“Come on, come on, come on,” Angie muttered as her fingers drummed the steering wheel. Leaning as far as she could within the confines of the driver’s seat, she craned her head, trying once again to catch a glimpse of whatever was causing this nightmare of a traffic jam.
Thirty-four minutes, she’d been stuck in this exact spot. Thirty-five now, and the cars around her had barely moved an inch. She’d put her Volvo in park twenty minutes ago and might have turned off the engine as well, if it weren’t just on the wrong side of freezing outside. Or if she’d thought to bring her coat.
The text had come nearly two hours ago while Angie’s phone was on silent, just as she was hitting her stride in a presentation to the senior partners at her firm. She hadn’t seen it until the meeting was ending. “Water broke - omw to hospital. Pls come.” No. It’s too soon. She’s not due for another six weeks! Frantic, Angie had dropped her notes on the conference room table and charged out of the building to her car. At any other time she might have chastised herself for not grabbing her parka before heading out into the winter gloom, but right now she didn’t care. She’d gladly freeze a thousand times over if it meant getting to the hospital in time. If it meant that Max wanted her there, by her side, as their daughter entered the world.
Taillights, as far as the eye could see, formed a ribbon of red cutting through the otherwise colorless landscape. Their light reflected off the wet asphalt and dirty snowdrifts, giving the jam-packed roadway a crimson glow. The complete absence of headlights coming in the other direction for the past half-hour had let Angie know that whatever had happened up ahead was particularly bad. Only a fatal accident could stall traffic in both directions on a four-lane freeway. She shuddered.
Just let me get there in time, she thought, reaching for her phone. She tapped the screen, hoping to see a notification from Max. A text, a missed call, a tweet - something. Anything. How she might have missed the buzz of another incoming message when she’d been checking the phone every minute was beside the point.
The screen came to life, the time, 4:57 pm - Ok, it’s been thirty-six minutes now - superimposed above the picture Angie had snapped of herself and Max atop the Empire State Building on their last trip to New York. Max had hated that picture, said her eye looked wonky and her chin looked fat, but Angie thought she looked beautiful. She kept the image as the lock screen on her phone to remind her of the feeling of being on top of the world with the love of her life.
No notifications. Crap. Angie opened the message app on her phone, just to double check that nothing had slipped through without her notice, but the last text from Max hadn’t changed. “Water broke - omw to hospital. Pls come.”
Ok. She’s probably in the delivery room. She’s not going to be texting you in the middle of actively giving birth. Still, why hadn’t Angie heard anything at all since that text? She’d tried calling Max’s mother, knowing they’d have driven to the hospital together, but the calls had gone to voicemail.
Please come. It was the first time Max had reached out to Angie since she left. She’d gone to stay with her mother after the second meltdown. Angie had helped her pack, had somehow kept a straight face as she loaded her wife’s belongings into the car and said goodbye to half of her heart. She needed to be the strong one, even if Max couldn’t appreciate it just then. She’d forced herself to stand at the end of the driveway, hands clasped, as Max’s ridiculous lime green car drove away. Sunlight had caught in the blue crystal beads of the dreamcatcher hanging from Max’s rearview mirror - “Why do you need a dreamcatcher in the car? Shouldn’t the goal be not to fall asleep behind the wheel?” - blinding Angie with sparks of cobalt light. But she hadn’t cried. It wasn’t until she went back inside and saw the empty space next to the couch, where Max’s knitting basket used to sit, that she lost it. Tears had streamed down her face, soaking into the collar of her t-shirt, turning her eyes red and puffy. It was Max’s voice inside her head that pulled her together, got her moving again. Buck up, buttercup. Never let ‘em see you ugly cry.
Approaching headlights snapped Angie’s attention back to the roadway. Finally, oncoming traffic. The mess up ahead must be clearing. She sat up straighter behind the wheel, alert for any sign of movement in the frozen sea of cars ahead of her. The red halo of the roadway brightened as the other drivers, just as eager to get moving again, pressed their feet to the brakes and put their cars back in gear.
“Oh, thank god. Here we go. Thank you, thank you, let’s go,” Angie bounced in her seat as she shifted her car into drive. I’m going to get there. I’m going to see my baby being born. And then Max can go back on her meds and we’ll be ok and they can come home. Oh, please. Please.
Angie came from a surprisingly stable family, all things considered. Mental health had been an abstract concept to her; words like bipolar, hypomania, and lithium had rarely entered her consciousness before she met Max. And Max had been taking lithium for years before they met. Angie knew her wife had suffered from a mood disorder when she was younger, but she only knew the medicated Max - calm, confident, warm, with a wicked sense of humor. When they’d decided to have a baby, Max had started reading about birth defects and the possible side effects of mood stabilizers during pregnancy.
