|OBJECTS IN MOTION
The crosstown traffic was making me, well, pretty cross as I attempted to maneuver the car down a part of the street that had apparently been visited by the pothole fairies in the last day or so. I was trying in a mature fashion to ignore the other drivers, whose licenses I assume had expired sometime in the last Ice Age—John was obsessed with calm, careful driving and I had learned over the years, sometimes the hard way, that it paid to give at least a second thought to his obsessions, even the silly ones. But I don’t think even Saint John is immune to the torture of matinee traffic. He is, however, fairly obsessed with punctuality in addition to sane driving. I’m willing to put up with it—patience and tolerance come naturally to me.
Checking the dashboard, I noted with annoyance that not only had I reached the warp speed of four miles an hour, but also that I was not going to be what you’d call early to pick up John. More like what you’d call tardy.
I was running through a list of viable excuses—John stomachs working Saturdays only within unfairly rigid time frames—when the pace of the road picked up and a taxi somehow managed to hurtle past me with a most unpleasant screech. The cab driver took a moment to share, manually, his opinion of my daydreaming, and I replied in kind. After all, communication with other drivers is a vital part of motor safety.
I was no more than twelve minutes late as I made the final approach, five minutes once I’d used the last red light before John’s office to reset the car clock. The man himself was waiting at the curb as I pulled up, looking none too happy even to nearsighted me. The car squawked to a halt, jerking unpleasantly. Without fail, it behaves beautifully for John, parking on a dime and braking soundlessly. I hoped our next car wouldn’t pick favorites so unfairly. John made a face as he slid into the car.
“You park like you’ve got a grudge against the street,” he said, leaning over to kiss me. “Hello. You’re late. Matinee traffic or did it take longer than usual to mess with the clockworks?”
I gave him a sideways glance, gauging his mood. “Both” seemed a risky answer so I stuck to the safe path. “Traffic. And crazed taxis,” I offered. “I’m sorry you were waiting.” I took in the flush in his cheeks and noted with some guilt that it was fairly chilly out—chilly enough to affect even John, who dressed with unfailing correctness for the weather. I took his hand, which was cool. “You’re cold!”
He gave my hand a squeeze. “I’ll live. Two hands on the wheel, please.”
I think he was a driver’s ed instructor in a former life. And not one of the fun ones who plays Top 40 in the car and lets you practice 360s, either.
Somewhat self-consciously, I gripped the wheel at ten and two, checking my blind spot with devoted obedience before switching lanes—not closely enough, I guess, because a bus lumbered with surprising speed out of nowhere and into my line of vision, leaving me just enough time to swerve back and away. Brakes screeched behind me and horns blared from both sides. I was sure my heart stopped beating for a moment before pounding back to work.
“TRIS.” John’s knuckles were white on the console. “WHAT are you doing?”
“He came out of nowhere,” I said miserably, feeling heady and trying to focus on the road in front of me.
“Are you all right?” I nodded, taking a slow breath.
“Be careful,” he said firmly, shaking his head, “or you’re going to give us both coronaries.”
I gave him a weak smile, feeling a bit shaken up, and tried to concentrate on what I was doing. Traffic sped up and I moved through it as best as I could, trying to make cheerful conversation at the same time.
“How’s the Turner piece going?” I asked brightly, turning my head, then swinging it back when a four-wheel-drive butted in front of me. I slammed on the horn in annoyance and pulled out to pass it back.
“Fine, thank you. Tris, relax and drive carefully.”
I nodded distractedly, determined to beat the light, which I did. From John’s expression, he wasn’t impressed. “Tris, yellow lights are NOT an indication to speed up. You could have been pulled over now and with good reason.”
“Sorry,” I muttered. John’s backseat driving gets tedious quickly.
When the traffic is moving, city driving is annoying but challenging, and I like a good challenge. Moving quickly, I beat a taxi van to the next light and took a right on red, swinging into lane with only a brief glance. The car next to me, which had apparently been looking to get into my spot, honked unnecessarily.
Without thinking I honked back, glaring when the other driver gave me a one-fingered salute in response. John was looking distinctly unamused as I extended a similar gesture to the irritating driver. He sped up and I did the same, thoroughly annoyed with this sort of silly posturing. I was determined to pass him when John’s voice startled me out of the race. “That’s it. Tris, pull over, right now.”
“What?” Startled, I braked, and the car gave another unpleasant screech and swerve.
“You heard me. Pull over.” John had his deadline-at-midnight-any-later-and-you’re-out-of-a-job look, and I humored him. Shoving the car into park, I glared.
He reached across to turn off the ignition and unbuckled both our seat belts. “Out. We’re switching places,” he said and then his hand shot across me to grab my door handle as I started to open it. “LOOK before you get out!” he exclaimed as a car rushed by my window.
Unsure and irritated, I slammed the driver’s side shut and slumped in on the other side.
“Put on your seat belt.”
John offered no further explanation, and I didn’t much feel like talking, as he pulled back into traffic with smooth precision.
We rode silently in the elevator and I eyed his profile as he watched the lights of the floor numbers. It wasn’t like him to be this quiet and I started to get concerned that he was cooking up something I should be concerned about. Once inside he locked the door, hung up his coat and mine, and then gestured inside. I flopped on the living room couch and he sat sedately in the chair opposite.
Looking at me, he opened his mouth and I cut in. “Okay, I know that thing with the bus was a little nerve-wracking, but I DID look before, and I’ll be more careful next time….” I trailed off, not sure if I was helping.
