The Psychological Trauma of Rush Hour
Laura Paliani

I'm stuck on the 417 eastbound, the taillights a red blur in the early morning darkness. The windshield wipers slip across my vision, a consistent whoosh-whoosh obstructing and clearing my view. Rain, possibly freezing drizzle; the meteorologist on the radio can't seem to decide. Checking the dash, the neon clock reads 7:23 a.m. Still at least another twenty minutes to go-in this traffic, it'll be more like thirty-five. Late for work again, I think, head slumping against the driver's side window.

I play the scene out in my head. I'll arrive ten minutes late, taking the steps two at a time to rush into the building. I'll take the elevator to the third floor amid icy stares from those patrons who will travel to the thirteenth, fourteenth, twenty-first floors. I am the enemy of their mornings, slowing them down, making them late. Even before the doors can ding open, I can hear them not so subtly commenting on my laziness, "I just don't understand why someone can't walk up three flights of stairs." And another chides, "People are so goddamn lazy. These things shouldn't even service the first three floors." The doors will snap shut, muting their comments as they surge up the elevator shaft.

I'll walk briskly down the long narrow hall, past the coffee kiosk, the fake planters, the musty smelling boardroom, past the water cooler, and finally past Carol's desk. "Hi Christine," she'll say in the same way she has everyday for the last six years since I returned to work. A nod, a pressed smile, and I continue to the back of the office towards my messy cubicle. As I reach my desk, I peel off my sweat-drenched layers. First my ratty corded scarf, then the gloves, later the old black trench coat I have vowed to replace for the last seven years, lightly stained with baby vomit, dog slobber, and coffee stains. Next my brown suit jacket, pulling my cream blouse away from my body, certain that the trickle of sweat between my breasts is twinning itself down the small of my back, bleeding dark splotches onto the back of my shirt. It's not even nine degrees outside and my body is overheating as thought it were a balmy twenty-eight.

Just as I think I'll have missed him, he'll appear, silent and ghost-like at the opening of my cubicle.

"Late again, aren't we, Christine?" He'll boom, loud enough for everyone within a one-mile radius to hear. I am certain he enjoys humiliating me every chance he gets, and this morning will not be an exception.

I'll mumble a semi-coherent, "Good morning, Mr. Patosky." No one is allowed to call him Tom. "Only the wife calls me Tom," he announced seriously over a staff meeting. It's a way to ensure he maintains his authority, a roost over us-his hens.

Then he'll cross his arms, I'll turn my back to him, hoping he doesn't notice the sweat marks on my blouse, my unwashed hair, my wrinkled pants that I'll instinctively smooth out every time I think of them. I'll look down at David, who's seated at the cubicle directly behind mine. He'll smile up at me; apologetically and then bury himself in his email. We rarely speak, David and I. The most I get from him is a polite smile every morning, a nod as we pass one another in the hall. And yet he knows all the intimate details of my life-phone calls to banks, creditors, personal calls from Clay, schoolteachers, the babysitter, the doctor's office.

"Christine," Mr. Patosky barks. I'll turn, face reddening, humiliation coursing through my veins. Something similar to being caught passing notes in class, being caught by a parent with your hand in your pajama bottoms.

"Your tardiness is becoming quite a problem. This office opens at precisely 8a.m. and I expect my staff to be here promptly. Is there something going on you'd like to address with me privately?" While this may sound sincere, I'm not fooled. This is a chance for Patosky to get me into his office, cross-legged and sitting on the other side of his overpriced mahogany desk. He'll stare at my breasts, part of my contribution to this corporation, an asset.

"No that's fine, Mr. Patosky," I'll say, snapping my briefcase open, pulling out the necessary files.

He purses his lips. "I would like to address this with you," he states coldly.

