First short story I ever whipped up.
College Writing 130
3 April 2012
“Honey, can you grab the map for me? I gotta check which exit we should be taking,” Mark asked, his words edged with exasperation. Though he noticed he had woken his sleeping wife, Mark made no apology, instead staring intensely at the road in front of him, his foot spurring their old Mustang on even harder. Jamie knew why Mark was so impatient, why his frustration grew with each mile that went by.
A month earlier, Mark’s agent had left a message on the answering machine at home, telling him that the Zephyrs were cutting him from their roster. They said they had no need for another 33 year old linebacker, which was understandable. When he was younger, Mark handled those situations gracefully, always believing that another opportunity was right around the corner, that another football team would want him at some point. That relentless optimism and strength of his was part of why she had fallen for him. Mark made her feel safe, made her feel comfortable. Something about him just soothed her insecurities. Often times, he was right – Mark was never out of work for long. Teams were intrigued by his physical gifts, even if they didn’t always keep him long term. And so it went; a stop in St. Louis, Denver, Detroit, a season in Memphis…his resume looked like a sightseeing tour of America.
But after his last stint with Phoenix, it seemed opportunity had decided to stop knocking. Mark spent the last four weeks of that season on the bench, sidelined with a torn knee ligament. Though he dedicated himself religiously to rehabbing – his trainers had to warn him to ease up – when the team brought him back in for his physical, it was clear he had lost a step. No matter how many times he ran or re-ran, the numbers on the stopwatch simply refused to go any lower. In a game like football, a tenth of a second made all the difference – it was what separated making the tackle from watching the ballcarrier strut into the end zone. And for the first time in his life, Mark found himself on the wrong side of time, a tenth of a second too slow, unable to do anything to change it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this last release had been the most difficult one for him to swallow, the surest signal his career was coming to an end. After all, if the Zephyrs – the perennial cellar-dwellers of The League – didn’t want him, who would? Faced with that hard truth, Mark had no real choice except to finally begin considering retirement. Just saying it killed him; it was a sad, begrudging acknowledgment that the game he loved had passed him by. Still torn about what to do next with his future, Mark suggested this getaway, in a desperate attempt to get away from it all. His attempt to return to their younger days, when they traveled anywhere the Mustang could take them.
Jamie sighed to herself softly. As she reached for the glove compartment, a mess of insurance information, loose change and napkins greeted her. Brushing a lock of purple hair out of her eyes, she rummaged through years of old receipts and random fliers before finally fishing it out – a map of the West Coast, now starting to fade after a decade of use. It seemed like a relic from a different time, especially now. Mark had bought it on their very first road trip, a two day ride to Seattle, back when they were juniors in college.
“Um…it looks like you should follow the 320 after you reach Winters,” Jamie said, after studying the roads closely. “You know, you really should clean that out some time,” she added, gesturing at the mess that she had unleashed.
Mark grunted. It didn’t seem like much, but that syllable was an indication of how much things had changed between them. Instead of being open and communicative like he used to be, grunting had become his signature response, one of the defense mechanisms he developed in his time at home. Can you take out the trash? Grunt. Did you remember to call the vet? Grunt. An acknowledgment and a lack of an answer, all wrapped up in one syllable. Some nights, that was the only sound she heard from him at all. She rolled her eyes and stared back out the window, watching a haze of trees whip by at 80 miles an hour. The last time she saw a road sign, it had read “Winters 185”…but that was before she had fallen asleep. How close they were to the retreat now, she had no idea.
Sometimes, Jamie thought she should have left their marriage a long time ago. Nobody blamed her for thinking that, especially with the way Mark had become…irritable and snippy, inconsiderate and insensitive. She was doing everything she could, trying to fight back as frustration swallowed up the man she loved, reading up on sports psychology, stress, coping – anything she could get her hands on. She looked at coaching vacancies, scouting opportunities, open tryouts, anything that might keep Mark close to football. He only brushed off her support, the same way he had slipped through the blockers who tried to stop him.
A few seconds passed, with no other sound in the car except the rumble of tire on cement road. Then Jamie spoke again.
“I think there’s a rest stop coming up in a couple miles. We’ve been driving for a while now…do you want to maybe take a break? Eat some of the stuff you packed?”
“Sure thing, honey.” They drove on in silence, but a few minutes later, Mark was pulling the Mustang into a parking lot. When the car came to a halt, Mark turned off the ignition and bolted from his seat, taking off for the bathroom building nearby. Jamie reached under her seat and pulled out the plastic bag with their lunch in it, taking it with her over to the picnic table. The sky was cloudy, but it was definitely warm enough to still eat outside, she decided, as she emptied out its contents. Some bagels, a couple burgers, and two containers of coffee. It didn’t look like much, but it made Jamie beam with delight.
Mark returned right when she had finished setting things down and smirked slightly.
