A cell phone rings.
After staring at the glowing name, the familiar icon, the face of someone who meant something, after sitting up with a sheet draped over his naked lap, after hearing the ring start and stop twice, after hearing it ring again, a man picks up the phone and answers.
The woman in the bed next to him moves but doesn’t wake.
He stands and walks toward the bathroom, trimmed with small, open bottles of lotion, shampoo, and mouthwash, cleaned with bleach, covered with walls and a door that could hide no sound, too thin to give him the privacy he needed.
He tells his wife that he will be heading home, leaving San Diego, or San Francisco, today, and, yes, driving the car since Mr. Thomas doesn’t trust that people should or can fly. No. No stopping in hotels on the way back. Just want to get home. Yes, I know it’s a long drive. Will sleep in the car. Save money. Time to think.
He hangs up the phone after the usual goodbyes, etc., looks at the woman in his bed, feels guilt, dark, heavy, cringing. It seemed like a good idea. His wife refused to, or wouldn’t be, or hadn’t been intimate with him for…weeks? The new baby. A three-year-old. One in school in a couple of weeks. It seemed like years. 5 or 6 maybe since his wife, since they had talked. Did she care? Would she notice if he were there?
He felt empty.
The long route.
He needed to think: What would he tell his wife? Would he? She needed to know. Didn’t she? He could pretend like it never happened. Couldn’t he? She wouldn’t know. Would she?
Maybe they should d—, no! They promised. They would always try to work things out. Of course, they said that seven, no, eight years ago, when they were first dating, when they were married, in the beginning. Everything seemed so much easier then. Friends. They were friends in the beginning. They could talk about everything and anything. Talk all of the time. Miss appointments to talk and to, yes, and to make love to, no, with each other. Promise. They promised they would make it because friends know how to make it.
But people change. Promises evolve. Don’t they? Maybe even disintegrate. That was the word, or, maybe, something like dissolve. Sort of like throwing bread into water.
He drove into the desert.
“Just wanted you to know that Baby has allergies. No more penicillin. K?”
They give up conversing after that. He says he needs gas. He pulls over into the next gas station just to prove his point to himself, even though he still has 10 gallons. He goes into the station store and buys a magazine—the kind with bodies, photo-shopped for his pleasure, not his wife, healthy, younger, leaner, pure-looking, clean. No messy relationship.
Is that all? the clerk asks, annoyed.
I need some gas, too.
The man looks at the pictures before he gets into the car and continues his long journey home. Wow, she’s hot!
A woman on the other side of the island looks at him with concern.
He throws the magazine in the back of his car and drives away.
When dark, the man decides to sleep in his car. Only part of the night. He sees the glow of the sun before it finds its way to his side of the earth, the sky becoming pink sherbet with dashes of orange. As the sun pulls farther up, he sees the shadows it creates from the mountains, the desert plants, the rocks and cactus formations. A cross, left by a friar some five hundred years ago, in the middle of his view, casting a shadow on the snake holes and scorpions.
He feels accused. He couldn’t wait to start driving, to head back home where it was green.
He sings a song with the person on the radio, who can’t judge whether or not he sings well, so he sings even louder, pounds on the steering wheel harder, feeling somewhat free.
He listens to the news for a while and looks at passing cars, feeling like he should try to remain unseen.
He eats some jerky, some coffee with a little cream, and some protein bars.
The dirt on his skin, from not having a shower, starts to feel gritty and greasy. He rubs his eyes, and they sting. He squints and begins to sniffle, finding another gas station just as he was about to lose hope that he would be able to drive any further.
He buys some baby wipes, thinks about the new baby, Carmel, and wonders where she got her allergy. Is it genetic? Did they do something wrong? He pulls out a wipe and cleans his face, tossing out the thoughts on baby with the used wipe.
God! This drive was starting to feel lonely. He should try to talk to somebody at the next station, just so he could get some feedback…about anything. How many more miles did he have to travel? 20? 30? 100?