I will turn to him, hands on hips and feet planted shoulder-width apart. "Listen. My three-year-old daughter and my seven-year-old son don't seem to understand that when Mommy has to be at work for seven thirty, they can't have the flu. And when my babysitter called me out of the shower at 6 a.m. to tell me that she couldn't make it today, I didn't have time to iron these pants or finish washing my hair. So when I called my father-in-law to come over and watch the kids, he didn't realize he'd have to get there on your time."

But I never say that. I'll simply hang my head, wishing any one of my coworkers would step in and save me. Don't just sit there and pretend you're not listening. They're always listening.

I'll end up in his office. He'll stare at my breasts, reprimanding me. I'll fight back tears.

The rain is coming down harder now. I turn up the wipers, mesmerized by the clicking they make as they clear the glass. Still six more exits to go. Traffic is at a near stand still. The radio dial is broken, and in our attempt to save money, we'd decided not to install a CD player. It's just me and the traffic.

Taking a sip of my coffee, my tongue gets singed. I fumble to place the cup into its holder and my fingers automatically go to my mouth. It brings me back to the hospital. I'd brought a cup of tea to bring to my mother's room. She was fifty-nine then, the cancer in her breast having spread to her lymph nodes, now her liver. My mother, a normally rotund woman with good colour in her cheeks and a thick mane of salt and pepper curls looked as though someone had sliced her in half. Skin sagging from her bones, her cheeks sunken, lips and eye sockets tinged gray. Tubes in her mouth, nose, a catheter, an IV. The sheet that covers her is flat. A double mastectomy, three rounds of chemo, radiation. Now, a mere ninety-nine pounds and withering, my mother laid still on her bed.

My sisters Claire and Anna, my brother Jeremy and his wife Livia were there, all of us keeping vigil by Mom's bedside. Anna wept quietly; Claire couldn't look at Mom and left the room sporadically to smoke. Livia and I each held one of Mom's hands. I held the one with the IV, my thumb caressing the tape that held the needle remain in place, tears sliding down my cheeks.

I wished then-as I had done for weeks-that she would just go. My mother was once living colour and now this: shades of gray and black. A constant hum in my head, Take her, take her.

I'd left for only five minutes to grab the tea. Down the hall, I'd heard the loud sobbing and my stomach sank. From where? I broke into a half-run down the hall, the tea splashing inside the cup, threatening to overspill onto my hand. Down past 232C, 232B, 231A. . .inside.

Three nurses were exiting the room. One of them stopped me and patted my shoulder. She was no more than two years older than me. "Dear," she said, "I am so sorry." I pushed past her.

The smell of antiseptic, soiled linen, a musty attic. Claire was doubled over in her chair, sobbing. Anna was slumped over Jeremy, crying. Jeremy stood white faced and swallowing hard repeatedly. Livia was still holding Mom's hand, rubbing it as though trying to keep it warm.

I couldn't look at my mother's corpse. I was so thirsty. Without thinking, I tucked back the white lid and took a large sip. The tea burned my tongue and formed instant blisters on the roof of my mouth.

Only then could I bring myself to look at her. The machines were off. She was a pale shade of blue, ghastly thin. The sun outside was shining brightly, casting a heretical presence in the room.

Then anger. Couldn't she have waited until I had returned? And then the guilt. She died because I was thirsty. I must have been mumbling it out loud, sobs cracking my chest like thunder, the room blurring and shaking. Livia's arms were around me, gently, "Christine, oh honey, don't say that. I told her you were coming back. Oh Chrissie."

I wanted to hit her. This was Livia's fault. She should have gotten me the tea. She knew I was thirsty. It was my mother. Not hers.

"Someone should call Clay," Claire said. Clay had been at work. I had told him that it was bad and that Mom would probably die that afternoon. But he left this morning for work at the usual time.

Cancer tasted like English Breakfast tea. And the cancer was inside my mouth, stirring my mucous membranes, insides salivating. Soon the vomiting came, splashing the tiles beneath our feet, some on Livia's shoes, a tidal wave sweeping across the floor. Someone called for a nurse.

I was eight weeks pregnant.

