By Bettyann Moore
Andra Lewis stood patiently at the car rental counter. All the paperwork was done; she just needed the key and she could be on her way. Her clerk, who was also the manager as it turned out, had been pulled away and was engaged in a heated discussion with another woman. Andra tried not to eavesdrop, but there was something about the woman’s voice that kept drawing her attention, a certain cadence that sounded vaguely familiar.
The woman was old, like Andra, though Andra’s daughter kept insisting that at the age of 57 she most definitely was not old. Since turning 35, Sophia didn’t like to be reminded that she had an aging mother. That’s what Andra figured anyway. And maybe she wasn’t that old. After all, here she was getting ready to drive across three states – alone – to attend her 40th class reunion, something she both dreaded and looked forward to. Andra was afraid of flying. Sophia insisted that her mother rent a car, though, and not chance driving her 1994 Toyota all that distance. It was fine for tooling around town, she said, but not all the way across the barren Nebraska landscape. Since Sophia put her money where her mouth was, Andra didn’t argue.
The discussion at the other end of the counter was becoming more animated by the second. The other woman, dressed in a pink linen suit and colorful patterned blouse that would have looked better on someone younger, was waving a sheaf of papers over her head and using words like “lawsuit” and “lawyers,” as well as swear words that made Andra blush. Andra hating swearing. The manager said something in a low voice and the woman abruptly calmed down. Andra was alarmed, however, when their eyes turned to her, and even more so when they both approached her from their respective sides of the counter. What in the world did they want with her?
“Mrs. Lewis,” the obviously uncomfortable manager said, “this is terribly unprofessional of me and unprecedented, I’m sure, but there’s, uh, a bit of a situation that you might be able to help with. The company will make it well worth your while, I assure you.”
“Me?” Andra asked, eying the other woman who was looking eagerly toward her. Andra noticed then that the woman’s face looked odd, like it’d been sown together badly. Plastic surgery gone awry? She turned her attention back to the manager – Alan Oswald, according to his name tag. “Is there something wrong with my rental?” Andra asked. “I really would like to be on my way.”
“Uh … no, your car is all gassed up and ready to go,” Oswald said, “it’s just that – this is so embarrassing – we overbooked and yours is the last car available.”
He paused, Andra thought, as if waiting for her to volunteer something, to offer a solution.
“I don’t understand,” Andra said. The woman next to her groaned and slammed her pocketbook and papers down on the counter.
“Look,” she said, touching Andra’s arm. Andra didn’t like being touched by strangers. “The idiots here at Shit-For-Brains Rent-a-Car, the only car rental place in town as I’m sure you’re aware, rented out their 12 cars to 13 people. I’m the 13th person and even though I have a perfectly good reservation,” here she picked up the papers and waved them around again, “I do not have a car!” She emphasized each word equally.
“I still don’t ...”
“Mr. Manager of Shit-For-Brains Rent-A-Car here,” the woman continued, nodding toward Oswald, who was blushing, “tells me that he rented the last car to you.”
“So, he also let it drop that you’re driving to Golden, Colorado. Well, so am I. Or was.”
The light finally went on in Andra’s head.
“You can’t be serious!” she cried, turning back to Oswald. “You want me to share the car? You want me to drive across the country with a complete stranger?”
“Pfffft,” the woman said before Oswald could answer. “It’s three states, not ‘across the country,’ and we’re not exactly strangers, Andra Sweeney.”
Now Andra was completely taken aback. Sweeney was her maiden name; she hadn’t been a Sweeney for 35 years. Who was this woman? She peered at her face again. For her part, the woman stood still and let herself be scrutinized. She seemed to be used to it.
Up close, Andra could see that it hadn’t been botched surgery, but something ugly and violent that had left a criss-cross of shiny jagged lines on the woman’s face. A particularly angry-looking one slashed down the right corner of her mouth and disappeared below the chin. It gave her a lopsided frown. All of the wounds were old and now part of the aging skin’s wrinkles. There was something in her eyes, though, that seemed familiar. Their color, hazel flecked with bits of gold. Andra gasped.
