She had planned a simple day trip. The “road not taken tour” Suzanne called it. Poring over datebooks, she searched for a weekend not scheduled with their usual gallery openings, dinner parties, or opera tickets.
Her intensity amused David as she studied maps and guide books. “How does it qualify as the ’road not taken’ when you’ve planned every inch of the trip?” But Suzanne would not demur, explaining, “we’ll be off the interstate. No GPS. Meandering back roads.” She reminded him of their spring adventure in Bordeaux. An attempt to avoid toll roads led them on a cart road through a vineyard and by peaceful brooks. No tourists in sight. “I want guaranteed authenticity.”
They were a mismatched couple; her friends agreed. David was intense, focused, driven by work schedules and market fluctuations. Suzanne was bubbly, gregarious, and intuitive. “But we agree on the important points,” she reassured herself. “Clean lines in furniture and primary colors. Minimalist art and stark white walls. Healthy food and artisanal breads.” She mentally ticked their points of consensus.
A mid September Saturday, well after the summer crowds departed, seemed perfect. It would be before the highways would be clogged with leaf peepers. “We’ll have it all to ourselves, David, just us and the locals.” As the weekend drew closer, David showed little enthusiasm for the getaway. He was preoccupied with the overseas markets and the latest Fed speculation. Aware of his difficult week, Suzanne worried her plan might evaporate. But arriving home late that Friday, David loosened his tie and flashed his crooked smile. “Fresh country air.” Then he turned somber. “Susie, I appreciate your planning. I know I don’t say it, but where would I be without you?” When she saw his shoulders sag with weariness, flat out exhaustion, she embraced him hoping he would never be without her.
The morning arrived enveloped in lowering skies. They set off early, and, as they cleared the city limits, sunlight streamed through the cover, promising a pleasant day. David was in an expansive mood. He reached across Suzanne, opened the glove box and tossed in his smart phone. “Not even texts?” Suzanne was incredulous. “Nope,” replied David, “an entire day, off the grid.”
They traveled on the interstate for more than two hours, logging the mileage on the GPS, its toy car making minute shifts as the highway continually turned ever slightly to the east. Traffic thinned and exits became much farther apart with quaint sounding names.
Exiting the highway, they passed through farm lands where corn stalks thick with dried cobs awaited the final harvest. “Now the adventure begins.” David smiled as Suzanne disconnected the GPS. They turned at a small sign advertising an antique shop, meandered down a narrow two-lane highway with a thick tree canopy. They slowed as they passed an apple orchard then turned back. Later the smell of freshly picked fruit enveloped them all day.
The afternoon sun faded as they honed in on their ultimate destination. The road became dusky in dim light and David slowed, driving closer toward the center line to avoid the heavy crown and deepening shadows. Suzanne had chosen a new country restaurant with a young chef. The menu offered farm to table entrees, local ingredients, and wine pairings. She was reading the review to David when he suddenly argued against it. “It will be filled with city people, out for the day, just like us. No, let’s look for a place where the locals eat.” David drummed the steering wheel enthusiastically. “A real meat and potatoes place. Are you game?” He glanced her way.
His sudden independence was unsettling. Suzanne was the planner. But his enthusiasm won her over. Well, she reasoned silently, we did want to have an unplanned adventure. But the thought of dry meatloaf and boiled potatoes sobered her.
A likely spot soon appeared on the side of the road. A small restaurant with painted clapboard shingles had the long lozenge shape of a converted diner. Not promising from its exterior but the parking lot was filled with cars and more than a few pickup trucks. “That’s a sure sign the food is good.” David argued. He was a Midwest son and, once out of the city, reverted to his version of urban legends. The windows were filled with neon advertising signs. A homemade sign board offered “specials” with no mention of farm to table fare.
They were pleasantly surprised by what they found inside. A steady hum of conversation spiked by an occasional burst of laughter filled the room. Diners hunched over their meals in obvious enjoyment with large plates of food “Sit anywhere,” instructed their hostess but she pointed to a small corner table by the front window.
