You are sitting in the bedroom of a house that is inches away from the freeway. Cars whiz past at an alarming rate, and it seems to you that a minor slip of the steering wheel will send a car crashing into the bedroom, killing the occupants of the house. You are there on a date with the man who lives there, a man named Oswald. He complains that the highway was built too close to his house, taking away his front yard—you see the tiny blades of grass that are left of it, so few you can count them, but he does admit that he has an exciting view from his bed.
You wake up from the dream. Convince yourself that it means nothing. You go to work. While you’re working, you look online (for the fun of it and when you’re on your break) for the symbolic meaning of cars in dreams. You get the expected “cars represent the journey of life” answers, and, of course, reckless driving in dreams can represent a life out of control, but there is one interpretation that bothers you in its authoritarian clarity. It says: It depends on who is driving in the dream. Are you driving or is someone else? This information could point to a part of your waking life that you need to attend to—how are you letting others treat you? You know this is a condemnation of your life lately. All of these dead-end dates have left you empty and alone (still) and dreaming of freeways.
You decide you’ve had enough of this for a while. Time to start pursuing a hobby, get your mind on something besides your miserable social life and maybe create a new social life for yourself in the process. You’re good at music. You used to love playing the piano when you were younger. You took lessons and your teacher said you had musical promise. But also, you’ve always wanted to try cooking. There’s a class over in the Adult Education building on Wisconsin Avenue. Which one should it be?
You tell Oswald that you feel unsafe in his house, especially in this bedroom. He tells you that it feels safer in the kitchen, which is the room farthest from the freeway. You walk into the kitchen, and you see what he means. It is quieter back there without the crashing waterfall of cars rushing past, but Oswald has not followed you into the kitchen. He remains in the front bedroom, sitting on his bed, looking out the window at what you are sure is his doom. You look around the kitchen. There is a coffee can sitting in the middle of the table, with the lid off. You look into the can and realize there is no coffee, only greeting cards. It looks like hundreds of cards are shoved into this metal can. You don’t understand how so many can fit. You begin to pull them out in handfuls. They are soft colors—the pinks and blues of baby pastels — but the words printed on the front in ornate script alert you that these are not cards to welcome a new infant to the world. Instead, they are sympathy cards. They say things like “Sorry for your loss” and “God is with you at this difficult time.” You don’t know Oswald that well and didn’t realize he had suffered a loss. You hear a noise behind you and turn around to see Oswald standing in the doorway watching you. He says, “You just missed a fire truck going about ninety.”
You walk up close to him to draw his attention away from the can on the table. Your face is less than six inches away from his face. You can smell his breath and it smells like leaves. You wonder how that could be and think of pandas. Is Oswald a panda? He interprets your actions as a come on, puts his arms around your waist, and begins to kiss you. He is not a panda. You like his kiss. It is soft but insistent. You imagine he is a widower, lonely and desperate, having recently lost his wife to some mysterious disease, spending his days alternately watching cars come within an inch of his head and reading over sympathy cards. You sense that he is desperate for comfort. You suddenly feel needed, and you rush to fill his needs. It is a thing you do. But he grabs you and pushes you back toward the front room, which feels a little aggressive on his part, doesn’t it? He guides you to his bedroom doorway and the view from the window takes you by surprise all over again—an eighteen-wheeler carrying cars seems headed straight for you. The truck lays on the horn. You can see the driver yelling at you from behind his windshield. His forehead is creased with anger. The only thing separating you from him are the two panes of glass, his and Oswald’s, with nothing but air in between. You cannot hear him but you know what he’s yelling. He is saying, “Do not do this. You will regret this decision for the rest of your life.”
That was a really excellent choice, to leave. That house gave you the creeps. It was like a nightmare house that exists only in horror movies. Well played. So now you find yourself walking along the very same highway you were trying to run away from, but somehow, in this setting, it is not as menacing. It’s an ordinary highway with cars and trucks whizzing by and the occasional thing thrown at you from a window or yelled at you from a truck. You keep walking. But you notice that the sun is starting to set and you are not properly shod for a walk along the highway. You feel the blisters forming. A car pulls over and the occupants offer you a ride. They are a man and a woman. A nice couple. Except he looks about thirty, is shirtless, and hasn’t shaved in a few days, and she looks about sixty, is smoking, and looks like she’s been smoking nonstop for the last decade or so. Say to yourself: I can manage this. I am still more than forty-five and a half years from death.
