Ingrid’s head hurt so bad she felt like her brain was breaking out of her skull and trying to leave her, just like her friggin’ husband did.
In this case, though, she deserved it. She’d spent last night cross-legged on her bed blotting Jed’s face out of photos with a black Sharpie while she listened to sad, breakup music. She drank so much wine she fell asleep with her clothes on.
This morning she was hungover and slumped over the break room table at the Department of Motor Vehicles where she worked. Her eyes were slammed shut and her head was only upright because she was holding it there with the palms of her hands.
She heard Belinda huff and stomp down the hall into the break room looking for her. She didn’t respond until Belinda barked, raspy and loud.
“First of all you look like hell. It’s time to get on with your life. The only good thing that’s happened to you in ten years is that you got rid of that bastard. Second, you’ve got to do me a favor.”
“No, not today,” Ingrid said. She kept her eyes squeezed closed and held up one hand, palm toward Belinda, like a shield.
“You’ve got to do my road test,” Belinda said. “You know road tests stress me out. They break my heart. You’ve got no heart anymore. You love to flunk drivers. Plus, if you do my test this morning, I’ll give you this.”
Ingrid heard something crackle in front of her, she opened one bloodshot eye to see Belinda, big as a house, holding an Egg McMuffin. “And this.” Belinda gently swung a diet Coke on ice in a plastic cup in front of her.
It was that easy. Ingrid was feeling a little better now. She was wiping her mouth and throwing away the bright yellow wrapper when the receptionist announced that the first driver’s license applicant of the day was there for her road test.
A few minutes later Ingrid pushed her way out of the building and onto the side parking lot. She was carrying a clipboard in her hand and years of disappointment on her face. Her mouth took a u-turn toward her chin. Her eyes darted from right to left as if keeping them still meant she’d have to concede something.
When she arrived at the spot, she completely ignored Christina Huggins who was standing there clutching a driver’s manual and waiting expectantly for her next to a green Ford Taurus. Christina was slightly smaller and several years younger than Ingrid. She was pale and fragile-looking with a tuft of blonde hair and eager, brown eyes that didn’t seem to blink.
Ingrid passed her without a look and walked toward the car to start the inspection. Suddenly her eyes went sharp. She let out a gasp and jerked her head toward Christina.
“Is this a joke?” Ingrid asked. Her upper lip curled. Her muscles seemed to coil as if she were going to lunge at the woman.
For her part, Christina, who was nervous anyway, shifted the driver’s manual up to her chest. Her eyes flashed white and she stepped back as if she were preparing to flee.
“What do you mean?” She said breathy and panicked.
“This isn’t your car,” Ingrid said. In fact, it wasn’t Christine’s car. It was Ingrid’s husband’s car, or rather the car Jed, her husband, took with him when he left her last year.
“Do I have to own the car I take the test in? Is that a rule? I didn’t know that.” Christina looked confused. She started to fumble with the manual in her hand as if she were going to look it up.
Ingrid stared at the woman hard, her left hand clenched into a fist. She exhaled. It would be typical of Jed to try to get under her skin like this, try to show her he was still in control. If that’s what he was doing, she wasn’t going to let it happen.
She decided to skip the inspection and walked around the car to open the passenger’s side door. “Let’s go,” she said and tapped the roof.
Christina jumped into the driver’s seat as if on command, but fumbled with the keys. She dropped the key chain once, then struggled to get the right key into the ignition.
While she waited, Ingrid, now sitting, swept over the inside of the car with her eyes. She thought back to the last time she was inside this thing. Jed was driving. He slammed the brakes at the intersection of 14th and E and demanded she get out and walk during a fight about something she didn’t even remember anymore.
Eventually Christina found the right key. She started the car, then adjusted the rear and side view mirrors. She sat with her back stick straight looking toward the Hydrangea in front of the car awaiting direction.
Ingrid eyed her suspiciously then punched at the silence: “Do I know you?”
Christina relaxed slightly, turned toward her and wrinkled her brow. “I don’t think so. I’m not from here. I mean I work at Murphy’s over on 3rd. Do you ever go there?”
Ingrid shook her head. “I haven’t been there in years.”
Christina laughed lightly. Her eyes turned bright and the dark circles that had shadowed them seemed to lift. “I wish I could say the same thing,” she said.
Ingrid stayed stoney with her arms crossed over her chest and her clipboard on her lap. It dawned on her that Christina had no idea who she was. Jed liked woman who were soft and tried too hard to please, thought Ingrid, she was just his type. She must be his new girlfriend. He couldn’t be alone—not for five seconds.
Christina looked confused again, she almost stuttered. “Should I drive or something?”
The question caught Ingrid off guard. She looked down at her clipboard quickly and cleared her throat.
