ON THE WAY TO FLORIDA
by Thomas Genevieve
Holly knew Keith would blast the air conditioning the entire trip, and he did. Smiling, she pulled the sweatshirt she brought in anticipation over her head. There was a certain comfort and satisfaction in knowing the other’s tendencies.
The time read 12:10 when she tapped the passcode into her phone. They’d been on the road for a couple of hours already, which meant they were due for a stop.
She scrolled to check the messages and pictures still being posted from the party: a multi-celebratory jubilee that was in honor of Holly’s completion of graduate school, the commencement of her and Keith’s permanent empty nest, a belated fiftieth birthday she had asked no one to acknowledge the previous year, Courtney’s graduation from college and her acceptance to, and start of, grad school, Nicholas’s recent twenty-fourth birthday and the job offer that was moving him some thousand miles away from home, and, as Keith toasted after he imbibed what seemed like a case of Budweiser, in honor of him, “for putting up” with all of them.
The trip was to be a punctuation on a time in their lives. Holly didn’t want to say goodbye to her kids at an airport. She thought it would be better for them to drive south together—drop Nicholas off in Atlanta and Courtney in Gainesville. This was their longest road trip since Courtney and Nicholas were kids—a trip that preceded much change in the following years.
After tomorrow morning’s tears, Holly and Keith would leave their youngest behind and depart for Savannah and later Myrtle Beach. Though they laughed when Holly deemed it the “romantic leg of the trip,” both were looking forward to it. The Spanish moss, the beach, the breaking of her cleanse.
As usual, due to Keith’s indifference, Holly planned everything. The only input came while they were lying in bed, as he leaned over to look at her laptop.
“The Carolinas,” he said.
“What about them?”
“We’ll stop there on the way down.”
“Which one?” she asked.
“Any of them.”
Laid-back Keith just wanted sovereignty over the music in the car. Holly offered to put whatever he wanted on her old iPod—she didn’t dare relinquish space on her phone—Keith preferred a CD wallet of his favorites, which in the dozen or so hours on the road, he had deejayed with predictability. She also knew he’d underpack the CDs, and she could eventually cite redundancy as an excuse to play her music off of her phone.
While scrolling through social media, she found herself missing life back home, but she then reminded herself no one was really around during the end of July anyway. For most of her friends, the middle of the summer was also set aside for family vacations or three-day weekends at the beach. Their hiatus from routine would end, though, by the close of summer, and after Labor Day everything would be back to normal. Until then, the running group was a bit small. A new recipe might not get shared or sampled. Book club was postponed until there was enough for a quorum. And if you wanted to do yoga, you had to go by yourself.
Holly, in partial repose, socked-feet on the dashboard of the Ford Explorer, had the urge to stretch her legs. She took another sip from her favorite tumbler to extinguish the hint of desire to break her cleanse—a cleanse she started following the party and planned to break once they were in Savannah. She tilted the mirror on the sun visor to meet Courtney’s eyes.
“Hey, back there. How about giving your dear old mother some attention, since, you know, you’re abandoning her soon?”
Courtney plucked out her earbuds. “Is someone a little cranky because she’s hungry?” She emptied the crumbs from a bag of chips into her hand and ate them in playful defiance.
Holly stuck her tongue out at her daughter. “I’m actually not,” she said. “I’m feeling pretty good and Savannah’s not too far away.”
“You haven’t even dropped your daughter off yet, and you’re already thinking about the rest of your vacation without her. Who should feel abandoned now?” Courtney said.
“Okay, okay. Put your earbuds back in,” Holly said with a guilt-inducing inflection.
“Well, maybe I was just sick of hearing the Steve Miller Band again,” Courtney said.
Keith responded in defense. “This is only the second time I’ve played them all trip.”
Holly returned to her phone. She didn’t want to think about the moment she would say goodbye to Courtney. Since Courtney did her undergrad in state, driving out to see her for dinner or bringing her home for the weekend was always an option. There were also breaks and summers when she knew Courtney would be around the house quite a bit. Holly understood distance and new commitments would not allow for that anymore.
How’s that for quick? Holly’s friend Kathy wrote in a text.
Jill’s response chased it. I know! I’m already thinking about what we’re gonna do for her.
Completely lost, Holly hoped she’d gain some insight from Instagram or Facebook. When the screen loaded, there was her answer.
Paige, the youngest and newest member of the group, who began working with them only in January, had posted a picture of a modest-sized engagement ring on a demure band of gold.
I didn’t even know she was seeing anyone, Jill texted.
Holly inserted herself into the conversation. Neither did I.
