As hazard lights flash warning of her status, she sets her features to neutral. She tightens and then loosens her fingers on the steering wheel, willing her exhalations to fill the air with something like tolerance. Shaking out her hands, she reaches for a brochure left in the car from a recent trip to the zoo, her eyes scanning the small glossy animal images for possible conversation – he likes elephants – maybe they can talk about elephants.
Maybe they can talk about elephants? A sense of doom settles over her as heavy as the animal itself.
She turns to watch him. He is arguing with someone. Of course he is.
As she watches, he throws his hands up in frustrated dismissal and then reaches down to grab his duffel-bag and backpack. He moves quickly to the rear of the car, and she panics for a moment, fumbling for the lever that releases the trunk. She breathes a sigh of relief as the trunk pops open just as he reaches, that relief followed immediately by anger . . . he’s not even in the car yet, and she is not herself.
The car jolts, taking her and her anger on three short journeys forward and then back – once for each of his hurled bags and once more for the slam of the trunk.
The passenger door is yanked open and he folds himself into the car, reaching down for the controls to slide the seat back even as he yells at the man with whom he was just arguing, “Don’t tell me about China! I know about China! I have been to China and I know what I’m talking about – they love Esther Williams in China!”
She considers asking when he went to China, but she knows he’s never been to China, so she lets it go.
He grunts an unintelligible chin-led greeting in her direction before pulling closed the door, settling heavily back into his seat as he mutters something to himself and then says it again more loudly, “That was my beef jerky.”
She laughs nervously, “Alright, then. You ready to go?”
Instead of answering her question, he pulls his feet up high and then stomps them down into the floor-mat, his voice determined, “I cannot leave the words unsaid.” She has no idea what he’s talking about, and so she waits to see what the words might be, but he doesn’t speak them. Instead, with his right hand he claws at the glass of the car’s window as he punches random dashboard buttons with his left hand, “Open the window. How do you open this damned window?”
She gestures at the controls on his door panel, but he isn’t paying attention, and his voice grows shrill, “Open the goddamned window!”
She presses the master controls on her own door, and his window slides down and away. He half stands to lean out of the window and scream, “That was my beef jerky! Esther Williams be damned, you fool! That was my beef jerky!”
She waits, unsure if there is more to this strange argument.
“Origami is not the fastest route to Cleveland, motherfucker. Learn to read a map! Asshole.”
The man to whom he is directing this strange tirade does not respond, for which she is very grateful. She turns the key in the ignition. Hazard lights off, turn-signal on, “You ready to go?”
Agitated, he concludes the one-sided argument with, “Fold a map into a swan, it still won’t tell you the path.” He resettles himself and flicks a hand toward the front windshield, “Go.”
She pulls away from the airport’s curb and into the traffic of travelers, “Your flight was good?”
A nod of his head, “I am not an unattractive man. Travel suits me.”
The car begins to ding a small alarm. When he does not respond to its cries, she explains, “You need to put your seatbelt on. It won’t stop dinging until you put your seatbelt on.”
He reaches for the seatbelt and leans forward to drag it behind his body, “I will not be tethered to velocitous fuselage. If there is to be death, I want that moment of ending momentum free of restraint.”
She is pretty sure velocitous is not a word, but she knows what he means. The audible alarm stops as the seatbelt clicks into useless place. She is annoyed, “You didn’t wear a seatbelt on the plane? You must have worn a seatbelt on the plane.”
“I don’t do seatbelts.”
“But they wouldn’t take off if you weren’t wearing a seatbelt.”
He glances at her, “Does it get tiring to be so blindly obedient?”
She tries a laugh, “So I guess I better drive carefully.”
He flicks his hand again, “Do what you will.”
She reaches for the control, “Alright if I shut the window?”
“I find I have an excess of saliva these days, which I refuse to swallow.” He punctuates the end of this sentence with a guttural fleshy sound, and then he turns to spit out of the window. “I have too much liquid . . . I have to work to keep the balance.”
She is for a moment unable to process either his words or his actions, and so they ride along in silence until he once again gathers spit and ejects it out onto the road. She taps at the steering wheel with a single finger, and then speaks, “I’m shutting the window.”
He shrugs, “I threw away the cup I used on the airplane, but if you don’t mind me spitting on the car’s floor, go ahead and shut the window.”
“Wait, you collected your spit in a cup? On the airplane? Really?”
“What was I supposed to do?” His tone clearly indicates his surprise at her question, “They don’t let you open the windows.” He spits noisily again, finds the control button, raises his window, “So you want me to spit on the floor?”
“No.” She shakes her head, “Just swallow. That is so disgusting. People swallow. They do not spit out of cars every fifteen seconds. Swallow.”
He shakes his head, “Swallowing is not an option.” He clears his throat and makes horrendous sucking noises, and she hurries to reopen his window. He spits, so much spit that she sees it hit the side of the road behind them in her rear-view mirror. Her stomach heaves, and she lifts a hand to cover her mouth, “I think I am going to be sick.”
His voice is calm, “Open your window, then. I will be maintaining my balance – this is not negotiable.”
