On the way to the wedding in Los Angeles, they ran out of gas. They were a couple, a man and a woman. The woman was driving them down from San Francisco, where they had spent a few days—it was their first time in California, and they were both from somewhere else.
The man promised they would make it to the gas station. “How could you know that?” she asked. He didn’t answer.
The car was a rental, and it was shitty, and the woman had to press the gas pedal all the way to the floor to make it up and over each mountainous slope. Soon the odometer began its inevitable decline, the needle wilting towards zero, and the woman felt a similar inward wilting, a sinking feeling of coming trouble. She managed to pull the little car off onto the shoulder, as far over as she could go. Trucks used this route, the 5 from San Francisco, and she wanted to leave the monsters as much space as possible to bully their way down the freeway. The man said they would be safer standing farther off the road. The minute the woman opened her door, a truck blew by, sucking air after it like a hungry mouth.
To the woman, the terrain of California was a color that could only be described as “dry,” spotted with dark green scrubs that were really just a suggestion of flora. The man surfed down the sandy slope at the road’s shoulder on a little river of gravel. He waved for the woman to follow him.
It was 4:23 PM and the couple was due in Los Angeles by 6:00 PM for the rehearsal dinner. The woman imagined her friends, the couple. They were sitting inside a cool home, drinking tall, lean glasses of water while she stood here in sand soft as flesh with pubic brambles tangled at her feet.
“We’re only a mile from the gas station.” The man shaded his eyes with his hand to squint into the distance. “I could climb that fence, walk along the service road, buy a can of gas. Maybe get a ride back with somebody.” He glanced at the woman’s feet. She had on shiny gold sandals with straps that wrapped around her ankles. “You could wait here.”
The woman wanted to wait there. She would rather not climb the fence, walk the dusty road, show up pink-faced to the gas station, her fancy dress dark with sweat, and beg for help. Unfortunately, though, women should not wait alone in a place like the side of the highway. This is a fact. So the woman followed the man in her shiny gold sandals, already feeling the crunch of grit between her toes. They reached a cement trough, and she went first across, without hesitation. The man didn’t realize his hand on her elbow as she went, his careful attention, made things harder.
The sandals wouldn’t fit into the links of the fence, so she took them off and threw them over, then hooked her bare toes onto the wire. It hurt, but she managed to straddle the top, one leg on the old side, one on the new. The man put a hand on her ass to help her over, but it made her lose her balance.
“Don’t help me,” she said. “Please.”
She swung her leg onto the other side by herself and hopped down to the chapped dust of the service road. As the man climbed over, the woman slid her hurt feet into the sandals and tied them back up around her ankles.
The woman was angry, and because nothing was anyone’s fault in particular, her anger had nowhere to go but her feet. She walked fast, her sandals slapping the road. Cars slowed to avoid the couple, but they did not stop. It was 4:49 now. The woman thought of the grooms, probably getting dressed, straightening their shirt cuffs, or talking with their families from out of town. She was good friends with both men, and she had been flattered when they asked her to read something at the dinner. She had planned to come through for them with something beautiful, despite her own ambivalence about such ceremonies. Instead, she was stuck in the desert as sweat bled into the armpits of her dress.
“I think I see it.” The man pointed ahead. Past a cluster of abandoned and empty buildings with glassless windows, two gas stations were in a stand-off across the road from one another.
“Which one?” he asked.
The woman stopped and looked at the man. She loved him, and she would never want to marry him. His nose and the ridges of his cheeks were pink from the sun, and dust had stuck to the sweat on his face, leaving brown streaks like tire tracks. Without answering, she walked toward the gas station on the right, a Chevron. Two short men with no hair to spare between them spoke to each other in Spanish outside the door. They stopped as the woman approached, and as she passed them to go into the store she felt their eyes on her, steady and hungry, and it made her feel small.
While the woman used the bathroom, the man went to buy a can and put five dollars of gas in it. The bathroom smelled like urine and bleach, and the floor was slick. Flies buzzed aggressively around the toilet bowl, and the woman had to swat them away as she peed. She thought of the last wedding she had attended. She was there with a different man, and the wedding was his brother’s. The family was Reform, but the brother had become Orthodox in college. Now, at twenty-nine, he was marrying a nineteen-year-old girl. All of the men at the wedding stood at a long table with a white tablecloth and took shot after shot of Russian vodka, their cheeks growing redder and their peyets swinging more wildly as the night went on. The woman danced with the man she had come with. He held the small of her back with his hand and whispered in her ear. Her back could remember the exact feeling of his hand’s warm pressure.
Outside, the man she was with now was talking to a small, thin woman with her long gray hair pulled back by a magenta scrunchy. Her bangs were large and out of fashion, and she wore a floral fanny pack and the type of rubber gloves usually used for dishwashing. She held a trash bag full of cans.
“Oh no,” she said. “I’m sorry. I can’t drive you. I’m scared.”
“I understand.” The man tried to smile. “This is my girlfriend,” he said. “What if you just drove her?”
“Oh no,” she said again. “I’m afraid I’m just too nervous. People tell you not to give rides to strangers.” She held the trash bag in front of her. It swung slightly back and forth. She looked down at it. “I’m trying to buy a new mattress,” she said apologetically.
The woman was fairly certain this was the loneliest person she’d spoken to in a long time.
The man nodded and strode purposefully across the street to talk to some young guys piling into a minivan. They all had beards of various lengths and short, unkempt hair. The men nodded at one another in a very masculine, stern way. Her man gave her a thumbs up. “I’ll come around with the car!”
The woman watched the man climb into the van. She was glad to be left, for just a moment. She could look up and down the dried up road and ignore anyone watching her. She could pretend she was truly alone, waiting for no one. She wondered if the grooms were thinking the same thing, cherishing the night ahead of them, after the business of the rehearsal dinner—their last, solitary, unmarried night.
She hugged her knees to her chest, and the sun pressed its hot fingers on the back of her neck. She closed her eyes.
The woman felt a cool shadow. The man was standing behind her. She looked up and saw the little car waiting in the road.
“I filled it up. You seemed so comfortable, I didn’t want to disturb you.” He was trying not to sound accusatory. As they got into the car he asked, “What were you thinking about?”
She shrugged. They made their way back onto the newly clogged 5. All of the cars were so close and so still, it looked as though they wanted to be there, together. The man sighed, tried to get into a different lane.
Finally, the traffic loosened up. The woman caught sight of something moving toward them along the median, a dark blur.
“Oh God,” the man said. It was a German shepherd, running down the middle of the freeway against traffic. “What is it doing out here all alone?”
The woman didn’t answer. There was a leash still attached to the dog’s collar. It dragged along the road behind it. The dog’s eyes were wild, glinting. Its tongue hung triumphantly from its mouth, flapping in the air like a streamer.
Heather Wells Peterson has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Lit Hub, Lucky Peach, Bellevue Literary Review, Subtropics, and The Collagist, among others. She lives in Vermont, where she is currently working with her agent on the publication of her first novel. More about Heather can be found at heatherwellspeterson.com .