A Short Story by Claire Kooyman
Devil’s Slide took another person last night. Its curves slide around the edges of a cliff that tumbles into the dark Pacific Ocean below; it invites drivers to break the barrier between asphalt and horizon, freedom and reality. Tourists who drive on it drive slowly but locals drive it like they have no bones to break. That being said, I normally drive like a local. You can only drive the same road so many times before you stop seeing it. Instead, around the second mile, you go somewhere in your mind that hides behind the speed limit and the steering wheel and drift in freefall. When I park my car at the gas station in Half Moon Bay to go in for work, it always feels like the end of a lucid dream. Then, half an hour later, I’m scrubbing nacho cheese off a Formica counter and everything seems real again.
Leaving for work in the morning is normally a precarious dance performed in silence, trying not to wake my husband, who works nights, and tiptoeing around small children sleeping on couches in the living room. Most weekdays are the same. At six, I stand on the kitchen’s cold linoleum in bare feet and make coffee in silence. The water drips slowly from the faucet into the pot. I pour it into the top of the machine and watch the first drop hit the element below it like water on a griddle. It snaps, then evaporates. I slide the pot into its home before any more drops sizzle away. Once I have coffee, I pour milk in cold cereal and eat at the kitchen table while I read the paper. When I wash my dishes, I only see darkness out the kitchen window where the backyard should be. This time of year, the sun doesn’t rise until I’m far down the road.
This morning, though, before I’d done anything else, I went out the front door for the paper. I read the headline, then looked under the fold and saw her. I hadn’t seen May in over seven years, so there were new wrinkles in the corners of her eyes that hadn’t been there, but she looked mostly the same. She’d never fixed the chip on her front tooth like I’d told her to, a hundred times. The oak table underneath my palms felt reassuringly solid, and I pushed against it to remain upright. I sat down. I think I made my breakfast; I might even have eaten it. I don’t remember making any coffee, but I didn’t need it. I was awake. She’d curled her hair, I noticed. I shoved the newspaper in my purse and left the house without my lunch. As I walked away, the door slammed behind me. I cursed, and then heard Maya start crying in the living room. Both kids would be awake soon. The car growled with effort as I drove away. Tears bled into my vision until I brushed them aside.
Rob called on my lunch break.
“Lacey, what kind of cold medicine do I give Jacob?”
“The liquid stuff, if he’ll drink it. If not, you can try the pills, but that’s usually impossible. He just spits them out and makes the sour face.”
“Have you mentioned he’s supposed to swallow them, not lick ‘em?” Rob sounded breathless, like he was trying to carry Jacob again. He’s really too old to be carried. I could hear Maya shouting about milk in the background. It was another typical morning with Daddy.
“No, why don’t you try that? Let me know how it goes,” I replied. Rob grunted at that and hung up.
By three in the afternoon, I was home again. The couch was covered in Cheerios and what looked like goldfish cracker crumbs. Maya and Jacob were at the after-school program where they wait every day for their dad. I shook the blankets out onto the floor and then vacuumed. I tried not to think about May. I drank a shot of whiskey instead, then brushed my teeth vigorously and gargled mouthwash. Around four, the apartment door swung open and Jacob ran in, dragging his shiny purple backpack behind him on the floor. Maya followed behind him. Rob came in last. I kept quiet; it wasn’t as if I was going to pull out the newspaper and shove it under his face to force a reaction. Maybe he didn’t know.
“Matthew got a bug stuck in his nose!” Jacob shrieked, then ran around the kitchen table flapping his arms like wings. “He had to go to the doctor.”
“The bug, or Matthew?” I asked.
“Matthew, Mommy! Guess what else? Guess!”
“Don’t answer him,” Maya said. She rolled her eyes. “He’s told the same story five times.” Jacob stopped flapping for a moment, so he could eat a carrot with ranch dressing on the snack plate I’d put down for them to eat. Maya sat down, shrugged off her sweater onto the chair behind her and started working on her math. Jacob reenacted what he imagined had happened at the doctor’s office, which seemed to involve pliers.
Rob sat down on the couch and took off his boots. He got up to put them away in the bedroom and when he came back he’d changed his clothes. He was wearing the blue sweater my mother had given him for Christmas two years ago. It suited him and brought out his eyes. Underneath his sweater, I could see the bottom of his blue work shirt. He had his knee pads strapped on top of his jeans for his shift at the grocery store. We had twenty minutes before he had to walk out the door. I walked up behind him and grabbed him around the waist and kissed his neck.
“You going to go to the funeral, then?” he asked. I felt my arms stiffen and I inhaled sharply.