John shook his head. “Tris, that incident—and you’re very, very lucky it was an incident and NOT an accident—was just the beginning. The kind of driving I saw today—speeding, arguing with other drivers, running lights—” he put up a hand to stop me when I started to interrupt. “Let me finish, please. Running lights, not to mention an illegal right on red. Do I have to list for you the consequences of that sort of driving?”
A rhetorical question, but I shook my head vigorously nonetheless, as I was starting to get a niggling feeling of where this was going.
“They start on the mild end with traffic tickets, points on your license and going back to driving school, and end with serious collisions,” he continued. “You could kill yourself or someone else. A car is not a toy; it’s a serious instrument and a potential weapon and it takes handling with maturity.”
“I KNOW how to drive,” I responded defensively.
“Do you? We haven’t been using the car much lately, I know,”—we’d spent more time digging it out of snowdrifts— “or I would have noticed this sooner. You’ve moved from an occasional lapse into poor judgment to being a menace on the road, Tris, and I won’t be a part of that.”
“Then don’t drive with me,” I snapped.
I guess whoever said a good offense is the best defense has never sparred with John.
He raised his eyebrows. “Do you want to reconsider that comment?” he asked calmly.
I looked back at him without speaking, intent on staring him down, but the hardness of his eyes made me nervous and I muttered an apology. I had the feeling something else was coming and it was making me anxious.
“All right then. Where were we? Ah, yes. Driving as a privilege, not a right. And city driving comes with its own set of challenges. No one who can’t control his temper in a car belongs on the road, period, especially in a city filled with traffic and pedestrians and buses and all the problems that go along with that. A car is a potentially lethal weapon,” he repeated, “even when driven with the utmost caution. If you’re not going to exercise the most basic rules of safety then I’m not sending you out in a car any more than I’d let you loose with a gun. Period. Do you understand?”
“I’ll be more careful,” I said as penitently as I could manage, unable to resist adding: “The light WASN’T red yet, though.”
“Tris, you’re missing the point,” he said more sharply, standing up. “From what I saw today, you’re either unable or unwilling to drive safely on the city streets. I’m not going to let you put yourself and others in danger. You can consider yourself off those streets until further notice. You don’t drive anywhere in the five boroughs until I’m satisfied with how safely you drive.”
I stared at him, not quite comprehending. “HOW am I supposed to prove I can drive if you don’t let me drive?”
“I’m going to let you drive, just not in this city and not without me. We’ll practice together until you get the hang of some quieter roads and we’ll see how it goes from there. We should have plenty of time for lessons this weekend and next, at least,” he said pointedly and I glared.
“That’s ridiculous,” I snapped, jumping to my feet. “I DID the junior license bit already, thank you very much, a long time ago.”
“Too long, apparently, because you seem to have forgotten some of the basics,” he responded curtly. “And you’re not doing anything to help your situation by showing me you’re not taking this seriously, Tris.”
“I’m taking it PLENTY seriously,” I shot back. “You’re taking my license, which, I don’t know, is probably illegal or something, and how am I supposed to get around without a car anyway?” I asked finally, my voice rising.
“Trains. Buses. Subways. Anything someone else is driving,” he offered in what he probably thought was a logical manner.
“That’s unfair. It’s absurd. NO!” I said, pacing.
“Lower your voice right now,” he said firmly, “for the neighbors’ sake if not mine.” He held out a hand, his eyes more sympathetic than his words. Realizing what he wanted I shook my head.
“I’m NOT giving you my license. It’s my car as much as yours.” I held my ground, certain I could make him see reason.
“And I’m not going to ask you again. If you don’t understand what I just told you, I’ll be happy to go over it afterwards. Now, please.”
“What are you, the damn DMV? I said NO!” my voice rose to a shout and I stalked off, my heart pounding in my ears from the unfairness of it all. Rules were one thing. But this was ridiculous and I refused on principle to take part. I was an adult. I’d been driving for years. I stomped into the bedroom and slammed the door with a satisfying crash. It made me feel a little bit better and I yanked it open and slammed it shut again. It felt decidedly good. I’d pulled it open for a third slam when John appeared in the doorway, his expression deadly serious and determined enough to make me swallow hard.
“And I said that you are not going to slam doors in this apartment, not today and not ever,” he said quietly. He’d said it more than once, in fact. I took a step back, unhappier by the second with the way this afternoon was turning out.
I opened my eyes slowly to the sound of John whistling softly to himself and fiddling with something nearby. The lights were dim and I realized I must have drifted off after our discussion, though I was instantly reminded, upon waking, of the conclusion to that discussion. Tired and still smarting, I blinked a few times. The room was suffused with the glowing pinkish light of dusk and John’s figure was just barely visible behind the half-open door. Gradually I grew conscious of what he was doing, the soft but insistent sound of metal scraping, then twisting, metal. I heard his quiet sound of satisfaction, and then he swung the door loose and turned it sideways, preparing to lift it. He looked over, noticing that I was awake.
“Hi,” he said amiably; easing the door off the ground, he walked it sideways into the room, looked around briefly, and then slid it to rest under the bed. I made note of the splendid view I suddenly had of the living room until John sat down on the bed beside me, resting a hand on my forehead.
“Feel better?” he asked, brushing my hair out of my eyes. I shrugged without moving too much, curled semi-comfortably on my side, and looked up at him. He smiled down at me.
“Rise and shine. If you sleep any more now you won’t be able to tonight. Come and have something to eat.”
He could think about food at a time like this?
I sat up, then flopped back down, and finally rolled off the bed, wincing and practicedly pathetic. John was barely even watching. He held out a hand when I stood up and pulled me close for a moment, then pushed me ahead of him toward the kitchen.
