Four friends and co-workers, Jenny, Elissa, Mira, and Fran, are supposed to attend an important conference, which takes place in a town roughly a three-hour driving distance from where they live. To save on gas money, they naturally decide to ride together. The route they must take is made up primarily of one long stretch of highway. At 5:00 AM, they pile into an old, mustard-colored station wagon and head north. At the two-hour mark, they approach a bridge. As they get closer, road signs warn of construction and altered driving patterns, and they glimpse ahead, on the bridge, a concrete barrier that cuts off one of the two driving lanes.
What happens next?
Consider the following notes and then choose the best answer below.
Note 1. Jenny fears bridges and won’t drive over them. She can be ferried while she sweats and stares and hums in a loud monotone, gripping her seat with both hands, but she will not drive over them.
Note 2. Elissa is willing to drive anywhere at any time, but only if she’s driving a compact car. Something about the size of a big car terrifies her. She considers the station wagon much too big.
Note 3. Mira was a great driver of anything until she had a recurring dream last winter about driving over a man’s legs. She’s just tooling along and them bump-bump, bump-bump, What’s that?? How could a man’s legs ever be in the way of your tires, her husband keeps asking, but she’s convinced it was a warning from on high and refuses to drive again, ever. She has been seeing a therapist, so that could change, but today she is adamant that she will not drive.
Note 4. Fran, owner and driver of the Volvo station wagon that now holds these four people, won’t drive alongside concrete barriers. She can’t shake the belief that any second she’s going to scrape against the concrete and the only way she knows to deal with her horror of doing this very thing, and then becoming a gigantic, mustard-colored pinball, is to come to a complete stop. On the highway. In one, narrow lane, with furious drivers piling up behind her.
Again, your question: What happens next? Select the best answer below.
A. Fran freezes at the wheel. She steers into the lane, directed by orange cones.
Concrete as far as the eye can see, concrete walls curving toward her, my God they’re so thick, and NO LINE, Fran sees NO LINE, yellow or orange or whatever, marking the edge of the barrier, a line like the one she once saw marking a concrete barrier on another state’s highway when she was a passenger, and she thought then, see, if they’d just mark the edge with a colored line on the highways at home, then maybe I could trust that awful palevacantconcretewhatsit isn’t too close to my car, maybe I could believe I won’t hit it, but they don’t mark it because like always THERE IS NO LINE.
The speed of the car slows. Go Fran, Go! her friends chant, Go Fran, Go! Go Fran, Go!
She slows a bit more. GoFranGo! GoFranGo! GoFranGo!
She stops. Shit, Fran. Shit.
B. Fran shoots across two lanes of traffic and onto the shoulder, where she slams the brakes and comes to a squealing stop. Everyone sits in silence, until Fran nominates Mira, whose fear is ridiculous—at least concrete barriers do exist and they make driving more dangerous, at least bridges do exist and could collapse any minute and anyway Jenny will pass out if she tries to drive over that bridge, at least Elissa is correct when she says that a larger car is more difficult to maneuver than a compact one. But it’s a big fat fucking guarantee, says Fran, that there is no man lying on the bridge, his legs ready to spring out just as their Volvo gets to him. If Mira will just get past this concrete barrier on the bridge, Fran or Jenny can manage the remainder of the drive.
Yeah, well, says Jenny, I feel uncomfortable asking you to do something that pains you, Mira, but if you could just get past this awful, this terrifying, this life-destroying bridge, then I’d be happy to drive.
Okay look, says Elissa, get real, Mira, get a working brain, get a move on, shake a leg.
Come on, say all the women in their high, cracked voices, each and every one sounding just like Mira’s mother and not entirely unlike Mrs. Colvin, her awful 8th-grade gym teacher who made Mira run until she puked, Come on, Mira, just do it. Just do it. Just do it.
As though in a trance, Mira just does it.
She gets out of the car and switches places with Fran. She takes a deep breath.
Just do it, Mira, just do it, just shake a leg.
She turns the ignition, guides the Volvo onto the bridge, slips quietly along the concrete barrier, the life-destroying bridge disappearing under them and all is well, they’re almost—bump-bump, bump-bump, What’s that??
C. Fran shoots across two lanes of traffic and onto the shoulder, where she slams the brakes and comes to a squealing stop. Everyone sits in silence for a moment, then they all speak at once, but Mira, with her trained, singer’s voice—she once got as far as off-off-Broadway—cuts right through the others. She explains that Elissa’s fear of driving any motor vehicle larger than a compact car is not object-specific, like Fran’s fear, which depends on a concrete barrier, like Mira’s fear, which depends on a man’s legs, like Jenny’s, which depends on a bridge. Elissa’s fear is size-specific, explains Mira, so it is relative, and therefore should adapt to circumstance, therefore must be impermanent, therefore must be conquerable. And anyway if Elissa’s fear is size-specific, says Mira, which it most definitely is—that has been stipulated—then if you think about it, her fear in a way depends on a kind of prejudice, really, because it is not okay to judge anyone or anything by size, is it, no it is not, so really, if you care about decency, says Mira, if you care about what is right, then there’s just no avoiding it, Elissa has to drive.