My fingers gripped the steering wheel until my knuckles turned puce. I had my mother's hands. I was thirty-four when she died. When I gave birth to my daughter the following winter, I named her Calla, after my mother. She looked nothing like my mother so it seemed the right thing to do.

The cars are inching along the highway. My belt buckle is digging into me, irritating my belly button. Unbuckling the seat belt, I fight to loosen my belt and subdue the pain. A stabbing in my midriff, mild cramping. A burst of nausea. The cars were rolling steady now, going a mere 25 clicks an hour.

It's the waiting that kills me. It always has. Waiting to be sixteen, then nineteen. Waiting to find the right guy and waiting to get married. Waiting during labour. Waiting for the bathroom in the morning. Waiting on the way to work. Waiting for a promotion or better yet, a much more promising job to come along. Waiting for me to wake up one morning with the courage to change.

Waiting for myself to say, This is enough.

But when is enough ever enough?

Last night. I'm in my white housecoat, a gift from my sister, Anna, three Christmases ago. My hair is tied back in a ponytail. The kids are in bed; the dog is settled in the basement for the night. The television in our bedroom is on. I slide under the sheets, propping myself up with pillows and flick through the channels.

Clay came into the room wearing only a towel. He has just finished showering down in the basement after a long shift after work. His hair is tousled and his hairline is receding. I remember the man I fell in love with, his thick brown hair I'd tangle in my fingers, his hard stomach that would ripple against my own, now expanding a bit in the midsection, a potbelly. As though he were a caricature of someone I'd once known.

The laws of gender, nurture, Darwin. While Clay became an expanded version of his previous self, I was to keep fit. After two children, both by cesarean, Clay informed me that I was to regain my 140lb figure, my perky breasts, curvy hips, lustrous hair, and puckered cheeks. I was to fossilize. Beautifully trim, defying gravity, childbirth, hormonal changes, irregular pap smear results. His.

Clay saw me studying him. "What?" He snaps.

I say nothing, silent. Sometimes I wonder if my presence is merely ornamental. A woman in the kitchen, a woman in the office but never the boardroom, a woman in the nursery, a woman in the hospital room, giving birth and burying her dead.

He disappears into the en-suite. Water running; he's brushing his teeth. Water on water, he's pissing. Something inside me turns and I snap off the TV and quickly roll over, praying for sleep.

The en-suite door closes. He walks through the dark. Climbing into bed I can smell the soap on his skin, both handsome and repulsive. "You asleep?"

I don't answer. It doesn't matter. His hands on my chest, his preoccupied kisses on my lips and neck. I try to stay still as I can. A game I play with him, I'll never let him know he gets to me in any way. He may have me but he will never own me.

His hand between my thighs, he's groaning loudly now. I wonder if he's thinking of someone else. "Shhhhh," I tell him. "You'll wake the children-" but I don't finish. He's turned me now; I'm on my stomach, face pressed against the pillow, fists clutching the bed sheets. Panties pushed aside and he's moving inside of me. Humiliation. The tears come.

Afterwards, he rolls off of me, and without a word goes to sleep. I slide out of bed as quietly as I can and go into the washroom. I'm bleeding a little, but not much. I can't say I don't enjoy it. I wipe my tears, wash my face. Wait until morning.

Only one more exit to go. I fumble with the radio dial, pressing any buttons I can without looking. I need distraction, noise, something to keep me from thinking. Finally some static. I fumble with the tuner and get the country station. The announcer introduces the meteorologist. She also calls for rain or maybe freezing rain. I wonder briefly if they teach these people indecisiveness as a safety mechanism. Such cunning language, "A chance of showers, possible freezing rain developing in the late afternoon" and then cutting to some familiar country song I've heard but can't place.

Traffic has let up. A soup bowl of gray, silver, red and blue middle class cars pucker down the four lanes, squeezing themselves onto the ramps. After avoiding a small accident, I take my exit. Only five more minutes.

I arrive at work, taking the steps two at a time.

Back to prose - main

Discuss this work in our Forum