It was their third day on the road in the gray rent-a-wreck van when he noticed. After almost twenty years of knowing her, he was surprised to find her doing something that he’d never consciously registered. As her hands went back and forth between the steering wheel and the radio dial, she shifted the tiny silver ring, the one with the onyx in it, back and forth between the ring finger on her right hand and the one on her left. The regularity of it would have eventually had him calling the gesture a mindless compulsion if he hadn’t known her better.
“What are you doing,” he asked as a rusted sign reading Aster flew by.
“Driving,” she answered. “What does it look like?”
He blocked her fingers just as she was about to scan the stations again. In the last hour they’d listened to catches of eight different radio shows and it was getting on his nerves. She’d been behind the wheel for at least ten hours with only bathroom breaks, most of them quick stops on the side of the empty road.
“I mean your ring. You keep doing that.”
“What am I doing?”
“And now that I’ve thought about it, I’ve seen you do it before,” he said, though he couldn’t remember precisely when.
They were heading south on a quiet two-lane highway that would eventually connect to an interstate. The interstate would take them into West Virginia, to another highway and then to the exit for a country route that was known only by a number: 16. They’d been surprised to find that the tiny road was on the map at all.
He knew she wasn’t going to want to talk. She’d spent the last two hours nervously fingering the radio, ever since he’d asked about the guy she was seeing and she’d mysteriously clammed up.
Since there was nothing else to do, he opened the atlas. He wanted to figure out where the hell they were. The last mile marker had flown by while he was trying to remember the town they’d passed before Aster. Meanwhile, she was still passing the ring back and forth between her fingers. She called the ring finger on her left hand the wedding finger and he’d laughed at her once at a flea market when she’d stopped him just before he nearly put a circlet of cheap silver on that finger.
“What’s funny is that they do it backwards in Europe with the wedding band on your right hand,” she’d said.
He’d meant to look that up, see if she really knew what she was talking about. Later that day, he’d reasoned that in many cultures, they’d probably be considered married by now. He didn’t say that because there was always too much talk and while he could laugh about it, the thought that they might be hooking up tended to annoy her.
“Now I remember,” he said.
“What?” she asked.
“You wanted people to think we were married. All those times we walked into bars and parties, you’d switch that stupid ring to your wedding finger.”
She didn’t answer but he could feel the van accelerating. What he said felt like an understatement. Looking back, it seemed to him that she’d performed the simple action of switching her ring hundreds of times. He’d never caught her in the act, never really noticed, maybe because the ring was the only piece of jewelry she ever wore.
“Every time we went walking at night,” he continued, “you would switch it.”
“It’s not a stupid ring,” she said.
As they passed the sign for Tremont she backhanded him playfully across the shoulder.
“I said it’s not a stupid ring. I like it.”
The interstate, which was at exit 11 and not 12 like the atlas had said, did not offer any end to the fields of unidentifiable produce and groves of monotonous pine trees that were quickly being framed by the beginnings of an orange sunset. The blur of passing greenery became more distinct as he felt the van shudder with her application of the brake. As she pulled over onto the grassy shoulder, they looked at each other.
“I have to piss.”
She climbed out, crossing in front to the passenger side of the van toward a nearby cluster of bushes. He rolled down his window.
“What about me? What if I have to go, too?” he asked.
“Use your bag for once,” she answered, disappearing behind dense leaves.
He turned his head to look in the back of the van where his chair was haphazardly strapped with bungee cords to an assortment of clips and holes to keep it still while she drove. The bag was strapped to his leg just above the knee. From the bag, a tube ran up to his crotch, where his penis was strapped into a little cup that caught his urine and sent it streaming down the tube. When he peed the bag would get tight and warm against his skin, giving him the feeling that he’d almost pissed himself. Forget the fact that I haven’t lost the ability to control my bladder, he thought, without ramps and rails I’m practically helpless.
“Look, I’m sorry,” she said as she scrambled back into the van. “It’s different most of the time, but I wasn’t going to go through the trouble of getting a hulky six-foot-four guy into a wheelchair for a forty-five second piss.”
She grumbled and he turned his head to stare out of his window, where the zooming white line and the endless rows of trees lulled him into a light sleep.
He woke up to the sound of her crunching into the skin of an apple-the only food they had. He watched her eat out of the corners of his eyes until she noticed his involuntary post-nap stretches.
“It’s a good thing you woke up,” she said. “You’re the only thing keeping me from falling asleep at the wheel and driving us into a tree.”
“Uh huh,” he said sleepily.
She thrust the remaining half of the apple into his face.
“You must be starving. I still haven’t seen any signs for food,” she said, and then, “Can I have one of those cigarettes you bought?”