His wife calls again.
This time, Baby’s okay, getting better. She tells him that she really misses him. He thinks it’s because she wants a break. She just wants him to babysit, he knows. But, he tells her that he misses her, too. Guilty again. He lies because he feels like he can never tell her what he really thinks and feels. She tells him to call her if he gets bored. Like he hadn’t already reached that state. But he can’t think of anything to say to her, so he never calls.
He passes the town where he and his dad went one time for Boy Scout camp. His dad could be such a jerk. He got yelled at for not… well, he couldn’t remember now, but he was sure that his dad was not being very dad-like. Although, he could remember what his dad said later…son, remember to be a man who keeps his promises.
But, I can’t dad! the man yells to the stale air in the car. Dad, it’s not possible.
A tear started to form, and possibly decided to start a stream down his face, but he wiped it away before it could go too far, but another just fell down the same way. His dad died fourteen, no, fifteen months ago…today. You see.
Cancer. At least that’s what they called it. Not quick like heart disease. Not enough to numb a person, like stroke. Not in his sleep. Slow, painful, eating away. He hated seeing such a great man wither, fade away, anguish. Pain.
His wife calls.
He wished he would have called first. He wished he would have picked up the phone and told her how much it hurts him to think about his dad. Women get those things. Don’t they? But he couldn’t. He can’t. He’s afraid that she won’t listen, that she won’t understand, that she can’t be there in his heart to take away his pain. She won’t get it.
“Lori said that she will watch the kids, so we can go out when you get back.”
“Out?” Sure. Right. Something would come up. It always comes up.
“Yah. I don’t think we’ve gone out, just the two of us, for, well, I don’t know how long.”
Try five or six years.
“Maybe we could spend the night in a hotel, just like we talked.”
“At Christmas, Silly. We got that gift certificate for that really nice hotel, with breakfast in bed. Remember?”
“Oh yah. Right.”
She pauses. “You know, I really miss you.”
Why does she keep saying that? She makes him feel more like a creep with each passing word. Is she trying to trick him into telling her? God! She’s so innocent. Oblivious. She doesn’t even know.
He stops at the next rest station, pulls out the flattened girl magazine, and throws it in the trash. It started to feel like a hive of wasps, waiting to attack, buzzing back there in the back seat. He couldn’t handle it anymore. He hated seeing women treated that way. What made him think to buy something so cheap and cheapening.
This time, when he stopped at the next gas station multiplex, he bought a landscaping and garden magazine with a special project, window boxes, inside. His wife always said that she wanted a window box outside the kitchen for her herbs, but he never seemed to get to it. Work. Always working. But, he was going to make it work, dammit! He was going to make her feel better, even though she doesn’t know why she should feel bad.
“Are you doing okay?”
“You just seem so distant.”
“No. You know what I mean. It just doesn’t seem like we can talk about much, lately. I mean…are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yah. I’m fine…How are you?” He felt stupid for saying something so lame.
“Well, I wish we could talk, you know, about stuff.”
Uh-huh. “What kind of stuff?”
“Like how you feel….you think about, oh, I don’t know.”
“I don’t know either.”
“I’ve gotta go pick up M. Can we talk tonight? Before you take a break and sleep on the side of the road? Do you know what time that will be?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’ll try calling you tonight when I stop.”
“Oh, kay. Love you.”
He didn’t call.
He tried to sleep instead.
The car felt even more uncomfortable, unforgiving, and confining than before.
He got out.
Stretched his legs.
He walked around, circling the car.
Why was she being so nice?
And, why am I being such a jerk?
He kicked the back tire.
“What the fuck am I doing?”
He kicked the tire again and again and again.
He began to cry, but hated it, so he picked up some pebbles and dirt and threw them in the field…because it felt good to throw dirt and rocks.
He sighed, slumped, and sat by the back wheel of the car.
“What the hell am I doing?” he crackled as he wiped the tears from his face.
