The heels of my bare feet had been resting on the sundrenched dashboard for 44 miles. The silence in the car, blurred at the edges only by the noise of the wind rushing by, had lasted for at least seventy miles.
“What are you thinking about?” Annie asked me, more out of an effort to stay awake than out of any genuine interest.
“Oh … nothing,” I replied in one long, quiet exhalation.
“Come on. You have to be thinking of something. Your mind can’t be a complete blank,” Annie snapped back. Her overly combative response seemed to be the result of equal parts boredom, exhaustion, and caffeine-fueled hostility.
“Fine,” I acquiesced, “I was thinking about palindromes.”
A beat. Annie continued to stare at the seemingly endless and perfectly straight highway that kept expanding in front of us. No change of expression until, slowly, her forehead began to crinkle and her upper lip curled up. “Huh?” she asked, only semi-interested.
“You know, words that are spelled the same forwards as backwards … I was trying to list as many as I could,” I admitted, realizing the lameness of my mental life and cursing myself for having not been thinking about something more monumental … my schoolwork, where I will live when my lease is up, what I will do with my life. Amid silent self-flagellation, I, having lost all control of how insane I allowed myself to sound, continued rambling. “I only came up with two good ones … racecar and Hannah. The only other ones I could think of were pathetic three-letter ones: mom, dad, pop, wow. God, it’s annoying that I can’t think of any better ones.”
Another beat. More crinkles and lip curls from Annie and then, “How in the hell did you get started thinking about palandrones?”
“Not ‘palandrones,’ palindromes,” I corrected and then regretted instantly.
“Whatever,” was her weary response. I could tell from the look of the right side of her face that she desperately wished she had invited someone else on this road trip with her. Anyone else.
I hesitated, wishing I could just change the subject. Or, better yet, go back in time and come up with something better to think about in the stilled silence. But, I knew, it was too late to just drop it. “Well, today is the 2nd of November, 2011, right? So that’s 11/02/2011. Today is a palindrome,” I whispered with downcast eyes. I could just feel Annie’s brain working, trying to figure out how it is possible that we are related, how such two completely different brains could share the same parent-brains.
“I’m starting to think you must be adopted,” she snipped, shutting down further discussion of palindromes for the rest of trip, the rest of all time if it was up to her.
My pouting, petulant lips contorted as I tried to craft a biting, caustic, brilliant retort. But, of course, my mind went blank and “Shut up” was all I could come up with.
And she did. And I did. We both retreated into our own silences, sealing off our lips and ears. Almost instantly transformed from adults into petulant children. We continued like this for another 25 miles or so until, finally, I extended an olive branch. “I can take over driving whenever you want,” I muttered without shifting my gaze away from my dirt-speckled window.
“Thanks,” she replied with an equivalent amount of appeased distance, “I’m good for a bit longer though.”
More silence. Nothing to say. We hadn’t seen each other in months and only 105 miles into our 224-mile journey and we had already exhausted our stores of polite, innocuous dialogue. Each mile-marker that passed only served to remind me of all the things that have, must, and, probably will go, unsaid between us. New Jersey Turnpike, Mile Marker 5 N – why she hadn’t been down to DC to visit me lately. New Jersey Turnpike, Mile Marker 6 N – why she hadn’t returned my calls in the last few months. New Jersey Turnpike, Mile Marker 7 N – why she invited me on this road-trip out of the blue. New Jersey Turnpike, Mile Marker 8 N – why I wasn’t brave enough to ask all of these questions, the questions that should be asked. New Jersey Turnpike, Mile Marker 9 N …
“Liz,” she said barely moving her lips, like a ventriloquist.
“I’m getting married,” she said quietly. Although the corners of her mouth were slightly up-turned forming the foundations of a radiant smile, the space between her eyebrows was slightly knitted, unsure of how I would react.
I, on the other hand, could muster neither a brow-furrow nor a ghost of a smile. The mile-markers continued to pass by, though at a faster speed now—when had she started to drive faster? My thoughts, like the road ahead, continued to roll out in front of me but they passed so quickly that I could not hold any one thought at any one time. A coherent, situation-appropriate response to Annie’s revelation was as impossible to approach as the eternally fleeing horizon.
“Liz, for God’s sake say something. I’m getting married. You must have something to say.”
