We all run out of gas
Ben switches on the indicator. A flick of his finger: Left, then tick, tick, tick. Right, then tick, tick, tick. This action is unnecessary: the road ahead of us continues without diverging until it becomes a narrow line penetrating the mountains in the distance.
On each side of us is vast golden brown sand streaked with white, and rock and flecks of green shrubbery here and there.
It’s been over an hour since either of us spoke. For a while I pretended to sleep.
Earlier, when I packed our things, I found the crumpled receipt in his shirt pocket: whiskey again. He used to be better at remembering not to forget. I haven’t mentioned it to him, not yet. Now’s not the time.
I’ve been thinking about his father since we began driving early this morning. I remember when his dad was out on the lawnmower that summer, when the sun seemed to take residency and refused to leave when its lease was up. Ben would help his father in the garden, and would bag the grass which filled the air with that unmistakable scent. Sometimes I’d want to take the black plastic bag from Ben and lower my head and breathe it all in.
That summer Ben would wear this red and black plaid shirt every other day, along with black jeans and big, brown boots. He’d have his work gloves tucked into his back pocket so that the fingers hung down his backside.
It was his most handsome summer.
He’d just started the car wash business with Reggie Whelan and at nineteen he had, like he told me, plenty of time to make enough money to make sure we’d have a nice house in a nice neighbourhood with a nice school for our kids. Two girls and a boy, Ben had said. You three can talk boys, bake cakes, and do your make-up while I take Junior to the game and sneak him a drink like my old man did with me, he’d said.
They’d founded the business with money left to Reggie by his grandfather, savings the two boys had made from summer jobs throughout their school years, and even from a paper route Ben had run from age eleven through thirteen. His father had told him about the benefits of saving well, and sure enough, Ben had listened to Ben Sr. just like he always did.
The business started small and stayed small for the first five years, before it expanded and then became small again once the expansion didn’t work out. I took odd jobs here and there and spent my free time upholstering furniture. University never occurred to us, and it’s not like I don’t know why it didn’t. Business and family, that was the goal. That was the pattern of previous generations and that’s what we were happy to pursue.
I close my eyes again but it’s too bright to actually sleep. I reach out my hand and rest it on Ben’s lap. He doesn’t know what plays out in my mind: his father and that summer and the business. What I’m thinking about brings me closer to him, but his hand doesn’t leave the steering wheel. His grip remains firm. His tenseness hasn’t softened, and it probably won’t until we get home in a couple of days.
When his sister called during the night I could tell she’d been crying, and a few simple words was all that was needed. After taking the call I had to tell Ben that his father was gone, but it wasn’t unexpected. His facial expression didn’t give much away, as usual.
Okay, he’d said, and I’d said that I wanted him to talk to me if he felt like he needed to. And he’d told me that he didn’t need to, which reminded me of the conversation we’d had after we’d been to the specialist for the last time.
It’s me, he’d said. What else do we need to say? It’s my problem, not yours. I’d tried to explain to him that it was our problem, and he knew (of course he knew), but he would just say that it was him, and that was that. And whenever I mentioned other options he wouldn’t even entertain the suggestion with a response.
I lay my head against the headrest and tilt it to the left and I watch the highway. The yellow line passes under the vehicle like lost memories. The scenery doesn’t change, not drastically.
It never does.
I look at Ben, and down at my hand which still rests on his lap.
‘We can always turn back,’ I tell him.
‘No, we can’t,’ he says, his eyes focused on the endless road ahead of us.
‘I know,’ I say.
After a minute or two I say, ‘You know I packed?’
‘Yeah, I know. My shirt.’ He looks at me and says, ‘I know.’
As I look at him I cannot feel anger, not even if I want to.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says.
‘It’s okay,’ I tell him. ‘I don’t even know if it’s your decision anymore.’
He thinks about that for a moment before he glances at me and says, ‘I love you.’
I squeeze his thigh, and I can only whisper, ‘I know you do’.
After a long silence Ben says, ‘Things never really went how we’d planned.’
‘No, they didn’t,’ I say.
‘You could’ve left,’ he says. ‘All those times, you could’ve left.’
‘I know,’ I say. And for a few minutes I try to understand, but I never arrive at an understanding. ‘I suppose we all run out of gas at some point in our lives, but not all of us can afford to refill the tank.’
‘What does that mean?’ he asks.
I don’t respond. I bring my hands to my cheek and I rest my head against the passenger door. I close my eyes again and I’m taken back to that summer: Ben’s father mowing the lawn, and Ben Jr. wearing his check shirt. Those boots. The grass and its freshness. Ben wrapping his arms around me, and me taking his worked hands in my palms. We’d lie in the garden and he’d place his hand on my belly and we’d talk of the future. Every time I smell freshly cut grass I’m taken there, and it reminds me of hope.