LA traffic. I’d been sure I’d taken off early enough to beat the rush, but already, I was stuck in gridlock. Frustrated, I watched as the car in front of me started to edge forward, and no sooner did I lift my foot off the brake than someone behind me laid on the horn.
I glanced into my rearview mirror. In the car behind me, a man waved his fist in anger as he shouted something I couldn’t hear anyway. Apparently, he didn’t seem to approve of the three-foot gap between my bumper and the car in front. That unused space ahead was too much for him, I guess.
I glared back at him in the mirror, deciding to move up just slightly to accommodate him anyway—only to be forced to hit my brakes again within seconds. I squeezed the steering wheel tight, my knuckles whitening. How I hated LA traffic.
Sometimes, I wished I’d picked somewhere else to move to, but after my brother had died, all I’d wanted to do was to get as far away from South Carolina as possible. And Southern California had seemed the best place to head to and start a new life. At least, it had appeared to be at first.
A white Lexus caught my attention as it pulled up even with my car and I glanced over at the woman at the wheel. There was something quite peculiar about her, the way she sat there with her shoulders hunched up so high that they almost touched her ears.
She must have felt me watching her because she quickly turned in my direction. As I stared back, I was shocked to see streaking lines of mascara streaming down her face. My heart ached.
“What’s wrong?” I asked out loud though I knew she couldn’t hear me. “Are you miserable like me, trapped in an unhappy marriage?” At least that had been the case up until a few weeks ago. Up until then, if she’d glanced over at me, she’d have seen me sitting in my car looking the exact same way she looked now. And all because I dreaded what I was going home to.
Would Dan be in a bad mood again because no jobs had called in that day? And when I tried to cheer him up like I usually did, were we only going to end up arguing again, like we did most every night?
Gone was the easygoing guy I’d fallen in love with—the guy who hated to argue. That guy had disappeared right around the time the recession had hit last year. And since then, all we seemed to do was fight over money. Same old thing, over and over.
And while it was true that his contracting business had slowed down quite a bit and things had gotten a bit tight, I still had my teaching job at the school, so it wasn’t like we couldn’t pay our bills. But still, not working as much as he wanted to, had been stressing him out, especially since his dream was to start a family soon. Though as far as I was concerned, that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. In fact, it wasn’t going to happen at all.
With all the fighting we’d been doing, the timing was terrible, not to mention what a big financial strain having children would put on us. But the truth was, it wasn’t about the money. It wasn’t about the timing. It was about me, about how I wasn’t sure if I was even cut out to be a mother after all. Not today, not any day.
What if I had a child who turned out like my brother James? Between being born with one leg twisted and two inches shorter than the other, and tiny weak lungs that had left him struggling with permanent asthma, that poor guy had had it rough from the moment he’d appeared into the world.
My eyes teared at the heartbreaking memory of how the kids used to call James either that or The Breather. Then they’d find out he was my twin, and stare at me, incredulous. “But you look so normal. What happened to him, then?” they’d ask, not holding back the first thing to blurt from their ignorant mouths. And I never did try to answer; James was my brother, and I looked out for him, and it was none of anyone’s business but ours.
Sometimes, they’d ask me their crude questions right in front of James and I always wondered which was worse; was it worse to be him, or to be me—the normal, healthy one left to live a life of guilt for being born this way, with functioning limbs and lungs?
I knew one thing for sure. It would surely break my heart if I had to watch my own child suffering like my brother had done. I couldn’t handle it, and my own mother sure hadn’t been able to, either. She’d constantly fussed over James. “Are you warm enough? Did you take your pills today? Don’t stay up too late.”
At least she appeared to care when she hadn’t been hiding herself away in her room with a bottle in which to immerse her sorrows. No, there was no way I’d chance ending up like her. That thought terrified me almost as much as the thought of having children.
But sadly, I couldn’t tell Dan any of that since he didn’t even know I had a brother to begin with, let alone about how James had tragically died. And I wouldn’t dare tell him about my mother or anything else about my past, either. I’d decided a long time ago to keep all that to myself, and I intended to keep it that way—at least for now.
Not that he hadn’t been curious at times, especially when we’d first started dating. Back then, he’d wanted to know everything about me, every tiny thing there was to find out. But as soon as he’d seen how his questions would upset me, he’d back right off and we’d fall into an uneasy silence, neither of us sure what to say anymore. The past was a place I wouldn’t go back to.
“Everyone has skeletons in their closet,” he’d said. “And when the time’s right, I know you’ll tell me everything.”
Well, he was wrong. I’d always known that the time would probably never be right to chance cracking open that door, and the longer I kept things from him, the harder I knew it would be. Though, maybe it was just as well. Who knew what might happen if he uncovered the truth?
