Esther Rohm is a public servant living in the Rust Belt. Her flash fiction and poetry have appeared in Dime Show Review, Mock Turtle Zine, and elsewhere.
My father’s words to my mother rumble like a freight truck. Under his bright glare, she signals dutifully, she melts to mirage. He looks at her and she becomes a mirror. He steers for both of them so they never crash like other parents, so miles of marriage can pass in road hypnosis. When she’s alone at intersections she stares between the windshield and the wide horizon, then takes the paved route back to him. It is the only road she knows.
Originally posted on Threads.
Welcome to the third issue of Subtext. Changing things up a little this time, as a piece of creative nonfiction (CNF) by Esther Rohm really captured my attention. It also caught the attention of the micro literature magazine on Threads called Thread Litmag. Her piece was chosen for publication in an issue that will be coming out in October (I’m making this assumption as they are still working on acceptances for this September issue, with final acceptances by September 30th. Issue to release afterward). As soon as the issue is out, I will provide a link directly to it. Thread Litmag is a really neat kind of experiment in micro literature: poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. They publish their issues on Instagram.
I’ve really enjoyed following Esther on Threads and reading all of her really fun haikus about coffee and the day. I’ve also really enjoyed reading her other posts, like poetry and the piece I’m showcasing in this issue of Subtext.
As you read her piece titled “Traffic Patterns,” I’m sure you can see what drew me to it. Call it prose poetry, creative nonfiction, whatever. But it’s an incredible and powerful piece of literature, regardless of what category it ultimately falls into. This is an exploration of the kind of passive toxicity that can seep into relationships, and Esther explores it through the conceit of traffic, and I absolutely love it. From the get-go, it just hits you and then it never lets up.
“My father’s words to my mother rumble like a freight truck.” This is such an “in-your-face” sentence, and it sets the tone of the entire piece. Comparing the father’s voice to a freight truck immediately sets expectations and establishes tone: he is direct, powerful, difficult to ignore, and will not deviate from his current path. Freight trucks are also dangerous, especially to the smaller vehicles around them. Smaller vehicles like the mother. She is at the mercy of her husband and is dutiful and subservient. She surrenders to him: “Under his bright glare, she signals dutifully, she melts to mirage.” This is such an interesting description of the mother. And it’s an interesting description of the relation she has with her husband. “Bright glare” feels both kind of happy and incredibly ominous at the same time. Bright is often used to describe something as cheerful, happy. It usually has some type of connotation of being good. But pairing it with glare really changes the entire tone. It’s fantastically well done.
That one sentence shows how the wife is in complete submission and compliance with the husband. And she kind of disappears into the relationship and role of “wife.” She “signals dutifully”, a metaphor of changing direction, changing lanes, or turning at an intersection. But she has not made the choice. She “dutifully” signals. She is acquiescing to her husband and fulfilling her perceived role as the wife. There is an implied and inferred subservience. She is less than her husband. Maybe not less than. But certainly beneath. Her value is tied directly to him because he gives her value. It’s not something she innately possesses. “She melts to mirage.” That is such a sadly beautiful line. And it feeds back into that idea of the “bright glare.” Mirages can be diffused by light; dissipated and dissolved. Like an illusion being dispelled, the mother melts away to something intangible and not real; she is the mirage of something. Get close, and she will vanish.
That’s such a powerfully sad concept, isn’t it? And Esther just hammers it home in the next line: “He looks at her and she becomes a mirror.” The mother has no identity outside of her husband. She is just a reflection of him. This choice, this image, is just such an incredible and telling one. Not only does it say just how much the mother’s identity and personality and direction are based on the father, but it also shows that she doesn’t exist. Not really. Because what happens to your reflection when you step away from the mirror? It goes away. Reflections only exist when the real person or thing they are reflecting are there. Take the person away, and the reflection disappears.
