Changing Lanes

          He has never been able to understand Honolulu traffic. What makes it bunch up in immovable jams in the middle of the day in the middle of the week? Just past three o'clock, and he's stopped cold on Beretania Street. And pointed in the wrong direction at that. What made him think he could get to Ala Moana and back in time? He knows he'll be late—again—for his 3:30 class. He glances at the mess of student papers piled beside him on the seat. Two weeks and they still haven't been graded. Another set coming in today. A month to go before the end of the semester and he feels brain-dead already. He doesn't know how he'll be able to deal with the hundred or so papers that block his way to the summer.
          Ahead of him the Punahou stop light cycles from green to yellow to red. No one in his lane moves. He watches the cars passing slowly by on either side of his lane, waits for a break on his left, and when a moped chugs past he pulls over. There’s a sudden blast of a horn and screeching brakes, and a red Bronco stops less than a foot from the left rear of his Corolla. Very close call. He thinks for a moment about the expired no-fault card in his glove compartment, considers how fragile is the texture of his life this day. Even a small accident, no one hurt, could mean a court appearance and heavy financial consequences. He's living from paycheck to paycheck now, and saving nothing. If that Bronco had come a foot further, he'd have been in very big trouble. He doesn't look at the Bronco's driver—eye contact with someone who has a right to be mad is the last thing he wants. Instead, he shakas, then straightens into his new lane. He knows he can't get far enough over to make a left onto Punahou, but one more lane over and he'll be able to turn at Kalakaua and begin to make his way back to the university. Then he sees his mistake.
          "Stupid!" he says aloud. He should have moved right, and turned up Punahou. That would've been a lot faster. In his mind he was still been heading to Ala Moana and the dentist. But he knows already he's going to have to forget the appointment he's already late for. All the dentist is going to do today anyway is take X-rays and tell him how bad the tooth is. Too bad to save, no doubt. He wonders how much it will cost, wonders too if he could possibly skip the work. As if in answer his tooth suddenly stabs at him. That's the way it has been for a couple months now —a sneak-attack pain that comes and goes unpredictably, exploding along the lower right side of his jaw and then disappearing. He feels now like his head has gone through the windshield during a terrible head-on collision. Okay, okay, he can't avoid getting the tooth worked on. But he also can't afford what it will cost. The pain hints to him, and not subtly, that he can't afford to not be able to afford it.
          No tradewinds the last week or so—the air is still, damp, and hot. Thick, humid clouds make the sky look surly, just like everyone in their cars. He feels the sweat dripping beneath his shirt. This hot, and not even summer yet. The moped rider in front of him has the right idea: yellow tank-top over a black and pink Wet Seal swimsuit, and a boogie board lashed on the back. On her way to the beach.
          He reaches the Punahou intersection. At the stop light his car idles roughly, threatening to stall. For no apparent reason, the Corolla occasionally does this. A few times it has cut out on him, just stalled dead. He knows he needs to have someone look at the car and fix it. He doesn't even want to think what that will cost. As he lets out the clutch and eases the car forward a bit, it shudders as if he is trying to start up in third gear. A warning to him, he knows, like the tooth.
          Green…yellow…just before red, he makes it across Punahou Street. Closer to Kalakaua now—one more lane over. He flips on his turn signal.
          He and Laura rode together only once, a Sunday drive around the island. At first they talked casually, but eventually she went silent, then rummaged around in his glove compartment until she found a little memo pad. She spent the rest of the drive writing. Even when he stopped at Sandy’s she stayed in the car ("you need the sun more than me, haole-boy," she'd smiled). When he dropped her off at her house, she said, "Read this tonight, Michael. Thanks for a fine day." She kissed him and waved when she got to her door. He never read the note. It's still in the glove compartment. He knows what it says—not the specifics, of course. But the kiss told him. He hasn't seen her in over three months.
          He checks his watch: 3:20. It will probably be another five minutes before he can get around to Young Street and start back to U.H. Ten minutes to get there, another ten or so to park in the structure and run (in this heat? not likely) up to Kuykendall. By then he'll be fifteen, twenty minutes late. Most of the class will be gone. Well, at least there'll be less grief because he doesn't have their papers graded. He wonders if this time the Department Chair will finally summon him to her office to talk about his future.
          He tongues the hole in his tooth, sucks air through it as if fanning a flame. It makes him wince. He gasses the engine and soothes the rattle. He looks at the papers beside him and feels queasy. How will he get them all read? How will he even start? He can't even find a decent song on the goddamned radio.
          Off to his left he sees the small two-storey building, no different really from the other L-shaped "plazas" along Beretania and King Streets. The building announces its name and birth date in block letters on the wall facing the street: Chong Building. 1954. Korean characters on a small sign in the parking lot advertise a ground floor beauty salon. He knows even without the parking lot sign that are were two dentists' offices on the ground floor, and a travel agent and a chiropractor upstairs. At the far end of the building upstairs is the CPA office where Laura works. He drives past this building often, and tries not to notice it.
          The traffic nudges forward. He watches for a break on his left. He hears the sputter of the moped in front of him, and a few horns further ahead. On the radio Lex Brodie thanks him very much. A space opens and he makes a sharp turn into the next lane. But so does the Bronco behind him, accelerating as it turns. The driver blares his horn again. Michael jerks his steering wheel hard to the right. Before he can hit his brakes his right front bumper clips the moped, which has stopped. The bike flies out from under the driver and bounces off a taxi cab. The young woman disappears beneath the front of his car. The Bronco charges past, the driver hurling a curse at him like a hand grenade.
          Michael is sick to his stomach. As he flings open his door and jumps out of the car, he sees the woman's head come slowly up over the hood. At least he didn't run her over. He helps her up.
          "I'm sorry," she says.
          "What?" he answers. "Are you kidding? I just rear-ended you."
          "No. I'm okay." She seems a little dizzy. "I'm just sorry."
          The cab driver is out now. He looks at the rear of his car, then at the two of them. "Goddamn," he says to no one in particular in a thick Asian accent of some sort. "Goddamn."
          "You're sure you're all right?" Michael asks her. Together they look at her moped, bent in the middle and lying on its side, the motor still stuttering. The boogie board is several feet away, its skag snapped off. No marks on his car. The moped has broken the taxi's right tail light.
          Traffic snarls itself into a knot around them, and grinds to a halt two lanes wide behind them. Seven or eight cars back he sees the blue dome light of a police car. A passenger climbs out of the taxi. He wears an ugly orange aloha shirt. Tourist. "We're going to miss our flight," he says ominously. The cab driver mutters, "Look what you do. Goddamn." He gestures not at the back of his cab so much as in a wide, vague arc that takes in the whole mess on Beretania Street.
          Michael follows the cabbie's sweeping gesture. He hears a few horns. The girl is sitting against the hood of his car, dazed, muttering. The police car swings into the next lane and starts to move up towards them. The blue light begins silently to flash.
          Now he sees someone appear at the top of the end stairway of the Chong Building. She walks down a few steps and sits. She is smoking. He squints, trying to see clearly through his pain, but he can't tell if it's Laura or not. It looks like her, and she is smoking with her left hand. She seems at this distance to be looking right at him; if so, she makes no sign of recognizing him. He fights against an absurd desire to wave at her.
          "Goddamn," the cab driver says again.

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