“Yep, it’s me, Annie,” the woman said, using Andra’s old nickname. “I recognized you right away.”
Desiree Imogene Loman. Her whole name came instantly to Andra’s memory. Dez Loman, her best friend, blood sister, confidante from second grade to senior year. Dez, who knew all her youthful secrets, who ate at the Sweeney table most nights, who’s fast-talking chutzpa got them out of all kinds of trouble. Desiree Imogene Loman who stole Jeffrey Sinclair, her heart’s desire, and whom she hadn’t seen or spoken to in 40 years.
As the two women stared at each other, their thoughts racing, Alan Oswald shifted from one foot to the other, a hopeful smile on his face. Maybe this whole debacle was salvageable after all.
“How nice!” he said, jarring the women. “You know each other and probably going to the same reunion and everything!” He whipped out new paperwork on the car, a small green Ford no one ever wanted to rent.
The mention of the reunion and why they were there rattled Andra.
“I didn’t say ...”
“Oh, come on now, Annie,” Desiree said, “why the hell not? We both need a way to get there. We’ll have hours to do some catching up!” The look on Andra’s face told her that might be a bad tack. “Or not,” she amended. “You can pretend I’m not even there. I’ll ride in the back. The trunk?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Andra said, though a small smile played on her lips. Desiree could always make her laugh, she remembered. Then she thought of Jeffrey and frowned.
Oswald sensed he was losing her. “I’ll take 30 percent off the rental,” he coaxed.
Desiree cut her eyes at him.
“Uh, 50 percent,” he said. “And I won’t charge you for the tank of gas that’s in there or make you bring the car back with a full tank.” He rattled the keys on top of the paperwork that he was amending.
“I’ll pay for all the gas there and back,” Desiree added. “And we can split the driving.”
Andra hated making rushed decisions. When her Albert was alive, he handled the details of their lives. The extra money would be helpful along the way, even if Sophia was paying for the car. She sighed.
“Fine!” she said, throwing up her hands. “I just want to be somewhere before dark!”
Oswald breathed a sigh of relief and Desiree clapped her hands and squealed like a little girl.
“We’re going to have an adventure!” she crowed.
As she signed the paperwork, making sure Oswald had made the promised changes, Andra knew it wasn’t too late to back out. She didn’t owe Desiree anything, quite the contrary. She could insist on taking the car on her own, or even saying to heck with the reunion and letting Desiree have the vehicle. No, she wasn’t giving up something that easily to her again. And she was a bit curious about Desiree’s life, those scars …
“Here you go, ladies,” Oswald said, holding out the keys. There were two of them, but they were held together with an unbreakable metal cable.
“Now that has to be the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen,” Desiree said, snatching them out of his hands. “Why in the world would anyone want two keys that they can’t take apart? Do you have a metal cutter somewhere back there?”
“It’s okay,” Andra said.
“No, it’s not okay,” Desiree insisted. “What if one of us locks the keys in the car? Wouldn’t you feel safer if I had one and you had one?”
“I guess ...”
Flustered yet again, Oswald yanked open a drawer and pulled out a tiny hacksaw, part of a small, cheap tool kit the company had given away in a promotion. He just wanted these women gone and out of his sight. Truth be told, the shackled keys were pretty stupid.
After considerable discussion and experimentation, the two women figured out how to work the car and headed out of town with Andra at the wheel. Desiree dragged a plump purse onto her lap and pulled out some liquorice, a bag of peanuts and some beef jerky.
“Road trip food!” she said. “Want some?”
Andra shook her head. Every one of those snacks would hurt her teeth; she was looking at getting fitted for partials when she got back home from the reunion.
Desiree munched happily and watched the scenery roll by.
“You live here long?” she asked. “Funny we’ve never run into each other before.”
Had they done so, Andra thought, she would have run the other way.
