By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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I’m driving on Route 91, going ten miles an hour over the limit, on the way to my divorce — or, at least, to its announcement. My husband, Jake, and I decided we would tell the kids tonight. We’ve waited way too long. Our marriage died of natural causes years ago. We are pretending our children will be shocked by the news, but we both know better. Any hesitation that we have about telling them isn’t for fear of their surprise; it’s knowing that, once we say the words out loud to them, it will be official, carved in stone, irreversible. But, of course, that’s what we want.
My windshield is all but whited out before it even occurs to me that it’s snowing.
“Wow,” Jonah sings out from the back seat as the car in front of us attempts to brake and skids into the other lane. “Awesome. That rules.” Jonah is eleven, and to him things either “rule” or they “suck.” I can’t decide which word I dislike more.
I turn the wipers on high, purse my lips, and hunch my shoulders, as though these nods to ritual and posture might give me better traction.
“Where did this weather come from?” I say.
“Heaven,” Adam says. “Same place as every weather.” Adam is six and the only member of our family who is unfailingly religious.
I can’t believe it’s snowing this hard all of a sudden. I guess I expect storms to arrive in gradual increments, each phase equipping you to deal with the one that follows. Snowflakes the size of saltine crackers hit the glass in front of me. It’s like watching the road through a flickering stereopticon.
“Are we going to get stuck in this?” Jonah asks.
“Of course not.” I direct my response more toward Adam. He’s going through a fear stage. (I wonder why.) “We’ll be fine,” I say. I, who carry concealed in my bosom the dynamite to blow apart their lives. “We’ll be just fine.” And to think I took an oath — two oaths, in fact, one for each child — that I would never lie to them.
I peek at Adam in the rearview mirror. His eyes are scrunched up tight. He’s praying.
“Radical,” Jonah says as a second car skids up ahead, this time leaving the roadway altogether, gliding in slow motion down the gentle slope to the ravine. “Adam, let’s count how many cars crash.”
“Jonah, stop it,” I say.
Actually I think we’re OK. I’m of the old if-you’re-meant-to-hang-you’ll-never-drown school of fright. Icy roads and lightning storms are two things that don’t scare me, practically the only two things in my life. What with the whims and ways of fate, this probably means that some combination of them will do me in.
After I picked the boys up at school, I drove six miles out of our way to a bakery to buy a cake. I stopped just short of asking the lady what to write in lard-icing words on top: Excuse me, please, but what do you usually write in turquoise cursive frosting on the cake that follows the announcement that you intend to rip your family in two, or four, or maybe several torn and shredded pieces? Perhaps, crowded in between the sugar roses: I’M SORRY, or WE TRIED, or I’M NOT SORRY. I’M NOT SURE WE REALLY DID TRY. Who would dare put a knife to that confection?
“If we get stuck, we’ll eat the cake,” Jonah says. I can never tell if his exuberance is the genuine article or not. He’s been lighthearted since the day he was born, and I have never trusted it. His father and I share a certain well-honed propensity for gloom. It’s like two short parents with a six-foot son: you think there’s been a clerical error.
“Mom, how can we eat the cake?” Adam says. “We don’t have any dishes.” He’s six years old, and he carries the weight of the world on his bony shoulders.
“Mom, can we eat the cake?” Jonah says.
“We’re not getting stuck,” I say. “Not tonight.”
“Why not tonight?” Jonah’s sharp. “Is the cake for a party?”
And it hits me: the cake was a stupid idea, a completely idiotic thing to buy, much less drive out of the way for when a world-class blizzard is about to hit. I want to throw the cake out in the snow and hope that hungry wolves and coyotes come along, nose and tear at the white bakery box, sniff the cake once or twice, then walk away disgusted.
