car interior SATURN MAN

Susan Moon

I was looking forward to our weekend in the cabin -- a weekend of reading and sex and food, not necessarily in that order. Maybe even all at once. But when he arrived at my house he seemed tense. "I've got horrible heartburn," he said. "Do you have any whatchamacallit?" I knew he meant Pepto-Bismol and got him some.

He left his car in my driveway, and we loaded up my car with our things, including a bag of fingerling potatoes he'd brought from the farm. He drove. He was a good driver, and he liked to drive, especially my car, the Saturn he had picked out for me to buy after reading some car magazine or other -- I think it was Road and Track. It was a reliable car, and he took pride in having given me good advice.

Man and car were mixed up in my mind, to the point where I never dreamed of him directly -- I dreamed of the car instead. I was locked inside the car and couldn't get out. Or I'd lost the keys, or the car was careening out of control. Once, I was tooling along quite happily, driving down the shaft of Florida, his natal state. Both he and the Saturn were chunky and practical. Both of them knew how to give me a good ride.

Before we hit the open road we stopped at H.D. Pool and Patio and bought a bench for the cabin porch. We chose one that was supposed to look like an old-fashioned park bench. It came in a big flat box -- you had to assemble the wooden slats and the wrought-iron arms and legs. He was good at things like that: checking the oil in the car and putting together benches. The box was too big to fit in the trunk, but it just fit across the back seat.

Off we went. Highway 101 unrolled itself under our wheels. We were going north to Mendocino County, and the sun was shining. We had our best times in the cabin there, where our separate lives came together without distraction. It was my cabin, but we'd been there so many times together it felt like his place, too.

"I've been thinking about us," he said. I saw his Adam's apple move as he swallowed, and already I felt the prick of tears. "This isn't enough for me," he went on. "I want to break up, unless you can make a bigger commitment to me."

We'd been through this before. He wanted me to move into his tiny trailer, and plant zinnias outside the door on the weekends.

The vibrations of the car on the highway were mildly comforting. I bargained. I pleaded. I talked arithmetic -- three nights a week? Four nights a week? Thursday evening through Monday morning?

He said I didn't love him enough. I said I did.

We stopped for coffee and to pee in Healdsburg, at the bakery where we always stopped. He bought us each a chocolate chip cookie, even though I said I didn't want one. He liked giving me chocolate, and things with chocolate in them. He had even given me a big box of expensive chocolate truffles for my birthday, right after I'd told him I was going to give up chocolate. I left the box in his fridge, and we ate the truffles together, two by two, each time I came to stay. I couldn't not eat them, even if they did give me headaches -- they were too beautiful, with little purple flowers on top.

But I couldn't eat my cookie, because I always lost my appetite the minute he said he was breaking up with me, and so he ate my cookie, too, pulling big, sad pieces out of the bag as we drove away from the bakery.

We hardly spoke. We were glum. So this was it. This was finally IT.

At the on-ramp to 101, two hitchhikers stood. "I know them!" he said. "I know them from the farm. I have to pick them up." He stopped. "Hello, hello!" he said. "How funny to see you here." But he wasn't laughing. He introduced me. They didn't know him well enough to notice the tightening of the skin that drew down the sides of his mouth, pink and taut. I knew this was how he kept back tears.

It was tricky to fit the hitchhikers in, because they each had a backpack, and we had that big box. They sat in the back and we slid the big box across their laps, making a vertical cardboard wall between the front and the back seats, like those partitions in taxis, only you couldn't see through it. One of their backpacks had to go on their laps, too. The other one we fit into the trunk, which already contained our cooler and clothes and fingerling potatoes. On the outside pocket of the backpack, a bunch of carrots was embroidered.

As he and I stood behind the car, repacking the trunk, he whispered to me, "I wish I hadn't picked them up."

I was glad he'd picked them up. They were young and wholesome-looking, in jeans and Guatemalan shirts. The man's shining clean ponytail was tied with a piece of green garden twine. The woman had hair as short as fur that you wanted to rub your hand over. They were probably on their way to save the redwoods.

I didn't want to keep crying all the way to the cabin. I wanted to talk to some people from the free world outside the Saturn. "It's a little late now," I said. "You can hardly ask them to get out again, now that they're all wedged in."

We hit the road again. Saturn Man's knuckles turned white on the steering wheel. I called over my shoulder to the back, asking our passengers questions. It turned out the man had just finished serving in the Peace Corps in South Africa, and I told him I'd been there many years before, during apartheid. I asked him about the work he had done there. Saturn Man drove faster. The man in the back, who talked of teaching school in Durban, was invisible behind the box with the bench that we would set up on the cabin porch -- an emblem of domesticity. We'd set it up tomorrow, and sit on it together, and watch the turkey vultures float below us. But now we flew north on the highway, and Saturn Man's skin pulled tighter and tighter across his face. Silence came off him like smoke.

"I sometimes think my son should go in the Peace Corps," I was saying.

He took his right hand off the steering wheel and reached over to my hands in my lap. Was he going to hold hands? No, he pulled up the skin on the back of my left hand and pinched! Hard. He was looking straight ahead, driving over 80. I couldn't believe it. Was that my hand smarting?

I ignored him, my biggest weapon. "Did you get to know any Afrikaaners?" I asked cheerfully over my shoulder. We kept talking, and invisible pinching kept going on in the front seat. It hurt, but somehow I couldn't move my disbelieving hands from my lap. The more I talked the more he pinched to make me stop, and the more he pinched, the more I chatted on about the heroism of Mandela, the beauties of Cape Town, and the temperate climate. I wanted to say, in a voice like a sword, "Stop pinching me!" I wanted to say it loud, so they'd hear me in the back -- but instead I asked, "Did you learn any Bantu?"

Suddenly Saturn Man broke in: "I'm sorry, guys, but I realize it was a mistake for me to pick you up. We were in the middle of a serious argument, and I feel the need for us to go back to our process. I'll let you out at the next exit ramp, where you can hitch another ride."

"Goody," I said. "I can't wait!" But my voice came out more like a rag than a sword, and I don't think they heard me.

"Oh, sorry!" said the young woman, as if it was her fault she'd interrupted us.

"Whatever..." said the young man.

The four of us drove on, without pinching or talking. The silence that filled the car was so poisonous that I rolled down the window to let some of it out, even though he had the air conditioner on. He liked the air conditioner. He called it the "A-C," and, for some reason, that annoyed me, maybe because I didn't love him enough.

It was a long five minutes or so before we came to the next exit and he pulled off the highway. We released our passengers from their imprisonment under the bench-to-be.

They slung on their packs, and waved, tentatively, as we drove away. "Good-bye!" I called out the open window. "It was nice talking to you."

And as soon as they were out of sight, before we got back on the freeway, I said, "Pull over." He obeyed. I opened the door.

"I hate you," I said. "I'm leaving." I slammed the door and marched off down the dusty rim of the road, alongside a walnut orchard. I showed him my back. I marched and marched, my arms crossed over my chest, and a hot breeze came out of the trees and dried my face. I walked about a quarter of a mile before I turned around.

The next day we set up the new bench on the cabin porch, and watched the turkey vultures do their thing, drifting as if the air was water, hunting for dead animals. It wasn't our last weekend together in the cabin after all, in spite of what he said. That came later.


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