MONDAY: Rear-ended

BY JONATHAN LOMAS

Copyright is held by the author.

OH SHIT! This really can’t have happened. It must be a nightmare and I’ll wake up any minute. The Law of Averages says things couldn’t get any worse. Leastways, they shouldn’t have gotten any worse. But they just did.

That’s the thing about averages; they’re average, thought Ellie. They’re not actually about you, they’re about some mythical, non-you who only exists inside the minds of statisticians and policy wonks. You could have your feet in the fridge and your head in the oven but to them you’d be average body temperature. Absurd.

As usual Ellie was having trouble staying focused on the task at hand. It had always been thus. As a newborn, her mother reported, her interest in the nipple was peremptory, and quickly surpassed by the fascinating pattern on the midwife’s dress.

What a contrast to goal-directed elder sister Pattie. In Ellie’s room toys were scattered in myriad states of semi-abandon, sometimes for weeks on end, until they eventually disappeared under the accumulated layers of discarded clothing. But Pattie, my God, in her room there was never more than one toy out at a time. The clothes were neatly folded and the playthings carefully tended — a place for everything and everything in its place. An early metaphor for the life she now lived.

A tap on the side window re-focused Ellie, her hands still on the steering wheel. They encircled the air bag, which occupied the entire space in front of her. It was wobbling like some giant bowl of nylon jello, and starting to tickle her nose. She shifted her head sideways to see out the window. The bag no longer tickled her nose; now it filled her ear.

She could see a sandy-haired, unshaven but definitely good looking workman peering into the car. He was wearing white coveralls splattered with paint. Yes, she thought, this is a reasonable uniform for someone who’s just emerged from a van emblazoned with the declaration: “Parker’s Painting and Decorating High Design, Low Price.” He was mouthing words at her through the closed window, which was misting on the inside and tracked with dribbling rain on the outside. She couldn’t hear what he was saying. Window closed, air bag in her ear, it was like watching a fish in an aquarium rhythmically gulping air. Why did painters always wear white, wondered Ellie, until she realized she was off on one of her tangents again.

She released the door handle and the pressure of the air bag expelled her like the flag from a pop gun. She flopped to the ground and, half straightening up while trying to brush the rain and dirt from her coat, exclaimed “Sorry, I didn’t mean to.” She realized what a ditz this made her seem, such a stupid thing to say, and immediately tried to correct it. “Well, of course I didn’t mean to, I didn’t mean to say I didn’t mean to, just to let you know that I didn’t mean to do it on purpose or anything.” A pause. “What I mean is, I wasn’t out to get you in particular.” Ellie felt she might be making things worse. One clue was the way he looked at her with his mouth wide open in mute astonishment.

“Actually I wasn’t out to get anyone,” she blathered on. “I guess I was just going too fast in the rain and the brakes didn’t take and the next thing I know ‘boom.’” To illustrate this she stopped rubbing the wet dirt into her coat, stretched up and flung her arms in the air like a starburst, lifting herself off the road in the process.

He exchanged his look of mute astonishment for one of bemusement. “Are you all right?” His strongly interrogative inflection suggested more concern about her mental than her physical state.

“Oh yes, yes. Fine,” she blurted out, suddenly struck by how egocentric she’d been. She wished she’d asked him this same thing, only first.

“And you?” she asked, trying to make up the lost ground. He really was quite hot, and about her age of mid-20s or so she guessed.

“I’m okay, thanks. Although I’m not so sure about the van or your car.” He gestured toward the two vehicles.

“They do seem to have become somewhat over-familiar with each other, don’t they,” she replied, pleased with this slightly risqué turn of phrase. It was the square jaw and direct green eyes that gave him the rugged good looks, she decided.

He glanced behind her and said “Before we exchange details I think perhaps we should move the vehicles off the highway. That is, if you’re feeling up to it?”

She looked over her shoulder and for the first time saw the long line of cars and trucks backed up in their lane. “Oh my God, yes, yes, we should.” She started toward her car but quickly came to the realization that it was already occupied — by the air bag. “Oh shit, how can I drive this?” she cried, poking at the air bag like it was the Pillsbury dough boy.

Hating the way she was coming across as a ditz-head, she took matters in hand. She reached into the back of the car, pulled out her purse and withdrew a hair beret, one with a sharp point on the end. Brandishing it like a bayonet, she advanced on the air bag.

“Stop, wait, don’t do that!” he yelled. “There’s toxic gas in there — sodium azide and maybe potassium chloride or sodium hydroxide. You have to let it deflate slowly by itself. It’ll only take a minute or two. Just wait.”

She looked at him with a combination of annoyance and admiration. Annoyance at being yelled at and admiration at his arcane knowledge. “How on earth do you know that?” she asked.

He shrugged modestly, “Oh, just do I guess.” And sure enough, over the next minute or two the air bag gradually deflated. Now it hung limply from the steering wheel like the aftermath of a giant bubble gum competition. She slid behind the wheel and was thankful when the stalled car re-started at the first turn of the key. The van eased onto the hard shoulder, her car followed and the liberated vehicles behind resumed their journeys, rubber necking on the way by of course.

