Long Haul to Napoli

Somewhere around November, Jonas got really into trucking. Not actual trucking, not driving an eighteen-wheeler twenty-five days a month and making pit stops at highway diners, but a sort of truck-driving simulator where he hooked up a steering wheel controller to the desktop monitor and stressed out over delivering fake shipments of steel.

“It’s relaxing,” he’d say, moments after screaming an inventive string of obscenities at a pretend red sports car that had pretend cut him off. He’d also say it made him a better driver, although watching him fly off the side of the Pyrenees over and over again didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Sometimes, like a supportive partner, I’d pull up a chair beside him and pretend he was taking me along on his hauls. Call it an act of service. I even tried to make it funny, would cut up apple slices and feed them to him like it was a real road trip.

At Christmas, Jonas got himself an upgrade. He was a little kid about it, bouncing his foot on the toy gas pedal while the screen rebooted. They’d extended the map to Italy, he said. From Milan all the way to Palermo.

We were supposed to honeymoon in Italy, was the thing. Land in Naples and drive up the coast. We had a tour booked of the Colosseum, wine tastings in Tuscany, reservations at Port’Alba in Naples. It would have been my first time in Europe. It would have been our first real vacation together. But, of course, the pandemic.

“Buckle up,” said Jonas, patting the passenger seat. It was my one day off. But he had this massive grin, like actually shining through his eyes, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d sort of thought I might read a book in the bath. I brought my coffee over and squeezed a foot up to my thigh on the dining room chair.

My mother, who was otherwise quite progressive, had recently taken up pestering me about grandchildren. Apparently three of my cousins were currently having babies. Didn’t Jonas and I want to start a family? Wasn’t a time of inescapable global crisis just perfect for bringing new life into this world? Watching Jonas scrunch his brows at the screen, go wide-eyed on left-hand turns, bite at the dry skin on his bottom lip when we got into tunnels, I thought, I already had a baby. A fully grown man, yes, with a doctorate in structural engineering, and a full-time job, but a baby.

I was not inclined to share this line of musing with my mother. Or any of my friends, for that matter. They would decide, as a collective, that Jonas must not be pulling his weight around the house, that he must be one of those couch-reclining kitchen-fearing leeches that, by way of deliberate incompetence, made to fortify the patriarchy. Jonas wasn’t like that. I’d dated guys like that before. It’s like the world’s most gratuitous medal, the bar being so low, but Jonas did, with prompting, vacuum. He made a mean risotto. On Sundays he baked bread. No, it wasn’t a lack of household contributions that made him a baby. It was an unabashed earnestness. An excitement about new things. A certain lack of self-consciousness that rendered him terminally incapable of reading the room.

“We’re just gonna pick up a load here,” said Jonas, and gave me a wink I think was supposed to be suggestive. Did he think trucks turned me on? I put my chin on my knee as he rolled us into yet another industrial yard filled with piles of dirt and scrap metal.

Italy, or at least the version of Italy I had collected in my mind and on my Pinterest board, was a land of bright green vines on mustard-coloured villas. Cobblestones and pastel houses, all right angles and terracotta roofs, carved into the jagged sides of mountains. Turquoise waters lapping at the bows of turquoise boats. Jonas had his focus face on again, this time scrolling through a list of identical truck fronts, each of which highlighted a different route on a grey-on-black map.

“Should we go to Messina?” he said, as I sipped on cold coffee. “Then Catanzaro, then Napoli, then Roma, baby!”

He rolled his r’s funny, tongue hitting just the right side of his teeth. Even at my most dour, that never failed to make me smile. As he turned us past yet another strip mall in Palermo, I decided to look for the beauty. The palm trees were nice. The clouds had been dutifully designed. From time to time we passed clusters of houses that almost looked quaint. And you know, the graphics grew on me. If I squinted I could almost pretend it was the real thing.

I started thinking, this might be the village where we stopped for lunch, and fumbled through our phrase books to compliment the waiter. That might be the aqueduct where we’d pull over for a quiz on tension and compression. We might have taken this very ferry to the mainland, seen this gleam of blue waters, had an ice cream in that piazza, then made these winding turns between palm trees and white brick walls until we hit the open road again.