“Only a few years,” she said. “Albert took early retirement and he always wanted to live by a good fishing lake.”
“Albert? Your husband? Where is he now? How come he’s not going to the reunion with you?”
So many questions. It was going to be a long ride.
“He died last spring,” Andra said, tears instantly springing to her eyes. “Heart attack.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Desiree said. “That must have been difficult for you. Kids?”
“Just one, Sophia. She lives in New Mexico.”
“Oh, yes, two! Twins named Phoebe and Marta. I love being a grandma.”
“So, what keeps you here? Why don’t you go live in New Mexico near your grand kids?” Desiree upended the bag of peanuts into her mouth and chomped away.
Why not indeed, Andra wondered. In truth, she never thought about it. It had been exciting to pack up everything and move to Minnesota from Colorado, with Albert, but now it all seemed too big, too hard to do on her own. Leave it to Desiree to ask uncomfortable questions. Andra just shrugged.
“Geez, I really hate to do this,” Desiree said, “but if you recall, I have a teeny, tiny bladder and we were waiting in that shit hole forever. Do you think we could stop so I could pee?”
Andra cringed at the swearing and rolled her eyes. They’d only gone about 10 miles. It would be a very long trip indeed if this kept up. Nonetheless, she pulled into the next gas station she saw. She waited in the car while Desiree ran inside. She’d never do it, of course, but the thought did cross her mind to simply take off. She smiled.
Desiree was back in minutes carrying a white paper bag. She shook it at Andra as she got back inside the car.
“Hot popcorn!” she said. “I couldn’t resist.” She offered it to Andra, who once again declined, focusing on getting back onto the highway.
“God, do you remember how it used to be?” Desiree said. “We’d be driving around the foothills and when we had to pee, we just pulled over, dropped our drawers and squatted. Those were the days. Now I’d need a forklift to get me back up!”
What was it about Desiree that made Andra shudder and smile at the same time?
“I’m glad convenience stores have nice, clean bathrooms now,” she said. “I never did like urinating on the side of the road.”
“Oh, please!” she said, turning in her seat to face her old friend. “You were a pissing fool! You used to be the best, the fastest and the loudest. It was like listening to a waterfall!”
Andra blushed, but couldn’t help smiling at the memory. Jeffrey used to say it was like hearing a horse pee on a flat rock. Jeffrey again. The 400-pound gorilla in the room.
“So,” she said, changing the subject, “what happened to you after high school? How come you ended up out here?”
Desiree turned back around and faced forward. She knew what Andra was asking.
“I married him, Annie,” she said. “And this was the most isolated place he could think of.”
Andra was confused, but oddly excited about finally finding out.
“Isolated?” she asked. “More isolated than the Colorado Rockies? And why would he want to be isolated?” Jeffrey’s family was loaded. They owned ski resorts, oil wells, you name it. She had often thought how wonderful it could have been, traveling, hosting huge parties, living the life of luxury.
“He didn’t want to be isolated,” Desiree said slowly. “He wanted me to be isolated, from family, from friends, from his family ...”
“I don’t understand.”
“We were married for one year,” Desiree said, shocking Andra, who’d long envisioned a life of easy grace that had been stolen from her. “Just enough time for him to move me here and to do this, among other things.” She turned and faced her friend again, holding her chin high. The cuts. She was talking about the cuts.
“Surely Jeffrey didn’t do that,” Andra said. “His family was ...”
“High ranking parasites of the lowest order,” Desiree interrupted. “And surely you’ve forgotten a lot of things about the Jeffrey and the all-mighty Sinclairs.”
Andra focused on the road ahead, but felt her face burning as if she’d been slapped. Jeffrey had been high-strung, to be sure. When their group got drunk, he got a little bit drunker than everyone else. When he’d teased, sure, it was a bit more cruel than it needed to be. But there was so much familial pressure. And when she’d lost her virginity to him and had cried to Desiree on the phone that night …
“But you’re right, Annie,” Desiree said, “Jeffrey didn’t do this, exactly.”
