In the Car
“Watch out!” she screams.
I don’t know who’s more panic-stricken, my wife or me. Surely she’s upset; I’ve veered out of the centre of my lane a bit, a bit mind you, not a lot, but Nathalie has a silken voice when she’s content but possesses a loud deaf-inducing trumpet when she’s upset and now we’re both shaken, she from a mistaken belief that I’ll be the cause of her premature death in a traffic accident and me from having my peace exploded by an unexpected shriek inches from my ear.
“Sure, hon,” I say, “no problem.”
Ears still ringing, I steer the car back towards the middle of the lane where we can both breathe a little easier. I remain calm, at least on the outside. It’s not as if I’m not used to Nat’s lack of confidence in her chances of remaining alive with me at the wheel, especially as I continue to do the bulk of the driving: I am used to it. I’m used to the outbursts, the panic. Although I hadn’t strayed too far from the optimum driving path, I had strayed far enough, but it would be useless to react emotionally — as emotionally as I would like to — when you know someone as long as I’ve know Natalie Proulx. It wouldn’t do any good.
What might do some good, only some mind you, would be to bring it up later over coffee in as calm and rational voice as possible: “Honey, are you afraid that when I drive I’m going to get us into an accident?”
When she vehemently replies, “YES!”, I may try to assure her that with my excellent driving record, great mind-body coordination and general top-notch driving skills, this is unlikely. Then I might sit back satisfied while she thinks of a response, certain now that I’ve
finally gotten somewhere, that the panic attacks will now be a thing of the past, or at least significantly diminished. “So don’t drive so badly then,” she’ll say and we’ll be back to Square One.
And she has a point: with heavy rush-hour traffic forcing all the cars to go no faster than forty klics an hour, it is easy to be distracted. What was it this time? The beautiful woman at the wheel of the sports car, top down? (The car top down, not her top! Her sunglasses, makeup and outright sexiness would be enough to distract any testosterone-crazed male.) Or was it the truck with the side panel depicting the truck’s presumed interior? Now that was interesting, but I forget which diversion it was. Can you just get it through your thick skull, Jeffrey? When you’re driving with your better half, do not deviate from the centre of the lane, not one millimetre! (OK, OK, I get it!)
So now, back in the calm middle — with thousands of hemmed-in vehicles like ours flowing to the city, like salmon in the river, with each Quebecois driver cursing under his or her breath at the lack of velocity caused by so many cars on the same road at the same time; with each right foot itching to really, really press down on the accelerator and TAKE OFF!; with each brain painfully fantasizing a clear highway aheadfor miles and miles sans voitures, (except for that luscious beauty in her convertible; no, she’s cool, of course) I gauge the stress in the car and say, as nonchalantly as possible, “Er, where were we?”
And since, in her fabulous idiosyncratic manner, Nathalie has rebounded from her panic attack as quickly as you can say “Esti tabarnak”, it’s clear that I can relax as well.
Sounds good, you might say, but to be truthful the panic is always there under the surface and it does take its emotional and physical toll. If I should ever get too close, drive too fast, take my hands off the wheel (now why would that bother her?) it unavoidably rears its ugly head and strikes, like a soldier suddenly rising from a bunker, his bayonet in hand aimed at your head.
“We were talking, I don’t know,” she says, “about going on a vacation.”
I’m just about to say something –
“And,” she continues before a word can escape my lips –she has this hesitating way of speaking, so unlike mine — “how can we do it when we can hardly pay for things now?”
Can I speak? Is this a pause I sense?
“But, hon,” I say, “January’s a long way off. I might save some money before then.”
“Not the way you spend it you won’t. WILL YOU SLOW DOWN!!!”
Oops, I’ve gotten a little too close to the car up ahead. Now that we’re approaching the Champlain Bridge, even more cars have joined in, if that’s at all possible.
“Sure, sweetie,” I say and slow us down to a miserable 20 klics per hour.
Great. We’re back to money issues again. Don’t let anyone say otherwise — and Nathalie is an extremely generous person – but harmony suffers in a marriage if the male branch of the tree of matrimony earns considerably less than the female one. Nathalie is a lawyer but would still prefer to split the payment of expenses 50-50, which, I sadly admit, has rarely happened in our 17 years together. When she says, “We can hardly pay for things now” she means, “You can hardly pay for things now.”
“I’ll try,” I say, meaning that I’ll try to save some money so that we can go to that B&B in Wakefield next January.
“Just slow down,” she says, misunderstanding my ‘trying’, “and we’ll get to Montreal alive.”
Christ, this is becoming one long drive.
“Don’t look so sad,” I say, trying to lighten the mood — I love getting my wife to laugh — but it isn’t working. No one at the wheel of the other cars is smiling either. The buxom bombshell I noticed earlier wasn’t smiling. Hell, no one smiles when they drive. Beware of people smiling when they drive, I think.
What would help is if I can think of something funny to say, but I used up all my jokes about five years ago and, like Nat, I too wish that we were in the city about 45 minutes ago.
“So,” she says, “how are you going to get the money so that we can take at least one vacation next year?”
“I told you,” I say, “I’ll save.”
“Hmmph,” she says and stares out the window (I wish that it was me doing that…).
“It’s going to be fine,” I coo, in as reassuring a voice as possible. “We’ll be fine. We’ll go on that trip. We’ll cross-country ski. We’ll do Yoga.” (We’re considering a B&B with its own Yoga studio.) “We’ll make love three times a day.”
Finally. I’ve finally said something that’s gotten a smile out of her.
“No,” I say, “that’s not quite right. Four. We’ll make love four times a day, if you’re up to it.”
“Oh, yeah, I’m really up to it,” she says. “Why not five times a day?”
“No,” I say, “Five times is really too much.”
We’re finally at the bridge, crawling at about 10 klics an hour. Actually, we’re stopping and starting in an exhausting ritual of me pressing down on the clutch, shifting into first, second if we’re lucky, back to neutral, then into first. My right hand is beginning to ache.
“Oh, God,” she says, “when will we get there?”
“Soon, my love,” I purr, “soon.”
She seems satisfied.
I think it possible that we just might be creeping slowly enough to have successfully silenced the beast of panic. Still, I had better not get diverted again or, you never know, I might slam into the back of the car ahead of me, even at 5 klics per hour. That wouldn’t be much fun. There would be no getting out of the car to discuss things calmly with literally tens of thousands of cars rushing by us. It would be a disaster.
What I would like to do, as an enjoyable fantasy flits through my mind, would be to hand the keys over to my chauffer and slip into the back with Nat, pull the blinds all around us and engage in some serious kissing and petting. That would help pass the time.
“What are you smiling about?” she asks.
“Oh, nothing.” The smile expands to cover my face.
“Will you look at that,” she says, her eyes widening. “Nothing, right? You’ve got a smile from ear to ear.” With her French-Canadian accent it’s more like “hear to hear”.
“Nope, not me,” I say, “I’m cool.” We’re almost off the bridge and now have to face the fact that the Bonaventure Expressway, what with its miles and miles of construction will make everything we’ve driven on up to now look like a speedway.
But everything is fine. I’ve got my baby relaxed and my fantasy, and I’m not going any slower or faster than any of the other thousands of bozos around me who’ve all decided to come to the city at the same time on one of the busiest bridges in the world.