Last Seen Leaving
It had been a bad night, anyway. He'd had too much to drink, she hadn't had enough, and they'd ended up in the parked car, having sex while fat summer raindrops spattered against the windows. He was fast and grunting and she felt like she may as well have been alone in the car, in the parking lot, in the state; impatience had welled up inside her like bad food, the same feeling she had in tight spaces. She'd wondered how he didn't notice.
Then they'd argued, and now she was on the highway, driving the twenty miles it would take her to be home. And the car was hers, the music coming through the speakers was hers, loud and aggressive, and the highway felt wonderful under her tires. She was on the new bypass, which cost a dollar that was worth it to her because it meant the road was empty. The cops stuck to roads with more traffic, where they'd be more likely to fill their ticket quotas, and so she gunned it, cutting through the empty darkness and pressing the accelerator closer and closer to the Nova's dirty floor mats. Singing along with the music and pounding the steering wheel in time to the beat, with all of that frustrated energy to burn.
Raindrops smacked hard off the asphalt, back up into the air, and that suited her, too. When she drove, she liked to think she was jacked into a huge, powerful machine. Like science fiction, the car's nervous system joined with her own through the sole of her right foot. That was where the car told her to add more gas or take it away, when she had a low tire and was driving soft, when she was on ice and when she was on dry pavement. That was where she felt it when the car hydroplaned.
She just had time to think oh shit before time unlocked and she saw the guardrail racing toward her.
Her headlights lit the grass with surreal stripes of daylight as the car hurtled down the high, artificial embankment and then the grass was in the sky and the sky was in the grass, and inside her head there was only a high-pitched wail of impossibility. She was rolling her car. People died when they rolled their cars. She could die.
The wail intensified. She knew nothing else until it was over. A man crouched next to her on the grass, rain spotting his glasses. “Are you all right?” he said. “Are you hurt?”
She was sitting halfway up the steep slope. The crumpled Nova lay at the base of the embankment, twisted into sculpture. She had no memory of unbuckling her seat belt and pulling herself from the wreckage, of climbing this hill, of sitting down on the wet earth.
The man said, “You don't look hurt. You're not bleeding.”
She was too busy taking stock of herself to answer. Her shoulder hurt where the seat belt had dug into it, and her knees ached from bracing herself against the floor mats. Her jaw felt stiff and sore. But the man was right. None of her hurts seemed vital.
“Did you see me go over?” she asked. Her voice cracked.
He nodded. “I was behind you. We should get out of the rain,” he added, pushing his dripping hair back from his forehead. “Do you have a mobile phone?”
She shook her head mutely.
“Neither do I. But I can give you a ride to the nearest pay phone.” He helped her to her feet. The world was finding its place around her, but her legs still felt weak and disconnected from the rest of her body. She stumbled, almost fell, and he caught her without hesitation.
“I'm not drunk,” she said.“
I know you're not,” he said, his hand cool on her bare elbow. Together they made their way up the rain-slick hill to his car, a sleek silver Mercedes. He helped her into the passenger's seat, making sure her seat belt was buckled before carefully checking both directions' worth of empty blacktop and pulling onto the highway. Only then did all of the advice she'd been given about how to behave when you were a stranded female motorist come back to her. She realized that she had done everything wrong. She had not stayed in her car with the doors locked. She had not asked a passing motorist to send help. A stranger had offered her a ride and she had taken it. Then she thought, fuck that, I'm alive. And her rescuer didn't seem interesting enough to be dangerous. He wore a button-down shirt, khakis, and loafers, all slightly soggy from the rain, and wire-rimmed glasses that he'd wiped carefully dry with a handkerchief before starting the engine. He was about ten years older than she was, and he needed a haircut.
Her hands still shook with the aftereffects of the crash and her heart was loud and dire inside her chest, like the backbeat from music playing too loudly in another apartment. The world felt foggy and surreal, and she decided that she couldn't be paranoid, not now. It was too hard.
