I’m driving my mom south on Route 70, and we’re the only car in sight this time of night, even though it’s only just past eleven. These are senior developments. I know because every so often we pass the wooden signs that say Independent Living Community. They tend not to drive when it’s dark, the seniors. So it’s just me, and Mom, and all the trees on either side of us, for miles and miles.
She’s done with small talk, and the radio annoys her, she barks—“All the songs are noise, anymore”—so we drive in silence, for a while. There’s a real pit in my stomach, and I know it’s not from all the diner food she made me eat after the show. I’m feeling a little queasy, I think, but I just want to get home, so I keep on driving.
I see another car coming towards us, way in the distance, and I flick off my high-beams so I don’t blind the driver. He doesn’t do the same for me, when he races past, and Mom and I both let down our walls for a lick of delicious outrage—she screams “Asshole!” at the same time that I go, “What the hell!” and it makes us laugh, just a little.
But then everything gets quiet, again, and the air is tighter, and the dread settles back in. We pass a couple more developments: Sleepy Pines, Leisure-Towne, Little Serenity. I count them, and I notice that fewer and fewer have those pretty iron gates at the front. Probably it’s that we’ve made it past all the ritzy towns, and now all that’s left to see are the crappy ones. For the people who can’t afford to keep their folks behind an iron gate.
After a while they start creeping closer to the road, too, the developments. At first all you could see were the signs and the gates, ‘cause the houses were tucked away back off the road, out of sight and behind the trees. But now they sit closer to the road, right up against all the noisy traffic. Because having a little peace and quiet is a luxury, I guess. And so now I can almost just peek into the neighborhoods, their rows and rows of unlit trailer homes. Not a soul in sight, since they tend to go to bed so early, the seniors.
Mom usually goes to bed early, too. She doesn’t drive when it’s dark, either, even though she’s hardly a senior yet. But she likes to go catch a show every once in a while, upstate, so she’s lucky to have me around to do the driving.
“It’s freezing in this car,” she snaps, suddenly, and the noise rattles me back into my bones.
Please, I’m thinking, please don’t, as she reaches up a shaking hand and yanks the knob over in her direction, to the hottest setting. The vents start to hiss out warm air, and as my cheeks flush with heat I can feel the dread again. The air is broiling, enough to melt your face practically, but it’s not doing anything to loosen the tension tied up in my shoulders. I squeeze on the wheel.
And then she does it, all big and dramatic—she yawns—and my head spins, I nearly swerve the car off the damned road, the way it gets all up under my skin. The noise. Like taking a nail to the eye socket. Like someone’s scraping a stone out of your gut.
“Misophonia,” my psych called it, last time I could pay to see him, and I always come this close to explaining it to her every time she yawns. That it’s just a problem I have, it’s nothing personal, it’s just my misophonia that my psych says I have. Except I know Mom doesn’t take too kindly to big words like that, and she doesn’t even know about the psych, anyway. Not yet.
Usually I try to stay away from her when she yawns. I make it my own business, ‘cause how do you ask someone to stop yawning if they can’t help it? But she can’t drive herself, won’t drive herself anywhere, so I’m stuck in the car with her. And this show we saw, it was enough to put anyone to sleep—the poor kids really couldn’t have done any worse. And the air in the car is like hot soup, by now, so it’s all just the perfect recipe for her. She yawns, and yawns, and yawns, and I’m just sitting there trying to lose my mind as quietly as possible.
She doesn’t yawn normal, either, that’s the problem. She opens her mouth all big and wide and she hums this languid little tune, forcing the air out, and then she gnashes her teeth a couple times for show. When she’s done, she smacks her lips like she’s just finished off a sirloin steak and she’s all satisfied. Except the thing is that she’s never satisfied, because she’ll just keep on yawning for miles and miles, like she can’t yawn enough.
At this point I’m twitching, my nerves are alive with this buzzing rage. It’s a frantic feeling, like ants all over your arms and your ears. Another couple developments pass us by and I can’t even read the words on the signs anymore.
Nerves, my nerves, I muster up the nerve to finally ask her if she could yawn just a little bit quieter, and as I open my mouth to speak she barks, “Could you stop, please?”
I jump so quick that the car swerves. Not even on purpose, only just because I was so caught in my nerves that I wasn’t expecting her to say anything. “Stop what?” I bark out, not even meaning to sound so rude. “Picking at your nails,” she says, and I look down and notice that I’ve been scraping away at my right thumbnail with my middle finger—I see the blood pooled in the groove of the nail and suddenly the pain registers. “The sound,” she explains, across a yawn, “it annoys me. Can you stop?”