You’re on a roll, aren’t you? You know you are the product of all your good decisions. I know this freeway scene seems a little rough, and maybe was the result of a not-so-good choice otherwise known as “agreeing to date Oswald from accounting” that happened before you actually “got in the game,” but we’re on the right path now. Can’t you feel it? You can feel it. So you keep walking down the freeway and you pull out your phone. You have a phone! You’ve had it all along. This is a great comfort to you. There are apps, the most relevant of which is Uber, the equivalent of a “get out of jail free” card in this game. You use it. You think to yourself, what’s to stop the Uber driver from raping me and bludgeoning me to death? But then you remember the couple. Even if Uber doesn’t have the most stringent and rigorous checks in place, the driver more than likely will have on a shirt, and that’s probably a good sign. And he does have a shirt, and a quiet little Prius, and—big relief—he’s a she.
Your Uber driver is a woman named Margaret. You breathe a little sigh of relief and tell Margaret about your strange evening. She laughs about it and tells you to chalk it up to experience. She offers you a bottle of water. You take it and thank her and remember a Randall Jarrell poem you used to love in high school. Something about water coming up from a well at the bottom of the world. You trust Margaret with this. You quote it to her, even if you don’t remember it completely. She will appreciate it (it is a good poem to remember in this instance), and she’ll tell you a poem in return about the seriousness of water. She will say this: the only people who recognize the seriousness of water are dreamers, poets, and lunatics. (She is quoting the poem wrong, but that’s okay because she’s trying. And we like her.) She will ask which one you are.
All this heady talk with Margaret has made you realize that maybe you’re not ready for casual dating after all. There have been so many missteps on this particular branch of your life tree. Margaret says, “Why don’t you take up knitting or something? I know a lot of women who have started knitting lately and they love it.” You have an immediate vision of the grandmother rabbit in Goodnight, Moon that you cannot shake, so you doubt that knitting will be your next move, but you wouldn’t mind taking up a hobby. That might be exactly what you need to keep you busy and do something productive at the same time (and you never know who you might meet along the way. Another reason to eschew the knitting, by the way.) You think of the two hobbies you’ve always wanted to try and decide to pursue one of those.
You are on a thin, metal, horizontal ladder stretched out much higher than the tree tops. You are being forced to do yoga on this unstable plane. You cannot move; fear has paralyzed you. A yoga instructor tells you what moves you must do, but you cannot complete them. Instead, you make a move to get off the ladder, but it’s the wrong move. It sends the ladder downward. The yoga instructor disapproves, and this troubles you almost as much as the ladder plunging downward. You wake up. At first, you are relieved to be free from that falling dream. But then there is the metallic taste of blood in your mouth and you cannot move your arms or your legs. You are surrounded by darkness and you hear a loud humming noise. It takes a moment for your eyes to acclimate to the surroundings before you realize you are in the trunk of a car. Let’s think back to what happened. Sympathy cards, freeway, blisters, cars whizzing, squandered opportunities. You have made the ultimate bad choice in this game, it seems. Or could it be the penultimate bad choice? Can we save you? You were supposed to have forty-five or so good years left. Panic sets in. You jerk your legs out in attempt to free yourself, but you only end up kicking a plastic jug of water. You hear it sloshing around. It sounds like an ocean to you in this cramped space. Your mouth is so dry. You start breathing faster and yellow fuzzy static closes in on your vision. You feel the air running out on you in this space. We are very limited in our options here.
Do you start screaming and squirming in the hopes that someone, anyone, can hear you and possibly save you? (Go to Section N.)
Or do you resign yourself to the end and try to think of the good things you had in your life? (Go to Section N.)
