Midlife with a Suitcase
Charlene pressed the accelerator to merge onto Highway 55, and the Chevy Impala hesitated a moment before shooting into traffic. It had been doing that since she left Tallahassee. So far she’d been ignoring it – a strategy that worked with Don for years before everything fell apart in a cataclysm she was still trying to reckon.
The car wouldn’t stand for that kind of inattention. Cars didn’t fix themselves. Cars couldn’t go to couples counseling or pledge to keep trying. If she wanted the Impala to take her to California to start over, she’d have to get a mechanic to take a look under the hood.
Don had always taken care of the cars. All Charlene had in the way of a plan was getting up early, driving to St. Louis, and stopping at the first garage she spotted. But it was already past noon. By the time she got there, all the garages would be closed.
That was life. Things hardly ever turned out like you expected. Not to say they always turned out bad. No, sometimes they turned out good. And sometimes, better than good.
Like last night. After sleeping on lumpy motel mattresses the past two nights, she’d come across a bed comfortable enough to stay in forever. Almost as cozy as her bed at home, with its new latex mattress, 600-count sheets, and down-filled pillows. Well, Don’s bed now. The bed she’d caught him and his new girlfriend screwing on a month ago. The bed she hadn’t been in since.
Charlene slept deeply on the comfortable motel mattress, and the sun was
already blazing by the time she woke up with a hankering for fried eggs, toast, and hash browns. As luck would have it, there was a breakfast place across the street.
She felt at home the minute she opened the door. The décor was 1970s diner—not too different from the ones she’d worked in as a teenager. A waitress with frosted hair and frameless glasses greeted her with a supersized smile. And as soon as Charlene planted herself on one of the red stools, the waitress—Betty, her nametag said—was zipping over with the coffeepot.
“You look raring to go,” Betty had said brightly, her Tennessee drawl like honey on toast.
“We’ll see where I end up,” Charlene answered, relieved not to be getting the usual serving of pity and suspicion for being a middle-aged woman traveling alone.
Betty gave her a been-there-done-that look, but missed a beat—just like the Impala. “Kinda exciting though—not knowing where you’ll end up,” she said, winking.
The remark caught Charlene off guard, and when she looked through Betty’s frameless glasses into her clear blue eyes, it was like Betty knew about everything—Charlene’s difficulties with Don and the boys, the fights with her ex-husband before that, the complicated relationship with her mother back in New Jersey, even the nagging fears that left Charlene unable to sleep and feeling paralyzed as she glided along in the Impala, eating up gas and contributing to global warming.
Now, speeding up as she entered open highway, her stomach contentedly full, Charlene still felt the sparkle of that momentary connection. Strange that it was easier to connect with a waitress in Pleasant View, Tennessee, than with her sons, mother, or either of her two husbands.
Charlene pondered the thought before letting it fly out the window. So far, the road trip was good therapy—scenery washing over her eyes, thoughts coming and going like the small towns she passed. Some of them worth stopping at, others of no consequence.
But some thoughts wouldn’t leave her head, even zipping along at eighty miles an hour. The fact, for instance, that Don’s new woman was the age Charlene had been
when she and Don first met. And of course, the horrible image of the new woman’s pale thighs wrapped around Don’s freckled back, right where Charlene’s thighs had been so many times.
There’d been screaming, crying, and cursing. The impulse to hit one of them, although neither of them was worth jail time. Throwing the woman’s clothes on the lawn and making her do a walk of shame in a sperm-spotted sheet had been enough. Nobody could arrest her for that.
A week later, drinking bourbon with Don at the kitchen table while settling their affairs, Charlene had asked, “What is it you like about her?”
And Don had smiled wistfully as though the stars in the heavens were shining on his good fortune. “She likes me,” he said.
“But I like you too,” Charlene said in the plaintive voice she hated. “In fact, I love you.”
Don had looked at her blankly. He was already gone, had been gone for a number of years. But Charlene hadn’t known what to do about it. And there was nothing she could have done. They’d gone to counseling, had long talks, but for whatever reason, Don didn’t seem interested in exerting any effort. He was choosing the easy way out, picking up a new model when the old one wore out.
