By Gayla Chaney
I am lost on a highway somewhere between the towns of Alpine and Eternity, Texas. I am driving west; that’s as specific as I can be about where I am headed at this late hour with two sleeping toddlers in the backseat of my seven-year-old Toyota and a madman weighing pursuit. The madman, my husband, is screaming at me through my cell phone from Lake Charles, Louisiana, hell-bent on making me turn around before he has to set out to retrieve me. That would make him even madder and, as he informs me before I hang up, I sure as hell don’t want to see him that mad. He’s right. I don’t. The threat of seeing him again in any form of madness—mild, medium, or extra hot—is enough to keep me driving west forever.
“Screw you, Gary,” I say, but only after I’ve clicked off the phone, capitalizing on the courage that the 700 miles between us gives me. With every mile, I get mouthier, even if he can’t hear what I’m saying.
I slow my car down and pull off on the shoulder to find out where I am, in my lap a map with tiny dots and lines, drawn with precision and chock full of details for travelers such as myself. Any idiot could decipher these cartographic instructions. Any idiot could find their way—if they had a clue where they were going.
I aim my small flashlight at the map and, as I study it, I find myself thinking about Claudius Ptolemy, the ancient mapmaker. The vast, dark blacktop ahead of me couldn’t appear any more foreboding than the uncharted oceans of his time. Do the dead listen? I wonder.
“Ptolemy,” I whisper. “I could sure use your navigational instincts, should you care to send them my way.” I figure anyone who could have drawn a map of the world with as little information as Ptolemy and passed out copies to wayfaring sailors with the confidence of a gambler holding an ace-high straight flush, that’s the type of companion I need tonight. I pull the car back onto the highway and set out for my own terra incognito.
Barring divine and immediate intervention from the dead, I am lost. I am driving through the murkiness of Big Bend without a clue, with only an occasionally ringing cell phone, which I refuse to answer. Should I turn back toward Alpine? Is there another small town coming up soon? Will I be in New Mexico by morning? Will I ever feel safe enough to sleep without the fear of Gary’s face peering through the window at me when I awake?
I turn to check on my babies, Salacia, not yet four, rests her head on Jonah’s car seat. Jonah will be two in a little over a month. Neither of them will be subjected to Gary-mania, henceforth, if I can help it. Eventually, I hope, Gary will forget about us when he finds another woman. He’s good at that. He’s had children with two women before me. I don’t think he’s through yet. Still, until things cool down, I need to keep driving.
I can’t wish away the last five years with Gary. To do so would erase Salacia and Jonah and they are worth every minute, every shove, every insult, every threatening word. That’s the fascinating part of it all for me. During my junior year at McNeese State University, I fell into a well of ennui and became unable to attend classes. Succumbing to depression, I dropped out of school for what I thought would be a semester and took a job waiting tables at Cajun Joe’s, where steaming hot crawfish are served with cocktail sauce and ice-cold beer.
Gary ate there regularly and somehow, Lord, I can’t imagine how, he caught my eye. It is absolutely impossible at this moment to recall Gary as handsome and appealing. I attribute the attraction to being clinically depressed. Anyone manifesting movement, anyone capable of flirting with a zombie-like waitress, could have aroused my interest at that time. I pray I’m never that vulnerable again. The memory of my vulnerability causes me to press my foot harder on the accelerator.
I have left the land of bayous and alligators behind and am now in the territory of rattlesnakes, scorpions, and mountain lions. The safety of my car makes these seem insignificant, but a flat tire in this desolate place would change all that. The thought causes me to doubt the wisdom of driving at night on an unfamiliar highway in a part of the world where I know no one. For an instant, I rethink my departure. Was it a mistake? Should I have waited another year or two until the kids were a little older? Should I have tried to go back to school to make myself more marketable?
My shoulders burn from the long drive and stress. I want someone else to take over, just for a bit. But Ptolemy doesn’t magically appear, nor anyone else, not even a passing truck. I am out here alone. I wonder what I will do when I get wherever I’m going. I remember the sadness I felt when I was working at Cajun Joe’s and despite the frightening thought that I might find myself depressed again and susceptible to another Gary, despite all the terrifying possibilities, I do not turn my car around but continue driving away from my former home.