“I’m eating your apple,” he answered. “Go nuts.”
For a while, he ate slowly and she smoked while the van chewed up another couple of miles.
“You never told me why your stupid ring isn’t a stupid ring,” he said, still hungry and getting bored.
“Do you remember Tim, my boyfriend in tenth grade? There was this one night when we almost broke up. He lived within yelling distance, literally, and when he said we should see other people, I walked outside and started screaming.”
He turned the radio, which was playing bluegrass, down to a low buzz because he knew she loved to talk about herself providing someone was really listening. He knew the story, had heard it thirteen or fifteen times before, but she never remembered telling it and he never stopped her.
“I was loud enough to send him running from his house to mine. I dropped the phone on the table and ran outside when he brought up breaking because I figured if I did that, he’d come over. Later, he told me that he thought I’d killed myself.”
“What a retard.”
A passing sign indicated that they’d hit Carlsberg in thirty-six miles.
“I was so embarrassed that I made him promise not to tell anyone,” she said. “I said something like, if I was going to kill myself, I wouldn’t have done it in the middle of my parents’ front lawn. Then he started crying.”
“What the hell is wrong with the guys you date?”
“Are you going to let me finish? After we stood there for a while, he got down on one knee, took both my hands and asked me to marry him. I don’t know why I said yes, but I did, and when he asked me what kind of ring I wanted, I told him a silver ring with an onyx in it. It took him a while to save up the thirty bucks for it, but about a month later, he gave me the ring. That’s men for you.”
“It’s eleven years later and you’ve still got the ring, so it must have meant something to you.”
She twisted it on her finger.
“I don't want to tarnish your glowing impression of me, but I ran over that ring with my father's truck until it was so flat that the onyx fell out. I didn't want his ring, but I liked it so much, I bought another.”
He wondered how many of his ex-girlfriends had run over the things he’d given them or thrown them away when the relationship was over. Now, he’d just be happy to have someone to buy something for, even if they were eventually going to destroy it. Other than her, of course. Over the years he’d bought a great deal of things for her, but there were girls and then there were girls.
An exit sign said Henrietta, GAS/FOOD. No word of LODGING. The atlas showed 16 as a skinny, pink scrawl pretty damn far from Henrietta and a hell of a lot farther down the interstate than that place they’d seen the sign for, the town that started with a C.
“We’re going to need to stop soon,” she said.
She nodded. He marveled at the fact that she’d been driving all day and hadn’t complained. It was unheard of. She was the consummate complainer. As he watched her eyelids droop and flutter, he struggled to think of a topic that would pique her interest.
“Before the accident,” he said, “I came this close to asking Kara to marry me. I even had a ring picked out for that dumb bitch.”
“You never told me that. Why didn’t you tell me that?” She was practically squeaking with excitement. “How could you not tell me that? We’ve known each other forever.”
Whoops, he thought, and paused.
“What about that guy you’ve been seeing?” he tried.
“Enough about Ethan. He’s a jerk like the rest of them. What about Jill?”
“I was going to break up with her as soon as Kara said yes.”
“I wanted to keep my options open.”
“That is so disgusting,” she said, adjusting her body in the seat. He could sense her excitement fading.
“I didn’t tell you because I thought you would get mad.”
“The only things I might have gotten mad about would have been Amy and Jill.”
“I told you that I was going to break up with them but that doesn’t really matter now anyway, does it?”
“Don’t say moot point,” she shot back. “Ever since that car hit you everything’s been, ‘It doesn’t matter now anyway, does it. My legs are all fucked up.’ Maybe it was karma.”
“What?” he asked, not believing what he was hearing.
“Not the accident, you big dope. Them breaking up with you.”
“All women want a man that’s one hundred percent functional so she can take him and break him herself.”
“When you assume, you make an ass out of yourself.”
“You’re calling me an ass? You, the girl who tricked some guy into buying you a ring by telling him you’d marry him and then you ran over that ring with a truck when you didn’t want him anymore.”
“One,” she said, pressing the accelerator closer to the floor, “Tim cheated on me, but that doesn’t matter because it was a long time ago. Two, I really hate when you get like this because I am not Jill, nor am I Amy or Kara, and three, what I do is none of your business.”
Night came and, with it, silence crept onto the road, which had no streetlamps, turning everything the same dismal gray. He’d dozed off again with his head leaning against the window, his body barely supported and listing to the right, when he felt her hand on his arm smoothing down his sleeve.
“Hey,” she whispered.
“I don’t want to play that game,” he said, testily.
“No, the moon’s out. Look at the branches. Don’t they look bizarre?”