There were several pictures of the ring at various angles. Below one of the pictures, someone she didn’t know referenced the name Tim, prompting Holly to send another text.
Kathy, do we know anything about this Tim guy?
What? Lol. Kathy wrote, quickly following it with, It’s our Tim!
Holly felt everything around her slow down and then come to a standstill while she processed the news. After an indistinguishable lapse of time, Holly noticed a series of messages after Kathy’s, Did anyone see that coming?
Most in the group chat thought it was obvious that something must have happened between Paige and Tim due to the way they acted around one another, but an engagement, considering they had all known Tim for such a long time, seemed shocking.
Holly typed, This can’t happen, but then changed it to, Are you sure it’s Tim?, before erasing that one as well. From a distance Holly thought she heard Keith’s voice, causing her to pick her head up from the phone.
The car was stopped. All the cars around them were stopped.
Keith annunciated every word with an annoyed tone. “I said: Can you check your phone to see if there is an accident?”
It was 12:56 when she read Jill’s text about throwing the party the week after Labor Day. Kathy, in turn, volunteered herself and Holly to handle the food. Under the pictures of Paige’s ring, congratulations continued to stack.
Yes, Holly, too, might have briefly suspected something had happened after watching Tim and Paige at happy hour one Friday, but she thought it was merely a projection of her own insecurities. And even if something did happen, a relationship, let alone an engagement, should have been out of the question.
There was no reason for Paige to go for a man twelve years her senior. And Tim? He said he never wanted to remarry. He also said he didn’t want to have kids, something Paige had expressed was missing from her life. She was also way more outgoing than the reticent and occasionally reclusive Tim and was very active on social media—which in the past Tim had scoffed at as “a huge turnoff.”
Since Paige started working at County Medical Center, there was rarely a social event she didn’t attend. “Let’s invite Paige,” Holly heard herself say, now regretful she initiated Paige’s inclusion into the pack. Holly was just being nice. She remembered what it was like when she first started, a time of great turnover, when there seemed to be little to no camaraderie on the staff. Through years of reflection, Holly concluded her isolation was one of the main reasons she herself had slept with Tim.
In the middle of that thought, she was aware “slept with” was disingenuous. So would be the classification of those two months as an “affair.” In just a few weeks of meeting Tim at his condo after work, sometimes even before, and on her days off under the guise of a long run, an addiction for daily contact had developed.
Keith’s cluelessness became an obvious boon to the situation. Tim’s arrival happened to come during the autumn, a time of year Holly had been conditioned to expect football, a ready-made distraction, to be on every night of the week. She said she needed to go in earlier or stay later. There were no other questions asked. What she initially justified as a growing distance between her and Keith—exacerbated by the influence of her new interests—she soon interpreted as love. Or, as Judy, her old therapist, said a few years later, “the theatrics of love,” a conclusion Holly eventually accepted to be the case.
And it made sense, because as feelings whetted, the more ethereal they seemed. In a dream-like state, Holly viewed the experience outside of herself, as if playing the lead in one hell of a movie—a role that brought great catharsis to her life.
But rather quickly, the satisfaction from those moments with Tim waned, and once they dressed, she felt it was a tremendous injustice that they couldn’t go out to dinner or spend the night together. She restrained her reveries and withheld her promises, waiting for Tim to be the effusive one before she requited. Over the course of those two months, their fictional life reified into an achievable reality—into the changes she’d thought she could make. The changes she felt cajoled to make.
Other than guilt, nothing at home enticed her to stay. As a middle schooler, Courtney became implacable, her whining insufferable. For Nicholas, high school made him distant and unpleasant to be around. And Keith was simply Keith.
“Unedifying” she’d imagine herself saying to a lawyer when asked the grounds for divorce. That she had changed, and he didn’t. That change is good, but he didn’t have it in him to do so. He teased her about the documentaries she watched, about the news sites she frequented, and about her newly-acquired preference for wine over beer. His prejudices were slight but still present. And although they agreed to be apolitical, she knew how he voted when the curtain closed. What she came to perceive as ridiculous masculine tropes were a non-negotiable reality, reinforced by her then circle of friends, the wives of Keith’s friends.
“Mom, are you even listening to me?” Courtney said from the backseat.
“I love how you give me shit when I—”
“I was listening,” Holly said. “You were talking about,” she hesitated, “some guy Brianne hooked up with.”
“That was like twenty minutes ago.”
“She doesn’t listen to me either, sweetie,” Keith said.
In all honesty, Holly wanted to say, I don’t give a shit about which one of your friends was sleeping with whom, or who was probably going to break up with whom because someone took a job far away.
