The man and the woman slammed themselves into the car with relief.
Certainly, the little beach cottage had been all they might have wished for. Its heating didn’t function, but they’d managed. The fireplace had finally more or less done what it was touted to do. They’d eaten well, walked on the cold, wet sand (a silver wafer of sun for an hour; better than none)—watched a funny video, made love. The hot water out of the taps was weak and intermittent; they’d solved that by soaking in the little outdoor tub. A real retreat. They’d kissed and joked and nuzzled like Mr. and Mrs. Bear.
Now they were pointed toward home, laughing, eager to be thoroughly warmed by forced-air heating, amid strong reading lights again.
But the fog was a new element.
The fog was a stranger who’d entered the movie of themselves.
It gulped the scenery: majestic miles of beach. The green gentle hills rolling back, back. The apple groves gilded with autumn leaves like burnished coins, rows tumbling toward the roadway in amber light. The eucalyptus groves, the serene river. The little towns nestled in the leafy middle distance.
Now the world had shrunk to the faint licks of white stripe on grayish asphalt, inches at a time, where the headlights groped down in front of the car—bouncing up to be sucked tracelessly into the grainy curtain that had plopped onto land and sea. A big lolling dense-weave parachute, drowning the setting and all known surfaces, all dimension. Washing it flat, to nothing.
Through which they were expected to drive.
He was at the wheel. Both stiffened as the situation shaped itself before them: they’d have to creep home in first gear, eyes fastened to those faint streaks of white lines on the center of the asphalt before them, like a crumb trail. The car seemed a pod whose skin contained their fragile atmosphere. The fog seemed also to have eaten sound, the engine’s hum that of their blood supply.
He slowed the car at the corner where a small grocery stood: its welcome lights fuzzy globes hovering, barely visible, over the store’s front eaves as the car approached.
The fog was airborne sand, a silent sandstorm.
Shouldn’t we stop and ask here, said the woman, unable to keep the anxiousness out of her voice. I remember this was the corner, she said, where we turned off to find the house when we originally came.
No, said the man. Let’s just turn here, because this was the turn we used coming out and now we’re going back the other way on it, right? We’re just reversing the procedure, right?
No, thought the woman. That’s wrong. You’ve got it wrong, and that is why we should ask. Because neither of us is sure. But she checked this impulse because she wanted to see herself—wanted the man to see her—a supporting mate, a player on his side.
She said only: I don’t think so.
She gripped the door handle and leaned forward, both of them leaning forward, not taking their eyes from the tiny patch of lit asphalt crawling ahead that was the only demonstrable contact they now had with planet Earth. All the world, the weekend, the wine, the glossy photography books they’d leafed through, the exquisite Paul Horn sax on the sleek, complicated CD system, the lolling in the hot tub with champagne for her and Grand Marnier for him, the view of the shining silver waves—dissolved into granular ether. The fog not only wiped out the setting and all they had just finished doing in it: It seemed to creep like mold into the man’s and woman’s memories—though they would never have admitted this—making them slightly doubt their own beings, their histories. Their prior lives were wavering and breaking up, like reflections on an agitating surface. The fog had stripped the familiar outcroppings of the world, replaced them with vapor.
They rolled on and the road got narrower, rougher. There was not one tree or fencepost, no distant wink of light they could recognize from their initial drive out to the cabin. Finally the man said: let’s just see if in twenty minutes or so, we reach the highway. If we don’t, I’ll know we’re going the wrong way.
Vexation gripped his voice. He said: I wish I could just recognize one thing.
She thought: this is horribly wrong, and it’s getting more wrong by the second. And with the road growing worse, no visible shoulder but only wet tall weeds, how were they to turn around?
She said: I think we are in trouble.
She thought of a Twilight Zone episode in which a man walks out of his suburban home in the misty dawn to go to work: he gets in his car and drives to the end of the street and suddenly the street ends in a jungly swamp that is completely alien, with hints of heinous movement, unspeakable horror in the vague gnarls of steam all about him in the half-light as he drives. And it turns out that his entire suburban neighborhood has been peeled up off Earth like a band-aid and reaffixed to a patch of hostile planet. And that was exactly how this countryside’s leering dark appeared now.
The woman began, against all reason, to feel short of breath.
Still she said nothing. They’d had scenes in the past about directions. About his never getting them right, never willing to stop to ask for them.
She wanted to endorse him. She wanted to be the kind of partnership she saw—so often, it seemed—in other couples’ photographs. She studied these carefully wherever they went visiting. Shining, framed-under-glass evidence. Like maps, or licenses. Photos placed for optimum viewability on desks, bookshelves, mantels. The couples were seated at a restaurant table crowded with crystal, or they were clowning on beaches or in boats, or hailing the camera with arms locked around each other’s waists: mountains or water or monuments looming behind them. Their faces were often thrust forward, cheek-to-cheek, grins calm and sure. No qualms. No treachery: the beaming partners a fortress against treachery. Why, bring on the treachery—let silly old treachery try and see just how far it gets! We’re of a piece, smiled these photos. Imperturbable. Hardy co-pilots. Two musketeers.
How was that state arrived at, the woman always wondered as she stared into the photos. That serene certainty. Was it handed you at birth, like genetic code? Or did you work to earn it, like Zen enlightenment?
They came, finally, to a street sign. They had to pull very near, trying to aim the lights toward it.
They saw that they had come full circle from where they’d started, to the beach cottage turnoff.
A full half-hour in the deadly fog, the wrong way!
The woman’s heart flooded then, with something like hatred. She’d been fooled again: her distrust discounted, then proved correct after all. She felt as though she’d been robbed at gunpoint, and the gunman revealed to be a child with a squirtgun.
