Kim Karras

 

The car had come from Hawaii. She herself had not. She herself hadn’t been anywhere, not counting Florida (twice) and Niagara Falls—and that had been only the once back when she was just a baby.  But the car, a silver Subaru Outback, had come from Hawaii. She knew because Bryce, the salesman at Midwest Used Auto, had told her. He hadn’t exactly offered this information up as a selling point, but Janie had taken it as one anyway. The rear bumper still touted the state inspection sticker. Hawaii Vehicle Inspection, she read now, running her fingers over the small raised lettering.  There were other signs of the car’s origins too.  She found traces of white sand beneath the floor mats and along the ridge of the trunk. And the paint on the tail gate was scuffed. Maybe, Janie thought, the car had belonged to some lithe, brown surfer, and the wear on the tailgate came from him stashing a surfboard in the trunk on his way to and from the ocean.

Did surfers stow their boards in the trunk of a car? Was that how it worked?  Janie didn’t know. She herself only used the trunk to stow groceries from the Jewel Osco. There they were now, a whole host of white plastic bags, shuddering before her like living, breathing things. Janie plucked the bags from the trunk and hung them on the posts of her arms, the strained handles biting into her soft flesh. She had liked Bryce, she thought, shutting the tailgate and starting up the stairs to her apartment. He was young—younger than her—and had a horse face and golden hair that curled over his ears and around the nape of his pale, skinny neck. And he had sided with her about the Subaru Outback, even though Dietrich had wanted her to get something more economical, a Honda Civic, maybe, or a Nissan Sentra. She didn’t want a Honda Civic or a Nissan Sentra. She wanted an Outback. An Outback from Hawaii. She wanted a car that could take her places.

Yes, she had liked Bryce. She liked his face like a horse and his name like a national park out west. Bryce, she said now, out loud, juggling the groceries and her purse as she fitted the key into her apartment door and pushed her way inside. The apartment was quiet and had that stale, shut-up smell that came from routine abandonment. Janie unloaded the grocery bags onto the table and went to the window to open the blinds, although there was precious little daylight to let in this late in October. The security lights in the car port were already on, bathing the Subaru in a warm glow. When had it gotten so dark so early? It was now only quarter past five. Dietrich, she knew, would still be at the gym. She had another half hour before she needed to leave to pick him up.

Dietrich, she said so softly that it was little more than a whisper. She had liked his name once too—his name and his face with the deep-set eyes and dramatic cheek bones. He had seemed foreign when they first met. Exotic, even. Except that he wasn’t foreign. Dietrich was from the same town she was, so, basically, he was from nowhere. They had met at the gym of all places, back when Mr. Anderson had first plucked her from the dozen other customer service reps to serve as his administrative assistant. “You’re the kind of gal who’s going places,” he had said, and she had ignored the condescending “gal” and taken up occupancy at the front desk, proud to be, in essence, the face of the company. The gym membership had been a perk, a benefit reserved for the execs in the front office, an elite group to which she now, nominally at least, belonged.  Dietrich had wanted her to quit the job, had encouraged her to find a line of work that wouldn’t compromise her “integrity.” Dietrich had been all about integrity back then, had opposed a whole host of things on moral grounds: the war in Iraq and Walmart and high fructose corn syrup. His moral outrage extended to most types of employment. He didn’t want to do any kind of work that would insult his intelligence. Back then, Janie had admired this about him. Regarded him as noble, even. Courageous. Dietrich, she had told her father, wasn’t a sell-out.

Janie, despite Dietrich’s moral outrage, had stayed with the company. She had been there now for ten years. A whole decade. She had seen Mr. Anderson through a divorce, a hair transplant, and a nasty battle with prostate cancer. The truth was, Janie didn’t mind being an administrative assistant. She liked manning the front desk: orbiting the inner circle of executives, answering the phone in a pert, professional manner, flirting harmlessly with the Fed Ex guy and the man who came to deliver the filtered water.  It was a soft, plush job— the kind of job that paid more than the work was worth, because somewhere along the line Mr. Anderson had come to think of Janie as indispensable.  His health, wife, and hair had all jumped ship, but Janie, by virtue of not going anywhere, had tricked him into believing she was the one thing he couldn’t do without.