“Watch out!” Jonah screams, and Adam hollers, “Mommy!” and though I have hit the brakes, I have lost whatever control I ever imagined I had over this machine and the fate that we three share. We are sliding, I know that, but it feels as if we are airborne, like a hovercraft, floating across the surface of the ice, until we stop roughly, head-on into a mountain of soft snow. At first I try to figure out how the pile of snow got in the middle of the road. Then I realize that we are no longer on the road. We’re on a slanted skating rink, and all around us cars are slipping off in odd directions.
“Are you OK?” I turn to face the boys.
Adam is ashen. Jonah winks. “It’s OK, Adam,” he says, and he reaches awkwardly to put his arm around his brother.
“Mom, is it OK?” Adam says.
“Oh, yeah,” I say. “Sure. It’s fine, honey. We’re totally OK.” I’m not sure I can breathe. If I have to share custody of these two boys with Jake and go ten hours in a row without seeing them, I think that I will die.
I open the car door to see that we’re on the far edge of the shoulder of the road. There are cars stopped all around us in a random fashion.
“Stay in your car,” a policeman with a flashlight calls to me. “We’re going to be here awhile.”
I close the door against the driving snow. “We’re fine,” I say again.
And all thought stops, then starts up again, blinks on and off. I run the engine to warm up the car, then turn it off to save enough gas to drive away once spring comes. I try my cellphone, but there’s no reception in this storm, the human voice too weak to penetrate the snowy skies.
“What’s that?” Adam speaks at the same instant a muffled knock sounds on my side window. My first thought is that it’s a bear. In this blizzard things have become fantastic, edging up on the surreal.
I roll the window down a crack and lock my doors in one deft motion.
“Can you help us?” Through the veil of heavy snow, the very large woman speaking does not look unlike a bear, a bear wearing one of those down parkas that inflate. Then I see it: this bear has got a cub. “I was afraid to stay inside my car with the baby,” she says. “I smelled fumes. Could we wait with you in your car?”
“Uh, sure. Yeah. Of course.” I want to say no, to send her on ahead to the next car. I need this little interval to figure out the next part of my life. But I unlock the doors. “Please,” I say. “Get in.”
The woman circles the car and climbs in beside me. “Thanks so much. I’m Roberta Peterson.” She offers me her hand, and her wet mitten dampens my thin glove. Her big presence makes me feel boxed in. I wish I’d had the courage to say no. Doing good deeds grudgingly, under duress, wins nobody points in this life or the next. You suffer doing it, and you don’t get credit for it anyway. I’ve heard a hundred stories about couples who tell their grown-up offspring, “Dad and I stayed together for your sake,” only to hear the kids say, “We always wished you’d get divorced.”
Roberta turns to greet my boys in the back seat, then uncovers her baby’s face.
“It’s so nice and toasty in here,” she says, sprinkling the front seat with melting flakes as she pulls off her hat.
I figure the temperature in the car is twenty degrees, max.
“Would you mind holding Alexander?” She removes the baby’s wet covering and hands me the sleeping child. It’s like a cat. That comforting. Everyone should carry a sleeping baby around with them to hold whenever they need to.
“Thanks so much.” She takes the baby back. “I was so afraid of carbon monoxide in our car. The fumes were fierce.”
I try to remember if carbon monoxide even has a scent. I thought it was lethal because it came disguised as air.
“Well.” She struggles to turn her bulky self around and eye Jonah and Adam. “You’ve got two fine boys here.” She speaks as if we’re old friends who have been out of touch. “You must be very proud. I won’t be having more than just the one. My husband died right before Alex here was born. But I’m making the best of it. Oh, I know you’re thinking, How does she do it? but I manage. I’m a whiz at making do. I am accomplished at surviving. I have been surviving my whole life.”
Unlike the rest of us.
“Weep, and you weep alone,” she says. “That’s what I always say.”
Absolutely. “Did you hear anybody say how long we might be stuck here,” I ask, “when you were outside?”
“Well, I only talked to the car behind you, but it was four men traveling together, so I passed that up. You know, rape and all. Oops. Sorry.” She turns to eye the silent boys in back. “They were thinking we’d be here all night.” She sounds positively cheerful. (Laugh, and the world laughs with you.)
