When the man in the yellow jeep ahead of her changed lanes, Zemira was possessed with an urge to pursue him. What could possibly be wrong with giving in to her desire?
By Ronni Sandroff | Oct. 1979 | Cosmopolitan
None of the cars were going anywhere. Zemira Kaufman rested her arms on the steering wheel, breathing lightly, determined to cope. She watched a V of Canadian geese move across the white sky. She noted the beauty of the iron train bridge imposed on the whiteness, and the wind fluttering the webbing of the intricate steel towers that rose above industrial New Jersey. Then she resumed the exercises in Fitness for Commuters, flexing, holding, releasing the muscle groups in her body. The delay doesn’t bother me, she told herself. I’m in no hurry.
A horn honked, and she dropped Fitness to the floor of the car, which was littered with other paperbacks she’d bought in her recent zeal to reorganize, rationalize, and stay in command of her life. Become truly self-centered, and you will always find time for others, the books counseled. Zemira didn’t take their advice too seriously, but as she was reading them, she had to admit they had a point. She shifted into drive and moved up behind the yellow jeep she’d been tailing for two hours. The driver of the jeep peered into his side mirror and saluted her. ‘Zemira waved in return. She liked the back of his neck and his vintage jeep. If the traffic stalled long enough, they’d begin to make friends, set up makeshift kitchens, start a new civilization. Zemira watched the traffic closely now. She clung to the back of the yellow jeep, determined to let no one cut in on their budding relationship.
Look how I’ve cut my anxiety level, she thought. If I’d been caught for two hours on the turnpike last month, I might have had a stroke. I’m doing pretty damn good. The autosuggestion recommended in Surviving Urban Horrors had the recommended effect.
Zemira maintained enough alertness to let her car roll along with the rest, but she didn’t indulge in pointless speculations like: “Why me?” or “Why doesn’t the radio report this tie-up?” or “Where the hell are the police when you need them?” Such questions led only to increase discontent and even malignancy, according to the longitudinal research reported in Avoiding Despair: A Cookbook for the Spiritually Rich, also in paperback, also lying on the floor of Zemira’s car along with her flashlight, sparklers, and tire inflators.They were almost off the concrete overpass when the yellow jeep suddenly moved into the center lane. Certainly, the center lane wasn’t going any faster.Zemira stretched across her front seat, rolled down the window, and shouted:”How can you change lanes at a time like this? I’ve been tailing you for two hours. Doesn’t our relationship mean anything to you?”
The driver of the jeep turned around, smiling uncertainly because he couldn’t hear her in the wind.
“You may drive a jeep,” Zemira shouted, “but you have the heart of an eight-cylinder engine.”
He was two car lengths ahead of her, but he shouted back, “It’s a six cylinder.”
Zemira straightened back behind her ‘steering wheel, happy she’d released her feelings. Suppressed emotion thickens the walls of the arteries and causes premature aging. There was no sense bobbing from lane to lane in pursuit of the yellow jeep, was there? Zemira coasted past a truck that said: “It’s Our Pleasure to Serve You.” Past a sedan in which a man and wife were arguing, thoughtlessly depleting each other’s glycogen stores. In the next car, a young man leaned on his steering wheel, quite pale with exhaustion. Then she passed the yellow jeep. The driver had big shoulders and a self-satisfied look which attracted her.
Why shouldn’t she bob from lane to lane if that’s what she wanted to do? She wanted to be behind the yellow jeep. Why let past inhibitions curtail the flow of new behavior patterns?The traffic inched off the concrete overpass. A marshy valley of grass separated them from the oncoming traffic. There was no oncoming traffic. Not a single car, not a van with a sunset spread-eagle on its side, not a bus marked “special.” Imagine an accident large enough to stop traffic in both directions? Maybe a plane crashed onto the highway near Newark Airport. Maybe a meteor fell from the sky.
Zemira turned on the radio again, but the announcer said the winds were so strong their traffic helicopter had been grounded. He recommended an instant printer whose work was so fine it’d bring instant happiness into her life. Instant happiness, indeed. Zemira knew it took at least a half an hour of concentrated work every day. When friends at work teased her about reading self-improvement books, she retorted that they took their spiritual guidance from commercials.
