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Caught in Headlights



I am the second Mrs. Roberts. Lily, with her long blonde hair, bushy as dried wheat stalks, with her doe-eyes, indigo with black at the edges, with her way of crossing those long leaping legs and leaning toward me to talk, as if I were the only person she had ever loved—Lily. She was Hector’s first. His first wife.

She died.

I cannot bear to say how it happened. Not yet. Though I see you want to know, your impatient foot tapping on the floor that way. I’m giving you three sessions. That’s all. I’m final about that.

I hear the water tinkling from the fountain in your waiting room. Silence rolls between us like a bus passing.

We are a threesome in our marriage now. Hector, me, and Lily’s ghost. In our bed, feeling his unshaved chin rub my cheek, prickling raw like gritty sandpaper, while I’m counting backwards from one hundred until he finishes, I smell her. She is chocolate melting, warm cat fur, fun trashy makeup, strawberry flavored nail polish, hair spray, sweat. My mind goes to the first time we met at her salon. While he groans, I imagine her gentle fingers on my scalp as she wraps my hair in foil for my highlights. Her touch so respectful, no pulling, as she layers my fine strands. So different from the way he grabs my hair in his fist, forgetting not to hurt me as he thrusts and thrusts.

I’ve never confessed this to anyone. I feel the giveaway red line of blush working its way up my cheeks.

You lean forward, threads of hair dripping down over your left eye.

We lock in a stare like two bucks with our antlers braided together.

You remind me of my father, his shock of unruly red hair, bronze mustache, broad forehead, his long nose. I used to joke that his main purpose in life was to get me to confess. He could outstare me longer than you can. His gaze, like the threat of capture from a hunter’s net gun, made me tell him whatever it was he expected. I lied often.

You win. I have to look away first. When I look down, I see the toe of my scuffed Dansko Nursing Clogs, once shiny, now bruised, droplets of blood spatter dried on the surface.

“Dolores,” you say. “Where were you when Lily died?”

I don’t remember. (I lie.)

I do remember late August 2020. I see the sky flooded with burnt orange, from the smoke of a hundred wildfires—the largest wildfire season in California’s history. People were caged in their houses under the suffocated sunlight. As if COVID wasn’t enough to end the world as we knew it.

Lily had to give birth in the hallway; all the hospital beds were taken by COVID patients.

There is a long silence while I seek to bring the details into focus. I see the baby, covered in the vernix, slippery, hard to hold as a child’s toy water wiggle. It’s a boy. I’ve spotted a tiny penis in the mess. His fawn eyes have black at the edges, like hers, but his skin is dark, like Hector’s.

I listen for his cry.

I see a bright light and I am stunned, caught like a deer in headlights.

******


Here we are again. Another patient was waiting when I came in and I feel pressured to hurry, get this over with.

Did I say I am the second Mrs. Roberts?

Hector says I’m as annoying as the character in the movie Ground Hog Day, repeating the same thing over and over.

Did I tell you that Lily was my hair stylist—and one day at my highlights appointment—her husband came by to see her. That’s how I met Hector. He’s handsome, makes her laugh, but he sometimes drinks too much, has a temper. She’s never been lucky picking men.

Lily died suddenly in a violent way and he was crushed to lose her. Turned to me for sympathy and one thing led to another. I confess I loved her too. All those times I sat in her salon chair, with her standing over me, hands on my hair. My eyes at breast level, I stared at her soft, well-rounded arms, at the jade bracelet she wore every day, and I smelled the citrus-fresh scented hair mist on her apron, so close to my face.

When Hector’s baby was growing in her womb and her breasts threatened to burst out of the apron, it was all I could do sitting there under her clipping scissors to resist touching her. Once I moved my head close and my lips brushed the tip of her nipple, enlarged behind the apron.

I feel my face warm; the giveaway red line of my blush is working its way up my cheeks. As you lean forward a shock of red hair falls over one eye.

I like to imagine being a hair stylist like Lily—understanding how to use all those shears, clippers, trimmers, razors, combs, and brushes, the blow dryer, the black capes—and always a clean towel at her washing station. Sometimes I would compare the list of our professional tools: my stethoscope, thermometer, tongue depressor, bandages, pen, and clip board. I dream of her touching me under my nursing lab coat.

“Did she touch you?” You stare at me, locking your weapon eyes onto mine.

