Bob’s Thursday morning commute began just like every other day but it ended much, much differently, far better than he ever imagined. For Bob, it was two stop signs from his subdivision to Fourth Street, then three stop lights to the freeway, where he wedged himself in between the thousands of others who traveled to the city each day for their job but couldn’t force themselves to live there. It was an easy route of twenty-two miles and most days he could make it in about forty minutes. It was a straight shot that he could do in his sleep, which, in fact, he sometimes did. The only difficulty came about a mile from his exit, which was the second of three into the downtown district. Just before the first exit ramp traffic always stopped abruptly and then crawled along at a pace that was maddening to those who did not regularly go downtown during rush hour. It was there that things changed on that wonderful Thursday morning.
Bob was calm as traffic came to a standstill. He had left plenty early and knew he would not be late for work. He adjusted his visor to block the bright sun that was staring at him from the eastern summer sky. He glanced in the rearview mirror and saw a woman in the car directly behind him. The rising sun illuminated her as if she were on stage under a spotlight. He looked away and then shifted his eyes back to the mirror without moving his head so he didn’t tip her off that he was invading her privacy. She was pretty. Not beautiful, but pretty. He assumed she was a few years older than he but before he could think another thought he saw her smile. He quickly glanced away, fearful that she saw him looking at her even though he knew that was impossible because everyone moving in their direction was blinded by the morning sun. He reassured himself of this by looking at the mirror of the driver ahead of him. He could see nothing but black.
His eyes fell back to his mirror, to her face. She was still smiling. He could see her teeth, white and straight. Her nose crinkled and crow’s feet formed around her eyes. Knowing she couldn’t see his eyes he let his gaze linger. Why is she smiling?
Bob saw the car ahead of him lunge forward so he eased his foot off the brake pedal and inched forward until he could see the reflection of his own car in the bumper ahead of him. After a few moments traffic stopped again. Bob returned to the mirror, to the woman. She was still smiling, now broader than before. Suddenly she threw her head back and laughed, looking like a street mime. The sight awakened him from his drive-time stupor and his eyebrows came together in contemplation. Why is she laughing? What’s so funny?
Taillights went black and traffic moved forward, and Bob moved along with it. The woman behind him followed but paid no attention to her surroundings. She was still smiling, still laughing. Now Bob stared at her through his mirror. Another laugh. And then another. A faint smile cornered his lips. He continued to watch. The woman was now bobbing her head up and down. Her eyes were squeezed to slits and small tears were glistening at their corners.
Bob looked away and uncorked a full-mouthed smile. Traffic crept forward. Bob hesitated, and then went with it. Ten yards. Stop. Ten yards. Stop.
He looked in the mirror. The woman was still laughing, her face now severely distorted. The awkward look of her disfigurement caused Bob to chuckle. Suddenly she pounded the steering wheel a few times, trying to find a release for her hysteria. Bob chuckled again and then laughed out loud. He was at his exit. What is she laughing at? He glanced at his clock. He had time so he stayed in his lane and kept watching her. He would take the next exit. He could still get to work on time.
The woman was now wiping the tears from her eyes. Slowly, her face melted back to normal but before the smile disappeared from her lips she started laughing again. Like a reflex, her face quickly contorted and her shoulders began to roll. She gripped the wheel tightly with both hands to keep control of herself and her vehicle.
Bob laughed again, only this time much harder. Now, too, his eyes were squinted together and his body was rolling in waves. He no longer thought about the cause of her laughter, he was simply caught up in it.
Traffic was moving again and now it wouldn’t stop. Bob accelerated and shifted lanes to get to his exit. The woman behind him did the same. He marveled that she was able to drive. Her laughter continued down the exit ramp and to the first stop light, where he turned right and she turned left. Bob was disappointed. He hoped she would continue to follow him.
He circled back toward his office building and drove to the parking ramp. He could not get his mind off the woman, her smile, her laughter. On the elevator ride to the sixth floor he had to duck his head low so those around him wouldn’t see him smiling. As the crowded car blinked past the third and fourth floors, he stared at his shoes and stifled his laughter. Throughout the day the smile never left his face. In fact, everyone who saw him cocked their head and thought, I wonder what’s so funny?