It’s been obvious up to this point just how much control the father has in this relationship. But that one line completely changes the dynamic. Not only does he have all the control, but he also holds all of the power, the actual existence of the relationship. Without him, the relationship is nothing. Without him, the mother isn’t just beneath him: the mother doesn’t exist. That one line hits so incredibly hard. That one line tells it all.
It makes me wonder why the mother became this way. Was she always so subservient? So dependent on the attentions of a man to be anything? Or did she become that way. Was it out of necessity that she stamped out her own personality and any individual thought she had. This piece doesn’t provide that answer, but there are some undertones that make me wonder. The language used to describe the father: rumble, freight truck, bright glare. Those all tend to suggest the mother learned to become the mirror, to be the mirage. It adds a kind of layer of sympathy to this piece. Also, some pity.
But I’m struck by another thought: this is told from the point of view of the child. “My father’s” and “my mother.” Well, the child may not be a child anymore. But being written in the present tense makes this piece all the more impactful. This is not something that happened in the past; this is not something the mother escaped from. It is actively happening, whether the actual memory or scene is occurring in real time or not. And for the parents, it is very obviously status quo. The child certainly questions. You can tell, simply by the language chosen that the child doesn’t agree. They see the toxic nature of this relationship. Even if they are powerless to do anything but observe.
As the piece continues, we catch a glimpse into the mind of the father. “He steers for both of them so they never crash like other parents, so miles of marriage can pass in road hypnosis.” This line seems to suggest the father isn’t acting out of malice. He’s avoiding the fate of other parents and other couples: divorce. Because isn’t it better to be passive, to pass the miles in “road hypnosis?” Certainly, a loveless marriage where the wife is completely and wholly dependent on the husband in every single aspect is better than the alternative. I can hear the gaslighting and the mistaken rationale. And I’m familiar with many religions and cultures that view divorce this way. And unfortunately, many marriages can end up like this because of that. And it’s incredibly sad, isn’t it?
You’d almost prefer the anger and resentment, even in a failing or failed relationship. Because at least there would be something. But here there is nothing. The wife, the mother, does not feel anything. Without her husband she can do nothing. This lifelessness and emotionless existence are almost worse than one with hate and anger. Not feeling at all? This may be colored by my experience with depression, but I can’t image a worse existence than living in the emotionless, lifeless, grey of nothing. It hurts me just to think about it.
But the mother is so lost, she doesn’t know a life or existence outside of her husband. Even “when she’s alone at intersections she stares between the windshield and the wide horizon, then takes the paved road back to him. It is the only road she knows.” Oof. Esther comes in with that absolutely gutting emotion of utter and complete hopelessness. I can feel the ache and the pain of knowing how little the mother feels, seeing that “wide horizon” but not knowing what it means. It’s not even like she’s afraid of it. She simply doesn’t know it. Doesn’t know any other existence than the “paved road” back to her husband. It’s the way the father made it. The way he wants it. And through that, he has complete and absolute dominion over his wife. Except, at this point, maybe wife is the wrong word. Property seems more appropriate. Decoration. The expectation of society. And that hurts more than almost anything else in this piece.
The father doesn’t care. Not a single word in this piece would make me think for one second that he cares or feels any actual emotion toward his wife. She’s simply his. A chore. Something to direct and control. The weight of this on my heart is just… It’s indescribable. To be this trapped. To be a reflection. And the complete lack of care. There is no emotion in this marriage. It’s “road hypnosis,” as Esther described it. And it’s gutting.
Esther, this is such an incredible piece. It’s been sitting with me all week, and I’m impressed by just how much you’ve crammed into less than 100 words (and less than 500 characters so it fit in a single Thread). Your poetry, your creative nonfiction. You are such a talented and gifted writer. Thank you for sharing this piece and thank you for allowing to me to do this deep dive into it. Your comparison of this marriage to driving in a car was such an incredibly clever device. I loved your language and imagery throughout, and overall, this is just such a great piece. I look forward to more from you.