A big-antlered buck, frozen upright in a snowbank, sends me swerving into the right lane of the interstate. It’s there, then gone, as I struggle to read the signs through a whiteout snowstorm west of Toledo. That’s the way everything begins and ends in Ohio—in a flash as intense as it is solitary. I don’t know if the deer died straining to escape the median or if a semi knocked it there already frozen into its noble pose, but it feels like a message for me on Valentine’s Day of 2015.
I can never believe my eyes driving over this monotonous part of the country, with its tangles of frenetic cities in the middle of dismal stubble-fields, so busy and yet so forlorn. Maybe the deer wasn’t even dead, I think, trying to catch a glimpse of it in the rearview. Truck trailers fishtail and hurl ice chunks, warning me to keep my eyes on the road. Then the glacial blob of wiper fluid I had futilely dispensed half an hour ago rattles up my brown-streaked windshield and startles me all over again.
I’m driving in this hellish weather to see the man with whom I will soon elope. For the past year, Mark and I have been in a long-distance relationship, talking intoxicatingly of marriage and escape from our lonely lives—or more accurately, of my escape from Michigan and my ex-husband, back to the South. Just two months after Valentine’s Day, Mark and I, together with my children, will move into an apartment surrounded by flowering trees and birdsong; another month and we’ll be married in a roadside chapel garden near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The polar vortex will seem like a memory from a long and bitter exile.
I’ve been driving this way to Cleveland for months, but my heart still races at the critical interchanges. Mark drives two-hundred miles up from West Virginia, virtually the same distance I travel south from Ann Arbor after dropping the kids off with their father.
Mark will soon be checking into the same hotel where we always stay in Richfield, just south of the city, and texting me the same message he always does: “Where y’at?” But today I’m running late in the blowing snow in a wind chill of thirty below.
I get the merge toward the Ohio Turnpike at Maumee wrong, and no one wants to let me back over after I’ve nearly sideswiped a fellow driver. My heart palpitates roughly.
If I lose control, I think, I’ll be frozen stiff in an hour and perhaps buried in until spring in my compact sedan. Bumpers and hubcaps appear when the snow piles finally melt away, the artifacts of bad decisions, close calls, avoidable catastrophes. I’ll be like that, some mysterious mummy who made terrible travel choices.
I’m a mess. I suspect Mark will ask me to be his wife today, since that is what methodical engineering-minded men like him do on Valentine’s Day. And here I’ll be, dead in a snowbank. Tears well up thinking of my boys, who I dropped off in a rush of irritation this morning. I think of Mark waiting alone with an engagement ring in the pocket a pearl-buttoned shirt he’s worn since college. He’ll listen to my phone ringing and leave voicemails where he calls me “sweetheart” with his gentle drawl.
I’ve got to get the hell out of the Midwest. For nine years I tried to make it work, chasing marketing jobs and my ex-husband across first Illinois and then Michigan. Four hundred miles away back in West Virginia, winters are thirty degrees warmer and seem about three months shorter. Mark’s been working there as an engineer in remote highway construction, squirreling away money and waiting for me to come to my senses.
For too long I treated his love as a certainty, and I have a terrible way of relegating certainties into positions of lesser importance in my life. I’ve squandered most of my thirties—possibly the last of my childbearing years—talking myself into temporary arrangements up here in the cold. Anything to keep the boys near their father, who felt no compunction to sacrifice in kind for me. When he took an executive position in Ann Arbor, I convinced myself that I had less to lose in starting over again. Or I let myself be convinced. What an injustice I can do to a sure thing—all in the service of uncertainty, my broken marriage. Anything to keep a family together.
At Maumee, I pull the wrong way into a gas station parking lot. I squeegee road muck off the windshield for as long as I can stand the bitter wind. Ice races behind my wipers in huge fern-leaf crystals while cars form a line behind me. The vehicles are so snow-encrusted I can’t tell their colors; their occupants are steamy blurs of quilted outerwear. Maybe this is what our souls look like: We’re all the same permafrost gray beneath our filthy, opaque windows. We’re all a heart murmur away from becoming that deer in the median. After another swipe over the windows, I abandon my deicing efforts and retreat to the warmth of the car. I’m too quick to cry lately.
Together with other travelers, I crawl through the barely cleared streets of Maumee to the onramp. Wedges of dark ice dislodge from the wheel wells of the big vehicles; chunks lay all over the roadway like horse manure after a parade.
