From the cab of his polished red semi-trailer the driver glances down as I move my motorcycle alongside. His window is down, his sun-leathered forearm resting on the door sill. Apart from his truck and my bike the road is empty. He smiles as I accelerate past, lifting his hand in greeting, acknowledging we share a warm bright morning on a smooth open highway.
With the truck now behind I sense freedom on the road ahead. Long-held emotions loosen in my chest. Tight bands of sorrow, which I thought were permanent, slip free and are lost to the kilometres of road in my bike’s wake. With the spring air of the morning in my face I inhale an unrestricted, soothing, mind-clearing breath.
Before that day, the open road had haunted me. Driving my car I’d often been panicked, struggling to breathe. My heart had been crushed, my sanity unreachable beyond a curtain of despair. The car held me for an hour each morning and afternoon, to work and home, with only my self-defeating thoughts for company. Back then, there were no beautiful mornings, just repetitive challenging days.
Imprisoned by the car my incessant mind-chatter ricocheted shrilly between the windows.
Some mornings, a mug of drive-through coffee shaking at my lips, I couldn’t face the highway voices and I’d driven back home, back to bed. Other days, on the highway, I’d planned my escape.
Just meters away, coming straight at me, trucks hurtled down the highway. Their huge bull bars and grills glinted as they flashed past. The windows high up on the cab tinted bleakly, remote and impersonal. Sometimes I saw my car pathetically crumpled under an approaching bull-bar, my bloodied body sandwiched and crushed by the steering wheel. I wondered how far backwards the truck would slam my car, how far the truck would push me back through space. What would my last thought would be. Before the silence.
Each afternoon I’d drive by the primary school, then park a block away. By 3.15 I’d be at my vantage point, in the park opposite. I’d stand concealed behind a prickly shrub, its sharp annoying needles scraping my legs. Across the road a hundred jubilant students jostled from classrooms, freed for another afternoon. Shrieks of joy pierced the underlying, excited babble that preceded them to the gate. Younger children eagerly ran from the school into waiting arms, older kids taking their parent’s hand or walking alongside. The waiting crowd was mostly mothers standing in familiar, friendly clusters. I’d see my daughter run out, into the arms of her father, giving him an animated description of her day. I’d stand hidden and paralysed as they left together.
After the school had emptied of children I’d get back in my car and drive. My mind-chatter, as always, louder than the radio. One of the voices was my ex-husband’s. You could pick her up from school one day. You just have to ask me first.
I never did. I was scared my daughter wouldn’t want me there. What if she ignored my outstretched arms, and instead made a scene in front of the other mothers? I don’t want you to pick me up! Where’s Daddy?
My daughter had lived with me for the previous seven years, but I’d rarely been able to pick her up from school. As a single working mother I needed her to go to before-school and after-school care, which she hated. Daddy says I shouldn’t have to go to before and after school care, she informed me with accusing eyes. HE never had to. His mother was always there to look after him. His mother LOVED him.
That sounded like something my ex-husband would say, dictating the dynamics of our relationship from his work office interstate. It was a recurring struggle to get my daughter dressed and to before-school care by 8am on those dark winter mornings. She resisted at every step, refusing to brush her hair, refusing to dress, refusing to put her shoes on. I would then be running late for work, carrying her shoes in frustration. Both of us crying. Me juggling bags and marching her to the car with her reddened bare toes stubbing in the frosty gravel.
Daddy says not to worry, he’s going to move back here and I will live with him. I won’t need to do THIS, with YOU, anymore!
Those frequent temper tantrums were due to ‘Disneyland Dad Syndrome’ according to my counsellor.
Rather than the reality of school, homework, chores and set bedtimes, ‘Disneyland’ means staying up late watching DVDs, falling asleep on the lounge and regular visits to McDonalds.
My daughter loved staying with her Disneyland Dad when he was on holidays. She knew which parent she wanted to live with and she told the Family Court. My daughter now lives with him. Ironically, I can now be at her school by 3.15 every day as I no longer work. The highway voices in my car kept me off the road, in bed and away from work, once too often.
After the court case there was just me. No longer a parent. No longer employed. I was a shocked shell, empty. I learned to securely lock down the grief. It settled as tight cold bands, constricting my chest and restricting my breathing, only escaping through the relentless chatter in my mind.
In the car one afternoon, my tangle of mind-chatter was surprisingly drowned out. A motorcyclist from behind had overtaken me, rumbling smoothly past my window. A female rider. I saw a pink helmet and a flash of dark hair on her shoulders. My eyes and thoughts stayed on her and her graceful capability as she sped away. An almost-forgotten emotion seeped into my heart. Within a month I’d bought a second-hand motorbike and with L-plates attached I began to ride, wobbling down back streets.
Today, my car with a flat battery, I found myself on my bike and for the first time nervously turning it onto the highway. But this highway experience is different. The black tarmac weaves me through scenery I’d not before noticed. There are no voices, just the wind murmuring through my helmet and the companionable burble of my bike. Through my leather jacket the morning sun comfortingly warms my back.
At the base of a hill I come up behind a semi-trailer, and I remember the confidence of the woman with the pink helmet. With the road ahead clear I twist the throttle and pull out alongside rows of wheels almost as tall as I am. Fumes of acrid scorched rubber fill my lungs. The moving massiveness of the vehicle creats a vacuum that sucks me sideways, dragging me in. Looking ahead I twist the throttle further and with a growl my bike leaps forward, easily overcoming the pull of the churning wheels.
The driver glances down and smiles as I accelerate past. He lifts a sun-tanned forearm in greeting, acknowledging we share an open road and a beautiful morning.
Now, safely in front of the truck, I notice blue sky ahead. In my rear-view mirror I glimpse the friendly driver still waving; and the truck’s bull bar as it shrinks, insignificantly behind me.