“How does chicken soup sound?” he asked, rustling in the cabinets as I leaned against the jamb. “My mother’s, of course,” he added with a wink, and I gave him a small smile in spite of myself.
I watched him defrosting and puttering for a while, then wandered back into the living room to examine the gaping hole where our bedroom door had been. It looked…naked. He’d made threats in the past about taking the door off its hinges. Damn him for always keeping his promises.
“It does give us a nice view from the bedroom,” John said from behind me.
“And it gives the building across the way a nice view of our bedroom too,” I added sourly. John grinned and swatted me, gently enough to be teasing.
“Then I guess we’ll have to buy some curtains or be arrested for lewd and indecent behavior,” he said.
“That WON’T be a problem tonight,” I responded coldly, and walked as grandly as I could into the kitchen, sidestepping another swat.
The soup was delicious, comfort food at its best. We cleared the dishes and rinsed them, bumping into each other as per usual trying to fill the dishwasher in the small kitchen. I found myself suffused with a sudden warmth. My belly was full, my bottom considerably less sore, the apartment was cozy against the chilly-looking dark sky outside.
I watched John’s back for a moment, solid and comforting as he sorted out the counter and folded the dishtowel. I wrapped my arms around his waist and he turned around and kissed the top of my head. I burrowed against him, wanting to be close, wanting to give him something in return. Pulling away I strode into the hall and came back where John was waiting with an inquisitive expression. I lifted his hand and placed the contents of my hand in his. He pocketed the small rectangle of plastic and tugged me against him again.
“Thank you,” he said and kissed me before I could say “you’re welcome” and until I could no longer remember what I was saying “you’re welcome” for.
With every lamp in the apartment out, and every available curtain pulled shut, the bedroom was still flooded with light; I couldn’t believe what a difference it made not being able to close the door. I stared out the gap where the door had been; I could have sworn I could pinpoint individual stars twinkling off the living room floorboards. The moon was low and swollen and hung suspended in the double windows.
“Tris, go to sleep.”
The directive was slightly muffled by his pillow but pretty firm nonetheless. John’s voice drops about an octave when he’s half asleep like this and I ruminated for a moment on how sweet that was before responding.
“I can’t. It’s too bright.”
“Go sleep in the bathtub,” he suggested heartlessly.
I considered it. The bathroom did have a door, and with a couple blankets porcelain might not be too uncomfortable. “I will if you’ll come too,” I offered.
John laughed softly, a wonderfully rumbly sound in the quiet dim. “Sleep, Tris.”
“Try closing your eyes, sweetheart. That might help block out the light.”
Very funny. I tossed a few more times, then studied the newly illuminated ceiling for a moment.
“Tris.” John’s voice was taking on a warning note.
“I’m TRYING,” I said, frustrated. “I can’t fall asleep.”
John sighed and rolled over. “Come here then.”
I inched toward him and he pulled me the rest of the way into his arms. “Go. To. Sleep.” He said into my hair, tucking my head against him. It was cozy and dark with my face pressed against his shirt, and with little other choice I drifted off and slept until he woke me at nine for our first driving lesson.
I stared out my window sulkily for the first few miles, watching the buildings and people fly by. Outside it was bright and cold and I lifted a hand to trace swirls on the fogged-up window with my finger.
“Why don’t you pay attention to what I’m doing? You might learn something,” John said in a friendly manner that nonetheless wasn’t much of a question. So I watched John’s driving skills, which, like all his other skills, are competent almost to the point of being irritating. I sat poised for him to hand over the keys at the Bronx border, but he waited until we were deepish into the ’burbs before pulling over to switch places.
Once in the driver’s seat—the hot seat, really—I wished I were still an observer. John had plenty of suggestions for improvement and as usual wasn’t shy about making them. On 95 I learned, in short order, that I switched lanes too quickly, ignored my blind spots, and didn’t use my left-hand mirror effectively; on 287 the theme was maintaining speed and not passing trucks on the right. I’d started out slightly unhappy but at this point I was growing downright cranky.
“Tris,” John opened as I was coasting west. There was a red car half in my line of vision and I was trying to remember the fourteen different applicable rules.
“WHAT?” I snapped back finally. “I’m trying to concentrate. I thought that was what you wanted! Sheesh,” I slapped the steering wheel with one hand.
“…why don’t you take this exit,” John continued mildly.
I swallowed, embarrassed, and flicked on my signal.
“I’ll ignore that outburst,” John said benevolently as I coasted off the ramp. “I will, however, take note of the effect safe driving seems to have on your personality when I’m deciding if you’re ready to get your keys back.”
I set my teeth and pulled onto 684 as instructed. I took some deep breaths, willing myself to finish this lesson without strangling John. I watched the road and didn’t glare at him; in a few miles the road opened up: I could see green all around me and the foothills in front of me. The lanes were wide, the speed limit comfortable, and the highway anything but crowded. The sun filtered through the bare trees and lit the hills with shades of yellow. A sense of peace descended on me and I risked a small smile at John, keeping my concentration on the road; he returned it in full force.
We stopped for lunch and a decent-sized break in Nyack, where we sipped hot cider and wandered through the town center. It was friendly and vaguely bohemian and there was a gorgeous water view. “Still think you could never live outside the city?” John asked, linking an arm through mine. I looked around automatically, then relaxed, satisfied that this was one area of suburbia where we’d be welcome.
“It’s pretty here,” I admitted. “But I’d miss the horns and taxis and shouting all night.”
