In The Car
She gripped the steering wheel with her pale hands. The seat was freezing. Snow blocked the windows. The interior of the car was cave like and mysterious.
˝Brrrr!˝ She pounded on the wheel and coughed. She turned to me. ˝Well, shall we go?˝
˝You have to start the car first.˝ I said.
˝Funny man.˝ She replied and fumbled in her pocket, finally found the key and with an abrupt thrust, jammed it into the slot. The engine struggled to turn, and finally caught. The car started with a bang.
˝Good ol' Charlie!˝ She yelled over the clatter and stumble of the engine.
˝Who's Charlie?˝ I yelled back at her.
She patted the dashboard as if it was a pet.
We sat there in frozen silence and listened to the engine. Finally she adjusted the heater to defrost. It took a long time for the car to warm. Time in which I had an opportunity to observe her profile. In the light filtered through the frost glazed side window there wasn't much to see other than the halo that outlined her profile.
˝You need to scrape the windshield.˝ She said. ˝There's a scraper under the seat.˝
I fumbled for it, and got out of the car. in the short time sitting there it had gotten much colder and my in drawn breath numbed my lips. I pushed an immense drift of snow from the hood and scraped at the windows. She turned on the wipers. The squeal of their passage was hypnotic. I shivered, and...
And then she honked the horn.
I could see her lips move behind the glass. For a moment I wasn't sure where I was, and then I remembered, and got back in the car.
˝What the hell were you doing out there?˝ She asked.
I wanted to tell her but somehow I couldn't make enough sense out of it to put it into words so I didn't say anything.
She floored the Mercedes. We spun out into the street and then just hung there. Wheels spun on the ice until we finally got traction, and with a lurch stumbled forward. Neither of us said anything for a long while. Finally she spoke.
˝What happened to you?˝
˝What did it look like?˝
˝Like you were in a trance.˝
˝That's pretty close.˝
˝Does that happen to you a lot?˝
˝Do you mean am I nuts?˝
˝Maybe. Want to talk about it?˝
˝Oh, I don't know. It's a woman thing I guess. Don't you know women like to talk about feelings?˝
“It wasn't a feeling.”
˝Well what would you call it then?˝
˝Like things will never change. Like I would just stand there forever.˝
˝Really? I had an aunt that talked to dead people.˝
˝What does that have to do with it?˝
˝Everybody's nuts.˝ She replied.
Another long silence.
˝I like it that you're not a talker.˝ She said.
˝So many men feel they have to talk even though most of them don't say anything worth listening to. I mean you can only listen to so much bitching about the job, or sports scores before you want to throw up. Do you see where I'm coming from? At least with women it's about real feelings. I think one must be courageous to remain silent unless there is something real to say. Idle chatter is the easy way out. Most people have nothing meaningful to say but they talk your ear off any way.˝
˝Chit chat.˝ I said.
˝It's boring.˝ She replied.
˝I don't talk when there isn't any point to it.˝ I said. ˝ I'm not good at talking about nothing. Anything worth talking about makes most people uncomfortable. I used to have something to say about just about anything but not any more.”
˝What changed?˝ She asked.
˝I suppose I got tired of making people uncomfortable unnecessarily. I discovered that it was safer to keep my opinions to myself. I didn't feel I needed to prove anything to anyone. It eliminated all the difficulty of trying to be understood and inevitably being misunderstood more often than not. It just wasn't worth it. People only hear what they wantto hear. Often it has little to do with what is actual.˝
˝Hmmmm.˝ She replied.
˝Besides,˝ I added, ˝what's the point of inflicting my point of view on other people. It's not going to make any real difference, and if it does it doesn't have anything to do with me, or with what I said. It has more to do with them. If I say things they agree with then I'm brilliant. If not I'm a jerk. I'd rather not be bothered.˝
She laughed. ˝Humble, aren't you.˝
˝It doesn't have anything to do with humility. Let's just say I'm not ego obsessed.
˝Well, that's one way of looking at it,˝ she replied ˝My grandma used to tell me that people are Christian because they can't admit to their own selves that who they are, no matter how rotten, is who they are so they take on these disguises to make them who they want to be.˝
˝She was into Christ. Now she's into bowel movements and what kind of casket she wants when she dies. Can you believe it, She's got the funeral planned out on paper and she had all of us sign it in her lawyers office just to make it official.˝
˝All of us?˝
˝I have a brother and a sister. I never see them though. They're into being normal and pension plans. I can barely pay my bills each month,˝ she said with a giggle, as if she was being truthful but was slightly embarrassed by it.
There was a long, silent pause when the only sound was the engine, and the wipers incessant squeal. As I watched the lumpy snowflakes swirl in the air ahead of us I imagined them pounding against the car, and the sound of booming metal, as if they were hailstones, and we were being beaten to death.
She broke into my revere.
˝What about you?˝ She asked.