Hiding from Gary will eliminate child support which I considered before I left. Of course, that was early in the morning with the sun illuminating the atlas, making all the cities out west appear as appealing as a shoe sale. Selecting one seemed like a delicious dilemma: Santa Fe, Phoenix, Carson City, Salt Lake, San Francisco, all tantalizingly available and just waiting for me to try them on for comfort. That’s how it seemed in daylight sitting at my kitchen table in Lake Charles after Gary slammed the front door so hard it nearly came off its hinges as he left for work.
My kitchen table… now Gary’s. My bed, now Gary’s. My almost new Kenmore washing machine, now Gary’s. My kids and their toys, mine. They are here with me, along with enough clothes and diapers for everyone.
“It’s worth it,” I say, softly, so as not to wake my children, yet loud enough to stand as a testament against the critic that resides in some other part of my mind. She manifests herself at crucial times to remind me of all the foolish choices I have made in my life. She is harsh and unforgiving and, tonight, I try to head her off at the pass, so to speak, to close any window of opportunity she might seize at this lonely hour.
My own father left our family when I was eleven and settled somewhere near Las Vegas, his dream town. He sent money on birthdays and Christmas and came back to visit a few times early on, until my mother remarried and moved to Mobile. She and her new husband started another family that offered even more drama and theatrics than the one she’d left in Louisiana.
I don’t know if my father ever remarried. I haven’t heard from him, or of him, in years. Yet, it crosses my mind that Las Vegas is out west and that I could stop there and see if he is still alive. Having family anywhere at this moment seems important. I would love for Salacia and Jonah to have a grandpa. But thoughts like this are dangerous. They lure the critic within me to start her ridicule. How absurd to think a man who refused to be a father would relish the idea of being a grandfather. I quickly squelch the idea of stopping in Las Vegas. He’s probably dead, anyway.
Suddenly, I am sobbing. I should have stopped in Alpine. It is late. I am tired; too tired to think. I miss my own bed. God, what have I done? My cell phone hasn’t rung in the past half hour and I wonder if Gary is coming after me. He is probably in bed asleep, convinced that I will come to my senses and return to him. Perhaps I will. I can’t imagine how I will make it on my own with two little ones. My eyes are heavy and a rush of sleepiness engulfs me, threatening to swallow the road ahead.
I slow down the car, pulling off on the shoulder where God-knows-what lurks in the darkness. I try not to think of mountain lions as I turn off the ignition and close my eyes for a catnap. When dawn comes, I’ll be rested enough to think clearly about Tucson or Phoenix, maybe San Diego. I try to remember how inviting they seemed before I left my house. I lock the door and lay my head against the window, allowing myself to drift off.
When I wake up, it’s almost dawn. Jonah needs changing. Salacia needs a bathroom. She is confused by her surroundings and whines at the makeshift potty I create outside the car. I promise her Cheerios if she cooperates.
“Everybody set?” I ask when we are all back in our seats, strapped and buckled in for safety, but I don’t hear any replies. Jonah is nibbling on Cheerios and Salacia is occupied with a juice box.
They have no idea how much I want them to answer me with some kind of encouraging, allied response: “Yes, Mommy! We’re ready. We’re set. Let’s go!” But they’re busy. For an instant, I feel as young as my children, totally unequipped for driving a car, much less navigating through this harsh terrain by myself.
I glance at my silent cell phone. Living with Gary is scarier than driving into the unknown. That’s all I need to remember. We are being carried to an unknown place by the squalling force I left behind. Gary the man has transmogrified into Gary the raging wind beating against my back. I start my car and glance at my children in the mirror. If they knew who Ptolemy was, they would not think him more capable than me of setting the correct course for our little family. They trust their mommy to be in charge. Their trust is pure, uncomplicated, and overwhelming as the gale driving us in the opposite direction of Louisiana.
The clouds over this barren part of Texas are magnificent in the early morning light. A cluster of them resemble a hand opening toward the western horizon. I take this as an omen, like the finger of God pointing me to a promised land.
My daughter breaks into my thoughts. “Mommy, where we are going?”
“West, Baby. We’re heading west,” I say, as I spy the marker for the New Mexico state line. As I drive across the border, a sign reads: Entering the Land of Enchantment, and I accelerate, anxious and hopeful that it might be true.
Gayla Chaney lives in southeast Texas with her husband and three sons. Her work has appeared in Natural Bridge, Paper Street, Carve, Sunspinner, Concho River Review, Mochila, and other literary journals.
Photos courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.
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