Will This Be the Last Time?
We’re in the car and Lou is reading the exit signs on the New York Thruway. Exit 17—Newburgh; Exit 18—New Paltz; Exit 19—Kingston. When I was young we never got past Exit 19, where we got off to visit Aunt Jane, but now Lou and I are going past 20 and 21, all the way up to Canada, because I have to get him out of the country.
I hate to drive, but Lou can’t drive. Not after what the police did to him. When he called me, he said his head hurt. He had fallen. Not knocked down, but fallen. Or perhaps a scuffle. An anonymous shove. Cop, or over-anxious demonstrator. Or counterprotester. If I were a betting person, I’d put my money on cop.
I’ve already asked Lou to stop reading the signs but he tells me if he stops reading now, he’ll never be able to read again, and Lou devours books the way frat boys go through six packs. He’s reading speed limits and notices about construction zones. I turn up the Bluetooth connection, which goes straight to my hearing aids, and set my phone to the recordings I need to learn for choir, trying to zero in on the inner voices—the notes I’m supposed to hit. It’s a useless pursuit, since I’m not going to be in choir any more. Unless I do what Lou wants me to do. And if I do, how many days left to hear his voice? Will this be the last thing I remember him saying? Steep Curves Ahead: Trucks Use Lower Gear.
I’ve always had a tendency to look at life as a bad sci-fi movie, so I’ve seen this moment coming. And though I’ve been a Unitarian for years, the voices of my Jewish ancestors keep screeching at me to make the break. Ed says anyone who doesn’t stick around and fight is betraying the rest of us. But Ed isn’t Jewish. He didn’t grow up with the Holocaust in his bones.
We can’t look too conspicuous, so we don’t have much in the car. I did take two of the sculptures we had from Lou’s dad: Medusa, my favorite, and Leaf Man, who had always hung right by our door and put out such a clam and serene vibe, I knew I had to take him, even though he was so big I had to pack him in his own box. Watching the trees along the highway, which are bursting red and orange as if there’s nothing wrong in the world, I feel a small degree of comfort thinking about the detail in those plaster leaves that cover the Leaf Man’s head and torso, all the way down to where he’s cut, just below the bust.
Lou’s dad, Morris, liked to put his own features in his work, so the Medusa has bulgy cheeks; the Leaf Man, a curled, thick lower lip. Morris always insisted he was an artistic genius with that special and elusive “it.” In addition to genius, Morris also had emphysema, a hacking rattle in his chest that defined him more memorably than his sculptures did, no matter how many of his own features he put into them. He fought the disease for a long time, continuing to smoke like a California wildfire, until he met his end just a few weeks before Lou and I got married, which cast a pall on an already damp day in November, a fitting time for our wedding since, Lou and I were pretty close to the November of our lives. I’m guessing we wouldn’t have bothered if the “revolution,” a word I prefer to mangle into “revulsion” hadn’t happened. But suddenly each of us felt a need to have someone solid to hold onto in the upheaval, or a reason to want to keep living.
Lou had always been more of an activist than I was, which meant he faced more danger. Not that this stopped him from endless meetings and social media chatter, as well as forays into the street when people felt brave enough. Even though Lou continued to be kind: super-solicitous in bed, the type of man who never let the laundry hamper overflow and brought me cups of tea without my asking, I always wondered if he judged me. I didn’t go to the demonstrations, which at first were lusty, large, and useless; and then smaller, with large casualty lists. I begged Lou to stop going, but he didn’t listen. “If I die, it will be for a cause.And who cares. I’m old,” an off-hand remark with a hidden blade, going straight to the heart of our marriage.
