Carolyn spotted the cyclist in her rearview mirror first, a speck that grew and grew until he appeared, life-sized, at her passenger-side window. He was wearing one of those intentionally conspicuous biking outfits, skin-tight and reflective in black and gold. It was smart, Carolyn thought. She was sure the costume possessed performance-related advantages, but it likely kept this gentleman safer in traffic as well. She offered him a smile that applauded both his physical fitness and sense of personal responsibility. In turn, he raised his left hand and forcefully extended his middle finger, keeping it poised in the center of her window as if in a frame. Carolyn’s jaw went slack. The man labored the point by tapping his finger two times on the glass, and, as quickly as he appeared, pedaled athletically out of her view.
To date, Carolyn Finkel had only had two major experiences with the bird. It was a fairly astonishing record, particularly since she was the sitting vice president of the Rock Haven Preparatory School PTO (a surprisingly cutthroat endeavor) and the wife of state senator (Steve Finkel, D – District 36).
Her first experience happened when she was a young girl on vacation with her family at a non-descript Northeastern beach. Both overweight and afraid of the ocean, Carolyn hovered near the shore building doomed sandcastles over and over again to have the water lick them away. A pair of towheaded boys who looked to be her age appeared with a Frisbee, encroaching on her castle-building area. As she’d been taught, Carolyn politely announced her presence and asked the boy nearest to her to please be careful. He gave her the briefest of glances, then called out to his friend, “Hey Tommy, watch out for the sand pig!”
For years after, Carolyn tried to make sense of what happened next. Her mother, ever proper and elegant — her hair always pulled back and tidy, her lipstick forever in tune with the day’s garments — rose up like an apparition from under the family’s umbrella.
“Pardon me, boy,” she said in a voice Carolyn scarcely recognized, deeper than her mother’s and coated in disdain. The boy turned, and her mother presented him with her slim cigarette of a middle finger and held it in the air — just long enough to be understood, but not so long that it became untoward.
Carolyn and the boy locked eyes, sharing the same shock but for different reasons. He scooped up his Frisbee and fled before his face could fully crumple. By the time Carolyn looked back her mother was seated under the umbrella again, thumbing through her copy of The Ladies Home Journal as if nothing had happened at all.
Her second experience didn’t come until high school, on a senior ski trip. As a first-time skier, Carolyn was trying (and failing) to master the bunny hill with the help of a not un-hunky ski instructor named Paul. Their progress was slow — a rinse-and-repeat pattern for Carolyn of gliding a few feet before falling and getting up with Paul’s very capable assistance. Her classmate Travis Balducci (captain of the varsity basketball team, not un-hunky himself) drifted over with his usual harem of senior girls who were, like most girls Carolyn knew, all more experienced and athletic than she.
“Wow, Carolyn. You’re really good,” Travis said with a smirk. The girls in his harem cupped their tiny manicured hands over their mouths, each making a tepid attempt to cover her laughter.
“Thanks a lot, Trav,” Carolyn mumbled.
“Hey, dude,” instructor Paul called. Travis stopped and looked back. In one smooth motion, Paul liberated his right hand from a bulky ski glove and revealed his most expressive finger. Travis’ cheeks, already pink from a morning on the slopes, bloomed a fiery red. Likewise, Carolyn’s crush on Paul, already pink from a morning on the slopes, bloomed such a fiery red that she forgot about skiing altogether.
A lifetime away from those memories, the incident with the cyclist gnawed at Carolyn for blocks. She tapped at the steering wheel, trying to sort out just what she might have done to earn such scorn from a total stranger. She was by no means perfect, but she did consider herself a thoughtful and charitable human being with above average driving skills.
“What in the world was that about?” Carolyn said out loud to no one in particular. Perhaps he mistook me for another driver, she thought. They were in the suburbs, after all, where black mid-sized SUVs like hers were more common than drive-thru ATMs and frozen yogurt shops. She rifled through her memory of the road in the moments before their paths crossed, but it was all so terribly unremarkable. She pulled into the Target parking lot and turned off the ignition, wondering if her state of mind made her more susceptible to wandering and overconsumption. It had happened before — she’d remember herself in the middle of an empty aisle, touching home décor fabrics or smelling bottles of hair conditioner — suddenly late for some obligation or another and pushing around a cart full of nonsense.
Carolyn gathered her purse, retrieving her phone from the seat as she did. A message indicator blinked at the bottom. She hoped to find that it was Steve checking in, but it was just a follow-up text from their daughter, Josie.
If UR out, need tampons, it said. It was followed by a kissing emoji, the one that always, ridiculous as it was, managed to turn Carolyn into a pile of goo. Josie had sent an earlier text too, but it was one that left Carolyn annoyed. It said simply, need new Lulu leggings … nothing to wear.
