A Two-Way Street

She was as quiet as a mouse. Lying in the middle of her king size bed that she hadn’t shared with anybody but me for as long as I could remember, her body looked slender, fragile and — strangely peaceful. Unsure of what to do I stood in the open door and watched her motionless figure.

“Aunt Hellen?”

No answer.

I glanced over my shoulder and into the living room that still looked exactly the way I had left it the night before. We had watched the game together even though we both didn’t care much about sports, sharing a family pizza that I had ordered during one of the intermissions. She had been okay then. I’d seen her better, but she had been okay.

I have become pretty good at telling when she had good and bad days. I could tell by the way she narrowed her brows. The wrinkles between her eyes became slightly more prominent on her bad days. Most people didn’t notice a difference even when I told them exactly what to look for. Sometimes I wondered if they simply didn’t want to see.

“She’s fine, Louisa,” I remember my mother telling me over the phone when I first called her from the little front porch of Aunt Hellen’s house. “She’s exaggerating quite a bit; you know how your aunt likes the attention.”

I knew right then that it was never about attention. People didn’t take seven different kinds of anxiety medications for no reason. In fact, I would have never found them if I hadn’t opened the right-hand drawer next to her bathroom sink when I was looking for some bobby pins to fix my hair that afternoon.

I guess Aunt Hellen figured that I knew when I started visiting her more regularly.

“Don’t you want to go and have fun with your friends?” she would ask me on the weekends. “No cute guys chasing you through the night?”

I grinned at her and shook my head, assuring her that this was where I liked to spend my time. After a while she stopped asking if I didn’t have more important things to do than spending time with her.

I could tell that it was only a matter of time, and for some reason I always thought I had prepared myself for the day that Aunt Hellen would take her own life. But when it finally happened it knocked me off my feet like someone had punched me in the stomach from a mile away.

***

Jimmy had never cared much about the concept of dying, and he couldn’t make sense of the uncomfortable sting he felt in my chest as he slowly drove down the gravel pathway that led towards the funeral home. It was a warm spring day — one of those days that would finally revive a positive outlook in the people who had robbed him of his last nerves throughout the past couple of months. Images of business men dressed in their expensive made-to-measure suits, who would frantically wave at him from busy street corners as they unsuccessfully tried to hide under their umbrellas, flashed to his mind; their never-ending rants about the weather and their oh-so-important phone calls he would have to listen to once they were seated in the warm interior of his car; couples — lucky bastards — who wouldn’t stop bragging about their recent beach holidays on their way home from the airport; and the children — little monsters! — whose tiny feet continuously covered the back seats with smudgy trails and puddles of melting snow…

That time of the year was over now. The front windows rolled down, Jimmy could hear the birds singing from the nearby trees around him. This was the moment when things were about to change. Maybe, if he worked hard enough throughout the summer, he might be able to save enough money to go on a vacation during the next winter. Either way, he wouldn’t be able to do this again. The people and their annoying stories, the small talk, the same streets on different days. Whoever came up with the assumption that taxi drivers liked to listen to everyone’s problems and travel anecdotes and thoughts about politics and the weather and the latest football scores had obviously never been a taxi driver. People just got the job description wrong. After all, there were different people out there for all of that. They were called psychiatrists and, not only did they hold a degree that qualified them as professional and devoted listeners, they also received a notably bigger pay check at the end of each month.

Just like he had been instructed over the phone Jimmy pulled the car around and waited by the back exit of the two story house that looked more like the home of a family than that of the dead. The large windows looked inviting, but the thought of the lifeless bodies and the mourning families that were behind them made him uncomfortable, and he quickly turned his gaze towards the small garden in the back. There was a lonely swing set that looked like it hadn’t been used in a while. While children could never sit still in the back of his car, they obviously didn’t feel like playing around here. Running his fingers through his shaggy brown hair Jimmy realized that, just like the fresh grass that now grew all over the place, it might be time for a cut again.