All night? But what about our plans? What about our divorce? If Jake and I don’t tell the boys tonight, the moment will pass, and we may never again have the wherewithal to manufacture the courage, to buy the cake, to put the whole thing into words for Jonah and Adam, and it will never get spoken or accomplished, and we will grow old and die and never get divorced.
“Oh, not all night,” I say. “Surely not all night.”
“Mom?” Adam sounds worried.
“Here,” our lady passenger says. “Would you boys like to hold little Alex here?” Without waiting for an answer, she lifts the baby over the seat. I try to think if either boy has ever held a baby. There have been so few babies in our lives.
“Be careful,” I say.
“What else would they be?” Roberta says.
I look back to see the little bundle in Jonah’s arms. The baby’s awake and reaches for Adam’s nose. I had always thought we’d have three children. Maybe we could keep this one. Maybe Roberta will further inflate her puffy coat and float away. I give my head a serious shake. Lucky for me they don’t make you pass a mental-health test to get a divorce. Or surmount some other obstacle. I read the other day that in the Ivory Coast a woman can divorce her husband only if she finds him having sex with the same woman in the family home on three separate occasions. I guess they want to rule out haste. And any optical illusions.
So. Sex. There’s that. A marriage can have a big effect on your sex life. We used to have great sex, Jake and I, all the time, but no more. I lost interest. Misplaced it. Put it down for a minute just to free my hands, and when I came back, it was gone. To tell the truth, I didn’t exactly turn the house upside down looking for it.
“Mom,” Adam says, “the police.” I roll down the window, admitting handfuls of white, fluffy stuff, and the snow-covered officer hands me two large bags of Cheez Doodles. It seems a nearby truck was transporting the snacks and decided to share the wealth. I’m interested in the guy who was hauling freshly brewed espresso.
I hand Roberta and the boys the Doodles and close the window on the night. I wonder if we should try to walk home, but Jake would have a fit if I went off and left the car. Besides, the snow is falling in a solid sheet. Besides, it’s four degrees. Besides.
The dampness is awful. I search out a warm, dry spot in my mind: Jake and I sitting beside a fire, dividing up the heat. But then we begin arguing who’s warmer, drier, who’s more miserable, and who’s to blame. It’s no good. We fight now even in my fantasies.
“How will Dad know where we are?” Adam says.
“He’ll figure we’re someplace safe waiting out the storm.” It’s true. He’ll assume that we’re OK. He won’t worry. He doesn’t know how.
“I think I’m going to barf.” Jonah holds up the half-empty Cheez Doodles bag. “Have we got anything to drink? Can I go get some snow?”
“No,” I say. “Just swallow a few times.”
“But my spit is solid cheese.”
I let it go. How come I never bicker with the kids? Jake and I bicker all the time. When I hear us, I think we should have gotten a divorce on our honeymoon. I despise Jake for this, but I despise me more. Well, a quick divorce will put an end to all that, or limit it to court-ordered occasions.
When Jake and I were engaged, my friend Andrew gave me his definition of marriage: Marriage is a public, legal promise that when you want a divorce more than life itself, you’ll stay together. At the time I thought this sounded cold and unfeeling. Now I think it was pie-eyed, romantic drivel.
“Mom, I gotta have a drink.” Jonah nudges my shoulder. “If I don’t have a drink, I’ll die, and you’ll be stuck all night in the car with a fresh corpse you killed.”
“May I offer you this?” Roberta pulls a green bottle of Perrier from a huge bag emblazoned in sequin letters: Everything You’ll Ever Need. I’m trying to work out the logistics of offering to pay her, while first double-checking that the bottle is still factory sealed. I have a well-nurtured expectation that I’ll be poisoned, either intentionally or by accident. I am suspicious of fainthearted burps from jar lids advertised to pop when opened, and I throw out any food that looks the least bit off. It drives Jake crazy. He eats leftovers that have fermented for weeks on the bottom shelf of the fridge. “Tastes fine,” he says. It drives me crazy.
