Night Driving
My wife watched her best friend die.  They were in a parade, on a float—the swimming team.  The crowd watching the parade threw candy at them from the side of the road.  The kids jumped down off their float, which was being pulled along by a truck, to retrieve the candy.  The parade was small and wasn’t supposed to last too long.  The kids got comfortable jumping off and on, snatching as much candy as their small hands could hold.  Her best friend, Mandy, was one of them too except that she slipped while trying to climb back on the float.  No one knows exactly how it happened because when accidents like this occur the details are stolen from us, only the before and after exists, never the precise moment—it’s kept hidden.  They think she fell face first, her head smacking against the road and was momentarily stunned and then somehow managed to slide under the float just as two large tires ran over her face.

I can’t blame people for who they are.  These kinds of things happen every day and there’s no way to stop the endless series of accidents and misfortunes.  They’re inevitable.  There’s not enough time to make sense of the rushing flow of events and usually no time to understand why, if there is a reason.  There are no breaks.  You just have to keep moving and hope somewhere along the way a method for coping develops.  For my wife, what happened is a fracture that can’t heal.  I understand that.  Everywhere she looks I know she sees it.  Twenty years ago and still today everything she looks upon has a crack in it, even me.

My wife doesn’t drink very often but when she does she gets honest.  We’re celebrating our sixth anniversary with a meal I’d spent several hours preparing.  I bought a bottle of wine for the occasion.  She sipped at her glass during dinner but by dessert she wanted a refill and the second glass went down much faster.  By the time we’d scooted ourselves from the table, dabbing at the remaining vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce in our bowls, she was on glass number three and she talked. 

She dived into her favorite topic, work.  She told me about a fundraising event coming up in a few weeks.  “It’s on a Saturday morning,” she said.  Then immediately I could read on her face that she regretted mentioning it.  “It’s only a few hours.  It’s for the Greater Phoenix Cancer Solutions Foundation.  It’s downtown and they’re doing a silly little three mile walk or run and some kind of other event,” she said, then dramatically rolled her eyes. 

I watched her. 

“It’s nothing,” she said.  “You don’t have to go.  In fact, I didn’t think you’d want to go.”

“Okay.  I won’t go.” 

Then she began discussing the finer attributes of her co-worker Brad.  I’d picked up on it before, for the last five or six months to be exact.  The way she’d go on a little more than was necessary in discussing something funny that had happened to the both of them at work or how he liked to tease her about how she’s such an obsessive compulsive neat freak.  She even commented on his clothes, how he looked hideous in some over-priced Italian leather shoes and a designer shirt he wore looked awful on him.  She said, “Orange is not a good color on him.” 

I studied the level of wine in her glass.  She was taking drinks more often.  I refilled my glass to the halfway mark.  There was still a little left in the bottle.

“You kinda like him, don’t you?” I said.


Her face blossomed to a pretty pink.  I knew the answer already.

“Brad.  You like him.”

“He’s a nice guy.  And yeah, I mean, I enjoy working with him.  The office is a lot more fun with him around, I’ll say that.”

“It’s okay,” I said, smirking.  I couldn’t help it. 

She grabbed her glass and pulled it to her lips and went through the motions of a drink but no liquid actually fell into her mouth before she stopped and said, “What’s okay?”

“To have a crush.  It’s normal.”

“Oh my god, I don’t have a crush.”

“Listen, sweetheart, if you said you weren’t attracted to other men then you’d be lying.  I can be married to a lot of things, a flirt, a recreational drug user, a bad cook, but not a liar.  I won’t stay married to a liar.”

“Okay, fair enough,” she said, setting her glass down. “What’s bringing this up?”

“Nothing.  Just the way you talk about him.”

“Well, if you don’t like liars, then I’ll tell you the truth.  I guess you could say I have a teeny little crush on him.  So what?”

“Right.  So what?”

“He’s good looking and smart and funny.  Like you said, it’s normal.”

“That’s what you used to say about me.”