The woman in the Lexus wiped her cheeks on her palms and turned back to face the sea of cars. I wanted to hear her story; was she in the same sort of predicament as I’d been with Dan? Unknowingly, she had brought everything back—the pain, the guilt, and the tears.
Maybe it would have been better if Dan had pushed me more to talk about my past. Maybe then, I might have opened up and he’d have understood why I was the way I was, and why I kept things so close to my chest and was afraid to have children of my own.
But then again, the thought of talking about any of my history—even with my own husband—was too risky, especially after what had happened with me and Joey. I felt that old familiar ache in my chest again as I thought about my first real love.
I’d thought for sure Joey and I would always be together, that nothing could separate us. But, of course, that sadly didn’t prove true and we broke up before I left South Carolina, and I hadn’t talked to him since.
I’d always wondered if it wasn’t because he’d known too much about me and had seen the writing on the wall, just like everyone else seemed to have done back in Easley.
Maybe he’d seen that with a mother and brother like I had, the chances were pretty good that there was something quite wrong with me too, something he didn’t yet know about, and he wasn’t about to risk finding out.
That was the one thing I could never have said about Dan at least; no matter how bad things would have turned out between us, I knew he would never leave me and that if anything, I’d have to be the one to throw in the towel first. And I had almost done that very thing on several occasions this past year, having promised myself way back that I’d never end up stuck in a marriage like my parents had suffered.
Yet sadly enough, our own marriage was beginning to look just like theirs, sounding like it too, what with all the bickering we’d been doing lately.
In fact, I’d been ready to leave after our last big blowout, all over something I’d done in signing Dan up at our local gym. When I’d told him, it was like I’d committed a crime or something; instead of being happy about it, he’d just got annoyed and upset. So much for my gift, then. Well, of course, I had to have some hidden motive, didn’t I?
“What are you implying, then?” he’d asked me, more than a little upset. “Are you saying I’ve gotten out of shape since I haven’t been working out like I used to? Are you ashamed of me? Is that it?”
Of course not, I tried to tell him, and it was the truth. I’d never stopped finding him attractive, not even for a moment. I’d just thought that if he got out more and got some exercise, he might start to feel better about himself again, less downbeat.
But I’d got it wrong again, like always. So, I would cancel the membership, then; what else could I do? And just as I was about to do that, I was wrong once more. Now, he wanted to keep it, so he said.
He even apologized, telling me that if it meant that much to me for him to go, he’d give working out a try, after all. Yes, he’d keep it. He was grateful for my gift. Well, why, then, did I feel so utterly miserable?
My head spun, and I didn’t know which way was up. But he did do it. He did give the gym a try, and what a dramatic difference it made in him right from the start. His attitude was better. He said he felt better, and the old Dan was gradually coming back; he seemed way more upbeat—just how he used to be.
He started doing things around the house, like the other day when I came home to find that not only had he washed all the laundry, but he’d gone grocery shopping too. And the next night, dinner had been waiting when I’d got home from work, a dinner that he had shopped for, and prepared, and cooked himself. I was so relieved that he seemed to be getting back to his old self, to the Dan I had loved, and the one who’d helped me forget Joey.
And unlike in the past when I’d call him during the day and hear the TV blasting in the background, when I called now, it went straight to voicemail. That meant he was either working, running errands, or down at the gym. To tell the truth, I didn’t much care where he was and what he was doing, as long as he wasn’t moping around the house anymore.
Then there’d been yesterday, and the huge bouquet of flowers. Flowers! He hadn’t given me any in such a long time, and what made it even more special was that he’d obviously taken the time to hand-pick the arrangement himself. It had smelled so good with all my favorites in it, with tulips, roses…even some daffodils, so hard to find in Easley—especially at this time of year.
If I’d known working out would have made that much of a difference in him, I’d have suggested it a long time ago, and at least the house would have been a lot cleaner if I had. A small smile crossed my lips at the thought.
And though things weren’t totally back to where they used to be, I was beginning to have hope again that we were going to make it after all.
I turned back to the car in front of me to find it had moved up a few feet. I followed suit now, hoping there was a sliver of a chance that I’d still make it home early enough to surprise Dan, just as I’d planned.
I smiled again, now overcome by the sudden, strange thought that came back to me; maybe I was the one who was going to be surprised, because of the way he’d kept asking me this morning what time I was going to be home? Did he have something special up his sleeve, something he’d planned again for later tonight? I felt lucky, excited too.
I looked over at the time on the dash. Maybe the right thing to do would be to give him a little heads-up that I was on my way, just so that whatever he was planning, the surprise wouldn’t be ruined by me showing up too early. It set my mind off, thinking back again.
