They were driving back from Wewoka Lake on the narrow stretch of blacktop east of town. They’d been fighting all morning, and she’d been drinking all morning, and now she was drunk. He didn’t think she was pretty when she was drunk. Her face turned red and rigid. She was sitting in the passenger seat of the Charger, staring out her window, and he’d turned the radio off so he could think. All his thoughts were mean and desperate. He couldn’t get them to stop circling. They hit the straightaway right after the curve by the brick plant, trees on both sides, the black oaks leaning so that the road seemed like a tunnel, and the light inside it a strobe of shadow and sun.
His hands were twitching. He was sober. He didn’t think he’d been more sober, and looking at things, clear headed as he was, he felt like it was finished. They’d never have kids, get married. They’d never have a lot of things, and when he thought about starting over with another one, something inside him seemed to fall. He didn’t know what it was. His sternum felt frozen. There was a cool ache in his throat. He tried to clear it, but he couldn’t.
The sun seemed to dim.
A van met them and slipped past. Then a pickup and trailer. He could see the sun reflect off the glass of another about half a mile away, coming their direction, and when the glint of it hit his eyes, he went cold and numb. He couldn’t feel his fingers or face. It was like his hands belonged to someone else. They gripped the wheel at ten and two, and he watched them tighten and the knuckles go white, and then he watched, as if on a monitor, them steer the car into the oncoming lane. Jill didn’t seem to notice. She probably thought he was trying to pass. But then he started accelerating, up from sixty to seventy to eighty-five, and right before the truck coming toward them began flashing its lights, she glanced up, and then over.
She said, “Jesus Christ, Jimmy! What in the fuck?”
He looked at her. He felt very calm.
When he looked back to the road, the truck coming toward them had begun to brake, and they were about a hundred yards away. He bore down on the pedal and clenched his jaw. He could feel his back teeth grinding. He didn’t know what he wanted. He felt like he was floating or coasting. He felt like his mind was stripped bare, low to the ground and gliding fast. Right as Jill began to scream, the approaching pickup swerved into the opposite lane and went past in a blur of paint and chrome and a Dopplering of horn blasts and squealing tires.
She was saying, “My God.” She was saying it over and over. She wouldn’t look at him, and when he glanced at her, her face was completely drained of blood, and she was shaking.
He pulled into the right-hand lane, and when he turned into the driveway ten minutes later, feeling had returned to his hands and face, and he could sense his body. Jill was motionless, mute. She was staring at the console in front of her, the glove compartment. In it was a signature series Dan Wesson .357, five of the chambers loaded with Black Talons. She knew he kept it there. He leaned over and hit the compartment release, took out the gun and holster, and then got out and went up the walk to the house. He fumbled with the lock a moment and then he was inside and through the living room and up the hallway to the bedroom. He walked over to the dresser on his side of the bed, opened the drawer, and buried the pistol under a pile of socks. He sat there and tried to think. His skin was tingling. He decided he’d put the gun back before work in the morning. He decided he needed something to drink.
He went back down the hallway to the kitchen. Jill was standing in the living room. He hadn’t heard her come inside. She was short and petite and darkly complexioned: dark eyes and hair and skin. She was twenty-seven years old, and she looked, of a sudden, twenty-one. The years had been burned out of her face. She looked like she’d gotten in from a run. He leaned against the wall a moment and stared at her. She was standing very still in her cut-off shorts and bikini top, her hair pulled into a ponytail, wisps of hair trailing around her ears. She stared at the carpet just in front of her. She had her hands held out to either side as though to steady herself.
She looked up and noticed he’d entered.
Then she started toward him.
One moment she was standing motionless, and the next she was moving, faster then he’d seen her move, and he thought she was going to hit him.
But she didn’t hit him.
She came up, and he turned her and pressed her against the wall, and somehow she wrapped herself around him, climbed up, and was at his neck and ears and face. Her body gave off a strange heat. It almost hurt to touch. He held her very tightly, and they were kissing in a way that seemed vicious and fierce. He carried her down the hall toward the bedroom, but they didn’t make it to the bedroom. They made it as far as the bathroom, and as he carried her, she came. She squeezed into him and screamed, and her entire body convulsed. It had never happened like that. They were both still clothed. He’d not even touched her there.
Then they were in the bathroom, and she was seated on the counter with her legs around his waist. His belt was off, and he was inside her. She was weeping and grabbing his hips and pulling him into her harder.
She said, “Motherfucker.”
She said, “Kill.”
She said other things.
She said something that sounded like grate.