The white door behind him creaked softly and he turned in time to catch a glimpse of the young woman who squeezed through the small opening. Despite the dark sunglasses that covered her eyes he noted the flash of relief that crossed her face as she took in the taxi that was waiting for her. She descended the few steps from the door in a hurry, but, thanks to her ridiculously high heels that got stuck in the gravel with every step she took, the short distance between the house and the car took her longer than usually necessary, presenting Jimmy with the opportunity to regard her unnoticed. He had never understood why women voluntarily tortured themselves in such a way, but he couldn’t deny that, despite her awkward walk towards his car, she was indeed rather attractive. The black cocktail dress that matched the color of her messy hair traced her slender silhouette smoothly, and her long, bare legs clearly held a certain fascination of their own. When she was only a few steps away from his car Jimmy leaned across the passenger seat to push the door open. In a swift movement the girl climbed into the seat next to him. She pulled the door shut and leaned against the head rest. Watching her from the side now, he could see that her eyes were closed. Along with the birds whose excited screams continued to fill the silence around them he could hear her exhale audibly.

“You just saved my life,” she said after a short pause, and he waited for her to say something else but she remained perfectly quiet.

With her eyes still closed her features began to relax, and after another long moment spent in silence Jimmy wondered whether she had fallen asleep. His eyes darted from the girl to the house, to the street and back to the girl. He wondered what people might think if they saw them together in the car like this. His fingers started to drum a low rhythm on the steering wheel in front of him as he tried to get a better picture of the person that was sitting next to him.

“I wasn’t sure if you’d actually show up, you know,” she then said as if she was thanking an old contact in her phone that she’d randomly tried after she hadn’t called in forever.

“Usually that’s what we do.”

“Right.”

He still wasn’t sure whether he found her interesting or simply annoying. If she hadn’t been this pretty he would have probably gone with the second option. Now that he thought about it he decided to settle for a mix of both. She was interestingly annoying, and that was all it took to keep his attention for the time being.

***

He looked like he had a lot of stories to tell. Despite the little beams of sunlight that got reflected from his deep brown eyes he looked tired. If I wasn’t wearing all the expensive make-up his face would mirror my own. Yes, he could definitely use some sleep. Coming from somewhere deep inside of me, I felt the urge to trace the dark shadows under his eyes with my fingers. Using my better judgement I folded my hands in my lap and watched my tangled fingers before returning my gaze to the man sitting in the driver’s seat next to me.

“So what happens now? Where do we go?” I asked and tilted my head to the side. He looked at me and narrowed his eyes in response.

A trace of confusion flashed across his features, before he told me that he was about to ask me the same question; that I was the one who ordered the cab — that he was just the driver in service.

“Right.” I took a closer look around the taxi. “That makes sense. You see, Jim,” I pointed towards his name card that was attached to the dashboard next to the radio, “That’s your name right? I’ll call you Jimmy if that’s okay. You see, I have no idea. I just had to get out of there.” I waved my hand in the direction of the house I no longer wanted to look at. “The funeral, I just can’t stand it. They all want me to be there with them so we can be sad and miserable together, but that won’t bring her back, you know? I just can’t do it. I just can’t.”

***

Starting the engine, he frowned at her suspiciously. Here came the stories. How could he have even for a second thought that today would be any different from all the other days? People were people — they didn’t magically change overnight.

“So you just want me to drive?”

“Oh, come on,” she said, the corners of her lips lifting into a teasing smile. “Don’t give me that look.”

“What look?”

“That look. I bet this isn’t the first time someone’s asked you to just drive, and it’s not like I’ll jump out of the car and run away without paying.”

“I didn’t think that.”

“Yeah, you did.”

More to himself than to her, he shook his head in disbelief. They drove down the gravel pathway in silence, and when he stopped at the main road and she still didn’t say anything he decided to go left. From the corner of his eye he watched how she slid off her heels and pulled her legs up so that her naked feet rested on the edge of the seat in front of her. Hugging her knees and holding them close to her body, she looked vulnerable as her gaze got lost in the distance. He could tell that she had returned to another world of her own. Just like him she would probably return to the city centre at some point, but, thinking about his possible winter get-away and her promise to pay him his money, he decided he might be able to get a good deal out of the girl after all, and so he kept driving.

Lined with impressive houses on both sides, the street soon led them into a more rural area that he had never been to before. The trees grew bigger around here and the car was filled with fresh air that Jimmy oftentimes missed in the hustle and bustle of the city. By the time he drove past the first open fields he had almost forgotten the girl was still sitting next to him.

“Can I smoke?” Her voice came from far away. Jimmy narrowed his eyes and threw a glance in her direction before fixing his eyes on the road again.

“No.”

The clicking sound of the lighter was immediately followed by the deeply familiar smell of burning tobacco. Jimmy turned to face her in disbelief, a seething mixture of anger and exasperation rising from his insides. The girl looked at him and held up her hand apologetically.

“I’ll be careful, I promise.”