John grinned. “You have strange taste, my friend.”
I glanced at his profile in the sun, watching the way the breeze moved his hair. His hand was reassuringly warm on my arm. “No, I have great taste,” I said.
John kissed my cheek. “How about heading back over the bridge?”
I groaned. “You’re a taskmaster.”
“I am,” he said cheerfully. “And this time, Tris, remember to slow down at the toll, please. You nearly got the hood lopped off before.”
The piercing ray of sunlight that woke me Monday morning was annoyingly and still unfamiliarly bright. I opened one eye, not terribly happy, to see light pouring in the open doorway from the big living room windows. I groaned and pulled a pillow over my head, vowing never to close another door with more than the gentlest whisper of force.
Through the pillow I could hear the faint sounds of John singing in the shower. Oy. Some days I can’t believe that I ended up with a morning person. I raised my head an inch or two, trying to identify the song. “Good Day Sunshine.” I flopped back down and pulled the covers over my head. It was going to be one of those mornings.
John yanked them off seconds later, baring his teeth sweetly. “Up! Go shower,” he said cheerfully, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the room was lit up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
“I will when someone turns off the damn sun,” I muttered, burying my head in my pillow since the covers had seemingly disappeared. John swatted me, hard enough to make me pull my head out of the pillow to give him a hurt look.
“You know your vocabulary is heading in ways I’m not pleased with? My suggestion is that you halt it in the early stages of development. Now!” I found his tone unnecessarily sharp but I jumped out of bed anyway, since he didn’t seem to be in a very pleasant mood. So much for being a morning person.
I was trying to submerge my cereal, watching the patterns as each flake absorbed the milk, and thinking of ways to talk John into giving me the car this morning when he cut in.
He’s never much fun in one-word mode but I looked up plaintively anyway. I know I wouldn’t have been able to resist my genuine repentance. John rolled his eyes and handed me a glass of apple juice, pausing to give me a quick kiss.
“Yes, you’re irresistible, and no, you’re not getting the car. You can make eyes at me all morning if you want,” he said.
Grr. I choked down some cereal and was looking out at the river when John startled me again by taking my bowl. “Hurry up, we’re probably going to have to wait anyway.”
I glared at him. “I’m NOT taking the subway.”
He pulled me to my feet and pointed me toward the hall. “Yes you are. Come on, it’ll be nice to be pressed up against someone who smells decent for a change.” He gave me an exploratory sniff. “Peaches and pixie dust,” he said brightly, and handed me my coat.
“Funny man,” I muttered, ducking out before him.
It was chilly and slushy outside, and I rubbed my hands together for warmth as we waited for the light to change. “Where are your gloves?” John asked; his hands, naturally, were encased warmly in practical yet attractive gloves that matched his overcoat.
I stuck my hands in my coat pockets only to find them empty. I gave John a helpless look.
“They were in there yesterday,” I offered.
He sighed and pulled a pair of gloves out of the front pocket of his attaché. Darn him. They weren’t even wrinkled. I graciously declined to remind him that I wouldn’t have needed gloves if I were driving our nicely heated car like I should have been.
We stopped at the coffee shop on the next corner—who knew there was a danger of being dehydrated on the train?
“Medium hazelnut, light and sweet,” I said brightly, stepping up to the counter.
John snorted faintly. “Nice try,” he said in my ear. He gave the girl working the register his patented brilliant smile. “We’ll take two waters instead.”
Back on the street, struggling with the bottle spout, I shot John a glance just this side of murderous for his controlling ways. His camel-colored wool coat fit him so nicely, though, that I got sidetracked from my original plans. He caught me looking at him and smiled. “Please tell me your abortive caffeine attempts weren’t an indication of how you usually behave on the way to work.”
“Of course not,” I replied, hurt. John had given up coffee with me when the doctor advised me to cut it out. On good days I was amazed at how supportive he was; on worse days I was convinced he was trying to torture me with his strange ideas about mind over matter and self-discipline. He, naturally, hadn’t touched the stuff since the edict. It wouldn’t occur to him to do it when I wasn’t there. I, on the other hand, was trying, but it was hard.
Feeling guilty, I took an enthusiastic draw on the water bottle. Ow. It was a little too cold out to enjoy it. I was concentrating on closing the bottle without soaking the borrowed gloves when I skidded on a patch of badly sanded ice. John caught my elbow before I could fall.
Argh. It had been a long winter and the sidewalks weren’t pretty. When I looked down to check for ice, I missed people bumping into me; when I looked up in surprise, I nearly slipped again. It took a great deal of effort not to lunge for the car keys. Or pitch a fit. I settled for gritting my teeth and furrowing my brow, which might have helped more if I’d had a mirror to admire my work.
“Stop scowling. You’re scaring the pigeons.”
Apparently John wasn’t a fan of my mobile facial muscles. He steered me ahead of him down the stairs to the gaping maw below us. It was exhaling fumes of heat and humans. I paused halfway down, wondering if it was too late to run back up and call a cab. “Excuse me” was the politest thing I heard several times over above me as the people behind us stacked up like dominoes. John pushed his way next to me and took my arm to pull me down the rest of the steps.
“You haven’t even gotten to the station yet and you’ve already caused a stampede,” he murmured, somewhat unfairly.
Two trains later John patted my hand where it was clutching the pole for dear life—not that I could have fallen over, considering how tightly packed in we were—and left to rejoin civilization, leaving me sulking for three more stops before I was able to escape.
The aroma of coffee hit me before anything else when I got to the office.