A car in the left lane drove down the marshy hill that divided the highway. Zemira cheered, and the whole line of drivers stuck their heads out their windows to watch. The car got stuck in the mud at the bottom of the embankment, and the heads retreated into their cars.The yellow jeep was ten cars ahead of her in the center lane now. Zemira decided to go after it. She’d cut her losses, cover her bets, get a new deal. Her lane began to move, and she hugged the car in front of her. She passed the truck that thought it a pleasure to serve her, the man still arguing with his wife. The pale young man leaning over his steering wheel hesitated, leaving Zemira just enough room to spin her right fender into his lane behind the yellow jeep.
Both lanes stopped, leaving Zemira’s car at a diagonal between them, but she didn’t care. The man in the yellow jeep shouted for her to listen to her radio. Zemira turned the dial and heard “radio-active waste . . . gasoline fire . . . exits fifteen to seventeen . . . State police are asking-“The crash was so loud it seemed to come from the sky behind her. She snapped her head around, shocked at the sight of an iron rod pulling back out of her broken rear window and then being slammed into her side window. She slipped down in her seat, pulling herself into a knot under the steering column, covering her head with her arms. She heard the iron rod crash through her front windshield. Glass showered and tinkled over her. The shaft of the steering wheel pressed painfully against her neck, but she didn’t move. Rear, side, front windows shattered. She waited for the window on her side to break, wrapping her arms more tightly around her head, controlling her panic with deep, slow breathing.She’d counted twelve breaths when there was a knock on the still intact side window.
“Lady, are you all right?” Zemira put her hand on the seat to pull herself up. Points of glass stuck into her skin. She opened the lock on the door. The wind rattled the glass on the car seat. Arms grasped her shoulders, and she was pulled out of the car by the man in the yellow jeep.
“Are you all right? “He needed a shave. The skin under his neck sagged a little. But his eyes were kind as pine trees. Trust, let go, need others. Zemira leaned against him.
“Did you get cut? Are you hurt?”
She was not steady on her feet, and the wind was strong. The pale young man was being pinned against a car by two drivers. Crowds of people filled the spaces between the cars. Someone took the iron rod, part of a jack, and placed it out of the reach of the pale young man.
“Come sit in my jeep.”
Zemira nodded, and pieces of glass fell from her hair.
“I was hoping to get to meet you,” she murmured. “My name’s Zemira Kaufman.”
He laughed. “A hell of a way.”
“What happened exactly?” Zemira asked, still leaning against him.
“I’ll be glad to be a witness for you, lady. I saw the whole thing through my mirror. I couldn’t believe it. He must be a maniac.”
He led Zemira to his jeep.”My name’s Topler. Peter Topler of Topler’s Lumber Yard,” he pointed off in the distance as if she might be able to see the lumber yard.
Zemira sat in the upright seat, picking glass out of her scalp, examining the ancient dials. “This is a very old jeep.”World War II model. I painted it, changed the engine. . . . Zemira, I cant figure out if you’re in shock or you’re just taking this very well.”
Zemira laughed. “I thought it was a bomb going off. I thought … this is war… now I’ll see if I’m a survivor. I thought, well, I’m glad I’ve been eating a can of sardines from Sicily for lunch every day. Here, feel my skin, would you believe I used to have dry hands?”
Peter Topler felt her skin. “Did you say sardines?”
“The oil helps the skin and also helps you keep calm in emergencies. I mean this has been quite a day. But I guess the best thing to do is stay loose, cut your losses, cover your-“
“Here he comes,” Peter Topler smiled.”Stay loose.”
The pale young, man, escorted by the man and wife who’d been arguing, came up to the ‘indow on Zemira’s side. She turned away. “What about the radioactive waste, Peter?”
Peter picked up the transistor radio from the floor of the jeep and turned on the news. The pale young man tapped on Zemira’s window, gesturing for her to roll it down. Zemira held up one finger, mouthing “wait.” Always allow yourself time to rehearse important confrontations. Peter and Zemira listened to the news spot on the accident. The highway was closed until further notice. Cars would be taken off from the rear by the police. Evacuation of local residents was being considered. Five fire departments were bringing the fire under control.
“It hit an oil truck,” Peter said.
“The truck with radioactive waste.”
Zemira cranked down her window. The cold air hit her along with the whine of the pale young man. “Please lady, don’t report the accident. If I have one more accident, they’re going to take my license away. I have to drive to work. I have high-risk insurance. I’ll pay for the damage, whatever it costs, I’ll pay you.”
“That was no accident,” Peter said, “you deliberately smashed all her windows.”
Zemira sighed. “Not all. I kept waiting for him to break the one on my side. It was the longest wait.”