Elissa says absolutely not, but this solution suits Fran very well, so she agrees with Mira. Jenny says she’s not so sure about all this stuff about object permanence and being size-specific, and no one should have to do anything she really really really doesn’t want to, but then again, says, Jenny, if you can just get us past this awful, this hate-filled, this future-annihilating bridge, then I will take the wheel for the rest of the trip.
So they badger Elissa, all three of them, they badger and badger and just keep on badgering her. Don’t be so size-ist, say Mira and Fran, try to dig deep, says Jenny, don’t be conquered by prejudice says Mira, don’t just sit there and gape, says Fran, you’re wasting time, they all say, we have to go, adapt to circumstance!
Because Elissa was the youngest of five children, she’s used to capitulating to a slew of yammering voices, she’s used to condescension, she’s used to being told. So she gets out of the car and switches places with Fran. She takes a deep breath. She starts the car… and then she jams the gear shift into reverse and backs down the shoulder at surprising speed, the car rattling and shaking, while her friends whimper or scream or hum in a loud monotone, depending on their personality.
They beg her to stop.
She picks up more speed, they’re hurtling, and everything’s a blur.
Elissa goes faster and faster, and now seems to have gone off-road and is heading toward a clump of trees, but she ignores the mottled green growing in her rearview mirror and says in what can only be described as a deeply satisfied voice, THIS is what you get when you go into my room, read my diary, take my shit, won’t let me play Monopoly, cut my doll’s hair, Tell Mom that I—
D. Fran shoots across two lanes of traffic and onto the shoulder, where she slams on the brakes and comes to a squealing stop. Everyone sits in silence for a moment, then they all speak at once, excepting Jenny, who stares at her lap. Soon her silence infects the others, and each of them mutters to a halt, then looks at Jenny, always the peacemaker at work, always the one to suggest the compromise lunch takeout, plus she was the one who took the department’s concerns to management, earning them a once-a-month casual Friday. So, a leader.
True to form, Jenny has a suggestion. We should turn around and drive home, she says. Then spend the day getting blotto at a bar she knows in a neighboring town. And then they just say they were at the conference. How will their boss know they weren’t there? No, no, no, the others say, this isn’t the woman who got us casual Friday, no, we can’t lie, we deserve to wear jeans once a month.
Look, Jenny explains, we have no choice. I can’t drive over a bridge. Fran can’t drive alongside concrete barriers. Elissa won’t drive anything bigger than a Mini Cooper and Mira can’t drive at all.
What I notice, says Elissa, is that you say I “won’t” drive but everyone else “can’t.”
The point is, says Jenny, there is no logical way to proceed without forcing someone to do something that is so frightening as to be debilitating.
And what I notice, says Mira, is that you say I “can’t” when I certainly can but I choose not to drive when it means I will pulverize another person’s legs by doing so. I am making the only ethical choice but it is a choice and I would like to be appreciated for that.
Jenny says they will all appreciate each other so much more once they’ve got a few pitchers of beer in them.
Now I’m noticing something, says Fran, I’m noticing that you, Jenny, couldn’t care less about the fact that I don’t like beer.
Look, Jenny, Elissa says, it’s high time you put some muscle behind all that talk of compromise, all that “I hate to make you uncomfortable” crap. Yeah, says Fran, how long does a person get free points because she talked the boss into Levis once a month when anyway we asked for once a week. It seems pretty clear, Jenny, says Mira, that you like to be The Nice One, The Reasonable One, but then again, since when did you bring a box of donuts to work?
Since when, asks Elissa, did you remember to invite me to your Zumba class for free?
And WHEN, Mira asks, are you going to stop stinking up the lunchroom with those tuna sandwiches??
Jenny has frozen, her eyes wide. So the others lean in. You need to STAND UP and tackle this foolish phobia of yours, hisses Fran. Mira pokes Jenny on the breastbone as she points out that there is no reason to fear bridges, they are colossal—indestructible!—not fragile like a man’s legs. And now Elissa, just an inch from her face: You need to get behind that wheel and drive over that bridge and stop all this crazy talk about beer and can’t and won’t and lying and cheating.