And I did enjoy watching Jonas do things. He had a gift for engineering purpose, anywhere, be it long winter nights in hospice wards or mindless lines at airport customs. Once, the story went, he and his little sister had gotten stuck in an elevator as kids, all alone, for hours, their parents tearing their hair out, and when the firefighters pried the doors open Jonas had taught his sister the first twenty-eight numbers in Braille. When we first started dating, I was just about to write the LSAT, very poor timing, all I did was study and take power naps, I was a greasy grumbling gremlin. He would come over with pizza and beer, and spread out a checkered blanket on the floor of my studio apartment, and force me to take a break until I had to kick him out so I could focus. He made for excellent distraction.

What kind of a father would a distraction be? I wasn’t even sure I wanted kids to begin with, but how would that even look? I would lose sleep counting bills, miss out on partner-track promotions, and Jonas would teach our swaddled mini-me how to deliver fake lumber? My mother had the mistaken idea that marriage implied logical next steps. That people married for love, and that meant loving children. Well, Jonas and I had moved in for love, and married for taxes.

“Fiddlesticks,” he said, clicking through one of the grey-on-black menus.

Fiddlesticks?” I laughed. He didn’t laugh with me.

“I’ve overslept.”

The point of the game, insofar as I gleaned, was to pick up jobs strategically, driving loads from one city to another, making sure you made enough earnings to pay for gas and highway tolls. There were a lot of tolls. If this game was accurate, and I had no way of knowing, Italy was a country of highways and roundabouts and toll booths. You could, at night, pull into a rest stop and have your driver sleep, which I assumed was necessary for some kind of in-game benefit. Now, it turned out, Jonas was late on a shipment of produce.

“This stuff goes bad,” he gritted, and pulled us onto the highway.

It was sort of beautiful, I thought, to see the golden light on the wall between us and what might be an idyllic cuesta. At one point I thought I caught a glimpse of the sea – blue, gleaming – before Jonas had to turn further inland. There were a lot of cars on the road. Ahead, it looked like mountains. In researching our honeymoon, I had learned that Vesuvius was next to Naples. For some reason, in all my years of hearing and rehearing the story of Pompeii, I’d always imagined it on its own tragic island. But no, it was right there, we were driving past it, it was couched in an algorithmic tuft of cloud.

“Are we close to Naples?” I said. His hands were white-knuckling the wheel.

“No,” he said, “this is just random gridlock.”

His tone was a slap. His jaw had gone rigid. I tried to swallow it back but the truth was, my good mood was gone. I thought about getting up and leaving, but that would be passive aggressive. When a toddler hits you, you’re supposed to tell them where it hurt.

“You know,” I said, “I chose to hang out, because I thought it would be nice to do something together.”

Jonas swerved around a school bus, nearly clipping its side.

“You don’t have to do me favours.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Babe,” he grunted, and nearly tipped the truck on a roundabout, “you don’t have to martyr yourself -”

“Martyr myself?”

A truck carrying diesel barrelled past us. Jonas nearly fell back in his real life chair.

“I know you think this game is stupid,” he turned, sharp, onto a dusty shortcut, “but you make yourself sit there, like it’s your duty or something, like you’re sacrificing – “

“Wait a minute, wait, do you not want me to be here?”

“I got this game for you!” Jonas was shouting now, still glued to the screen, making wild moves through parking lots and traffic lights. “I thought it would make you happy!”

It was ridiculous, of course, and we both knew it, to be yelling from a pair of dining chairs side by side in front of a pixelated industrial park outside Naples. But Jonas kept his foot on the pedal as he yelled, even as he turned away from the screen, and in my periphery I saw the peaceful gleam of a family-sized SUV crumble under the weight of his eighteen-wheeler.

“Holy shit,” I said, “you just killed those kids.”

Jonas switched the screen to overhead view to back away from the crash. The scene revealed his blue-green truck keeling over onto its side with a gelatinous wobble. There weren’t kids in the SUV. None of these cars had people in them. It was all tinted windows, grey asphalt, and toll roads.

Bleary in the fallen silence, the two of us blinked at the screen, then at each other.

“You wanna get pizza?” said Jonas. Like that was some kind of olive branch. Then, unattached from words, he rolled a long lopsided “r.” I smiled in spite of myself. A distraction, yes, but what else was there?

“Only if it’s authentic,” I said.

We let the screen hang, unpaused, as we placed our order. Under the crush of our long-haul tractor trailer, there hung a screwed-up sign for Napoli.


Long Haul to Napoli was a finalist in the 2021 Accenti Writing Contest. For details on next year’s contest, click here. Click here to know more about the 2021 Accenti contest winners.

Polly Phokeev is an award-winning writer of content copy and creative work (theatre, prose, screen) based in Toronto.

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