by Marcus Lopes
As the car speeds down the long stretch of highway, I stare out the window, my gaze held to the orange hue streaming high into the sky and bleeding into the midnight blue. The white crescent moon has yet to go to sleep. The seatbelt strapped across my body holds my fears in check, and temporarily quells the prostrating sense of uneasiness, of something not right about the world. I’m in extremity, my mind in an anxious tumult.
The whistling of the air conditioner blocks out everything, even my thoughts. A sickening feeling edges its way up my throat, and I swallow hard to knock it back down. No luck. I turn my head and look at him; he stares straight ahead, eyes glued to the road, his bronze face expressionless. Blank. He likes to boast about his quirky ability to shut out the world around him, cut himself off — and we should all take a page from his playbook on how to “deal” with life. He doesn’t care how frustrating that is. I cough, and he glances at me, flashing a coy smile before focusing his attention again on the road.
I draw in a deep breath and blow it out slowly through my mouth as I shift my gaze back to the rolling landscape, my head against the headrest. I don’t want to be here but I haven’t been able to pull myself out — my life plugged up, and all the Drano in the world can’t remove the clog, or open up the tiniest of passages from this life to the next. We pass a sign that reads, “Next Service Centre 11 km,” and I clear my throat.
He says, “Yes,” in his usual cool tone, “we’re stopping.”
I close my eyes. For some time now (I can’t say for how long) I’ve wondered what it would be like to fall out of love. Is it the opposite of falling in love? Is the great anticipation of seeing a new lover replaced by apprehension and lack of desire? Is the pitter-patter of an excited heart trumped by the dread of intimacy with the one you “love”? Is the energetic, vocal, never-enough lovemaking deposed by mechanical, silent, straight-to-it sex — simply a need to fulfill, and it doesn’t matter with whom? Will I recognize the feeling? Oh, yes! It came to me like a new song, but when I opened my mouth to sing nothing happened. How could anything happen when I had yet to write the score?
He sucks his teeth. “Are you just going to sit there?”
I open my eyes as he pushes open the driver’s side door; we’re parked close to the entrance of the service centre. I get out of the car, and clasp my hands together high above my head and yawn, relishing the warm morning sun beating against my face. I amble towards the entrance as he holds the door open, scowling and tapping his foot. Are we on a tight schedule? Inside we make a beeline for the washroom. Public washrooms make me tense up, hold my bladder hostage, as though I’m being watched. I wait and wait and wait before there’s any release. In the mirror above the sink I see him pacing the corridor outside the washroom, his face tied in knots and checking his watch. “What the fuck’s wrong now?” I want to say but censor myself.
“Tim Hortons or Wendy’s?” he asks, with an edge.
“Neither,” I hear myself screaming inside my head, but as a sort of peace offering, say, “Tim Hortons,” because that’s what he likes.
We stare up at the menu — me with my hands shoved in my jeans pockets, him with his arms folded. I sneak a sidelong glance. When did everything change? When did we become so happy in our unhappiness? And why can’t we just cut the cord? We order. I leave him to pay, and secure a table by the windows.
I study him standing at the counter, sideways but still with his back to me, his arms folded, and drumming his fingers into his bicep. I suspect he’s also tapping his foot again. I spin around in my chair at the sound of a high-pitched shrill; a mother carries her crying infant off towards the washrooms. I turn around and lock onto his light-blue eyes. Is his orange juice as icy as his eyes that gleam discontent? What have I done this time?
He sits down, and the brown tray hits the table with a loud thud. He shifts his intent look between me and the tray, divvies out the food, and then reaches across the aisle to place the tray on an empty table. He says, “Bon appétit,” and smiles. I’ve always loved his smile, a generous smile, and how his lips curl upwards and his face softens, as if he’s truly contented from within. He takes a sip of his orange juice, his eyes trained on me, blinking magnificently.
A few grey hairs speckle his dark full mane. His square face makes him look austere, frighteningly hawkish yet attractive. My entire body tingles. I remember, despite its long absence, the feel of his rough hands sliding over my body, the tip of his tongue tracing my earlobe, our bodies locked in a clenching embrace. All that seems like a lifetime ago.
He picks up his sandwich, and before taking a bite, says, “I know you didn’t want to come …”
I shrug, and stir my soup. What happened to the edge in his voice? He sounds genuine, and I want to believe that he is, but I’m eager to release my new song. “We need to talk about us …” I taste my soup.
The smile on his face fades, and he looks at me — lips pursed and eyebrows scrunched, a look of, “How dare you …!” and opens his mouth to speak but says nothing. How dare I? How dare I not? I drop my gaze, nervous as to how to proceed, and wishing I could retract my words, turn back time. Does he still have power over me? God, I hope not.
He sets his sandwich down on its wrapper. “Us …” Disdain brims in his voice. “That sounds ominous.”
