24 January 2018

Creve Coeur

The bridge was the link that led to the rest of the world, the wide world beyond Creve Coeur.  It was a tall bridge, and the towers to which the cables were strung were visible from miles away, creating the impression that Creve Coeur was more of a landmark than it was.  Louisa could feel her heart quickening as the motorhome approached the bridge.  She’d rarely left Creve Coeur in the past forty years, and now, as the driver, her son, glanced at her, the same grin lighting up his face as when he was a boy, she exhaled.  An adventure was what he’d promised.  An adventure to see the Grand Canyon.  She hadn’t been as far as Chicago since 1972.
            “Here we go, Ma!” James hunched over the big steering wheel, effortlessly guiding the RV onto the bridge.  The river below flowed smoothly, small eddies turning back on themselves before unraveling and flowing forward.

The last time she’d left Creve Coeur and crossed this bridge, her husband Vincent had been the driver.  It had been the weekend of their thirteenth wedding anniversary.  They’d dropped off James at her sister’s for the weekend while she and Vincent went to Chicago.  Her mind drifted back.  The hotel had been nothing fancy.  She recalled stepping out of the bathroom, that Saturday afternoon, wearing a negligee she’d scrimped to buy.  Vincent had stood, wrapping his arms around her.  She missed his warmth, his strength, still.
            “You look good,” he’d whispered, his chin smooth against her ear.  He led her around the room, dancing to a tune he hummed, and then he’d laid her down on the bed, the late afternoon sunlight painting a thin line across the room as it reached through the barely-opened drapes.  Later, they’d ordered room service.  She remembered devouring a big steak and Vincent teasing her about her appetite before they’d gone to see Cabaret. 
Louisa shivered as her thoughts turned toward the Wednesday after their return, when Vincent’s car had been T-boned by a drunk driver after work.  There had been an abrupt quality to the phone’s ring that evening, as if the phone itself knew.  Louisa had hesitated, her hand hovering near the receiver.  She’d answered, despite her misgivings, despite the pot roast in the oven, despite everything that she could sense building behind the urgency of the phone’s ring-ring. 
There’s been an accident... very serious… county hospital… hurry…
Later, she’d regretted bringing James, wishing she’d thought to drop him off at her sister’s, but everything was moving so quickly, too quickly.  She hadn’t had time to think, to process.  He was so little, only four years old, not old enough for what awaited them.
Of the drive to the hospital, she’d later recall nothing, except for the moment when she found herself driving through an intersection, cars honking angrily.  She surmised she’d run through a stop sign, that she hadn’t even seen it.  She’d glanced up at the review to spy James in the backseat, oblivious to her error.  Carelessness was the cause of many accidents – she could not afford to be careless.  She could not afford to take risks.  This, already, she knew.
At the hospital, she and James were told to wait, first in the emergency room lobby, then in a small stuffy room.  They’d been told to hurry, and yet, after twenty-five minutes, here they still were, she pacing and peering out of the small safety glass window in the door, and James playing quietly with his cars.
Eventually, a tired-eyed doctor in a white lab coat, a police officer, and a chaplain arrived.  It seemed like the set-up of a joke Vincent might tell, but as soon as they entered, Louisa knew. Louisa could recall a sensation of being outside of herself, hearing only certain words, terrible, terrible words.  And then the doctor excused himself, the officer explaining he would be driving her home, the chaplain offering to sit with her.  Somehow she got the chaplain out of the room, wanting the reality of their presence gone, as if somehow, their absence would set her world right.  On the floor behind her, James continued playing, but now he crashed the cars into one another, repeating the words he’d heard moments prior.
“Accident.  Accident.  Sorry.  Sorry.”

The next twenty-five years had crept by, a monotony of routine she’d established to protect herself and James.  Deviation from the routine was unthinkable.  She needed the buffer to protect her tiny family from the unpredictable world.  Even after James left her to attend college, and then to wander the world, she maintained as best she could, rejecting James’ invitations to see Paris, Instanbul, Tokyo.
            But now, he’d returned.  He’d rented this motorhome with the pretense of giving her an adventure before the cancer in her left breast spread further.  She hadn’t even told her neighbors yet, about the cancer or their plan.  They’d given her space after dropping off casseroles, aware she’d nursed her sister to her death three months prior.  That’s when James had come, and to her surprise, stayed.  Already he’d gently upended her routines by fixing hot breakfasts, ensuring they took daily walks.  She missed her sister dearly, but found reasons every day to accept James’s indulgences:  whipped cream and fresh fruit on waffles; the way he held her arm as they walked slowly around the block.  She was seeing things she hadn’t noticed in years:  the lilac ready to burst into bloom, the lengthening of the days.
            It was one week ago that the motorhome had shown up without warning and he’d announced the trip.  Two weeks prior he’d driven her to the doctor who had told them of her cancer:  the same one that had killed her sister.  Somehow, Louisa felt, it had metastasized from her sister’s body to her own.
            A few days later, when he’d first suggested the trip, she’d said no.  When he pushed, insistent, she’d gotten angry, raising her voice for the first time in years.  She’d retreated to her bedroom.  All through the night she’d tossed and turned, her mind alternately fixating on her sister’s agonizingly slow death and Vincent’s abrupt end.  By morning she was exhausted and weary.  Her routines could no longer protect her.  When she’d entered the kitchen, James was there, making French toast, the coffee already brewed, colorful berries on the table. 
            As she sat down, she resolved to break from the familiar, despite the panic in her mind.  “Yes.”  It was almost a whisper, but James had heard.
            He’d sat down and clasped her hands, his eyes wet. 
And so here they were, now, crossing the bridge, the sun rising behind them as they drove west, onto the prairie, and toward the mountains beyond.  Louisa felt like a pioneer girl, leaning forward to peer into the distance.  As the motorhome crept toward the end of the bridge, she turned to James.  Now it was her face that was lit, both by the sun and the fire kindled within.  The cornfields, freshly tilled but not yet planted, rolled out before them, the road empty, their pace unhurried.  She placed her crooked hand on James’ knee, and patting it gently, again, said, “Yes.”