Come to think of it, Janie couldn’t remember the last time Dietrich had objected to her job on any grounds, moral or otherwise. And he had yet to find work that was worthy of him. But why should he work? Janie’s salary wasn’t exorbitant, but it was enough to pay the bills and, she thought, glancing out the window, to buy an almost new Subaru Outback. Janie gave the luminous car one last proud look and then opened the fridge, pushing aside the arsenal of Muscle Milk on the bottom shelf to make room for the groceries. The Muscle Milk, of course, was Dietrich’s. Janie herself hadn’t stuck with the gym. There had been a time, in the beginning, when she and Dietrich would stake out adjacent treadmills and run beside each other, upping the speed until Janie tasted blood at the back of her throat. Back then Janie had been surprised at her own ambition. Her own sheer will. Of course, Dietrich’s advances had been more surprising still.  Not only could he bench press twice his own body weight, he was half-way through a bachelor’s degree in psychology.  She could not believe someone could be so academic and so athletic at the same time. She told him as much once. They had just worked out and were standing in the gym parking lot, one of those prolonged, pleasurably painful goodbyes that had been so common back then. It was raining—misting really—and she was wearing an oversized sweatshirt that was pulled over one shoulder, revealing the strap of her sports bra. Dietrich had reached out and traced the arc of her exposed collar bone with his finger, an intimacy that had, perhaps, encouraged her confession. “A smart jock,” he said, parroting her.  Then she had stood there in the misting rain while he prattled on and on about the ancient Greeks and mind-body connection.

Mind-body connection. Had she widened her eyes when he said that? Arched an eyebrow ever so slightly?

No. She hadn’t. She had smiled—a pitiful, guileless smile—and then taken Dietrich back to her apartment for the first time.

It wasn’t long after that that he had moved in with her. Dietrich, a self-proclaimed feminist, objected to marriage. Marriage, after all, was the only form of slavery still permitted by the law. Janie’s mother was skeptical. “You don’t believe that,” she had said. “Of course you want a wedding. Marriage. Children.” But then Janie’s mother, a frequent and fervent user of the expression “living in sin,” was always going to be a tough sell. “You’re giving the milk away for free,” she had said on multiple occasions—still said, in fact, when Janie had the stomach to call home. Janie did her best to dismiss her mother’s criticism. She didn’t care for the bovine reference, and, besides, she didn’t believe she was giving anything away. Or, at least, that’s what she wanted to believe.  Living with Dietrich had felt, if not terribly progressive, at least declarative. She, Janie, would not be enslaved. She, Janie, would not be beholden to anyone. She, Janie, would not be used.

Janie finished putting the groceries away, stashing a bag of Cheetos behind a box of bran cereal in the cupboard.  She wasn’t, she told herself, ashamed of purchasing the Cheetos. She wasn’t hiding them.  And it wasn’t like Dietrich himself was a complete health nut. He did count calories and work out with a kind of religious ferocity, but there was that time he had taken up smoking. Camels. He had smoked Camels. It was around the time he switched his major from psychology to philosophy—a decision that pushed his graduation date out another year and a half. He carted a pack of Camels in the front pocket of his thrift store shirts, spouting hot air and philosophical mumbo jumbo. The smoking wouldn’t have bothered her as much if he hadn’t been so casual about it. So cool. As if he wasn’t the same guy who had previously fretted about “increased lung capacity.” But when she called him out he had only offered up some vague reference to moral ambiguity.

“Moral ambiguity,” he had said, and then gave her a smile that was as crooked as a lie.

Dietrich had, finally, finished his bachelor’s degree and was now working, somewhat aimlessly, on his master’s. What should have been only a two-year program had now dragged on for nearly twice as long, a subject which Dietrich displayed a rare sensitivity to, so Janie didn’t bring it up. Not anymore.

Janie consulted the clock. How was it already time to leave? She headed for the door, and then, in a moment of weakness or defiance or both, turned back to the cupboard and tore into the bag of Cheetos, funneling a handful into her mouth. She didn’t, she thought, stepping out into the dusky darkness, especially feel like picking Dietrich up tonight. It wasn’t her fault he didn’t own a car. It wasn’t her fault he cared so deeply about the environment. And how, exactly, was her carting him around reducing his carbon footprint? Hadn’t she done enough already? Didn’t she haul their recycling to the plant every week? And then there was that year, that long, humiliating year, when she hadn’t flushed the toilet after urinating, because Dietrich had wanted to conserve water.

