She wasn’t my husband’s boss when she called me a bitch. I also wasn’t yet pregnant again, but I was out pushing Isla—our first—in the jogging stroller, doing some modest half marathon training. A pristine SUV pulled out of a drug store parking lot across the street, aiming to cross it straight into another opposite lot. The driver saw me and slowed to a stop, so I kept running while she blocked both lanes.
As I passed in front of her, she honked, and through her lightly tinted windshield I could make out an exaggerated shrug, so I flipped her off without breaking stride. A few paces further, I craned my neck back again and saw her still planted there, now with her window rolled down. “Fuck you,” I reiterated, and that’s when she said it. “Bitch.” I could tell it cost her a lot to say, clearly an uncommon term in her vocabulary, and that made me glad.
“Fucker,” little Isla said, and then said again, drawing it out with a pause in the middle. “Fuck, her.” I realized I’d been muttering and she was mimicking me. One of her first twenty words. Instead of acknowledging it, I redirected.
“Look, a flag,” I said, pointing to the pole by the fire station.
“Yogger,” Isla said, correcting me.
“It has stars and stripes,” I said, struggling between winded breaths to form full sentences for the benefit of her linguistic development.
“Merica,” she said, like she already knew everything I could teach her. Heart racing from exertion and adrenaline, I snuck another glance and saw the glistening white gas guzzler finally clear the road and turn away, revealing an enormous decal on the back windshield visible from a quarter-mile away:
Whatever that meant. Certainly nothing good.
Her pathetic innocence, the visible pain it brought her to curse—to use the word that had to’ve been thrown at her hard enough to hurt—was the only reason the altercation stood out to me, distinct from the blur of other confrontations with assholes in cars, and so it was a shock to see her face at the holiday party.
It was at some terrible arcade bar around the corner from Michael’s office, full of mostly grown men living out kid fantasies of playing a full roll of quarters that appear like a miracle from mom’s purse, but instead of mom, it was subsidized by a faceless corporation with a budget dedicated to maintaining morale.
I’d had no reason to expect to ever see her again, yet I immediately placed her face as it appeared when I happened to glance toward the entrance as she walked in. She was rounder than had been apparent in the car, evangelically pretty but unconventional enough not to seem bigoted, not that I’d suggest those things are actually connected. A prim, toned man accompanied her, looking about as unlikely as my expecting ass to sidle up with a beer, but he appeared to know people and began to float confidently, lingering with faces familiar to him but still all new to me. I tried to hide for as long as I could, but no matter how I angled myself back to back with Michael having separate conversations, some part of me seemed to be sticking out and in the way.
To my relief, The Real Estate Rager quickly averted her eyes after briefly catching mine, so I let my guard down for a moment before realizing she was making a beeline right for me. Michael was within arms reach, so I snagged his elbow, abruptly thanked everyone whose conversations I was interrupting, and tried to make a break for it. Thankfully, he didn’t resist, chalking it up to the urgent discomforts of my late stage of pregnancy.
Because the catered buffet of nachos and finger sandwiches blocked one direct route, and a flock of awkward coworkers clogged the other casual path, I tugged Michael’s hand, leading him on a snaking path around the pool table, into the pinball nook, and out from behind the coat racks for a quick pickup. She somehow managed to intercept us there, mid-laugh at something her companion had said, each of them carrying a drink in both hands.
“Michael,” he said, his voice arresting us. “I’ve got an ale and a lager.”
“And an IPA,” she said, pronouncing it like a word rather than an acronym, “as well as a tonic with lime,” lifting each glass in turn before assertively proffering the latter my way.
“You’re so kind,” I said. Michael looked to confer with me wordlessly—he was in a pickle, but I’d already been foiled—and I took the drink. This gave him permission to clarify.
“Is that Two Hearted? I love when that’s on tap,” he said and collected it from the man.
“That leaves me with the Gansett, I guess,” the man said.
“You really can’t go wrong,” the woman said.
“Hey, I’m not complaining. I’m Jeff.” The pause between the two statements wasn’t long enough for it to be obvious that he wasn’t making that cringy name joke.
My husband chuckled, just in case, before responding, “I’m Michael. Good to meet you, Jeff,” he said. “Annie,” he said to me, “this is my boss, Char. And this is my very pregnant wife Annie, who I was just about to deliver home and off her feet.”
“But we can stay for a drink,” I said, ready to face the fallout, and handed Michael my kiddie drink with one hand while snatching his beer for myself with the other.
There were a few raised eyebrows, but nobody stopped me from taking a glorious gulp. I hadn’t told Michael about the confrontation a year prior when he was still unemployed, thinking it better not to worry him with what to me felt like a routine consequence of the increasingly aberrant behavior of being a pedestrian. Now, I was hungry to have it out with her.
The men kept talking inanely about beer, and I waited for Char to set the tone, still unsure if she’d really recognized me.
“Does your husband know you’re a public menace?”
“Listen, I’m a thousand percent sure I had the right of way,” I said, and immediately regretted the exaggeration. Char struck me as the kind of person who’d protest on mathematical principle, but she didn’t. “Maybe you should brush up on your driver’s ed,” I suggested. I was having a hard time gauging whether Michael and Jeff could hear us, but didn’t want to look over for fear of seeming nervous. I couldn’t lose that ground.