Lead me not into temptation…
I tossed my case under my desk and took another swig of water, figuring that perfect obedience might get my car back sooner. Wait, who was I kidding? I was headed for the coffee area when Mel intercepted my path. “Glen wants to see you,” she said.
Argh, for at least the second time that morning. The sight of Glen in the chair I still thought of as John’s never got my days off to a good start and I lived with the suspicion that Glen wasn’t too fond of me either. “Good or bad?” I asked Mel.
She paused, then shrugged. “Indifferent.”
“Come with me?” I tried, batting my eyelashes.
She rapped the top of my head with the folder she was holding. “If you weren’t so charming, I’d have poisoned your coffee long ago.”
“I don’t drink coffee,” I said with dignity, and swept across the newsroom to Glen’s office.
“So? Did he fire you or pull out your toenails?” Mel asked later that morning, dropping onto the corner of my desk. I glared at her. “Scheffer can’t make it so I’m covering the senator’s speech on Friday, thank you very much.”
“Nice,” she said cheerfully. “Leave some extra time when you go—they’re doing work on the West Side Highway.” We threw story ideas around for a while, and I got to hear a quick tale about her holy terror of a toddler, before she slipped around the partition to her own desk. I was reviewing some notes from last week when the weight of her words suddenly hit me.
“That’s completely unfair. I didn’t KNOW about this before.”
“…because you would have driven more carefully if you had?”
I paused. For a smart man, John sometimes has difficulty following our conversations.
“This is a DECENT story, John,” I pointed out, switching tactics. “It’s not dangerous, it’s not even illegal. And it’s for work. I’ll follow every traffic law in the book, I promise.”
“No,” he repeated simply. “I guess you misunderstood when I said no car until further notice? That’s until I give YOU further notice, not until you see a good reason for me to change my mind.”
He didn’t seem to grasp the serious nature of the conversation, having the nerve to look utterly calm and even vaguely amused.
He gave me a hug and reached past me to turn the flame on the stove down to simmer. “You have such nice manners when you want something. I’d love to see them more often.”
I stuck my tongue out at his back and didn’t try again until we were finishing up dinner.
“You could come with me,” I suggested hesitantly, shredding strips of paper napkin on my lap.
“Tris, what did I say less than an hour ago?” John asked, sounding slightly less amused. His hand covered mine in my lap. “Stop murdering trees,” he said gently, stilling my fingers.
I glared at him. “HOW am I supposed to get there? Huh? Why can’t I just take the car this one time?”
Ignoring my questions, John repeated his: “WHAT did I say?”
If experience was as good a teacher as they say, putting off my response any further might prove dangerous. “No,” I muttered.
He nodded. “Thank you. I’m glad you remember; now you won’t have to ask again.”
I slumped lower in my chair. John’s hand was still warm over mine. “You can take the train. And cheer up,” he said, standing up and mussing my hair before starting to clear the table. “I know you’re eager to cover this and I didn’t say you couldn’t go.”
I opened my mouth to protest when he added, warningly, “Yet.”
Tyrant, I mouthed at his back as he cleared.
“Terror,” he replied, turning around with a smile so genuine it was impossible to dislike. “Come on, help me with the dishes and we can curl up and enjoy the view.”
I put up with his teasing tolerantly and started rinsing the plates. After all, I would never protest one of his executive decisions.
Okay, well, except for the really ridiculous ones. I did wait until we were en route to work the next morning before approaching the subject of the car again, figuring it might be safer that way.
“You know I’m supposed to go to that union thing in Bay Ridge today?” I started casually.
“Yes. Have fun.”
I cast him a sidelong glance. “I did a good job driving on Sunday, don’t you think?”
“You did a nice job, hon.” He smiled sweetly at me. “And I’m sure you can only get better.”
I stuck my tongue out at him and he laughed. The back-handed compliment, a comment from an early editor, had made me crazy at the time but had long since become a private joke. I liked to use it about his cooking. Meanwhile, I decided to bring my two points of argument together for him—logic isn’t always John’s strong suit.
“It just seems silly to take two trains—at least—out to Brooklyn when I could make it in much less time,” I said, with firmness in the right. He was watching me with mild interest. “It’s not even that far, and I DID practice all day Sunday. Plus the trains are undependable.”
John took my arm and pulled me closer, speaking into my ear as we walked. “If a train doesn’t come in every six minutes at the very most, I’ll carry you there myself, piggyback.”
“I’ll get lost!”
“We both know you know the lines inside out. Tris,” he lowered his voice slightly. “Every time you try to coerce me to give back the car I get one step closer to bringing it to the US Auto Fair.”
“I think it has to be impounded first,” I mumbled.
“Tris. Smile, enjoy the beautiful day, and thank whoever’s up there that you live in a city with such splendid and widespread mass transportation options.”
I gave him a glare in response. To an aggressive optimist like John, anything not potentially named Hugo counted as a beautiful day. I myself found the gray, foggy sky pretty unattractive.
“Oh, and Tris?” John leaned down slightly to whisper in my ear. “Bring up the car once more today and you’ll be glad we have to stand on the subway.”
Some people have no sense of humor. John just grinned and steered me toward the station, cheerfully whistling a union hymn.
By that afternoon, I was willing to risk it. I came back from Brooklyn worse for the wear; a fairly large man had come close to breaking my toe on the train, and I’d stepped in something suspicious with the uninjured foot. Not to mention being tired from trying to make connections, and not very well turned out from the combination of drizzle aboveground and sweat and exhaust fumes below. Moving to Iowa was starting to seem like an attractive option. So was throwing something fairly major at John.
