Behind the Smile
By Lady E
Author's Note: My first dollop of creative writing (excepting all pathetic attempts at poetry) after a year's absence. The fact that this was originally written for my English class does nothing for my ego. / Eh well, maybe the summer will prove more productive...
The 1971 Ford Farland sputters down the road, rumbling over paved gravel and painted cracks. It jerks up and down, tossing its head with all the defiance of an old mare that refuses to die. The engine clatters threateningly, and the stick shift jumps in my hand, rebelling against my touch.
You sit calmly in what they nowadays call the "shotgun" seat, your hands folded elegantly in your lap, too accustomed to the old Ford's temperamental fits to be discomfited. Sunlight and shadows spill across your lap as we pass alternately between neighborhood houses.
You sense me watching and cut your eyes my way, a sardonic glow in their copper depths. Your lips part in a slow, secretive smile that for 43 years has never failed to steal my breath, and the thin lines of age etched into your face deepen.
A lithe Ferrari whips by on your right, distracting you for a fraction of a second with its glaring red paint and spinning rubber tires. Another car follows, windshields flashing, easily outstripping us as we crawl down the street towards the highway. You blink your gaze back to mine, muted emotion in your hazel-shielded eyes.
"Watch the road," you tell me.
I want to laugh, but instead I turn back to the lanes I should be watching. The steering wheel is wrapped in leather bindings beneath my palms, the ribbed material reminding me of the black diamond fishnets you once wore. I can still recall the whirling music, noisy lights, as vividly as if I'd snapped a photograph of the moment, enveloping the group of us in a 1960s cocoon. Beyond the period cliché though, I can see your laughter, a slight turn of the lips, a gleam of gold in dark eyes, and the thick sweep of your eyelashes. That humor from your lips had made the chaos of the Sixties real, given me a focus to chase after. Even now, it reminds me of our youth, bygone days to be snatched at in moments of nostalgia.
The green light ahead of us turns yellow and I press down lightly on the brake, easing the lurching car to a gradual stop. Two cars speed by on each side of us, their drivers leaning forward in rapt annoyance, and I smile in spite of myself. Your sidelong glance wipes the grin from my face, and I wonder what you're thinking now.
"You're getting old," you say lightly, carefully tilting your head of white hair as though you wore a crown. The wrinkles at the corners of your eyes pinch outwards in characteristic amusement. When the Ford shudders into motion again, you gesture at the passing scenery just beyond the windshield, continuing, "You're not keeping up with the rest of the world."
Your voice is lilting, free of barbs, almost careless. The flippant tone is an inadequate cushion for the stinging reality of your words. I watch my hands tighten on the steering wheel, white against brown. A lump catches in my throat, and I can't form a response. My eyes remain glued to the road. It's no use trying to dislodge your words from my mind: a lifetime of experimentation has proven that effort futile. Time has a way of playing me for the fool.
When did you change, I wonder? How was it that I didn't notice when you stopped laughing?
I turn my eyes carefully to yours again, seeking for an answer. Your eyes are as inscrutable as they've always been, peering back at me in a tumult of hazel confusion.
A pang of yearning engulfs me. After over four decades spent together, I should understand you, both the dark and the light of the full package, with all your quirks and idiosyncrasies; I should see through the guards in your eyes, the plaster mold of a smile. Somehow, though, you've sped past me, and all I can do is struggle to catch up.
You raise your eyebrows, just in jest I think, and I summon a satisfactory smile in return before turning back to the road, waiting for this moment to pass. Your mouth opens to speak, but what comes out is abrupt and far from what I could ever have expected.
"Neither am I."
I don't miss the change in your voice, from simple equanimity to an off-balance uncertainty. The telltale inflection makes me wonder all the more. I repress a traitorous shiver and try to clear my throat.
"Watch the road," your voice whispers again.
When I shift my eyes to you yet again, your open smile takes me off-guard. Your lips are twisted into that cultivated enigmatic slant, but I notice a slight tilt at the very corners and the flash of golden humor in your eyes.
A jolt from the Ford rattles me enough for my vocal cords to clear. I guide the old car onto the ramp leading to the highway, watching the vehicles in front of us merge smoothly with the rushing traffic. 65 mph reads the speed limit up ahead.
"I will," I say finally.
For a picture of a 1971 Ford Farland: