THEY VACATIONED THAT NOVEMBER on the coast because the weather was unusually warm and there were few other tourists. The new hotel they stayed at lay on a peninsula overlooking a small bay and the mainland coast beyond. Other than the rhythmic breaking of waves and the occasional squabble between feeding seabirds, their beachfront room was very quiet.
After they checked in, he stepped out on their balcony to take in the view. Just off the coastal highway sat the old wooden church they had married in a decade earlier. Abandoned after all these years, he said when he saw it boarded up. I'm amazed it's still holding together.
She brought the last two bottles of Corona from the cooler. Like our marriage, she said, handing him one.
He turned to her and made a face. Not while we're here, okay?
She stared out over the ocean as he sipped his beer. I have to get us unpacked. Then let's go exploring.
Let's, he said. And try to smile. I want to have fun.
In their bedroom she pulled from a suitcase a framed photograph of a young boy with fair skin and dark hair. She placed it on the night stand by her side of the bed. When he came into the room, he saw her bikini and shawl draped across the arm of a chair. She turned her back to him to take off her bra.
He stared at her reflection in the dresser mirror as she undressed. Let's go to bed, he said, so I can warm you up.
You can drop the schoolboy grin, she said. And let's don't . . . not after her.
I don't think about her anymore, he said.
I do, she said.
I never want to leave this place, he said on the pier as she tossed bread to the gulls their first day. For five sun-filled afternoons they wore shorts and biked on the boardwalk, searched low-tide sands for sea glass and shark teeth, and sat together wearing dark shades in the shadow of a blue umbrella, spying on bottlenose dolphins at play near fishing boats. Evenings were reserved for eating French charcuterie and sipping Belvedere vodka martinis at a tiny, rustic open-air café overlooking the grassy dunes. Mornings, they bundled up in bath robes and lounged on their balcony drinking spiced Moroccan coffee while he read Stephen King and she smoked Marlboros.
Their last day, they woke to dark clouds and a cold, howling wind. He went outside and watched the rough surf, concentrating on waves rolling higher than any he had ever seen. She sat up in bed and turned on the TV, flipped through channels until she found the weather forecast. When he came back inside, she had already gathered up their suitcases on the couch. We need to leave, she said. Now.
They showered quickly and had only orange juice for breakfast. In front of the hotel, after he finished packing the trunk, she held her car keys out to him. She saw him hesitate, wondering whether he would drive them or not. I've had a really nice time here, she said. She stood up on her toes and gave him a peck on the lips. Thank you for everything.
This moment together was before their divorce. Before they lost their house trying to pay for their child's countless hospital stays and surgeries. After she had learned of his affair. This vacation was one they would later recall with no fondness — come to remember as only one of many pain-filled days in a terminally ill marriage.
You sure about this? he said, taking her keys. You know there's freezing weather north of here, our only way home, right?
Yes, I'm sure, and I'll trust you to get us through it.
Just past Birmingham, they changed seats when sleet began falling. She was the one finally behind the wheel but she knew he still wanted to be. She remembered him driving them through the city earlier.
He had asked her which ramp to take. She pointed at the GPS and then at the road ahead. Half a mile, on the right, she said. See it? See the sign?
No, not in this rain. And I'm not following or listening to that damn GPS of yours.
Move to the right lane then, she said, looking over her shoulder. It's clear. You can get over if you hurry.
I know I can. Dammit, quit telling me how to drive. He floored the gas, accelerated past the slow-moving traffic, and missed the exit.
Jesus, where are you going? We just passed our turn.
You said to hurry.
Don't play dumb. I said get in the right lane, not pass every car in it. You need to slow down. She looked up. An electronic warning sign read ICY ROADS AHEAD. I told you to slow down.
And I told you to quit telling me how to drive. Just shut the hell up and let me.
Pull this car over, right now.
I will when I'm good and ready.
Dammit, it's my car.
Not when I'm driving it.
The first major delay of their trip home came hours later while she was driving east on I-20. They were crossing the last of Alabama and headed into Georgia when she spotted traffic ahead slowing. An overturned SUV burned in the median. She looked further up the icy highway. A tractor-trailer sat sideways from the center lane to the left shoulder, boxes scattered, the driver's cab crushed completely against a guardrail nearly as bent and flattened as the truck itself.
Concrete paving once bright tan was stained dark grey, a slick mix of wintry slush and ash. Black smoke drifted across their windshield. She drove through the haze slowly, maneuvering around a trail of twisted metal and broken glass to the right lane. Traffic slowed to a crawl then stopped.
She tapped the GPS screen, searching for alternate routes, nearby gas stations and restaurants, and so on. As a courtesy she had the volume turned down; he had fallen asleep. She looked past the ambulances, beyond the police using fire extinguishers, noticing the firetrucks approaching moved too slow to make a difference in saving a life. A rescue helicopter descended slowly to the grass median.
Where are we? he said, waking, startled by the sound of the large helicopter landing to their left. He saw the burning SUV, the wrecked truck.
Not far from Atlanta, she answered, glancing in her sideview mirror at the traffic piling into their lane.
He was not listening. Just watching. Staring wild-eyed out the window at the long skid marks, he thought, left by the semi. He caught a glimpse of two small bodies sheeted next to an ambulance. A paramedic, sitting atop a woman on a stretcher, performed CPR as she was rushed to the waiting helicopter. Look at all this mess, he said. It's senseless. All because someone just had to get somewhere faster.
Makes me think of Nate. I feel so lost without him here, she said, lighting a cigarette. I'm totally, absolutely lost. I should never have left him. She took two puffs before rolling down the window and tossing it.