“Can we eat yet? I’m starving,” he said. As coolly as he tried to deliver that line, there was the slight hint of self-satisfaction.
“Mark! You planned all of this?”
“Sure did.” He picked up a burger in one of his large fists, unwrapped it, and began eating. “Two double doubles, from In-N-Out burger, where we had our first date…two cinnamon raisin bagels and two small lattes with soy milk, from that little coffee shop on 19th. Just the way you like it, right?”
Jamie smiled. Days like today were all she lived for, days that hinted that the man she loved was not all lost. They were only small gestures, to be sure, but it was still enough. Enough for her to hold on and hope. “I can’t believe you still remember. And that good morning note you left me…it’s like college all over again.”
“How could I forget? When I came in to the bookstore that day, I couldn’t keep my eyes off you. Sat there for a good 15 minutes, trying to figure out how to just get your name. Your hair was still red then, too…and the book you had in hand…Pride and Prejudice, right?”
“I’m not going to lie. Seeing you so nervous was the cutest thing ever. I mean, imagine that…the big, womanizing football player, flustered by some girl with a book.”
“Hey, it worked, didn’t it? However nervous I was then, you ended up giving me your number that day anyway.”
“That’s true, I did.”
“Then the next week, we had our first date. Remember how the manager had to kick us out of In-N-Out Burger because we were sitting there too long?” He took another bite of his double double and moaned. “God, these things are still so good.”
“A lot of time sure has passed, huh?” Jamie sipped on the now cold coffee, enjoying its flavor anyway. She decided that she would probably never find Mark in a better mood. Better bring the “r word” up while she still could. “Look, Mark…we’ve been through a lot since that first date, since that first day, even.”
“And here we are still, right?” He replied.
“And here we are.” Jamie repeated the words back to him softly, sighing for the slightest of breaths. She paused. “But I mean, you’ve had a long career, won a ring…you’re 33 now, and no teams have called for you in a while. Don’t you think that it’s time that you maybe…consider…you know…retiring?”
Mark scowled immediately, eyebrows twitching angrily. “I didn’t plan this trip for us to talk about that, you know. I wanted us to get away from all that stuff.”
“I know, but—”
“But what, Jamie?” The sky had begun to darken a little bit, causing Mark to check his watch. Their hotel rooms wouldn’t wait forever, after all. “Look, can we not talk about this right now?” He shook his head wildly for a second, before continuing. “How far are we from Winters right now, anyway?” It had only been a second, but the man Jamie used to love had disappeared again – his voice hardened instantly, now full of a sharp edge, intended to hurt her feelings. “Like, really, Jamie? I mean, before telling me what I should do with my career, shouldn’t you at least get us to the right fucking resort? Goddamn.”
“Fine, you want to head to the resort? Let’s go.”
A long, tense moment passed, as the two walked back over to the car in search of the map. Mark’s hands were remained balled up, as he slid back into the driver’s seat. Still on the outside, Jamie grabbed the handle of the locked Mustang, pulling at it in vain.
“Mark, I need you to open the door.”
Still scowling over, he pressed the remote, almost begrudgingly. One seat belt buckle later, Mark pushed the Mustang back onto the road, and Jamie was fumbling around for the map again. It was only when she found it that she realized her error. He was right. They had passed Winters a good while back, but neither of them had noticed until the forest had melted into flat plains and lush green traded for dusty brown.
“Yeah…looks like we’re going to have to turn around.” Sensing her still seething husband’s ire, Jamie tried to put deliver the news as delicately as she could, putting as little emphasis on each word as she could manage. But hearing those words, Mark’s eyebrows began to twitch again. It was bad enough that she had tried to talk about retirement and failed. Now that he was angry, though? That was a sure sign that things were about to take a turn for the worse. Jamie had seen this enough times to know what would happen next – she would receive the full weight of his anger very, very shortly. It happened at home, too, where even the slightest inconvenience could trigger his violent mood swings. A couple weeks ago, he had cursed her out simply for forgetting he wanted his steak medium rare, not rare.
“What the fuck is wrong with you, Jamie? Why didn’t you say something earlier?” Mark’s fingers tightened around the rubber steering wheel, as if he were trying to strangle the life out of it. “Goddammit…” he muttered under his breath. “Dumb bitch.”
She didn’t reply. Deep down, Jamie knew that Mark’s anger wasn’t really with her. It wasn’t even about the trip, or the two hours they had spent driving in the wrong direction. The psychology books she read called it “displacement” – Mark was only shifting blame for his injuries and his helplessness onto the nearest thing possible, lashing out at her because he couldn’t handle losing who he was. His name calling, his verbal abuse, his rage – knowing what was behind these things, Jamie endured them as best she could, hoping that sooner or later, his rage would burn itself out and her husband would return.
