I didn’t see it coming.
A quick glance into my rearview mirror, a hasty wrench of the wheel, and—smack! right into an oncoming car in the next lane. Damn. That driver should have seen me. I glanced back through the sheen of stickers peppering my rear window… vacations, sports teams, forgotten elections. I could see through most of them. Still, this wasn’t my fault.
Within seconds, I felt the tightness of the traffic close in around me. On a road already choked with cars, I’d managed to bring it all to a standstill. Pulling over to the shoulder alongside a glistening Escalade, I got out of my car. The driver was pissed but polite as we exchanged phone numbers, insurance, caustic glances. I returned to my Subaru, closing the door with a metal-scraping slam and turned the key.Wouldn’t start. Meanwhile Cadillac boy sailed away. I called AAA and settled in for the wait. Taking a deep breath, I dropped my palms onto the steering wheel, closed my eyes and tried to block out the slow grind of traffic creeping under my skin.
My eyes popped open at the sound of a harried voice ripping through the open window of a minivan edging up beside me. Something like: “…if you ever try that stunt again… for the last time, leave your brother’s Game Boy alone… no, we’re not going to Burger King and if you ask me one more time…” As the car passed, I saw the mom’s finger wagging over the center console, a second-wave of threats launched toward the back seat.
I smiled. Been there, honey. Late for a soccer match and too early for happy hour, a week’s worth of groceries melting in the trunk. Overwhelmed by traffic and frustrated by the cluelessness of the very kids you’re hustling around for. No idea of the effort you’re waging on their behalf. I was tempted to yell over, tell the kids to thank their mom once in a while or at least after a hell of a drive like this one. And I wanted to tell the mom, yeah, some days are a bitch, but try and enjoy those nerve-frying moments. When they’re gone, you’ll miss them.
In a momentary surge, the mini-van moved on. Seconds later though, the traffic stalled again. This time I looked over into the windows of a Lexus. On the passenger side, sat an elderly woman, sweater buttoned to her neck, shoulders stooped, her grey hair gathered in a soft knot at the back of her head. The driver was a middle-aged man, worry stitched into his face as tightly as the embroidery on the woman’s sweater. He spoke, the woman stared. He spoke again, her eyes remained fixed on the road ahead—but more likely on nothing. He turned toward her and seemed to sigh.
Oh, man, I’d been there, too. Buckle in, I wanted to tell him. Doctor bills, dementia–a constant shit storm of bad news. And if his life weren’t already screwed, he probably had siblings—smarter than God—who’d make sure to tell him he did nothing right. As their car edged past, I looked at them one last time, guilty for a second, that I had any part in making their crappy day even a little more difficult.
My eyes glanced up to check out the rearview mirror. A tow truck sat about twenty car lengths back trying to edge toward me in traffic that wouldn’t give an inch. My head dropped back against the headrest then rolled toward the window. A pickup truck with a cab full of teenagers revved up beside me, music blasting, heads bobbing, the traffic jam just a blip on the roadmap of whatever adventure this day had waiting.
In their expressions I caught hints of my past. Young, carefree—often careless—thoughts focused no further than a few hours ahead. The driver, tanned and handsome turned and looked at the sandy blonde girl beside him, tapping the beat of the song with her slender fingers against the outside of the door. His look lingered, sweet yet edged with a wolfy hunger that didn’t let up. The traffic lurched forward and the driver seemed reluctant to return his eyes to the road. I wanted to tell them to cherish days like this. I’ve been there. They don’t last. And to tell her: be careful. I’d been there, too.
The tow-truck was just a few car-lengths back now, gaining ground in parting the Red Sea of cars between us. I gathered my handbag on the seat beside me, grabbed my sunglasses from the dash and stuck them on top of my head, then glanced around the car before my eyes caught the view outside out my window once more.
Frozen in the jam-up of traffic beside me was a red Escort, windows open. The driver, a black woman with streaks of gray at her temples, was about my age with a teenage boy beside her. There was no conversation between them, no radio on. I found myself staring at the woman’s face which drooped downward as the traffic lulled. Unexpectedly, she looked up and locked onto my curious gaze. There was something ancient in her deep brown eyes, a sadness I couldn’t name. They were edged with wrinkles, beyond her years, and weighted by something far heavier than traffic tie-ups, kids and appointments. I tried to read them, but there was something I couldn’t decipher. Somehow, I knew I hadn’t ever been there.
“Yo, lady, how did this happen?”
I looked over at the burly tow truck driver yelling in the window from the other side of my car. He stroked his stubbly chin and whistled at the impressive damage. “It ain’t gonna fix easy. How did this happen?”
I turned back to watch as the red car slipped past and answered him.