It just happened.
I didn't mean for anything to come of it. Believe me, I wasn't actively searching. There were no plans to ruin a perfectly fine Sunday afternoon.
But there we were, in the car, the freeway stretched before us, the curves of the land hugging the gravel surface, crackling under the tires.
We talked about everything inconsequential: clothes, dates, cooking.
I joked about something, and she laughed. I glanced at her as she smiled, her head tilting back slightly against the leather seat.
I saw it, briefly. The faint squeeze of crow's feet surrounding her eyes. The push of skin back around her mouth.
We are aging, and it's strange to see. I can close my eyes and remember her 16th birthday, the way the wind hit our hair as we drove around town in her new car.
It could've been yesterday, or months ago, or 10 years ago. And here we are, driving around, wind lacing our hair and nothing and everything has changed.
But let's set that aside for another day.
I am paused in this moment, pregnant in her smile. I know her enough. I know her so well that the faintest force of muscle moves me, unsettles me, unhinges something inside.
She is unhappy.
I smile and nod as she continues, talking and absently fiddling with the radio. I bite my lip and worry.
There is something that happens to people who have lost. I don't understand it although it's very nearly tangible. A flat taste in a sad meal. A shiver in a warm touch. A faint force of smile in a pleasant conversation.
She is on the verge; of what exactly, I am unaware. Her fingertips tap slightly, impatiently on the wheel. She laughs nervously at the edge of sentences and her eyes flicker just before she blinks, as though everything that once was natural is now a voluntary force of will.
I have a question for her, and it is simple enough in theory. The words are solid in my mouth, and my tongue flicks over them, softening the edges.
"Are you happy?"
She turned to me, surprised, and directed her eyes back on the road.
"What do you mean?" she laughs: a dry, choked song.
"Are you happy?"
She glanced over at me, eyebrows furrowed. "What are you talking about?" she scoffs. I wait, and the silence is a grey smog seeping through the vehicle.
"I mean, that's kind of out of nowhere but yeah, you know, I'm happy." She shrugged then reached over me to open the glove compartment. Her elbow brushed against my knee. "Gum?" she offered, unwrapping one for herself.
"No." I replied.
I took a deep breath. She crumpled the foil and tossed it out the window, then turned the music up loud. We both stared ahead, the road suddenly flat and empty, the sky a dull, pale imitation blue.
I reached over and put my hand on hers. She pulled away, startled, but then relaxed. I let my fingers envelope hers.
When I squeezed her hand tears dropped from her eyes.
The sun fell and we drove on for miles. At the last exit she pulled off the freeway and let go of my hand.
"No," she whispered, barely breathing, "I'm not happy."
"Not at all."