I didn’t know where to put the bouquet of flowers. On the guardrail? I had forgotten to bring duct tape. The flowers wouldn’t last long on the ground. But what was I doing there? Honey, you have to go leave flowers at the scene of the accident, my mother had said. We’ll go together, she insisted. It was hard for me to convince her not to come, that it was an intimate act, something I wanted to do alone. I didn’t want to turn it into a circus or a pilgrimage site for the family. Luckily, Chris’s parents agreed with me. And besides, Mom, you see, Chris died in a place far from where he was supposed to be. He lied to me. I know it shouldn’t matter to me, because he’s dead and no one can do anything about that, but what was he doing there, on that road along the coast? Where was he going? No, not where was he going. Where was he coming from? Obviously, I didn’t say this to my mother. I contented myself with saying to her, Mom, I’m going alone; that’s all there is to it. I need you to stay with Olivia, because you certainly aren’t suggesting we should take Olivia to see the place where her father ran off the road. I left the house before she could say something like: It’s not the place where he ran off the road; it’s the place where his soul rose up to heaven. My mother is fervently religious. I’m not, though at that moment, I would have liked to be. Everything would have been much easier, I thought.
The guardrail was still broken, and there was some weary-looking police tape that had outlived its purpose. I tore it off with one hand, because it seemed disrespectful to me, as though they had treated Chris like a criminal. Was he one? The tape skittered off down the road, borne by the wind. I peeked over the shoulder of the road. A thirteen-foot fall. In front of me, the Weweantic River, flanked by lovely houses with their own private docks. A lovely spot to take photos, watch a sunset, meditate. Anything but die. I confirmed that there weren’t any skid marks, which implied he had lost consciousness before going off the road. At least it was a gentle death. I didn’t say that, the doctor did. Had he said gentle? No, he hadn’t said gentle. He said something else. I should start to take notes about things.
I didn’t leave the bouquet on the road or on the guardrail. Instead, I walked two hundred yards along the road and made my way down the embankment along the river’s edge. I left the bouquet where the car had overturned, right on the bank, where there were still leftover blotches of motor oil, broken glass, and a small crater from the violent impact.I felt ashamed and ridiculous. A woman, seven months pregnant, peeing in the place where her husband had suffered a fatal accident.
I thought about praying but decided against it. Then I thought of swimming in the river. But I was afraid of the water’s siren song, that I would let the current take me and get lost at sea. I took a piss among the wild rushes, after looking around first. I felt ashamed and ridiculous. A woman, seven months pregnant, peeing in the place where her husband had suffered a fatal accident. Not a particularly charming image. But I had to go really badly. The pregnancy had made me somewhat incontinent. It was then that I noticed a tiny gas station, Sam’s Gas, on the other side of the road. Alice, there are security cameras there; do you want to end up on YouTube? Category: pregnant pissing redhead. While I was going, I repeated over and over in my head: security camera, security camera . . .
Being seven months pregnant has its benefits. It wasn’t something I liked to take advantage of, and I didn’t like to let people wait on me or give me preferential treatment. As a pregnant woman, I felt strong, powerful. At least until Day 0. But now it was going to work in my favor, because it’s very easy to empathize with a pregnant woman, especially if her husband died in a traffic accident right in front of your gas station. And if the woman starts to cry unconsolably, forget about it. It was the first time I had cried openly in public. And it was for self interest, to satisfy a clear objective: getting hold of the security camera footage from the night of the accident. Why? I still didn’t know. But I wanted it. Maybe because I had listened to the message Chris had left on my voicemail a thousand times, looking for something in the tone of his voice, an air of hesitancy, of guilt, or at least some background noise.
A clue. Whatever it might be. We had spent most of our lives together. I could decipher his most casual remarks as well as his silences. And because I found nothing suspicious, everything was suspicious. Our relationship had seemed like the autumn sun, sweet and peaceful. Now I asked myself if that had made it unexciting, uninteresting. Did Chris need more? Did I need more, without realizing it? But right now I was looking for Chris’s more.
“The police took the footage to investigate the accident,” the owner of the gas station told me.
OK, better, just let it go. Good try. Get back home now.
“And you don’t have a copy?” I asked.
“Maybe,” he said, becoming intrigued. “But tell me something, miss. What do you want the footage for?”
I couldn’t come up with anything that might sound remotely convincing. I was going to throw in the towel and hope that no one would post the video of me peeing on YouTube. But then Ruby spoke for me: she gave me a powerful kick. Or was it a succession of them? I doubled over for a few seconds, and then realized it might seem as if I were going into labor. Maybe I prolonged this gesture longer than necessary and uttered a few (rather overacted) muffled cries because . . . that would likely unnerve the calm gas station owner on this little-used secondary road. Get her out of here, the sooner the better.
Five minutes later, I was on my way back home with a CD containing a video file with the camera footage. Thanks, Ruby.
The SUV was utterly destroyed. It had been a lark of Chris’s. A Cadillac Escalade, top of the line, with all the extras imaginable, so ridiculously large that I used to joke with him that if we got in a fight, he could always go live in it. Ironically, he had died in it.We had spent most of our lives together. I could decipher his most casual remarks as well as his silences.