Still, Jamie clutched the pink Gucci purse tightly as Mark berated her, hoping that she wouldn’t have to use what was inside it. After two years at home, she also knew that his verbal abuse could sometimes – not always, but sometimes – spiral into a physical one. No matter how much she loved him, that much, she would not take any longer. Mark would never hurt her again. She promised herself that after the last time.
A few days after he received his release from the Zephyrs, Jamie came to check up on Mark while he was working out, trying to see if he wanted to go rent a movie or eat out – anything to get him out of the house and away from football. Whether it was frustration at his helplessness, or because he wanted to be left alone, something about what Jamie said only angered him. Mark’s reply came through clenched teeth – a promise to kill Jamie if she ever dared step foot in his gym again. Though she apologized profusely and backed away out of the room almost immediately, that only seemed to make him angrier. In a split second, Mark’s long, effortless strides had him at the door. In the next, Jamie found herself pinned against the wall with her husband towering over her, screaming that she would leave when he said she could leave.
Then the blows came. One after another Mark’s punches connected, guided by his natural instinct for violence, fueled by frustration and helplessness. As the beating went on, Jamie could no longer tell where the pain stopped and she began – every place Mark touched flared in agony, every breath caused her body to throb and ache. Finally, Mark eased up, evidently deciding he had punished her enough. Jamie limped her way over to the bedroom, locking the door behind her. The mirror there revealed a different picture than usual – a sobbing, tear-stained face stared back at her, instead of the cheery smile that began most mornings. Streams of blood dripped down her now discolored forehead. It was by far the worst beating she had received, something that not even makeup and oversized sunglasses could hide.
A week passed before she had recovered enough to leave the room, and two before she could return to work. Concerned co-workers called in after the first few absences, offering whatever they could. Pneumonia, she lied. Highly contagious, but she’d be over it soon. No, no. No need to come over, she told them. Mark left her alone for a few days, and then smoothed things over like he normally did, promising her that it was the last time, swearing that he would never do it again.
Jamie believed him. She always did, clinging to the same thing that caused her to stay all these years. Hope.
For a few minutes, he drove on in an enraged silence, and Jamie believed that the worst had passed. She almost let herself breathe a sigh of relief, until his voice burst out in anger again – “Don’t fucking sit there in silence! What the FUCK, you sleeping bitch? You think that saying nothing is going to make this shit better?! You made me miss my fuckin’ exit! You know how much money we spent on this trip, and now it’s all fuckin wasted because you wanted to take a nap! FUCK you!”
Then, all hell broke loose.
Before Jamie was even aware of what was going on, Mark had taken his right fist off the wheel and raised it menacingly, his bubbling frustration to be unleashed on the only other person there to receive it. A second later, he struck, shooting a current of pain through her face. Again and again, Mark hit without prejudice, his knuckles tracked on a collision course with anything they could reach – cheek, chin, nose, forehead. With nowhere to go, Jamie hid behind one arm, trying desperately to shield herself, but the blows seemed to find their way through anyway, hammering at and bludgeoning open wounds that had barely even healed.
Mark kept driving the whole time, peeking up at the road in between the blows he delivered. As she tried to fend him off, Jamie’s free hand fumbled around in her purse, frantically searching for the gun that she had bought just a few weeks earlier. When Mark promised her that things would change, she believed him. That was why she hadn’t done anything else – hadn’t pressed charges, gone to the police or tried to divorce him. The gun was only an insurance policy in case things didn’t work out. It seemed like it was time to cash that in.
An eternity passed, but her palm finally brushed against the cold plastic grip. In one swift motion, she pulled it out and pointed it directly at the driver’s seat, stopping the blows almost instantly. Mark’s rage disappeared too, now substituted with a genuine, wild-eyed fear.
“Whoa, whoa, what the fuck, Jamie? Where did you get a fucking gun? Jesus Christ. Look, l-let’s just..let’s just calm down, I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I just…I just lost control for a second…”
Jamie’s hands trembled slightly, unused to handling the extra weight.
“I know. You always do,” she said icily. “No, keep driving.” She paused, trying to collect her thoughts. “…I don’t know where to, just go. Go. Anywhere. Away from here.” She shook her head.
“Jamie, baby, please, can you put the gun down?” His green eyes desperately pleaded for calm, a look that gave her a twinge of pleasure. “Baby, please…let’s talk this out. I swear I didn’t mean to, please, l-let’s just get to the resort and try to have a good time…”
“You want to talk this out?” She snapped back. “You beat me so badly I couldn’t even show my face at work for 2 weeks, and you want to talk this out? Don’t give me that shit, Mark.”
“Baby, I swear, I’m sorry – just don’t, d-don’t shoot,” Mark stuttered. “W-we can fix things. We can go to therapy, counseling, whatever you want. I promise – I will never, ever lay a finger on you again. I swear on my life, on whatever you want, just p-please, please put the gun down…I love you, you know that – y-you’re the girl of my dreams…” Hearing that last word, Jamie bit her lip hard, eyebrows furrowed in confusion. Her hands still gripped the weapon, but she let the barrel point down at the floor of the car, instead of at Mark.
