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The Commute

J. T. Bushnell

It will be a spring wedding. Her bridesmaids will wear rain boots and hold daffodils, and the downpour clattering on the tin roof of the grange hall will nearly drown out the ceremony. Afterward she will be delirious from happiness and relief and admiration from others, and it will last into the next day, as they chew scrambled eggs and sip mimosas and start wishing each other goodbye. Then she and Kevin will be busy arranging their new things and writing their thank-you notes and admiring themselves in their photos, trying to view themselves as their great-grandchildren might view them one day, stumbling upon the photos in some old box in an attic.

They will have to choose a town, and they will choose Kevin’s. He will have a real job in an office, whereas her ballet company will still be too small to pay her anything for performances, though it will continue to let her lead an evening class for adults and keep half the fees. Its other operating expenses will come from donors, white-haired men with lascivious smiles who will touch the dancers on the small of the back as they compare pliés to sexual positions, which the dancers must pretend to enjoy. It will not be the career she has dreamed of, and by then she will have, at best, only a few years left in her crackling ankles and wretched feet. But she will not dream of giving it up. She will commute from Kevin’s town, and at first she will enjoy the long solitude, the time to transform into and out of her professional life. She will listen to audiobooks on fascinating subjects: the Civil War, the brain’s plasticity, the life of Martha Graham. She will admire the vistas of green, fields so bright they make her chest ache, and the sheep huddled in their soggy coats, and the skies of sun-torn clouds, and the endless processions of flowers lining fences and decorating yards and volunteering in the fields, crocuses and lilies and tulips that will bloom briefly and colorfully before the rain tears them apart.

More than all of this, however, she will enjoy passing the big blue house with the wrap-around porch and the balustrade. It will be surrounded by a few huge oaks in the middle of a great field that backs up all the way to the dark mountains. Out front will be a well-designed raspberry arbor, and it will make her hope for a roadside stand when the fruit arrives, so that she can stop and ask questions of the girl in the raincoat who stands among the canes every morning, because it is her, the girl, who will thrill and fascinate her most. What will strike Jenny about the girl, besides her constancy, is that she will never have any task or object to occupy her. She will not drink from a mug or prune the canes or read a magazine, the pages of which would disintegrate anyway in that year’s driving rain. She will just stand there in her raincoat, hood up, her wet brown hair falling onto her chest, her arms at her sides, letting the rain splash her shoulders while the cars rip by. Sometimes she will shift her weight or wipe her nose on the back of her hand, but otherwise she might be mistaken for a scarecrow, positioned there to protect the berries when they arrive.

And in fact, Jenny will start to wonder if that is the reason the girl is there, because whatever she is waiting for will never seem to arrive, or will arrive every day after Jenny passes. Maybe it’s her father, returning from his graveyard shift. Maybe it’s something delightful in the daily mail. Maybe her dog has run away. Maybe she wants to get away from the house. Maybe something is wrong with her. Jenny will not know. But she will enjoy seeing her there every morning. It will be a quick, satisfying reassurance that she will come to depend on, like the peck from her husband (the word will still be a new pleasure in her mouth) before he pedals off to work, his red taillight flashing. She will even give the girl a name, Samantha, and as she approaches, seeing Samantha’s rain-slick figure there among the budding canes, as small and slender as a dancer, only without the posture, Jenny will anticipate the moment she passes directly in front of her, at which point she will wave maniacally and shout hello and call her by the name she has invented.

The irises along the road will fall over as soon as they bloom, dragged down by the rain, and after that there will be no more flowers. The roadside berry stand will never appear, even though the arbor, and then later the ground beneath it, will be laden with ruby-colored fruit. The rain will abate, and the fields will become beige-colored crop, threshed by hulking machines that will sometimes enter the roadway, forcing Jenny to crawl along behind an endless procession, nearly weeping from frustration. By then she will have exhausted the library of its interesting audiobooks, or will be too easily annoyed to find any of them interesting. The air pounding through the windows will be hot and dusty, the sun will be blinding, and the commute will become a daily torture. As she and Kevin settle into a tired routine of resentment and bewildered apology, she will begin to wonder how many more years she will have to spend on this road, suspended between two lives that disappoint her.

