The world is burning, and of course it’s only my ex-fiance that can save me. His knuckles grip white around the steering wheel. His eyes are a snake’s, focused and unblinking on the road ahead. It’s the first unclogged stretch of highway we’ve encountered, and he’s flying through. It’s bound to get worse the closer we get to Boston.
“Can I put some music on?” I ask.
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t.” He still hasn’t looked at me.
I turn around to grin at his son, a cherub strapped into a car seat too small for his pudgy body. The boy has inherited his father’s massive sad-cow eyes, and Melissa’s brown curls.
“Hi, Tad.” I wave to him. He stares back, his lips leaking a string of saliva.
I turn back around and ask, “Is ‘Tad’ short for ‘Tadpole?’”
“No,” His father answers.
“What is it short for, then?”
“Did you come up with that? You didn’t name him after Theodore Roosevelt, did you? I remember how fucking obsessed you were with U.S. history.”
“Melissa chose the name. And please don’t swear around my son.”
“Oh yeah, my bad.”
I stare out the window, pick at loose skin around my thumb. I hate silence. He knows I hate silence, yet he insists on it.
It’s a beautiful day. The trees on either side of the highway blur into a swirling, green strip. Some branches hang low, swooping over the road, the way spectators at a race extend their hands for high-fives for the athletes running by. And the sky! A delicious blue plate holding the most delicate and wispy of clouds. I bet the air smells wonderful. I want to ask to roll the window down, but I already know what his answer will be.
Tad is whimpering, soon sobbing. We’ve been on the road for hours, and he needs a potty break. His father wants no breaks -- he wants to quickly get to Boston. But then the car complains too, she’s running low on gas.
We pull into a gas station, and leap from our seats, he to the pump, and I to unstrap Tad. The boy and I run inside the convenience store. He’s still young enough for the ladies’ room. I’m surprised how easy it all comes to me, the tiny maternal touches, coaxing him onto the grown-ups toilet, singing the ABC’s as we wash our hands together. On our way out, his sad gaze fixates on the candy bars piled by the cash register, then turns to me. How can I say no to eyes like that?
I hand the cashier the candy, and say, “I’m surprised you guys are still working, with what’s going on.”
“Yeah, I’m surprised too.” She’s a young girl, a pock-marked teenager, already tired and unhappy.
“That’ll be $2.75.”
“We’re driving up to Boston,” I tell her, taking out my credit card.
“That’s gotta be a long drive.”
“Yup, it’s eighteen hours. That’s why I figured the little one here needs a snack.” I ruffle the boy’s hair demonstratively.
“Okay. Have a nice day.”
Tad looks at me with such gratitude as I hand him the candy, it breaks my heart. I bet Melissa’s a no-sugar, healthy-foods-only mom.
My ex-fiance leans against the car with crossed arms.
“Please be a little faster,” he yells when we come out. I grab Tad’s teeny paw, speed-walk over. The boy hides a guilty face under his sleeves, the candy stashed in his shorts. But his father has already seen it.
“We don’t really let Tad have candy,” he hisses, buckling Tad back into his booster seat.
“My bad,” I reply.
I feel like a chastised child myself. At least Tad and I are now closer, co-conspirators, partners in crime. I turn around to wink at him, but he’s already passed out in the car seat, mouth smeared with chocolate.
We’re on the highway for hours. The sunset paints everything warm and glorious, the light falling in golden rectangles inside the car. The skies explode pink and orange, so beautiful I nearly cry. There’s probably not many sunsets left to look at, and I vow to watch every single one. And then it’s dark, and the moon is following our little car.
“I can drive for a bit,” I offer.
“You’ve been yawning a lot.”
“Is it because I crashed the car that one time in Montauk? I’ve become a much better driver since then, I promise. Remember, that was our second date --”
“Yeah, I remember. And I’ll drive.”
But he keeps yawning, rubbing his eyes, shaking himself awake. I finally convince him to stop at a hotel for at least a few hours -- “It’ll be a waste to have driven this far just to crash because of your sleep deprivation.”
