us later.”

Catharsis is a word Lily uses often. When we watch foreign films, or when she reminisces about moshing; sweaty bodies pressing together in acts of violence. It makes my chest hurt.

I look myself dead in the eyes as I smooth my hair and try not to think about the first time this happened. The light, the feeling, hearing violent screeches of metal while warm hands, kind hands, run over my back. How my hands shook when I pushed him away.

Our shirts are both off when Tomas pulls away from me.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

The film is still playing red light in the background as he maneuvers off me when I don’t reply.

“Do you want to stop?” He asks again but is already pulling a sleepshirt out from under his pillows. It’s got lines from Christmas carols on it and snowflakes even though it’s June.

The movie has transitioned to mournful music [7] as characters are dissolved into primordial soup. Tomas hits the spacebar once he’s got a shirt on and suddenly it’s silent enough that I can hear my own heart racing—it’s too fast.

“I…,” even though we were just swapping spit my mouth is bone dry.

“Do you want your shirt or to borrow pajamas?”

“Pajamas.” He gets up from the bed and digs through his overfull pajama drawer and throws me a long sleepshirt covered in yellow penguins. He flicks on his painted white lamp before grabbing our glasses and leaving me to change. I shuck off my jeans and add them to the pile where the rest of my clothes and his lay at the foot of the bed and shakily pull the long shirt over my head. Then I lay down under the blanket and face the paused screen, it looks like blood.

He returns with two glasses of water that he sets on his desk before sliding out of his sweatpants.

“Do you want water?”

I nod and he hands me my glass and sips from his own. I take small gulps fast. I feel like I could barf at any moment.

He takes my glass when I hand it back to him and puts them both on the desk before flicking off the lights and crawling into bed beside me, he hits play on his way down.

I am between him and the wall. He lays flat and doesn’t try to touch me, holding his body tense and carefully away from mine. I want to reach out, pull his arm around me and rest my head on his shoulder.

I muster the strength to move but it just turns into me gripping his hand and intertwining our fingers. He smiles and squeezes my hand and I start to feel a bit warmer. He visibly relaxes once we touch.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“Don’t worry about it, Bev. We can talk about it in the morning,” his eyes are drooping the way they always do when we stay up past midnight. So, I just nod and focus back on the movie and watching as Tomas’s breath evens out.

A character on screen sobs quietly and the light turns dull red.

Tomas is asleep beside me, snoring lightly. We’ve come to the end of the film.

“Disgusting,” a character on screen says.

I can’t help but feel she’s talking to me.

I open the stall and head to the sink. We talked about it. He knows. I reassure myself that he understands as I splash water on my face and then grimace at the tinny smell. It took more than a day of talking and reassuring Tomas he hadn’t done anything wrong—the problem is me.

We’d already been together for so long, but busy schedules and honours projects coupled with living apart meant our whole relationship moved slow. I wonder if he’s surprised. Is it worth his time? Or mine?

I hear laughter and a group of voices approach the small bathroom, louder than the movie sound’s dull echo radiating from every car radio in the lot. I grip the edge of the sink. I’ve been here before. [8]

I force myself out of the building but instead of heading back to the car I end up standing in the dry cigarette-butt filled grass behind the bathroom while a large group enters loudly.

I rule out leaving since I drove here. My only option is to face Tomas.

Intimacy. [9] I don’t know it. But when Tomas lets me lean in close with an eyeliner pen, so sharp I could blind him in one strike, and draw dainty cat-eyelines that curl up at the ends—I think I might know something about intimacy. His skin warm under my palm. The weight of his jaw. The way he closes his eyes without question, without nerves. And I am still a girl at a school dance heaving through a panic attack because someone kissed me—and I wanted to kiss them back.

I see a kid dodging between cars with a huge bag of popcorn and a can of coke that will surely explode from the jostling. I shove a hand in my pocket to check I still have my cash on me and head to concession.

As I approach the Nissan with a bag of popcorn and three different types of chocolate bars for Tomas to choose from, it takes no small amount of cursing under my breath to get my hand onto the handle of the door and get in.

