“I got the job.”
The smile on my wife’s face was enough to wipe away eight months of unemployment. Laid-off under the guise of “budget constraints,” her career as a defense contractor had been extinguished with a four-line letter. We were no stranger to seasonal layoffs, as the Navy’s dollars fluctuated with who was in power and whether or not it was politically correct to oppose a war.
At two months, the calls from her office began to thin out, and we went into dollar-saving mode. Cable television was trimmed to basic service, magazine subscriptions eliminated, and a chunk of my wife’s last check was diverted to paying off our credit cards and the car, so we could stay current on the house payment. Three of our four daughters ganged up on me over cutting back on the cell phones.
“What are you giving up?” they demanded.
I gave up the yearly trip home I made to reconnect with the family and missed the opportunity to see Aunty Mil one last time.
About the fourth month, the phone calls started — collection agencies. Pink envelopes arrived in the mail, telling me we’d missed yet another payment. On one occasion, the energy man appeared at the door to cut our service.
My wife’s unemployment checks were not helping enough. “You’re going to have to get another job,” I told her.
“Who’s going to hire me when they could hire some kid out of college for a third of the wages?” she countered.
The point was valid. After 28 years of defending this country, she would have to take a pay cut to compete with new graduates.
Two weeks later, she announced, “I don’t want to go back to government work.”
“Great,” I said. “What field do you want to work in?”
Another two weeks later, and subsequent to a visit by the repossession agent, my wife concluded that she wanted to work in the medical field. Her rationale was that with an aging population and the high number of biotechnical employers in the greater San Diego area, she would be able to land a job quickly.
Four months later, she waved a piece of paper under my nose. “I’m going to work at the body farm,” she said.
This sly reference to the Dr. Kay Scarpetta novels I enjoyed gave me a moment’s pause.
“I’m in the organ-retrieval unit,” she explained.
The vision I had of my wife riding around the countryside in a hearse, wearing a black cape and extracting brains from zombies, didn’t make sense, so I sought further clarification.
As it turned out, there would be a hearse, and she would be wearing black (a sort of scrubs attire), and her role would be to categorize organs as they arrived at a medical lab. I pictured a Far Side cartoon, my wife standing over a gurney. “One heart, two eyes, one kidney. Hey, wait a minute — this guy’s only got one kidney.” I checked my abdomen to make sure there were no new lacerations.
She was going to be the backroom girl, the one who took care of the logistical paperwork.
“It’s just down the road from where you work,” she said. “We can carpool together.”
Carpool? With my wife? This sounded more gruesome than the idea of her handling body parts. Halving our fuel bill…but a joint 40-minute commute every day? It’s not that I didn’t want to be in the car with her. We’ve done long-distance trips, crossed the country, even taken flights to foreign countries, but the idea of my morning solitude being — how shall I put it? — invaded. I wasn’t ready for that.
“Aren’t you going to be working at two locations?” I said, looking for an obvious out.
She saw through that straight away. “You don’t want to save money with your wife?”
She had me there. Two of us traveling the same route at $3.59 a gallon was repulsive. So I caved.
“I’m just checking to make sure I’m on the same page,” I said. “I’d love to carpool with you.”
My last day of commuting alone, I enjoyed the gridlocked traffic, including the 20-minute delay as rubberneckers stared at a vehicle broken down on the side of the road. Come Monday morning, this paradise would be lost.
My alarm went off at 5:00 a.m. Although it was summer, it was still dark outside. Normally, my wife wouldn’t rise with me, so I believed I had the house to myself. I went to the bathroom only to discover a locked door. I rattled the handle.
“I’m in here,” said my wife’s muffled voice.
This was not a good start. My bladder was used to instant relief. My schedule had been messed with, and I hadn’t given my body any warning. Jumping up and down and crossing my legs, I thought about how long my wife and daughters could occupy the bathroom. I ended up reverting to my bachelor days, much to the dog’s chagrin. As I came back into the house, she was standing there, waiting for me. She had caught me off guard, again.
“Is that what you do each morning?” she asked.