Furious and nauseated, but unwilling and unable to confront him, she starts talking. Anything . . . she just needs words to cover the sounds of his expectorations and the silence of her own inadequacy. She reaches for words, and finding some, she starts spewing them without much thought, pointing at the trees that line the road as she speaks, wanting to demonstrate a connection between her words and the scenery, “I saw this photo the other day in a magazine . . . of a 2000 year-old-tree in South Africa. The caption said that at some point the tree had been struck by lightning, and that the lightning had partially uprooted the tree.” She turns to him, seeking some sort of validation or approval, and then is immediately furious with herself. What does it matter if this man thinks her conversation is worthwhile? As if to support her point, he makes no acknowledgment that she has spoken at all, instead snorting and coughing and then once again spitting loudly out the window.
She shudders and keeps talking, “The tree was gorgeous in that way that ugly gnarled things can sometimes be, you know? Low to the ground, as if it had been pressed and shaped by hands from above, and oddly symmetrical. I mean, I know trees are generally symmetrical, but this was a weird palmed symmetry, as though the whole thing had been sculpted.” She pauses, realizing she has made the point about the tree looking as though it had been shaped by hands three different times, “Anyway. It was a beautiful ugly tree.”
He speaks slowly, “I used to climb a tree as a child so as to look down and askance upon the world. There was a huge oak tree outside my bedroom, its branches reachable from my window.”
She sinks into uneasy silence. There had been no such tree.
“I used to gather scraps from meals and carry them up into the tree with me in a small backpack.”
There was no such tree.
“Squirrels and birds learned to gather when I ascended.”
There was no such tree.
“Once there was a bear, a small black bear, who climbed up into the tree with me, attracted by the scent of my sandwich scraps. He drove me out onto the furthest and flimsiest branches, and I fell asleep draped along oak-scented lattices. When I awoke, I was scarred but alive, and I dropped in bloody fashion to the earth below and laughed at the absurdity of my childhood.”
There was no such tree.
She ventures, “I don’t remember that tree.”
Unconcerned, he goes on, “Memory folds like origami maps, and the paths to the past are obscured. I once carved my initials into the base of the trunk with a plastic knife I received as a birthday present. I’m sure the initials are still there.”
There was no such tree.
He raises his window slightly and breathes wet warm air against the glass, carves his initials into the small circular fog with a fingertip. The letters fade almost immediately, and he lowers the window again, speaking musingly, “The air tastes different when breathed above one’s life.”
She is momentarily at a loss. Perhaps she will just continue talking about her own tree, which is not imaginary, “Mmm hmmm . . . the thing about the tree in the photo? Like I said, it had been partially uprooted by lightning, and the roots that had been pulled from the earth? Guess what they did?”
He speaks seemingly to himself, “It’s easier to sit in judgment from above, I find.”
“So the roots of this tree, they turned into branches! Isn’t that amazing? I mean the tree still had a few roots, enough to nourish the tree, but the majority of the roots? They turned skyward when they could no longer burrow beneath, and they became branches. A complete transformation . . . isn’t that kind of amazing?”
“Hardship turns what was light to darkness.”
She is pretty sure he has missed the point, “Or in this case, what was darkness to light.”
He cranes forward to stare into her face, as though seeing something there that startles him.
She laughs nervously, sorry that she started talking at all, wishing she was a strong enough person to simply let the silence ride, “It’s just a photo I saw. Just a photo I thought was . . .” she searches for the word she wants and finally, lamely, settles on, “interesting.”
He pulls his face away from hers slowly, withdrawing as he withdraws. He picks up the brochure for the zoo from the car’s middle console, “Maybe I’ll go to the zoo during this visit.”
She seizes upon this topic as he gathers saliva and ejects its sticky liquid ropes through the window, “Yes! I meant to tell you . . . there is a new elephant baby at the zoo. A girl — Eidolon.”
He is intrigued, “The baby’s name is Eidolon?”
“Yes, I’m not sure what it means, but it’s pretty . . . don’t you think?”
“I know what it means.” His tone makes it clear he will not be sharing this information with her.
She looks at the small clock on the dashboard – another half hour until they arrive.
He spits again, and then he says, “Let me out here.”
“What? We still have twenty minutes to go. I promised to drop you off at the house.”
He repeats his demand, “Let me out here.”
“Like on the side of the road?”
“I am not a child. Pull the fucking car over and let me out.”
She pulls the car to the shoulder of the road, engages the hazard lights, sits silently as he walks to the back of the car. He bangs a fist on the top of the trunk, and she reaches for the trunk’s release. His bags retrieved, he slams shut the trunk and returns to the passenger side of the car, leans in through the still open window, “Tell her I’ll be there for dinner.”
“Will you be there for dinner?”
“Maybe. I’ve got to see a ghost.”
“I’m supposed to understand what you’re talking about, aren’t I?”
He smiles pityingly, “Don’t you get tired of everything in your life being upside-down? Don’t you get tired of acting as though having roots for branches is normal? Don’t you get tired of having to trust that the supports left to you will be sufficient? Don’t you get tired?”
She is, all at once, horrifyingly, close to tears, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He shakes his head, “Fine. You have not been struck by lightning.” He spits voluminously on the ground at his feet, “You have not been struck by lightning, and I am not filled with poison.”
He picks up his bags and walks away, off into the woods along the road.
She stares after him until he disappears, and then she stares at the point of his disappearance for a bit.
Unbuckling her seatbelt, she leans forward to drag the belt behind her body, clicking it into useless security.
She pulls back onto the roadway.
“Don’t you get tired?”
Her mouth fills with salty mucus as tears and panic and nausea combine, a roiling bilious undulation within.