Jenny takes a deep breath. She gets out of the car and changes places with Fran. She adjusts the seat. She adjusts the rearview mirror and the side mirrors. She runs the window washer and then the wipers until the windshield is clean and buffed to a crystalline shine. She turns the ignition, takes the car out of park, and puts her foot on the brake while she says this: What I notice is that you are all very happy to force me to do something that I find so frightening as to be debilitating. I further notice that no one appreciates all the hard work I did to get our monthly casual Friday. And I further further notice that I AM NOW IN CHARGE OF THIS CAR.
Jenny takes off. But instead of steering into the lane, she stays on the shoulder, headed for some construction barrels clustered up ahead. She thinks Levis and hits 20 miles an hour, she thinks All The Donuts I Wouldn’t Let Myself Buy and hits, 30, 40, she thinks about how she switched to the line-caught, environmentally sensible tuna, which is too damn dry and she hits 50, she thinks—
E. For Christ’s sake, why make it all so complicated?
They agree to pay a construction worker to drive them over the bridge. He thinks it’s so funny he won’t even take their money. It’s going to make a great story and they have a high time at the conference and do a sing-along all the way back… to the bridge. Where it’s now very late, very dark, and totally free of construction workers.
Jenny, Elissa, Mira, and Fran huddle in the car, safely on the shoulder. Fortunately it’s summer, so they don’t need to keep the motor running for heat. So all they hear are nightsounds through the cracked windows. And their own breath, as each sits in a stupor, stunned that she didn’t predict this very situation earlier, when they were on the other side of this bridge, working through the problem of how to get across the first time.
Okay, says Jenny, breaking their silence. Okay. What about that exercise at the conference, the one about team-playing, where we had to threaten to shoot rubber bands at each other’s forehead?
What about it, snaps Fran. How does shooting a rubber band get us across that bridge, asks Elissa, and it’s a good question. Plus, says Mira, in the most dispirited off-off Broadway voice any of them has ever heard, we don’t have a rubber band.
Well that’s it, isn’t it, says Jenny, yes that’s it, says Fran, it’s all a test, this whole goddamned thing is a test, says Elissa, you got that right, says Mira.
It’s a test. And we failed.
Did they? Did they fail?
The construction workers will be here again, and sooner rather than later—those guys start early. Taking Jenny’s lead, the women will suggest they’ve just arrived at the bridge after a night of carousing, forcing perky good cheer out of themselves and smiling until their faces hurt. And again, just like yesterday morning, the tanned, brawny man with startling blue eyes and a kind, weathered smile, will laugh, shake his head, and take the wheel. Fran will move to the passenger side while Mira, so petite, jams herself into the back with Jenny and Elissa. Elissa will rub Jenny’s back in tight little circles while Jenny leans forward, gripping the edges of her seat, humming with eyes closed as they cross the bridge.
The man with the eyes and the smile and the hardhat will tell them he has two daughters, that his ex-wife hates him but she’s a good mother so he tries not to complain, that Mira maybe should call him sometime. He will refer to them as “ladies” and he will again refuse to take any money for his trouble.
They will be too exhausted to hit that bar Jenny likes but next week as they tell and re-tell this story among themselves, they will decide to meet there after work on Friday. Fran will be the designated driver because she hates beer. The others will pay for her chicken wings and Coke.
Over subsequent Friday nights at the bar, breakroom chats at work, and occasional girls’ night dinners, the reasons for their various driving phobias will slowly unspool. For example, Mira’s therapist has unearthed a childhood memory that explains her terror of driving over a man’s legs. She tells Jenny, Elissa, and Fran about this discovery before she tells her husband. She still refuses to drive, which they all support.
But back to now. Right now, on the shoulder, their car pointing toward the bridge they cannot cross. The seats are wide and soft, the air is cool, they no longer smell exhaust and gasoline and hot pavement. And there are peepers.
As late night falls on the mustard-colored Volvo, the four friends and co-workers hear peepers, which is a sign of the fleeting Maine summer that works its way into the despairing mindset in this car, that supplants their feeling of failure and delights them all. And the moon, it’s amazing, a giant silver disc.
For a long time as a kid, says Jenny, I thought only I could see the moon when it was full, because nobody else was so completely stopped by it. Nobody else stared and stared. The others nod, remembering that same belief, that the moon was only for them. Not remembering, happily, the day they realized it wasn’t.
As they listen to the peepers, settle into the strange comfort of this place, this car, letting their eyelids get heavy, letting all that bright yellow-white of the moon seep into their bones, they all do very much agree. Right now it’s okay to be on this side of the bridge. Right now it’s okay to rest.
Claire Guyton is a Maine writer and editor. Her fiction has appeared in numerous journals, including Crazyhorse, Mid-American Review, River Styx, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and Atticus Review, and in the anthology Summer Stories(Shanti Press, 2013). Claire has been a Maine Arts Commission Literary Fellow, and holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.