“It’s all right,” Joan whispered to herself as she waited, and waited, and waited for the car in front of her to dim its brake lights and inch forward again. “I will get there when I get there. There’s nothing I can do. It’s all right.”
It wasn’t all right, though, and the car wasn’t moving. The mantra her shrink had given her wasn’t really working – she had suspected it wouldn’t, but she had been willing to give it a try. She had tried a lot of things to try to stifle her anxiety over the past few years, and few of them had made even the slightest dent in the massive, wobbling, suffocating jelly that oozed around her, squeezing and shifting, pinching her throat and ratcheting up her heartbeat every moment she was awake. It wasn’t good for her, she tried to tell herself as she unclenched her jaw for the fifth time since the river of red lights had flooded the highway. It wasn’t necessary. It was bad for her heart.
But it was necessary. As necessary as breathing, she sometimes felt, and the medications that were supposed to make it all slide away, leaving her mind unfettered and free to be its best self, were more trouble than they were worth. They made the bathroom scale an unpleasant morning ritual, and they made her face break out in disgusting red spots like it did when she was fifteen. Side effects, her shrink had told her, but they were affecting her more than the reason for the ostensible cure.
Did it matter? Maybe it didn’t matter. No one cared how she looked. No one glanced at her twice no matter where she went, and maybe that was a good thing. Loneliness had its perks, she told herself as she slid her hands over the steering wheel, back and forth, three times, before they came to rest right next to each other in the middle again. It didn’t matter if you kept your head down if no one ever asked you to lift it up. She gently inched the car forward, as if kissing up against the bumper ahead of her would made the traffic clear faster, but it didn’t.
“It’s all right,” she repeated again, loosening the grinding of her teeth. “I’m going to be so late.”
She was going to be late. Those were the facts. There was nothing she could do about the facts, her shrink had said, and the world would keep turning even if she had to scramble to catch up on her morning work. It wasn’t her fault. Everything was her fault. No. God, if she could only get past Exit 26, she would be fine. She would be fine.
But the bubbling shrieking that was building in the base of her throat wasn’t going to go away once she got past Exit 26. It wasn’t going to go away when she got to work, either, because she would be late and there would be too much to do. It might go away when she got home that night, and crawled under the covers so her neighbors couldn’t hear her sobbing, but that would only be a temporary relief. It would build again, and she would bruise the palms of her hands when she pounded them against the steering wheel, and nothing would be all right.
She should have left earlier. She should always leave early, but some days it was just too hard to lever herself out of bed. She should get better at it. She should really pull herself together and try. It was a matter of willpower, she told herself, gritting her teeth again as the lane next to her started to inch forward without her. Willpower and getting to bed on time.
“Finally,” she sighed as the lights winked out, one by one, and the speedometer crept up to twenty, then twenty five, then thirty. It wasn’t fast, but she was moving. Moving was always better than standing still. “It’s okay,” she said, glancing at the dashboard clock as Exit 26 flashed by. Twenty minutes left. Twenty minutes – could she make it? Probably not. No, she was still going to be late, but she was moving. It was always, always better than standing still.