Freeways, Fate, and Automobiles
The brown, grassy hills surrounding the 405 freeway turn golden during rush hour in Los Angeles. It’s a time of day where the sun dips slowly as nearly every Angeleno makes their way back home from work; six lanes of cars trapped side-by-side in a game of steel and aluminum Tetris.
Late last October I sat in my Hyundai, stuck behind a line of cars waiting to enter the 405 onramp from Santa Monica. A true LA moment — stuck in freeway traffic before even hitting the freeway. Meeting my own tired gaze in the rearview mirror, I asked myself why I agreed to make this trek across the city.
“Come to Santa Monica for the day,” my aunt Shirin texted me the night before, “We’ll get pizza and window-shop.”
“I don’t think I’m up for it,” I responded.
“Come on. It’ll take your mind off him.”
I needed to get my mind off him. My eyelids grew swollen each night at the thought of the soft, dark hair I’d never touch again; the freckled forehead no longer mine to kiss. Dull pain shot through my ribcage. So that’s what they mean by heartache.
“You’re right. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
This wasn’t my first experience recovering from a breakup. If you were to chart my dating success throughout my 20s, the graph would start way up top with my first boyfriend: a bespectacled pianist whose sandy mustache curled corner-up with his lips. After he dumped me on our anniversary and got engaged to another woman six months later, the graph, unsurprisingly, made its first downward trend. By the time I was 29, the numbers were abysmal. But things finally shifted last year a night in early July.
A guy I matched with on a dating app asked to meet at a bar. I didn’t want to go. After a recent ghosting incident, I was fully burnt out on dating. But if only to prove my own fated unlovability, I agreed to meet him. My car pulled up beneath the blue, incandescent lights of the parking lot, tinting my cheeks as I checked my makeup in the rearview. When I greeted him, his nervous, excited energy matched mine and we found ourselves easing quickly into conversation. We discussed our similar career aspirations and unexpected circle of mutual friends — it seemed we would have met eventually, the universe had simply tapped into my dating app to provide an expediting nudge. It suddenly felt like all my rejections and romantic mishaps had led me to this moment; to a person I clicked with on all levels. And as an Angeleno, it would be sacrilege not to believe in some sort of astrological intervention in my pursuit of love. His canvas jacket shuffled as we walked past shops and stores and arrived back outside the bar hours later. Blue fluorescence washed over us as he kissed me.
I drove to see him again the following week, and again just a few days later. He liked to call me on his way home from work to talk about the day. Sometimes he forgot to ask about mine, but I didn’t mind much — fate had finally shifted in my favor, and who was I to question it?
A month later we sat quietly at a red light. My legs fit uncomfortably in his car, not because it was a tiny blue Toyota, but because an entire cabinet of curiosities laid at my feet — wires, empty water bottles, chunks of broken glass. But red flags are hard to see when you’re still washed in blue fluorescence. I watched his eyes flit nervously beneath his glasses as the light changed.
We sat in silence as we flipped the restaurant’s menu back and forth.
“This is what I want,” I said pointing to the vegetable pho.
His dark eyes widened as I looked up at him.
“You’re the type of girl someone marries, Sarah. And it scares me.”
The soup was delicious, so we discussed only that for the rest of dinner.
The hot Styrofoam of the to-go bag warmed my knees as we pulled into his parking garage. He clicked off the engine and turned to me as he spit out, will you be my girlfriend?
Adjacent to the apartment dumpsters, we shared our first kiss as an official couple.
Indigo clouds shone on the saguaros outside the window of our rental car. Our plane arrived earlier in the afternoon but the two-hour road trip from Phoenix to Flagstaff soon became three, then four hours, as a trail of tail lights lit the stretch of highway. Resigned to our fate, we found ourselves diving into our childhoods, our deepest fears; we grew delirious with laughter and belted songs with music blasting. I had never felt so comfortable with a guy before.We opened the windows and let in the warm September night.
The next morning was the rehearsal for his best friend’s wedding in Flagstaff, where he was best man, and I, his date. His surrogate family welcomed me, whispering questions in each ear as we watched the bride and groom hold hands against a backdrop of wildflowers and pines.
It was late that night when I told him to dictate what he wanted to say in his best man speech while I typed it out. Putting pen to paper was too confining, too much of an indelible commitment for him. But it needed to be written, so we got to work. A few of my jokes even made the cut.
We danced together at the wedding ceremony. The photographer’s lens flashed as it memorialized us beside other members of the wedding party. Away from the lights of the white canopy, we gazed up past trees silhouetted by stars. He whispered none of this would have been possible without me. It was then I thought perhaps he loved me too.
Between us on the couch, his phone buzzed with the name of his ex-girlfriend. It was nighttime, a Tuesday in late September.
“Why do you think she’s calling?”
Nervously he locked his phone. “She probably wants to tell me how her show went.”
Quickly I learned the daily phone calls I shared with him were also shared with her. He promised their calls meant nothing and begged me not to end our relationship. So I agreed.
He bought us tickets to a roller rink — it was a warm Friday in early October. As I made my way over to his place, a paper grocery bag slid across the backseat of my car; its contents an uncooked dinner for two. I was nearly to his apartment a night prior with a box of pasta and homemade cookies in tow when he canceled on me — his podcast recording was running late, and it took priority.
As I headed up to his front door, I thought about how the past few weeks had been a patchwork of apologies and forgiveness, making it hard for us to find level ground. But tonight, I was excited to go skating; to hold onto each other as we wobbled and bowed, finding our footing together.
From his couch he eyed me, a deep worry line between his brows.
“You didn’t bring the cookies?”
I had long since devoured them.
He took a sharp breath. “Let’s take a walk.”
After quickly realizing breaking up with me on the sidewalk would lead to a public display of hysteria, he pulled us into my car. The top of the steering wheel left a thick groove in my forehead as I pressed my face against the pebbled leather. Sure, he liked me, but not quite enough — what if there was someone else out there meant for him, someone “slightly more compatible?” The potential was persuasion enough.
The sun had fallen by the time he stood outside my car window. Whether guilt or genuine doubt struck him, he promised to take another week to reconsider our relationship — to see if maybe he’d miss me. I thought we were meant to be; he thought I should probably go home.
A week later he relayed what I suspected: he did not, in fact, miss me. Nervous laughter filled his end of the receiver as we said our final goodbyes.
My eyes were still locked on the rearview mirror as the line of cars waiting to enter the 405 freeway onramp shifted forward. I headed toward the right lane of the onramp. Behind me, a car signaled toward the onramp’s left lane — a tiny blue Toyota. The air left my body.
He didn’t live or work in Santa Monica, and the only reason I was in Santa Monica that day was for the explicit reason of getting him off my mind. But packed between half the city of Los Angeles, our cars idled on the onramp side-by-side. Seeing the same car in Los Angeles more than once is a near-impossible occurrence. Pulling up beside your ex-boyfriend forty miles from home two weeks after he broke your heart feels nothing short of kismet. Behind the square rims of his glasses, his dark eyes widened as our windows rolled down.
“How are you doing — ?” he stammered.
But the onramp light turned green, so I drove and tried not to look back. I called my aunt Shirin immediately.
“What do you think it means?” I asked her. My heart beat unevenly in my chest as I hoped for her to say: You two are meant to be — it’s a sign from the universe!
“Maybe it’s a sign from the universe,” Shirin offered, “that you’re better off without him.”
By the time I got off the 405, the golden hills along the freeway had faded into hazy blue ridges. I continued home as a familiar road unfurled before me, one I’d driven many times before. A road I still drive alone to this day — perhaps exactly as the universe intended.