Pulling her sedan over to the sidewalk, Carla peered at the passenger seat. She wondered if the canvas was still warm. Her lips had cooled although her heart’s thumping kept her blood churning like a greyhound circling a track. She dropped her head, avoiding the glitter of the ring on her finger, but fell into the aroma of spiced cologne clinging to her sweater. With a wince, she zipped her coat over the smell.
She jolted as the passenger door handle thumped.
Looking up, she froze as Eddie filled the window. He waved and then pointed at the lock.
“It’s locked,” he said, his words misted and muffled by the car’s frame.
The idea to keep driving nearly pressed Carla’s foot upon the gas.
That’s not fair, she chided, you have to tell him.
So instead, Carla leaned over and pulled the squat plug.
Eddie swept inside, and rubbed his bare hands together. “Damn aren’t you cold?”
He adjusted the knobs on the dashboard and a gust of engine-warmed air spewed from the vents.
“Thanks,” she whispered.
“What kept you?”
She avoided the question with a glance into the side mirror and noted a brief gap in the traffic. Flicking on her blinker, she darted into the flow. With a shrug, Eddie buckled his seatbelt and shimmied against the canvas.
“I was thinking afterwards, we could catch a bite to eat.”
Carla nodded absently, and kept her gaze on the road.
“Jess and Mable invited us over too. You remember them from work?”
“Yeah,” said Carla, unburying their faces from the throng. Around the remembered mob, a fortress of cubicle walls, file cabinets, and computer screens created a maze in her thoughts. She dashed through the mental warren, desperate for air, for light, for space. Unbidden, another set of features entered the labyrinth. He gazed at her, dark eyes attentive and encompassing like a flawless night sky.
“When’s good for you?”
Carla blinked the vision of him clear and frowned. “For what?”
“To have dinner with them. I think they want to do it as a congratulations thing.”
Her stomach twisted and her conscience urged her to speak. “Um…about that—”
“I was thinking Saturday night. You’re done with class at what 7?”
“Yeah, we could meet them at 8.” Eddie retrieved his phone and started crafting a text.
“It’ll just take me a second.” He frowned as a ding sounded and started reading the new message.
“Eddie,” said Carla, tightening her grip on the wheel as the surrounding cars closed.
He grunted in Neanderthal acknowledgement, his thumbs twitching once more.
The next traffic light threatened to flip to red. Carla surged through and then the road filled with a barricade of glowing brake lights. A sense of being trapped tripled her heartbeat. She sought a route through the other cars, but they clustered around her like a smothering blanket.
Eddie glanced up as honks brayed in a jarring crescendo. “Why don’t you head over there? Or that way?”
Suppressing a growl, Carla veered at the second open space he’d pointed to, causing another driver to sound his horn. The sudden long drawl of an eighteen wheeler made her jump. The huge vehicle came up alongside her sedan, obscuring the far side of the street.
“Careful,” said Eddie. He turned back to his screen as his phone beeped.
Carla ground her hands on the wheel, and darted into the far right lane, only to be cut off by a swerving SUV. She pressed the brakes and bared her teeth. They lunged to a halt and she crashed back into her seat. For a moment, the desire to be anywhere else became overwhelming. A car behind her honked and she shook her head.
“I can’t do this,” she whispered. She spied an opening and pulled onto the shoulder.
“Whoa,” said Eddie, looking up from his screen with a scowl. “What are you doing? We’re going to be late.”
“I don’t care. I can’t do this.”
“It’s just traffic, Carla.” He snorted at the speeding lanes and cocked a jeering brow. “You want me to drive?”
“No, Eddie. You’re not listening.”
“Of course I am, you don’t want to drive.”
“No, you’re not….” She took a deep breath. “You’re not hearing me. I can’t do this.” She striped the ring from her finger and held it out, the facets sparkling like rubies in the traffic’s ambient glow. “I made a mistake.”
Eddie looked at the ring with the intensity he usually gave his computer screens. “I…I don’t understand.”
“Please, just take it,” said Carla, her words blazing with a fiery edge.
Eddie reached up and plucked the tiny jeweled circle from her grasp. “What…what happened?”
“Nothing,” said Carla.
His frown deepened. “Bullshit.”
She winced at the hurt in his curse.
“I just can’t do this,” she whispered.
His phone buzzed. Eddie latched onto the screen like a man searching for a cure. “They’re wondering where we are.”
“I’ll drop you off.”
Carla reentered the traffic and navigated the final stretch of streets. Even the low hum of the radio couldn’t combat the stunned quiet.
Drawing up to the sidewalk once more, she kept her hands on the steering wheel and faced the odometer rather than the space on her left finger or the ring Eddie now held in his opened palm. He stared at the jewel as if seeking the answer to an enigma.
“What did I do?”
“Nothing,” said Carla. “This isn’t about you.”
“That’s what they say when it IS all about you.”
“This isn’t. This is about me,” said Carla. “About what I need, about what I want.”
“And you don’t want me.”
She cringed and forced herself to meet his wounded gaze. “Not like that, Eddie, not anymore.”
“When?” He gulped and blinked furiously, as if to evade droplets pooling in his eyes. “When did you figure all this out?”
“Before you asked.”
“Then why’d you say yes?”
“I don’t know,” said Carla, matching the anger leaping from his throat. “How do you say no to a proposal?”
“By saying no.”
She exhaled and fought to temper her voice. “I guess I didn’t have the guts then.”
“And you do now?”
“Yeah,” said Carla. “I needed to, before it was too late.”
Another round of quiet descended, punctuated by two bleats from his phone. Eddie scanned each, and then tapped the screen into darkness. He sighed, his shoulders sloping.
“Can you tell me one thing?”
“I can try,” said Carla.
“Is there somebody else?”
“It’s not about that Eddie.”
“Like hell it’s not.” He closed his ring-holding hand into a white-knuckled fist. “Who is he?”
Carla stiffened in her seat as her lips blazed. “This is my decision, Eddie. No one’s driving me to it. No one’s waiting to take your place. I just need space. I need to figure out what I want and chase it down. I know it’s not getting married and working in the same old office for the rest of my life.”
“What’s so wrong with that?”
“Nothing.” She tried to find a small smile. “It’s just not for me.”
He hung in her eyes for a contemplative heartbeat. “You’re leaving town aren’t you?”
“Maybe, I’m not sure where I’ll go. I’ve got a lot of thinking to do, decisions to make. This life works for you. I need to find what works for me.”
“It was working,” he said, stuffing his phone away.
He raised his free hand. “Good luck figuring it out.”
Exiting, he slammed the door, the bang cracking off like a shot.
Carla winced and stared at the wheel. The thump of his tread dwindled, ending finally with the clang of the entry door into the theater.
After a few deep breaths, Carla raised her gaze.
The road stretched before her, full of stoplights and illuminated brakes. A moment later all the red vanished. The cars surged. Carla joined them.
Halfway through the next intersection she felt weight slip from her shoulders. A destination came into her mind, drawing her forward like a moth to flame. She smiled and then a nervous but vibrant chuckle flew from her lips and filled the air. In the next moment, she swore she was flying.