One SUV meanders from the lane onto the sidewalk, so the pickup in front of me does, too. I drive in the same arc and snow packs up under my tires. Like a hand grabbing the bottom of my car, the ice jerks me around. I’m a fool to replicate maneuvers of large vehicles. Maybe the other drivers, secure with their four-wheel-drive and snow tires and North Face gear, are laughing at me right now, sensing my southern inferiority on the ice. Turning onto the ramp, my tires squeak against the snow in my wheel wells.
At the toll booths, I queue up between the pickup truck and SUV and then we all take off out of the gates like racehorses toward Cleveland.
The Ohio Turnpike is the thickest artery along the bottom of Lake Erie. The land here drops off beyond the barrier walls into unbroken fields barely a shade apart from the sky. A frigid lake wind augments the snowstorm; it is as desolate a place as I have ever been.
I click the wipers up to their highest setting. They scrape over the glass until their rubber separates in brittle flaps from the metal blades. They screech at me in disapproval.
As I pass signs for Sandusky, Mark’s text comes through. My pulse races in the way I know I love him. I’m nearing forty and this is the first Valentine’s Day of my life that I’ve felt romantic about the holiday. My eyes well up again in a desperate sense of lost time.
Mark is at the Richfield hotel, and I know what he says without opening his message—“Where y’at?”—but I open it anyway just to see it there.
I look up to see a semi’s brake lights flare. “Oh no, oh no,” I say, conscious even in this emergency that I don’t curse. Don’t slam the brakes, ease into it, steer into the slide, don’t panic—I walk myself through all the Midwestern survival techniques I know. The steering wheel rolls like I’m operating a bumper car.
Brake lights shoot through the gray as far as I can see. When I come to a stop, I hear the slam of one vehicle into another—the creak of rumpling metal, cracking glass, then another slam. A semi breathes heavily a few inches from my back bumper.
It is a pileup and I’m unscathed in the middle of it. In between the slams, the air is cotton-quiet.
I wait ten minutes, twenty. A graceful drift of snow forms on my side mirror. Then I give Mark a call. “I’m stuck in a backup,” I sigh.
“Where at?” he asks.
“Just past Sandusky.”
“How far away is that?”
“I don’t know,” I say, craning to look around as though I’ll find an answer in the barren fields. The traffic is an endless standstill in both directions.
“Well, maybe you’ll get moving again soon,” Mark offers, sounding tired. I suggest he take a nap while he waits, and I know he’ll try. He works sixty-hour weeks, much of it outdoors inspecting guardrails, pavement cracks, and potholes, and that makes a person awfully tired.
I lean my seat back a little and try to rest, too. I’m not as worn out by my job as Mark. My marketing work follows the college academic calendar, falling slack in February. Most of my exhaustion comes from ferrying children around, rushing between schools and work, then home to cook and clean and start all over again in endless, unvarying repetition. Maybe it’s the repetition of it all that makes it so exhausting. Or maybe it’s that the routine requires me to shape my life around the lives of everyone else in a kind of permanent stress position.
Outside of work, all Mark has is himself to take care of. He lives in a barely furnished apartment, eats ramen noodles, and does his laundry on Sundays. He’s convinced he’s ready to take on a readymade family in me. The kids like him and he makes their mother happy. How hard can it be to step-parent two prepubescent boys? He doesn’t yet see the creeping influence of their father. He doesn’t yet see the creeping influence of me.
When we move, I’ll load a big U-Haul full of toys the boys don’t play with any longer, furniture we won’t have the space for, disorganized paperwork still boxed from my last several moves that I’m embarrassed to pull out of my closets. I’ll make the daylong trip to West Virginia with the boys bouncing beside me in the cab, and I’ll do my best to hide my petrification at driving a vehicle too large for me to see over the hood. I’ll do my best to hide my petrification at unloading all our junk into Mark’s uncluttered life.
He needs me not to be petrified, I think. He’d be hurt by my doubt, offended I’d consider my life so much baggage. It takes a conscious effort on my part to trust love. It takes work to see that my personality, past, and children aren’t baggage, but what Mark loves in me. They are me.
When we move, we’ll consolidate our lives. We’ll stop living out of overnight bags and short-term leases, and that will be better for all of us. I’m only waiting for this cold weather to break. Then I’ll make my break, too.
Snow on the windshield bothers me for some reason. I kick the wipers on periodically to knock out two small sockets, and see that men are now walking around in the road. In every major traffic jam I can remember, men do this after a certain amount of time elapses. They all emerge at once, like cicadas climbing out of the ground, to reconnoiter the apocalyptic scene. Right on time, the trucker behind me jumps from his cab, throws down a flare, and stalks past my door. He’s dressed in heavy boots, coveralls, and a ski mask.
