New Jersey Jughandles: An Unhappy Road Trip
She sat in her large luxurious champagne-colored van in the hotel parking lot, eye-level with me standing outside. An unlikelier ride I could not have imagined. I had expected her fastback Mustang. Glossy copper hair in a short bob, her glistening blue-green eyes brimmed with emotion. Goodbyes always are difficult.
I was nearly three thousand miles from home, three years into unemployment and my fall from the grace of monogamy complete. She had delayed and delayed, though distant duties called. She laughed at herself for having no change of clothing with her, so anxious to meet me she left her packed bag behind. Given her stylishness, that said a lot…
Suddenly she seized my arm from the windowsill and planted my hand on her breast, holding it there with both hers like a pledge. “I will always be your lover,” she said tremulously…
But she wasn’t.
Chapter 39: Jersey Jughandle
A jughandle is a type of ramp …that changes the way traffic turns left at an intersection. Instead of a standard left turn from the left lane, left-turning traffic uses a ramp on the right side of the road before the intersection…also known as a Jersey Left due to its association with the U.S. State of New Jersey…
— c/f Wikipedia
I do not sleep tonight, I might not ever
The sins of the past have come — See how they sit down together…
Oh I must have done some wrong, On a dark and distant day
For I know full and well tonight — This is how that I must pay…
— Chris Rea, And You My Love
It was with some trepidation I braved New Jersey. All my life New Jersey drivers were disliked and feared wherever encountered. Only others who came close were British Columbians our troopers called “blue-plate specials” for their blue license plates and high speeds, bound for California or Vegas.
Now the Garden State closed around me in a traffic jam of New Jersey drivers. I was astonished how orderly and polite they were at home. Nobody I knew would believe this. It was an easy toll-road run to a state route toward the ocean.
Traffic thinned but remained civil. I discovered the “jughandle” method of left turns across traffic. Made sense from the perspective of my deceased career in traffic safety, and would always bookmark memory of this unhappy road trip.
Driving east past Jersey jughandles, I was coming from a visit to Hollis’s spacious country home on the New York-Connecticut border fifty miles outside “the city,” meaning Manhattan. He commuted by train, reading about five books a week and reviewing movies on weekends, completely at home in progressively more lucrative jobs. A publisher now for a famous house, with a huge salary. Modestly said expenses took it all; it was “just numbers.”
He casually hired a chef to prepare a marvelous dinner to eat on their deck with the literary agent he found me. Never a more loyal friend that Hollis. They treated me so like a serious author it was almost believable. We had long gabfests about our shared history. I admired his collection of erotic photos by famous shutterbugs and by himself. He smiled slyly when he showed me a voluptuous nude posed on the grounds of an abandoned mansion. I recognized both, though I never saw her without clothes. “She said she took you there first, when you got out of the Army,” he said. “She was gone on you, you know. Swore you never fucked her.”
Something he never mentioned in Nassau, and why would he? He had a way with women I never had. Enjoyed and appreciated them, but had no sentimental handicap about moving on. His words evoked poignant memories of the day she took me to that old mansion. The remembered smile above her never-seen breasts clogged my throat with regret.
He moved on from his photography collection to show me hundreds of video tapes that replaced movie reels he had in Nassau. He’d shown Chloe and me early full-color porn movies there that startled me how stirred I was. First time I saw what became a porn staple: a woman opening her mouth and tilting her head like a baby bird to receive ejaculate from a masturbated dick. I had thought myself beyond plebeian shock. I was wrong.
Hollis was eclectic in his tastes. Had carefully preserved sets of collector comic books — I remembered he scored an early Spiderman at a Nassau jumble sale before I ever heard of the character. Had a cleverly sequestered selection of firearms against any future apocalypse, hardy North Carolina roots showing.
His third wife introduced herself as his “final” wife. Professed amazement I knew how to do my own laundry. Carefully explained the subway system, and stacked tokens outside my guestroom so I wouldn’t get lost in the city. Hollis and I had drinks with a svelte mocha protegee of his at a bar called Tammany Hall. She said after all his stories she expected someone larger than life. I probably disappointed her. He showed me through his company’s back shop that smelled and felt like newspaper back shops — like home.