Words emerged from her throat. You will never ask, she said quietly. You will never do the one staggeringly simple thing, and stop, and ask.
You should not let me do that, the man answered—harshly, to her amazement. You should not let me not ask. You should make me stop and ask, every time.
A slack-jawed beat. Had she heard him right?
Are you crazy?, she managed to say.
You don’t have to go along with what I say just because I say it, the man told her as he worked his arms hard, cranking the steering many yanks this direction, many yanks that, maneuvering the car in something like a fifty-five-point turnaround. You’re too goddamn nice all the time.
The woman sat stunned. I was nice, she finally stammered, because, because—her mind leapt around in the car like a monkey whose cage has caught fire—because I wanted to be wifely.
Well, don’t be, said the man. Stop being so fucking nice. And stop lying to people about how much you like them. Telling everybody they’re a hero for getting up in the morning, they’re so kind to do this or that, bless their hearts. Stop telling everybody they’re so fucking good.
You’re every bit as false, the woman hissed, sickened now, swept up, enflamed. You’re worse. You lie in every social setting. You invite the setting, and then you lie. All those stupid dinners and parties you can’t get enough of, while underneath the whole time you’re thinking they’re all morons. You don’t just think it: you know they’re morons. But you can’t get enough of it, because you’re so bored. Inviting the whole goddamn town over to dinner, getting drunk, telling everybody what dear friends they are, how you’ll do all these favors for them. When the truth is you would never call out to them for help if you were in a bad jam, would you. Would you. They’re just keeping you distracted, because you cannot bear the empty hours of your life. Everything’s one big fat jolly lie. The woman spoke this last line as much to herself as to the man, astonished.
The car was trundling back the way they’d come. The air seemed stopped around them. The woman’s stomach hurt. The little cabin by the sea now struck her as a throwaway scrap, naive theatrics. She was thinking I have actually believed him to be right most of the time. And then from time to time the curtain lifts, and it’s clear he is a mortal fool making myopic, mortal fool decisions. And I am giving him the edge, acceding because he is the husband and I am the wife. And what have I passed by in result? What have I missed? For how many years?
The man had made a kind of sour sound. Now he said: You’re never good in these situations. You never give any support. You always panic and freak out. You always do that when something like this happens.
He sounded righteous. Indignant. She’d deprived him of her cool-witted, unquestioning aid—the one true tool a real mate would provide.
Her hatred intensified to a single white ray.
And you, she said, are too, too—again she cast about—too fucking lazy to stop and ask for help. I will never, ever, ever let you drive without getting directions again. The woman felt the absurd puniness of this threat, and behind that the puniness of her present life, and its exhaustion. Heat and clamminess striped her skin from her collarbone to her ears. She slammed out of the car at the grocery store, entered trembling, brought the bemused clerk outside to personally instruct the man. She listened carefully in case the man botched the directions again.
The two rode in silence for forty minutes.
The man finally asked if she wanted to eat.
She made a noise, listless, emptied. The idea of eating made her ill. How could he think of eating? How could food be taken into one’s body at a time like this? The man (to her astonishment) seemed able to glide past these fits, these firewalls, as if nothing had happened. He began suggesting places to eat. She felt cold, dazed. She repeated in a flat voice that she would eat anything but she would not eat out here, where they were still driving through nothing, dark weeds, black sky.
She knew the man was trying to move them back to a normative state, and this made her want to flail her limbs, to disappear, to’ve been born elsewhere and have a different history far away and never have met him. Because he was denying the sulphurous stink of their just-lapsed fury. He wanted to wave it away. Part of her wanted to force his nose back into it, hold him there, force him to dwell inside it. But she could feel her heart already sinking, seeing him struggle to escape. She slumped.
She wanted to open the car door and fall out. Let the fog catch her, float her away.
She sat looking blankly ahead.
Several times the man revised his decision about where to eat. Each new decision brought them nearer to the city where they lived, until finally they were just inside its official limits. At last they stopped, unfolded themselves from the car, legs and asses cramped. She looked at the filthy asphalt and thanked God for it, as well as for the garish street lights, the billboard lights, the neon flicker of the Chinese café they approached.
Inside, light came from white fluorescent tubes. The man and the woman took seats at a red formica table. Silent, they sipped glasses of iced water while food was prepared. The woman stared at a leftover section of the local paper. They ate noodles without speaking. They each drank a beer. The man made a comment about the food. The woman murmured. Each stared at the walls, at the few others in the diner.
The woman knew exactly what they looked like, sitting there, silently lifting the food to their lips with their chopsticks. They ate as if they were washing dishes. She remembered then how many times, as a young girl, she had noticed miserable couples eating soundlessly, mechanically in cafés and restaurants, their faces dead. It wasn’t a portrait for display on bookshelves and mantels. It wasn’t two musketeers. Always, as a girl, she had felt so proud, so relieved she would never, never partake of what she had seen: that ghastly, grim silence of unhappy couples eating. Never. Marooned, thought the woman now, idly. Chained and marooned. Because there was no leaving. No Valhalla waiting outside the Chinese restaurant where people did not fight bitterly, where they did not look at each other and wonder how they could have so misunderstood, so miscalculated. There was only fog. Though food and beer were going in, the woman felt emptied out. It seemed to her there was no end to such emptying, but she knew that for some reason—a curse upon women—it was only she who’d remember. Days would resume. Years. Lives would resume, motioning like pale trees in wind, but with something struck away, as if by lightning—and the space it left a blackened socket, smoldering.
Joan Frank (www.joanfrank.org) is the author of five books of fiction, and an essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life. Joan’s work has won many grants and awards, including the Richard Sullivan Prize, ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award, and Dana Award. She lives in Northern California.