This story isn’t about driving for Uber. I penned it a few months ago, but felt compelled to post it after reading Lisa Taddeo’s groundbreaking book, Three Women.
In the prologue for Three Women, Taddeo writes:
“Throughout history, men have broken women’s hearts in a particular way. The love and then grow weary and spend weeks and months extricating themselves soundlessly, pulling their tails back in to the doorways, drying themselves off, and never calling again.”
This quote made me question relationships I have had in the past and if I too was one of these men. It also made me think about people who love, then grow weary, but now have a family of young children to raise.
What happens to a family when the love dies, the passion wanes, and the very foundation on which the family was built crumbles to dust?
This story is called Grains of Sand.
Grains of Sand
The car was an early nineties Mercedes, the type with the insignia stamped flat on the bonnet instead of standing to attention. It was Royal Blue and the paint had thinned on the roof and in the centre of the bonnet where the sun has the most room to eat.
The interior of the car was in good condition. The seats were dressed in rich, cream-coloured leather that had wrinkled over the years but had not cracked or split the way cheap leather can. On very hot days the leather relaxed and softened, its rich, earthy smell filling the car.
Today was a very hot day and the man driving the car breathed deeply through his nose and thought about another day many years before, when the paint on the car was fresh and shiny and new.
His eight-year-old son, Jack, and twelve-year-old daughter, Rachel, were sitting in silence on the back seat, staring out the windows with sad eyes. Jack was biting the inside of his cheek, his blue-green eyes glassy with tears, but the tears would not breach the banks. Rachel was picking at raw, pink flesh in the corner of her thumbnail until blood rose to the surface. She sucked on the wound and gnawed at it with her front teeth to keep the blood flowing.
They would not break the stare, not for passing cars or dipping birds or barking dogs. They would not blink for speed humps, screeching tyres or beeping horns.
The street they drove down was beautiful, lined with giant oak trees with strong branches yawning across the road. The crisp, early-morning sunlight cast the silhouettes of thousands of leaves through the car. The childrens’ blank stares scanned listlessly over garden walls made of smooth brick that always seemed damp and cool, even on dry summer days, to the redbrick homes behind them. There, smiling parents shepherded giggling children out front doors to weekend sport.
Jack and Rachel had damp brown hair from a morning-spent swimming at the beach, but they did not have a trace of sand on their bodies. Not between their toes or in their ears or in the corners of their eyes where sand can sometimes stick as if held by glue.
Jack was wearing beige chino-shorts, a white t-shirt, and black Converse sneakers with white socks pulled high up bony ankles. A black cotton dress hung loosely from Rachel’s willowy frame. She was barefoot, the tan-coloured sandals she had worn that morning, her favourite pair of shoes, strewn across the footpath at Bronte Beach.
Their mother, Sarah, was still standing by the outdoor showers at the beach, standing alone and staring at the ocean. She would not break the stare, not for passing bikes or drifting seagulls or the nice elderly couple who asked if she was okay and then wrapped her shoulders tightly with their I Heart Sydney beach towel.
The man thought about his wife, grit his teeth, gripped the steering wheel and screamed at his children to wipe those looks from their faces.
What look? Rachel wanted to scream back at her father, her cheeks flushed red. But she didn’t, she just bit down harder on the bloodied thumb until her jaw shuddered.
Her father caught a glimpse of the dissent. It was what he had been searching for all morning, like a shark in the shallows, someone to bite back, to challenge him.
“You’re just like your mother!” he snapped, then pressed his foot down hard on the brake to watch their limp bodies surge forward, snagging on the seat belts like rag-dolls. Rachel whimpered, Jack hiccupped, and then they wriggled back on the seat. The leather squeaked.
The man watched his son lift the seat belt from his collarbone where it had dragged, twisted and stiffened, leaving an angry red mark, soon to be purple.
The man winced and felt a deep pang of shame in his gut. The sensation of hot pins and needles washed over his face and prickled the top and back of his head. He planted his foot down hard on the accelerator and sped through a red light, as if a burst of speed could wash away the pins and needles, could wash away the shame.
Jack blinked a tear and Rachel took her hand from her mouth. Blood trickled down her thumb and pooled in the crevasse between thumb and index finger. “Sorry,” she whispered sharply.