Fact: you have made poor decisions. You had the chance to wake up from the dream, to leave before the sexual situation got out of hand, and yet you chose each time to stay. Why? Now you have to drag yourself through life carrying the mantle of sexual assault victim. This is no fun. It feels like a burden. It is heavy, and it makes people uncomfortable to learn about it. They say things like, so that explains the tattoo. That is not why you got the tattoo, is it? It felt like an act of bravery and defiance at the time. The Chinese characters for victim in a red circle with a line through it. You like that the right symbol stands for sacrifice, because you like that word. Sacrifice. It sounds noble and meaningful. You have sacrificed much to be where you are. Specifically, I’m referencing your selections in Section A and C, but more generally it seems you have sacrificed happiness. Can you still choose that now? We should try.
You are in a restaurant. You are on another date. This man, let’s call him Jim, is funny and tall and he did not ask you if your attacker was Chinese when he saw your tattoo. There is promise. Dinner has ended and Jim has asked for the check.
I see you have become a Rules girl. Fine. Reel him in. I know how this works—easy to be with, hard to get. So here is what happens. You play the whole dating thing perfectly. You don’t call him and rarely return his calls, you don’t accept a Saturday date after Wednesday, you don’t open up too fast, and you don’t wear his shirts around the house. In short, you’re honest but mysterious, and you’re married within the year.
Yes, you read that correctly. Although I’m not supposed to make judgments, this selection is as close to “right” as you can get, sweetheart. And it’s a long one, so let’s get settled in, because here we go. I’ll give you the highlights: You have a house in Fairfax County (I don’t have to tell you that this school district is recognized for its excellent academics and positive school culture), you have two beautiful daughters (you had some issues with fertility, but there are always obstacles in a hero’s journey, and yours is no exception. What is important is how you handle the obstacles and, if we don’t count the night you took the box filled with glass vials of hormone stimulant and threw it down the basement steps in a moment of pure exhaustion and exasperation that you both hilariously refer to now as “the incident,” I’d say you leapt over this particular obstacle like a superhero and found yourself pregnant with the twins in record time) and, despite the routinization of life grinding you down like a farm animal caught in a dust storm, leaving you thirty-two pounds heavier than when you started and with a short haircut you run your hands through in the morning and come off looking like Andrew Jackson, and a minivan that has cute little zombie approximations of you, Jim, Tammie, and Samantha on the back window, you can still refer to yourself as “happy.” In fact, that’s exactly what you say to Jim as you’re driving to that great Fairfax County school to have yet another conversation with the principal about Sam’s stealing. You say: “I don’t understand what is going on with her. We are a strong unit, right? We’re happy, aren’t we?” And here is Jim’s response: “I think it’s finally time for me to be selfish. I need to start thinking about me for a change.”
Did he really say “finally”? Yes, he did. You are coming up on ten years of what you would have called, if someone had asked you to name it, “The Decade of Jim,” but it turns out he’s been cheating on you with his twenty-five-year-old sales associate. The tenth wedding anniversary is traditionally celebrated with gifts of tin or aluminum. But there’s nothing wrong with breaking tradition with a gift that ironically commemorates ten years of togetherness. He’s leaving you.
Do you accept the news stoically and try to make this as painless as possible for the girls and bring them to family therapy (without the Jim part of the family) and do your best to plod forward? (Go to Section L.) Or do you lose your mind and run into traffic, accepting the first ride you can find to get you to a bar and get shitfaced on white wine—so drunk that you end up going home with some guy who doesn’t speak English? At least you think that is why he has said absolutely nothing all night. (Go to Section F.) (Yes. Those are your only two options in this one.)
You go, girl. You are nobody’s victim, despite your tattoo, which proclaims the opposite. You set down your credit card and you say, “Let me take care of this.” Now this seems like a minor thing, doesn’t it? A woman in the 21st century paying for a date. But it’s not minor. At least to Jim. Oh, he acts like he’s cool with it. In fact, he quotes a Beyoncé lyric and makes a joke about it. But he never calls you again, even after you call him using your 21st-century phone. Just as well. You’re better off without his insecurities. (see H, above). It seems we are at a dead end here. But we’re not. It’s time to pick some hobbies to keep you busy. You’re very good at music. You used to love playing the piano when you were younger. You took lessons and your teacher said you had musical promise. But also, you’ve always wanted to try cooking. There’s a class over in the Adult Education building on Wisconsin Avenue. Which one should it be?
