His engine roared to life as Evan stepped on the accelerator. His car jerked forward a handful of yards, then he slammed on the brakes again and brought it to a halt, just as the car in front of him started to move again. It was a stupid waste of gas: speeding up and slamming on the brakes like that. Everywhere that Evan looked, though, displayed the same jerky peristalsis-like motion down the freeway. Any gap left between a car and the vehicle ahead would be seen as weakness and soon be filled by an opportunistic car from a neighboring lane in a dangerous maneuver to get a few inches further ahead. So, Evan jerked forward and stopped, just like everyone else, despite having modeled rudimentary traffic flow in a programming class back when he was in school and showing conclusively that just such behavior made the traffic worse.
If he was the only one that drove reasonably, though, the assholes would get ahead and he would be left behind. So he, like a snarling wolf standing over its kill, aggressively defended his hard earned place in traffic.
Every morning it was war, and by the time he got to the office, his nerves would be shot and he’d need to sit at his desk, staring into a cup of tea for several minutes to collect himself before he could start working. When he left at the end of the day, he could mill around a bit, run errands, or just stay late to avoid the traffic on the way home, but in the morning there really wasn’t an option other than climbing into his war machine and raging down the highway, cutting off the weak and battling his way forward one hard-earned inch at a time. If he came in any later, the traffic just got worse, until about 10, and the office manager – affectionately nick-named Whip-crack’n Willy – frowned on showing up that late.
If Evan left any earlier, he wouldn’t be able to drop the kids off at school on the way; they already resented him for leaving them standing on the curb as soon as the office lady showed up to unlock the front gate. His suggestion that he drop them off earlier had been met with disapproval on all sides and the plea that his wife drop them off so he could go early enough to miss traffic had been shot down because she’d need to go to the later yoga class, run by the woman who she said pronounced everything wrong. Jane said that it distracted her and she needed her yoga time to be in the right frame of mind before she started her work day.
So, he took the kids on back-roads to the other side of town every morning to school, and as soon as they were out of the car, he would tear off towards the freeway, eager to get his commute into the city over with.
It was just such a morning. He was about halfway to the office, his knuckles white, his blood pressure approaching the level where, at any moment, a tea-kettle whistle might fill the air as vaporized blood started screaming out of his ears. On occasion he was aware of other unhappy faces drifting past periodically in one direction, then back the other. Some people were angry and shouting at everyone around them from behind their closed windows, others just lurched forward with a static frown that made them look like a grouper, and still others looked to be on the verge of tears – broken and pleading for the horrors to finally end. They varied, but they were all shades of unhappy, which is why the man in the silver, early ’90s Volkswagon Golf in the lane to Evan’s right made Evan double-take.
The man was grinning.
It wasn’t an “I just bet on the right lane and moved forward an extra few yards” smile, or even an “I just got back in front of that dick-hole that cut me off earlier” smirk. This man was wearing a large, toothy, genuinely happy grin as he looked at all the cars around him. He caught Evan’s double take and they made brief eye-contact, then the man waved.
Not knowing what else to do, Evan gave the man a weak smile and raised his hand halfheartedly in greeting as the car in front of him started to move again and he slammed the accelerator to the floor. He left the smiling man behind, but only for an instant, because his own lane’s movement was short lived and the lane off his passenger-side came rushing up to put the two of them side by side. Evan looked over to see that the man had rolled down his window and was making the universal symbol for “roll down your window,” which required making a circular hand motion in mime of using a hand-crank: an action no-longer applicable to most vehicles (though, Evan thought, it was definitely more clear than miming the appropriate action which was just pushing a button).
Evan’s lane jerked forward again, and he just nodded at the man, then sped off.
When the man’s lane brought him level with Evan again, he looked over to see the man’s beaming face, looking at him expectantly, and again gave back a pained smile and an awkward nod. Then it was time to lurch forward and Evan did so, thinking to himself, “there’s no way we end up right next to each other a forth time.”
When the smiling man’s lane brought him back up with Evan then stopped again, Even grunted, “Oh, come on,” looking over to see the man doing the window mime again.
“Fine,” Evan grumbled to himself when he came to a stop from the next lurch, “what the hell.” He rolled down his passenger-side window and watched the man come up in his rear-view mirror, then stop next to him.
“Hi!” the man shouted cheerily, “how are you?!”
Evan hadn’t had a clue what the man so urgently needed to say to him, but now that it was out, he thought “Of course, he wants to sell me something.”
But they were on the move, and it wasn’t until both lanes had settled and they were side-by-side again that Evan responded.