I tried to earn Lou’s respect by baking for the families who had taken refuge in the church. There used to be only one family at a time, but after the revulsion, the entire social hall had been converted into a large dorm room with people sleeping on exercise mats and children cuddled with their parents to make extra space. We Unitarians were determined to help as many people as we could, though everyone knew it was a matter of time before the cops would ignore the unspoken etiquette against arresting people sheltered by religious institutions. All you had to do was turn on the TV to figure that one out… the repeated words, “an enemy is an enemy is an enemy…”
We stop for gas just south of Albany at one of those service areas all prettified into slanted roofs and wide-slatted windows, the blot of McDonald’s hidden on the inside. Lou gets a cheeseburger—a guilty pleasure that for once, he knows, won’t risk my disapproval. I settle for a peach yogurt from the convenience store and buy a pack of Power Bars for the road. I notice Lou struggling as he pays the cashier, counting the money slowly with a perplexed look on his face, until he gives up and hands the pierced punk behind the counter a twenty and waits for change. At least he isn’t reading the signs in here. So many of them, he wouldn’t know where to start—the Mickey D’s menu items, the postcards, though why would anyone want to buy a postcard headlined Greetings from the New York State Thruway? And he doesn’t read the larger sign at the entrance, announcing the revolution in green and white, and featuring the new flag, a big green X with circles in each corner, against a background as dreary as dirty snow. Lou and I were sure the flag change would backfire, waking up all the people who made noise every time someone bent a knee at the national anthem. But those so-called patriots seemed to be the first to embrace the new symbol, whatever it meant. The circles were unity, we were told; the X remained unexplained.
Lou puts his half-eaten cheeseburger on the Formica table. McDonald’s colors are still the same—a cheery and plastic-looking yellow/orange theme. “I’m going to the bathroom.”
I want to follow him in there. Why do I think this place is stacked with spies? But gender-neutral bathrooms, as few as there were, are now a thing of the past.
“You have your phone?” I whisper. “If anything happens to you, send a text. And scream.”
He titters. “What are you going to do? Call the police?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t trust this place.”
“I’ve got to pee.”
“You could go in the woods. Or in a bottle. I’ll buy some water and you can have the empty.” I have to pee, too, but I’m going to hold it in until we get to Canada. Or pee in my pants, if I have to.
Lou gives me that look…chastised little boy behind overgrown white beard. Then he summons up his big boy courage. “Rona…” He says my name as if he’s talking to one of his third-graders. “Nothing’s going to happen that hasn’t already.” He disappears behind the steel doors.
He’s right, and there’s no way I’m going to make it three more hours without peeing. I’ll go after he comes back. In the meantime, I guard the cheeseburger and case out the space, hoping no one’s following us. I tell myself that Lou is unimportant; we’re unimportant. Why spend resources looking for a probably concussed nearly-senior citizen? And even if the Canadians flag us and search our car, there’s nothing to give us away, and nothing in the trunk anyone would want, except, maybe Medusa and the Leaf Man, if Morris really were the artistic genius he claimed to be. It’s the trip back we have to be concerned about, if I can’t talk Lou out of his plan.
“So much for the Second Amendment. They have all the weapons now,” Lou had murmured in bed a couple of weeks ago, after we’d made love. He was holding me and stroking my hair. Always kind of a buzz-kill to go from sex to politics, but that’s Lou. I didn’t really mind because our love-making always verged on ecstatic. We’d grown even more hot for each other since we’d gotten married and had total license to ravish each other, age be damned. Yes, sex took us longer, but that was part of the fun.
“We have to go to Canada,” he kissed my neck, then my nose. I couldn’t believe he was finally talking about escape. I’d been begging him to leave for months.
“We’re too old for Canada. They won’t let us in. We should go to Mexico, or Costa Rica.”
“Not to stay. Just to get our hands on some materials. We need weapons.”
“What? That’s too dangerous,” I whispered the words into his chest, which had gray, silky hair. I didn’t think our place was bugged, but…
“Don’t you see? We’re a perfect foil: older married couple. We’ll make sure to get baseball caps. Yankees. Everyone hates them but they do command respect.”
“That’s nuts, Lou. If they catch us…
“Our parents are dead,” he interrupted. “We don’t have kids. We’re the best candidates.”
I didn’t answer him. I got up and took a shower. When I was younger, I never took showers after sex, but now I can’t get to sleep unless I feel clean. I could hear Lou snoring when I came out of the bathroom to go back to bed. Another consequence of aging. Once you’re tired, you’re good for nothing.
