Writing Calisthenics

AvatarA collection of short stories, essays, and exercises to keep my brain from rusting between larger works.

Henry drives home (Excerpt from Chapter 5)

Automobile accidents rarely are.  Sometimes weather or God conspires to throw the unavoidable obstacle in the way, but usually they're caused by someone just being an asshole.  This is exactly the thought that goes through my head as I see a car in the distance barreling toward me in the right lane, trying to pass before his lane ends.
    Three responses occur to me.  I could speed up and force him behind me.  This move has the added bonus of allowing me to piss him off just a little bit more by slowing down to just below the speed limit once the road turns into a single lane.  Of course there's the fear that if there's an accident before then, somehow they'll find out I had been speeding too.  Maybe I watch too much T.V. but in case they can actually do that, that's a headache I don't need right now.  Besides, wouldn't that make me an asshole too?
    The second option is to continue at my current speed and leave it up to him.  A game of chicken.  I love a good game of chicken because I never blink.  When I'm right, I don't back down.  It occurs to me that I could say the same thing about Maggie which makes me wonder why she's so damned stubborn, which then makes me think that if I could figure that out it might make things go just a bit smoother.  That gets filed away to think about later, maybe in the shower.
    The final option is to slow down and let him pass.  Just stop fighting and let him get by with it.  Lay down on the floor, curl up in a ball, and let them kick you in the guts until they're too tired to go on.  Let the bastards talk on their cell phones in the theater.  Let them cut in line and ram their heaping carts through the express lane without saying a word.  Let them stuff a big old slice of the American pie down their gullets, and sit back while Uncle Sam uses your tax dollars to rescue them when they choke.  Just sit back and let the entire world swirl into a shit-storm of me, me, get-the-fuck-outta-the-way-cause-it's-all-about-me.  That's right Henry, be a quitter.
    I grip the steering wheel with both hands as the road narrows.  The needle never wavers from 45, and the tiny space in my chest gets smaller and tighter until it feels like my lungs are being squeezed up into my neck.  My heart throbs in the lobes of my ears and my vision gets washed in gray.  This is the way it feels before every accident.  The car is closer now, too close, he blares his horn, and I brace for impact.
    But he's misjudged.  There's no way for him to pass in the space left, and there's a curb on the shoulder to keep him from passing on the right.  I lock my eyes straight ahead and pretend he doesn't exist as he slams on his brakes.
    His grill fades from my side mirror and I want to smile, but I just feel sick.  The car bounces off the curb with a grating crunch that will cost him a new rim and an alignment at least, shimmies, then rights itself in the center of the road.  My chest tightens even more and I think I feel a pain in my arm, but that could just be from gripping the steering wheel so hard.
    Is this what it means to not be a quitter Henry?
    The script is very specific about what happens next and my head pounds as I wait for him to accelerate then tailgate, flash his brights, and lay on his horn until he can get around me.  In the meantime I get to choose which role I want to play: do I stare straight ahead at the next light and pretend nothing happened?  Do I turn whichever way he's not going to avoid any further conflict?  Do I turn my head and look at him blankly?  Or should I goad him with an incendiary smile and wave?
    I'm trying to choose when I realize this guy has gone off-script.  There is no acceleration, and in fact he's following a respectful distance behind.  There's no horn, no lights, no attempts to pass against the oncoming traffic.
    Did that just actually work?
    There's a mile or so of one-lane road until the next stop light so I accelerate a little over the speed limit; a reward for his conciliatory behavior.  But instead of speeding up he falls behind.  My chest is starting to loosen up and I feel more surprised than anything.  I don't believe I've actually seen that work.  The bump into the curb must have scared the crap out of him.
    Well, good.
    Except that I don't really feel good.  At least not in the way that being right is supposed to make you feel.  In fact, I'm pretty sure I don't really feel good about anything at the moment.
    I'm curious though, and decided on the blank stare.  He has his blinker on, another surprise courtesy, so I stay in my lane.  As he pulls into the turn lane next to me, I steel my face and casually turn his way.  I start to feel sick again and my heart pounds as I prepare to respond to a repertoire of imagined onslaughts with the stoic look of neutrality my position as the righteously offended requires.
    But the surprises aren't finished yet.  He's a she.
    And she's crying.
    Not quietly weeping and dabbing the corners of her eyes with a tissue, but sobbing openly with big gobby streams of snot running down her nose, and blackened torrents of tears staining her cheeks.  She grips the steering wheel with both hands, and I rub the back of my hand under my nose, willing her to do the same.
    Jesus christ, did I do this?
    I feel like there's a vaudeville trap-door where my heart is standing and someone's just pulled the lever.  I look at her front wheel and it's scraped up pretty good, but in more of a wounded pride kind of way.  It's still functional.  Abusive husband?  Maybe it's not her car?
    Maybe you should have just let her go Henry.
    God damnit.  How was I supposed to know?  I do not want this.  I wanted anger.  I wanted rage and retaliation.  I wanted something I understand, but this?  I didn't want this.
    What I want now is to say I'm sorry.  What I want is to see if she's okay.  I want someone to reset the trap, give me a mulligan, let me have a do-over.  I want a chance to reclaim some humanity.  What I want is to make a connection.
    I try to get her attention, but the light turns green and she's gone.  Some time must have passed because I can hear a horn blaring.  The driver behind me is flashing their lights and as I look in my mirror I see a contorted face screaming at me and hands pounding on the steering wheel.  This I understand.  This I connect with.
    The problem is, I'm no longer sure I want to.

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