More often than she liked, Carolyn wondered how they could have raised a daughter with such a fuzzy definition of the word “need,” someone so breezy with her demands. It wasn’t as if Josie had never been exposed to true need. Every Thanksgiving since Steve was elected, the family spent the holiday downtown serving meals to the sort of people who legitimately had nothing to wear, or wore everything they owned at once for fear of theft or bitter cold.
Just got to Target, Carolyn started to type. She stopped and moved her thumb back to delete. If Josie knew where Carolyn was, she’d surely ask her to pick her up something seemingly small, like “a couple of neutral tees” or “a fun new accessory.” Josie had recently decided she was feeling stifled by her Rock Haven uniform, and had been effortlessly extorting from Carolyn a sizable cache of statement pieces — wacky knee socks, chunky costume jewelry, playful scarves — in this very manner. Josie would surely punctuate the request with “xoxo” or one of those kissing emojis, and Carolyn would comply with little to no protestation. For all her worries about Josie’s generation, she was pleased they still valued individualism.
Okay. Love you, Carolyn typed, letting the cursor blink for a moment before she hit send.
Need new Lulu leggings. Carolyn read the text again and shook her head, hoping that Josie would outgrow what Carolyn read as a troubling sense of entitlement. Maybe someday Josie would pay more attention to the tireless work her father did to help people who had a fraction of what they had; perhaps Josie would even run for office herself. It seemed unlikely now, what with her daughter’s intense interest in sundry Kardashians and furry boots far surpassing her curiosity around public policy. The phone was still perched in Carolyn’s right hand when she was overcome by a sense of déjà vu.
The phone. In her hand. While she was driving. Nothing to wear. That had to be it. She must have picked it up to read Josie’s text and done something awful to the man on the bike.
Carolyn was no stranger to quick action — not when Josie came down with the flu or Steve needed an emergency dry cleaning pick up or they were met with sudden, unexpected dinner guests in the middle of campaign season. I put that man’s life in danger, she thought, and I’m going to make it right. She started the car and pulled out of her spot, narrowly missing a young man and the long red locomotive of carts he was pushing away from the corrals. Carolyn took a deep breath. “Everyone should feel safe,” she said to no one in particular.
Carolyn hit every red light on her way back to the parkway where she’d encountered the man on the bicycle. Being several minutes behind him wasn’t ideal, she knew, but knowing the community as well as she did had its advantages. There was an outlet for a major trail that the sporty types loved not too far from where they’d met; she was sure he was headed there. Steve had been instrumental in getting funding for it years ago, rightly believing a recreational trail would attract more visitors to the adjacent state park. Even when everyone else said it was a bad idea, Steve fought harder. Perhaps Carolyn would tell the young man the whole story when she found him. But only after she apologized, of course.
Carolyn drove with purpose, feeling more and more confident she was doing the right thing. She also took a moment to renew her personal vow to leave her phone tucked away instead of carelessly responding to every little bloop and gurgle it made. Honestly, she could have turned the world upside down back there, and over what — her bored teenager’s affinity for outrageously overpriced active wear?
When she finally reached the intersection, Carolyn was having trouble controlling her speed, a problem made worse for the fact that she reflexively hit the brakes each time she saw the metallic pinwheel flash of a bicycle tire. The weather was perfect and there were not a small number of bikes on the road, many of the riders clad in black and gold just as her victim had been. With so many look-alikes about, Carolyn began to feel as though she was in one of those puzzles she liked to do in the back of People magazine — Find the Differences in These Two Photos! The puzzle was always the first page she turned to when she read it in the hair salon, which was the only time she permitted herself to read trash like People magazine.
Carolyn exited the parkway and pulled into a lot near the head of the trail, pushing back at the voice in her head suddenly insisting the mission was hopeless. She paused for a moment to admire the trail and the green space around it, her fellow citizens enjoying all that beauty. Sure, Steve’s work asked her to make a number of sacrifices, but looking around, she knew it was worth it.
“It’s a shame to waste a day like this,” Carolyn said to no one in particular. She reached for her bag and got out of the car, locking her SUV behind her. She was no more than two steps into her journey when her phone buzzed again. It was Josie. Carolyn sighed.
Coco Puffs 2 plz? Hella cramps. Where R U???????
Carolyn felt a flash of hot anger.
Out enjoying some fresh air. Not at the store right now, she typed. Send.
Josie’s reply was instantaneous, of course. The phone had become a natural extension of the child’s hand.
Carolyn felt a pang of remorse, shortened when her phone dinged again.
But when U go, k? Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeze?