I picked up my stapler. That might have been an option a year ago, darn it, but my pitching arm wasn’t quite up to speed for his new job. I settled for leaning back in my office chair and propping my feet up on the desk, two things that individually drove him nuts. Satisfied that no one was going to come by this time and knock my feet down, I simultaneously seethed and transcribed my notes for a while.
It wasn’t fair. Every little trip took twice as long now. I was going to have to make my way out to Tarrytown tomorrow morning for that speech and I was already certain I’d be spending the weekend in Connecticut or on the island reviewing rolling stops and lane changes. No way was I going to make it. Not without a little help.
I got up to pour a cup of coffee.
“Hey, Cates, are you okay in there?” Mel stuck her head around the door.
“Get out of here, Bergin. This is the men’s room.” It was a bit too weak to be a snap.
“Come on, haven’t you seen ‘Ally McBeal’?” She walked over to where I was leaning against one of the stalls, wishing for a swift death for myself and all coffee manufacturers. “What’s the matter?”
I rolled my eyes and didn’t answer. She pulled a tiny mouthwash out of her purse and filled a cup at the sink, handing it to me. I humored her and rinsed.
“Go home early?” she suggested. “You haven’t gotten sick here in a while.”
The last thing I needed right now was someone telling me what to do. Except that Mel’s two-year-old caught colds like they were going out of style and she was actually a pretty decent caretaker.
“I can’t believe you carry that stuff on you,” I responded finally, feeling more human.
“I’m a lady,” she responded with cheerful defensiveness, and added a few more fairly un-ladylike comments before convincing me to leave. It wasn’t too far from five; I usually worked much later, but I didn’t feel too guilty since I would be working late the next day.
I stumbled home, clutching at subway poles and trying not to let them nauseate me further, or to think about how long I was going to have to depend on them.
I woke at the sound of the front door closing, and stretched a little, stiff from where I was sprawled on the couch. “Tris?” John put down his briefcase and came over to me before he took off his coat. “What’s the matter? How long have you been home?”
“I was tired. Long day.” I didn’t really want to sit up, but I clutched the hand he held out.
“Feel okay?” He leaned over to press his lips against my forehead. “No fever. I hope you’re not coming down with something.”
I pulled at him until he slid down behind me, letting me burrow. I turned my face into his chest. His coat was open and the jacket underneath felt crisp and smooth. He rubbed my back, holding me for a minute before disentangling us and standing up. “What will you eat?”
I guess my answer of “nothing” wasn’t satisfactory, because shortly I found myself heating the oven and tossing a salad instead of what I really wanted to do—bury my head under the couch cushions and disappear for a while.
John touched my face across the table as I cut a potato into smaller and smaller pieces. “Not hungry? What did the teamsters feed you?”
“My stomach hurts,” I admitted. Any other night the lettuce would have looked crisp and delicious, but now the vinegary smell of the salad was starting to do me in and I pushed my chair back.
John looked hard at me and stood up. “I’ll make some broth then. You have to eat something.”
I sipped at the broth, wishing I could drink it curled up on the couch, but the Gospel According to John forbids the consumption of liquids and/or foodstuffs outside of their room of origin. Blessed are the meek….
I gave him my meekest smile. I couldn’t sit still but all I wanted to do was stretch out somewhere. “I think I’m going to go lie down for a while.”
He caught my arm. “Wait an hour and you can go to bed for the night; you’ll be up before the sun if you sleep now.”
So much for inheriting the earth. I tried to help clean up only to get kicked out of the kitchen. “You’re jittery.” John put his hands on my shoulders and squeezed gently. “Why don’t you go take a shower?”
I pulled away. “What do you expect? I’ve been running around all day and if I have to look at another train I’m going to throw myself in front of one.”
He swatted me. “NOT funny. Go! And hope it improves your attitude.”
NO sense of humor.
I paced in sweats and a tee shirt, willing my stomach to settle down and listening to John clearing up. “You’re going to wear out the floor!” he called from the kitchen. Finally I flopped down on the couch and he came over to sit next to me.
“Do you have any idea why you’re not feeling well?” he asked mildly.
I moved my head to his lap, ignoring the question, and he brushed my hair out of my eyes.
“Are you going to tell me?” he asked again, gently.
I shook my head vigorously and he pulled me into a sitting position, letting me lean back against him.
He sighed and spoke over my head. “You’re cranky and your stomach is upset; you’re jittery but you want to go to sleep. How much coffee did you drink today?”
I played with the buttons on his shirt. He took my arms to push me back, looking at me.
“You were sick at work? That’s why you left early?”
“It wasn’t that early.”
Something in his quiet tone got to me and I pulled away and jumped to my feet, annoyed. “I had one stupid cup, I got sick, and I won’t do it again. And I feel fine now. Okay?”
“Not okay.” John stood up, not looking too happy. “Why do we have rules about coffee?”
“Because we have rules about everything?” I responded nastily, and headed for the bedroom. He caught up and leaned against the empty jamb, giving me a meaningful look. I collapsed on the bed, defeated.
“It was dumb. I knew it would make me sick.”
He dropped down beside me. “Why did you drink it then?”
“I don’t know. I was tired.” John watched me steadily. “Riding all those trains made me tired.”
He rubbed my back for a moment, then took one of my hands. “We’ve talked about this before, you know. Breaking one rule because you’re being punished for breaking another. It always backfires in the end.”
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” I protested. “And anyway I got sick, that’s punishment enough for the coffee.”