I’m again hypnotized by those penetrating light-blue eyes that once made me weak in the knees. I say, “We need to re-evaluate,” as if resolved to dissolve a fractured business relationship.
“Re-evaluate,” he says, with a hint of condescension. “Re-evaluate what?”
A heavy black weight hangs in the air between us, constricting, cutting off the air supply. His eyes narrow, filled with distrust, and angry, cool, menacing. His slender fingers curl into fists. “Christ …!” He looks away.
“I just think that we need to take a breather —”
“A breather …?” He slams his fist into his sandwich, the lettuce and tomato pushed out of the bread and onto the wrapper. Heads swing in our direction, and for a brief moment there’s a decrescendo in noise. He wipes the mayonnaise off his hand and sits slightly hunched forward, defeated. Then, when his glossy eyes find mine, “Is there — someone else?”
“No.” His abstracted gaze says he doesn’t believe me. I say, “I’m feeling smothered,” but that’s not it, “and I just need some time to myself.”
“Smothered …” A tear rolls down his face. “That explains everything.”
Everything. And by this he no doubt means the lack of sexual intimacy between us, and my constant dodging of his advances. My longer days at the office — anything to put off home. At home I confine myself to my office and let him occupy the rest of the house. My reluctance to come on this trip, in general just to be with him, near him. And yet we, still, share a bed.
“Fine.” He lifts his squished sandwich to his mouth.
Relief. There’s no resistance, no substantive questioning as to my motives, but doesn’t the lack of all that prove that we fell out of love a long time ago? Were we waiting out this downturn, hoping that the passion that had jumpstarted our love would somehow reignite our love economy? Our love isn’t in recession. Our love is in a deep depression, and we aren’t genuinely reinvesting in that economy. And there love, our love, ebbs.
“Why are you just telling me this now?” He chews his mouthful of food and then, “Why are you deciding that we’re through?”
I won’t play the blame game, I won’t be baited. I lean back in my chair and sigh. “Surely this isn’t a surprise —”
“But it is a surprise. I mean — all right — things haven’t been great between us but —” The edge in his voice, intense and sharp, reignites the tingling sensation all over my body. His exuberant confidence hooked me in the first place. He shakes his head. “You should’ve said something before we left.”
I drop my gaze. “I tried — We just haven’t been able to —”
“Talk,” he says, looking hopelessly at me. “I know.”
There’s a silence.
I look at him. “I’m sorry —”
“So am I.” He cuts his eyes, sets the remainder of his sandwich down on the wrapper and hides his face in his hands. (Why is it that I don’t feel sorry?) When he uncovers his face, his eyes are moist. He looks in my direction but not at me and says, “Maybe we should just turn around and go home.”
“We should keep going.” Where’s home anyway? For the first time in three years (we’ve been together for seven) I’m deliriously happy. “Besides, it’s your grandmother’s eightieth birthday, and you should be there.”
He looks straight at me. “Is this really just a ‘breather’ or is it the end of us?”
“We ended a long time ago.”
His eyes widen and then narrow, and he drops his gaze. He balls up the sandwich in its wrapper. “Let’s go.”
“Sure.” I take my sandwich with me but let him throw out the soup and coffee with everything else.
We make our way back towards the car, the bright afternoon sun beaming into our eyes. He walks a little ahead of me, his blue jeans showcasing his firm runner’s arse. Why am I attracted to him again, wanting to devour him, taste him? Is it because he’s no longer within reach? Or is he?
He opens the passenger door, and as I go to get in he places his hand to my chest and says, “I love you very much.” There’s a glow in his eyes that I’ve never seen before, like he’s come into truth. Have we been set free? He withdraws his hand and heads to the other side of the vehicle. We get in the car. He sits there for a minute, staring abstractly at the dashboard, and finally flips the engine.
As the car speeds down the long stretch of highway, I stare out the window into the blue, cloudless sky and, feeling conflicted, close my eyes. I listen to the hum of the engine, the whistling of the air conditioner, his intermittent clearing of the throat, the whizzing of cars passing us by. I got what I wanted … or did I? Something has shifted between us, but I’m not sure if it cemented our separateness or brought us closer together.
The car slows down and I open my eyes, and off in the distance I see flashing lights. He shifts the car into park and we look at each other; I’m the first to glance away. He searches for my hand and tightens his grip. Our fingers intertwine, and I return my gaze to his. He looks surprised when I don’t let go, as if we’re suddenly held to a bold new vista, daring to begin again. I smile faintly, gingerly withdraw my hand from his, and turn away.
M. Marcus A. Lopés is a writer and painter living in Sherbrooke, Québec. His writing has appeared in Other Voices: Journal of the Literary and Visual Arts , and other literary journals. His site: Marcus Lopés .