“I still say that.”

“No, you don’t.  Not anymore.”

We’ve been stranded in Phoenix for almost three years.  She wanted to move back to Mississippi where she grew up and where we met.  I wanted to get up to Wisconsin where it snowed and summers were bearable.  Neither of us cared for Arizona all that much.  I think we decided we wouldn’t like it before we even showed up and have been stubborn ever since.  We liked to talk about everything we missed about our former states of residence as if Arizona was a foreign country and we were living in exile.  Arizona was an easy scapegoat.  A bad day for her would begin with, “I hate this place.  I want to leave.”  And I’d concur, “I’m not crazy about it either, sweetheart.”

But then those thoughts would drift once we’d succumb to our evening routines, the biggest barrier to change, the soothing temptation of habits.  She’d flip through a litany of channels for three straight hours while I stared at an oil painting I’d been working on for the past six months.  Or I’d call friends in Milwaukee, sitting in my office, away from the television.  I liked to hand-clean dishes, run the dryer and I’d search the house for things to drop in the washing machine.  It was something to do. 

She missed fried catfish and macaroni and cheese and I missed Milwaukee’s Oktoberfest and the way the air tasted like ice cubes melting in my mouth.  

We were headed different places in our daydreams.

“I think it’s this place,” she said.  “Ever since we moved here everything’s been off.”

“I don’t know anymore,” I said, taking a drink.  “Maybe, maybe not.”

“You like it here?”

“I’m getting used to it.  It’s actually quite pretty if you take the time to notice.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.  I’m just saying I’m getting used to it.  People are nice.”

“People are nice in Mississippi too.”

“More?” I lean over with the bottle angled.

“Dump the rest of it in there.”  She held the glass with her right hand, watching the last of the wine drip into her glass. “I thought we decided we were going to look for jobs so we can leave this place. But we haven’t done anything about it.  We just talk about it.  That’s all.”

“I know but talking about it does make it somewhat real.”

“Just talking about it.  How?”

“Like you talking about Brad.  You don’t just talk about him for no reason.  There’s a reason, something behind why you do.”

“What is that supposed to mean? That doesn’t even make sense.  And I’m totally finished discussing Brad, okay? And another thing, if you’re going to sit there and tell me you don’t have a crush on any of the women you work with then that makes you a damn liar.”

“I’m not a liar.”

“There aren’t any attractive women that work in your entire building, all twenty-some floors?”

“Of course there are.”

“And you’re not attracted to them?”

“Sure, I notice them.  I’m human. But I don’t seek them out and develop relationships with them.”

“Jesus Christ!  I work with Brad.  That’s all.  He just happens to be on my marketing team.”

“Who picked the teams?”

She shakes her head and her nostrils flare.  She leaves the kitchen and opens the hall closet door.  I hear her dragging a chair down the hardwood floors.

That night we both turn off our reading lights at the same time.  I watch her in the darkness and wait for her breathing to slow, for her skin to turn warm and clammy and to become paralyzed by sleep. 

I’ve noticed lately in the blue hour before sleep that I feel an unexplainable emotional lift, a surge of energy.  I get out of bed and go to my office.  The painting is going nowhere.  I’ve looked at it too long and have come up with no direction or solution.  I read somewhere that a good artist is brave enough to destroy something he’s created even if he’s committed long hours and countless days on it.  A true artist gives up everything for his art.  That’s why I’m not an artist.  I just paint and splash colors on a canvas until it pleases me.  I don’t deceive myself into believing that I’m actually creating anything.   Its turned into something to do, a distraction, and very far removed from any sense of bravery.

It was my minor in college, studio art, tucked gently under the B.S. in Business Management on my resume.  I sold two paintings in college and one the first year after I graduated when I left Wisconsin and followed a girlfriend to Jackson.  That ended amicably and a month later I met my wife.