But now look at me here with Roberta. I’m the soul of courtesy. I like me so much when I’m out in company; I hate me so much when I’m home with Jake. I told him that. “I don’t hate you,” I said. “I hate me when I’m with you.”
Roberta has fallen silent. I like that in a stranger. I’d like that in a husband. I cringe whenever Jake speaks. And when did that start? I’ve been trying lately to work out when it was our marriage began its sad decline, but it’s like trying to pinpoint when the peaches on the kitchen counter first sprouted white fuzz. You could sit up and watch the fruit all night and never see the decay until it was well underway. The marriage just began to fray. Fray as in unravel. Fray as in fight. Two people just begin to fight. I’ve lived my whole life thinking if you understand a thing, you can fix it. That Freudian malarkey.
I hear a metal click on the glass and roll the window down to see a policeman dusted heavily with icy snow. What a busy night. We don’t get this much company at home.
“Sorry, ma’am, but could this little girl here stay inside your car with you?” He doesn’t wait for an answer but opens the door on Jonah’s side, lifts a small girl into the car, and closes the door carefully. “And, ma’am, might I ask you to step outside for a moment.”
“Mom,” Adam says, “is he arresting you?”
He should be.
“He’s not arresting me,” I say. “Are you?” I turn to the white-frosted officer.
“If you’d just step out of the car, ma’am.”
Once outside, I’m struck by the beauty of this whitened night. Moving only inches, from one spot to another, can change completely what you see and how it makes you feel. I’m covered in snow before I can close the door. “Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to care for this little girl tonight. Her mother was seriously injured when her car hit a cement barrier. No seat belt. The little girl had her belt on in the back seat. We think she’s fine.”
“The mother’s going to be OK, right?”
“It doesn’t look good. The EMTs can’t get through. We’re afraid she won’t make it.” He claps his heavy gloves together, stamps his booted feet. “We told the little girl her mother got very sleepy and is taking a nap. Would you please keep her distracted?” I wonder if he would like to divorce his job.
I get back in the car.
“Mom, she has to pee,” Jonah says. People routinely confide in Jonah, somehow sensing their secrets will likely be well tended in his hand.
“Oh, honey.” I sit facing forward. I can’t make myself turn to look at the girl. My face will tell her that in all likelihood tonight her world has changed. “Honey, can you hold it?”
“Mom,” Jonah says, “we have that fishbowl in the back.” After our last fish went to meet his Maker, Adam put the fishbowl in the car in case we ever unexpectedly bought a fish.
“OK, guys,” I say, “I’m going to get out and come to the back seat. The second I get out, both of you climb into the front — carefully.” I eye the tiny baby and the enormous Roberta.
“You are so nice,” Roberta says.
Nice? For getting in the back seat? I would happily give this little girl a kidney.
Once we are all set with the fishbowl in position, the child pulls her pants down, and I stop just short of choking at the sight of red welts covering her thighs. I can’t seem to swallow. Taking a breath feels tricky. But the whole operation goes more smoothly than anything else has tonight, and I open the door and pour the warm pee into the snow. I close the door again and sit back and put my arm around the little girl, and she snuggles up to me.
“Where is her mother?” Roberta says.
How come nobody ever says, Where is her father?
“Her mother’s in a different car,” I say. “She was very tired and needed to sleep a bit. . . . What’s your name, honey?”
“So Molly is going to sit with us, because we are going to stay awake.” I think from now on, forever. I do not expect ever to sleep again.
“Mom, can I come back there?” Adam says, and he crawls over the seat.
Jonah grabs the steering wheel. “Excellent. Now I can practice my driving.” When Jonah grows up and gets engaged, I’m going to tell his future bride, Yes, he’s really this upbeat all the time. We don’t know where he gets it. He sure didn’t learn it at home.
“My mom takes naps a lot,” Molly says. “She has to take medicines and shots a lot. She takes them with my dads.”