Now, with the concussion, the plan is different. We’re simply getting out of here. I’ve taken all the cash out of the bank. If they catch us overstaying our welcome in Canada, we’ll deal with it. As soon as we cross the border we’ll go to a hospital, so we can prove that staying in the country has put Lou’s life in danger. At least, that’s my plan. Lou still thinks we’re on a mission.
When Lou comes out of the bathroom, I smile and clap my hands as if I’m six, and as if I really didn’t expect to ever see him again.
“Your turn.” He moves in for a hug and a smoochy kiss. I’m wondering if he’s trying to make it look like he can’t keep his hands off me in case someone’s watching. Or are the hug and kiss because he wants to show how much he loves me to the wider world, or because he can’t resist me right now? When we were friends with benefits, we’d been more restrained, but Lou claims his favorite perk about getting married is to be able to acknowledge in public what we mean to each other.
The bathroom is completely normal, most of the stalls serviceable, a couple with out-of-order signs on the doors. As I wash my hands, I wonder if the mirror in front of the sink could be two-way and what people would be looking to see. We’re still nowhere near the border, I remind myself. We could be going anywhere.
Heading back, I see Lou slumped over on aMcDonald’s table. I run to him, a silent scream building in my too tight throat, but he raises his head as soon as he sees me and waves off my anxiety.. “Just catching a nap. And keeping my eyes away from the fluorescents. They’re making me crazy.”
Since Lou often takes power naps, I can’t immediately chalk his tabletop snooze as a problem, though it does notch up the worry meter. “We should get you a pair of sunglasses.”
He agrees, trying on several pairs before settling on large squares with tan frames that will fit right over his glasses. Combined with his Yankees hat and smudged light blue t-shirt, one of the few he owned without a political slogan, he could pass for any innocuous leaf-peeper.
After Albany, the traffic thins. Lou dozes, one hand shielding his eyes. He moans in his sleep. I’m wondering if I should find an ER in Plattsburgh, but that would wreck everything. It’s only an hour more into Canada. I set the cruise control to counteract my lead foot and focus on concocting a conversation with the border guards. I’ll tell them we’re driving across Canada because we’ve always wanted to see Banff and Jasper. If they look in the car and ask why we’re bringing sculptures, we’ll tell them we’re going to check out the art galleries in Montreal and Toronto to see if there’s any interest in the work of Morris Marshall, that undiscovered artistic genius. And maybe I’ll take the sculptures to galleries while Lou is recovering in Montreal. We’ll find a charming little B & B in a French neighborhood, a place with needlepoint and embroidered pillowcases and a four-poster bed. Maybe we’ll settle in Montreal, find a small studio, and grow fat and lazy eating croissants and capping off afternoon outings to art films and avante garde museums with splurges at sumptuous restaurants.
Lou stretches and raises his head. “Should we get off the Thruway? There’ll be less of a wait at the border if we find a smaller road.”
His voice sounds disengaged, robotic. His face is ashen; little drops of sweat dot his large forehead in the places where his hair used to be. I run a hand along his scalp, feeling crusts of blood above the rubber band holding his white ponytail in place.
“Should I open the window?Do you need more air?”
He shakes his head, then grimaces, the motion clearly adding to the pain. “I wish they made cars with pull-down shades.”
I squeeze his hand and he clutches his stomach. “I’m fine,” he assures me. “Do we have a plastic bag? Or a yogurt container?”
“You’re going to throw up, aren’t you? We have to get you to a doctor.”
“I won’t throw up. But just in case.”
“Make sure to do it before the border. We don’t want to call attention to ourselves. And we should stay on the Thruway. They’re less likely to remember us in a crowd.”
The Canadian border guard reminds me of Aunt Jane. Same owl-like look—broad shoulders, flat nose, sharp inset eyes. “On vacation?” She looks kind of bored. “Yes,” I smile. “We’re taking a cross-Canada trip.”
She frowns. “In that?” Our car is a little Chevy Aveo.