I identified with the state of the SUV; maybe that’s why, when the mechanic at the garage they had towed it to told me it needed to be hauled to the junkyard, I looked at him very sternly and said, “No.”
I examined the Escalade from top to bottom. I opened the glove compartment and found the registration and insurance papers, all in order. A few chocolate wrappers (mine). Nothing else, not even a measly ticket. Chris was a very responsible driver.
The GPS screen was shattered, but it still functioned. I turned it on and looked to see if it had any preprogrammed routes. Nothing. He never used it because he boasted he had a singular sense of direction and needed no help finding his way. Are you sure you weren’t lost, Chris?
Last of all, I opened the trunk. There was his black leather laptop bag, the one I gave him, and a stuffed bear. A Big Smelly Bear. With a pink ribbon and a pompom around its spongy waist. The bear that Olivia had spent weeks begging for. Where had he bought it? Why wasn’t it in a toy store bag? Why wasn’t the receipt anywhere to be found? I took the bear and sniffed it instinctively. It didn’t smell like anything. So, why’s he called the Big Smelly Bear, then? I asked myself.
When I gave it to Olivia, her face lit up. She hugged it and kissed it as if it were her best friend in the world. “Is it from Daddy?”
“Of course, honey. See? He didn’t forget your present.”
“But is it from this trip, or the one before?”
“What’s this trip, Oli? What do you mean?” I asked as softly as possible.
“Grandma said Daddy’s still going somewhere.”
Brilliant, Mom. Thanks. What do I say now?
“One question, Oli: Why’s he called the Big Smelly Bear?”
She squeezed the creature’s behind. A farting sound came out.
“Dirty pig!” Olivia said, cracking up laughing. “You’re supposed to fart in the bathtub!”
I knew I wouldn’t find anything else of interest in his bag. Chris and I didn’t have secrets. I knew the passwords to his Facebook, his email, his cell phone. Well, it’s not that I knew them per se, but Chris was a bit of a wreck as far as remembering those things, so he had them all written down on a Post-it stuck to the computer monitor on his desk. In plain sight. But it had never occurred to me to go in there and snoop around. I trusted him. And he trusted me.
When I used them after his death, it was impossible not to feel like I was betraying our trust. I looked through his email, his Facebook, his LinkedIn, his Twitter, his Instagram, his (our) bank accounts, credit card statements, drawers, cabinets. I didn’t discover anything I didn’t already know, except that he was following Taylor Swift on Instagram. Along with 103 million other followers.
I compared his cell phone contacts with mine, to make sure they coincided, that he didn’t have some compromising number camouflaged under a colleague or family member’s name. Nothing. And I called the rest of the contacts that didn’t coincide with mine from a prepaid mobile I bought. I listened to their voices, and if they seemed to match their profile in his contacts, I hung up. I didn’t find anything suspicious there either.
Our life had been a puzzle we made together, piece by piece. We knew we loved each other. We had an image of our perfect life and the pieces we needed to put it together. We lived in a New England colonial house on Hope Street. Sufficiently close and sufficiently far from the homes of his parents and mine, equidistant from both, so there was no bias and everyone got along fine. We were faithful to the city of our birth; the city where we grew up, where we fell in love (the high school was just minutes from our house, a coincidence that pleased us both), where we separated to study our respective majors at our respective universities (Chris chose business administration at the University of Virginia, and I studied art at Brown, the prestigious Ivy League university just a few minutes from our house); the city that took us back in when Chris returned, with a love more solid and mature, resistant to the seductions of university and the dangers distance brought with it; the city that paid us back with a daughter, Olivia. Ruby was the final piece. We always wanted to have two, a little pair. We both loved her already, despite our arguments over her name. We both sought her out and made her with great pleasure. Those were the pieces to our puzzle. And it was finished. The landscape of our life defined, precious and ideal, ready to be put in a frame and hung up on the wall to admire. But now it was as if I had just opened the box to a five-thousand-piece puzzle and didn’t know what the final image would be.
The roadway was abandoned. A few scarce cars passed before the Cadillac veered off, tumbling down the embankment and disappearing from the frame. It was traveling at a moderate speed. I hit Pause on the player. The recording said 23:15. I hit Play again. I sped the image up. A car with two passengers pulled over to help. The driver peeked over the embankment and then brought his hands up to his head. In the meantime, the other person seemed to be calling 911. The ambulance took twelve minutes to arrive. Not long afterward, a Plymouth County police car and a fire truck from Marion, the next town over, pulled up. The paramedics couldn’t get Chris out of the SUV. After the firemen intervened, cutting the driver’s side door with a circular saw, they finally managed to load him onto a stretcher. He wasn’t moving. After they put him in the ambulance, the police and the firemen stayed behind at the scene of the accident. Why are you watching this, Alice? I asked myself as I cried in silence.
From ALICE’S ISLAND. Used with the permission of the publisher, ATRIA. Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Sánchez Arévalo.