The man and the woman had been sitting for half an hour in traffic on I-270, squinting from the sunlight glaring off the cars in front of them. The woman was twisting her hair into a braid while the man explained to her why animals dream. The man and the woman were getting a divorce. This decision had been made three weeks ago, more or less.
“When animals dream they are practicing for dangerous, real-life situations. They’re this useful, evolutionary thing. They practice hunting or running away, so when they have to do it in real life their reflexes are primed.”
“Everything is an evolutionary thing,” the woman responded.
“Can you imagine all that going on while you are asleep? All that work your brain does on its own! Do you think it’s the same for humans?” he asked.
She rested her forehead on the top of the steering wheel, clearly not listening. She was a pretty, gracefully aging woman. She was also tired and irritable. In the last half hour, they hadn’t moved once.
The drive to the realtor’s office to sign the papers to sell their house should have lasted only twenty-five minutes. The man’s Honda was in the shop so the woman agreed to give him a ride. Plus, they said, it would give them a chance to discuss a few things about their daughter and what to do with all the furniture and wall decorations the man considered his but that did not fit in the apartment where he now lived. They could talk about all this without sitting at a table, looking at each other.
“Usually my dreams just make me feel like an idiot,” she said, straightening up. “I’m always having dreams where I’m late for a test, or I leave the house and don’t realize until I’m halfway to my destination that I forgot my shoes. Anyway, I don’t buy into a lot of those studies. Science is full of prejudices and assumptions.”
The man shrugged. He did not want to get into a discussion about science. The woman rejected everything that did not have to do with actual interactions between real people. She did not read articles or try to understand social trends. She was impossible to talk to. He tapped out a rhythm on the dashboard, disappointed in the waste of such a good conversation topic. He never used to remember his dreams until he quit smoking a couple months ago. Yesterday, he’d dreamt he was running through a crowded stadium to escape a man with a gun, which he hoped would not be useful.
The billboard out his window was extremely stupid: a local ad with a picture of a man in a suit with two corgis and the text, I’m a lawyer—trust me! My dogs do.
He continued to drum his fingers on the dashboard and the woman winced inwardly; he was clearly not going to respond to her sweeping statement about science. Well, all she’d said was the truth—she didn’t buy into the study, or believe that scientists had any idea what animals were dreaming. But the man clearly wanted her to say, “That’s interesting!” and nothing else.
“I have been practicing different facial expressions and manners of speaking,” she said. “I used all of them up in the first five minutes, so now I’m just going to sit here and make whatever face I want.”
“Oh,” he said. He had not done any practicing, though he’d had a drink at lunch.
She said, “I knew it. I knew it would be like this.” She slumped in her seat. Here he was talking about dreams when they were supposed to be making plans for the man’s stuff in the garage and for where their thirteen-year-old daughter would spend this weekend.
He quit hitting the dashboard and stared at the clock on the radio. It was hot outside, the air making little ripples of heat in the distance, and the woman turned off the air conditioning to save the battery. Their appointment with the realtor was due to start in two minutes.
The man was renting a small apartment on the outskirts of downtown Columbus, near the university where he taught business classes. It somehow felt vast and indifferent. The draft in the kitchen made the door to his bedroom slam shut periodically, giving him a good helping of adrenaline and opening his blood vessels, which he decided must be healthy.
Their daughter was acting like a real snob about the whole thing. Most of the girl’s many, many friends had divorced parents. She considered herself something of an expert. She said things like, “Half of marriages end in divorce, so you’re just as likely to be in one half as the other” and “I don’t go in for that happily-ever-after stuff anyway; I’m not a baby.” Neither of them knew how to make her talk about it in a way they could stand.
The woman, for her part, had explained to their daughter that they were working very hard to make this easy and that nobody hated anybody else. She purchased a book on talking to your children about divorce. She was trying not to start all her sentences with: “You have a right to feel—” whatever feeling.
She fiddled with the radio dial until she found a station with Hank Williams singing “Hey, Good Lookin’.” There were four lanes of traffic and their car was in the far right-hand lane, next to a scrubby hill. There was nothing to look at; the road curved so they could not even see how many yards of traffic lay ahead.
Earlier there had been two helicopters hovering around, but now the sky was quiet.
“I’ll tell you a story to make the time pass,” said the woman. She cleared her throat and began, referring to a married couple they were both friends with.
The wife had caught her husband in a serious bind. She’d pulled the laundry out of the washer and found all her white clothes stained pink. She fished around in the clothes to find the culprit and pulled out a pair of red lacy panties.
“They were not hers,” said the woman. “Can you imagine her in lacy panties?” The woman started laughing. She covered her mouth and bent over her knees, trying to stifle it. “It’s so terrible! Not only does she find this illicit, sexual thing invading her home, she has to throw out half of her clothes! Jesus Christ, is that a metaphor or what?”
The man tried to figure out what her motive was telling him this. Perhaps to show him that she was keeping in better touch with their friends, and they were confiding in her. Maybe to show him that everybody’s marriages were in a state of madness.
Then again, this was the sort of story she genuinely thought was a good joke. She did not keep track of who did what. That she did not keep score was at first a great relief, until he realized it meant she never remembered any of the good things he did either.