“We’ll see how far we get. We’ll stay put if it’s snowing in the Rockies.”
“When are you returning to the U.S.?”
“Maybe in a month or two. We wanted to do something wild before we get too old. You never know when some disease can strike up on you.”
I see her looking at Lou, who’s still kind of hunched over, and will myself to shut up. “Are we all set?” I’m trying not to glance at the other side of the border, where everyone has been pulled to the side, their trunk lids and all the doors open, armed guards searching every nook and cranny. There is no way we’re coming back.
“I’ll have to scan your passports first.”
I try to breathe normally as I hand over the documents. Lou’s unimportant, I remind myself. Just a run-of-the-mill demonstrator—a drone, not a leader.
A minute later, she hands the passports through the window. “Have a nice day.”
Lou’s worried that if we stop too close to the border, they’ll send us back to New York for treatment. It’s only another hour to Montreal, but it takes us longer because I have to pull to the side of the road twice to let Lou throw up. By the time we get to the outskirts of the city, we’re barely moving in the traffic. I get off in a suburb and find a hospital. We tell the doctor that Lou fell when we got out of the car at a gas station. Yes, he banged his head, but we didn’t think much of it until he started feeling dizzy and nauseous. No, he was never unconscious. After examining Lou, the doctor diagnoses a mild concussion. Most likely the symptoms will go away in a few days and he’ll be fine. “For now, just rest,” he advises. “Get a nice hotel. Order room service. And don’t read, or use your phone, or turn on the television for 48 hours. Then you can decide whether or not to continue your trip. Definitely go home and follow up if your symptoms get worse.” He makes a few recommendations in Montreal—all of them out of our budget so we check into a roadside motel on the south side of the river, one of those throwbacks from the 1950s with dark rooms that smell like bleach.
“Ed has the stuff. He’s in a cabin somewhere, about an hour north of here,” Lou says as soon as we bring in the suitcases and lock the door.
“Ed? Our friend, Ed?”
“We should go tomorrow.”
“You need to rest.”
“I know. You should go alone. You won’t have to worry about the weight. Ed will load everything.”
“Lou, you almost got killed. And you saw the border. They were searching everyone. There’s no way we’re going to get whatever you’re picking up across. And don’t tell me what it is. I don’t want to know.”
“It’s bigger than both of us, Rona.” Lou claps his hand over his mouth and beelines for the bathroom. I try not to listen as he vomits.
I’d never admitted my ambivalence about Ed, the mutual friend who introduced us. Ed’s parents and mine were lifelong best friends in Flatbush, and the joke (or expectation) was that Ed and I would grow up and get married, which directly conflicted with the other message my mother gave me, which was to marry a Jew. My mother was liberal enough not to make a big deal; she just claimed it would be easier. “There’s Jewish understanding that Christians” (in her limited view she didn’t mention Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Hindus, or atheists) “don’t have. Believe me, you don’t want to keep explaining things.” And yet, when she joked about Ed and me, she admitted that Ed could be an exception to the “Marry a Jew Rule” because he was such a mensch. Turned out Ed was gay. He lost the love of his life to AIDS in the 1980s and then joined one of those socialist parties. We had lost touch, but when my mother died, he came to the funeral and to every night of the shiva, earnest and sad, and with both parents now gone and no siblings, he became my only link to family. I tuned out most of his political talk and we started hanging out.
Lou was also a socialist, which was how he knew Ed, but he had more of a life. He liked movies, even rom-coms, and books, Thai food, poetry readings. He liked ice-skating, and row-boating, and walking in the park. He wasn’t Jewish, but I didn’t care. We were just friends, both of us jaded from recent break-ups, in my case the third boyfriend in a row I was sure I would marry. We’d known each other two years before we even kissed. I was skidding on the skating rink in Central Park and he reached out a hand and pulled me into his arms. I expected him to let me go, but he just kept holding me, bringing his face close to mine, staring at me with his deep brown eyes. His nose was cold, but his lips were warm; his tongue lusciously warmer. When we pulled apart, we looked at each other sheepishly. “I assume that was ok with you?” he asked, a bit shyly, but not as if he meant it as a question.