How do you get a date with a guy you’ve just rear-ended? Whoops, that’s an unfortunate way of putting it, thought Ellie. First, find a better way of describing your intent, second straighten out your hair — she did this by looking in the rear view mirror — and finally, she self-instructed, stop being a ditz and come across as smart and competent like you know you are. She reached into the glove compartment for the registration and insurance wallet. Oh no, it wasn’t there. Of course. she’d left it with her sister yesterday. She’d been complaining about all the calamities in her life and all the things she had to do before Christmas and Pattie, helpful and organized as ever, had volunteered to take on her impending insurance renewal.

She noted that Parker, as she was now thinking of him, was advancing on her armed with his own package. God, could she not stop with these unfortunate turns of phrase. She needed to get her mind off this one track, just for a second.

“I’m so sorry,” she started, getting out of her car. “But I’m afraid I don’t have any of my details with me. Just part of what’s been a terrible week.” She sighed. “Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.”

Suddenly she felt the need to unload. He looked so sympathetic. Forget about coming over as smart and competent. She launched in: “First off last Wednesday, in the middle of the night, the water pipe under my sink burst and by morning my apartment and the one below were completely flooded. Then I found out my cat’s going to die from feline leukemia. This all in the middle of my exams, which have been going terribly. I failed my first practical in the lab — that’s where I’m going now, to re-take the practical — and I found that out just before my written exam. I never fail exams, it’s the first one I’ve ever failed in my whole life, it was all I could think of so I couldn’t concentrate and I expect I’ll fail the written too.”

“What an awful chain of events,” he said, with real concern in his voice.

He was a sensitive guy, she thought. He’d moved closer and touched her arm sympathetically. Uh oh, she thought, as she felt all the week’s disasters welling up inside. “And now this,” she said, gesturing at the car and dreading the tears she knew were coming. “My sister’s got the insurance stuff and I don’t know what to do.” The dam burst and a week’s worth of tears poured out. She didn’t even think, just collapsed onto his shoulder, exorcising the week’s calamities with heart-wrenching sobs.

He was so considerate. He rocked her gently while the tears played out and then led her back to the car and sat her down. He asked for Pattie’s number and she watched from afar as he called from the side of the road on his cell and, after introductions, explanations and what seemed like quite a conversation, got all the insurance and vehicle details from her sister. Finally, he gave her a piece of paper with his information, including that precious item: his own phone number. “That’s my personal number,” he said, “Not the business one.”

***

She entered the restaurant by his side, pleased at how he looked in immaculate dark suit, red tie and pocket puff. There was no evidence of any five o’clock shadow; he must have shaved just before leaving. She’d selected her favourite green dress, the one that cinched at the waist and showed off just enough cleavage to excite, but not so much as to embarrass.

The maître d’ checked the reservation and whisked them off to a quiet table in the corner, seated them in the red plush banquette with their menus and lit the candle in the silver sconce. The sommelier appeared and placed the wine list in front of them. She picked it up, simultaneously reaching for her reading glasses.

“White or red?” she asked, cracking the padded leather cover with its gold brocade and feeling only slightly intimidated by the opulence of the place.

“I think I fancy a rosé,” he replied with a mischievous smile. She gave him a friendly but withering look, pleased at his playfulness. “No, just kidding,” he continued. “I’m easy. Whatever you want.”

He looks so comfortable in this upscale environment, she thought. Relaxed in suit and tie and apparently familiar with the routines of a five-star restaurant. She opened her menu, wondering if the place was so upscale (or was it so sexist?) that prices would be omitted from hers. They weren’t. She was relieved at how initial conversation flowed, eased by the functional tasks of comparing notes on the menu, choosing wine and ordering the food.

Preliminaries over, the waiter departed, and they sat stripped of conversational crutches. In the ensuing moment’s silence she carefully straightened all the items at her place setting and then, looking up, caught those green eyes of his reflecting the dusk of the candle in the subdued corner light. She felt a flood of romance and warmth. He returned her soft look with a slightly crooked smile and raised his glass in a toast: “Here’s to us.” She clinked his glass.

She found it effortless to keep their banter going. She loved the ingenuous nature of their exchanges, the animation and intimacy of a night out together, the way their legs brushed beneath the table at the slightest excuse, his frequent touches to her hand, her casual brush of crumbs from his suit or a lock of sandy hair from his eyes. She was lost in those green eyes, engrossed.

Finally they reached the last bite of their shared dessert. She pushed the plate away and licked the remnants of milky froth from her cappuccino cup, supremely comfortable in his presence. She called for and settled the bill. They collected their coats and walked hand in hand towards the car park.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” she said.

“What?” he asked, just as they arrived at his van.

She stopped in its shadow and looked up at him earnestly. “That I still find you endlessly entertaining. We’re so busy with the kids that it takes something like this 10th anniversary of the fateful car accident to get us out to dinner. And after all these years, we still can’t get enough of each other. You’re terrific, Parker, you really are.” She reached up on her tip-toes, cradled his face in her hands and placed a long and lingering kiss on his receptive lips.

He held her in his arms for a moment longer, gazing back into her eyes. “You’re not so bad yourself, Pattie.”

3 comments

  1. Mary Steer

    Yeah, saw it coming a mile off. But – that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy parts of it very much. So cool to know that about air bags! And the double entendres in the first part are fun.

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