They hadn’t spoken since Minnesota. They’d even gassed up, restroomed, and resupplied in Beloit without a word, surprised to find old signals still at their fingertips, even after the eleven years of divorce that had followed their nineteen years of marriage.
They were headed to Ohio, to their twin daughters’ college graduation, and an empty trailer clattered behind them. It was grating, but June supposed it made the silence between them less noticeable.
Still on the outskirts of Minneapolis, she had said something about road construction and Bill had nodded slowly, with a level of attention that seemed excessive. It was the way they had been taught to listen in marriage therapy: to lean the body forward, tilt the head, lower the brow, an acrobatic checklist. But its purpose, they had also been told, was to indicate, beyond risk of misinterpretation, that the listener understood and appreciated what the speaker was saying.
Or, June surmised, to indicate that the listener did not want to part, after all.
She spent a great deal of Wisconsin speculating that if this kind of listening were to occur years after the parting, it might mean something else entirely. Perhaps that the listener had taken note of the new life that had peeked out of the speaker since the parting. Perhaps a life that hadn’t been noticed before the parting, or that maybe even hadn’t been there yet. Or, perhaps, that had been there in the beginning, but had been siphoned away in the during. In the child-rearing and over-working and the constancy of duty. But that, in any case, surely had not been there anymore in the end, when a cold fog had blown in and laid damp over the conversations and the bedroom, and turned their eyes flat upon one another.
Still, June had taken note of this forward lean, and spent most of Illinois warming to the idea of relaxing that now-worn muscle. Of, having crossed dangerous terrain, finally setting tired feet back across safe border.
She could see it like a diagram now: two vectors shooting outward in separate directions, with all the logic of bottle rockets. Spiraling, smoking, into loves and fitness clubs, new pets, glass-walled lofts, classes at the college. A flourishing. Years passing. A sheen upon both of them as they took turns gaining and losing weight, smugly recommending new bands, and showing up late to things, rosy from having just stepped from other people’s beds. They had improved themselves to the point of boredom and finally found the blame in themselves for whatever that thing was that had once been missing.
It was hard to remember what it had been. She had over-worked; she didn’t anymore. He had kept score, tabulating the ways she was neglecting him while she rattled from one obligation to the next.
With the children gone, she could see from its absence what a weighted universe that had been, and also how full. But also how she and the girls had deceived him into believing that he was a part of that life, and not just a moon to her earth to their sun.
That duty was gone. Grown and departed. And the vibration of solitude barely hummed, and a new kind of fog had drawn in. An emptiness over morning coffee, a weariness when she dropped her robe outside the shower. And the magnet of this old, unspoken language—for better or for worse—began to tug again. It came from below, pulling her deeper into her seat.
He was driving. He had never driven. She supposed he had gone to the dealership and purchased this car all on his own, driven it all this time, brought it in for repairs, put gas in it, kept it clean. He had done all of that, and here she was, like a date, like a girl, sitting in his plush passenger seat without a word, while this unfamiliar man, this stranger, drove her to retrieve the children he had watched her birth.
Had they never parted, she knew for certain she would be driving. They would be speechless then, too, but with boredom and unspecified resentments. This new quiet was so fragile, so ripe, so suggestible that the mere breath of a word could displace it. Just past Toledo, June raised a hand, cleared her throat, and said, “Ferris wheel.”
Molia Dumbleton’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review Online, New England Review, Witness, Hobart, Bartleby Snopes, and Seattle Review. In 2013, she was awarded First Prize in the Sean Ó Faoláin International Short Story Competition. The winning story, “The Way We Carried Ourselves,” was featured at the Cork Short Story Festival and published in Southword Journal (Ireland). She holds a BA from Oberlin, an MA from Rice, and an MA in Creative Writing from Northwestern University. Find her on Twitter at @moliadumbleton.