My wife is the one who got me diverted away from art and focused on landing a career-oriented job.  I went to job interviews in dry-cleaned suits and bullet points of exaggerated personal achievement memorized for quick recitation.  The first half of our marriage, the years in Jackson, was nice.  It was even easy.  Then she got her job in Phoenix and it was a few months after we moved that I found my job.  She got a new car.  We bought a house.  We’d only been in Arizona for three months when we decided that we’d made a mistake moving out here.  That was almost three years ago. It always seems easier to recognize mistakes than successes.  They’re easier to find.  I wonder why that is.

I lie down on the floor in front of my painting and count all the stars in it.  I keep losing count and have to start over.  They’re all over the place.  Most are very small but there are some larger ones.  Then I wonder why I put so many stars in it.  It’s not even believable.  The sun’s out and you can see the stars.  They’re everywhere.

I grab my car keys and drive away from our subdivision and soon find myself on an interstate, driving toward the stars.  

When I return two hours later she’s still asleep and appears to not have moved at all.  I could’ve just blinked my eyes and the last two hours didn’t even happen, a disjointed time hiccup.   It’s three a.m. when I fall asleep and I think about how happy she is every morning when she gets ready for work compared to the weekend mornings when she’s languid and sullen.  I realize this and make the connection.  My heart speeds up and I feel a dull throb just to the left of my sternum.  I rub it and feel for where the pain is radiating from but I can’t pinpoint a location. 

The next few days progress predictably and without much effort.  I get into my routine and forget about what real exertion feels like.  On Monday I think only of Tuesday.  On Tuesday I think only of Wednesday.  I see my future as nothing but a growing collection of days of the week.  On Friday mornings I almost cry in the shower, relieved that the weekend is so near.  On Saturday mornings I wake up with a fit of exultation but by late afternoon my thoughts turn to Monday.  I ruin Sunday this way. 

After a while though, I don’t count the days anymore.  My nightly routine doesn’t change.  I feign tiredness, wait for her to fall asleep and then go driving.  Not once does she wake up and realize I’m gone.  If she does, she doesn’t bother to search the house or call me.  Maybe she rolls over and assumes I’m in my office or getting a snack in the kitchen.  Perhaps she knows I’m night driving and have managed to navigate every major street in the Phoenix metropolitan area. 

For the first time since we’ve lived in Arizona she’s home first.  She’s still in her work clothes, her legs spread out in front of her on the living room floor, a small decorative box open.  There are pictures in neat piles, evenly spaced out.  It’s her Mandy memorabilia box.  She gets it out, when needed, a few times a year.  Sometimes I only know she gets the box out because she sets it on top of the vacuum cleaner box.  I later have to put it up on the top shelf where she can’t reach.  She has to drag a chair from the other room to get it down but never bothers to use that same chair to put it back where it belongs.  She wants me to know she’s had it out. 

“Hi, sweetheart.” I squeeze open the refrigerator and grab a Diet Pepsi.

“Hey.” She picks up a new pile and flips through the pictures rapidly as if she’s not even viewing the images but rather satisfying a compulsion. 

“Work okay?”

“I left early.”

“Are you not feeling well?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Everything all right?”

“Can you believe it's been twenty years?”

“No, I can’t.”  It’s what I always say.  I can’t say anything else.

When we got married my wife requested a special moment for Mandy in the service.  There was a notation in the program: Mandy’s Moment.  My wife, looking the most desperately sad and vulnerable I’d ever seen her, pulled out a handwritten poem she’d written and read it aloud, her fallen forward, carefully reading one word at a time.  When she was finished she said, “I still miss you,” three times.

I’d never witnessed such a dramatic rendering of heartbreak, perfectly executed for full emotional affect.  Even the minister had to clear this throat and take a moment to regroup.  The entire church, all two hundred in attendance, sat in silence, theirs head fallen forward as well, remembering something that they too still missed.

On the morning of the cancer walk I stay in bed as she gets ready.  I occasionally open my eyes and watch the minutes tick away on the clock until I hear the front door shut.  I’d read about the race in the Arizona Republic News.  It’s a major event, not at all the way she downplayed it to me.   Thousands of people will be participating with as many as ten thousand or more downtown for the arts & crafts, food, and live music.  Her employer is one of the premiere sponsors. 

