Ellie crossed the street the way she did absolutely nothing else. She left the curb and plunged into traffic, ignoring green lights and headlights and the warning voice of her mind telling her to please not get splattered across the sidewalk. She dove into the swarming cars as though nothing could possibly go wrong. When she climbed stairs, or made phone calls, or typed memos out for her boss, she was never reckless. She was meticulous and grammatically correct. Nobody ever had a reason to swear at her or click their tongue impatiently or roll their eyes. But when she crossed the street, the falling wails of car horns washed over her and she just didn’t care. Nothing else felt that safe, for her to put herself in danger.
Sometimes her boss sent her on weekend trips to meet somebody upstate. That was the only time Ellie ever drove a car herself. She would rent one for a couple of days and keep the receipts for expense reports, and drive on the winding highways until she got somewhere that she’d probably been before. In the car herself, she knew the impotent rage of the drivers watching somebody cross the street in front of them. Until she got out of the city, she tugged at the steering wheel and screeched while people blithely stepped in front of her car, as though they couldn’t see her coming and didn’t care about the tons of metal barreling toward their unprotected bodies. People are so soft, she thought, and they don’t realize that when you hit them they might break open. Her phone rang promptly as soon as she got onto the highway, past the red lights and out into a stretch of speed that felt like unbending muscles into the air. Ellie glanced at her phone, just to see, and nearly swerved. Her father’s name was on her screen for probably the first time, ever, that she could remember. Since she’d been old enough to have her own phone. She turned her eyes back to the road and fastened her fingers on the wheel. She didn’t ever answer her phone while she was driving. It was far too risky and irresponsible. She would think about calling him when she got to Croton or wherever it was that the GPS was telling her to go, when she got out of the car, when she had started to believe that her father had called her.
The robotic voice telling her that she had reached her destination startled her. She’d been thinking about her father for what felt like hours, and she’d barely paid attention to the route. The GPS directed her, and her body moved to answer it without her brain interfering. Ellie hadn’t spoken to her father in more than a year, since last Christmas when he stopped by her aunt’s to say hello and then left just as abruptly. She hadn’t called him since she was in college, when she’d been in the hospital and thought she’d needed him. He hadn’t called her, she didn’t think, since he’d told her he couldn’t make it, he was sorry, work was bad, she understood of course. In between obligatory family holidays she almost forgot the halting rasp of his voice.
Ellie got out of the car and put quarters into the meter, mechanical, reaching into her purse and feeling for the coin slot while her eyes rested farther away, unfocused. She turned and pulled her phone out to check for the address. Her boss’s name was on the screen under her father’s. She had a voicemail. She clicked on it expecting, somehow, that it would be her father’s message, but it was just her boss. Some halfway through the message she registered what he was telling her. “I’m sorry, El, I sent you up there for nothing, it was really last minute, of course the company will still cover the car and everything, if you want to stay the night because the reservation is there already you might as well, think of it as a paid vacation or something, I hear there’s a really good bar. Can you send me that report from Thursday sometime today?”
She stared at her phone. It faded and went to black, and she looked at it in her hand without seeing it, and then she got back into the car. In the driver’s seat she leaned against the steering wheel, resting her forehead against the leather, and touched her father’s name. Maybe it was important, she thought, what the hell. If she was careful and didn’t call him, she would never know. The phone rang against her ear and Ellie braced herself for his voice, the tone of surprise or accusation when he picked up, whatever it was that made him call her in the first place. It rang, and she tensed, and then it ended. He didn’t even have a voicemail set up. Ellie stayed in her car with her head pressed to the wheel for a long time before she straightened and carefully, methodically, painstakingly maneuvered back onto the street and turned for home.