˝What about me?˝
˝Don't play dumb.˝
˝Is that what I'm doing?˝
˝We have to be honest with each other. That's all that's left.˝
˝Left of what?˝
˝Left of the truth. Everything else is a lie. It always has been. No matter how artfully we put on the makeup, underneath it's just skin, growing older until
finally there's nothing left but what's under the skin.˝
˝And what's that?˝
˝With a lot of people it's nothing. Beneath the skin there's only emptiness. Sad isn't it? All that effort and it might as well have been avoided for all it matters. But I suppose that's a woman thing. Women know a lot about artifice. Most men don't want to know what's behind the make up but a woman deals with truth, and artifice, every day of her life. Some woman forget who they really are. They're more concerned with what other people, especially men, think they are.˝
˝Me? I haven't cared what anybody thinks or is in a long time.˝
"Maybe I'm just like you. It just got to be too much of a burden. I've always been self involved. Even during those times I was with somebody. It was always me who left.Either physically or spiritually. Someone else always paid the higher price, even if I did cry when they left me. I knew in my heart that I couldn't expect anything else. I left them long before.˝
She tapped on the steering wheel with the palm of her hand for a long moment. The tapping and the windshield wipers played an out of sync rhythm that seemed, like the snowflakes, to be telling me something in a language that I recognized but didn't understand, like a memory from out of my past that I had long since forgotten, or never really wanted to know.
˝So,” She finally picked up where she had stopped, “Here we are, two wounded birds, going down the road.˝
I laughed.Going down the road.
I must have fallen asleep. When I was awakened by her hand on my shoulder, shaking me. The sky was pink, and violet, and black. The clouds on the horizon were orange with dawn. The snow had stopped, and the fields, and ditches on either side of the road were full. A crisp white blanket of snow stretched interminably out to a nearly level horizon against which the rounded towers of silos rose like the turrets of agricultural castles next to the huge barns. Black, and white cattle plodded in the field beyond the ditch, or stood staring at us as they chewed, pensive seeming in their bovine stolidity.
˝Where are we?”˝I asked as I yawned and opened the car door. The air seemed to crackle it was so cold.
˝We're close.˝ She said cryptically. She reached behind the seat and rummaged in a canvas bag on the floor. She pulled out a stainless steel thermos with a dented lid, unscrewed it, and poured steaming coffee into the lid.
˝Here, drink this.˝
She got out of the car, and stretched. She reached down, scooped up a handful of snow and rubbed her face with it. She turned to me.
˝Let's go for a walk.˝
I got out of the car. We crossed the snow filled ditch to the outskirts of a grove. As I looked into it's depths I was aware of a sudden silence. It was as if we had paused on the brink of an awe inspiring step into the unknown, and then, just as suddenly, that was replaced by bird calls, and the growl of traffic as it passed behind us on the road. We walked into the woods, silent except for the sharp snap of sticks under foot, and the crunch of snow which dwindled as we went farther under the trees until all that was left was a carpet of brown. Beneath the canopy of branches light patterned the duff, and debris that had sifted down to litter the ground. There were only patches and clumps of snow in places where the cover of limbs was thinner. It contrasted the muted browns of the bark, and the lighter gray brown of the dead weed stalks, and leaves that remained.
I didn't know anything more about her than she did about me, and I didn't care. The thought surprised me and also made me feel slightly depressed, and even a little guilty for being so self involved, but that only lasted a moment, and I might have gotten by unscathed except that she had to chose that moment to speak. It was as if she had read my mind.
"Do you realize that you haven't asked me one thing about myself since I met you? Don't you think that's strange or are you always so self absorbed? I feel like a non person- like the only reason I exist at all for you is to fit into your plans- that I could be anyone as long as I fit into your plans. I don't even know what they are."
"Aren't you being a little paranoid?" I asked, as I stalled for time.
"Am I?" She replied. "I mean I'm glad you're so discreet; a man of mystery and all that. I'm glad you don't talk about yourself like so many guys do; like them, and what they do, and what they think are so important that they can just bore a girl to death without even realizing, or caring that they're doing it. It takes two to dance. I feel like I've been asked to follow without knowing anything about my partner. Don't you think it's time you give me a little background?"
When I turned around I couldn't see the road behind her, and because of the lack of snow, not even a path. Just barren, lonely looking, crowded trees huddled together there in memory of that sudden abundance of summer sun that drove them voraciously toward the light. Abstractly I thought about killing her, and leaving her body to freeze, and eventually rot in the spring thaw. I imagined getting back in the car, and driving until I got to an airport, in a spin of the fortune's wheel buying a ticket, taking the first plane out, and just disappearing. But it seemed too complicated. The next best thing would be to lie. To tell her I loved her, and that I was only being so reticent because I wanted to protect her from being hurt. Then I could do the sociopath thing I did so well, and make the reason for the hurt mysterious, and somewhat dangerous. Maybe I would shed a few tears, and hint at some terrible secret that was more than I could bear, that I managed to contain out of love for her. I didn't like that scenario either because telling a woman that you love her was fraught with danger any way you looked at it. Making it mysterious made it even worse. Plus, I hardly knew her.
The thought pressed at me that I should just tell her the truth. that she was right and I couldn't care less about her as a unique, individual person. That all she was was a convenience meant to people the drama I was constructing .