“I disagree.” John shifted us both until I was staring intimately at the fabric of the comforter. He rested a hand on my back. “I’m sorry you got sick, but getting sick is the reason behind the rule, not the consequence.” He drew my pants and shorts down neatly and swatted me hard, once. I yelped.
“I get it!”
“You’re going to get it,” he said grimly. Reminding myself to tell him—when I was in a slightly better position for negotiating—that his humor wasn’t very funny at all, I grabbed a fistful of bedspread and winced. His hand descended several more times.
“I could throw up, you know!”
He paused. “If you really need up, you tell me. Otherwise, you know what happened to the boy who cried wolf.”
“I guess I can wait,” I mumbled.
He continued the task at hand, so to speak, which was beginning to affect my powers of argument.
“Do you want to end up in the hospital again? I don’t care how tired you are or how angry you are with me; it is definitely not worth it.”
“Ow! I said I’m sorry…”
“Bad decisions can have painful consequences,” he said calmly from above me. “The consequences of this particular choice aren’t going to change, so if you don’t like them, I suggest you work on changing your actions.”
I was in tears and done with any protests more articulate than his name when he spoke again. “Tris. The doctor told you no coffee. I told you no coffee. So unless you get a directive straight from above pointing you to a burning coffee bush, I don’t EVER want to have to have this discussion again.”
He was telling me. From his end of the bargaining table this discussion could hardly have been worse.
“YES!” I cried thickly. Enthusiasm sometimes helps.
He paused again. “And Tris…I am hardly more likely to shorten one sentence because you prove to me you can break other rules. I know you’re upset about losing the car, but this is no way to get back at me. The only person you end up hurting is yourself.”
Which was quite clear, thank you very much, only I might argue that technically at this stage it was HE hurting me. This was no time for quibbling though.
He resorted again to non-verbal communication for another minute or two, which left me exceedingly sorry I’d ever applied for a learner’s permit, much less gotten into the coffee habit. I was thinking seriously of moving to the arctic and traveling only by dogsled when he stopped and a much gentler hand rubbed my back and shoulders, letting me calm down.
I was semi-articulate once more by the time he helped me to my feet, adjusting my clothes. “Go brush your teeth. You’re exhausted,” he said, pushing me gently toward the bathroom.
“I have to sit down on the train tomorrow, you know,” I scowled half-heartedly when I came back inside. John was peeling back the quilt. He swatted me lightly on a bottom that could have been much sorer, I admit, and had been in the past.
He finished getting ready and crawled in beside me, shutting the light. I curled against him immediately. His feet were always much warmer than mine and he wrapped an arm around me. “I’m sorry,” I said into his neck.
“I know.” He kissed me. “It’s done. I forgive you. Go to sleep.”
I opened my mouth to respond and he covered it with two fingers.
“ONE word about the light and you’re sleeping on the fire escape.”
Shiny and silver, they swung like a hypnotist’s charm in front of my eyes. It took a great deal of effort not to grab at them.
“Are you sure you don’t want to take it?”
“Yes, thanks,” I muttered finally. “I don’t have my license on me.” Which was true.
Mel shrugged and pocketed her car keys. “I thought you were above commuter trains.”
So did I.
It was going to be hard to convince her when I wasn’t really that sure myself. After all, if I took hers, I wouldn’t be driving my own car…
But I was still faintly tender from last night and not really up to trying to argue loopholes with John, especially since my track record in that area was embarrassingly poor. I excused myself from the newsroom and splurged on a cab to the station.
Grand Central wasn’t too crowded at this hour and I stopped for a moment to admire it, big, elegant, and smelling faintly of fresh bagels, before returning to my sulk. It was far from rush hour but I bet that the other people checking schedules and buying newspapers weren’t here under duress. I missed my car.
I had just purchased a ticket and was killing time by the phone bank when I overheard snatches of an intriguing conversation. I recognized one of the mayor’s aides by the back of his head—it was an angle with which I was quite familiar from chasing them down—and I recognized the topic of conversation as well. The chance to overhear confidential discussion on public funds scandals was the best news I’d heard all week. It certainly had more potential than the senator’s speech to finally get me a front-page story. Burying myself in a hastily grabbed schedule, I followed them as subtly as I could.
Once on the train their conversation turned to the Rangers’ season and they wandered toward the bar car. Disappointed, I flopped into a window seat and watched as we disappeared underground and emerged by the river. It was a nearly empty train and the conductor hadn’t come by yet for my ticket. I lost myself in some notes for a while, then snapped to attention when the conductor called the next stop.
I jumped to my feet, wondering how hefty a fine I’d get for pulling the emergency stop cord, when the train suddenly jerked and the lights disappeared.
There were only four or five other people in my car but I think I remember exchanging glances of horror. Someone shouted nearby but it was drowned out by the sounds of squealing brakes. The car rocked from side to side and I don’t think any of us processed what was happening. There were some gasps and cries and someone was yelling something in the car in front of us and then there was a terrible noise, the world turned upside down, and then there was nothing.
It took a while before I realized that the darkness surrounding me wasn’t unconsciousness but the result of being tangled up in someone’s trench coat. I detached it slowly, unnerved by the eerie quiet, and realized with a start that I was sprawled on the window. I had a try at moving and my feet scrabbled on the glass.
Someone was crouching in front of me, touching my neck. I wondered crazily if he realized we were upside down.
“What’s your name?”
I blinked him into focus and told him. “What happened?”
“Train derailed,” he said matter-of-factly. “I see you can move your arms and legs? How does your head feel? Let’s get you out of here.”
I was loaded onto a stretcher despite my protests.
“I’m fine,” I told the EMT.
“Who gave you that black eye then?” he asked.