“How many dads do you have?” Adam asks.
“A lot.” She rubs her hand across her nose.
“We just have one,” Jonah says, “and he’s a handful.”
Funny how kids parrot your phrasing and pilfer nouns and verbs you picked up from your own mother or grandmother. On occasion Jonah calls his dad “kind sir” and me “dearie.” Sometimes I am “young lady.”
I try to picture this dad, who is a handful, and the image that comes to my mind is of Jake wandering on some frozen tundra in Alaska, lost in a wilderness of snow, leaving behind a line of sled dogs frozen in their harnesses while he marches on alone, ice covered and determined, searching the whole universe to find us. (That would be the same Jake I say does not know how to worry.)
The whole car gives a shudder. No question: God is out tonight.
I think I should feel worse that Molly may very likely become an orphan before morning — all her fathers notwithstanding — but we’re outside of time here. We’ve left behind the normal world, where minutes pass and mothers get hurt and die and parents tell their kids they are divorcing. Nothing more can happen to us till time starts up again at dawn, and traffic cops and snowplows rev their engines to alert the new morning to unleash the furies made especially for the day.
I look down, and Adam and Molly have both fallen fast asleep. Roberta asks if I would like to hold the baby, and in minutes she is sleeping too. What is this woman doing here? How did she turn up in our adventure? What is it she brings to the party? Warmth. Body heat. A baby for us to hold — no mean gift, that. And she was Johnny-on-the-spot with her Perrier. She starts to softly snore.
“This rules,” Jonah says.
I sit socked in with sleeping souls, the whole car crammed with futures that children will awaken to and figure out how to live with. Jonah takes out his miniature book light and opens up his book. This may well be the root cause of his equanimity: he’s always reading.
My own reading is all about divorce these days. All the books talk about “what’s best” — I have to think what’s best for me. People actually say these words to one another with a straight face. Nobody ever asks what might be best for the planet, or for little girls who get orphaned out in snowstorms. Nope, we are all individual solar systems, each with its own light source and climate and fenced-in backyard. But what if it turned out that there was just one sun, one moon, one human clan, and we were all in it together? What if Jake and I decided it might be important to behave with honor, with kindness even, to the world and one another? What if we thought our actions mattered? What if, at the end of the day, there is right and there is wrong, and they are not the same?
“Where’s my mom?” Molly leans forward to look out the window, but the world ends at the glass. “She got hurt. My mom hurt her head.”
“I know, sweetie,” I say. “But you are fine and safe here, and we’ll take care of you.”
“I want my mom.”
“Would you like to see this?” Jonah holds his little reading light out to Molly, who takes it carefully. “I think it might be magic or something, because when I shined it out the window, I thought I saw a fox, or maybe it was fairies in the snowbanks. Try it.”
And Molly touches the tiny spot of light to the cold window.
And here I am intentionally and with stupidity aforethought about to move out of the house where this boy lives. I am designing a life in which I will see him half the time. I’m planning a universe where he will visit his mother and visit his dad. I am insane.
“Come up here,” Jonah says to Molly. “Can you climb over the seat? I’ll teach you how to drive.”
“Do you know how?” Molly clambers into the front seat.
“Not exactly,” Jonah says. “But how hard can it be?”
Buttons click and knobs are turned, and Molly giggles. Later I will find every single setting altered. Then Molly climbs down from Jonah’s lap to sit on the seat beside him, and she puts her head against Roberta’s sleeve, and in minutes she is back to sleep.
I wonder: Would I choose now to have skipped this night, had I the choice?
My friend Joanne asked me once, “Would you choose Jake again to be your husband, the next time around? I mean, if there are lifetimes after this, would you choose Jake again?”
But that’s not the question. The question is: What if there will be no other lifetimes? What if this is the only one we get? Everybody says, Yeah, of course it is, and everybody means, Nah, it can’t be. But if it is just one ride to a customer, what then?