Charlene was doing her best not to be bitter. “So all this time you were out
looking for someone new, and the minute you find her, I’m history?” she asked.
“No it wasn’t like that,” he’d said. “Lisa and I met on the golf course. It just happened.”
Charlene didn’t think things just happened. But maybe they did. If that was the case, why weren’t they happening to her? If Don called and asked about the credit card charges she was racking up, Charlene would say the same thing: They just happened.
The miles slid by, the towns she passed putting more distance between her and
the awful turn of events, an accumulation that Charlene hoped would create enough
mass to dull her memory, rip those tormented thoughts from her head.
It was warming up, and with the Missouri River just to the east, the air was wet enough to drink. She closed the window. The Impala’s air conditioning whirred away on high, but seemed to be creating more noise than cooling.
Charlene listlessly twirled the radio dial, but just got twangy country. Sweat dripped from her temples, down the canyon between her breasts, settling in the deep creases of her thighs. Her butt ached. And she had many miles to go.
The Impala did all right on the open highway. It was only when she was revving up that the lurching and hesitation happened, which could mean the transmission and a big charge on Don’s credit card. Back home in Tallahassee, Don used a mechanic named Fred, a friend of Charlene’s ex-husband, Manny. But in St. Louis, where she didn’t know a soul, it would be luck of the draw.
Don had been an improvement over Manny, or at least that’s what Charlene had thought. For one thing, he had a job. And wasn’t a raging alcoholic. And didn’t mind helping raise another man’s sons.
But both of them had been distant men like her father. Even though both times Charlene thought she was purposely picking someone as different from him as she could find. Don had always looked at other women. She’d seen that from the start. But she chose to ignore it, just like she chose to ignore a lot of things.
“Maybe the third time will be the charm,” Charlene said to herself, pulling down the sun visor to check her face in the mirror.
She tried to summon confidence, but had her doubts there would be a third time. Market value of women declined with age. Everybody knew that. She was like a car with a high odometer reading. Nobody cared how well it had been maintained. It was all about mileage.
The past few nights when she stopped, she’d forced herself to sit in the nearest bar. A little bourbon to help her sleep. But also some feeble attempt to get out there again. See if she could meet someone. See if anyone was interested in a broken-down double divorcee with saggy boobs.
There were no takers the first night. The locals eyed her with suspicion. But the second night, in Reggie’s Rumpus Room, a thin man with sad eyes and a shank of red hair combed over his domed skull offered to buy her a refill. For the next hour, they traded stories about their spouses’ infidelities. How it made them feel: the anger, the hurt.
Charlene had thought that here was a man who could make an emotional connection. But when they got back to her room all they did was talk some more until Charlene couldn’t bear any more and asked him to leave.
She wanted to be touched. It had been six months since she’d had sex, and the last few times with Don hadn’t been all that great. She thought if she could find someone to have sex with like Don had, everything would be all right.
She wasn’t looking for a soul mate or life partner or anything like that, just someone to shack up with for a one-nighter, if that’s even what they even called them anymore. Someone she could stand to have a roll in the hay with and not feel disgusted. How hard could that be? Harder than it had been in her twenties, thirties, and forties.
At breakfast, when she’d told the waitress she wanted to make it to Hollywood, but didn’t know if the car would get her there, Betty said, “Don’t think negative.”
So that’s what Charlene was trying to do now: not think negative. Just pretend she’d have no problem meeting someone else.
Charlene used to wonder about the old ladies who painted wildly arching brows above their eyes and smears of torrid red in the vicinity of their lips. Didn’t these women look in the mirror? But now she knew. They looked as little as possible, wanting to remember how they used to be. And when they did get up the courage to look, their images were blurred. Without glasses, they couldn’t see a damn thing.
Charlene tried to take care of herself. But the veins on her ankles were swollen, her knees wrinkled as an elephant’s, and the mole on her thigh was growing larger.
She wanted to do something before she died—something to let people know
she’d been here. That something could happen in Hollywood. After all, it was the land of dreams. As the miles slid under the Impala or the Impala slid over the miles, she thought of the men she’d meet. Maybe taking a walk down Hollywood Boulevard. Or a stroll on the beach. Life would be wonderful. Even when it wasn’t.