Why couldn't I just tell her the truth? That I didn't know. Should I tell her that? She already thought I was nuts.
Fortunately, at that moment, I became aware of snow flakes falling.
We sat down on a fallen log. I felt uncomfortable so I stood up again and began to pace.
˝OK,˝ I said. ˝This so called life I've been living was purposely designed so that I would be left alone, left out of everybody's plans. Well, that's what happened. I became the nothing man. Now I don't know how to undo what I've done"
"Sounds grim." She said quietly as she sat, bent headed, and stared at the
She stood up, walked to the closest tree and ran her fingers lightly over the bark, feeling it blindly as if to read it's opinion of the entire situation before making her decision. Finally, seemingly satisfied with what she had discovered, she nodded her head again and turned to me.
"That's what I've always been, invisible. I've never done anything worth remembering.” She replied, and walked over to a large hollowed out tree. It reminded me of one of those fairy tale games that I used to play where an elf lived in a house made out of a hollowed out tree. I got up and walked over to it, sat down, and squeezed into the hole. It seemed big enough for both of us so I gestured for her to join me. We snuggled together, the tight walls cupping us. The dry rot smell of the wood mixed with the odor of the leaf mould and moss beneath us reminded me of Autumn when I was a kid. Reminded me that I raked leaves into piles, and burrowed beneath them as I imagined that I was an animal in its den. I noticed a snail sliding on a slick track along the edge of the opening, and remembered digging beneath the rotting stumps in the woods to find them. I was filled with bittersweet childhood memories. For a moment I lost the demarcation between past and present. It all seemed wound together so efficiently, one state very like another, that one could slip between, seemingly without effort, through the catalyst of a moment, unimportant in itself, which opened the door on vistas quite unimaginable only a moment before.
Her hair smelled faintly of perfume. I buried my nose in it and breathed in her scent. Through her coat I felt the heat of her body and I felt comforted by it. I didn't want to say, or do, anything because I didn't want to spoil the mood of nostalgia, and expectation that had come over me. Fortunately she sensed my mood and was silent. We must have sat there like that for 15 minutes or more. Snow began to fall. First in small gusting flakes and then harder. As it sifted down the ground began to turn white. I closed my eyes and imagined us, snug in our den. The world outside filling with snow until we were entirely cut off from confusion, and longing. I wanted to let it all go; to live in the moment as if the moment was all there was- to only see that moment and then the next without connection to anything that came before or after. But then, I queried, what benefit would there be in that? Except, perhaps, the luxury of no longer having the means to encounter the myriad orphaned moments that overwhelm the now, when one is focused on the past, or the future- the sublime encounter I felt in that moment when nothing was more important than the falling snow, and her beside me, was exactly what I longed for.
“Look at it poetically.” I said.
“Poetically? Is that what this is? A poem?”
"Yes, it's just meant to live, not to think about or analyze; not to make part of a context. That's what I want life to be like."
"What about real life?"
“Real? Don't you want to do things for the first time. Think of it as you would if you walked out onto an enormous field of pristine snow and, for a moment, forgot everything else. That's real."
"That's a nice image but it doesn't last."
"Yes it does. That's my point. It lasts for the moment and then another moment takes its place."
"And that's all there is, disconnected moments? That seems like a strange, irresponsible way to live."
"If you want responsible you're with the wrong person."
She was silent for a long pause and then she said, in a pensive voice, "I've never been adventurous. There's always been something to be afraid of. When I was a child I was afraid of my father, and then I was afraid to leave home. When I did I was afraid I would always be alone. When I got married I was afraid he would stop loving me. When he started hitting me I was afraid of him. Now I'm just afraid."
"Yes, it is terrible to be afraid. Aren't you ever afraid?˝
"No, not really. I''m careful. I would be stupid not to be. But most things aren't that complicated. If you take the time to look at them closely you'll see there's no reason to fear, because you understand them. It's always been pretty easy to see through problems. With me, mostly it's boredom that's the problem. Everything else is too easy"
"What do you mean?"
I tried to clarify it in my mind enough to explain it to her but when I did it seemed as if the entire subject was much too complicated. All I wanted was to enjoy the moment with her .
"Never mind. Let's just be together. There's nothing to worry about. We'll watch out for each other. The first thing to do is to let go. The rest will take care of itself."
"It's hard for me to trust men."
"It's hard to trust anyone.” I replied.
By then the snow was really coming down. It began to drift around the tree so we squeezed out and stood up. We began to walk back to the car. We held hands as we passed under the branches hung heavy with snow, and laughed when we brushed against them and snow fell on us. Back at the car we hugged each other, and kissed. Her nose was cold, but her lips were warm, and tasted of peppermint. As we stood there looking back at the trees, in a moment of clarity I saw each tree, outlined by the space between it and the tree on either side, and as I watched I saw a connection form between each tree until I saw the entire grove as one unified whole, and our tracks returning from it and through the ditch to end at our feet. In that moment I felt happy and at peace with myself.