Conservation, Janie thought, bitterly, starting up the car and heading for the gym.  Sheryl Crow was on the radio and the car, was it pulling to the right? She took her hands off the steering wheel for a moment and watched as the car drifted across the lane toward the sidewalk. Was something wrong with the suspension? Had Bryce lied to her? Maybe the car hadn’t been owned by some lithe, brown surfer after all.  Maybe it had belonged to some obese Islander with legs the size of palm tree trunks and fat, meaty hands. Someone named Akoni or Hanale or Kalani. Janie shuddered, thinking of the sheer weight of the man. No wonder the alignment was out of whack— it would have to be, after lugging that whale around.

But no. Bryce wouldn’t have lied to her. Not Bryce. Maybe it was all in her head. Of course it was all in her head. The car was fine. No—the car was perfect. She readjusted her hands on the steering wheel, centering the car in the lane.  “The first cut is the deepest,” Sheryl Crow crooned at her through the radio. “Baby, I know, the first cut is the deepest.” Janie liked Sheryl Crow.  In fact, Janie had a few of her albums in the CD case stashed behind the passenger seat. She considered, briefly, rifling through the thing and popping one of them in the player. But then, what would be the point? She was almost to the gym and Dietrich didn’t like Sheryl Crow. Once Strong Enough had played on the radio when they were together. They were in the kitchen of her apartment and she was cooking something—fajitas, maybe?—on the stove.  “This is the only song of hers that’s bearable,” Dietrich had said. And then, as if he couldn’t resist, he pulled up the sleeve of his thrift store shirt and flexed his bicep at her. He said, “I’m strong enough to be your man,” and she—had she really stepped away from the stove and curled her fingers around his upper arm?

Yes. She had. She had been so proud then. Dietrich was strong. And she was going to lose the weight. Go to school. Get that career.

Janie came to an intersection and braked for the light.  Straight ahead was the gym. “Lie to me,” Sheryl Crow had sung that day in her apartment kitchen, that day when Janie had stepped away from the hot stove and pressed her hand to Dietrich’s arm. Was that what she wanted? For Dietrich to lie to her? Had Dietrich lied to her? Because she hadn’t lost the weight. Gone to school. Nabbed that career. She hadn’t gone anywhere.

The light would turn green soon. Already the white man on the crosswalk had been replaced by a flashing red countdown. The light would change and she would cross the threshold of the intersection and then she couldn’t listen to Sheryl Crow anymore. Not with Dietrich in the car. He would switch the station over to something loud. Something violent. His preference in music baffled her. What reason did he have to be so angry? So outraged?

The numbers on the crosswalk sign blinked at her. 20 . . .19 . . .18 . . “Philosophy majors make the most money of any liberal arts degree,” she had told her father.  Oh, how she had defended Dietrich. Fought for him, even.  Now, with startling clarity, she recalled that day in the apartment kitchen, how she had clung to his arm and then how he had carried her to the bedroom, pinning her own shapeless arms down against the mattress, and how the dinner on the stove had burned, filling the whole of the apartment with an acrid, hateful smell. It had been what she wanted, hadn’t it? But then why did she feel, when she remembered that moment, not that she had given something away, but that something had been taken from her?

Ten years had passed. A whole decade. And she herself was still stuck in the same soft, shitty job and the same soft, shitty body. Only the car was new. Her foot hovered above the brake pad, a flighty, restless bird. 10 . . .9 . . .8 . . . Aloha, she said to the transverse traffic. The gym loomed in front of her, pretending at inevitability, but the car, the car could take her anywhere. Not Hawaii, of course, but somewhere. She could go right now, she could turn right now onto I-80 and head west, toward someplace wide and open and honest.  Or, better yet, she could simply slam on the gas and plow into the crossing cars. She imagined the force of impact, imagined how the windshield would shatter and scatter little glass grains across the black pavement, fine and perfect, like sparkling sand.

Janie felt a terrible heat rise in her chest, a horrible, smothering burning, and then she spied the red flashing numbers on the crosswalk sign. 6. . . 5 . . .4 . . .Her foot on the brake became a stone.  She didn’t have to decide anything right now. There was still time.