Charlene was too busy thinking of the new life she’d make to notice the gas gauge warning light. So at first when the Impala started choking and sputtering, she was sure it was the transmission. After guiding the car to the side of the road, all she could do was bang on the steering wheel and curse.
“Fucking Don,” she raged. “That heartless bastard. Miserable prick.”
The sobs came at an alarming rate, and she grabbed the towel she’d been using to mop up sweat and held it to her leaking eyes. She’d done her best to love him, done everything he’d ever asked. And she still ended up with nothing. She thought of him playing golf with the new woman, having a grand time while the woman who’d dedicated ten years of her life sat at the side of the road in some godforsaken hellhole.
“It’s not fair,” she screamed, banging on the steering wheel more. “Not. Fair.”
After she couldn’t cry anymore, she got out of the car and looked around. The sun was low, and the air smelled of hot asphalt and fresh grass. The sign said Perryville four miles. She grabbed her suitcase containing a little jewelry and pictures of the boys when they were little. She’d just have to walk.
Gnats buzzed around her head. Perspiration dripped from her forehead, sticky and hot. Sweat stains blossomed on the front of her tank top and spread in wide arcs under her arms. She was beginning to smell. All the bitterness and rancor she’d been holding inside was coming out. She stunk. Her life stunk.
She didn’t hear the farm truck until it stopped beside her. The driver looked out. “Can I give a beautiful woman a lift?” he asked in Betty’s honey drawl.
“I’m not so beautiful right now,” Charlene said, looking down at the sweat stains on her top. “I’m a mess.”
The man had thick silver hair and calm, gray eyes. It felt like those eyes were looking right into her, just like Betty’s had. “Nothing that a cool shower can’t fix.”
“Can you give me a ride to the nearest gas station?” Charlene asked. “That Impala back there is mine.”
“I can take you anywhere you want, sweetheart,” he said. “Just name it.”
“It was kind of you to stop,” she said, her voice quavering. “I’m sure you have places to go.”
“You too,” he said. “Where you headed?”
Charlene thought of her plan to drive all the way to Hollywood. It now sounded ridiculous. L.A. was a big city, just lots of people and cars. It would be hard to get re-established at her age. She didn’t know if she had the energy.
“I don’t know. Just driving around.” Her voice sounded thin and pathetic. She bit her lip and tried not to cry, but it was no use. And once she started blubbering again, out came that river of misery.
The man placed a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry. It will be all right.”
That made her cry even harder. She was vaguely aware of her whole body shaking, and in front of a stranger at the side of the road. She loved Don. Why did he have to do that to her? What had she done to deserve such cruel treatment?
The man was patting her shoulder. “Hold me,” she pleaded in a strangled-sounding groan. “Please—just for a minute.”
The man hugged her and let her tears drip on his shirt. They stayed like that until
the tears ebbed. And as Charlene struggled to compose herself, he patted her back.
“You all right now?” he asked.
Charlene nodded as embarrassment took the place of grief.
“I don’t know what happened,” the man said. “But a pretty woman like you should be smiling, not crying.”
“I don’t feel very pretty right now,” Charlene said.
“But you are. Don’t forget it, either.” He winked. “Ready to go get some gas?”
“Sure,” said Charlene.
As she got into the passenger seat, she thought about going home or finding a job in St. Louis. She’d just let things happen. Sometimes things turned out worse than expected, but sometimes they turned out better. And as the man put his truck in gear, she felt she was moving in the right direction—perhaps to somewhere wonderful. Or if not wonderful, at least better than where she’d been.
About the Author: Margo McCall is a graduate of the M.A. creative writing program at California State University Northridge. Her short stories have been featured in Pacific Review, Heliotrope, In*tense, Wazee Journal, Sidewalks, Rockhurst Review, Sunspinner, Toasted Cheese, Writers’ Tribe, and other journals. Her nonfiction has appeared in Herizons, Lifeboat: A Journal of Memoir, Pilgrimage, and a variety of newspapers and other publications. For more of her work, visit here.