“Looks like a winner.” David smiled widely as he settled in his chair. He picked up a menu and stared intently. Odd, Suzanne thought, he usually just orders broiled fish and salad. Their waitress appeared with a basket of warm, crusty bread smelling of yeast and David ordered “Your best bottle of red.” There was no discussion of a wine list.
David closed the menu and spread his cloth napkin onto his lap. He leaned, forward grinning with his best, self satisfied “I was right look.” “So, what are you having?”
“Broiled fish, if it’s fresh.” But she laughed, breaking the momentary tension of what might have slid into a grumpy mood. David pushed the bread basket toward her as he tore off a piece, holding it aloft for her to see like some holy wafer. His attitude, so buoyant and unexpected, entranced her.
The food was delicious, the portions large and their waitress tempted them into desserts. The room had emptied as they lingered over coffee. David lamented “I’ve eaten too much” and pushed away from the table. “And you’ve had a lot to drink, I think.” Suzanne tilted the bottle to the side, surprised at its emptiness.
“Susie, let’s just stay here overnight. It will be midnight before we get back to the city. Impossible time to find a parking space, I’ll be driving around for hours. Surely, we could find something local?”
“Well,” Suzanne hung on the word, drawing it out as she thought. “I guess would could use the GPS to get us to a highway, then a motel.”
“Oh the hell with the GPS. Let’s just ask her.” He beckoned to the waitress.
She quickly arrived at the table and listened thoughtfully as David explained that they wanted to find a local place for the night. “A small inn perhaps,” Suzanne added, “or a chain hotel, you know, like a Marriot.”
“Nothing like that around here.” The waitress stood with her hand on the back of a chair, brow furrowed in thought. “Um, well, I have a friend, well a friend’s mom, actually, who runs a bed and breakfast. It’s small but I could call her and see if she has a room?” She rushed off before they had time to answer.
“Really David?” Suzanne envisioned a place with themed rooms like Lavender Fields and Rose Arbor. ‘We’re not that far from town and the interstate. There has to be something nearby and I can drive if you’re not comfortable.”
David argued back. “It’s just for one night. How bad could it be??” Suzanne rolled her eyes, thinking of the decorator magazines in her dentist’s waiting room. “Pretty bad, David. You’ll be using lace trimmed towels and sleeping under a crocheted canopy.”
“You’re in luck!” called the waitress waving at them from across the room. “Done deal.” David gave Suzanne that familiar look once again. Well, he had been right about the restaurant.
The directions were simple. Left at the blinking light, a right at the stop and the third driveway on the left. “It’s a long ways back,” the waitress instructed. “There’s a little jog in the road where you bear to the right. Park in rear. Anna is expecting you.”
They found the driveway but no sign to mark the inn. The rutted road was overgrown and brush occasionally scraped the sides of their car. They came to a turn illuminated by cheap reflector lights with an arrow pointing to the right. David turned toward Suzanne, sensing her discomfort. “This is creepy, like some Stephen King novel,” he joked. Suzanne sat grimacing in the dark. She tried to keep a good face but David noticed her fists curled up tightly in her lap.
“Don’t worry, I’ll protect you from the wild dogs.” He laughed but Suzanne’s silence sucked the air from the car.
Just as she was about to protest, they saw the lights of the house. A widening curve emptied into a clearing. The house seemed to sag in its illumination by porch lights. The door was haphazardly decorated with curling wisteria vine left over from the spring. Expected pots of autumn chrysanthemums were nowhere to be seen. Suzanne lingered at the car as David mounted the front steps. The door opened before his hand reached the bell.
A woman of indeterminate age stood in the threshold. She appeared to have been caught in mid stride. Her brassy blond hair was cut short and over permed. She had been pulled it back haphazardly from her face giving her a disheveled appearance. Suzanne noticed a deep slash of coral lipstick. She wore a the kind of printed floral dress worn for special occasions. Perhaps she had been planning to go out and changed her plans with their phone call.