Joey was like that, too. Joey used to love to plan surprises like that, back when we were dating. One time, he’d picked me up from school and on the way home stopped at the park, where he had a picnic all set up for us to celebrate our second year together. So romantic…
I was still reminiscing about that day as I pushed speed dial to call Dan’s cell, but as it started to ring, I guiltily pushed the memory of Joey away. I’d been thinking about those times with my old boyfriend a bit too much lately, although it must only have been because of the distance, the growing divide between me and Dan over this past year. At least I wasn’t obsessed about Joey anymore, not like when I’d first left South Carolina and moved to California.
Back then, no matter how hard I’d tried not to think of him, it had seemed to be all I did. I’d driven myself crazy in those days, checking my cell phone every few minutes with the hope that he’d called or texted since the last time I’d looked, sometimes checking over and over until the red light finally began blinking and the phone battery faded away. And then, frantic, I’d find myself digging for the charger, panic-stricken that I might miss his call or his text in the few seconds of downtime. But of course, the call and the text never did come, even when I plugged the wretched thing in again. So, I’d just sit staring at it, hoping, craving.
In those days, I must have looked at his Facebook page over twenty times a day, too, unable to help myself. It all seemed so pathetic now, with hindsight.
Dan’s voicemail came on. I hung up and tried the home phone. He was busy. Busy preparing another surprise for me.
I remembered how it was such a relief when I fell for Dan and was able to get Joey off my mind, at least for the most part. But there were still days when I’d hear a song on the radio or see someone who reminded me of him, and there I was, plunged right back down that cavernous black hole, missing him again, longing.
Facebook. My downfall; I should have never started checking out his page again like I’d begun to do a few weeks ago, that had only succeeded in stirring up old feelings. Seeing Joey’s face had just made me miss him again, as if nothing had changed, and time had stood still. Seeing Joey’s face made Dan’s own pale in my mind once more. But I did it anyway, the furtive looking, the checking, the scrolling and all the clicking to see who Joey’s friends were now, where he was going, and with whom.
And there he was, staring back at me from his profile photo, looking just as handsome as I remembered, with his strong chin and intense dark eyes. And then—I reeled for a moment, suddenly shocked to see him in a police uniform in the next photo that came up on the page.
Never in a million years did I think Joey would ever be a cop, not after what had happened to his father! Joey’s dad had been tragically shot and killed during a routine traffic stop, and anytime we’d be out, and a police car would go by, Joey would go into how, “I, for one, will never have a job where I can be taken from my family in an instant like my dad was.” And he’d immediately remind me of how hard it had been on his family, and how he still couldn’t understand what his father had been thinking to take that kind of risk.
Yet, there Joey was in that uniform. Apparently, he had changed his mind over the years, though for the life of me, I couldn’t imagine for one minute what that reason could have been.
And still I kept scrolling, hungry to fill in all the gaps of Joey’s life since we’d last met.
It was the next photo that really ripped my heart out. There was my Joey, standing next to a young boy who was the spitting image of him, the same chin and dark eyes, no mistaking him as Joey’s boy. He even had his hair parted on one side just like Joey did. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Joey was a father? Really?
And what made it even worse was that the boy didn’t appear much more than seven or eight years old at the very most, and since I’d only been gone from Easley a little over eight years, that meant either Joey had either been seeing someone while we were together, or he’d started dating pretty much as soon as I was out of his life.
My spirits sank, my heart now in a spasm of sudden palpitations. Was that why he had been willing to let me go so easily, because he’d been interested in someone else? Though I found that hard to believe, what else could it be?
The truth hurt, but at least if that was the case, all the more reason I was thrilled that Dan and I were getting along again. The heck with Joey! I had someone else too, someone who loved me more than Joey had ever done. I must have been stupid to even think of looking at that man’s profile again and I pushed the invasive thoughts away.
“Hello, you’ve reached Dan’s Contracting Service and the home of Karen and Dan.” I jumped, startled as Dan’s deep voice filled the car. “Please leave a message. We’ll get right back to you. And make it a great day!” Beep.
“Hi, Honey,” I said, once again pushing Joey from my mind. “I’m stuck here on the 91 but wanted to let you know that I took off a little early and I’ll hopefully be home soon. Looking forward to spending a nice evening with you.” I started to hit end, then added, “I love you,” and hung up.
The car in front of me came to a sudden stop. I hit my brakes as once again, I was reminded of how bad the Los Angeles traffic had gotten over the years. Every freeway from the 5 to the 405 to the 91 could be jammed at most any hour of the day. They’d even given the congested areas names like the Orange Crush and Corona Crawl.