Finally, we left the house. We were 20 minutes late, eating up the buffer I’d built into my travel time for traffic.
“Whose car are we taking?” my wife asked in the driveway.
It wasn’t a choice. Her car was in the shop, and mine was the only other vehicle we owned.
“We’ll take the Rolls Royce,” I said. I opened the Buick’s passenger door for her, then got behind the wheel.
“Are you being smart with me?” she asked.
“No, no.” I put the car into reverse. “I’m just getting the day under way.”
We had not left the driveway — I had not even taken the handbrake off — when she started in. My Fleetwood Mac CD was playing “Go Your Own Way,” and then the music suddenly stopped and we were listening to a discussion on the New York City mosque.
“What are you doing?” I barked.
“Getting the news,” she said. She looked out the window, avoiding my gaze.
For 17 minutes I listened to commercials, announcer endorsements, a traffic report accidentally repeated from last Friday’s commute, more commercials, three station identifications, and a garbled test of the Emergency Broadcast System.
I snapped. “Just what exactly are you subjecting me to?”
“Talk radio! It’s what I listen to on the drive to work.”
The compulsion to pull to the curb and push my wife out was overwhelming. If a tractor-trailer hadn’t been two car lengths behind me in the slow lane, I might have dumped her then and there.
“On yourj drive to work?” I complained. “What about what I listen to on my drive to work?”
“Well…” She went into a well-rehearsed speech, apparently prepared for this moment. “When we carpool, you have to learn how to share the vehicle with those whom you’re driving with…”
I knew what she was up to. This speech would slip in the word “responsibility” and the idea of caring for those onboard. She would use the same metaphor I’d drilled into the first two daughters when they started to drive. I was being cornered, and I hadn’t even merged onto Interstate 805.
Finally, we arrived at my place of employment. I handed the car keys to my wife. And for eight hours, I went about my day, exactly as I had done for the past eight months while she was at home. But then I had to wait for her to come and get me. This would become my time to nap — between 30 minutes and an hour, depending on her day — in my office. But on this, the first day, the waiting was a drag.
She arrived to pick me up, an hour late and a scowl on her face.
“How was your first day?” I asked gingerly.
“Fine,” she snapped. She slammed the car into gear and left two black lines up the office driveway. The car thundered down La Jolla Village Drive. She changed lanes without signaling, sped up some more, cut off a guy in a Camaro, and barged onto the 52. The only thing she didn’t do was send a text message.
“I want to be younger, thinner, and better looking,” she said, crossing four lanes in a heartbeat. I tightened my seat belt, just in case.
“Everybody at work is so much younger than me,” she said. “Even my supervisor said he had to go and take care of his ‘elderly’ 50-year-old father.”
I opted to not look at her, but I could feel her staring at me.
“Keep your eyes on the road, Sweetie,” I said. I reached across the seat and pushed the steering wheel to prevent another lane change.
She grumbled most of the way home and most of the way to work the next day. That first week, she talked about learning a new skill at the job. By Friday, I knew who she was having lunch with.
At the start of the second week, her car was still at the repair shop.
“Can you pay to fix it?” she asked. “I won’t have a paycheck for another two weeks.”
The transmission had gone out just days before she started work, and we had avoided discussing the cost of repairing it.
“I thought we were carpooling,” I said. “Now you want me to finance your repairs?” I laughed — I meant it as a joke. She wasn’t laughing.
The 30-mile ride was quiet that day. Even the radio was off. She dropped me at work and left quietly. The ride home was also quiet. We exchanged not a word.
The next morning, I called the repair shop and put the bill on my credit card. My wife said nothing. I assumed she was struggling with getting up so early — until Wednesday came, when on the commute she grumbled, “How come we go this way?” Why was I driving the “roundabout” route to work? It had been eight months since my wife had traveled on Interstate 8 to work, but how could she have forgotten how bad morning traffic could be?
“I try to avoid bottlenecks,” I said. “So I’m not late to work.”
“But you get to work so early. There’s no one else around.”
This was true. I was usually the first person in to work in the morning, and now that we were carpooling, I arrived even earlier.
