This story is by John Malnor and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The stitched leather of the steering wheel felt cool, smooth and connected to her hands. Quick pressure from her right toe and the car shot past the speed limit, pushing her into the supportive seat bolsters. She set the cruise, activated auto-drive, and turned up Lenny Kravitz Superlove, raising the vibe from good to perfect.
She was excited for dinner with the girls tonight, a monthly gathering that had gone on for years. It was a night she never missed. A red blur to the right drew her eye as a Ford logo shattered the passenger window. The kick of an elephant tossed her sideways, then snapped her back again as airbags flashed and everything went black.
“I’m sorry Jennifer, the insurance company totaled the car, so we won’t be repairing it. We did drop off a loaner for you and put it into the garage as requested.”
Rick was a good guy, and Jennifer trusted him, even if he did run a car dealership. She thanked him and ended the call.
She quickly wiped away a small tear that threatened to crawl down her cheek, pulled out against her will at the thought her car had sacrificed itself, literally going to pieces over her.
A groan, quickly stifled, broke the stillness of the room as she sat up in bed, battered and bruised, a stiff neck and sore body her only souvenirs. She thought of the Ford logo and knew she was lucky to be ok. After one day of observation, the hospital let her go home. She’d slept for nearly sixteen hours, and was feeling the ache filling every muscle and joint.
Still wearing the Lulu sweats put on at least a day ago, she limped to the garage, a soft moan escaping her lips as she eased down the three steps, stopping on each one to put the next foot down, then lowering herself and repeating, moving like an octogenarian with an artificial hip. Ointment, bandages and sweat brought the smell of old to her nostrils. Time seemed to be crashing over her, pushing her, accelerating her body a decade or two ahead in a pain powered time machine.
An older Volvo wagon sat in front of her. The image flashed in her mind of the granola girl from college who wore handmade sun dresses and Birkenstocks and lived in a Volvo. Perhaps this one’s grandfather.
“Yeah, Rick said he was sorry. Now I can see why.”
A moment later, settling into the driver’s seat, the car fit like a man’s winter coat on an eight year old girl. But the Volvo seemed to expect nothing but the chance serve, a Golden Retriever to her previous Weimaraner, solid and stable vs. lean and lithe. She chuckled at the electric charger, holstered on the wall, now impotent, yet still eyeing the Volvo with superiority.
Being so close to death had ripped back her curtain, revealing just another Wizard of Oz trying to hold onto the con a bit longer. She’d become good at hiding. Feelings, ambitions, opinions, all pushed artfully into the background. Her. She had pushed herself into the background. The car had been one of her most effective shields. Now she felt naked. Exposed. Mortal. She made her way back into the house, perching on a stool at her kitchen island, looking out at her perfect backyard.
Just when she was the most perfect, her husband’s broken promises had fallen like icicles from the eave of her house, silent for a moment as they fell, then tinkling as they shattered on the cement below. Broken promises that left her in pieces, her scars hidden behind by a careful mask of perfection. His broken promises threatened her own survival, the option of suicide considered, then rejected. The detailed plan of how she’d do it put on a shelf in her mind, next to pain of betrayal.
When she told her friends about the divorce, she’d never cried. No tears were going to ruin her makeup and turn her into the tragic figure. Memories she’d kept locked up continued to wrap around her, squeezing her until she could barely breath, driving her toward the wine cooler.
Gulping down the last of the wine, she lay back into her bed. The sunset silhouetted the empty bottle of Rosé on her nightstand. She slept, wondering what kind of person she was, and who she yet could be.
Even a salon pro couldn’t hide the colorful bruising on her face the next morning. Caffeine was calling, and she wasn’t about to make it herself. A quick text to her best friend Michelle and she had a date. She slid into the Volvo, and backed slowly out of the garage in the ponderous but predictable ride, the light traffic a blessing as she drove for the first time since the crash.
They met at their favorite coffee shop, where they liked to sit on a bench out front.
“So that’s a big change.” Michelle took a sip, nodding over her cup to the Volvo.
“For sure. Loaner from Rick.”
Jennifer turned around, perching on the hood of the car. She took a breath, searching Michelle’s eyes.
“Michelle, do you know this is the first time I’ve ever left my house without makeup?”
“Honey, not all of us look like you, but yeah, I noticed. You are kind of the local benchmark. I bet there are a twenty women sighing in relief today. Hey, what’s up with you anyway?”
“I’ve just been thinking about things. Seeing that truck bumper so close to my face…..it doesn’t go away.”
“Well, I never saw you sit on the hood of a car before, but it’s good. You could relax a bit, in some ways, I mean.”
She stood up, realizing Michelle was right. She’d never just perched on the hood, of any car. Then she sat back down, a small grin breaking through. She motioned to Michelle, who sat down beside her, the car settled a bit, seeming to sigh with satisfaction.
“In what ways?” she could feel herself getting defensive and stomped it back down. “I mean, what would that look like?”
“C’mon, girl, you put on a front so deep it’s hard to know what to start with. How about just wearin’ regular clothes and just put your hair back in a pony on a Saturday morning. Who you trying to impress, anyway?”
“You! Everyone! I guess I’m not sure anyone would like me if I just, well, didn’t do all the things I do.”
“Hah, well, I can tell you the ones that did would be real friends and the rest, well, they never were. This town is filled with fake friends, all pretending to be happy. Ain’t no way to live. Hey, why are you friends with me – I’m not perfect Barbie?”
“Uh, well, I admire you. You are the most real person I know. Sometimes I pretend I’m just like you. But I don’t have the guts. I have a whole closet of uncomfortable shoes that I hate. You’re the playwright of your own life, while I’m just reading someone else’s lines.”
“So, what do you want to change first?”
“It’s been so long. So long since I really thought about what I want. I wanted to be happy, and if I just got everything right, then someday, suddenly, I would be.”
“That’s a shitty life. Gotta be able to enjoy this moment. Right now. That’s all we ever have. Listen, you are worthy of love. Period. Just as you are. Right. Now.”
Jennifer paused, looking at her feet, and shaking her head.
“I’d just like to go somewhere new and start over.”
“C’mon, runnin’ away isn’t a good way to start. What’s something small you could do today?”
“I’m not brave like you.”
“Darlin’, listen, I just don’t have the money, or the time, or the energy, to always be tryin’ to be somethin’ I’m not. So I just do me and the world can take it or leave it. That’s all.”
“Well, maybe I’d like a little helping of that for me.”
“Nice. Probably do you some good. How about we get you back to your house, and start sayin’ hello to the real Jennifer. And I’ll take some of those uncomfortable shoes off your hands.”
Jennifer smiled, took a breath and stood straighter.
“No more masks.”
“What if you hate me?”
“Then kick me to the curb and find a better friend.”
Jennifer leaned into a hug. Not a polite hug, but a real, honest to god, I love you my friend, squeeze you with both arms hug.
Moving to her car, she didn’t even bother to wipe the tears away.
The hard plastic wheel was cool, comfortable fabric seats held her gently, and John Mayer’s Who Says warmed her heart. A little pressure from her right toe and she slowly made her way home.