Something I Read In The Atlantic
As a neuropsychologist and researcher, I can explain what happened to me using the correct chemical terms. My brain was already in a heightened state of arousal (fear-based) after I smashed my car into the tree. It was dark. I was disoriented and couldn’t stop shaking.
What I am having a hard time recalling now is why I was there on that darkened highway shoulder in the first place. Why I wasn’t at the party with Ethan, with my life proceeding the way it was supposed to go, the way I imagined it going. Imagination is powerful. Before you can reach a goal, you have to imagine yourself reaching it.
And I imagined being Ethan’s wife, that the little box he held out for me was the question for the answer I had already decided.
Instead, it held his house key. He told me he was moving out.
“Why?” I asked him. All his favorite food was already in the fridge. All his camping equipment was already in the utility room. He wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
Her name was Avery, he told me. She was a surgical intern, just like he was. She was beautiful and fearless in the operating room.
“She’ll make more money than I will as a researcher,” I said, knowing the pay scale of our teaching hospital.
He made a noncommittal “huh” sound, but he knew that information too.
I’ve read about this phenomenon (I think maybe in The Atlantic, or somewhere like that). Women used to chase “success objects” for mates, men who would make enough money to support them. Now men do it too. They want mates who make as much or more than they do.
Thirty years ago, I would have been dumped for my hip-to-waist ratio and/or my cup size.
Nowadays, I might still get dumped for that, but I can get dumped for my gross income and take-home pay, too.
We’ve sure made a lot of progress as a society.
“Do you need to get your stuff out of my house?” I asked.
He shook his head. Avery helped him move out earlier today, he added. I winced at the thought of her in my house, my territory, near my plants and my books and my cat.
He should have asked. How quickly it went from being our house—even though his name was not on the deed—back to mine, and mine alone.
“So why now?” I asked him. “I mean, we’re supposed to attend this party tonight.”
He didn’t say it. I figured it out before he opened his mouth.
Because Avery was going to be there, too.
I took his house key in its shiny little box and said thank you. He probably gave her the ring that had been in the box before he put his key in it.
I went to the only place I could go— Lacey’s house, a three-bedroom that looks like a suburban Swiss chalet, minus the hot chocolate and the blond braids. She was in the middle of what she called “witching hour,” the period between about four o’clock and dinner, wrangling two kids under the age of four while her husband Luke read the news in peace and quiet on his phone during his train commute home. I had to leave my mask on indoors since her kids weren’t able to be vaccinated yet. She just kept shaking her head.
“I can’t believe that,” she said. “The fact that he put the key in a ring box. That’s just tacky.”
“I should have known better,” I said, and a few tears blurred my vision. “I should have done better.”
Lacey looked up from where she was scrubbing smeared sweet potatoes off the seat of the highchair.
“Listen to you, Meredith,” she said. “I think maybe you already did know better.”
“What do you mean?”
She took a seat next to me at her kitchen table.
“I never saw you really light up around Ethan,” she said. “He hit all the right boxes on your checklist as far as what you thought you wanted, but at least to me…it looked like something was missing.”
“Nothing was missing,” I protested, sniffling through my mask. But if I really considered her statement, Lacey was right in the sense that Ethan wasn’t all that compelling, even though he was really good-looking in a GQ, clean-shaven kind of way. I could go hours without thinking much about him at all. I bragged to myself that it was a sign of how well-adjusted I was in love—no obsessing, no anxiety, no dissecting every little statement to search for hidden meanings. Yes, I did think he’d propose, but that was based on logic and not on longing.
Lacey smiled. “Do you remember how it was when I met Luke?”
We had shared an apartment our senior year of college. There was no way not to remember. There had been nothing else but the two of them, snuggling, smooching, eating Cup O’Noodles at midnight on the couch while I tried to study, for two whole semesters. If anything else had occurred that entire year, it didn’t register with either of them. All they experienced was each other and their mutually exclusive private world.
“The two of you were pretty sickening,” I said. “Drunk on dopamine and norepinephrine. It’s amazing you graduated.”
She frowned at the sponge on the counter. I wondered if she was adding up all the times she had used it that day and comparing it with the number of times Luke had not used it.
“There needs to be some other chemicals after that love potion wears off,” she said. “That’s when the real work begins.”
“There are,” I said. “Oxytocin and vasopressin stimulate long-term attachment.”
“How cool would it be if I produced my own caffeine,” she mused. “All I’m saying is that if you have to try too hard at some things, you fail.”
I laughed. “So, I’m just a failure, then, at the thing that matters most? Even if I try?”
“You are a failure at some things,” Lacey said. “Remember when I asked you to change Owen’s diaper?”
“Okay, noted,” I said. I didn’t point out that I had not been very motivated to learn how to do it, and attention and motivation are key to learning anything. “I go to these parties, and I already know what everyone is going to say, who they are going to disagree with and the opinions I am supposed to have. I almost don’t mind not going tonight, you know?”