For a time they drove without speaking, watching the flat gray ribbon of road unfurling in front of the headlights. The Mercedes seemed to glide above it without touching the asphalt. Even the rain was hushed. She leaned back and rested her head against the soft leather seat. Gradually, she relaxed. Her hands stopped trembling, and her heart quieted. She felt like she'd been crying, fiercely and for a long time.
A slow scowl spread across her face. Finally she said, “I can't believe I wrecked my goddamned car. What the fuck am I going to do? How am I supposed to get to work tomorrow?” She lifted her hands and dropped them hopelessly. “They'll fire me. They'll completely fucking fire me.”
He said nothing, and she saw that he was smiling. It was a simple smile, as if he'd just seen something small and pleasant, like a butterfly. Suddenly she was angry. “Yeah, funny, isn't it?” she said. “My car's a piece of modern art next to the bypass, by this time tomorrow I'll be unemployed, and by this time next month I'll probably be living in my boyfriend's mother's basement. I could die laughing.”
The smile vanished. “I'm sorry,” he said, quickly. “It's the way you said it. Die laughing - you sound like someone in a crime novel.”
“Oh.” Her anger vanished as quickly as it had come, but it left a strange taste in her mouth. Was that a compliment? she wondered. She watched him carefully now, looking for—she didn't know quite what she was looking for. Some sign that would tip things one way or another, into hazardous territory or out of it. “I swear like a goddamned sailor, is what you mean.”
“I think it's quite wonderful,” he said, and that was strange, but was it dangerous? It sounded like the kind of thing some flake New Age friend of her mother's would say, didn't it? Affirmation for affirmation's sake. You hated your job so you quit, and now you live in your car? How wonderful for you.“
Wonderful. Right,” she said, and then, deliberately changing the subject, “This is a nice car.” She meant it; the seats felt like real leather, and the soft glow from the dashboard was all-digital. She'd never been in a Mercedes before.He shrugged. “I travel a lot for work. I used to fly; now I drive. The economy,” he said, as if he expected her to commiserate.
“My economy always sucks,” she said. “What do you do?”
“I work for the government. It's not that interesting.”
She tried to smile. “You want to hear not interesting, I'll tell you about my job.”
The smile vanished. “Although I guess it won't be a problem after I get fired.”
He nodded, not unsympathetically. “You're lucky I came along, you know. There's not a lot of traffic on this road.”
“I can take care of myself. A few months ago I had a fan belt break not far from here. No big deal. I just fixed it with my bra.”
“That's very resourceful,” he said, with enough sudden interest to make her regret mentioning her underwear. “I always thought that was an urban legend. Like giving somebody a tracheotomy with a ballpoint pen if they're choking. How are you supposed to keep the person from bleeding to death while they're breathing through your pen?”
It was hard to tell if he expected an answer. “Duct tape,” she said.He took her seriously. “If you have some. I guess it's the sort of thing that you never think you can do until you actually do it. It's a common phenomenon. Where do you live?”
“What?” she said, instantly tense.
“Where do you live? Where am I taking you?”
She moved uneasily in the seat. “There's a truck stop off the next exit. You can drop me there.”
“I can take you all the way home if you'd like. The company is nice. I spend a lot of time alone.”
“The truck stop is fine.”
“I actually enjoy driving,” he said. “I find it meditative. I think about things I've done, things I'd like to do.”
“Like what?” she said, thinking that if he said anything else about tracheotomies she would jump out of the moving car, which was something that she had never done.
But instead he said, “I don't know. The standard things, I guess. Haven't you ever failed yourself?”
“You know, for a guy who spends all of his time alone, you talk a lot,” she said.
“I'm surprising myself. I don't really like people, as a rule.”
Because I'm locked in a car with a strange man who doesn't like people,” she said.
“Oh,” he said, and then, for the first time, he laughed. His laugh was all in his throat. “You're funny.”
She turned and looked out the window just in time to see the truck stop fly past in a blur of yellow lights. “Hey,” she said. “That was the exit. You just passed it.”
“Did I?” he said.
Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin.***