I know you miss Nathan, he said, but maybe you shouldn't dwell on him so much. The corner of her mouth turned up in a way he recognized. He watched her hold that expression, curious if she would stay quiet or say something angry.
What? she said. Her face reddened. Don't you tell me how I feel or how I should think. Don't you dare.
Take it easy, alright? Our son's in good company. It was okay for you to be gone for a while.
I wasn't ready to be gone.
You need to look reality in the eye, he said. He leaned forward and fumbled with the heater settings. You know yourself life's all about living in the present, not the past.
How generic, she said. Her stare was bitter and made him look away. Reality? You—his own father—wouldn't even come visit at his last cancer treatment. That's reality. So spare me the clichés.
Knowing she was a hard woman to be on the wrong side of, he said nothing in return. This defensive part of her personality was what he disliked most, how she knew using a humiliating glare or turning his own words against him would numb him, shut him up. It was a cheap kind of power she had over him, but was all part of their synchronicity, the predictability between people married for a long time.
After a moment of silence, she said, I was thinking about that first day we brought Nate home from the hospital.
I remember, he said. We had to give him those painkillers. Nathan didn't know who either of us were.
No, I meant the day after he was born. And everybody calls him Nate, not Nathan. She paused. Except you.
He glanced at the radio. I'd like to hear something pleasant. You mind?
She shrugged and said nothing.
He was searching the FM stations, listening to bits of NPR, scraps of local news and weather, and the like when the traffic began moving. As they passed the last of the emergency vehicles, a policeman held his hand out for them to stop. He looked up from the radio, saw the policeman walking toward them. When the cop leaves, he said, let's switch seats. I want to drive.
I don't think so, she said.
Birmingham. You're still angry about what happened back there, aren't you?
I'm not angry. Not anymore.
Uh huh. Right, he said doubtfully.
The young policeman stood in front of her car, his eyes fixed on the man. He flashed a reassuring smile, then pointed at the man's unbuckled seat belt.
Damn it, I thought I fastened the thing, the man said, buckling himself in. Satisfied, the policeman stepped aside and waved them on. He nodded and tipped his hat to her as they passed by.
She reached over and tugged at his seat belt. It pulled apart. Apparently I didn't fasten it that time either, he said, fumbling with the latch. She heard it finally click but reached over again to check it. He pushed her hand away. Don't. It's fine now.
Just make sure you hear it lock every time, she said, so we know it's secure.
Just make sure you let me drive again, he said, before we get home.
He watched her from the corner of his eye. She stared momentarily in the rearview at the tall young man dressed in blue and grey, the one slowly fading from view. The smallest smile started beside her mouth. Her eyelids flickered, revealing her desire by where her gaze briefly lingered, in a way he had not seen in a long while.
To him she was thin, maybe too thin, tanned skin drawn tight over bone. Even so, she was petite and pretty sitting in the driver's seat, southern belle-beautiful with her auburn hair pulled back behind an ear, and he admired her emerald-green eyes and full lips. I know that look, he said, laughing.
What look? Her face blushed red.
He laughed again. Don't be embarrassed. I know it's not me you're thinking about.
She looked away. Give me a break, she said. It's not what you think.
I was just imagining Nate growing to be as tall and handsome.
They drove through Atlanta and into South Carolina without speaking. By the time they took the ramp off I-85 onto 26 and spiraled down into Spartanburg, the winter weather was behind them. They stopped at a convenience store. She stepped out to clear skies and a warm breeze and stood beside him as he filled the gas tank.
You must have been dreaming when you were asleep this morning, she said. Was it interesting? You were smiling.
I say anything?
Nothing worth mentioning.
What kind of answer is that? And why do you have to be such an ass about my driving?
Believe me, I don't want to be.
Then let me drive. He held out his open hand. Well?
It's only two more hours and we're home, she said. She looked him straight in the eye and held his gaze for a moment before handing him the car keys. Just get us there, and safely. I mean it.
He stopped at their first red light inside the Charlotte city limits. That poor soul, she said, staring at the bearded man panhandling to her right. He stared back, gave her a toothless smile, and held up a cardboard sign penned HOMELESS, VETERAN, GOD BLESS AMERICA. She pulled five dollars from her purse and rolled down her window.
I'll bet he's not even a real vet, he said. You really shouldn't.
Like that matters to me, she said. The man snatched the money and moved onto the next car without thanking her.
Driving, he was cautious until a passing car cut in front of them at the last second and without signaling. Give the old guy some space, she said. You'll aggravate him if you don't.
Exactly, he said, nosing in closer to the Cadillac's bumper.
You're both speeding—oh, no, he's braking. God, the light's turning red. Slow down. You're going to hit —
He stomped on the brakes. She heard the squeal of tires skidding just before her Toyota smashed into the Cadillac's rear bumper. The force of impact unlatched her seat belt. She hurled forward and smacked the dashboard face-first.
Both cars turned right into a Waffle House parking lot. She got out, slammed the door, and watched as he and the old man pointed fingers and argued. The sight of her damaged Camry made her cry. She sat on the rear bumper and dabbed a tissue at the blood trickling from her nose. He returned to wait for the police and said nothing while she smoked a cigarette, and then another. When he went to use the bathroom, she popped the trunk and walked off with her suitcase and purse.
A church van pounded past her, stopped, and backed up. She climbed in and turned to watch the man she had just left walk out and stare into the open trunk. He was still staring when they topped the hill leading to her child waiting with friends and family below. She cracked the window to smoke while the kind stranger talked of Heaven and eternal life.
He let her out by the wrought-iron gates where they said goodbye. From inside the van the young pastor watched her kneel and pray and then slowly, slowly trace a finger inside the name engraved in granite, her only child gone forever, his mother's spirit broken.