You win. I look away because I don’t want to say it was Hector who touched me. He changed during her pregnancy, always bumping up against me when the three of us got together, putting his hand on my leg under the table, his groping fingers where they shouldn’t be. I look down at my clogs and see a fly perched on the blood-spattered toe. I shake my foot. As it flies away, I hear the buzzing over the top of the tinkling fountain in your lobby.

Once Lily gave me jewel shoe charms, thinking I wore Crocs to work. I save them still in a box on my vanity.

I am not a regular Labor and Delivery nurse. I’m a float nurse, stuck in the float pool. L&D belongs to the experts on the maternity ward. That day, when they brought her in, and there were no rooms, and she was frightened of catching COVID (it was before the vaccines), she asked for me. They called me on the paging system.

She did not die at childbirth. She was fine. The baby was fine. Hector came after the birth to take her home, but he refused to hold his newborn. They had a fight—I don’t know about what. I came down to Maternity from the Advanced Treatment Center, after my shift was over, to say goodbye to them. Immediately I understood he had been drinking; you could smell the stink of whisky off his angry breath. I should have offered to drive.

“Dolores,” you say. “The police report says you were driving.”

I am silent for a long while, trying to focus on the details.

I see the baby lying in the road after an accident, his body, bloody, his tiny penis shaken out of his newborn diaper, his fawn eyes with the dark at the edges.

I listen for his cry.

I blink from the bright light. I am frozen, like a doe startled at night by a car on the road.

******

Today I’ve worn my new Crocs; I put the jewel charms Lily gave me into the holes. To bring me luck. I’m determined this will be my last session.

I am the second Mrs. Roberts. Have I mentioned that?

Lily was buried on a stormy Sunday, in sheets of rain. Sunday, appropriate for her. Always a day of rest for hair stylists whose feet swell from a week of standing. A nurse rarely sits on the job either. It’s why I wear the clogs; they provide support for long hours on my feet.

I longed to see her again—to caress her long blonde hair, to press my lips to her indigo eyes, closed in death. But Hector demanded a closed casket, said she wasn’t presentable after the accident. As the coffin was lowered into the ground, he held my hand in his rigid grasp, dressed against the rain in a coat the shade of stone.

“Dolores,” you say. “What about the baby?”

I can’t answer.

Silence rolls between us again, heavy as a bus passing.

Without her, I was lost. Hector and I married as soon as we recovered from our injuries. I thought being married to him would bring her back to me. There was some confusion with the accident and he said it was better if we were married so we couldn’t testify against each other. He promised to give up drinking.

You lean forward, your hair dripping across your face, just like my old dad. Our eyes lock in the stare-down you use to force me to confess.

You win. I look away first, down at my shoes. I see the Crocs with her shoe charms. I feel Lily in the room with me.

I should have been driving. I always drove when Hector was drinking and the three of us were together. Lily didn’t drive; she had an anxiety disorder and the stress of driving made it worse.

“Dolores,” you say. “The police report says you were driving.”

A long silence unfolds like a blanket while I seek to bring the details into focus.

That’s not true. Hector told the police that I was driving so he could avoid another DUI. That night, in the hospital parking lot, he shoved me aside, slammed me into the back seat next to the baby in his infant car seat. Fearing Hector’s temper, I did not object.

I hate myself for this weakness.

I feel your warm hand on my shoulder. You hand me a tissue for my tears.

Minutes before the accident the baby is screaming, fighting his car seat harness. To comfort him, I did the unthinkable thing. I unhooked his safety straps and lifted him onto my lap. As I hold the baby in my arms. I feel his small hand in mine, his tiny, bewitching fingers wrapped around my thumb. It’s the palmar grasp reflex, common in newborns.

Then the bright light—and a loud crash.

The oncoming car hit toward the passenger side—I see Lily’s lifeless hand on the pavement next to me where we were both thrown. I look for the baby. I see his new toys—his soft sleepy bear, a pacifier, one slipper sock—among the broken glass.

I listen for his cry.


******

Stories by Jeanne Althouse (she/her) have been published most recently in Connotation Press, The Penman Review, 805 Lit Mag, Potato Soup Journal and The Plentitudes Journal. She is grateful her work has won several awards, been collected into a Chapbook, and twice nominated for a Pushcart.

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