Ribbon-like lengths of black asphalt stretched towards the horizon divided by strips of white. It reminded him of continuous liquorice allsorts. The rear view mirror reflected the same strip of asphalt forming an optical illusion of the road entering at the front of the car and departing via the mirror. He began counting the white markers lining the road, giving up after two hundred and fifty-seven. The odometer ticked over the rolling kilometres as it if it were clocking over days and weeks and months and years.
In air conditioned comfort the back seat occupants of the car, the elder girl and younger boy, were asleep or lost in headphones. In the passenger seat his wife of seventeen years slept with her pillow squashed between the seat belt and the window.
Their first family holiday in almost three years, a summer vacation to the beach, was to be a pressure release. And he noted it was sorely needed. In the weeks leading up to their holiday there had been difficulties with work for him, overdue university assignments for her, children getting sick and her mother taking a fall. Nothing was broken but it added one more burden.
The night before brought out the mother of all stand-up arguments over the slightest of issues. They argued whether to pack the baking dish to make a lasagne or not worry and have spaghetti bolognese instead. He retreated, simmering and cursing under his breath. She broke down in tears. The baking dish simply ignited the dry gun powder. Packing the car that morning had been a cool affair. Manners were pleasant yet the tension remained unresolved.
The retreating road in the rear view mirror gave him a new perspective. It wasn’t just last night or the preceding weeks. It stretched back into months, years. The radio had long turned to static in mimicry of the tyres’ running along the road. Songs faded and receded into the past, their tunes and melodies forgotten, swallowed by the harsh cry of unintelligible noise. He reached down and turned it into silence.
Looking into the rear view mirror his eldest daughter had retreated into headphones.
“Your music is not real music,” she said at the start of the journey when he suggested Led Zeppelin as the road trip soundtrack. He couldn’t tell if she was awake or asleep under cheap service station sunglasses.
“Do you want the window socks on?” he had asked.
“Dad, I’m not a baby anymore,” she retorted.
You’re right, he thought. The favoured pink of her room had faded into autumnal, earthy tones. At least she hadn’t gone all black yet, he smirked to himself, thinking of the black he wore during his heavy metal phase. But she was right. His little girl was on the threshold of burgeoning adulthood. She still let him tuck her in at night and kiss her on the cheek but public demonstrations of fatherly affection were out. He cherished those nights when she curled into his lap, trying to take the form of the family cat, resting her head against his shoulder on her way to bed.
His little man was sound asleep, head back, mouth open to catch flies as his mother would say, and lips stained by the remnants of the chocolate treat to keep him quiet and amused. The comic book teetered on his lap, held by a loose hand. He looked forward to times of rough and tumble on the beach with his son, throwing stones down the river and riding their bikes along the foreshore.
As the car swept passed billboards he superimposed snapshots from his memory. Pictures of his wife, back when she was simply a girlfriend. A bride and groom radiant in their smiles. Candid snaps at family functions. The African plains and beaches in Thailand. A red-faced newborn suckling at the breast. Faltering steps of a toddler. First day of kindergarten. Sports events and dance recitals. On every billboard and sign post a new flashback.
Time, like the road, unwound. As the road moved on and on and he felt the distance from his wife despite the fact she was within arm’s reach. Glancing over he took in her sleeping form. Brunette curls were pulled into a loose pony tail hanging over her shoulder. He followed the line of her hair down the straps of her singlet top and bra while the seat belt accentuated the curvature of her breasts. He couldn’t think of the last time her breasts really excited him. Formulaic, calendared sex factored into the various appointments, schedules and activities. He, no they, needed a spark, something to help them refocus.
Reaching over he pushed back the hem of his wife’s shorts and rested his hand on her bare knee before squeezing it gently. Stirring at his touch she roused. Stretching like a cat before rubbing the sleep from her eyes she covered his hand with hers.
“Are we there yet?”
“Almost.” He squeezed her knee again. “Listen, I’m sorry about the argument last night,” he said.
“I’m sorry, too. It’s been a tough little while hasn’t it?”
“It’s been tough for quite some time. Are we ok?”
She found the metallic tang of the air conditioning cloying. She would down the window and let the wind tussle her hair as he waited on her response. The fresh summer air tumbled in, swirling like a spirit through the confines of the car. Across the verge of the highway black and white shapes moved in the afternoon light, a continually shifting pattern of abstract negatives moving towards the milking shed, udders shifting uncomfortably.
She dangled her forearm out the window letting the saltiness of the coastal air rush over her before it dashed into the slipstream of brake lights. Turning her head she smiled broadly.