“Well,” he said, “I’m stuck in traffic, how are you?”
“I know,” the man replied, his smile somehow getting even bigger, “isn’t it magnificent?”
Then, for the first time, the smiling man’s lane lurched forward before Evan’s and Evan was left behind, staring after the man, wondering what on earth the man could have though he had said.
The jerks forward were getting fewer and further between, and Evan worried that he might not catch up to the smiling man, his curiosity scratching at his nerves. When they did finally end up next to each other a few minutes later, the man didn’t even wait, he started in, as if the conversation had never broken.
“I mean, look at all these people. Some of them make the same drive every day to all types of jobs, some of them are making it just the once on some sort of an adventure. Some to work, some for play, some for – I don’t know – but we’re all crushed together for an hour every day. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
The horn blast from the angry woman behind him alerted Evan to the fact that, while staring at the man in the Golf, he had been left behind. He crashed his foot to the floor and sped up to stop behind the minivan full of sleeping children that he had been behind for the last fifteen minutes.
Had that cracked walnut back there just called traffic beautiful?! He looked to his left at the cars flowing by, and caught himself wondering briefly about where they were headed. There were some people that were easy enough to guess about, like the guy in the work truck with “Mark’s Builders” painted on the side. Most of the people, though, were less obvious. There was a man in a suit and a tie in a band-new BMW, obviously on his way to work, but what kind of work? Or the twenty-something with his hood up and his sleepy eyes bloodshot, on his way to turn in the term-paper he stayed up all night writing? on his way to score some drugs from a buddy? on his way back from the hospital where he sat up all night with an ailing family member? What about the teenage girl with the messy hair and the baby-seat in the back? Watching the little sister for her mom? Or could that be her daughter? “Maybe she’s older than she looks,” he assured himself, not really believing his own assessment.
“There’s nothing beautiful about this,” he grumbled under his breath, then looked to his right to see the smiling man coming to a stop.
“There’s no better metaphor for the human condition.”
Then it was Evan’s turn to move. He contemplating hopping into the lane to his left; they had been moving pretty steadily for almost a full minute now, but he decided against it; there didn’t appear to be a break coming. He watched an older gentleman driving a car that he must have bought as a young man roll by with the index finger of his right hand buried into his nostril. There was a singing woman in an SUV and a young man trying to eat a muffin without letting go of his wheel or his Starbucks cup. A man in a Mercedes talked emphatically to someone on the other end of his Bluetooth headset. A little boy pressed his face against the passenger window of a Subaru while a yellow lab licked the inside of the rear-passenger window. Evan couldn’t see who drove the Smartcar that went by, because of the three bikes on the rack on the back, that almost took up as much space as the car itself. He did, however, see the guy in the U-Haul who looked like he hadn’t slept in a month, and the woman in the truck from the water company, as well as the guy who would look at home as muscle for the mob, but was driving a Jetta with a hot pink license-plate frame which read “Princess” in bold, sparkly letters.
The smiling man was back at Evan’s window. He opened his mouth to say something else, but before he could say anything, Evan cut him off. “Where are you even going?”
“Nowhere,” the man said, “ I just like it.”
Evan could understand making the best of a bad situation – convincing oneself that their surroundings meant anything at all when they have to be there anyway – but intentionally driving into traffic? Someone needed to scoop this drunk off the floor and flop him back into his rocker.
The man’s lane took off and he flitted way with it.
“Goodbye,” Even said. He rolled up his window as his lane crept forward too. Before they were even again, he had forced his way dangerously into the lane at his left. The lane wasn’t moving, really, at all now, but it was away from the nut.
He watched the Golf disappear into the traffic ahead, never to be side-by-side again. Another nut passed into his life then out again with only a few hackles raised.
A woman in the lane to his right – the lane he had just vacated – with mascara smeared all around her bloodshot eyes and Kleenex clutched between her hand and the steering-wheel glanced at the small space ahead of him, between he and the balding man with 4 chairs in the bed of his pickup. This was the sign that she was gauging if she could cut in or not, and was usually a flag that he needed to defend his hard-earned turf. She was a wolf circling potential prey and deciding if she could take the prize. He let her have it, slowing intentionally to make space; she looked like she could use a win. And she snatched it up, then, just like everyone else came to a stop and sat there ahead of him. He chuckled to himself.
A sticker-covered sedan driven by an old woman came up next to him and they made eye-contact. He flashed her a smile, and she looked at him in horror, then turned her gaze forward, refusing to look his direction until traffic had separated them again.