Ah! So happy with this. I have always wanted to play piano but can barely manage the first two bars of “Chopsticks” before everyone’s rolling their eyes over the wrong notes. You find a teacher nearby, only a few blocks from your house. It’s as though it’s been right there, waiting for you all along. You go for your first lesson and your piano teacher hits you over the head with a hammer and locks you in his trunk. Just kidding. That was the result of some other schmuck’s poor choice (see Section F), but not yours. No, this piano teacher is fine. Her name is Katherine, and she offers lessons in her windowless basement decorated without irony in 1970s style, replete with a shag carpet and an old husband knocking around upstairs, usually cooking Brussels sprouts or some equally noxious-smelling vegetable that seems to negatively affect your ability to pick up the G five-finger scale necessary for “Mr. Haydn’s Theme,” and it’s all quite boring, but you’re moving right along in level 2A of your technique and artistry book, and you’re trying to stay awake.
One day, right after a successful lesson where you feel like you’ve mastered the damper pedal, you gather your belongings, preparing to ascend the steps into the broccoli-scented kitchen and eventually back into your own silent and empty home, when a new student arrives for the six-thirty slot. He is an adorable five-year-old boy named Richie who jumps right onto the raised stool and starts hammering out “Mexican Jumping Beans” (a song that took you seven weeks to master, but it’s probably easier to pick up these skills when your brain has the plasticity of youth). This isn’t really that remarkable. What is remarkable, however, is that Richie is accompanied by an even more adorable father named Skyler, a blond veteran in a camouflage baseball hat, who, it turns out, just moved into the neighborhood with his son because he got divorced from his wife because he got finished with a tour of duty in Afghanistan and because the welcome home party didn’t go as planned. He’s funny and handsome and damaged (let’s say complicated) and, you find out, an excellent cook. You fall in love immediately—you can save him; you know you can—and move in with him in what is probably, on the grand scale of the universe, considered a matter of seconds. I don’t even have a chance to stick a different possibility in here if I wanted to, which I don’t. Who could resist Skyler? I understand completely.
Years go by following this particular selection. Years. And some of them are good. Really good. Well, a year and a half was really good. Skyler and you together having picnics (two of them, actually, with gourmet food for the first one exquisitely prepared by Sky), going to baseball games (go Cards! You really started to follow them, even though before Sky you thought the Cardinals was a football team), and sometimes sharing custody of Richie, who graduated to playing “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” and demanding Froot Loops for every single meal, which seemed wrong to you but Sky said didn’t seem like a battle worth fighting.
Skyler tried hard to find a job that first year and found one working at the Harley Davidson dealership out on Route 50 before the demanding customers “forced” him to quit. There was that trip to Ocean City where you were able to bring Richie and he didn’t cry for his mom all night or call you Ursula. and that first Christmas where you bought the hand-blown glass ornament that said “Our First Christmas.” But then came the not-so-really-good years, which were punctuated by a lot of alcohol and absences and loss of anything that could even generously be called income. And then the bad years, Skyler in and out (mostly out) of rehab programs paid for by you, followed by the really bad year that ended it all. By this point, Richie permanently with his mom and Skyler, having lost all visitation privileges and also the motivation to fight for visitation privileges, you spend a lot of time either at work or at home alone. Your upcoming selection is pretty much a foregone conclusion, but, hey, he wasn’t violent with you (except for the really bad year), which is also what your predecessor had complained of, most notably to a circuit court judge. I say let’s skip the acrimony and get out of this with some dignity intact. So, what’s it going to be?