“Put the vehicle in reverse, turn right onto Main Street.” Christina set her hands to the 10 and 2 position on the steering wheel, then glanced at Ingrid for approval. Seeing none coming, she jerked the car unsteadily over the pavement toward the street out front.
When she turned the car onto Main Street, Christina accidentally cut off a red sedan. The driver of that car swung around the Taurus, laid on the horn, leaned over and yelled something as he flailed his hands.
Christina noticed him moving his arms out of the corner of her eye and looked at him unsteadily through the driver’s side window. The car swerved slightly and she jerked her head back to the road. “Are you going to mark me down for that?” she asked Ingrid without turning her head again. Ingrid looked down at Christina’s hands shaking on the wheel. She pretended to write something on the clipboard without responding.
“You’ll make a right on Bryson six blocks up,” Ingrid said. The signal at Main and Folsom was red. As they waited at the light, Christina tried to make conversation. “So do you do a lot of these tests?”
Ingrid ignored the personal question and asked one of her own. “Is this Jed’s car?” Christina turned to Ingrid full-faced. She flushed pink. “Do you know Jed?” Her voice was high.
Ingrid looked back at her with hard eyes but didn’t answer. Christina’s own eyes searched hers for a connection.
“You’re not going to tell him I’m driving this car, right?” Her hands loosened and tightened on the steering wheel.
“It’s green,” was all Ingrid said when the car in the next lane moved. Christina turned to the road ahead and lurched the car forward.
“Did you steal this or something?” Ingrid asked more for a reaction than anything else. Christina leaned toward the windshield with her shoulders high. She bit her bottom lip as if the road and the conversation together were taking up too much space in her head. “It’s not like that.”
“Keep going straight for two more blocks. You’re going to need to change lanes.”
“I know I”m not the greatest driver, I need to pass this test.” Christina’s voice squeaked.
“I’m sure you’ll do fine. Get in the right lane please,” Ingrid said.
Christina hit the right turn signal. She made a show of looking in the side view mirror and then glanced over her right shoulder. This caused her to veer into the right lane nearly sideswiping a car that was in the blind spot.
“Oh God,” she said. “I didn’t see that.” She swung the steering wheel to the left to avoid the car, overcorrected and drove into the bike lane.
Ingrid leaned forward and gripped the dashboard with her right hand. “Calm down,” she said although she didn’t sound calm herself. Christina swung the car back to the right again slightly, centering the car on the lane.
Ingrid spoke fast. “Wait for the car to pass you and turn into the right lane,” she was sitting up straight and looking over her right shoulder.
But it was too late. Christina had already hit the gas and was speeding past the car she’d almost hit. Ingrid reached for the grab handle over her head with both hands.
“Slow down,” Ingrid yelped. “You’re going too fast.” In a panic, Christina moved her foot to the brake pedal. She hit the brakes too hard. The car squealed. It hiccuped. It came to a stop. She stuttered it forward again with a jolt.
Ingrid’s head flung forward and back. Last night’s alcohol reared up and she started feeling queasy. Her throat tightened. She felt tingling around her mouth.
“Pull into the mall parking lot now, please. I mean now.”
Christina ripped the car to the left and squealed into the Northside Mall parking lot.
She pulled the car up along a row of parked cars. Ingrid had pushed the door open before the car was even fully stopped. As soon as it paused, she swung around, set her feet on the ground, and her forearms on her knees. She hung her head between her legs.
Christina picked up an unopened bottle of water from the center console. She tore off the lid, got out and jogged to the other side of the car. She stood over Ingrid and put the bottle of water in her hand.
“I am so sorry. I take full responsibility for this.”
Ingrid was still doubled over. “Oh brother,” she said. She took a swig of the water then leaned over again looking at her weathered, bitter face reflected in a small puddle of rainwater in the pavement under her feet.
“Who taught you to drive? What idiot taught you to drive? Have you ever even practiced?” She touched both hands to her temples and swayed.
“YouTube,” said Christina softly like a child. “I learned on YouTube.”
Ingrid looked up at Christina. She opened her mouth and closed it again. She started to laugh hard enough that her eyes teared. “You almost killed us both,” she wiped her eyes with her fingertips. “I mean, you’ve got to be kidding.”
“No, I’m not kidding,” Christina said.
“What about Jed? Hasn’t he helped you?”
“He doesn’t know I’ve been driving,” she said. “He won’t even let me take the car out of the garage. He doesn’t want me to drive. But I’ve got to do this, whether he likes it or not.”
Ingrid looked down at the puddle now reflecting the sky. She spoke softly, almost to herself. “If you don’t, you’ll get stuck.”
She sat up straight, tilted her head up toward Christina and shielded her face from the sun with one hand so they could see each other clearly. “You know he’ll probably leave you unless you do what he says. That’s just how he is.”
Christina fidgeted with the bottle cap. “Belinda told me you were the one I should test with, you would understand,” she said.
“You know, I think she’s right,” said Ingrid.