Afterward, they lay atop the covers of their bed with the air-conditioning prickling their skin and her against him as though she’d wear him for warmth. He didn’t understand what had happened, and he thought he loved her very much.
She turned at one point and kissed him gently on the cheek.
She said, “Don’t ever do that again.”
Of course, he did it again.
Why wouldn’t he do it again?
He felt she wanted him to, and it wasn’t something she could ask with words. She had to ask other ways. It was something he had to know.
Two weeks and they were coming back from the city after meeting friends for dinner. They’d made the Earlsboro exit and were driving past the county dump. It was just dark, and the stars were swarming up above them, and the trees beyond the bar ditch at either side of the road reflected moonlight in shades of green. Theirs was the only car on the highway. Jill reached over and brushed her nails very lightly against his arm, and he knew at once what she was thinking. She didn’t have to say a word. He thought that they’d found something outside sex or speaking. He pressed down the accelerator, and the night began rushing past.
Her breath quickened. The time before, she’d been angry, but this was something else. When they topped the hill and descended the final stretch of blacktop before the 270 intersection, there were headlights in the distance.
They didn’t speak. Her nails grazed his arm. She was making a loose fist and then releasing it, making a fist and releasing, letting her nails trail across his skin. The headlights were a mile off, and he gave the Charger more gas and watched the needle on the speedometer track up to 110. The front end trembled. Her nails stopped moving. They stopped moving and settled and then started to dig in. He pressed the pedal to the floor and steered across the center line.
The headlights were closer. They seemed to hesitate and twitch. You couldn’t know what the other driver was thinking, and Jimmy didn’t care. He wasn’t doing it for the other driver, and he wasn’t, he thought, doing it for himself. Something had opened up. He was nearer than he’d ever been. He didn’t wonder about losing her. He didn’t worry she’d disappear. They’d discovered something on the road by Wewoka Lake, and when you discovered something, there wasn’t any going back. He didn’t even see why you’d want to or how you could. They were going forward, fully forward, faster and faster like the car in which they traveled, on toward the lights that seemed to have stopped moving. They were running at 116 miles an hour with the engine whining in fifth gear and her nails clawing his skin and the two of them like one thing, watching, the Charger passing the motionless car, and not even honking this time, no telling what they thought, just wind moving past and the bright blur of the headlamps and the night rushing back to darkness as he eased off the accelerator and allowed the car to coast.
They started calling them drives. He’d turn and ask if she wanted to drive, and she’d know what he meant. There were drives that weren’t drives, but more and more that were. He couldn’t come out and say that’s what they were doing. If it was a drive, he’d have to pretend it wasn’t. She needed it to be like that. She’d ask it with her eyes.
She’d ask with her eyes and her cheeks and the way she’d tilt, to him, her face. She’d incline it just so, and he knew she was asking him to ask it.
And he would.
A week later, they pegged out the Charger on the flat stretch of highway headed toward Norman, traveling west. Sundown. Cool and cloudless. Jimmy steered into the passing lane going up a hill, no cars coming, but you couldn’t see to know. Anything could suddenly crest out and come barreling into your teeth. When they topped the incline and looked down to see nothing on the road below them, he glanced over to the passenger seat, and she was grazing her nails along her thighs then reaching with one hand to caress her neck.
She sucked her top lip between her teeth.
Her eyes fluttered.
Then the Tuesday following. This time running slower and at dawn, a fog rising from creek bottoms along 99, and the car pushing through mists and trailing behind it two vortices of turning vapor. You couldn’t see anything twenty yards ahead. Jimmy behind the wheel with love and terror churning inside him and thinking, as they parted the morning haze, that the territory into which they traveled was a territory of adoration and fear. Both drew them closer, pressed them, no distance and one mind watching, the old primal mind, reptilian.
And always afterward, after they pulled back into the drive, morning or evening, the two of them having at each other like children, and with the same sense of wonder, and panic, and awe.
Her body was changing. She was changing inside it.
At first it was Jimmy who had changed, or Jimmy who had acted, and the action changed him, and her, changed them together, though somehow at different speeds. She was going faster than him now. She was accelerating, faster and faster. She was astride him, seated atop his hips with her shins braced against his thighs, not bouncing, but actually riding, the way a jockey will a horse, faster than bouncing, more controlled, her knees on the bed at either side of him, and now leaning forward, both palms braced against the center of his chest, turning her head as though looking back to someone, someone not in the room, and her eyes clenched and teeth bared, crying out, and him little more than a stump or post, because, in her velocity, she must have forgotten him entirely. He must have disappeared beneath her because now when she comes and quivers and collapses onto him, her body feels like there is no skeleton inside to sustain it, and he is not Jimmy, he is the thing onto which she’s crumpled, boneless, and she just lies like that, heaving slightly and out of breath, and without looking or touching, she rolls off him and onto her side of the bed, and then pulls him to her, uses him to cover herself.