Well, then that means this is the only you that you will be. Not only are your spouse and house and children the only ones you’ll ever have, but you, yourself, are the only way you’re ever going to be. This is what you’ve chosen to become: how kind you are, how cruel; your temperament; your complement of fears and fantasies; your history.
What if staying married is not better just for children and the planet earth and everyone who lives here? What if staying married is better for you? What if at the end of the day just being faithful turns out to be a good thing to have been? Just because it sometimes snows so hard that people end up crashing and dying, and the lucky ones sleep all night in their cars, it doesn’t mean that you stop driving. It means you buy serious snow tires, and you carry chains and flares and blankets in your trunk. “Did Molly’s mom get killed?” Jonah asks softly.
“I don’t know, sweetheart,” I say. “She got hurt pretty bad.”
“Maybe Molly could come live with us,” he says. “She can have my room. I’ll sleep in the attic. I’ll put the hammock up there. Can I have my own refrigerator?”
“I know you’ve already figured out how you’ll hide Molly in the back so you can take her home with us,” he says. “I know you, Mom.”
It’s true. He does. Jonah knows me in a way Jake never has and never will. (But maybe it’s greedy to want more than one other person in the world to really know you. Maybe one is a lot.) Still, I pretend he has not read my mind. “What are you talking about?” I say. I always do this. How else is he to separate from me one day? To grow a beard and get a wife, a life, and move to Cincinnati?
“She’ll like Dad,” Jonah says.
He’s right. Molly would like Jake, this man who’s spent ten thousand hours playing Chutes and Ladders and Go Fish, who makes Halloween seem like Christmas morning.
So, what if I decided I would like Dad too? What if I refuse to cripple this family, to shoot it in the foot so it won’t have to go to war? Maybe it should have to go to war and fight in every single battle life may stage.
“It would never work out,” I say to Jonah. “The courts would not say Molly could come and live with us.”
“Unless, of course, they say she could,” Jonah says.
“Yeah, unless they say that.”
“Pheutt.” Roberta makes a noise that sounds like a horse on a really hot day, “Oh, dear.” She turns in her seat and looks around. “Oh. You’re back there. Good grief. I must have fallen asleep. I dreamed I had a husband, and then I realized I had two husbands. One was really big and burly, and one was small and fair and gentle, like he was gay. I hope that isn’t offensive to anyone.” She turns to Jonah. “And these two husbands kept fighting with each other. They’d wrestle and jump on each other and roll in the snow, and then we went to this park that had a beach, and the two of them started building this sand castle, and it was amazing until this park ranger came by and said, ‘You have to move that. You don’t have a permit. This is criminal activity.’ ” She gives her head a serious shake. “What do you think that means?”
I think it means you were in the REM phase of sleep while I was back here keeping the planets in motion and figuring out the meaning of life. I think it means that in your dreams you had a marriage pretty much like everybody else’s: tumultuous and perplexing, freezing and balmy, a day at the beach, a criminal offense. I hand Roberta back her sleeping baby.
I must have fallen asleep at some point, because when I open my eyes, it is light enough to see a figure walking by.
I roll down the window and call out, “Hello? Is there any news?”
“They say the plows are opening the roads just south of here,” he says. “We might get moving in another hour.”
Molly wakes and gives a little cough. Adam stretches and asks, “Are we still here?”
Yes, by the grace of God, we are. And by that very grace this little boy, who finds his waking life a scary thing, has slept peacefully all night. Not noise, not cold, not even my crazed, careening thoughts disturbed his easy slumber.
I lean forward in my seat to look at Roberta’s baby, the baby who, she will later tell me, has slept the whole night through for the first time in his life. I turn around and get up on my knees and reach into the hatchback and carefully lift the damp white cake box. I place it on the seat next to me and open it.
“So,” I say. I wink at Molly. “So, then. Who wants some breakfast?”
“Yes!” Jonah says. “Outstanding. We’re going to eat it here and now. You made the perfect choice, young lady.”
Linda McCullough Moore