I let another ten minutes pass and then get out of bed, shower and dress.   I brew some coffee and stand in the kitchen watching it, waiting for it to fill up my to-go carafe.   Then I’m on the freeway, headed downtown, almost giddy with a loveliness one feels when they’re greeted by Saturday morning sunshine.  I find a lucky spot on the street and avoid having to enter one of the massive and annoying public lots, following the directions of orange-vested attendants who point you from person to person until someone points to the exact spot at which you are to place your car. 

I walk up the street towards the center of the festivities, more and more cars stream in from the interstate.  I hear the excited hum of distant conversations and voices being propelled over an intercom system.   I pass by the sign-in table and notice that about half the people are decked out in running gear with numbers taped to their chests.  The rest are family, friends and husbands, even.  

I twist open the pour spout on my carafe and take sips as I walk around.  I pay special attention to every person that walks past.  I even see some that look familiar, people from my building no doubt; people I see everyday, that are apart of my life, without even knowing them.  

I stand at the finish line for more than an hour until all the runners and walkers have finished.  Several blocks away another crowd gathers and I follow the swarm of people.

I see the beginning of a parade, baton twirlers pass by first, then a variety of groups carrying signs.  The 7th and 8th grade football players walk along reluctantly, their hands jammed into their front pockets, mumbling back and forth at one another.  The handful of floats are simple trailers with streamers and balloons. 

There’s a short break in the procession and then another wave of marchers emerge until what looks like the end, the last group led by a pickup truck lugging a trailer behind it. It moves very slowly, much more so than the others.  Before I can make out the words on the posters or decipher the chant they’re cheering in a metronome-like rhythm, I see that it’s all girls.  They pass directly in front of me; they’re a junior cheerleading group, probably 10 and 11 year olds.  Unlike the boys, the girls are dazzled by everything.  They smile until their cheeks hurt and are happy to be performing for an audience.   Soon the crowds will be larger as they graduate into middle school and then high school and they’ll believe that their lives will never end.  They don’t want it to stop.  Now they don’t.  But someday they’ll want it all to stop.

As they pass by I count fourteen girls knowing how quickly there could only be thirteen tomorrow and how they shouldn’t have to understand that yet.  The day will come soon enough for each of them.  I just hope it’s not today, they look so perfect. 

What I really want to tell my wife is that what she endured on that day twenty years ago has nothing to do with me.  It can’t and it never will, no matter how hard she tries and I want to tell her to never, ever bring it up again.  But she’ll always have it at her disposal, to create distance or time, to dissolve suspicions - the way she’s used that Mandy memorabilia box.  She always knew when to drag the chair down the hallway and get the Mandy box and leave it for me to find, as if it were enough, that her horrific experience trumps all, and now she’s entitled to an unfair advantage over everyone else.

In six years of marriage I’ve come to know her better than I know myself.  I am her.  I can be her.  I can anticipate her behavior, how she’ll react, what she’ll say, to a million different scenarios. It’s what happens.  That’s the easy part of a marriage.  The hard part is understanding why.  It feels like there’ll never be enough time to figure all of that out.  So we stick to what we know, the easy part.   

She never bothered to call me at 2:00 a.m. because she knew where I was.   Just like I know she never set foot in downtown Phoenix this morning because she’s somewhere else with Brad. 

This sadness that I’m refusing to let go of is not for the decision she’s made but for knowing I’ll never understand why.

I wanted to come down anyway.  I wanted to see for myself what I would be missing, for the day when I was brave enough to destroy everything that our time together had created and believe it for myself that even though the sun is out I can see the stars.

MATT BAKER is the author of a novel, Drag the Darkness Down. His work has appeared in the Southern Humanities Review, Texas Review, Tampa Review, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. He grew up in Kansas and is a graduate of the University of Arkansas.