Bumper to Bumper

By J. Duncan Wiley

When the driver first sees her in the rearview mirror, her hands are not on the steering wheel but are over her eyes as though she is weeping uncontrollably. She is coming upon the stoplight at speed, and for a moment the driver panics, thinking she has not seen the light, thinking she may have forgotten that she is driving altogether. The morning traffic is thick; there is no room to pull forward, no room to move into the next lane. A collision seems unavoidable. The driver tenses and braces for impact. But then her car slows, and without removing her palms from her eyes the woman comes to a clean, effortless stop.

All around, waiting vehicles steam, breathing their exhaust into the cold air. Frost clings to fenders and bumpers, reflecting the red brilliance of a sun that has not yet cleared the horizon. Still tingling with adrenaline, the driver takes a deep breath and adjusts the tension in the seatbelt. In the rearview the woman continues to rub her face, and it’s several seconds before the driver realizes she is not weeping but is instead applying some kind of cream to her skin. If there had been a collision, it would have been the result of nothing more than petty vanity.

Now her hands part across her forehead, swing around the orbits of her eyes to massage her cheekbones, finally trace the separate halves of her jawline to her chin. She repeats this motion several times, giving the most attention to the dream heavy flesh under her eyes. She is watching herself in her own rearview mirror. But the regimen does not have the desired effect: rather than smoothing her appearance, every pass of her hands makes the fine lines in her skin more pronounced. By the time she takes a final open-palmed wipe, as though to clear everything away and start fresh, her face is an intricate map of weariness and worry. She leans forward slightly, almost in defeat, and casts a sideways look out her window, fixing far away on nothing determinable. In that moment her expression is so unguarded, so vulnerable, the driver can’t help but feel—in addition to a shade of voyeuristic guilt—pangs of something like parental protectiveness.

The light changes, and impatient motorists hit their accelerators. For several blocks everyone travels in tight formation. The woman keeps close, braking and accelerating in time with the driver as if they are connected by a tow rope. She seems more focused now, though her preoccupation remains evident in the downward angle of her face, the way she has to raise her eyes to watch the road. Whenever her concentration wavers her shoulders round forward.

A tow rope. The driver likes the idea of pulling her along, easing her burden by some small measure. Who knows what weights are strung about her neck: an unfaithful lover, a child who lights fires in lavatory trashcans at school, the threat of unemployment, some philosophical or theological question that interrupts her sleep with bouts of existential dread. Let her sort her troubles without the added pressure of navigating traffic. The drive isn’t important. The driver will take care of that.

Vehicles turn off on side streets, and others merge to take their places. Cars become vans become delivery trucks become cars again. Only the woman and the driver remain constant, never separated by more than two car lengths. It’s hard to find gaps large enough for both of them, but the driver is patient, and every time the driver changes lanes, the woman follows. Shepherding her through these parting waves of vehicles feels as natural as a fluid clutch shifting gears. It’s almost as though they’d planned this arrangement. Perhaps they even share the same destination. The driver imagines a tow rope capable of pulling the woman straight through this day and into the sparkling waters that lie on the other side of worry. All she needs is someone to lead the way. The driver grips the steering wheel with purpose and finds her in the rearview. Their reflected eyes meet. But the contact holds for only a fraction of a second before the woman drifts without warning into an open turn lane, snapping the imaginary towline as she passes the slower moving traffic in which the driver is stuck. At the crosswalk her brake lights flash a single time, and she sails into the intersection, bumper dipping as she accelerates through a long, graceful left. Then she is moving in a new direction. Quick as that, she is gone, swallowed in a new stream of traffic.

It isn’t a betrayal. It isn’t even inconsiderate. There had been no shaking of hands or signing on dotted lines to formalize their tacit partnership, no agreed upon terms and conditions. The driver knows this.

But still. Unneeded and alone, the driver blinks against the sun’s razor light and hesitates over the pedals, unsure for a brief instant which is which. A rusted car piloted by a gum chewing teenager moves in to fill the woman’s spot. There should be pullouts for moments like this—designated areas for motorists who find themselves in sudden need of a place to pause and reorient. But the flow of traffic is steady and inexorable, and the concrete curbs and medians that line the road offer nowhere to stop. The driver has no choice but to find the gas pedal and drive on, joining once more the ranks of faceless individuals with individual destinations and with no one’s worries to attend but their own.

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J. Duncan Wiley

J. Duncan Wiley / About Author

J. Duncan Wiley’s fiction has been anthologized in Best Small Fictions 2015 and has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Cream City Review, Carolina Quarterly, South Dakota Review, Nimrod, and Jelly Bucket. You can find him online at jduncanwiley.com.

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