“Welcome,” her husky voice greeted as she held the door open.” I’m Anna.” Behind her Suzanne could see the edge of a kitchen table where a cigarette sat smoldering in a dirty ashtray.
She turned and disappeared inside as David introduced them. “Well, nice to meet you. This is the dining room.” She responded without turning around. “You can have breakfast there. I’ll set out coffee by 7 a.m. I guess you want to see your room. It’s just at the top of the stairs.”
Suzanne moved quickly in front of David more anxious to exit the awkwardness of the situation than to see the room. David stayed behind but called up to her “I’ll be right there.”
The door to the room was open. It was large and pleasant if sparsely furnished. A soft glow illuminated the panes of the bedroom windows. Beyond lay a pathway lined with small garden lights. A bizarre oasis in the deep woods.
Suzanne sat on the edge of the bed testing its comfort, then opened her cell phone. She scrolled through internet sites looking for the nearest motel. The door opened quietly and she didn’t hear David come into the room. As he sat beside her, she closed her phone. He comforted her, sensing her frustration. “It seems okay and it’s just for the night. But you were right.” In a rare admission of guilt, David acquiesced. “We should have gone back to the highway.”
“I’m tired David.” Suzanne’s voice had the disconnected quality that signaled repressed anger. She pulled back the coverlet and drifted off to sleep immediately. When she awoke in a pitch black room she heard laughter and music. David was gone. Just his sweater lay across the foot of the bed. She noticed his shoes carefully aligned on the floor.
She stole down the stairway until she could see into the living room. A haze of cigarette smoke hung in the air. There was David, shirt front open, dancing, in a loose comical way to the strains of “Johnny Be Good.” Other couples stood talking, drinking from bottles. And then she saw Anna, beer in hand, dancing around David and laughing. Suzanne froze, taking a mental snapshot, then headed quickly back up the stairs. She was fleeing from the scene of a disaster, barely able to contain herself. This was a man she loved but did not know.
In the morning he was gone again. Susan could see the indentation on the pillow where he had slept. Dressing quickly, she found him in the kitchen with Anna, drinking coffee and smoking. She had never before seen him smoke. “Her presence startled them. “Nothing for me, thank you.” Suzanne waved Anna off as the older woman rose from her seat. Then she motioned David toward the door. “We have a long drive ahead.”
David stubbed his cigarette quickly, embarrassed as though found in some compromising position. “Thanks again!” he turned and waved to Anna as he slipped into the car beside Suzanne.
The silence was a third passenger as they hurtled down the interstate toward the city. It was Suzanne who spoke first. “You found her attractive, was that it?” She was straining to stay calm but her hunched shoulders betrayed the incredulity that statement implied. This was not a conversation she wanted to have.
David responded as though he hadn’t heard the question clearly. “What do you mean attractive. No, no, of course I didn’t.” He sputtered, losing his composure, obviously distressed. Suddenly he slowed the car and pulled to the side of the road. He turned to face Suzanne directly. “She was real, she was alive, that’s all.” Then he reached across her and jerked the glove compartment open seizing his smart phone. “This,” he waved it at her, “this flattens me. Every moment of everyday is filled. I spend ninety percent of my waking hours engaged with a flat dark screen until I can’t respond. I have no emotion left.”
His words were chilling in their honesty. Most days he came home late, collapsing as if stunned. His down time was programmed too. Every available moment planned and organized by Suzanne. All those little boxes filled in on their calendar with opportunities to observe but never engage. She kept him entirely to herself.
“I understand,” she murmured in a panic. “Really, David I do.”
As David pulled back on the highway, Suzanne withdrew her smart phone from her bag and began deleting events from her forward calendar. It was she, not David, who needed to stay off the grid.
Christina Kales lives with her husband Robert in Pennington. She has studied creative writing at Drew University and is currently at work on a short novel regarding the life of French artist Berthe Morisot.