I really missed the open roads back in Easley; they were nothing at all like this. Back there, you could go for miles, sometimes never seeing another car for a long time. I remembered how Joey would pick me up and we’d just go out for a drive. Sometimes, his sister Beth—my best friend at the time—would come with us too. He’d play chauffeur while Beth and I would gossip and laugh and laugh. Those were great times and the memories made me warm inside.
Sometimes, we’d stop at the Dairy Queen on the way home to get hot fudge sundaes or banana splits, racing to eat them before they’d start to melt and drip sticky ice cream down our hands and arms.
I found myself smiling again, the smile growing wider as I noticed the traffic on the 91 starting to move again. But within seconds, it faded back to a grim expression of frustration as the line of moving vehicles slowly ground to a stop once more. I rubbed my neck as it began to knot up. I guessed I wouldn’t be getting home early after all. Maybe I should just get off the road somewhere, call it a day and find an alternative route? I scanned the side of the freeway, searching for a sign.
Imperial Street exit lay two miles ahead. That was what I’d do; I’d get off there, then. Anything was better than sitting here for the next hour, so I turned my signal on. Though I didn’t know where Imperial could possibly take me, I figured I’d take it anyway.
As I tried to merge over, my frustration grew as no one was willing to let me in. So, forced to do what everyone else here did, I rudely pushed my way across all three lanes until—just in the nick of time—I was able to make the exit.
Now I was free. No more freeway traffic.
I happily turned right and started the zig zag through side streets, toward what I hoped was home. My mind turned to Dan as I drove, still wondering what he had up his sleeve for tonight. He was a good man, really.
As I continued to drive, the area started to look just a little familiar. Wasn’t that Angelo’s Restaurant just up there on the right? Now I knew where I was and couldn’t believe I’d driven by that exit every day, never once realizing it would take me through this part of town, right by my favorite restaurant.
Angelo’s. Just the name brought back sweet memories of all the times Dan and I had eaten there. We’d even gone there on our very first date a little over six years ago.
We liked it so much that after that, we made it a point to eat there as much as we could especially on our anniversary. Though sadly enough, it came back to me that we hadn’t gone there on our last one. Of course, we’d been fighting earlier that day, the same charade as on every other day at that time.
I remembered how when Dan had first asked me out, I’d almost said no. I’d had no interest in dating anyone else after what had happened with me and Joey. But there’d seemed to be something about Dan that was special, so after a bit of hesitation, I’d finally given in and agreed to a date.
But the next day, I’d already started to have second thoughts though, about going out with him after all, the doubts nagging at me. And by the end of the day, I decided I didn’t want to go and called to tell him that. Maybe he’d anticipated my cancellation, who knew, but he didn’t pick up and the voicemail didn’t cut in either, not like it normally would.
So, I’d ended up stuck with it then; the date would have to go ahead, and he’d shown up at my door before I’d had any chance to cancel.
I can still picture him standing there on the step, looking so excited as he waited with flowers in his hand. “You look, great,” he’d said somewhat shyly. “Ready?”
I just didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d changed my mind. That was it, then, I had to go, but it would be just that one time, no more dates after that. That one half-hearted date would be it.
Except, it wasn’t to work out that way, of course. Surprisingly enough, I had a wonderful time that night, and by the end of the evening, I was already hoping he’d ask me out again. Surprised did not convey how I felt; I’d actually had no idea it was possible to feel that way about anyone but Joey.
And yet, Dan wasn’t anything at all like Joey. Nothing like him at all, not in appearance or personality. He was so easygoing and laid back, where Joey was a take-charge guy. And though I’d liked that about Joey at first, I’d realized he could be a bit too controlling.
Like the way he used to insist on ordering dinner for me, as if I was helpless or something, or when he’d tried to advise me on what to wear when we went out.
Sometimes, I’d wished he’d just relax and let me make my own decisions. I’m sure that’s what made it even more attractive to be with a guy like Dan, one who realized I had a mind of my own.
And though I can’t even remember what Dan and I had talked about that night at Angelo’s, we weren’t even halfway through dinner when I’d already known this was a guy I wanted to see again.
I slowed down as a motorcycle parked out front caught my eye when I drove past. It looked like Dan’s bike. But what would he be doing here? Perhaps he was meeting a new client. Or maybe he’d stopped by to pick up some dinner to take home, knowing how much I’d always loved the pasta at Angelo’s. That would explain why he’d been acting so mysterious this morning. He wanted to surprise me by bringing some home for dinner tonight!
I kept going but after a moment, decided to turn around. Why not surprise him instead? But as I pulled into Angelo’s parking lot, that uneasy feeling from earlier came over me again. I ignored it and parked the car anyway, getting out and heading for the entrance.