traffic: a story

91 freeway from 215

91 freeway from 215

“If you are going to have a nervous breakdown,” Rocio says looking straight ahead, “I would really prefer it not entail grand theft auto.”

“Shut the fuck up,” says Val automatically, gripping the steering wheel, then after a pause, “Wait, your tio knows we took his truck, right?”

Rocio shrugs. Val knows enough about Rocio to guess the answer: her poor tio might call the police at any minute looking for his truck. Val’s knuckles on the steering wheel of the old red Chevrolet turn white. The truck slows down considerably and begins wobbling in and out of the lane.

The 91 West Freeway from Riverside to Anaheim is blissfully, suspiciously, miraculously free of traffic at 11:35 p.m on a Wednesday. Large trucks roll by occasionally but for the most part, Rocio’s uncle’s truck has free reign of the road.

Val and Rocio are escaping the stressers of their everyday life by going to Disneyland. So fun! So spontaneous! They are young college girls and they will remember this adventure with incredible fondness when they are drab old married ladies. At least, this was the gist of the conversation they had over Facebook Messenger last night when they first thought of the trip. The conversation had been rife with sunglasses and ice cream emojis.

But something about the dull January day and the stark beauty of the rocky hills that roll by, paired with the knowledge that with every passing mile, the monstrous old truck is guzzling gas, makes Val feel that Disneyland is no longer a possibility. Though the road is clear, Val cannot imagine a nearby future filled with Disneyland-style adventures. She does not want to imagine it. If she got to Disneyland, she would fail to meld with the environment; it would cling to her accusingly for failing to believe in the enchanting make-believe world.

Val takes a big breath.

“We have to turn back,” Val says.

“My uncle has, like, five trucks. Rhonda is his least favorite. Relax! He won’t know,” Rocio says, calm and looking at the mountains out the window. “Can’t even make fun larceny jokes around you anymore.”

Val cannot acknowledge that the truck she is driving is named Rhonda. This is also something that cannot exist for her. She tries to drive more carefully. The traffic-free thing is weird. It can’t last.

“So,” Rocio says casually after about ten minutes of silence. “What are you going to do about that Oceanography midterm? Did you talk to your professor?”

Val does not answer. She has told Rocio that she failed the Oceanography midterm. This is strictly true. Actually, Val is certain that she failed all of her midterms. How she did it was easy: she showed up to every single one of her classes and let the professors’ voices wash over her, their nuanced lessons about social constructions floating past her and their clever asides about politics never, ever touching her.

“I think you should get tutoring,” Rocio says, “I know this guy in my Physics class, he could teach you and you could just pay him in pizza, I swear.”

When midterms had rolled around, Val had shown up for those too. At every one, she had held her #2 pencil in her sweaty hand and looked at the scantrons. Her heart beating impossibly fast, thoughts flying every which way, Val had not filled in a single bubble. Four midterms. Four heart-thudding hours where she wrote nothing, nothing, nothing. Four blank tests. This is the part that Rocio doesn’t know.

Val knows that as a female person whose full name reads Valeria Orosco and whose parents were too busy tending to cows on a ranch in Mexico to finish high school, that she is the absolute prime demographic to drop out of college. And yet. She is utterly unpregnant. She has no pressing family obligations. She has great financial aid and no immediate monetary concerns. It’s just she can’t make herself do the work, like her body is rejecting the college curriculum, like it’s registering in her blood and bones that all this information is ultimately useless. Information which is interesting to share at a dinner party but won’t keep her alive. Every time she tries to focus on what a professor is saying, her heart starts beating so fast, until it’s all she can hear and this slow drain of blood happens in her head making her weak and drowsy.

She cannot tell this to Rocio, who functions on a practical level, who is studying to be a nurse practitioner, who paints her nails purple while reviewing her Chemistry flashcards.

“I just think you’re being too proud,” Rocio says. “I mean, I know you’re like, a super genius lady at Political Science, but breadth requirements are important, you know?”

Val tries to formulate a a scenario where she gracefully tells the people in her life that she is dropping out of college. Plenty of people have been successful without college. She can’t think of any, though. Einstein? Einstein is usually a safe bet for exceptionality. Val can’t imagine that anyone will swallow a comparison between her and Einstein. It doesn’t connect. She can’t explain anything.

A sign on the road reads RIGHT LANE ENDS. MERGE LEFT. Val keeps going in the right lane.

“Val? Are you listening? I really think something’s going on with you.”

The traffic creeps up almost imperceptibly. First a couple of giant trucks, then some small cars until the freeway is at a near standstill. Thirty miles per hour. Now twenty. Now fifteen. Val can’t see where she’s going with the Unistar truck in front of her.

RIGHT LANE ENDS. MERGE LEFT. Val ignores the sign.

“Your roommate told me you’re not really sleeping anymore? She says you just sit on your bed and stare into space–that’s–that’s not good.”

The right lane ends. Val has about a second to decide whether she wants to force her way into jam-packed traffic or veer into an unknown off-ramp. Car start to honk at her furiously. Val’s heart starts thudding loudly in her ears and the bloods drain from her head, leaving her feeling weak.

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