“Can we try my route to work tomorrow?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said.
The next day, we took my wife’s route. The freeway was packed. I got to work 10 minutes late, and she was written up for being 20 minutes late. She never questioned my analysis of rush-hour traffic again.
The middle of the third week, we got her car back, along with a price tag for the repair that was more like a used-car sticker price. She’d been without the vehicle for so long, I suggested we take her car to work the next day, just to give it a run. We rose, went through our morning rituals, and got into the car on time. Half a mile down the road, she pulled into a gas station and stopped beside a pump. The ignition went off. We sat in the car.
“What are you waiting for?” I asked. I looked around, knowing that, on the West Coast, full-service gas stations are limited to the state of Oregon.
She said, “I’m waiting for you to put gas in my car.”
I had put gas into my car, churning through a tank and a half each week for the past three weeks. While the fuel economy had dropped (due to the extra weight), I was happy knowing that putting an additional $10 in the tank was cheaper than the $50 needed to fill her SUV. But now she wanted me to put gas in her car? After already paying for the repairs?
“In your car, I’m a carpooler,” she said. “In my car, you’re my husband, riding along.”
I swiped the Visa through the card reader.
“Put the high-octane fuel in,” she yelled from inside the car. “It hasn’t had a good drink in weeks.”
Fifty dollars rolled up to $65. I swore under my breath. When it was finished, I slunk back into the car. My wife leaned across the seat and kissed me on the cheek.
“Thank you, dear, you’re so good to me.”
The rest of the way, we listened to talk radio, how women trample the men in their lives in order to make the marriage work. I was still not over the inequity of our fill-ups when she picked me up that afternoon.
“How come I haven’t had one cent of contribution from you,” I said, “but this morning I had to suck it up?”
We sat there for 20 minutes, arguing. She wouldn’t even turn on the air-conditioning. So I rolled down the window.
“Wind that back up,” she said, scowling. “I don’t want people to hear me ripping you a new one.”
Which, apparently, I needed, for being so insensitive to her economic troubles. I suggested she run for Congress, what with the way she manipulated the truth. She told me I could sleep on the sofa.
When the alarm went off the next morning, I was in the living room and didn’t hear it. I did, however, hear about it — 20 minutes later, when she came screaming out of the bedroom that I was making her late again.
In late August, summer arrived. The temperature was already in the 80s when we started our morning commute. We had developed an…arrangement. I would drive us to work in the morning; she would drive us home in the afternoon. We were back to commuting in my car.
I’m more of a “set the cruise control to 55 and get 400 miles a tank” type of driver. My wife, on the other hand, drives as if trying to put everyone a lap down.
“Can you slow down?” I said.
She shot back, “I’m just keeping up with traffic.” A glance at the dashboard and I could see, even given parallax error, that she was driving well above 80 miles per hour.
“Have you always driven like this?” I asked. On the pre-marriage checklist, I must have neglected to check her driving record.
“Only in rush hour,” she said. “Why do you think it’s called that? Because everyone has to rush home.”
Has to? This logic was hurting my fuel mileage, and she didn’t even care. Once we got home, I brought out the stopwatch I’d started when we left work.
“For the benefit of arriving an additional two minutes early, you used up fuel equivalent to a one-way trip back to work,” I said.
She didn’t even wait until we were in the house to start yelling at me. Neighbors were taking their kids in off the street, local police drove past slowly and wisely opted to keep on going, and — I swear — a news helicopter circled the house. We eventually took the discussion inside, where the argument ran out of gas two seconds after I admitted I’d been wrong to question her system of car control.
Within a week, the five days of summer heat had vanished. The last day of August, there was frost on the windows of my car when we walked out. I started the car and looked around for my wife, only to see her emerge from the house looking like a camel prepared to cross the desert.
She threw debris on top of my briefcase in the back seat.
“What the hell is all this?” I asked.
“That’s my knitting.” She waved me on with a hand. I left the car in park.
“All of it?”
She gave me “the look.”