Another beat. “God, Annie,” I whispered in a strained response, “I just don’t have any idea what to say. I didn’t even know you were dating anyone. I don’t talk to you for months and now … now you’re getting married? To a stranger.”
“He’s not a stranger,” Annie said in defense of her fiancé’s ghost. “Well, I know that it’s strange that I’m marrying someone you’ve never met. But come on, Liz, grow up. You’ll get to know him! Can’t you just be happy for me and not overthink everything like you always do!”
“Sooorrrrry,” I retorted with more than a hint of sarcasm, “Sorry that I am not automatically uber happy for you and … and … God, Annie! I don’t even know his name!”
“Oh, right. It’s Atom.”
“Yeah, you know, like as in molecules and protons and stuff. It was Adam but he changed it to Atom a few years ago,” Annie explained with a full-on glowing smile.
I turned my head back toward the window and mouthed an “Oh, God.” Luckily, Annie didn’t seem to notice.
She continued her monologue. “We’ve been dating since July. Three months now. You know my lease was up in September? Well, I’ve been living at his place since then.”
“Ah,” I said along with a subtle head nod. I had to employ all of my self-restraint in order to keep my facial expressions still and my comments to myself, to keep my skepticism in check. “So that explains why you’ve been a little M.I.A. lately.”
Unaware of my utterance and, from all appearances, no longer even registering my continued presence in the car, Annie went on with her effusion of girly gushes. “For my birthday he wrote me a song. And then,” she paused, basking in the private glory of her remembered tale, “on Halloween we were watching my favorite scary movies,” another glory-basking pause, “and before we started watching ‘Friday the 13th’ he suggested that we go outside and have a cigarette. I got up to get my coat and put my house shoes on…” Here, Annie turned her face toward mine and briefly scanned my profile and posture. Trying to detect some level of enthusiasm for her tale but finding none, Annie paused for a split second, let out a semi-weary sigh, and continued her story, at a slightly quicker pace and with a decidedly narrower smile. “And, anyway, some music starts to play and I turn around to face the back porch and lined up on the wall are six pumpkins spelling out ‘Will you marry me?’ and in the last pumpkin was the ring surrounded by candles.”
A beat. Silence. Silence punctuated by the swish of passing mile-markers.
“Huh,” I finally uttered, “well, where’s the ring now? Why aren’t you wearing it now?” I saw Annie’s annoyed glare flash from the corner of her eye.
“Well, I knew that you were going to have a problem with this. So, I thought that telling you the story first would help to soften the shock of it all.”
“I don’t have a problem with this,” I said in a huff of self-defense.
“Oh, please, Liz. I know you,” Annie hissed, unable to hold back her frustration anymore. The harsh words now flowed from her in rapid succession. “You are always thinking. Never trusting anyone, always looking for ulterior motives. Always so cynical.”
“Hey!” I let out in a burst of reciprocal anger. Kicking my feet down from their dashboard perch and jerking my body to the left to face Annie, I rapidly searched my mind for some sort of linguistic shield. “Hey. Just because I don’t go off and get married on a whim to some random guy doesn’t make me cynical.”
“He is not a random guy! You just don’t understand because you could never let yourself feel so much about another person!” With each impassioned outburst, Annie’s fists gripped the steering wheel tighter and tighter, her knuckles becoming a ghostly white. “Your brain is too full of palindromes and shit like that to have enough space for other people! You’re always overanalyzing, never trusting,” she said, her voice in a rapid decrescendo. And then, in a deadly whisper, “you’ll probably end up alone.”
My head jerked back from the unsettling shock of her response. My eyes closed under their own power, blocking out the sun that had suddenly seemed unnaturally bright and preventing the stage-one tears from forming. I felt a sharp pain nowhere in particular. I simply ached all over. I could feel myself shutting down. Could no longer even stir up enough energy to argue, to get angry, to defend myself. I focused my gaze once again on the passing of the mile-markers.
A deafening silence once again consumed the car.
New Jersey Turnpike, Mile Marker 29 N … sagas … New Jersey Turnpike, Mile Marker 30 N … reviver … New Jersey Turnpike, Mile Marker 31 N … redivider … New Jersey Turnpike, Mile Marker 32 N … aha …
[BIO]: Stacie holds an MA in Literature from The City College of New York and works as an advertising associate in Washington, DC.