We volleyed a bit more, growing increasingly agitated, finally catching the men’s attention. Neither of us was prepared to back down, nor bow to their confused pleas to let it go. We both felt deep conviction and were being completely unreasonable, yet neither of us could find a good reason to dismiss the other. Char did not reveal her true nature to be the flighty, inconsiderate, entitled ditz as I’d expected. And I’d like to think I proved I was not the rash, aggro bitch she’d let me know she thought I was on our very first encounter. The angrier we got, the more we grew to respect each other, to the point that we followed each joust with a disbelieving giggle at the absurdity of our argument, our kindredness of spirit all the more delightful for its unlikelihood, which isn’t to say things were anywhere near diffused. On the contrary, we continued to escalate to the point where I feared we might come to violence.
“I know how we can settle this,” she said. Before I could think of some snide retort, she continued. “A race.”
“Like a footrace?” Even with my thirty-some centimeter fundal bulge, I’d easily destroy her. But she knew I was fit, so it was clearly not what she’d meant.
“A duathlon then,” she said.
“So we run and then drive?” I asked.
“You pick the finish line. We can wait until you’re without child.”
“Oh, I’m game even with a baby on board. Why don’t we go full Vin Diesel and throw in pink slips? Your Need for Speed ass doesn’t stand a chance.” This made her laugh. I laughed louder. We were playing roles, leaning into it. “Drive to the lighthouse lot, then to the end of the breakwater,” I said. It was a treacherous mile-long stretch of mammoth granite blocks.
“Tomorrow, then?” She asked, overconfident that her seriousness would rattle me.
“What’s wrong with now?” At that, I plunged my hand into Michael’s front right pocket for the keys, remembering as I gripped the fob that we’d come in the Prius. Whatever I lacked in mechanical acceleration, I’d have to make up for with strategy. I considered throwing my drink in her face but didn’t want her to be able to accuse me of playing dirty, so I planted it on the bar and bounded out the front door. Stunned but with decent instincts, Michael followed, and then came Char, who kicked off her heels, with Jeff trailing.
Michael wasn’t in great shape, but he managed to keep up with me, though he was too winded to try talking me out of what was happening.
I heard Jeff behind us yelling, “are you out of your mind?” though I’m not sure to whom the question was directed. They were lagging badly, but I knew anything could happen once we got to our cars. We’d parked in Michael’s company-provided spot in a nearby garage—he’d come home briefly after work to pick me up and kiss Isla goodnight, leaving her with the sitter—and I’d made a big assumption that Char had too, but when I approached the entry with the clearance bar hanging from its chains and banked around the lift arm I didn’t see them in pursuit. Was there another entrance to the garage, a shortcut? Had they found street parking?
We climbed six flights of stairs, scrambled into the car, and peeled out around every curve of our descent.
“Annie!” Michael shouted as I rammed my way out through the gate. It jolted us harder than I’d expected, but we couldn’t afford the moments it’d have taken to scan his pass and wait for the arm to lift.
When I turned onto the street I saw the idiotic decal on the rear windshield up ahead. Char and Jeff weren’t driving fast, but they were honking and swerving more erratically than seemed necessary, though it made it impossible for me to take the lead. If anything, they were effectively warning everyone around to behave extra cautiously, sparing us from getting stuck waiting at any lights or crosswalks. Each intersection offered the option to detour in order to get out from behind them, but none looked promising, all too obstructed or unfamiliar. I was forced to keep following.
I kept expecting to crash through fruit carts or construction workers carrying preposterously large panes of glass, but the roads were open to us. Char had absolute freedom to dictate our course.
Thankfully, the first leg to get our cars wasn’t the only running portion. I had to bank on holding their vehicular lead to a minimum—small enough to cover in a final kick. The sprint would be dangerous, but I was surefooted. Even heavy laden, I knew I could take it. We just had to get there. I had to get out of the car to regain my advantage.
Things got less familiar. I started to feel lost. Michael had grown silent, too anxious to offer suggestions about correcting course.
Char lead us out past the dog food factory, around the service road around the airfield.
Any time I attempted to overtake her, Char became more animated just long enough to dissuade me from doing anything more aggressive. I’d begin tailgating and she’d tap her brakes to scare me off. Otherwise, it was the most mild-mannered, medium speed pursuit in history.
Eventually, we rolled through a speed trap, and a patrol car started blaring behind me. We were at most five over the limit. I couldn’t stop—couldn’t let her win like that. Fortunately, the cop seemed patient, content to just trail us. The flashing lights caught my mirrors just right to irritate my eyes, so I slouched in my seat to avoid the angle. Being sandwiched between the two cars—pursuer and pursued—lulled me into a sort of automatic reflexive state.
It was weeks too early to go into labor, which would have been just about the only justifiable excuse to stop. I kept waiting for something else to occur to me that meant I didn’t have to follow through with this.
A vision of Isla waiting at the end of the breakwater, cheering me to the finish at the lighthouse steps, a checkered yogger waving in each hand. Her unborn brother opposite, cooing in the sitter’s arms. The lighthouse lens beaming into my overwhelmed cornea, the siren blaring behind.
We’re still in motion, our destination far in the distance. We’ve been driving for hours, long enough to empty our tanks, but somehow the machines keep carrying us. A part of me never wants it to end but if and when we get there I am sure to win.