Really? Cooking? I’m going to be honest with you. I was hoping for piano. I don’t find the cooking shows very interesting and the most complicated dish I have ever made was spaghetti with Ragu spread around the top. But anyway, that doesn’t matter now because you are not going to believe this. Guess who is taking the cooking class with you? Oswald, the freeway house guy. Jesus. You have to be kidding me, you say to yourself when you see him sitting over there by the spices. I only wanted to flip a pancake or two and now I have to deal with this asshole. Don’t stay. I almost don’t want to give you the alternative. I’m going to lobby heavily for you to leave. He hasn’t seen you yet, so there’s not even the risk of discomfort with this one. Just slip back out the door you came in, wrap your scarf around your neck, and think of a good Beyoncé song to accompany your walk back down the boulevard. Okay, here goes:
You did it. I’m so proud of you. You are an independent woman. You know that now. You walk down the boulevard, which is really only Wisconsin Avenue but feels like some pulsing city street bursting with life, the song playing in your head, the giddy feeling that accompanies having made the right choice flooding you with a rare sense of well being. You walk by a store or two. You look in the windows, and say to yourself, “Well, why not buy a new dress? I deserve it!” You’ve somehow managed to find the most expensive boutique this side of the Potomac and the clothes in here are gorgeous and stylish and perfectly outrageous.
Wait, what? You didn’t choose the dress? I have to admit this confuses me a little. You have caught me unprepared. I was sort of counting on that beautiful, flowy number with the straps, and then you could go home and try it on and admire yourself before you start feeling bad about the whole decision and that would have taken a while, but okay. You’re making some strong decisions lately.
So you keep walking down Wisconsin Avenue. There’s a tavern coming up on the right. I know this place. It’s dark and cool in there and they have this old-fashioned jukebox that plays the Allman Brothers and I bet it will be perfect. You go inside. It’s nearly empty. There’s a guy sitting at the bar with a draft beer, naturally, and a table with a middle-aged couple talking to each other with their foreheads nearly pressed together, still dressed from work. She might be crying. It’s hard to tell, and you can’t stare. You know they are having an affair. This is the perfect place for it. That looks like fun, doesn’t it?
The bartender has asked you what you would like. You order a tequila sunrise and drink it the following way: You take out the cherry and put it on the bar. You take out the straw and place it on the bar as well.You down the drink in three large swallows with the ice crashing into your face at the end. The bartender looks at you with shock and a little awe. You ask her for another, but mention you’d like more tequila and less sunrise. Sunrise was hours ago, am I right? The bartender hands you something she calls a “water back,” telling you to think about tomorrow. “It’s all about the water,” she reminds you. But you don’t have to drink this second drink with the same ferocity; the first one is working and you suddenly feel better, lighter, a little dizzy.
Hey, you know what? I can tell your heart’s not into this. You don’t want a strong tequila buzz in the early evening in the middle of the week. I don’t know what to do with you at this point. Are you sure you don’t want that dress? It’s not too late; the store is still open. Do you want to go back and get the dress (you don’t have to pick the one with the straps, by the way) (Go directly to Section N.) Or do you want to head off on your own? Because I think you’re not really into the game anymore and my guidance is turning into more of a hindrance than a help. So I’m going to send you off. If you want, you can come back at later (I would suggest no less than forty years) and go to Section N. That’s your last stop in this game. Make sure you stop at N.
So much disappointment, sadness, and isolation. How much effort did you misdirect trying to fill up your spaces and how much time did you waste sitting at home listening to old Air Supply songs, wondering where it all went wrong? There are so many places where it did. You see that now, don’t you? So many places. Let me give you some advice: Go into the kitchen (even if it’s only in your mind) and fill your glass up with water. Water is so good for you. You can never go wrong with water—the stuff of life, right? Take a long, deep drink of it, leave only half of it in the glass. There. Now that’s a start.
Jeanne Jones is a graduate of the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University. A writing teacher in the Washington metropolitan area, her work has appeared in the EEEL, Barrelhouse Online, and Abundant Grace: Fiction by D.C. Area Women, among other publications. She was a finalist in NPR’s three-minute fiction contest judged by Ann Patchett. She lives in Hyattsville, Maryland, with her husband and two children.