“What black eye?”
I reached up to touch it. Ow. In a sudden flash I remembered why I’d been on the train and where I was supposed to be at that moment. What time was it, anyway?
I looked around and my heart nearly stopped when I saw the train. Or what was left of it.
The EMT leaned over with genuine concern, making me feel fairly guilty. I sat half up on my elbows and grabbed for the pad and pen I always keep in my pockets.
“You’ve been on the scene since the beginning? What can you tell me about the extent of the injuries? Where is the conductor—and is he aware what caused this? And keep it slow, if you can,” I finished sweetly. “I may have a head injury.”
I was hauled back for what I considered to be a rather unnecessary examination.
“You’re lucky.” The doctor was prodding at my back, where it seemed I’d caught the seat during my fall. “You’re going to be fine. Go home and put some steak on that eye.”
Everyone’s a comic.
I talked him into checking out some phantom leg pain as I interrogated him about injuries and numbers.
“Thank God it wasn’t rush hour,” he commented, rotating my ankle carefully. “No injuries; some people were pretty banged up…but the two cars with the worst damage were empty.”
I nodded sagely.
“Do you have someone you can call? I don’t think you should be driving.”
Join the club, doc.
I took his advice and found a pay phone—my wallet had been on my person, thank goodness, because I had no idea where my cell might be. I dialed the familiar number.
“John? You’re not going to believe this…”
I gave it an hour. Hanging up briefly, I grabbed the receiver again and called Glen.
I recognized John’s stride without looking up. I was relaxing in one of the lounges, reading an ancient New Yorker with my feet propped on a bridge chair. I tossed the magazine aside and ran to him. He held me tight for a minute, then pushed me away to see my face, lightly touching the bruise around my eye. It was starting to swell.
“I got here as fast as I could—there was traffic, and the trains aren’t running.” He kissed my forehead. The sound of his voice was making me want to cry. I don’t think I’d realized until I heard it just how close I had come.
He brought me with him to talk to the on-call, apparently not trusting my own diagnosis, and then dropped my coat carefully around my shoulders.
“Let’s go home.”
Exhaustion hit me suddenly as we headed for the car and I found myself leaning heavily. John got me settled and belted and slid into the driver’s side. I stared out the front window, eyes drooping, wanting nothing more than to sleep.
“Are you all right?” John’s voice was quiet. I watched the bare trees along the side of the highway.
“I’m okay.” It was mostly true. John flipped on the radio briefly, then turned it off hearing coverage of the crash. He put on something quiet and classical instead and I slept the rest of the way home.
John whistled at the bruising along my side as he helped me undress and guided me toward the bed. I turned in his hands.
“Just let me use the computer for an hour first? Please?”
He shook his head and I cut in before he could speak.
“A half hour then. Just while you’re getting ready. I need to tell Glen I’m not coming in tomorrow, don’t I?” I finished with smug obedience.
He gave me a hard look. “Fifteen minutes. And when I’m done we’re going to bed.”
I wasn’t about to argue. I’d just clicked the send button when my time was up and I bolted back to the bedroom, adding a few winces for sympathy. Curling up with John was an extremely attractive option right now. Somehow the day had disappeared—into toppled trains and ambulances, I suppose—and outside the windows it was dark and still. I gave it about two hours before it exploded into Friday night noise, but this was a nice respite.
I was enjoying the close-up view of John’s jawline in the shadows, our fingers intertwined, when he spoke softly over my head, surprising me since I thought he’d fallen asleep.
“Tris. You know I heard about what happened before you called? Of course I wasn’t too worried because there’s no reason you’d be on a train that broke down between Pelham and New Rochelle….”
Argh. I was wondering when he’d bring that up. Sorry, John, I was eavesdropping on some potentially hot news and forgot to read the track numbers. No, that wouldn’t work. I decided a little guilt wouldn’t hurt.
“I hate to rub it in, but…don’t you think tonight makes my driving seem a LOT safer than taking trains?”
“YOUR train arrived perfectly safely,” he responded somewhat curtly. “You, however, decided to take a different train.”
Touché. Apparently I wasn’t going to get the keys back tonight.
“I may have gotten on the wrong train,” I said with as much dignity as I could muster. “But I really can’t discuss this now; I’m injured and I need my sleep.”
His outraged laugh made me smile.
“You’re amazing,” he said, his voice heavy with something like awe. There was too much in those two words to take apart now and I fell asleep instead.
The smell of French toast woke me the next morning, followed by a tray of said French toast in the hands of my beloved. Feeling very spoiled, I watched John put the tray on the night table and disappear for a moment. He returned holding something out to me, a grin spreading across his face. I took the paper eagerly and pulled it open.
“Front page, above the fold!”
I’m not even sure which one of us said it. I leapt out of bed and into his arms, nearly knocking him over. He hugged me carefully, mindful of the bruises.
“Congratulations,” he said, his smile broad. “Eat,” he added, wonderfully succinct as always.
He crawled back into bed with me, keeping a watchdog eye out for crumbs, and propped the paper up so we could see it while I ate. The top story.
* * *
OUTBOUND CITI NORTH TRAIN DERAILS IN WESTCHESTER
Faulty Tracks Under Investigation
By T. S. Cates
Sun Staff Reporter
* * *
The French toast was delicious and the day’s top story had my byline. I leaned back against John, drinking vanilla milk and feeling pampered and content.
“I guess you’re right,” I said finally. “Things do turn out well when I do exactly as you say.”
I grabbed the tray just in time to keep his laughter from spilling my breakfast all over the bed.