Warily, he continued to watch her from the corner of his eye. The smoke blew out of the open window and past the car as if she held on to a white veil that followed their every turn as it gracefully danced in the wind. Part of him wanted to take the cigarette from the girl’s fingers and put it to his own lips. He would inhale deeply, anticipating the familiar taste of long-lost memories returning to him. The white smoke would spread into his lungs and fill him with ease and tranquility.

He thought of Nancy, who hated cigarettes with a passion. She would smell the smoke on his clothes as soon as he’d walk through the door, and she would use the occasion to start another argument. How sick he was of those arguments. Sometimes he wondered if they were all they had left; that if they gave up on the arguments they would give up on the little remains of the common ground that had survived their toxic relationship. How willingly he had given up smoking to make her happy back then. He tried to pinpoint the moment they had started to grow apart and he realized that he couldn’t; that now all he could remember were the evenings he spent driving around in his car, picking up strangers he didn’t like to talk to — people whose company he still preferred over her and her constant complaints.

***

From the corner of my eyes I felt his gaze returning to the cigarette between my fingers every so often.

“You want one?” I held the cigarette packet out in his direction. His lips pressed into a tight smile, he shook his head, and I shrugged before I finally put the pack back into the little purse I carried over my shoulder. I didn’t think about him any further, but turned to look at the sky that was now painted with a soft hint of orange the further the sun set behind the trees. The faint light of the day’s last rays warmed my skin. Bit by bit I could feel the muscles in my neck relax. My eyesight blurred with tears as I pictured Aunt Hellen looking down at me from the soft veils of clouds that covered the sky. Wherever she was now, I hoped it was a better place.

“Why did you sneak out of the back door?” I was surprised to hear him speak again. My eyes fixed on one of the big wind generators that lined the edge of a field in the distance, I brushed the tears off my face with the back of my hand. If only I could be carried away with the wind as well…

The right side of my face still leaning into the head rest, I turned towards him. The look in his eyes had changed. For the first time, I felt like he really saw me. His distant gaze, which was now mixed with a sense of curiosity I hadn’t noticed before, made me wary. We stared at each other for a moment and I could tell that he started to feel uncomfortable as well.

Aunt Hellen would have liked him. His raspy voice and the broad shoulders; the moodiness reflected in his features…

“That was my aunt in there,” I began as a sad smile crossed my face. I waited for his reaction and went on when he continued to look at me. “My family is devastated; they didn’t see it coming. They always thought that she was crazy; said that she was making things up; that she was really fine but she wasn’t. She wasn’t fine at all. I tried to tell them, you know. I said, Hey, don’t you see what’s happening? We need to do something, she needs to get out of here, but nobody listened. And now this happened. She’s dead. She has been dead for three days, and they still don’t understand. I’m starting to think that they don’t want to understand either. They are just sitting there now, holding their heads in their hands like little children who are playing hide and seek for the first time and they’re doing it all wrong…”

If only they had listened. Just once. They just needed to listen once. Why couldn’t I make them listen? Why –

“So you left…”

“Yes.” I took another look at the sky and pictured Aunt Hellen’s face smiling back at me from above. “It’s something I should have done a long time ago. I mean, I’m not going back anymore. I just can’t do this anymore, you know?”

***

And Jimmy nodded, because he did. In that moment, he knew exactly what she was talking about, and, for the first time, he wondered if he might have that same choice as well. Their eyes returned to the road that was now illuminated by the cone of the car’s headlights, and they kept on driving in silence, their minds both occupied and united by thoughts that were so different and so similar.

“Let me buy you a drink,” the girl suggested after a few minutes. She was looking at him, her eyes glistening through the darkness of her tangled hair that framed her pale face. Jimmy laughed.

“What?”

“Let me buy you a drink,” she said again. “A beer. Or something stronger. A whiskey maybe. You look like you could need one, too. A whiskey would be nice, don’t you think?”

Was this the moment that people always talked about? A one-way street that suddenly turned into two? Nancy’s face appeared in front of his eye for only a second, and he was surprised at how quickly it disappeared again. Instead, he looked at the strange woman who was still sitting next to him. Hugging her legs and looking out of the window, she now radiated a sense of contentment that Jimmy could only vaguely remember from his own experience.

For the first time after a long span of life he felt something new. Driving towards the little lights of a foreign town in the distance, he was hopeful, and he found himself looking forward to an unknown future.

_____________________________
Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Flickr cc

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