All this time, however, the girl in the raincoat will remain in the raspberries, hood up, baking in the sun, as if the heat can be shed as easily as the precipitation, and Jenny will begin to grow truly curious about her. Sometimes she will occupy herself with imaginary conversations in which the girl explains what she is expecting, or escaping, or enduring, and then asks for advice, which Jenny will dispense honestly and thoughtfully, explaining the compromises of adulthood, and the differences between men and women, and how silly it is to ever see a wedding as an ending or a victory.

She will keep meaning to stop at the house under some pretext—to let her overheating engine cool off, or to ask for help with her own raspberry canes, which she keeps meaning to plant—but there will always be cars in front of her and cars behind her, and she will always be on the verge of lateness. She will also keep meaning to tell the other dancers about her, but the girl will be such a small part of her day, just a moment of scenery during the drudgery of her commute, that by the time she arrives at the studio she will have forgotten. Besides, the other dancers will already be stretching when she arrives (they will all live in town), talking about the previous night’s party, or the upcoming fundraiser for new pointe shoes, or the empowerment of women, and she will be eager to strip her sweatshirt and sneakers and jewelry and join them. Sometimes she will think to mention the girl to Kevin, but Kevin’s only response would be to give his long look of befuddlement, which will mean he doesn’t see her point. He will only like to hear about things that have a point.

And then one day Kevin will join her on the commute. He will have something to attend to in her town, an appointment or a business associate or an old friend. It will seem to make sense to carpool, though right away she will feel uneasy about it. His presence in the car will feel like an intrusion. It will set her nerves on edge, though she will tell herself she is only concerned about the driving conditions, which will also be true. By then it will be raining again, and a recent windstorm will have ripped a number of trees from the sodden ground, and they will have barely started the commute when they enter a blinding white wall of fog. As they crawl through it, she will feel Kevin glancing impatiently at her speedometer, and it will be all she can do to hold down a scream. She will be focusing on these things, the fog and the husband and the scream, forgetting all about the girl in the raincoat, until they emerge from the fog and see the blue house with the wraparound porch and the balustrade, one of its oaks blown backward, a great gnarl of mud-clumped root standing over its crater. The fields surrounding it will be reduced to gray stubble, and the canes will be bare, and the girl in the raincoat will be holding her daily vigil over them.

“Hi, Samantha!” Jenny will shout, leaning across Kevin’s chest to wave.

“Samantha?” Kevin will repeat.

“That’s the name I gave her. She’s out there every morning, rain or shine. I like to think about why. Sometimes I have these conversations with her—”

“Her name’s not Samantha. It’s Virginia Dunham. I went to high school with her. Some guy raped her after a party and then cracked her head open. She’s not all there.”

The road will pour under them. The girl will appear in the rearview mirror, receding, but all Jenny will be able to see, before she disappears around a bend, is Virginia Dunham.

A few minutes later, Kevin will glance over and say, “What’d I do?”

But she will refuse to speak to him, and then it will be his turn to get angry. When she pulls up in front of his building, he will get out without looking at her. “Bye,” he will say, and it will sound as mean as a curse.

She will need to pick him up after rehearsal, of course, before her evening lessons begin, but instead she will go to Fernando’s and let him tie her up like he’s been wanting to. Fernando will be a nineteen-year-old from Portugal, the company’s first male dancer, though they won’t pay him and he won’t be very good. In fact, they will make him attend Jenny’s adult lessons in addition to rehearsal, and she will have spent two months prodding the muscles he can never manage to keep engaged before she finally asks to see his apartment. He will be inexperienced in bed, which at first she will find sweet, later tiresome. He will throw away the condom before he unties her. She will lounge beside him a long time, letting him trace her nipples and fondle her between the legs.

Finally she will ask, “Where do you see yourself at my age, Fernando?”

He will prop himself on an elbow and look down at her face, as if to see the words before they vanish. “No. You are beautiful.”

She will shake her head. “What do you think your life’ll be like when you’re my age? You,” she will repeat, pointing at the center of his chest.

He will shrug. “Yes. Why not?”

Her phone will be playing the song from the wedding. It will be in her purse in the other room, and for a moment she will pretend she doesn’t know who’s calling or what he wants before she gets out of bed to answer it.

 
 
 


J.T. Bushnell has recently finished a novel, Sequoia Boys, and a novella, Misfit. You can find his work online at Fogged Clarity and Brevity. His short stories have also been published in The Mississippi Review, The Greensboro Review, Meridian, Iron Horse, New Madrid, and other journals. His craft essays appear in Poets & Writers, The Writer, and Fiction Writers Review. He is a full-time instructor at Oregon State University.