“But, you have to wonder, how did they get in the laundry?” she said.
“The other woman must have given them to him, and he put them in his pants pocket,” said the man. “And somehow his wife got them into the laundry before he removed them.”
The woman made a face of horrified delight and shook her index finger at him triumphantly. Then she pushed her seat back away from the steering wheel, rolled down the window, and stuck her legs out so they could tan. He shifted in his seat, dismayed that she was making herself comfortable, as though this was a casual event. He looked away at the great block of blue sky above them, which looked oppressively flat in the early summer heat. He realized he still had his seat belt on and fumbled to unbuckle it. They could hear the muffled beats of music playing in the other stationary cars.
“Since you have a story about a badly behaving man,” he said, “I’ll share one with you about a badly behaving woman.”
She crossed her ankles and put on her sunglasses and did not look at him.
He said, “There’s a couple that lives in the condo across the street from my apartment. The woman stays at home during the day most days.”
The woman sighed and rearranged the rearview mirror.
“A couple weeks ago, this guy—not the one she lives with—comes over with an easel. He has her sit on the sofa so he can paint her. I walk away from the window—I’m not peering at them, mind you, I just happen to notice it—and when I come back a few minutes later she’s taken off all her clothes, except her bra and underwear. The painter just looks at her, like painters do. You know, studying her, with his hands clasped in front of his face. Then she takes off the rest of her clothes and they go into the other room. And they don’t come out for a long time.”
Actually, this was not strictly true. The couple across the street typically kept their blinds closed. The time he saw his neighbor with the strange man, they had not done anything but eat a fruit salad in the kitchen. But the man did not mind lying so long as it was just making up stories. Making up stories often made a situation simpler.
“I’m glad you have something to entertain you,” said the woman, though she sounded a bit impressed by the story. He felt satisfied that he’d gained some control over the conversation.
“We never had that problem, really,” said the man. “You know I never did anything like that, even when I traveled so much that year I was on sabbatical.”
“Hey, thanks a lot for that,” said the woman. “It’s the least you could have done. I mean, it’s really the least a person can do.”
He looked out the window, embarrassed. The breeze wafting in was not cool, and they both tugged absentmindedly on their clothing.
The woman suddenly returned to her own story: “The funny thing is, they’re not separating. I just assumed they would but she went, ‘Are you crazy? I’m not getting a divorce at my age. It’s this or nothing.’” She flattened her hands, then jerked them outwards in apparent imitation of her friend. She sounded flustered, caught in a corner.
The car in front of them leapt forward, eating up a couple of newly opened inches of road. The woman did not bother pulling in her legs and moving the car to close the space. The man watched her as she punched the cigarette lighter, jiggled the knob on the radio, and turned the windshield wipers on and off. Each of her movements he found himself taking inventory of. How quickly he’d become unaccustomed to her. She was still wearing her ring.
“I suppose it’s a wreck that’s causing the traffic,” she said. “Maybe drunk drivers, because of the holiday weekend? Jesus, I wish I knew.”
“That is just like you,” he said. “You always loved bad news. I would come home and say, ‘How was your day darling?’ And you’d say, ‘Some man was arrested for hoarding chickens in his basement, so many they suffocated.’ Or ‘Someone was trampled at the bridal sale at the superstore this morning.’ It ruined my evening, to say nothing of my disposition.”
“You’re exaggerating things in your memory,” she snapped, rearranging herself behind the wheel and closing the window.
He was startled by the venom in her tone. He’d meant to sound lighthearted. Perhaps he was not completely in control of how he sounded.
The radio started going in and out of static, so the man turned it off. She turned it back on and found a station with a lady giving advice to callers. The caller was complaining, “ … and her gift she gave me for my wedding was half the price of the one I bought for her. So you can imagine how upset I am that her mother is calling me to complain that we returned the gift—”
The man brandished a hand at the radio and said, “I hate people.”
The woman hit the steering wheel, accidentally hitting the horn and startling them both with the anger of the sound. “I have to get outside. I’m going to go figure out what’s going on.”
“What are you doing? Just calm down.”
“No,” she said. “I’m going outside. I am calm. I’m going outside.”
“Honestly?” she said. “I don’t care as long as I don’t have to be in this car with you for one more second.” With awkward, punchy movements, she unbuckled her seat belt and clambered out onto the highway.
The man simply waved his hands, washing them clean of her with the gesture. She was a sprawling field rigged with landmines—there was no telling when she would take something in stride and when she would not.
He would have to get to know new women, though he understood that “getting to know” simply meant discovering the ways in which you could not know a person. He could think of four women he could call for a drink who would spend the night with him—three certainly and one maybe. It seemed far too early to try this, but how long should he wait? What if too much time passed and the women were no longer available? He did not feel new and unfettered. What he felt was at a loss. His life was full of options, and with them came a suffocating sense of waste. The waste of options not used. A trash heap of discarded options. A mountain of them.
He watched her pace around the cars, her face reddening from the waves of heat radiating from the concrete. Then she marched toward the shoulder of the highway, and began climbing up the green hill, tripping in the foliage.