Dream…something about that word struck her harder than any of his punches ever could. Even though she loved life in San Francisco and had chosen to go to college out west, Jamie’s thoughts drifted back to the little pink notebook she kept as a child, stashed somewhere in their attic. Every goal for her future was written inside it – among them, having 3 kids, a fancy 10 acre farm, after a pediatric stint in several third world countries.
Until he said those words, Jamie never realized exactly how far away she was from all those dreams of hers. She married Mark a few months after graduating from college, and hadn’t come back to Ohio even once. In fact, so much time had passed that the small town she grew up in was nothing more than a blurry haze. A feeling of happiness and contentment came over her every time she thought about it, but it seemed like an entire world away now. Even the idea of medical school, she had left behind, believing that she would be happy and fulfilled as long as Mark was in her life. Instead of saving children in Uganda or Guatemala, Jamie worked as a wedding planner – not the worst job in the world, but a long way from what she wanted to do. What she still could do.
In that brief moment, Jamie understood everything. She had worked tirelessly all these years to make everyone’s dreams come true, and Mark was really no different. She left behind her family, her friends back home, left her dreams by the wayside for him…just like she bent over backwards to make sure each couple got exactly what they wanted on their wedding day. And what did she have to show for it? Constant fear and stress? The pathetic hope that their younger days might return?
Nothing. She had nothing.
Dream. She suddenly hated that word. Hated that it meant her failures, hated that its very syllables stood for how little had gone right in her life. Hated how much Mark was to blame.
Droplets of sweat rolled down the gun handle as Jamie struggled inside. I could end it all right here, she thought. Start over.
Mark noticed her pained expression and continued talking, trying to defuse the situation. “Look, Jamie…baby…We can still fix things. A-and I really want to…you know things’ve j-just been hard over the last couple years. Being a football player’s all I’ve ever known, a-and I’m not so good at life without all that stuff.”
Jamie stared straight ahead, her hands still gripping the gun. Mark couldn’t tell if she was listening or not, but kept talking. “Things are g-gonna get better, you know,” he continued, dividing his attention between the weapon and the road. “I m-mean, I think I’m really ready to give this football thing a rest and settle down. I could call in my retirement conference tomorrow morning, even.” Whether he really meant any of it, Jamie didn’t know. She had heard it all before, anyway. “What do you say we move into that house in Ohio you wanted, that place you always drea-”
That word again. Dream. Worse than any name he could ever call her. Worse, because her mind flashed through all those hopes and desires again. Guatemala. Medical school. A farm at home. Mark wasn’t in any of them. Happiness no longer laid with him…but as long as he was still around, he would find a way to charm her into staying.
He always did.
Jamie knew what she had to do now.
She pointed the gun at him again. “Pull over. Now.”
Mark’s eyes flashed confusion, but because Jamie was the one with the weapon, he obeyed. The Mustang moved over to the side of the road. Jamie unbuckled her seatbelt and opened the car door, stepping out outside.
“J-Jamie, where are you going?”
“I told you already. Anywhere but here. Don’t follow me. I’m not coming back with you.” Mark opened his mouth in protest, but she cut him off before he could keep talking. “Don’t. Follow. Me.” She tapped the car menacingly with her gun again. Another moment of hesitation passed, but Mark decided to drive off. Where to, she didn’t care – only that he left. As for Jamie, she began walking – whether or not she was getting closer to Winters, she didn’t care either. All she knew was that she was going to leave everything behind her.
And she did.
Miles passed before a car appeared in the distance. Jamie stood there with her thumb out as it approached, hoping that it would at least stop. Evidently, the driver noticed, because she found herself face to face the thickly built man behind the wheel moments later. His slow drawl asked, “Hey there, miss. Are you lost? Can I get you a ride?”
For a second, Jamie hesitated, her lips nearly curling into an “oh” and confirming her intention to return home. Nothing was stopping her now. Mark was no in the picture, and she was free from the cycle of abuse she had lived in for years. But home no longer felt like the place she was meant to be either – she couldn’t quite picture herself working and living on a farm anymore. In that moment, she stood paralyzed, unsure of what to do.
Another long second passed.
“Never mind.” She shook her head gently.
“Alright miss, whatever you say.” He rolled the window back up, but stopped before it was closed, adding that “there’s another rest stop about two miles down – you can get some help there. You look like you’ve been walking for a while. You look tired.” Then the window closed, and the man drove off. If home was out of the question, what was left for her, then? She didn’t know. Jamie could only shook her head again and begin walking. It was the only life she had now. But for the first time in years, it was the one she wanted.