“It’s just not worth the risk, Ange,” Max had said. “I’ve been on these meds for so long, I probably don’t even really need them anymore. I’m fine; I’m better than fine, and I know how to recognize if I start to become not-fine.” Angie, infertile thanks to her polycystic ovaries, had accepted that her wife knew her body better than anyone else would.
The changes had happened so gradually, though, that they didn’t notice Max was not fine until she was extremely not-fine. And the changes they did notice - the irritability, the weepiness, the hyperactivity - were easily confused with the hormonal effects of early pregnancy. “I’m fine, it’s just my mommy brain overreacting. Pregnant Max is so extra,” Max would assure Angie after she’d broken down sobbing over a Lysol commercial. “I’m sorry, it’s just the hormones. Pregnant Max is such a bitch,” she’d say after throwing a glass of orange juice across the kitchen. The juice had offended her because it was smooth; Angie had forgotten that Pregnant Max liked pulp.
The first meltdown had been terrifying, heartbreaking. Max had told Angie she didn’t love her, had never loved her, did not want to have this baby with her. She told Angie to get out of the house, to be gone before sundown. They’d argued for hours before Max collapsed on the bedroom floor, weeping, telling Angie she was just so tired. Angie had held her wife while she cried, wondering how they would get through six more months of this, vowing to do whatever it took to keep Max on an even keel going forward. This is what it looks like, living with mental illness, Max’s mother had told Angie on the phone that night. Not everyone can handle it.
Angie had tried, but Max hadn’t forgiven her for whatever perceived slight had triggered the meltdown. After several weeks of tension, silent treatment, sleeping in separate rooms, Max exploded again. “I just can’t do this anymore! I can’t be with you! I’m going to stay with my mom,” she’d cried as Angie swept up shards of broken glass and splintered wood, the remnants of picture frames Max had pulled off the wall and smashed on the floor as she raged. This can’t be healthy for the baby, Angie had thought. If staying with her mother would help Max regain her equilibrium, would help her get herself and the baby through this pregnancy safely, Angie told herself she could cope with the pain for as long as it would take. Anything would be better than watching the love of her life tear herself apart. And so Angie had helped her pack, helped her load the car, and held back her tears until Max’s ugly green car with its silly blue dreamcatcher was out of sight.
Angie had called Max’s cell phone every day when she woke up. “Good morning. I love you,” she told the voicemail recording. She texted Max every evening when she went to bed. “Good night. I love you.” Max never responded. Her mother called once a week to let Angie know how Max was doing, that she was hanging in there, was precariously ok. “It’s the lithium. Once the pregnancy is over and she can go back on it, she’ll be fine. Things will go back to normal and she’ll come home. She doesn’t mean to hurt you. She needs you. She loves you.”
And now, this text. “Water broke - omw to hospital. Pls come.” And this infernal traffic jam. Which, mercifully - Thank you, god - appeared to finally be letting up.
Angie inched forward, the cars in front of her hesitantly beginning to roll, eager to gain speed but reluctant to trust the sudden change of inertia. The needle on her speedometer hovered just above the resting pin. Five miles an hour. Ok. Ok. Even at this rate, I’ll get there before tomorrow. A few minutes later, the flashing lights of the firetrucks and police cars at the accident site came into view. Wow, that looks bad. But she couldn’t make out any ambulances. Which meant they’d either taken the survivors to the hospital already, or… Or.
She was on her way to witness the birth of her child, and someone had most likely died. Angie felt a brief stab of guilt, that she should be so happy while another family was experiencing tragedy. A more academic person might have quoted something poetic about the circle of life and death, but Angie didn’t care much for poetry. All she cared about was seeing Max’s face, kissing Max’s forehead, holding Max’s hand as their baby entered the world. Max was coming home. They would be a family again.
Slowly, painstakingly, she threaded her way through the cars to her right, switching lanes so she could get off at the next exit. The city streets would be faster than sitting on this highway any longer, even if the traffic was just barely starting to move again. And, selfishly, she didn't want to see the wreckage up ahead. It would be gruesome, tragic, and she was on her way to beauty and joy. As Angie maneuvered her car into the exit lane, she picked up her phone to try Max’s mother again. Voicemail.
“Ugh, fine. I’ll be there soon enough,” she told herself as she dropped the phone back into the console.
Up ahead, the lights were still flashing, red and blue reflecting off the windshields of the cars nosing past. The drivers turned their heads to stare, unabashed, already imagining how they’d describe the scene to their friends and families later. How the semi-truck had flattened that little green car, how whoever was inside of it didn’t stand a chance. The aesthetically-minded among them might have noted the way the police lights reflecting off the shattered windshield made the glass fragments coating the roadway look blue, as though there were colored crystals among the shards. The eagle-eyed observer might even have spotted the cell phone abandoned next to the remains of the wreckage, cracked but somehow still functional, its illuminated face fading to black as Angie’s call went to voicemail.