Holly watched the heat rise off the cars in front of the Explorer. She grabbed at her sweatshirt as if she were going to remove it, but stopped. She knew Keith’s subsequent quip: “Too hot now, Goldilocks?”
The wilted lemon wedge lying in an inch of water at the bottom of her tumbler reminded her of how badly she needed to pee.
“I don’t want country hits of today,” Keith said, responding to the disc jockey’s promise with a familiar rejoinder she’d heard for years. He scanned the dial in search of a classic rock station. “There are no more hits today!”
Only haunting fragments remained from those dark autumn evenings. The take-out and leftovers. The stale dishes piled high in the sink and abandoned on the counter. The sounds of televisions from dimly lit rooms holding the only conversations between humans.
Once it ended, she hardly saw Tim at work. What they had attributed to fate, she now saw as circumstances aided by stratagems to purposefully align the stars. Regardless of who did the avoiding, in the years that followed she threw herself into her kids and her work. An influx of new people at the center brought new friendships that became the foundation of her current social life, which successfully distracted her from thinking about what once could have been. By the time Courtney finished high school, Holly went back to get her MS in nursing.
It took many sessions before she told Judy about Tim. Years had passed, so what could it hurt? Judy justified the relationship: Holly and Keith’s loss of common interests, her first full-time job since the kids were born. Most of Judy’s strategies proved effective, silencing Holly’s self-reproach. A few sessions later, Holly admitted everything else.
That she told Tim she loved him. How Tim made her denounce her love for Keith as something belonging to an immature person she no longer was. And about the fantasies of Keith dying in a car crash and the liberation it would bring.
“Those were just thoughts,” Judy said.
“But your wishes are who you really are,” Holly said.
“No,” Judy said. “That doesn’t make any sense. I could wish I were a movie star, but that wouldn’t change the fact that I am a therapist. Fantasies don’t define who you are. I could daydream that I live in Hollywood and date Brad Pitt, but it doesn’t mean I love my kids any less.”
Who’s not making sense now, Holly wanted to say.
What she never told Judy was about the fantasy of all three of them dying in a car crash. She never told her how every night as she lie awake next to Keith, she enumerated everything she needed to pack to get by for a week or two, mentally rehearsing like her departure was an evacuation that needed to be practiced. Between patients at work she outlined the letter she’d leave behind. She was ashamed to tell Judy, but she had decided to not only leave Keith, but the kids as well. Not forever. Just until she got settled.
Holly was never certain where Tim’s concerns about the kids came from. Or his comments about how fast the relationship had accelerated. She never learned if these sudden apprehensions, which seemed more like objections, were covering for other fears like her age and their constant proximity each day at work, or, the inevitable relationship he would have with her kids. As far as Holly was concerned, it didn’t matter; she committed the sin without reaping any of the pleasure.
She looked over at Keith, hoping he couldn’t hear her thoughts. He was busy flipping through the CD wallet, perhaps thinking he’d discover another CD hidden behind one he had already played.
Several New Year’s Eves ago, after an evening of drinking and under the weight of her burden, Holly thought she might have confessed. The next day, though, while Holly feared the worst, nothing indicated that she had.
If it weren’t so swamp-like outside, she would have opened the windows for some real air; maybe she’d step out and walk amongst the cars. Do anything but sit with her own thoughts.
“Is there something to eat in here,” Holly asked.
“No,” Keith said.
“Why wouldn’t you pack some snacks?”
Keith smiled in satisfaction. “You told me not to.”
Courtney leaned into the front seat and placed her phone where Holly had no choice but to see an exploded oil tanker.
“Here’s the reason we haven’t moved in forever.”
Wearing a blue hibiscus sundress she never owned, Holly stood holding Courtney’s diploma, while Courtney went to take a picture with one of her friends. Next to Holly, in a checkered shirt and striped tie, his suit jacket slung over his shoulder due to the hot May afternoon, was Tim. It was obvious Keith felt awkward, so Tim being Tim, excused himself to get the car. Faded oil drops stained Keith’s knit polo shirt below the buttons, the same shirt she remembered from years ago when she told him to throw it out. To preempt awkward pleasantries, Holly looked him up and down and feigned her most convincing look.
“You look fantastic. You haven’t changed a bit.”
Holly glanced at her phone and estimated she lost over a half hour contemplating a life she had not lived. Nine text messages waited for her, but she was not interested in checking them. At some point, she needed to text Paige. But more importantly, she still had to pee. She resented the tumbler she now squeezed between her legs, the pressure from her bladder irritating her even more since Keith put in AC/DC’s Back in Black. Holly was convinced “You Shook Me All Night Long” was an anthem for imbeciles.
