by Jamie McKenzie
He had not been speeding. Of that he was sure. And so the flashing red lights really annoyed him. He was furious, actually. Whatever it was, he reasoned, it had to be unfair and capricious - an intrusion, an inconvenience, a violation of his day which struck him like some kind of ugly assault.
He had been migrating, north-south, south-north, all of his life, several times each year. Ever since his early childhood visits to Maine, Vermont and Nantucket Island, the pattern was firmly established. Like those Canadian geese honking across Fall or Spring skies in graceful formations which had always captured his admiration, he drove the New England Interstates with faithful regularity, temporarily fleeing his homes in the south for a succession of family vacation cottages in the north. The homes and the cottages changed as his wives and families changed, but he remained faithful to the basic pattern well into his forties,
He had stopped speeding ten miles earlier, just beyond New London. After an hour of pushing past 75, he heeded a strongly insistent premonition.
It was often that way. He would be speeding along carefree with no patrol car anywhere within view when the cautious feeling would seep through his elation, penetrating until the spirit which drove his accelerator pedal so close to the floor would collapse like a failed souffle and the speedometer would dive back toward the legal limit. Inevitably, within the next ten minutes, a patrol car would pop into his mirror, or he would round a curve to drive slowly past a line of cars being ticketed at the side of the road.
Paul had learned to trust these premonitions. They were 100% reliable as far as he was concerned and they were part of what made him feel safe about his speeding. It had been years since he'd been ticketed. And that is why he had slowed near New London. There was trouble coming. He was sure.
Too bad, too. The day was perfect for speeding. Crisp, New England early fall with lots of sun. He had driven off the ferry in Hyannis and raced south with the windows down, the CD-player blasting and the sun roof wide open, the wind rushing through his BMW as if it were a convertible. The sensations were so intense that he felt the anger of his weekend past subside and disappear like a sand castle being swept away by surf.
He had always loved those sand castles - loved surrounding them with sturdy walls and decorating them with fantastic Islamic style "drip towers" - loved watching their erasure by a consistently possessive sea. To him there was nothing sad about their destruction or leveling. It always struck him more like an embrace or seduction. The sea was simply reclaiming the shoreline - restoring the natural order of things. Besides, he would return to rebuild. He knew that. It was as sure as the migration.
He had gone for a very long walk after their worst and final fight. It was dark before he returned, and Nicole had changed from angry tyrant to frantic child by the time he climbed the path back through the dunes up to their porch.
"I was afraid," she chided.
He met her eyes for a brief moment, then turned away to stare back across the dunes to where he could just barely make out lines of surf curling white in the deepening night. He remained silent, consciously punishing her by keeping his distance, afraid, too, that her momentary softness and caring, her evident remorse, would revert to the battering word stabs which had driven him out of the cottage that mid afternoon.
"You promised never to walk away like that again," she reminded him, her voice tired, very sad, with no hint of anger or combativeness.
He had turned, touched by her sadness, and extended his arms, inviting her back. The fear and the anger dropped away like the towers of his sand castles sliding into the sea, as the two of them stood holding each other and weeping.
"I'm so sorry, Paul," she whispered.
"Me, too," he whispered back, feeling walls trying to hold on against a tide of despair rising from deep within.
And now he found himself digging through the confused mess of his glove compartment for registration and insurance card as a red-haired officer approached his car with what seemed in the rearview mirror like unusual caution.
Paul wondered why she seemed to pause back near the rear bumper, but he stopped watching her in order to unhook his seat belt and retrieve his license from his wallet. When a second and third patrol car arrived and pulled in front of his car, Paul found himself surrounded.
"Step out of your car with your hands raised," he heard the redhead command.
His body tensed as a frigid wave lifted him in its grip. His mind began racing through possible explanations as he reached for the door handle and prepared to confront his accusers.
"There must be some mistake, officer," he heard his voice complain. And it seemed to him like someone else speaking this trite line. What else could one say? He felt disembodied and disconnected. He had been injected surrealistically into someone else's drama. It was a case of mistaken identity. Correct that, he thought to himself, forsaken identity.
"There must be some mistake," he repeated impotently, as he stepped out of the car with hands held the way he had seen it done on countless TV shows. He felt like a petty criminal of some kind, a drug dealer or car hijacker or something like that.
He had left Nicole behind to enjoy a few more days before closing the house for winter. She would fly south when she was ready, and their life would return to normal - a surface calm punctuated by frequent caustic exchanges over seemingly insignificant issues. Each being enthralled with demanding careers - she with her new gallery and he with his commercial real estate firm - they would see little enough of each other and manage to stretch out the interludes between blood-lettings so that the good times and the bad times would achieve a kind of balance - an uneasy equation of pain and pleasure which kept them frozen in place. At its best it was too good to relinquish. At its worst it was too painful to endure.
But speeding down the Cape had pretty much freed him from such thoughts, and his race was made even more enjoyable when a brand new red BMW convertible had zipped by him doing 80 or more. When the driver smiled in a provocative, friendly way as she roared by with long blond hair streaming behind, he had accelerated to stay with her, leap-frogging through the traffic all the way to the end of the Cape, taking turns with the lead and getting off on the crazy speed until she waved good bye, turning off for Boston as he headed for Manhattan.
It was an old game for him - an integral part of the migration - a way of making the long drives a bit more tolerable. His first taste of leap-frogging had occurred on the long drive home from his honeymoon with his first wife. As she sat sleeping in the front seat, he had raced along the Maine Turnpike, leap-frogging with a blond in a red VW very much like this Cape Cod blond who had dared him to follow this morning. They were always blond, it seemed, and they always drove the same cars as he, usually bolder colors and racier models.
As the years passed and his partners changed, leap frog, liken the migrations, remained a constant in his life. Even though he often fantasized about these women speeders, imagining a passionate afternoon in some highway rest area parking lot or truckers' motel, most of the time they parted company without any overt sign of connection. In fact, the fantasy had only materialized once during all those years, and that fantasy had evolved into his present marriage with Nicole.
They had both been speeding toward Manhattan that summer, pushing their BMWs into the 80s, noting the matching New York license plates, streaking down from Hyannis to New Bedford to New Haven, when suddenly the game changed in Westport as Nicole had pulled alongside, making charades type gestures inviting him to stop for a drink. And they had spent the afternoon laughing and story-telling in some Westport bar. The evening was spent making love in her Chelsea loft. Before long, they were sharing an apartment and making plans for a marriage - that failed institution which they had both sworn to avoid after their last futile attempts.
"Where are you coming from, sir?" The redhead was far too pretty, he found himself thinking, to be a police officer. He knew this was unbearably sexist thinking, but she had a wonderfully Irish face which just didn't support the stern looks which she now fixed on him.
"Nantucket," he replied, trying out a bit of a smile and some warmth. "What is the problem, officer? Why have you stopped me?"
Her eyes were cold, unyielding and unresponsive. She stared at him with a level of contempt that reminded him of the disdain aimed his way when he had recently approached some young woman just out of college sitting at the bar in Isabella's. It was a "dirty old man" look which made him feel like a total creep.
"You've been charged with auto harassment under the new car hijacking law just passed by the Connecticut Legislature," she explained matter-of-factly and then proceeded to read him his Miranda rights.
"Auto harassment! But that's preposterous!" he complained.
After separating from the red BMW, the blond and Cape Cod, Paul had driven uneventfully through Rhode Island until a second woman roared past just south of Providence. As was his custom, he stepped down on the gas until he was roaring along just behind her, and they proceeded at high speed for a good hour as they crossed into Connecticut and swept past Groton.
This had been a strange game of leap frog from the very beginning, as the new blond never smiled, never looked his way and never waved. When he drove past her, she seemed to slow down until the gap between them would grow extreme, but when he kept driving on at high speed, she would eventually catch up with him and follow along again.
Once or twice, when he found himself blocked by a slow driver in the passing lane, he would watch her zip past on the right, weaving in and out of traffic in order to take the lead. Never once did she look his way, but they continued in this manner for many miles until . . . remembering Nicole's cocktail gesture from 5 years earlier and feeling a bit daring, he had pulled up alongside this new blond, beeped his horn and lifted a martini glass in an imaginary toast.
Her reaction was startling and severe. Her face turned full upon him, reddened with apparent anger, and then she swerved away across traffic to her right, braked violently and pulled to the shoulder.
"Fine!" he had muttered to himself. "If you don't want to play this game, it's fine with me." And he had roared on without her at even greater speed. Was that a car phone in her hand? he had wondered at the time.
He could not believe they were arresting him for leap-frogging. What kind of crazy new law was this? Even after they brought him to a cell and slammed the heavy door behind him, he kept reassuring himself that a good lawyer like John Rathbone would have him out in a few hours and the charge of harassment would drop away once the facts were clear.
When they led him to the phone for his one call, he rang up Nicole rather than John, knowing that she might have tried the apartment by now and be worried. He also knew how good she could be in a fight. He needed her now. He wanted her close . . . wanted to hear her voice.
She answered the phone after six or sever rings in a voice which seemed distant and sad to him, as if the gloom of their week together had stayed behind on her island like the fog which often hovered all through the day when the weather turned damp and cold.
"Did you try reaching me at the apartment?" he asked.
"No. Why?" she asked.
"It doesn't matter," he muttered. "I have something important to tell you."
"Me, too," she replied, sounding even more distant.
Surprised, he held off his own news long enough to let her speak.
"Maybe we should wait," she said. "It's not the kind of thing I should share on the phone."
"No. Go ahead," he said, sounding brave even to himself. He was feeling the cold wave he always felt when premonitions arose.
"I'm thinking that I want to close the gallery and move up here to the cottage for the winter. I think I want a divorce, Paul."
"But, why?" he found himself whining.
"You know why," she said, her voice straining for gentleness now. "We've been too mean to each other for too long and we've grown too far apart. I need to find some peace. I am very tired."
He was silent for a long time as his mind raced like a BMW through a long list of possible responses. He came to the end of the list speechless.
"What did you want to tell me ?" Nicole finally prompted.
His silence held for a long count of 20 as winter surf rose around him, roaring, pulling at his arms, dragging him down like it did when he was a child. It felt now, as it did then, like it meant to drown him, to pull him under, steal his breath away and not give up until his body had turned blue and wrinkled and swollen.
Once he had pulled his mother out of the surf sputtering and coughing up salt water which had invaded her lungs, and she had forever after told the story of how he had saved her from drowning. He knew differently, but he never corrected her. He let her go on with the story.
He had learned to hold his breath and be patient when caught by the undertow. He had never met a wave which did not eventually lose its fury and loosen its grip. Wait long enough and you will always pop to the surface, he had learned. He repeated that advice to himself now as he felt the drowning fear take him in its grip.
"What is it?" Nicole prompted again.
Fighting cold, salt water now, Paul could manage only a few words.
"I am sorry, Nicole. I am very sorry."
He knew that she, too, was crying on her end, but the wave would not let him go.
"Look, Nicole. I can't really talk now. I got to go."
- The End -