He heard the phone ring.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered.
“I’m so sorry, honey,” he said louder.
“I don’t get it. Why?”
He said something inaudible and gargled, trying to get it all out before he lost his nerve. All she could hear was the ending, “Will you ever be able to forgive me?”
“Forgive you?” She thought about it. He sounded so distressed; she didn’t want to ask why. “I will always forgive you. That’s what we promised to do.”
He suddenly remembered a field of grass, surrounded by protective trees holding out the prying eyes, a warm day, the smell of fresh flowers and new rain. His wife. Her loving eyes. Her body, alluring after making love twice. Her smile magnetic. Her mind, teasing him that day.
“I…I, uh…I cheated on you. Why did I cheat on you?”
“I understand if you are mad at me. I’m mad at myself. I….” He wanted to make an excuse, but she wasn’t talking, so he stopped.
“I’m so sorry, Beth. Please forgive me.”
“I_ _ _ _I gotta go,” her voice cracked, and she hung up.
He called her the next morning.
She wouldn’t answer the phone.
Now, he wanted to talk to her, tell her everything—his dad, his pain, his missing her, his vulnerable feeling, but she wouldn’t call, and she wouldn’t let him call her in return.
That day, though there were more signs of life and cared for properties, the day went by slow and fast at the same time. He wanted to get home, but he didn’t. He wanted to get there in a time before she knew, before he’d told her, no, before he had done what he had done. If he drove fast enough, would his car become a time machine, time, space, relativity. Take back the time, the awful choice, the really stupid, disheartening, disloyal…stupidity.
He tried to sleep that night—alone. Lonely.
“Please God. Tell me what to do.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt my wife.”
“I wasn’t even thinking about that.”
“I was only thinking of myself.”
He didn’t sleep.
The next day, the road looked tired, or maybe, that was him, tired, drowsy, blurry, lines moving that don’t ever seem to go straight.
He tried calling her again, after he filled the car with gas, after he checked the tires for air, after he washed the windows, after he checked the oil, after he made sure the registration was still good.
She answered softly.
“Are you okay?”
“Yah, no. Not really.”
“You’re my best friend, Sam. How could….Did you tell me….” She sighed. “You’ve been gone for so long, and we, well we haven’t been talking so well, and your dad…is it because of your dad?”
“No. It was just me. It was stupid, Beth. I’ve felt guilty…I mean. I don’t know. I don’t know how to talk to you.”
“I’m right here, Sam, listening.”
“If you hate me for the rest of my life—that’s okay. I understand. I hate myself.”
“Sam. I honestly don’t know how we can get over this one.”
He started crying. “I’m so sorry, Beth. I never meant to hurt you.”
A confusion of storm.
The phone call ended.
Sam journeyed through each state, talking to his wife through each one, asking her to tell him a story to help the journey not feel so long.
She told him the story of two people, who met, a starry night at a high-school bonfire, how they went to college together, married their third year there, moved to a tiny house, and welcomed a third, tiny person, to their family. How the man got a job, got busy. How the wife got overwhelmed, too busy to stay awake when he was home. How his dad died. How his dad died…painfully. How kids were so happy, so innocent, doing good in school, learning ABCs, crawling on the floor. How they felt so far apart even when they were in the same bed. How he’d talk, she’d barely respond. How she’d take step toward him, he’d move the other way.
“Sam, I forgive you. Please forgive me.”
He made it home after days and days on that journey.
They talked, they laughed, they loved as he drove closer and closer to home.
As he pulled into the driveway, he slammed on the brakes, jumped out of the car as his wife opened the front door, and they made love in the shower, renewed promises, talked and loved and talked some more, their friendship endured.
He woke up.
It wouldn’t work out that way.
He didn’t know what to do.
He looked out of the roadside restaurant window, at the intersection of many roads, roads that all led to somewhere. He watched all the peopled cars, choosing their path, pondering what the word “promise” meant.