Keith must have turned down the air, causing her to unconsciously pull off her sweatshirt.
“Can you change this?”
“Hey, I thought I was the DJ, Goldilocks.” He had his smart-ass smile on his face again.
The realities of the engagement worsened with the inevitable—the engagement party, Paige’s excitement leading up to the wedding that Holly would most certainly be invited to, the pictures of the honeymoon. And then there’d be Paige’s pregnancy. She was already 35, Tim already 47. There was no way Tim talked her out of children. If Paige posted a picture of a rum cake that fell apart, Holly couldn’t fathom how many of the baby’s firsts would wind up on Instagram.
There was also the issue of whether Tim would tell Paige about the two of them. There was also the possibility that he had already told her. Though gossip didn’t seem to be Paige’s thing, if word got out, everyone would think Holly was a big whore. At the very least, Tim’s confession would also prompt Paige to ask the obvious questions, and although Holly knew she was the best lover Tim ever had, he was never going to admit that to Paige. He needed to neutralize any threat, no matter how distant the relationship, because of the work situation.
A threat. Holly scoffed at her initial notion. Paige had a fifteen year advantage on her. Fifteen!
How could a woman be more confident, more knowledgeable, and more certain of how to make herself happy than any other time in her life—all keys to any strong relationship—and yet her stock had gone down? Is this what Judy called the third act of life? Being forced to watch someone live the second act you should have lived?
She couldn’t stay at CMC. A new job. It was the only solution. Her experience and the masters degree would make her marketable.
Yes, she’d leave the center. She didn’t know what to tell everyone though. Could she lie and say she was offered more money? If she left and the word had had gotten out that she had been with Tim, everyone would surely draw their own conclusions. The idea of starting over was also a horrifying prospect.
“You used to play this one all the time when we were little,” Courtney said.
“You know I love Darkness on the Edge of Town!” Keith said.
“You’re only playing this because Mom’s about to cave on her cleanse.”
Holly had slumped into her seat before the opening verse of “Badlands.” She didn’t think he’d pack that CD. Of course she was glad he didn’t put on Kiss or Blue Oyster Cult, but of all times, she didn’t want to hear this album right now.
Keith turned up the volume. “Come on Court, you know the words.”
Holly peeled her phone from the case to clean the dust and crumbs. She wiped the screen with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. A claustrophobia that went beyond being trapped in the cabin of a motionless car closed in on her.
“This is the time of life when you know who you are,” Judy said.
Holly fired back. “Or you just know your limitations and are too exhausted for the drama.”
“No, a person is just better at acceptance at this stage of life.”
“You mean surrender,” Holly said.
Holly was annoyed at Judy’s flat-shrink tone. “That’s bullshit.”
“Why do you think it’s bullshit?”
“It’s bullshit to think I come week after week and the only strategy you have for me is to ignore everything.”
“No, it’s not ignoring. You confront and move on.”
“I don’t take my car into the shop to have the mechanic say, ‘You need to work on your acceptance and then move on.’”
“That’s not a very accurate comparison,” Judy said, still not changing her tone.
Judy paused, giving Holly hope that she had stumped her. “Because life’s more complicated than a car.”
Holly tapped in her passcode and scrolled past the new messages to find the last one Paige had sent. Holly typed “Congrats!” and sent it. Holly then wrapped the phone in the sweatshirt and tucked it between her and the door.
The saxophone cut out and Keith started to mimic Springsteen’s overwrought humming.
“I need to pee,” Holly said.
“Go in the tumbler.”
“I can’t go in the tumbler.”
Keith began to beat the steering wheel with the palm of his hand as the song prepared for its crescendo. He looked at Holly and said, “When you got to go, you got to go,” before belting out more lines. “I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me!”
Courtney joined him.
“I wanna find one place. I wanna spit in the face of these badlands—”
Both sang with Springsteen-like inflection. Courtney used Holly’s headrest for a percussion. The Ford Explorer shook as the two sang the coda.
Holly could bear the sun and make it to the shoulder. She’d get out and walk around the parked cars and cross the interstate, their muted joy fading with every step.
About the Author:
Thomas Genevieve is a teacher living in New Jersey. He has been writing fiction, with a specific focus on short stories, for about six years. His work appears or is forthcoming in Brilliant Flash Fiction, the Broadkill Review, Genre: Urban Arts, the Green Briar Review, and the Sierra Nevada Review, among others. When he is not writing, he maintains a steady diet of the cultural arts.