I like to watch raindrops on the windows of moving cars. I’m always entranced by their wobbling, tentative dance as they search for the path of least resistance. Once they find a path, it’s a sudden race down an established rivulet, rushing across a blurry backdrop of the trees and scenery beyond the glass. The raindrops, of course, aren’t aware of the world beyond the window and for a little while, neither am I. God, I wish it would rain.
Marcus and I have been driving for a while, taking turns at the wheel, the U-Haul trailer behind our SUV packed tightly with all our worldly possessions. We're seven and a half hours into our journey and the cab smells faintly of McDonald’s coffee and spicy beef jerky, his favorite road trip snack. I’m trying to take a nap while he drives, but I can’t seem to keep my eyes closed. There isn’t much to look at outside, just the flat reddish lines of the desert softened by patches of desert sage and the vague suggestion of mountains against the clear sky on the horizon. Bored, I turn on the radio, but we aren’t picking up any stations right now. We’ve already listened to all of our CDs. The sounds of the engine and of tires on asphalt drone on, uninterrupted.
We keep telling each other that this move will be good for us, because saying it might make us believe it. I’m pretty sure we both remain unconvinced. But Marcus was lucky to find this job and I can work from anywhere, so relocating seemed like an okay idea. A fresh start. It sounds so promising. I’m terrified.
“Bathroom break?” he asks as we pass a sign advertising a rest stop up ahead.
“Sure, I need to stretch my legs.”
When we stop, I’m surprised at the heaviness of the air outside of the car. It seems a bit cold for spring in Arizona. I haven’t been here in a long time, though, so I'm not sure. I do some quick stretches while Marcus runs to the bathroom. There are a couple other cars parked in the lot near us. A little family sits at a picnic table, eating sandwiches from a blue cooler. The two kids, neither one of them older than ten, are arguing loudly over who will get to hug their grandma first. I look at the parents, bags under their eyes, just trying to eat in peace, and I wonder if they know how lucky they are.
“Gwen, are you ready?” Marcus calls. He’s standing at the driver’s side with the door open, watching me. I didn’t even notice him come back.
“Yeah,” I say. “Let’s go.”
As I climb back into the car, my eye is drawn to dark clouds beginning to form in the distance. Marcus sees them too, and frowns.
“Looks like rain,” he says, starting the engine. “Hopefully nothing too bad.”
“Hopefully," I agree absentmindedly. "Can we stop for lunch in a bit? I’m starting to get hungry.”
“Sure, I’ll keep an eye out for something. You should get some rest.”
“Okay.” I buckle my seatbelt and lean my head against the window, enjoying its coolness on my forehead. I stare blankly out as we drive off. My breath condenses into little clouds on the glass. I wonder what life would be like now if she had been born breathing. My eyes well with tears and I struggle to blink them away. A fresh start, a fresh start, I repeat to myself. Nothing really feels new anymore, not after we lost her.
Marcus keeps glancing over at me and he thinks I don’t notice. He does that a lot now. I pity him sometimes; he’s really trying, but he doesn’t know how to help. I know he’s hurting, too. I'm starting to think it’s just too heavy for the two of us.
We stop about half an hour later at a Subway. It’s not my favorite, but it’s better than nothing. He orders two meatball subs and we eat them quickly so we can get back on the road. The clouds are closer now, accumulating in the direction we’re heading. I throw away our trash and we clamber back into the car, our stomachs full. My eyelids are finally heavy, and I drift off into a restless sleep.
A crash of thunder wakes me. Glancing at the clock on the dash, I realize I’ve only been asleep for about twenty minutes. The sky is dark, but the storm itself is still ahead of us. Little raindrops fall politely onto our windshield, swept away by the wipers at a leisurely pace. The strong scent of desert sage in the rain fills the car. I’m suddenly lost in a memory.
It was a nice evening late in the fall my sophomore year of college, and I was out on a weekend road trip with a couple friends for my roommate Judy’s birthday. We stopped to get gas at a tiny station in the middle of nowhere and it began to pour. I remember the invigorating smell of rain on the desert sage, the sunset, the joy of laughing and running around in the rain with Judy, our faces upturned like flowers, relishing the sensation of the raindrops on our cheeks. We only made it ten minutes down the road before we realized that the highway was beginning to flood, so we decided to turn around to try to make it back to the gas station.
The rain began to fall in torrents, whipped around by the fierce wind and making it almost impossible to see. We could barely hear each other speak over the sound of the storm on the roof of the car. Moira, who was driving, pulled over to the side of the road, impending panic in her eyes. We sat there for a while with the hazard lights on, hoping that the storm would die down enough for us to see, hoping that the gas station was close and that the flooding was not.
“What do we do?” Moira asked. We looked at each other, unsure. That’s when we saw headlights behind us, coming from out of the storm as if by providence. The truck slowed as it passed us, and the driver flashed his lights at us.
“Should we follow them?” Judy asked.
“Might as well,” I said. “We can’t just sit here forever.”
Breathing unsteadily, Moira followed the truck at a snail’s pace. The wind raged mercilessly against our little car. The truck slowed and turned off the highway. Not knowing what else to do, we followed, and found ourselves at the gas station. Moira parked and we raced inside, drenched from head to toe after only a few seconds in the downpour. The man at the cash register regarded us for a moment with a nod, looked out at the storm, and went back to his newspaper.
The door swung open and two young men walked in. One was tall and well-built, the other a bit shorter and rather thin. They were both soaked.
“You girls okay?” the taller one asked. “It’s really coming down out there.”
Moira nodded, shivering. “Thanks for guiding us out, I couldn’t see a thing.”
“No problem. I could use a warm cup of coffee; can I get you all some?” the tall one asked us. We nodded eagerly and thanked him.
“Sure thing. My name’s Todd, and this is Marcus.”
We introduced ourselves as we all walked over to the coffee machine. Judy handed out the paper cups and we filled them to the brim, grateful for something warm to hold. Todd walked over to the counter to pay for the drinks, and Marcus approached me as I was stirring a packet of sugar into my cup.
“Can you pass me a lid?” he asked. His golden-brown eyes shone with warmth from the dark copper of his face. He wore thin, rectangle-shaped glasses and had a deep smile that carved long lines into his cheeks.
The five of us sat on the floor of the gas station until the storm passed, drinking our coffees and chatting about classes, best and worst professors, hometowns, and several other things I can’t remember. When the rain stopped and we stood to leave, Marcus sheepishly asked for my phone number. We married three years later.
“What are you thinking about?” Marcus asks, bringing me back to the present. The rain is coming down a bit harder now, but I find it comforting. I’m suddenly struck by how much has changed since the day we met, and how little.
“Nothing, really. Just remembering how we met.”
Marcus smiles broadly. “That was a very good day.”
We sit in silence for a while, listening to the sound of the rain on the windshield, lost in memories. We’ve been lost for a long time since she passed.
“Gwen?” Marcus’ voice is hesitant. He stares at the road to avoid my eyes.
“Do you think we’ll have good days like that again?”
I watch the raindrops dance along the windows, realizing how much we have already overcome together, how much we have grown and gained since the day we met. How much we have lost.
"Yeah, Marcus. I think we will.”