I hope I don’t have to walk out of the accident zone. I’m dangerously underdressed for romance in leggings and a sweater dress; my faux fur-topped boots are made more for the appearance of warmth than protection against the elements.
The trucker lumbers my way. I click the door lock. When he raps on my window, I crack it an inch.
“You should cut your engine,” he shouts over the wind. “Save your fuel. Looks like we might be here all night.”
“Oh, okay,” I shout back, and do as I’m told. He’s not a stranger, I think. He’s the guy who was driving the truck behind me for fifteen minutes. We’re not strangers, we’re cohorts in a disaster. I fiddle at a pick in my knit leggings. I don’t know if I can survive sitting here all night.
I spend the rest of the afternoon buried in the cold, conserving my gas as the trucker advised. “Still stuck,” I text Mark, wanting to talk but wincing at the likelihood my message wakes him. I give my ex-husband a call to tell the kids something about the situation. When he doesn’t answer, I hang up before his buttery professional voicemail message starts. Maybe it’s better he doesn’t know I’m stuck here, that my travel was poor judgement. The boys don’t need to worry. I’ll get out of this.
But I’m hungry, thirsty, need to pee. My stomach complains against the mints I polish off. When my toes ache with cold, I wiggle them against the tapered tips of my high-heeled boots and turn the key for a few minutes of heat. The trucker’s road flare burns itself out in the fog of my rearview mirror. I check my phone mindlessly, pondering how to send my ex a text to bookmark my love for the children without appearing emotionally unstable or in real trouble. I fight the urge to weep.
Snow scours over the fields. I have crossed this segment of the Ohio Turnpike at least a dozen times in the last few months to meet up with Mark, and each time I pass the miles by spotting fat, rust-headed hawks who hunt rodents in the fields. Some days in the fall I could see half a dozen or more. They appeared at such regular intervals that it seemed like they got together and parceled up the hunting grounds to avoid overlapping territories. Today they are nowhere to be seen. All the mice and rabbits must be huddled in burrows under the ground. I wonder where the hawks go when subzero temperatures set in. Maybe they migrate down to West Virginia for the winter. Maybe they froze out there on their fence posts and their bodies toppled into the weeds like statuettes.
At dusk, a state police trooper wipes the snow from my driver’s side window and twists at a key in the air. When I open it a crack, a powdery wall of snow tumbles onto my lap. “Can you turn around?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “What do you think?”
“You can,” he says like a command. “Turn around and go down the inside shoulder half a mile. There’s a gap in the wall. Go through it and don’t go slow.”
I nod, put the car in first gear, and rock it out of the snow. Then I make a series of crescents, inching closer to the truck in front of me and then the one behind until I’m in the clear. It seems to be the sensible way to do it, though I have no experience with turning around in a snowdrift between two trucks.
When I check my snow-plastered blind-spot, I see the dark outline of the state trooper less than half a foot away—he must have been trying to direct me. I would have backed right into him if I’d angled just a little differently. I roll down the window without knowing what to say, but he just raises his thick glove in a kind of good-luck salute and turns away. “Thank you,” I shout after him, my face burning.
I’m free. Along the barrier the road has been blasted clean by the wind. I click on my emergency blinkers as though they will protect me from further danger and drive a daring fifteen miles an hour to the gap in the wall.
One of those hidden thruways police use to catch speeders, it’s a sharp turn into the passing lane. My heart throws itself against my ribs and I spin the wheel.
In a bar across the parking lot from our hotel, Mark caresses my hand. I’m searching the news on my phone while drinking my second beer. I need to reconstruct what happened to four hours of my life on a highway outside Sandusky, find corroboration that it actually happened. Here is what I find: Some thirty tractor trailers ahead of me, a semi tapped its brakes and the cab of an F-150 pickup truck lodged underneath its trailer bumper. “A pregnant woman and her husband died in the accident,” I read out loud, then choke up.
Mark squeezes my fingers against my new engagement ring. “Why are you reading that?” he asks.
“It could have been me,” I say.
“Don’t think about that,” he murmurs.
After being freed from the wreck, the rest of my drive was a crumbling two-lane just south of the Turnpike. This miserable stretch must have been the route to Cleveland before the toll road, following a line of colonial-era mapmakers through territory they didn’t understand and that didn’t belong to them. In the dark it all looks like the surface of Pluto, punctuated by barns so weathered they seem left in place only to serve as warnings about the hubris involved in doing anything in February in northern Ohio. There was nothing to do but grip the steering wheel of my little car and keep going. The sky lightens over a city, and so I followed the light. Sure enough, the highway ended at a rash of hotel signs.