It only took a couple more hours to go from that kiss on the skating rink to falling into my bed. “We’re still friends, right?” I asked afterwards. I’d grown so dependent on my “play-dates” with Lou, I didn’t want to risk the friendship.
Lou might have looked disappointed, but only for a moment. “Whatever you want,” he said brightly. “Friends, lovers, friends-with-benefits.”
“Friends with benefits. I’m a lousy lover.”
“My Lady, I beg to differ…”
“I mean, we’ve had so much fun together and I’ve never been able to make anything work. Let’s not risk that.”
It took a while to negotiate the twists and turns of those early years, which Lou called “The Accordion Years”—together, apart, together, apart. Soon we established a rhythm in the pushing and pulling, making great music. I never wanted to get too involved in the rest of Lou’s life. I let him do his political stuff while I small-talked with my clients at the dentist’s office and put on my hard-ass hat when I had to negotiate with insurance company bureaucrats. I took care of my neighbor’s dog when she traveled, and subscribed to off-beat theatre and music programs where up-and-coming creatives bared their souls—sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Lou often came with me, but when he didn’t, I had a coterie of people I could invite. Sometimes I invited Ed, keeping our conversation to safe topics, reminiscing about our dead parents and our Flatbush days as the political landscape of the country began to darken.
Lou comes out of the bathroom and gets right into bed. “We’ll discuss everything tomorrow.” He covers his eyes with his hands. A few minutes later, he’s snoring. I want to turn on the TV but I’m worried the waves from the screen will affect his brain, so I eat a PowerBar and pick up the newspaper, ignoring the headlines and turning straight to the crossword puzzle. When my eyelids get heavy I turn out the light and cuddle close to Lou. I’d like to make love, but I’m worried about the effect of the motion on his brain right now. He stirs and holds on to me, but he doesn’t wake up.
In the morning, I rise first. I make coffee and go back to the crossword until I’ve got everything but two letters in the bottom left corner. Lou groans as he rolls over. I bring him coffee from the K-cup machine, a dark roast that smells like burnt rubber. There’s no real milk, just powdered stuff. “Sorry it’s so disgusting,” I tell him. “How are you feeling?”
“Not great, but I’ll be okay You need to go and get the stuff from Ed.”
“I want to be with you. What if something happens?”
“I’ll be fine. You need to go.”
“No, Lou. You’re sick. You shouldn’t be alone.”
“It’s more important to save our country.”
“You saw the border. We’ll never get back across.”
“We’ll have to drive west and cross at some small unguarded point. Ed can’t stay where he is that long. He needs to get back, and we need to take the stuff off his hands. The directions are in the pocket of the pants I wore yesterday. .”
I reach into the pocket and pull out a piece of yellow lined paper. “Don’t use the GPS,” Lou warns. “They can trace Google. Don’t call, either. I don’t know how much room we need. We may need to move the sculptures out of the trunk. Why did you bring them, anyway?”
“I can move the sculptures into the back seat. And I can buy a cheapie pay-as-you-go phone in the drug store.”
“It’s still better not to use anything traceable. You’ll have to find him the old- fashioned way.”
We go to the motel lobby to get their excuse for breakfast: puffy white toast, snack-size boxes of Rice Krispies, diluted juice, and more bad coffee. Lou flinches at the lights so I go back to the room for his sunglasses. I see the lobby guy, a suave plump man in a turban, look at him suspiciously. “Concussion,” I explain.
“Oh, I thought he was a spy.” He chuckles and we chuckle back. I linger over the coffee, even though it’s so bad, I can’t drink more than a couple of sips. Lou looks at the clock. Almost 9.
“I told him you’d be there by noon. It’s a two-hour drive, but you need to build in getting lost time.” He pushes his breakfast dishes aside and gets up from the table.
Despite the bright sun, Lou has insisted on walking me to the car. The wind is brisk and biting, more like November than early October. I place the paper with the directions flat on the passenger seat. If they stop me, the paper will be the first thing they see, so I’ll have to turn it over quickly and kick it to the floor.
