He still doesn’t understand how it came to this. He still doesn’t quite get what happened. They’d been driving down the road, a longer trip this time, a state or two over to see the leaves change. A state or two he wasn’t sure because all these east coast states are the size of a dime and you could easily drive through three in a couple hours, but that’s irrelevant, still, he noticed they’d driven a long way to get to the changing leaves and now they were having to go back through it all only this time was different.
The way out had been full of romance and hope. Good music thanks to a new album he’d created on his music app pulling in playlists for road trips and love. He was sure this trip would be the thing to cement them, the thing he’d been looking for to get her to really lean in, to get to that place where she’d accept his proposal, the one he’d been planning for several months knowing the timing wasn’t quite right, waiting.
The trip itself had been fantastic, better even than he’d dared to hope. The leaves were in full color and they saw everything from some light greenish-yellows to deep burgundy red, deeper than bricks, the old ones with character. So many colors, she’d been awed, having never seen this sort of display having grown up on the west coast. She’d been delighted, frisky, something about their first major trip together in two years, just them, alone. Perfect.
But it was on the way back, that he noticed the change. She was no longer smiling, no longer laying her hand on his thigh on occasion, an endearing ownership and connection he’d come to notice and wait for. If anything she’d begun to fold in upon herself, shrinking. He’d asked if her stomach was upset, if her head hurt, if she was hungry: no, no, no. He’d begun to give up hope of ever understanding what had gone wrong when she suddenly began to cry and by the time her words started coming out he’d been stunned.
“I was so sure,” she’d said, or at least what he thought he could understand, “so sure you’d propose this weekend. I don’t know why I thought that, you’ve not once intimated you were even considering it, but I just…I guess I thought, there was so much planning in this weekend and you’ve been so odd lately, so quiet or suddenly watchful and I just thought, ‘this is it! He’s going to propose!’ and then…nothing. And I was so ready for it, but now, sitting here and realizing it’s not coming, and knowing we’ll be back home in a couple hours and then, I have to just…keep going like this, after what I’d thought and,” she heaved an enormous breath in, her first since the tirade as he now thought of it began, and he attempted to say something when the car suddenly bucked and veered to the left.
He heard her scream, the scream of fright, of lack of control, of complete surprise. He felt the car pulling into the oncoming lane as he was desperately pulling it to the side of the road. Finally it all clicked, the vehicle went where he wanted and he was able to stop, turn it off. His hands were stuck to the wheel, his fingers perhaps permanently clawed, but he noticed his head turning to look at her.
She was straight-armed, straight-legged, every joint locked, eyes and mouth open wide, held up out of her seat by her muscles and yet locked in place by her belt. He took a deep breath before two things came out of his mouth, almost without his knowing, of their own volition. The first, made sense, “I think the tire blew.” The second, seemed to come from another lifetime, “I was waiting til we got home.”
They looked at each other, away, back again. He could see that she had no idea what he’d just said, and he could hear it in his own head, perhaps it sounded as though he expected the tire to blow when they’d arrived at home, and then the words all beginning to make sense, two separate unrelated sentences, one applying to the here and now, the other to moments before. As though life had suddenly been divided between now and then.
It took him a moment to figure out what she meant. To internalize that she meant she would not marry him, and now he was sure it was all a misunderstanding. Perhaps she still meant he thought the tire would blow when they arrived home and she was stating the obvious, no, it hadn’t waited but had blown now. It took him another moment to realize that’s not what she meant, that she was firmly sitting in the here and now, that her mind had in fact flown into the future the moment he turned off the car and had already returned to the present and knew thing she couldn’t possibly know or understand.
“No,” she said again, “I meant, I was so sure you were going to propose, and then you didn’t and in the last few hours I’ve realized it would be a mistake. An enormous mistake. We aren’t meant to be together, we’re not forever. We’re perfect for the odd trip with friends or even together alone, but that in the long run we simply aren’t right. There’s a reason we’ve been together so long and not gotten married, there’s a reason we’ve come to see all the change happening in the world, and it’s to throw into greater relief the fact that we haven’t changed at all.”
He knew she’d just said something that should make sense, something that he was meant to agree with or refute but he was still stuck. Hadn’t she just been having a breakdown over his not proposing, and hadn’t he just admitted that he had every intention of proposing, what had happened, what had he missed, how could he so thoroughly have misunderstood the situation?
He thought to argue, he thought to persuade, he thought to soothe, and instead realized, he needed air. He opened the car door and attempted to step out, realized the belt was still firmly in place, released it, stepped out, closed the car door. He took a deep breath, raked his clawed hands down his face, saw that the tire had indeed blown out, proceeded to walk towards it. And then, he was running. He hadn’t done anything more active than a day hike in years, but he was running, running down the side of the road.