I slide into the driver’s seat and Tomas barely glances at me. He’s scrunched as far away from the dash as he can, with an elbow up on the window’s ledge and his cheek in his hand while he watches the movie.

His eyeliner was not waterproof, I can tell it has run a little bit.

“Dark, milk or peanut butter?” I hold all three bars out like an offering.

“Peanut butter,” he takes it from me but keeps a distance.

I put the popcorn on the floor, take the dark chocolate for myself, and put the milk chocolate bar in the cupholder.

“I’m sorry.” I say. He sighs around a mouthful of chocolate.

“You don’t have to apologize—”

“Yeah, I do though. I shouldn’t run away like that. I’m sorry.”

He doesn’t reply so I nibble on the dark chocolate and let myself relax into the warmth of the seat. When he finishes eating, he speaks again.

“It’s okay,” he slides into my space like he had earlier and grabs my hand, I squeeze back.

“You know I don’t mind,” he says as he leans on my shoulder.

“Mind what?”

“Doing whatever it takes for you to be comfortable, you just have to tell me what you want and need.”

“I want to kiss you.” I turn my head and he’s lifted his to look at me. Our noses are almost touching.

“You can.” He stills, pink light refracts in the windshield across his face, frozen to the spot.

[1] Bev heard him giggle a thousand times over when they first met in a class called Tragedies. It was cross listed between the Theatre, Film, and English departments. That intersection is the only reason that Bev ended up in this drive-in over a year later. 
[2] See The End of Evangelion, directed by Hideaki Anno.
[3] Bev rarely goes out dancing, she prefers to socialize by the bar when she goes out. But sometimes, if the mood is right, she follows her friends to the floor and dances. She’s barely drunk and then everyone is touching her shoulders as they create a chain of people that seems to hang off her neck. Dragging her to the floor. She lasts twenty minutes and leaves with a weight in her chest. She feels that human chain around her neck until the following weekend.
[4] Her ex-girlfriend had red bulbs in all the lamps she kept in the bedroom. Not because she liked the colour red, but because she thought it was the colour of sex. The colour paints the dark greys of the large painting that she tells Bev was a gift into what looks like bloodied forms of bodies on canvas. For Bev, red is the colour of a panic attack. It’s the colour of shoving the girl off her, of pretending to have food poisoning. Of laying in bed feeling like an asshole. Of attempting to fall asleep but her heart is still racing, the only light is red, and she is clammy under white sheets. The girl’s shorter arms like a seatbelt around her waist, cutting into her ribcage when the car crashes. It’s the colour of sitting up at two in the morning and saying, “I’ve got to go.”
[5] Rainbow Rowell writes, “I can’t explain how it’s different. Why kissing is easy, and being kissed is like being suffocated” (Wayword Son, 207).
[6] No.
[7] “Komm süsser Tod” by Arianne (YouTube).
[8] In middle school Bev attended the spring fling dance. There she met a boy who’s name she has long forgotten. They danced together. This mostly consisted of jumping up and down, back and forth under cheap strobe lighting to music curated by the woodshop teacher / DJ. The boy asked to kiss her. She said yes. Afterwards she spent thirty minutes breathing deeply in the girl’s bathroom because she never considered herself someone who could kiss.
[9] Her roommate says she doesn’t get intimacy. Bev knows that’s a lie. She can hear her roommate and her boyfriend’s sex through the shared bedroom wall. Sometimes he laughs. Sometimes she finds her roommate and the guy in matching silk shirts and underwear making salad at 8am. When she asks what intimacy is, Bev tells her, “Intimacy is… when you’re close to someone. It’s not just sex. It’s like when you and Joey take a bath together. But not always. Before Tomas and I got together I once spent the night helping him clean the old apartment he moved out of last May. At three am, we stopped to have tea and I offered to do his nails. We were barely touching each other but that moment, of getting into someone’s space and trusting them to do the same—” “That’s intimacy!?” Her roommate’s shock lasts most of the day.