Mark had greeted me with an eager, freshly shaved face, wanting to kiss me immediately when I got to the hotel. Instead, I had dropped my purse and weekend bag into a pile and slipped into the bathroom.
I needed a moment to empty my bladder and compose myself. I took my time touching up my makeup. I drank the strange-tasting tap water from the cup of my hand, wiped at my bleary eyes under the fluorescent lights, and tried to somehow blink myself more awake. Was this really what Mark wanted, a divorced mother willing to leave her kids and drive through a snowstorm to meet up with him? Was this what I wanted, to have someone love me in spite of everything—or maybe because of everything? Maybe I needed someone to help me out of my rut, and he needed someone to help out of a rut.
When I opened the bathroom door, he stared with such a hunger that it was almost as if he could read my mind. “Where y’at?” he said, and his smile was flagging, brave. Trying. For a long time, we hugged hard, rocking each other in place by the mini-fridge where he’d laid out his keys, ink pen, phone, wallet, room key cards, and receipt in parallel, evenly spaced formation. I admired the way his little receipt had been folded into a perfect square and pinched flat between perfectly square fingernails.
He dropped onto both knees on the hotel room’s stained carpet at my feet. He held my hand against his chest, where I could feel his heart beating under his shirt snaps, and swallowed hard. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I wanted to do this in a nicer place.”
He reached into his breast pocket and revealed a ring with sixteen flat, channel-set diamonds. “It’s not an engagement ring,” he said, flashing the ring under the lamp light. “I’m sorry. This one’s called an anniversary ring. See, the diamonds are set down inside the band where they won’t catch on fabric or come loose accidentally. I thought that would be better since it would last the rest of our lives. Will you have me?”
“If you’ll have me,” I croaked.
“I want to,” he said. He slipped the ring onto my finger with shuddering hands. We embraced again in tears.
Barely an hour later, we sit in a nearly empty bar where a cold wind sweeps over the floor every time the door claps. One of the solitary men at the counter has spilled a whole roll of quarters into the jukebox to play the machine’s entire catalog of Waylon Jennings. The décor is a peculiarly northern Midwest version of country: wood paneling, fishing and hunting-themed Americana, lots of lone wolves, geese flying south in great frigid flocks. The milky eyes of a cobweb-festooned deer mount stir me like a fragment of a dream.
“I meant to tell you how cold it was when I set out this morning,” I say. “I saw a buck in the median, frozen to death trying to leap out of the snow—” I mime for him with my arms up in a boxing pose.
“That’s not possible. It must have been old roadkill knocked in there,” he says.
“It looked like it died trying to get out.”
“I’ve seen a lot of roadkill. They get stiff.” He laughs and takes hold of one of my struggling deer hooves.
“It was thirty below,” I say.
“Windchill,” he qualifies.
I finish my beer and set my glass out for a refill. He rubs his thumb over my dry knuckles until my skin is irritated. I give his hand a squeeze so that he stops and go back to my phone. The local Fox affiliate has an update; the wreck is still being cleared and more victims have been identified. Those poor people in the pickup truck were being crushed as I sat there behind them. I wonder how far along in her pregnancy the woman was, if the couple had other children or if this was their first. I search for other news stories on the wreck for information about why she and her husband were out in this storm.
“I was lucky to get out when I did,” I say, and take a swig of my new beer.
“Sweetheart,” Mark says with a careful gentleness. “You almost die every time you drive.”
He’s right, I think, and wonder how he considers it a comfort. To so many of his colleagues in the industry, highway deaths are not merely accidents; they are statistical certainties. Mark knows better than anybody because he works on the roads, walks miles of construction zones, narrowly avoids being run over himself on a weekly basis. Perhaps his own endangerment has prevented the deaths of others on the roads.
My eyes drift back up to the buck rack on the wall. Maybe my survival hinges on a few microseconds of overthinking or underthinking every day. If I hadn’t slowed down to gawk at that deer carcass, I would have been a few hundred feet ahead on the trip, and then the driver behind the semi that hit its brakes would have been me. Maybe the frozen deer saved my life.
“I have to get the hell out of the Midwest,” I say with a flat laugh. I’m so cold my ring slides off when my hand slips from his clasp.
He slips it back onto my finger, straightens it so the diamonds flash the reds and blues of neon beer signs. And warming my hand between his palms, he says, “Then make the leap.”