"Tell me a story," Joel says. "About your family." Sitting stiff in the driver's seat, his hands grip the steering wheel. The speedometer clicks past ninety.
"Keep driving like this and we'll be dead before we get to New Haven."
Joel laughs, "Then tell me a short one."
"Slow down," I say. As I rest my hand inside his thigh, he immediately relaxes. My hands work in slow, tender strokes. Further up I go, massaging. Cars swerve between lanes, bright reflector lights glow in the early evening. As soon as he moans, I stop. I only want to give so much. Rolling the window down an inch, I lean against it, feeling the cold air on my face. Loose blond curls swat my eyes.
"Listen, Gillian, I have to warn you," he says.
"Yes, I know. Your family. They're crazy. We went over this in the Wendy's in New Jersey and in the McDonald's in Stamford. Perhaps you'll give me the update in Boston."
"My sister expects us to cook. My mother will psychoanalyze you over dinner."
"Then we'll mix valium in the mashed potatoes."
"I'm serious, Gillian." Fumbling with the radio dial, he finally lands on a classical music station. Schmelzer's Sonata Quinta vibrates the interior.
"I'm seriously getting concerned with your driving."
Swerving into the left lane, Joel says, "The last time I brought someone home was 1997. I thought you should know."
"You've got to be kidding me. When were you planning to share this information, never?"
"Calm down. I told them all about you. Think of this as the logical next step for us." Joel smiles.
Nervous, I think, a step towards what? Waves of guilt rise. For weeks, I have been planning to break up with Joel but the timing has always been off. First there was our year anniversary and what kind of person dumps someone on their anniversary? Recently, he was demoted from Associate designer to Analyst - leaving his rectangular office for a triangular cubicle. Denying that it bothered him, he said, "I'm lucky to have a job." Who was he fooling? For days, Joel moved through his apartment picking up ceramic figurines and placing them down again. Constantly opening the refrigerator, he would pause and peruse his dinner options to only close the fridge, leaving the white glare behind. Eat something, I urged. Cook something. How could I tell him then? When he asked me to come home with him for Thanksgiving - he said, "I don't think I can deal with them solo." – I held my head in my hands. We'd marry, have children and I would still be searching for the right time. Because how can I tell him that he is simply too boring? That he never surprises me.
After a few moments of silence, Joel says, "Nothing, it was just a thought."
A stall in traffic, our cheap Dodge rental is sandwiched between a space-age Mercedes and a Lincoln.
"Say something," he says.
"Something," I say.
For a moment, we listen to the whistling of piccolos, the singing oboe and the crescendo of the cellos.
"It's just dinner," he says, tracing my arm with his fingers.
"Thanksgiving dinner," I say. Hundreds of cars surround us. Exhaust fumes cast thick clouds of black smoke. In front of us, a Pinto's muffler scrapes the concrete. Motorists flip one another off as they move between lanes, cutting each other off. "How much have you told them about us?"
"Nothing, really," he says.
Joel is a terrible liar. The definition of convenience, he lives in the apartment below me and loses the power of speech after we have sex. A man of routine, on Mondays he wears the dark blue button-down shirt with the bleach-stained khakis. Lunch is a brown bag of peanut butter and jelly on rye toast. When I ask him about his work as a graphic designer, he waves me away. "Boring, always boring," he says. Instead, he prefers to focus on my day, which consists of reading, penning plays and hours spent in temp agency waiting rooms. A constant cheerleader, we review my day and I give him a play-by-play of the inquisitions. I tell him about the brief scan of my resume, the nodding, the terse questions and the frightening, where do you see yourself in say, five years? Every night, I tell Joel about the plants. From a small Chinese evergreen to sprawling fichus, every agency is decorated with these ornaments of life. However, I've never seen an actual human being water them. I tell him about the outdated magazine selections: Parent, Life and Time. And as the weeks pass and women in polyester Jaclyn Smith ensembles and pageboy haircuts tell me there is no work, that nothing fits me, I watch the plant leaves wilt, curl and discolor. Like potato chips, they crumble in my hand.
Fingering loose sweater threads, I say, "Tell me."
Over the past few months, Joel has snuck in ideas about our possible engagement. About how economical it would be to move in together. A possible vacation to a Polynesian island. Flipping through the Sunday Times, he pauses at the wedding announcements and pokes fun at the photos. "You are much more photogenic. Look at the bangs on this one." Often he says, "Imagine what our photo would look like."
Interrupting my thoughts, Joel says, "I told them how we met. About how you complained about my loud music and how I apologized with flowers."
"You don't even own a stereo."
"They don't know that," he says. Cars begin to move on I-95.
Joel pauses. Leaning over, he ups the volume.
"What else?" I repeat, tapping my foot.
"I told them we are getting engaged."
I want to kick open the door and run.
"Don't panic," he says. "My mother keeps emailing me profiles of other women she finds on Internet dating sites who want to get married, have children. My sister calls me with phone numbers of dating services. I just want them to stop."
"So you ignore them. You don't tell her them getting married!"
"I didn't, I told my father. Look at you. You're doing that squinty thing with your eyes."
"So were we going to roll in and your parents and I would exchange tips on bridal showers and wedding invitations?" Leaning back in my seat, in a lower voice I say, "How could you think I wouldn't freak out?"
"You make it sound like a death sentence," Joel says.
Isn't it?, I think.
We sit in silence. Gangly lampposts illuminate signs of passing Massachusetts towns, half a mile to Fall River, three to Fitchburg and ten to Chicopee. I watch the number of cars thin, trailing one another off exits. Vehicles slow to a comfortable speed. I am the opposite of cruise control. Three hundred miles away from home. The car feels as if it is shivering from the cold, the engine rumbles and moans. It is as if it too wanted to be back in the safety of a New York parking garage. Thirty miles until Brookline, another sign reads.
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