They would lie in the dark in the hours after. He had begun to feel the creep of something. Something very different.
“You awake?” she whispered.
“I’m awake,” he said.
They lay there.
The air-conditioning clicked off.
The room was cold.
“Are you hungry?”
He said he wasn’t.
“I’m hungry,” she said.
“I’m hungry all the time.”
He could feel her toes against his ankle.
“You look like you lost weight.”
“I have lost weight.”
“You look good,” he said.
“I’ve lost six pounds. It’s like I can’t get enough to eat. I’ll eat, and then, ten minutes later, I’m hungry again.”
A minute passed. He thought she’d fallen asleep.
“Do you still love me?” she asked.
He turned his head on the pillow and tried to see her in the dark.
“What?” he said.
“I love you,” he said.
“Say it again.”
“I love you.”
“Jesus,” he said. “I love you: I love you, I love you, I love you.”
She reached out and touched his shoulder the way someone would to check the burner on a stove.
She said she loved him too.
“Are you going to get something?”
“Get what?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Then eat,” he said.
She said she wasn’t sure.
He almost told her to let him sleep, but he didn’t. It used to be something he would’ve said, not worrying whether it might sting. The drives had changed that, and now he did worry. They engaged twice a week in a ritual that could kill them instantly, and now he worried he might hurt her feelings if he asked to let him sleep.
“You think we’ll keep this up?”
“Keep what up?” he asked, knowing exactly.
“You know,” she said, and this time her hand on his shoulder was a caress. “The way we’ve become.”
He coughed into a hand and cleared his throat. “I try not to think about that,” he said.
She was silent for a time. He couldn’t tell if what he said had satisfied her or if his lying had caused her to try a different approach.
“I want us to get married,” she said. “I want a family.”
He opened his mouth to respond, but he couldn’t. He’d wanted that too, at one time, but now he couldn’t conceive of that from her, and he realized it was finished.
“Baby?” she said.
“Did you hear me?”
“What are you thinking?”
“I just—we talked about that all last spring.”
She scooted across the bed and pressed herself against him. “It was different then. I don’t think I was ready.”
“And you feel like now you are?”
She seemed to be thinking about that. She said that now she felt she needed to be. Without it, she didn’t feel safe.
He didn’t know what to say. He pulled the covers off his chest and kicked them to the foot of the bed.
“You’re hot?” she asked.
“Here,” he said, pulling the sheet back up. “Sorry.”
She pressed herself tighter against him, laid her head on his shoulder, and in several minutes, her breathing had relaxed, and he could feel her face slacken against his skin.
Jimmy laid there. He was frightened in a way he didn’t understand.
He thought he needed to try something to get them out of this.
Then he realized he already had.
The drives ended. He decided to leave. A month and a half ago, he’d almost killed them in a head-on collision because he thought she might move out. And now, just like that, he had to get away.
It was his house they lived in.
It had taken him most of his twenties to pay off, working pipeline jobs in Alaska and out West.
He thought he’d just let her have it and go.
He began to remove items from the den and place them in storage. Fall was coming into the air, and before she woke in the morning, he’d take his grandfather’s pair of antique Persian pistols, or his suitcase of baseball cards, or an old photograph album with pictures of his nephews and nieces, take these in the Charger and pull in among the rows of identical aluminum-sided cells—each with a door that scrolled upward like the door on a garage—slip them into one of the cheap trunks he’d purchased, not knowing why it was these items he’d chosen and needed to protect. Standing in the morning cool with the sun not yet fully up, trying to hide his life and reassemble it.
He stood under the shower with his hands trembling.
He watched her as she slept.
Everything about her frightened him. Everything was strange.
He tried to think where he’d be when he told her. He considered moving to another town, going back West. He considered having a lawyer present, though he didn’t know what for.
He thought about discussing it with a friend, but this was not something he could discuss. He couldn’t disclose their drives. He couldn’t allow another in on that.
And she was getting suspicious. She sat across the car on their way to get dinner, sat squinting and with her arms folded as they circled the drive-through, then sat quietly on their way home, staring out at the road with a look on her he’d never seen.
The sun was down.
The light was failing.
“James,” she said, “you’re not even here.”
He drew a breath and let it slowly out.
“Where am I?” he asked.
“Don’t be cute.”
“Don’t get smart.”