“I don’t know,” I said quietly, hoping the kids couldn’t hear in the other room. I let go of Rob and sat down on the couch on top of Jacob’s SpongeBob blanket. I looked at the back of his head for a minute, seeing where his brown hair was starting to thin, until he turned towards me.
“I never spoke to her again.”
“That doesn’t change anything,” he answered. His tone was flat.
“You took my trust and—” His voice rose in volume, but he caught himself when Maya looked up from her work, brown eyes curious. He continued at a lower volume. “With a beautiful daughter, our son nearly born, and nearly two decades of marriage behind us, I stayed the course back then. I think it was the right thing to do.” He shook his head. “But don’t act like you did me some favor, staying away.” His fists were clenched so tightly at his sides that his skin was translucent at the knuckles.
“I wasn’t, I was just trying to say—”
“Nothing’s changed; I haven’t forgiven either of you,” he hissed.
“She’s dead, for Christ’s sake, so why were you even hiding the newspaper from me?” Both kids looked over that time. He sighed. “I’ve got to leave for work.” He turned away from me and walked to the dining room where the kids were working. He laid his hand on Jacob’s head, then mussed up his hair affectionately.
“Jake, how’s your reading going? Almost done? Or are you just being a bunny rabbit, eating all the carrot sticks?” He mimicked a rabbit with big teeth, chomping, and Jacob laughed, relaxing.
“I’m not a rabbit!” Jacob shouted.
“No, you’re not.” Rob hugged Maya, who still looked worried. Then, he grabbed his jacket and his hat and left. My cell phone started buzzing in my pocket a few minutes later, so I pulled it out. It was my mother. Mom’s favorite laundromat is down the street from our house. She likes to come over to my house and talk while her clothes dry.
“You don’t have to ask every time, Mom. Just come over,” I told her, when she walked through the front door.
“You know that makes me uncomfortable, Lace. It’s not that hard to just say yes when I ask, is it? How’s Rob? Already gone to work?”
“He’s fine,” I answered. “He left ten minutes ago.” I sat back down on the couch. Mom sat down in the easy chair next to me and flipped the lever so the foot rest flew into the air. Behind her on the wall, I could see only see myself in our wedding photo; her head covered Rob’s face.
Mom squinted and scrunched up her nose. “I smell bullshit. Out with it.”
“Remember May?” I asked in a low voice.
“May?” Her face scrunched up. “Yes.”
“She was killed in a car accident last night.”
“Oh.” Her face lost all expression. “How terrible.”
“Yeah. I hadn’t spoken to her since I broke it off when I realized I was pregnant with Jacob. I thought that the entire mess was behind me. I thought maybe Rob had forgiven me. It’s been almost eight years.”
“I’d hoped it was, too. Behind you, I mean.”
“I was wrong. It wasn’t. It isn’t. So now he’s pissed and I’m stuck crying about her like an asshole.”
“You want to be with him, right? Back then, you chose him; that must mean something.”
“Of course. We’ve been in love since high school. But there’s this part of me that doesn’t regret it, that has always missed her, and I think he knows it. He’s never done anything wrong. He makes me laugh, he’s a fantastic father and he’s never let me down. It makes sense that he’s still hurt. Maybe it’ll never get better.”
“What, then? Are you just giving up?”
“I don’t know, Mom.”
Then, her phone started buzzing, flashing and singing “It’s a Small World.” It’d been an hour since she’d arrived. Her clothes were dry.
“Do you need to go?” I asked her.
“Only because I have to go to work.” She hugged me. Mom works as a greeter at Wal-Mart from three until eleven, Monday through Friday.
“Okay.” I started trying to calm down. Inhale through the nose then out through the mouth. Count your breaths to ten, then count back down to one. My breathing began to steady.
“It’ll be okay,” she told me. She squeezed my hand.
“Should I go to the funeral?” I asked her.
“No.” She sighed. “Definitely not.” I walked her to the front door where she hugged me again and then I watched her drive away in her forest-green compact.
I packed a suitcase and unpacked it. Chester, our orange cat, got into the empty luggage and curled up. I left him sleeping inside with the lid unzipped in the closet. I went back out where my children sat at the table working. I sat down at the table next to them. They had opened the sliding glass door, and cool winter air blew through the metal screen door into the room. I reached out and touched Maya’s nose. It was cold to the touch. Outside, I thought I could hear a bird in one of the trees. I could smell eucalyptus and the neighbors’ smoking chimneys. I wasn’t going anywhere. I shut the glass door on my way to the laundry room and put my black dress pants and sweater in the washing machine. For a few minutes after I hit start, I just stood there, watching the things inside, turning and turning, trying to get clean.