His wife drove the three of us to New Jersey for brunch with two other old Nassau hands, married to each other. Then we had Sunday brunch at a famous Connecticut spot where a hot Yankee woman complimented my ringtail-lizard cowboy boots and expressed open interest. Had no idea how to deal with that, so just smiled and moved on. Hollis showed me Westchester County in his pet turtle-back Porsche. The editor considering my book was gracious and welcoming in his city office, and called me a “revenant.” Looked like he was going to make an offer for sure. Said he’d talk money with my agent.
I was distracted from all this by my New Jersey doctorate of law-holder who had vowed to always be my lover. She had promised to show me the Connecticut of her youth but suddenly she wasn’t coming. Said her plans were interrupted by real life.
The judge (whose hearing she had blown off) was mad at her for letting punks cool their heels in jail while she stayed in bed with me. Her husband was all over her about where she had been. Yes, yes, they were separated, but he still was pushy. She couldn’t leave her kids to come see me without causing chaos. So my pleasure in renewing a good old friendship, in being treated like a real author, had been alloyed by confusion about my first tryst in ten years. I still had several days before my scheduled Amtrak departure west. Hollis said I’d done all I could to get published, why not make it easy for her? Go see her in situ.
It was odd to cruise her town in the shank of a summer afternoon, uninvited and unexpected. As a young man I never went to Israel to see my first love even though she did invite me. In my stunned depression at being fired, I reneged three years ago on a twenty-year reunion with the woman I loved more than any other, and figured her lost for good. This one-night stand had not invited me. I took a motel in a town with a hard-edged feel, as if predators and drug gangs took the streets before dark, and waited until after seven to be sure she was home before I called.
First thing she said when I dialed her on the cheap cell phone acquired for my trip: “You’re back home? You left before I could see you?” My first exposure to caller ID. She read the Seattle area code on the incoming call and made an assumption I was happy to correct — for about thirty seconds. Stunned silence. Then: “You’re here?” Incredulity and accusation in one.
“Close,” I said. “You couldn’t get away, so I thought…”
She unloaded. As they used to say down South, called me everything but a gentleman. She was so angry she sputtered. How dare you? Are you out of your mind? By what imagined right…? I can’t recall actual words, just the pain. By the time she quieted I was a wreck. If teen humiliation by Sharon about an aborted ride home from school was emotional dynamite, this was Hiroshima. Fifty-three, and shattered as a virginal adolescent.
Her quieter voice was terrifying. You’re stalking me. Have you forgotten I’m an attorney? I know judges. I know cops! She would deny knowing me beyond casual internet chat. Chat logs would prove her innocence. I must be a mental case…Terrifying I said. We had talked on the internet — making a record — about my clinical depression.
Her words underlined the matriarch’s old warnings about deceitful women. I envisioned cops surrounding my motel. Realized she couldn’t know my location since I was on my cell; lucky choice. A simple record check would pull up my state-agency background. Any call to the agency would be a gift to lawyers defending against my wrongful-termination lawsuit.
She stopped threatening to express disappointment I betrayed her trust. Don’t let me see you anywhere around me. No shred of warmth. When she hung up I lay down to calm my racing thoughts. After days of activity with Hollis, I was damned tired from the long drive. I needed sleep. But not in New Jersey.
I was gone in half an hour, observing speed limits to Philadelphia in case of APBs. Then onto the Turnpike west toward central Pennsylvania in a violent summer storm. How shamed I would be before the women who loved me if this degrading foolishness came to light. The internet had seemed safe for a thin-skinned male mired in depression. Almost every woman on the make for virtual sex, lightening my gloom. Taking it real with this woman for one night would have made a happy memory.
But with my ingrained insecurities, going to her town to surprise her was idiotic. I was a fool for failing to recognize her excuses meant she had no desire to see me again. My stupidity made me feel shredded, shamed, hollowed-out. I kept noticing bridge abutments. Were all those one-car solo deaths truly accidents? Or exit strategy when life became unbearable? It would be so simple to stop the raw emotional pain: a slight twist of the wheel toward one of those abutments…Was I really suicidal? If I wasn’t, I don’t ever want to be.
What snapped me out of it was the windstorm cheerfully trying to help me off the Turnpike. Raising stubborn refusal to be pushed. I stopped at a food-service turnout, got fries and a Coke, and sat outside watching leaves fly. Then drank bad coffee. When I resumed my journey I was shaky as if recovering from the flu. Knew I had not recovered. Wondered if I ever would.