Lacey straightened up and sighed.
“You might reach the point sometime,” she said, “where your best friend with the big successful life comes over to your house, and your only adult company today was the Man in the Yellow Hat on Curious George, and she gripes and complains about having to attend parties with other adults, where they serve wine and cheese and nobody needs their meals chopped up into little pieces.”
I must have given her a funny look.
“Seriously,” she said. “Don’t judge. If he lost that ridiculous hat, and the monkey, the Man in the Yellow Hat would be hot.”
An ear-splitting wail came from the vicinity of the kitchen, followed by the sound of smashing glass.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Lacey said. She staggered in the general direction of the kitchen and for a second seemed to forget which way she needed to go.
I left Lacey’s, and, not wanting to go home to an empty house, decided to head for the coast. I’d get a hotel room for the night, have a bowl of clam chowder or fish and chips, and listen to the surf. It was raining, but that was nothing out of the ordinary for Portland on a November evening.
Lacey and Luke were hitting some bumps in the road. Lacey was discovering that the division of domestic labor wasn’t working as equally as it had before their children arrived, which was the case for most working mothers I knew, and the ones I read about in The New York Times or The Atlantic. One book review had talked about this, how parents have less happiness but more meaning in their lives than people who aren’t parents. Lacey had an all-out case of Mommy rage, complete with dashed expectations of equality and resentment against her spouse.
I don’t know why she was surprised. She had a degree in women’s studies. She knew what she was getting herself into, although she may have been so blinded by love for Luke (caused by an increase in dopamine and norepinephrine combined with the likelihood of low serotonin) that she didn’t consider the outcome.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by Ethan’s behavior, either. Assortive mating had become so common. Both his parents were doctors, too. Lawyers married lawyers, doctors married doctors, keeping social connections and financial capital in the family, continuing to spur the income inequality they said they didn’t like, sending their offspring to the right summer camps and then the right colleges to repeat the same pattern. I’d read about this too.
Men don’t marry their secretaries anymore. Cinderella doesn’t leave her shoe at the ball any more. Welcome to the post-romantic world, my friends. Women don’t need to be saved or rescued, and that was a good thing as far as I was concerned. Was romantic love really needed now, especially if the follow-up “secure attachment” chemicals weren’t strong enough to prevent divorce?
Nothing really surprised me. If something did, I just hadn’t read enough about it.
When the deer crossed the road in front of me, I slammed on the brakes, hard, and jerked the steering wheel towards the shoulder. I smelled brake fluid and rubber and gas before my car hit the tree. A gush of fluids bubbled up from under the hood.
I sat there, frozen in the darkness and the cold, before I remembered the flashlight in my glove box. I dug around for it and flicked on the switch.
My thoughts were even slower than my movements. First—turn on the flashlight. Then—grab my cell phone.
I tried to remember where I was. Had I already passed the Dairy Queen?
The thumping on the side of the car scared me. A man’s voice cut through the darkness.
“Hey. You okay in there?”
I tried to answer, but no sound came through my lips. A bright light shone into the driver’s side window.
“No blood,” he said. “Can you move?”
I flexed my hands and feet, in that strange, underwater way.
“Yeah,” I answered. “I’m okay. But my phone doesn’t work.”
The man stepped back, out of reach from the beam of my flashlight.
“Nobody’s phone works out here,” he said. “My house is close by. There’s a landline there.”
I frowned. I was sure he was fine, on the up-and-up and all that. But it was still dark. He was still a stranger.
I tried to swing open the driver’s side door, but it wouldn’t move. I slid over to the passenger side door and pushed it open.
“Okay,” he said, and that’s when I got a good look at him through the black-and-white movie of moonlight and shadows. He was tall with dark hair. He had a baseball cap shoved on backwards, and a long flannel shirt under a denim work jacket. Hard to tell, but maybe close to my age.
I didn’t see the rifle until I looked at his hands.
“You—you have a gun,” I said.
He looked down at his hands.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to find out here,” he said. “Don’t take it personally. I’ll stay on the porch, if you want, while you use the phone.”
I couldn’t stop looking at the gun, the way you would watch a snake as you stepped around it just to make sure it didn’t try to strike. I followed the man into the trees, onto a narrow gravel trail. Ahead was a little cabin with the porch light on.
“The phone is in there,” he said.
I checked my phone again. Still no service.
“I’ll stay out here, and so will John Wayne,” he said, gesturing down at the gun. “Nobody except me has been inside, and I don’t have COVID, so you’ll be fine.”
I took a mask out of my jacket pocket and put it on. It smelled like Life Savers, that chemical, fruity, childhood smell.
And that’s when it happened. A cascade of dopamine and norepinephrine coursed through the caudate nucleus, a shrimplike little structure in one of the most primitive regions of my brain, where our reward center is located. The brain is more susceptible to falling in love during risky or novel situations, or after a major life event. Crashing my car in the dark and having my boyfriend dump me for another woman didn’t happen every day.