A good mother would leave it alone — stop and think before lashing out. Better, a good mother would just head for the trail and walk it out. What a great way to model mature, adult behavior. Carolyn didn’t do either.
I am not your serv— she started to type, but she was stopped short by the whir of a bicycle tire. She looked up and spotted him, her guy, whizzing by in a bumblebee blur.
“Wait, wait!” Carolyn called, dropping her phone back into the depths of her purse. The man didn’t hear her. She followed him, breaking into a light jog. Her thighs screamed in disapproval and her bra, not built for exercise, proved its inadequacy in the most obscene way.
“Please, sir, wait!” she called again. When he didn’t answer, she searched his clothing for any distinguishing marks. “Trek! Yellow Trek!” she called. The man rode on. Carolyn stopped, bit at her index finger, and looked back to her car. The parking lot went on for a good distance. If she moved quickly, she could still catch up.
She was short of breath by the time she reached the driver’s seat, blindly fiddling with keys and buttons until the car roared to life. She pulled out and picked up speed, trying to calculate the time it would take her to run out of pavement. Joggers and bladers and people out with their dogs stopped and stared, watching her barrel through the parking lot like extras on the set of a Tom Cruise movie. Carolyn couldn’t deny it, the whole thing was positively electrifying. She would think of it often enough later, the way she spontaneously shouted with joy when she caught up to her mark.
“Sir! Please stop!” she called through her open window.
The man finally looked at her. His face became a question, and Carolyn knew she had him. She gave her mirrors a quick glance and hit the brakes, bringing her car to a stop at a perverse, celebratory angle.
“Are you crazy?” the man called to her.
Carolyn was already out of the car, bag still slung over her shoulder, advancing toward him at a fast clip. She glanced back at her parking job and barreled ahead, unapologetically shaking and jiggling in all the unflattering ways, somehow still afraid she’d lose him.
“I’m sorry,” she said, between labored breaths. “It’s just that back there—”
“Yeah, I remember you,” he said. He couldn’t have been a day over 30, yet he had the practiced grouchiness of a man twice his age.
“I’ve been trying to find you,” Carolyn said, her composure coming back slowly, reluctantly. She let herself stop and took a deep breath. “I just wanted to apologize.”
“Well that’s different,” the man said, releasing a sharp puff of air from his nose. “I thought you were hunting me down to kill me.”
Carolyn stopped, taking in the full absurdity of her situation. When it all settled in, she laughed. Perhaps too loudly, probably too long.
“I realize how this must look,” she said. “I just wanted to say that if I was on my phone back there, if I put you in some sort of danger—”
“What are you talking about?” the man said, spitting at the grass.
“Whatever I did,” she said. “You were so angry. If I cut you off or—”
“Lady, I flipped you off because of that stupid-ass ‘Yes on Proposition D’ sticker on your car.”
Carolyn stepped back as if she’d been struck. “What?” Proposition D was an inconsequential sales tax to benefit the city’s public schools — a fraction of a penny — a safe, universally inoffensive cause as far as Carolyn was concerned. Just as she’d told her neighbor Sherry the day she’d fixed the sticker to her bumper, asking for such a small token to promote a modicum of equity in education should be about as controversial as the cuteness of puppies or the niceness of birthday cake.
“I’m a single guy, no kids. You want me to pay more for everything to support your little brats?”
“You’re not supporting my anything!” she said. Her pitch was too high, she thought, juvenile and small. “My daughter goes to private school.” Carolyn instantly regretted the unintentional elitism, and tried to push the words back into her mouth.
The man scoffed at her and tugged at the neat patch of red hair covering his chin. He shook his head and shot her a look thick with pity.
“Just another rich, blind sheep throwing your energy at something that has nothing to do with you. An investment you’ll never get back.”
Carolyn was speechless, sputtering. Questions bounced through her brain, sizzling and trapped like hot kernels of corn in a microwave bag. Who does this man think he is? Does he think he shouldn’t pay for roads he doesn’t drive on? Should firefighters only protect the buildings he walks into?
The man raised a single brow and smiled at her, tight-lipped and overconfident. “That’s what I thought,” he said. There was a smugness in his dimples that made Carolyn want to grab at his cheeks and pull, his freckles urged her to scratch them from his face. When he was satisfied with her discomfort, he adjusted his helmet and positioned his feet, wheeling away from Carolyn for the second time that day. Over the hum of tires and ticking pedals, Carolyn’s phone pinged from the bottom of her bag, three times in quick succession.
“Hey—” she called to the man, reaching for a way to address him. “Hey, YOU!”
He dismounted and turned to face her, his chin tipped at an impatient angle.
With more power than she knew she had available, Carolyn Finkel flipped him the bird.
Image Credit: (U.S. Air Force photo by Samantha Schaffer)
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