He knew exactly what they looked like. Months ago, he’d realized that he hated certain kinds of trees and when he’d told her, she’d said that was stupid. There were some things she’d probably never understand. But if he didn’t at least give a quick glance to the twisted, gnarly limbs that were hanging over the grassy shoulder, he was sure she would know why. Legs, he’d told her, they look like my legs are going to look like in a couple of years once they’ve atrophied and then what am I going to do. He remembered her answer: We’ll probably be doing exactly what we’re doing now.
“If you don’t look,” she said, breaking into his head, “I’m going to sing the leg song. I can tell what you’re thinking about.”
“There is no such thing as the leg song.”
“Shows how much you know,” she said in a singsong voice. “I’ll give you until the count of ten.”
She started counting from one, slowly injecting Mississippis between the numbers, but kept his eyes pointed at his shoes.
“I’ll turn down the radio just in case you feel like letting me sing.”
“Maybe,” he said, turning to face her, “I just don’t feel like looking at the damned trees.”
“Every time you see a tree it’s the same thing. Eight Mississippi. If you don’t break that habit, I’m going to stop hanging out with you.”
“You’re not counting.”
“It’s all in my head.”
She extended her right arm and pointed out his window, letting her finger gently tap his nose. I probably could have looked, he thought, as she yelled out verse after verse of a song that sounded remotely like ZZ Top until he finally tilted his head to look out into the moonlight just to shut her up.
Performances like that made him wonder. Sometimes she delighted in provoking him. Wasn’t he entitled to a dose of self-pity now and then? Kara had walked away from his hospital room and had never come back, though she’d promised as she’d held his bandaged hand that she would see him through. He’d come home to find a message from her on his machine. She couldn’t take it, she’d said, as if she was the one going through it. Then Jill’s e-mail and Amy’s curt phone call. The physical therapists had assured him that he would still be able to perform but he’d answered that an erection doesn’t make the man.
But then there was her, driving a van with a wheelchair strapped in the back and an invalid strapped in the front, and obviously loving it. Every time she changes the radio station, every time she pushes the pedal closer to the floor, he thought as he watched her twirl the ring that was now on her right hand, driving with her wrists on the steering wheel, it’s so goddamn obvious that there’s nowhere she’d rather be. She’d never been his girlfriend, but there’d never been anyone so goddamn close.
“Hey,” he said.
“I thought you said you didn’t want to play that game.”
“Nothing. I mean hey.”
“Can I help you with something?”
The laughter careened out of her, as he knew it would.
“Tell me,” she giggled.
“I’m saying it again. You wanted people to think we were married.”
“Come on,” he said, “I never really noticed it, but you used to flip your ring from your right hand to your left hand all the time when we were together.”
“It’s just something I do, I guess.”
“You don’t ever just do anything. You probably didn’t want any girls hitting on me when we were out together.”
“I never minded.”
“Now you get to have me all to yourself.”
“I was afraid you’d be jealous if I told you about Kara.”
“Now you’re really crazy. I would have been happy for you.”
He reached over and covered her right hand, which was now resting on her thigh, with his own hand, which was much bigger than hers.
“They still have the ring. I check in the window every time I wheel past that store.”
The exit for Carlsberg was only one mile away and according to the sign, the town had GAS/FOOD/LODGING. She pulled her hand slowly out from under his and brushed an invisible speck off of the middle of the steering wheel leaving her right hand to rest beside the left.
“You’re going to think I’m dumb, but it started with Tim, in high school,” she said.
“It started with his ring. A long time ago, I got tired of being hit on so I started switching it to my left hand when I went out. When guys saw it, they left me alone.”
As they pulled off the interstate, he pulled his hand back and tucked it underneath his leg.
“When I was hanging out with you, and I had the new ring,” she continued, “I thought that if people saw the ring and then saw you, they’d be even more likely to leave me alone because you were this big, tough guy. I felt really safe like that.”
“And now?” he asked, fearing the answer.
“And now I guess I’ve grown up enough to know that it was pretty stupid.”
They pulled into the lot of the first motel they found and she parked the van and climbed out. As he watched her walk to the Carlsberg-Bethesda Motel office where the manager would be sitting, no doubt watching a portable black and white television and swatting flies, he began the delicate operation of maneuvering his body into the position that would make it easiest for her to help him into his chair. While he lifted each leg with his hands, he thought about how, in a few minutes, she would wheel him over curbs and help him into bathrooms without handrails and how intimate those things really were.
When he saw her returning, smiling and holding up a key, he wished, more than anything, that she could have lied and told him one more time that he still made her feel as safe as he had before.