“I’m not getting anything,” he said, braking slightly and slowing the car, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She turned to look out her window. The bag of burgers and fries in her lap and the smell of it made him nauseous. He didn’t think he’d be able to eat. They started up the hill toward the airport, the city limits about a mile away.
“Why are you going so slow?” she asked.
“I’m driving the speed limit.”
“You never drive the speed limit.”
“I do on hills. Patrols set up all through here.”
She turned back to face him. “You’re worried about a ticket?”
He cleared his throat.
His chest felt thick.
He said he’d just as soon not get stopped.
She looked at him, and her eyes narrowed.
“You’re breaking up with me,” she said.
“Don’t lie to me, Jimmy.” Her voice was almost a whisper. “Be a man, for God sakes.”
“A man,” he said. “Two months ago, you were ready to break it off yourself.”
Her eyes started to tear. She shook her head. She wiped her face and backhanded the wet from her cheeks and said she thought they were getting married.
He focused on breathing. He watched the road.
She said, “Is there someone else?”
“Were you going to say something?”
He shrugged and shook his head. “I didn’t know what to say.”
She leaned back, and Jimmy thought, at that point, the fight was over. He thought he’d been impetuous moving things out of the den.
She sat slumped in her seat, almost lying.
Then she kicked the dash.
It happened quickly. She kicked with both feet, cracking an air-conditioning vent, and then she kicked the center console and shattered the face of the clock.
He had one arm out trying to push her back. He was saying her name and telling her to calm down.
She began screaming. She released a wail that seemed to come from all the way inside her. She doubled forward, and he was trying to press her back against her seat, and that was when she turned sideways and struck him with her fist.
He hadn’t expected that. He raised an arm to fend off a second blow and swerved the car and checked the rearview mirror. He could feel a knot beginning to swell on his temple. She’d hit him very hard.
They passed the city limits. They began to pass construction supply and storage facilities, offices of the various production companies quartered in Perser.
There were a few moments of silence.
She began to shiver.
“Why,” she told him, “don’t you speed this thing up?”
He glanced at her.
“I’m not going to do that,” he said.
“Why don’t you give it a little gas?”
“I’m taking you home,” he said. “I’m taking you to your mother’s.”
Her eyes cut sideways and then back to the road, and she pressed her palms together and held them. Then she drew a leg back as if to kick, but she didn’t kick. She raised up in the seat and thrust her leg across the column and tried to snake her foot down on top of his and the accelerator.
He managed to push her back. He managed to keep them on the road.
“Speed up,” she was saying, fast and barely coherent. “Speed it up.”
She tried the thing with her leg again, and again he pushed her back. He was telling her to quit, she’d cause them to have a wreck, and she said she’d show him a wreck and tried it once more.
This time he pushed her harder and with more force than he intended and as she fell backward, her neck whipped, and her head cracked the passenger-side window. The lamination held, but the glass was shattered, spider-webbing from the point of impact so that the pane behind her was a nimbus of shattered glass.
“Jill,” he said, “Jesus,” and he reached for her knee, groping air.
She stared at him from beneath her brows, her eyes liquid and trembling. After the first drive she’d looked younger, but now she looked childlike and wounded. Outraged. Confused.
They drove half a mile. He reached to turn on the lights.
Something peculiar happened. Something strange came into the air. It was almost a scent and almost a breath, and it very nearly had a temperature and taste. It came from God knew where, and it was palpable, sudden. It wasn’t there, and then it was. A scent and a breath and a flavor, almost, and also none of these. Jimmy thought immediately of the glove compartment and then thought, by thinking that, he’d bring it to her mind. He tried not to glance over, and then glancing, tried not to move his head. He thought he should stop the car.
He thought again about the pistol, and this time, he did glance over, just barely turned his head, but it was too much, he knew instantly, and he knew, without any question, they’d been wired to each other or welded, fused in some permanent way, and he made for the glove compartment as quickly as he could.
Jill was faster. By the time his hand left the wheel, her fingers had already tripped the compartment release and gripped the pistol, and then she extended it, pressed the barrel to his temple, and cocked the hammer with her thumb.
It was fully dark now.
The blacktop clicked against his tires.
“Drive,” she said.
Aaron Gwyn teaches fiction writing at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. His story collection, Dog on the Cross (Algonquin Books), was a finalist for the 2005 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. His novel, The World Beneath, was just released by W. W. Norton. His fiction has appeared in Esquire, McSweeney’s, New Stories from the South, Glimmer Train, and other magazines.
“Drive” was selected for reprint in the 2010 edition of New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best.
“Drive” appears in our Winter 2009 issue.