It’s a cheap, tiny roadside motel, a half-dozen delivery trucks crammed in the parking lot, cattle awaiting their shepherds. I can’t believe they’re still delivering Oreos and corn chips at a time like this. Tad is draped over his father’s shoulder, and we walk quickly under flickering yellow lights, avoiding cockroaches and broken glass. The bushes rustle, cicadas and other critters. We walk faster.
He’s stumbling up the steps to our room, shaking and exhausted. It’s a small room, the two beds standing low, the shaggy carpet blooming with stains.
Tad is deposited onto a bed, and starts whining, squirming like a worm dodging a beak. He’s been napping for hours, and now refuses sleep.
“I got it,” I say. “I can put him to sleep.”
“Okay.” The words leaks out of him like air from a deflating tire. “I’m gonna go clear my head.” He heads for the balcony.
Tad babbles, little-kid words indecipherable to those who haven’t spent much time with him. My own hands surprise me with their gentleness. I stroke his soft curls until he’s purring, a kitten in my arms. I wonder what it would be like if he were mine. If it was me, not Melissa, they were trying to reunite with.
After I seal him under blankets and leave a quick peck atop his head, I sneak out to the balcony. It overlooks the highway, which screams with lights and zooming cars, everyone rushing to get one final something in.
His hands grip the balcony, white as they were around the steering wheel. His head is bent down, his eyes are shut.
“You need to go sleep,” I say. “The whole point of us getting a hotel was so you could sleep.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to.”
“That’s weird, you never had trouble sleeping before.”
“Yeah, well, the world wasn’t ending before.”
“At least you got everything done before then, the whole kids-and-a-wife thing. I always knew you liked Melissa, I’m sure she made you really happy while you got to be together.”
He looks. Finally, he’s looking directly at me, snarling, an enraged animal backed against its cage’s corner.
“I don’t understand why you’re doing this, especially now. Yes, I married your best friend. But you were the one who broke off our engagement. What was I supposed to do? Spend the rest of my life grieving you, never looking at another woman again?”
“I broke it off because I knew you liked her more than me anyway. I saw the way you looked at her. No woman wants her future husband to look at her best friend like that.”
His eyes go to the sky, wet, dripping, and tragic, like the eyes of every Jesus in every crucifixion painting.
“I never talked to her until after you left me,” he says, phlegm flooding his throat. “I was in love with you. I wouldn’t have proposed to you if I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with you. I’m sorry if it didn’t seem that way.”
He looks at me, through me, into the very flesh rotting in my ribcage.
“I’m sorry, okay?” he says. “If what I had to give you wasn’t enough. But it’s the end now. There’s no future for anyone, so I hope in at least these last moments, you can forgive me.”
He’s shaking again, wet sobs stifled in his mouth, caught before they escape his lips and swallowed back down. He turns around, he walks inside.
It’s easy for him — he still got everything afterwards. He can beg for forgiveness because it doesn’t mean anything. He still got to have a life. I didn’t. And there was no time to make anything new now.
It’s too much to think about. I should sleep. I leave the balcony, slowly sliding the glass door shut. He’s crawled into bed beside Tad, leaving the second bed empty for me.
There’s no time to get ready in the morning. We fly before dawn, racing down the steps to return our hotel keys — it’s doubtful anyone will need them again, but why spend our last days being uncourteous?
And we’re back in the car, hours stretching slow yet always moving, like taffy pulled together and apart in long syrapy tendrils. The highway signs now read familiar names, landmarks promising proximity to home.
He offers to drop me off at my house. We live close enough though, and I can walk the distance. He’s anxious to be home as soon as he can, and I tell him to drive there, that I’ll find my own way.
I wave hello to Melissa, who’s waiting anxious on the doorstep. I feel I ought to say something as I climb out the car, but her tense smile mirrors mine, so I just raise my eyebrows, crease my eyes. A signal from far away, a hello from a different time. I hardly recognize her, until she sees her son and breaks into that familiar glowing grin. I sneak away while they all embrace and begin my walk home.
It’s another lovely summer day, leaves ripe and royal green, their crowns swishing under a breeze like coy dames’ skirts. The sun feels so good on my skin. I’m glad I decided to walk home.
It really is a beautiful life. Such a shame it’s ending soon.