Although I had all the mechanics memorized, it was hard to explain how it felt. I could not stop looking at the man. I stood frozen, rooted to the spot. His dark eyes glinted and flickered like they held candlelight and campfire. There was something so rugged and rough and—intoxicating—about him, in the arch of his eyebrows and the curves of his jaw and nose. I didn’t want to go back. I forgot about the gun.
“You okay?” he asked. Was I hearing genuine concern in his voice? Or was it just politeness? The lower level of serotonin in my brain was causing me to become anxious about what he thought of me, how he saw me. Later on, it would cause me to think of nothing but him for days.
“Umm, yeah,” I said. “Just thinking.”
He laughed. “Well, don’t let that stop you.” He sat down on a chair on the porch and lay the gun next to him. I passed him, trying not to inhale his scent. The phone he had mentioned was on a small table. I scanned the room for signs of a girlfriend or wife—earrings, maybe, or framed photographs, or a vase of flowers.
“What did they say?” he asked when I stepped back onto the porch.
“Thirty minutes and I need to wait at the car,” I said.
“Well, do you want something to eat or drink while you wait?” he asked.
I looked down at the gun again, as if it would move on its own volition.
“Did you…did you kill it?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I was thinking grilled cheese. Nobody kills cheese.”
“Um, sure,” I said, which was the best I could do, seeing as I was drinking him in like he was wine, like he was sunlight. Each glance brought another cascade of dopamine, sensitizing me to every little detail.
“Stay here,” he said. A few seconds later he brought out a blanket. “You can use this if you’re cold. Keep an eye on the time, though.”
He didn’t need to tell me. Soon I would need to leave. Would I see him again? Would I ever hear from him?
“Here you go,” he said a few minutes later, handing me a plastic plate and a grilled cheese sandwich on sourdough. “Nothing fancy, but good enough.”
“Thanks,” I said. I hadn’t eaten since before my conversation with Ethan, but I had no appetite. I just wanted to sit and stare at him. I couldn’t formulate any words.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Does it taste okay?”
I forced myself to take a bite. “Sure,” I said. “It’s good.”
“Why did you hit the tree?” he asked.
I took another small bite. “There was a deer that ran out across the road,” I said. “I wasn’t aiming for the tree. I just didn’t want to hit the deer.”
“I liked that tree,” he said, chewing.
“Sorry,” I said. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Then I remembered. “My boyfriend dumped me today.”
“Huh,” he said. “So, you’re running away from home then?”
“No,” I said. “I’m not too impressed with home at the moment. It hasn’t lived up to the hype.”
He nodded. “Never does.”
“I should probably go now,” I said.
Come with me, every cell in my body cried out.
He hesitated. “I can walk back with you and wait.”
My heart jumped. Males can be protective and possessive if they are interested in a female.
“Okay,” I said. I gestured at the gun. “John Wayne too?”
He laughed. It was a beautiful, full sound. I wanted to hear it again and again.
“Sure,” he said. “Just in case.”
He turned around and headed back inside with the plates. And that’s when I saw that the back of his baseball cap had a slogan that everyone I knew, everyone I worked with and was friends with, would recoil from. It was a slogan from the politician that none of us agreed with, that had divided the country even further apart. I had been in stores and seen clerks gossip when people entered wearing that slogan on their hats, on their shirts. I had cried the day after Election Day. I had marched and I had protested.
Oh, I thought. Oh, no.
Maybe someone gave him the hat? Maybe he was wearing it to be ironic?
Finally, I was surprised.
But only for a moment. Because then I remembered.
Obstacles can fuel romantic love and have always fueled it. Passion is at its most intense when there are obstacles. Here I was, attracted to someone in the wrong tribe. Classic Romeo and Juliet, right?
Well, they both wound up dead, so maybe not something I should be aspiring to.
I didn’t have to follow the old script and fall in love with my boss in order to move up the ladder. I didn’t have to follow the new script and fall for someone just like me, either. Couples did marry across religious and political divides.
I just didn’t know anyone who had. I hadn’t read anything about a situation like this.
Does love really conquer all?
How could we even watch the news together?
I remembered Lacey’s words: “Don’t judge. If he lost that ridiculous hat, and the monkey, the Man in the Yellow Hat would be hot.”
If she had a problem with that hat, I already knew she’d have a huge problem with this one.
He came back out of the kitchen. “Ready to go?”
Some things have to be lived in order to be learned.
“Yup,” I said. “Ready.”
Heather Bartos writes both fiction and nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in Fatal Flaw, Stoneboat Literary Journal, HerStry, and elsewhere. Her flash fiction has appeared in The Dillydoun Review, The Closed Eye Open, Tangled Locks Journal, and in other publications, and also won first place in the Baltimore Review 2022 Micro Lit Contest. Her short stories have appeared in Ponder Review, Bridge Eight, and elsewhere. She lives near Portland, Oregon, with her family.