“Yeah, that’s right, I stopped, I realized what I was doing and stopped. I don’t know what got into me. I never did anything like that before. This traffic, I’m late, I’m supposed to meet somebody.. . . “
Zemira asked the woman who’d been arguing with her husband for a piece of paper and told the young man to write down his name and phone number. Peter nudged her. “Get his plate number, his insurance card.”
Zemira shook her head. “Have you ever read People’s Guerilla Tactics for Beating the Insurance Game? That book says your rates go up with every accident, even if-“
“But what if he doesn’t pay you? He could give you a phony address.”
“I’ll pay, I’ll pay, I don’t want any trouble. I’m going to keep my jack in my trunk from now on. I’m never going to leave my house unless I have to.”
More cars were attempting to cross the marshy divide and get off the highway. The pale young man organized some men to push Zemira’s car onto the grass. Zemira and Peter followed them. She opened the car door and shook the glass out of some paperbacks. She gave the pale young man a copy of Dealing with Anger, Terror, and Other Strong Emotions Without Upsetting Your Enzymes. She hesitated a moment and then handed Love In Today’s Demolition Derby to Peter Topler.
“What are you giving them away for?” Peter asked when they were settled back in his jeep.
“Oh, they’re like disposables,” she said, “the advice only lasts a little while.”
Peter tossed the paperback onto the back seat. “Do you know anything about this radioactive waste? I wonder if we’re going to get sick from it. Or sterile. I’ve never had any kids, have you? None of my marriages lasted that long.”
“How many marriages?”
Zemira nodded. “I think if we eat a lot of sardines and vitamin C, we might be able to cut our losses. I’ll have to read up on it.”
“I don’t feel sick, do you? There doesn’t seem to be anything in the air.”
“You must be burned out on marriage by now.” Peter nodded. “All I want to do is have a good time.”
“That’s a healthy attitude, though in my case I think being married would be a good time. Of course, I don’t know from experience.
“The revolving lights of a police car were visible about twenty cars behind them. Peter stepped out of the jeep and came back to report the troopers were directing cars off the highway. The pale young man drove his car down the marshy divide and got stuck on the bottom.
“We could make it across,” Zemira said, “you have four-wheel drive, don’t you?”
“I think we should stay here. You have to tell the police what happened to your car. I’ll be a witness.”
Zemira touched her hair tentatively, searching for more glass. “I’m going to let him go, Peter.”
“But why? That’s not practical. What if he doesn’t pay for it?”
“Then I’ll pay.” You can’t do that. The guy’s a maniac.You have to turn him in.”
“Look, I can understand. He was frustrated. Stuck in traffic for hours, and then I cut in on him.”
“Zemira, a normal person would’ve honked his horn and shouted curses at you, but no normal person leaps out of his car and smashes someone’s windows.You could’ve been cut to pieces.”
“Who’s to say what’s normal? I sat in my car doing deep breathing for two hours. Is that normal? Some people have a lot of trouble dealing with frustration. I’m thirty-two, and I live at home with my mother who’s probably called the Jersey police six times by now. People at work think I’m some kind of a kook.”
Peter put his hand on her shoulder. “Zemira, that guy was really out of it. He broke your windows and then he just stopped cold and put down the jack and stared out into space. You have to report it.”
“Don’t tell me what to do. It’s my accident.”
“I saw it. It’s my accident too!”
They laughed, bumping foreheads. “I only know you ten minutes, Peter, and we’re having our first fight. I think that’s a good sign.”
“All right, do what you want. But what if you wake up tomorrow and read in the paper that the guy murdered his wife and three kids? How’re’ you going to feel? You’ll be responsible.”
“Oh, that’s an illusion. I can’t control other people. I’m only responsible for myself. Look, I’m very practical. I’ll be inconvenienced for a week while my car is being fixed, but if I start in with the police, I’ll be hearing about this for months, maybe years. Promise you won’t say anything.”
Peter leaned back in his seat, whistling. “You’re a new one on me.”
“And think of that poor young man. He’s going to have to wait down in the ditch for a tow truck. He has to meet someone. I feel sorry for anyone with high-risk insurance. If I had him put in jail, how would he get his car out?”
“I married four women. I thought I hit every type.”
Zemira smiled and held her smile. Bringing Relationships to a Head suggested letting the other person have the last word and punctuating head discussions with a smile.
Peter shifted into reverse as a state trooper directed him into a U-turn. “Where to?”
“Well, first I have to call my mother.”
He nodded. “Do you really think sardines are going to work against radioactivity?”
“It’s worth a try, Peter.”