Rubberneck

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Lizbeth Hernandez, Ryan P. Kelly , and Ashley Zhou

Collapsed Histories

At some point in Indiana, the questions that pooled in my mouth settled so heavily on my lips that Sarah turned on the radio in a flick of irritation. The car brimmed with one static-fringed country song. Then two.      

I pushed my hand towards the radio, and with the same movement that turned it off, my mouth overflowed.       

“Sarah, I know it’s been hard for you and Jake.” Sarah’s eyes hooked mine in the rearview mirror. “But why are you acting like this? Why are you so angry?”

I heard teeth slide against teeth.       

I could feel my breath hot against my upper lip. “And what’s this sudden urge to see your mother? You said that you’d never be able to forgive her for what she said. What is this, Sarah?”       

Her anger two years ago had been nothing like this: Jake had been afraid to touch her, Isaac had been worse than usual, tasting the mood of the house but unaware of its cause. They had called me over. Sarah and I had gone for a drive—my car. She’d been explosive for days, but as soon as I eased the engine on, she went limp.       

“You’ll feel better if you talk about it,” I said then, pulling out of her driveway.       

She talked after 15 minutes of slow, residential roads. Wood-paneled houses, blue, white, tan, the same brown shingles on every one. Trees blocking views of front doors, lawns edged with brown. Someone was wheeling out the trash as we passed. He waved. Sunday morning suburban New Jersey meandered past the window until Sarah said that, after she’d told her of Isaac’s diagnosis, her mother had said it would’ve been better if he’d never been born at all.       

Now Sarah drifted into the right lane, where we halted the acceleration of an 18-wheeler, its headlights following us angrily. She drove like this for a while. A stream of cars passed.

My mother’s anger, too, used to occupy a space like this. So many times she had filled the car, bristling to me about what my father had done now—she didn’t trust my brother, too male—the seatbelt ensnaring me, suffocating. I didn’t learn until I was older that she didn’t want me to say anything reassuring. She only wanted me to feel her unhappiness, and sometimes she’d stop the car in a dark parking lot or on the side of the road and glare hard at me, at everything, like she was asking, do you do you do you?       

Eventually I said to Sarah, “You’ll feel better if you talk about it.” I tried to make my voice as small as I used to feel in my mother’s car. I tried to make my voice like a knife rounding into smoothness after years of use. Sarah looked ahead.       

“I know people usually start out by talking about sex,” she started, haltingly. “But Jake and I haven’t had sex in years, even before we knew about Isaac’s autism.”

“I don’t remember talking to him these past two months. He must’ve told you this—I spent all day in the bedroom, and when he’d come home, I’d sleep. All I’ve been doing is sleeping and watching those old sitcoms about groups of friends living together, or living close to one another, and having their lives so intertwined. I used to think that’d be me. Now there’s just Jake.” She thought for a moment. “And you.”       

She said, “And these shows, you know, they’re funny. Sometimes I laugh. And then I hear my laughter, and I hear how empty the house is. I realize I’m all alone, and I’m laughing all alone. That’s why I sleep when Jake comes home—I’m afraid to look at him. I think he thinks it’s grief, and so he doesn’t try to talk to me about it.”       

Her words hung as if over a ravine. Then she said, “No, I remember now. He said something the other day.” Her hand hovered above the steering wheel, like she wanted to touch her face, but came to rest on her leg instead. “He came into the room when I was pretending to sleep and sat at the edge of the bed. He said, ‘God, Sarah. This is all that’s left, isn’t it? Ten years married and this is it.’”       

“When was this?” I asked. Her voice was dimmed by the wind that whipped past the car. We would pull over soon, stop for the night. Sarah hadn’t asked me to, but I’d been scrutinizing exit signs, squinting for a motel.       

“A day or so before we left.”

I tried to read her face in the glow of the dashboard. “Why would he say that?”       

Her shirt rustled as she lifted a shoulder. When we finally pulled in front of a motel, I had already been half-dozing for miles, and as Sarah twisted her key to free it from the car, before I had fully awoken, I thought it was my parents’ scraping metal as it released, and my father was going to unbuckle me from my seat and cradle me to bed as my mother headed straight for the front door, straight to sleep.

 

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