I didn't write about the night the Dutchman, my new ex, made me nervous enough in my Cabriolet to turn left without looking to my right, when a car zoomed towards us, missing us by a hair. Or the time he grabbed the wheel on Route 28 and drove into oncoming traffic. I didn't write about those incidents here because they didn't happen on Easter Sunday, the day of our visit to Valatie.
My story, which isn't finished yet, is based on fact, as is the case with many of my stories. However, quite a few details are fictional. The Dutchman has always recognized himself in my stories. But he is the sort of man who would recognize himself in a story even if the character wasn't based on him. His criticism often angered me. He complained that I didn't stick to facts even though I told him over and over that I consider my stories fiction. Still, he contradicted me with comments like: It didn't happen like that! Or: I didn't say that! You're putting words in my mouth! Or: Why don't you write about the good times?
Fortunately I won't have to listen to his comments about this story. I can write freely about the screaming match on the way to Valatie and about our Easter Sunday luncheon at the cottage of our hosts. I can exaggerate as much as I want, make him a monster if I feel like it.
The argument on the way to Valatie stands out as being the worst screaming match we'd ever had. It lasted two and a half hours with only a couple of brief breaks. Of course if he had read this, he would've contradicted me and said: It took less than two hours! I kept mispronouncing Valatie while we screamed at each other on the road. Correcting me over and over, he said, "It's pronounced 'va LAY sha, not VAL-a-TIE!" The village was named by the Dutch for the little falls, "vaaltje," that dominate its center, which our hosts made a point of showing us when we finally arrived.
Why I was invited was a mystery until our host's partner told me she loved my novel and wanted to meet me. The Dutchman, who I was then seeing, had never met them before.
When I broke up with the Dutchman, I said, "You think the world revolves around you!" Had he read those words, he would've said, Why did you write that? I would've said, Because it's true! He would have replied, You never said that! And I don't remember you breaking up with me. I'm sure he'd believe that. He hears only what he wants to hear. Did he only pay attention to me in bed or when I was driving or when he was reading my fiction? Despite him yelling at me on the road, I could tell he liked being a character in my stories—no matter how I portrayed him—it proved to him that I cared. Or so he thought.
Our host, who once wore a ponytail like the Dutchman, was younger than the Dutchman and me by more than a decade. I could say he was an old friend, but he wasn't. He was an abstract painter whose ex-wife had once been my close friend. When I bumped into him recently, I hadn't seen him for several years.
Though her smiles tried to hide it, I could tell that his partner, in face and figure a younger version of his ex-wife, was as bothered as he was by our lateness. "How could it take you so long to get here?" the painter asked us, incredulous, while his partner, a writer like myself, reheated some fancy dish that was not supposed to be reheated. It was Easter Sunday, as I have mentioned, with dyed eggs—lavender and blue—and bottles of good wine. "It shouldn't have taken more than forty-five minutes at most," our host said, his face flushed or maybe it was sunburnt, I couldn't tell which. His hair, shorter than I'd ever seen it, was slicked straight back.
Wine made me honest so I told them we'd had a huge fight and gotten lost, but our hosts continued to look at us in disbelief. Our fight started, I told them—as though details would help them understand—when I turned on Ms. Garnier, which is the name I gave my GPS. Naming her made her feel more like a friend. Like a friend, Ms. Garnier is not always right. Once when I was driving to a party—held by a sculptor with the name of an Egyptian goddess—Ms. Garnier announced while I was making a hairpin turn that I had arrived but there wasn't a building in sight. Recently she had failed to find a party in a converted church on Route 28.
If he had been reading this story, I could not have written that Ms. Garnier had failed me twice. Making Ms. Garnier wrong was the same thing as making me wrong. Since Ms. Garnier guided me to the right destinations, I couldn't understand why he always disputed her directions, finding what he called better routes on a map. At one point while he and Ms. Garnier competed for my attention, I became so confused I shrieked, "Stop telling me how to drive!" Then I froze on 9N. Or was it 9S? Or 9W?
I toned down our shrieking and my confusion when informing our hosts about the details of our argument. What would they have thought if they'd known how vindictive we had been? What would they have said? Or done? I imagine them at the table, squirming in their seats, too embarrassed to even look at us. But I'm unsure how the Dutchman would have responded. What would he have said—if anything? Would he have zoned out? I've seen that glassy-eyed look on his face before. Would he have misunderstood what I was saying? His English wasn't always as good as he thought. Would he have felt shy? Sometimes he was shy with strangers.
I had to admit that sometimes in the car I felt hazy, unfocused. Dreamy says it best. But I was better behind the wheel when he was not in the car. Learning to drive and finally passing my test at my advanced age was no small feat. Responding to this, he would've said, accusingly, Why haven't you written that I helped you learn how to drive? I would've said, Because you act as though I still don't know how! There wasn't any test to prepare me for his nearly nonstop orders on the road. I'd been befuddled enough to ask on the way to Valatie, "Is that left?" while looking at a left-pointing arrow. In disbelief, he had said, "What are you—three years old?"
Often his directions were wrong though not in the case of Valatie. As it turned out, Ms. Garnier, which I had switched off then on again in protest, eventually directed us to Main Street—but in the wrong village. Still, his being right did not justify him screaming at me, "Why didn't you turn? Didn't you see the sign?" I exploded, "Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! I can't stand you screaming at me anymore!"
My sudden and extreme outburst reminds me of the 'Fuck you!' he had shouted once in terror when I'd come close, months earlier, to colliding with a car in the next lane on the New Jersey Turnpike. I can imagine how happy he would've been to read that—but he might have been dozing by then. He'd often dozed while reading my stories—but not for long. At least while he was dozing he couldn't criticize what I had written. I would not have minded him dozing through the next part. There isn't a pleasant way to write that often he got so angry or excited or upset I didn't understand his directions because his words became a mishmash of English and Dutch. If he had read that, he would've yelled, You make me sound like an idiot! I would've said, I'm just writing the truth!
Having toned down or left out the most dramatic parts of our argument, I must have bored our hosts. They finally stopped me by showing us around their cottage. I had called the cottage adorable, because it was, especially the kitchen, which was roomy enough for the table where we were eating. The cottage even had a washer and dryer.
The washer and dryer remind me that I have to get to the laundry before it closes. If I didn't have to leave now, would I try to find an insightful way to end this story? A surprising way?
Almost a week has passed since our trip on Easter Sunday. After I drop off the laundry, will I be able to admit that the Dutchman and I enjoyed ourselves in Valatie?
Or instead of continuing my story, will I turn my attention to the tall pines, the maples, the cloudless sky, and go to the swimming hole? After all, it is unusually hot and still too soon to remember the good times, especially since this is Friday, the day he usually took the earliest bus from the city and, while I slept, let himself in with the key he would take from the mailbox beside the door.