“No, silly,” she said. “The large bag is my carryall with my project and some magazines. The second bag is the one I use to teach the girls knitting at lunch, and the third —”
“You’re teaching knitting at lunch?” I asked.
She smiled and nodded.
“And the third bag,” she continued, “is for when I go to the bathroom. So I can knit while I’m sitting there.”
The tow-truck driver said he’d drop his fee down to $65 to haul my car the two blocks from where I’d damaged the rim while mounting the curb over to where the mechanic would eventually charge $300 for repairs.
The bill was fair, though, given the haunting imagery my wife had created.
Eventually, the skills my wife had brought to her new job were sought in another location. In the coming weeks, there might be a day or two when she’d have to go downtown. We would not be able to carpool.
I couldn’t help but smile. She couldn’t help but backhand me.
“Why are you smirking?” she demanded.
“They like you, and they want you to work remotely,” I said. “I see a pay increase in your future.”
This was a lie. What I saw was a morning commute free of my wife. I marked the calendar and even rigged a clock on my computer to count down the time until I’d be driving to work on my own.
The night before, we climbed into bed. I turned my light off. She left hers on.
“Are you going to miss me tomorrow?” she asked.
Her light stayed on.
“Are you going to go anywhere on the way to work tomorrow?”
I tried to bury my smile in the pillow.
“I know what you’re doing there,” she said, snapping the light off.
When the alarm rang the next morning, she didn’t move — with her new location, she didn’t need to be up until I was nearly at work.
I went into my morning rituals. Breakfasted, checked the news, reviewed the weather and traffic cams. I was out the door on time.
I started the car, put the Gin Blossoms on, and turned up the volume to sing along with “Hey Jealousy.” The car purred along at 55. Idiots drove past me, going 70 miles per hour and more, only to be caught by me at the next jam.
La Jolla Village Drive: I had the morning fog band to myself as I made the final turn. Driving into the parking structure felt like entering Victory Lane, only more silent. I pulled into my reserved parking spot, empty for the past six weeks; at least one staff member had asked if they could park there, “seeing as you are no longer using it.”
I turned the engine off and listened to the sounds of the car. No longer could I smell the new yarn my wife traveled with. I’d vacuumed the previous night, and the floor mat was clean, the straws from her daily Diet Coke gone. Her stuff was out of the backseat. My briefcase had remained in the same spot for the entire drive.
That night she announced, “I have to go back downtown again next week. Two, maybe three days.”
She was downtown all week. Five days I commuted along my own route to work, in my own car, at my own speed, and I arrived home at the same time each afternoon. Just as I had for years. Each day that my wife worked downtown, I had my afternoons back. I accomplished more in the garden, cleaned the house, and even had time to write. I was back on schedule, albeit with a reduced income, due to the costs of the double commute.
On Friday evening she announced, “Training course all of next week. You’re on your own again.”
On day three I noticed I was listening to talk radio. I pulled over, only to discover I’d driven the route my wife had suggested, and that there was nowhere to stop. I looked in the rearview mirror and spied some of her yarn on the backseat. I guess I’d left it there. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was missing her. That afternoon I drove home as if trying to qualify, only to discover she’d beaten me back. She sobbed, holding a piece of paper.
“I got promoted, out to South Bay. It’s more money, benefits, but…” She couldn’t finish the sentence.
I couldn’t imagine what she was so upset about.
“We won’t be able to carpool anymore,” she said, “because it’s full-time.”
I held her tight. I tried to be brave. But a tear flowed out of the corner of my eye, and that made us both cry. Our short-lived carpool romance was over. It was back to high fuel costs, the daily grind in opposite directions, and both of us dreaming about the day we’d spend more time together.
We never mentioned our carpooling experience. Not at Thanksgiving, when we drove through the night to her mother’s house. Not at Christmas, when we drove to see Aunty Mil’s resting place. And not once when the third daughter began driving lessons.
“I can carpool with you guys and drive to school,” the third daughter pleaded, looking for any time behind the wheel.
My wife smacked her down so hard, the subject was never raised again. Then she went out and bought her a car. Nothing had changed, though. She put it on my Visa card.