Today was much like that day many years ago. It was beautiful.
The Royal Blue Mercedes was now idling at the front of a set of traffic lights, facing a line of cars waiting to turn at an intersection.
The man was hunched at the wheel, his pale green eyes darting nervously from the red light to the attractive young couple in the silver Mini-Cooper opposite.
He was sure they were looking at him, looking at him and laughing. He started a countdown in his head, three, two, one, but the lights wouldn’t change.
The air-conditioning had been broken for over a year now and all of the windows of the Mercedes were down. The man was drenched in sweat and his white linen shirt was see-through. Three, two, one, nothing.
On the backseat, two grey cardboard boxes jammed with papers; tax returns, bank statements, bills, a passport and a birth certificate, all dog-eared and desperate, sunk into the hot leather.
Scores of un-ironed business shirts, most of them stained at the pits, were hanging from the roof handles in the back on cheap wire hangers. A floppy pinstriped suit drooped from the handle in the front.
The car’s engine revved on its own. It did this sometimes. He had only had it serviced a year ago, or maybe it was two years ago. He couldn’t remember. The brake pedal hummed vibrations through his foot and up his shin with each laboured breath the car took. His eyes moved from the traffic lights, to the couple, to the thin red needle on the dash that tremored and surged, tremored and surged. The yellow petrol light clicked on and a bead of sweat dripped from the tip of his nose, splashing on the edge of the steering wheel.
Come on, come on, come on, you bastard, he gasped.
Bastard. It was the very word his wife had hissed at him that very afternoon as he snatched the shirts from their walk-in-wardrobe. His reply? A sardonic grin fixed beneath indifferent eyes.
Sarah had used that same word all those years ago too, after catching a taxi home from the beach alone. But it wasn’t hissed, it was sobbed from behind a cascade of tears and a quivering bottom lip. “You bastard, how could you?”
How could I what? He now muttered to himself through clenched teeth over the curmudgeonly ramblings of the AM shock jock on the car radio. How could I, and then he started to remember…
He had been woken that morning all those years ago by loose wisps of Sarah’s blonde hair tickling his top lip. Her scent was coconut and honey. She had wriggled beneath his arm and nestled into her favourite resting spot on his chest of thick, black, curly hair. There, she inhaled deeply through her nose, drinking in his musky scent before planting a long, loving kiss deep in the forest of hair. Her left leg was draped over his stomach and she squeezed his body tightly against hers.
“Good morning beautiful man,” she whispered. “I’m a koala, and you’re my tree.”
He didn’t respond, incensed she had woken him. Heavy, hot, and irritated, he felt hungover, despite not touching a drop the night before.
“You alive up there?” she teased, marching her middle and index fingers up his neck to his stubbled chin where they performed an impromptu can-can.
“What’s the time?” he growled, wanting her off of him, the feeling of claustrophobia nauseating.
“Umm, a little past eight, I think,” she murmured, doing her best to hide the hurt in her voice.
“Great,” he said coldly, pushing Sarah’s knee from his stomach and rolling out of bed. “We’ll never get a park now. Fuck’s sake.”
“I’ll get them ready and I’ll make coffee. We’ll be out the door in fifteen minutes, max. Sound good?” Sarah replied sweetly.
“Yep, whatever,” he said, walking to the ensuite bathroom, not looking back.
He could hear his wife whispering to their children down the hall to get ready quickly and to keep their voices down. “Daddy wasn’t feeling well,” she explained. “Why?” came the high-pitched responses in unison. “Just get ready quickly, okay, and be good today.”
The strong coffee and well behaved children failed to dislodge the black cobwebs suffocating his mind and poisoning his thoughts on the drive to the beach. He was aware of the irrationality of his current mood and the impact it was having on his family, but chose to bathe in the poison instead.
“Thank you so much for the flowers last night. And the card! The card was the best.” Sarah placed her hand on his thigh and stroked it tenderly. He tapped it twice with his fingertips to tell her yes, he had heard her, and no, he didn’t want her hand on his thigh.
“It’s chaos out here, I need to concentrate,” he cautioned her, readjusting his hands on the wheel.
The card and flowers he had given to Sarah the previous night weren’t for any particular occasion. He had simply remembered something profound she had said a few months earlier as they strolled through the Botanic Gardens hand-in-hand.
