A Stranger's Indiscretion Inspires Her to Face Fear of Freeways

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When people ask, "How can you get anywhere in Los Angeles without driving on freeways?" my usual answer, which is partly true--is: "Scenery is more important to me than speed." Often, though, I don't have to answer. People love to answer their own questions. Some tell me I don't like to drive on freeways because I don't have a CD player. Some say it's my personality. "You know, it doesn't surprise me one bit. You seem like a person who would have done better in another era." One person recommended a special freeway counseling program.

When I am given directions in freeway lingo: Take the 405 north, to the 101 south, to the 134 west, for example, I translate it to surface streets: Sepulveda to Ventura to Barham to Olive. It takes longer to get where I'm going, but I'd rather budget the time and enjoy the scenery than deal with my anxiety.

When I analyze my fear of freeways, I admit I am afraid of moving too fast. Not just on freeways, but in life. I need time to make my decisions. I feel comfortable mulling things over; I arrive at my best solutions when I have time to putter. Ironically, a decision I make to avoid an unfamiliar freeway inadvertently makes me resolve to overcome my freeway fear.

Evergreen College in Olympia, Wash., has invited me to fly north to give a talk. I accept before learning that the campus is a two-hour drive via freeway from the airport. I actually consider backing out of the talk, but I know that would be silly. I finally decide to take Amtrak instead of renting a car, even though it would require triple the travel time. My rationalizations: The train trip will give me time to make the transition from big city to small town; I can catch my breath, review my notes, take a nap; I will arrive to give my talk rested and relaxed. This all turns out to be true. It is on the return home that I begin having second thoughts.

The train is late. I am standing on a platform in the middle of rolling meadows, and I desperately need to find a toilet after drinking three cups of tea. I have completed an inventory of boulders and bushes to find none large enough to provide necessary cover when it begins to rain. I glance down at my suede shoes and head toward a bench under a tiny overhang. I concentrate on the horizon where the train is supposed to appear. "Why didn't I rent a car?" I mutter to myself.

Given no alternative--such as foot, bus, train or chauffeur (I wish)--I will drive on freeways. I refer to a special freeway map I purchased years ago in the UCLA bookstore. On this map, each freeway is color-coded, eight colorful branches with sprouting buds signifying the entrances and exits. I figure out exactly how many exits I have to pass before escaping off one of those buds. Using the easiest-to-read bold felt-tip marker, I write out directions on a large index card, each freeway change and exit listed on a separate line.

I'm here, I remind myself, because the train seemed a pleasant alternative to a two-hour drive on a freeway. However, I have now been waiting for the train for exactly two hours, and the freeway no longer seems quite so unappealing.

A car drives up to the curb, and I turn to see who else is arriving. Inside the blue subcompact, three young girls, their ages spanning no more than five years, sit in the back seat. The girls lean over to kiss their daddy. The mother comes around to the passenger side. She can't be much older than 20. The husband, sporting a military buzz cut, gets out and the two of them go to the trunk. Behind the open trunk, he squeezes his cigarette between his lips as he hoists his Army-green duffel bag over his shoulder.

I pretend I am looking off into the distance beyond the horizon where the train should appear. But my eyes are nowhere near the horizon. They watch the space underneath the open trunk. He throws his cigarette down and smashes it with the heel of his shoe. In the same movement, he bends down to press his mouth against his wife's lips. His duty over, he moves away from the car and toward me and the platform. In the distance, the sound of a train draws closer. He must have phoned Amtrak and learned about the delay. I suppose the Army teaches one the importance of schedules. I wish I had called ahead.

As the train approaches, I turn to pick up my bags, which gives me a good excuse to turn my gaze back toward the blue car. The girls are waving from the side window at no one. The wife walks sideways to the driver's side, watching him, hoping he will turn just once. He doesn't look back.

The train stops for three minutes, just enough time for us to embark. I turn to look out the small dusty window. The girls still wave at their daddy, who has disappeared into the train, as their mother makes a fast, sharp turn out of the parking lot.

The world passes by outside the window: farms, gas stations, a nuclear power plant, a bird preserve, a mobile home park. The sliding door at the back of the car slides open and slams shut, interrupting my thoughts.

A tall, sexy woman in a fur coat and spike heels unsteadily makes her way down the aisle toward the sliding door between this car and the next. She grips the handle to push it open, then changes her mind and turns back. She notices the empty seats in front of me and slides in next to the window.

Minutes later the conductor finds her. "You've moved. Did you bring your ticket with you?" She shakes her head. "That's OK, you're getting off soon. Just remember to take your ticket when you change seats." He moves on, cheerfully shouting out the next stop.

Behind us, the sliding door shoves open with such force it remains open. The sound of the train running over the tracks fills the car. The soldier-husband walks past my seat. He notices the woman sitting in front of me and stops. His arm rests on top of the seat next to hers as he bends his face down just above her head. "Where'd you go?" he flirts.

She looks up at him, smiling. I glance up at the man's face. No need to pretend I am not watching. All of his concentration is on her, exuding raw, sexual desire. Could this really be the same distant husband and father I had seen earlier? He touches her shoulder. She rises, stands still for just a moment, then they move together toward the sliding doors, already making love with the movement of their bodies.

I turn my gaze toward the scene outside the window. How can sex with a stranger be so much easier than intimacy with a wife? Does the casualness of it make it safe? Does it spare him any emotional wounds or examination of deeper feelings and fears? In recognizing what may be this man's fear, I begin to acknowledge my own. I think about how our fears influence our choices, and consequently how our choices influence our lives. The truth about my freeway fear is this: The only time I think of death is when I am driving on a freeway. Four lanes of speeding humans behind steering wheels, trying desperately to get to where they're going as fast as they can terrifies me. But I also see how my fear has begun to rule me.

When I return home, I begin by taking short freeway drives. I remind myself to take deep breaths. Sometimes I sing. And I try to think about life, rather than death.

I discovered that day on the train that not knowing the truth from lies is far more frightening than driving on a freeway. What kind of map can one buy that shows the entrances and exits of a person's heart? What song can one sing to ward off betrayal? What kind of pen will make clear the directions?

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Pamela Beere Briggs is a documentary filmmaker and a recovering freeway avoider. She will complete the film "Women of Mystery: Three Writers Who Forever Changed Detective Fiction" this summer.

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