After the accident, Lorena's life skidded to a halt. She spent hours in her office staring into space, startled when a stray student knocked on her door with questions about the upcoming test, or excuses about a late homework assignment.
Mornings she found herself scanning the obituary pages in the newspaper before she left for work, half expecting to see her face staring up at her. "Prominent Physicist Killed on Lake Drive off Interstate 430." They would use the black and white photo from her faculty page, which she'd always disliked and planned to replace. She'd been in a hurry to produce a photo for the department newsletter, and picked a photographer out of the Yellow Pages because of his same-day delivery. He posed her in front of a white screen, instructing her to arch her back, twist her shoulders. The harsh lighting made her look older than she was. She couldn't look at the stiff rictus of her smile in the photo without remembering the unnatural tension of the poses.
The accident had been minor. On a dark night, rain descending in opaque sheets, she'd slid off the road after braking suddenly for a deer. The deer bounded away unharmed. Her right headlight was broken where she'd slammed into a tree, the car required some bodywork and was in the shop for several days, she'd been shaken but not hurt. The mechanic told her she was lucky.
She couldn't explain why the accident had left her with the feeling that the very ground beneath her was uncertain and could slide away at any moment.
Perhaps she'd been feeling that way for a while. The university budget was worse than ever. Outside funding was drying up for her project and she was having difficulty finding qualified grad students and postdocs for the research. Only two months before, the married colleague she'd been seeing, not a heavy love affair by any means, had suddenly left his wife and moved in with a graduate student.
"I've been meaning to tell you something for a while. I left Stella," he'd said to her one afternoon.
"Oh?" They were lying on the couch in his office after somewhat hurried sex. She was still wearing her bra, and he hadn't taken off his shirt or socks. She wondered later if she would have done it differently, if she'd known it was their last time. Laughed and talked more beforehand, unbuttoned his shirt, run her tongue over the twirling hair on his chest, licked his nipples. Made love more slowly. Worn different underwear.
At the time she observed herself withdrawing. She knew she didn't want to marry him. But she wanted him to want to marry her.
"Where are you staying?" She didn't know what else to ask.
"Well I've been seeing this girl and I've been staying with her."
"A girl? What do you mean? Since when?"
"Not for very long. It's not that I don't care about you. I didn't mean for this to happen. But she's young, she wants a family, she makes me want to start all over again with her. We're going to get married."
"Who is she?"
"I think you know her," he said, with elaborate casualness. "That is, you do know her. She's part of Jürgen's team. You know, the centrifuge project."
She inhaled sharply, then caught her breath. "The short one with the curly hair? Melanie?"
"That's her. It just happened."
She was coolly composed as she pulled her clothes back on. She wondered why he'd shared this information after they'd made love, and not before, but there wasn't much point in asking him. The most she could salvage was her dignity. She shook his hand, aware that the gesture was ludicrous as he stood there in his rumpled shirt and black socks, limp penis dangling.
"I wish you both all the best. Really."
Now in the halls they smiled sheepishly, awkward with one another. Really, she didn't know how she felt. It had been convenient seeing a colleague with a private office down the hall. She didn't know how she'd replace him. To be honest, she felt rejected. Like she'd lost a competition she didn't know she'd entered, and now it was too late to win.
She'd lost to a younger rival, at a time when she was beginning to realize that junior scholars were pulling ahead of her in the field. Her first two studies had been ground-breaking, and she was accustomed to thinking of herself as a leader in quantum electrodynamics. Undergraduates were impressed to find her name in the Physics 101 textbook. It had been a rude shock at the most recent annual conference in Minneapolis to realize that she was no longer the center of attention. An older professor had attached himself to her at the reception, making waspish comments about the young Turks reorganizing the school of science at his university into interdisciplinary units. In fact she'd always favored interdisciplinary scientific studies, but he assumed she was as conservative as he because both of them were old. It had come as something of a surprise to realize that somewhere along the line she had aged.
"It just happened." The kind of bullshit men said to justify an affair. Her ex-husband had said something like that, years ago. They were competing for the same grant and she'd landed it. She'd always thought his ego was behind their breakup and that the other woman, a staff member in Extramural Funding, had been peripheral. The affair hadn't lasted, but by then Lorena had moved up the ladder to another university.
But she was beginning to see that things just happened. The financial disarray in the university had just happened. Her waning publications and diminishing status had just happened. Her casual lover's new marriage had just happened. The accident had just happened. There were things she couldn't control. Life was moving on without her, faster than she'd ever anticipated.
She'd avoided Lake Drive for weeks after the accident, but recently she'd gone out of her way to revisit the scene of her mishap and was startled to see a roadside memorial there: some carnations and wilting daffodils in jars, several votive candles, a small blue teddy bear. Had someone died? She hadn't seen a notice in the local paper.
She drove by again the next day, stopped the car, and climbed out, squatting for a closer look. The carnations, dyed pastel blue and pink, were browning at the edges, the daffodils withered. The candles had burned down and the small stuffed bear was sodden from rainfall the night before. There was a small, hand-lettered cardboard sign with a cross drawn on it: "In Memory of Bruno." Maybe someone's dog had been hit by a car. If it had been a small boy or even a man surely there would have been an article somewhere. But she might have missed it.
Unexpectedly, she began to cry. She'd missed something, some turning point, the curve on the road where her life has begun its downward descent. She no longer knew where she was headed, or how long the journey would be, or whether some unexpected turn, or a deer in the road, a dog, a pedestrian, a child chasing a ball would appear without warning. Lorena was convulsed by a wave of grief for her former certainties, mourning the death of that confident woman driving alone who'd known exactly who she was and where she was going. It was time to examine the assumptions behind her guiding hypothesis and recalculate the probabilities. She wondered if she was up to it.
She got back into the car. Her hands trembled slightly on the steering wheel and her foot hovered between the accelerator and the brake as she pulled back onto Lake Drive, glancing back over her left shoulder for traffic, looking nervously in front of her at the curve that obscured her view. A light mist of rain had started and she turned on the windshield wipers, straining to see. Visibility could be better.
The sky darkened. Fat drops of rain began to clatter on the windshield. Shoulders back, chin up, she straightened up in her seat and resolved to drive carefully. It was all she could do, really, given current weather conditions and the advancing twilight. Drive slowly, stay alert, and pay attention to the road.
BIO: Jacqueline Doyle's flash fiction and nonfiction have recently appeared in elimae, flashquake, Monkeybicycle, Everyday Genius, 5_trope, and numerous other journals. Her most recent fiction and creative nonfiction have been published in Blood Orange Review, Front Porch Journal, Pear Noir!, and Prick of the Spindle. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at California StateUniversity, East Bay.