Andra sighed with relief. The woman had been exaggerating, had been scorned or something.
“No, not exactly,” Desiree continued, “he paid someone to do it.”
There was a wayside up ahead. Andra swerved into the right lane just in time, pulled into a spot and shut down the engine. Time to kill that gorilla once and for all.
“Desiree,” she said to her surprised passenger, “what are you trying to tell me?”
“I have to pee again,” Desiree said, opening her door. “How did you know?” She unbuckled her seat belt and headed toward the red brick building, leaving Andra bewildered and steaming mad. Andra pushed open her door and followed her inside.
“Desiree,” Andra said, her voice echoing off the tile walls and floor, “what you just intimated sounds really far-fetched. You have to understand that.”
Andra heard a rustling behind a stall door; then the loud automatic flusher kicked in.
“No, I don’t have to understand that, Annie,” Desiree said, hauling open the door and heading to the sink. “Your absolute denial and incredulity, now that, that I want to understand, given your history with Jeffrey Fucking Sinclair and his family. Have you truly forgotten?” Desiree stepped on the bar that served as a faucet handle and vigorously scrubbed her hands under the dribble of water.
Andra hadn’t forgotten, but she’d tried. His father cornering her in the kitchen at a party, talking about “keeping it all in the family,” Mrs. Sinclair’s silent acquiescence to any command from father or son, the painful, violent first time.
“I’m listening,” Andra said, wishing she had had enough guts to fly to the reunion, “tell me.”
“The first three months were the honeymoon,” Desiree said. They were sitting at one of the wayside picnic benches, even though Andra was worried that they’d never get out of Minnesota. Desiree saw the look on Andra’s face, but decided that telling the truth would do them both good. “I’ve learned a lot about that honeymoon phase over the years,” she said. “It’s part of the cycle.”
“The cycle?” Andra asked.
“The cycle of violence,” Desiree said, wishing she still smoked. “It’s a pattern that abusers follow. He was an abuser, Annie,” she added, seeing her old friend wince.
“You said ‘was’,” Andra said.
“I’ll get to that,” Desiree said, “don’t rush me.”
“Sorry.” Now that they were into it, Andra wanted it all at once.
“The verbal abuse came first,” Desiree said. “It often does. And he had the knack of making me feel like the crazy one if I even suggested he was being mean. ‘You misunderstood, my poor sensitive Desiree,’ he’d say, then make a joke about it.
“The first time he hit me, though, that was no joke.”
Andra huddled on the bench, hands between her knees, shoulders hunched over her ears, though she was definitely listening.
“He gave me a black eye; he wasn’t very good yet about making sure bruises didn’t show. I was isolated, though, and there wasn’t anyone to see it anyway. He certainly wouldn’t let me see a doctor.
“He blamed it on being drunk and, of course, on me. I provoked him. I said the wrong thing. He was so very sorry, though! He brought me flowers. Cooked supper for a week in a row. It was the honeymoon again and very confusing. Keeping your target off balance is part of the game plan.”
“Desiree,” Andra interrupted, “what you’re saying is so foreign to me. It’s like a whole other language.”
“Do you know what my job has been over the last 30 years?” Desiree asked.
“Your job? No, I don’t.”
“My job was to learn that language and to teach it to others, to give them the tools to heal. I ran a woman’s shelter. When I wasn’t begging the county and the state for money to keep it running, I did my damnest to help those women get free. And there were hundreds, Annie, thousands. Some kept coming back over and over again until the last time I saw them was at their funeral.”
“Happens more than you know,” Desiree said. She stood up and paced around the picnic table. “Hey,” she said, “We should get a move on, huh? We have a lot of daylight left. We should be able to at least get past Des Moines before dark. Maybe even to Council Bluffs.”
As if waking from a dream, Andra shook her head clear.
“I know, I know,” Desiree said, pulling her to her feet. “There’s lots more to tell, but we’ve got time. Come on, let’s go, girl! I’ll drive.”
To be continued ...