“Everything will be fine,” Lou squeezes my hand, then leans over to kiss me through the open window. I savor his lips, his warm tongue, and we kiss for a deliciously unusual long time. He wobbles when he stands up, but rights himself quickly. He’ll make it back to the room, I tell myself. He’ll be okay.
I get in the car and start driving, pulling over several times to check the directions. Part of me wants to head for the tundra, but I know I can’t leave Lou, especially when he’s sick. I’ll go and talk to Ed, explain the situation. If he’s the mensch my mother said he was, he’ll understand. I’ll come back empty-handed. Lou will be furious, but every time I see a word like “weapon” beginning to form on his lips, I’ll kiss it away until he forgets about everything but the bliss of the moment.
I follow the highway to the prescribed exit, pull over again, and find my way to a road heading north on the St. Lawrence River. Picnic tables in scenic vistas overlook the water. Just as it says in the directions, I pass a small town, a trailer campground, then head away from the river into the woods.
At 3 kilometers, there’s a ski trail sign and I turn left onto a graveled road. The car lurches uphill over tree roots. I shift into low gear and inch my way forward In another five minutes, I see a brown shack in a grove of pines. There’s a ditch on either side of the road, so I don’t pull over; I just stop right in the middle.I’ll probably have to drive backwards for half a mile until I can turn around, or maybe Ed knows how to do it safely. I find a place for the car between two large tree trunks, take a deep breath, and walk the last few yards, stepping over branches and bramble and a slew of fallen leaves.
The wooden door is freshly painted—bright red, out of place in the chipped shingled walls.
When no one answers my knock, I call out a second time. “Ed?”
Silence again. I push open the door. The small musty room inside has been thoroughly trashed. Beer cans and scattered half-eaten bags of chips. It looks more like a frat party than revolution. Do I have the wrong place?
I hear a rustle—maybe a mouse, but maybe not. Maybe someone hiding. I bolt for the car, bumping backwards down the road, praying I’m not going to wreck the suspension and get stuck. At a clearing, I make the quickest K-turn in my life and speed on forwards, jouncing, all the way back to the river. I’m okay, I sweet-talk myself, as I head south, continuing to check the rear view mirror for reassurance. Outside my window, the sun sparkling on the water is so beautiful, it’s mesmerizing. And Lou’s okay. I’ll go and get him and we’ll come back to this road and keep going north until we can settle in our own little cabin. We’ll hang Medusa over the bed for protection and live a simple life. Lou can learn to fish; I’ll knit things and sell them at the local markets. We have enough cash to get by for a while. Somehow, things will work out.
I keep driving, as fast as I dare without upping the odds for a speeding ticket, stackingall the arguments into a foolproof, airtight castle. They’re onto the plan. The place was ransacked. Ed’s gone. Too dangerous. We can’t cross back. They’ll be looking for us. The best thing to do is head north and disappear. I open the door quietly in case Lou is sleeping, but he’s not in the room. I check the bathroom, empty. He’s not in the lobby, either. He could have gone for a walk. There’s nowhere nice to go along this strip-mall street, but he might have gone to a fast food joint for a bite to eat. Must mean he’s feeling better. That’s good. I call his phone—no answer. Text. No answer, but he generally forgets to put the volume on. I lie down to wait for him and something crunches, a paper under the pillow:
Rona, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. But I can’t let my personal happiness take precedence over what’s clearly a matter of life and death for millions. For the safety of all of us, I can’t say anything more. Other than forgive me. I love you.
Now I’m the one ready to retch, but it’s all a stuck blob: vomit, tears, my stomach, my whole body shaking. And I know I can’t tell a soul.
I wash my face, check out of the hotel, and drive to one of those picnic tables I saw by the river. It’s nearly dark when I get there. I sit in the wind and cold until the darkness is so thick, I can’t see anything. Then I grope my way to the car. The night is foggy, starless, but I keep driving until there’s nothing around but ice.