“The people who planted these trees are the best type of people,” she exclaimed, caressing the bark of a two hundred-year old Red Gum. “They planted them knowing they would never get to enjoy them as they are now. They planted them for us to enjoy, people they will never even know. Don’t you think that’s amazing?”
He did think it was amazing. He thought it was amazing someone like her had chosen to spend her life with someone like him. He had pushed her against the trunk of the red-gum and kissed her passionately. “If they had known you would be here someday, they would have planted many more,” he beamed back at her.
He had seen a card in the newsagents months later with an illustration of a forest on the cover, accompanied by the words: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” – Greek Proverb.
He had closed his eyes and chuckled proudly. I love that woman, he thought, picking up the card and holding it to his chest. He bought a bouquet of native Australian flowers; Wattles, Grevilleas, Banksias, then composed the words:
To my wife,
Who thinks as deeply as a Greek Philosopher and loves as deeply as the roots of a Red Gum. A society grows great when people plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in, but it grows greater when people like you notice.
We are all so blessed to watch you bloom every single day.
I love you. X
“The card was beautiful,” she now whispered, slowly withdrawing her hand to her lap where she picked at the skin in the corner of her thumbnail.
He didn’t reply. Her voice was muffled background noise to the dark symphony of conversations swirling in his mind.
He was playing out vicious hypothetical arguments with his wife, children, co-workers, and total strangers. He was conjuring the most damaging insults he could muster and hurling them at the voices, and the voices hurled their own savage insults back. The rage was building.
Sarah sat beside him at the beach, careful not to turn the pages of her book too loudly or to bite her nails. When a sneeze tickled her nose, she pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth and kept it in.
Jack and Rachel stood knee-deep in the water, jumping when each wave crashed into the shore. Rachel hated cold water and it would take her an age to fully immerse herself. Through his eyes, his children appeared grayscale in comparison to the other families frolicking in the shallows. They seemed to be weighed down by something. It tugged at their shoulders and pulled at their chins. His own heart sank as he watched them, but not nearly deep enough to free his mind from the torment. He had had enough.
“Jack! Rachel!” he bellowed from the shore. “Let’s go!”
“But we only just got here,” Sarah protested. “I’ve only read five pages of my book. Why are we…..”
He turned to face her, expressionless. “Pack.Up.”
Jack and Rachel skulked up the beach to their parents and packed up their belongings. They knew better than to argue.
“Come on, let’s go, showers. I don’t want to see a single grain of sand on you. I’ve just had the car cleaned.”
He marched to the outdoor showers adjacent to the Surf Life Saving Clubhouse, his family scurrying in the soft sand to keep pace.
Jack didn’t hesitate. He twisted the metal tap and stood beneath the shower-head, letting the full spray of ice-cold water cover his body. He shivered as he scrubbed furiously at every nook and cranny.
“Good,” his father said after thirty-seconds. “Rachel, in.”
His daughter shuffled toward the spray, raising her left leg to test the water.
“In,” he repeated, sternly.
She gulped, wrapping her arms across her body and shivering preemptively. She shuffled forward another step.
“In, now!” he barked.
He felt the judging eyes of the other families on him. What the fuck are they looking at? he snarled.
“Don’t yell at her!” Sarah finally cracked. “Do not speak to her like that,” she repeated calmly, evenly.
“Why don’t you fucking walk home then?!” he exploded at his wife.
Sarah recoiled, her mouth agape, and Rachel, zombie-like, walked beneath the ice-cold water and went about removing every grain of sand from her body, not shivering once.
Three, two, one, change already!
The pins and needles were back, but they were everywhere. They prickled on his arms and legs and chest and face. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply through his nose in search of the soft leather, but it was gone. He inhaled again, deeper this time, but found only cardboard and dust. He blinked a tear. He whimpered. And then he planted his foot down hard on the accelerator and sped through the red light, as if a burst of speed could wash away the pins and needles, could wash away the shame.
He looked at the couple and they were pointing at him, they were pointing right at him, but they weren’t laughing. The young man covered his eyes with one hand and the young woman cupped her nose and mouth with both. Soundless screams.
He felt the shadow of the truck, and then there was darkness.