Urban professionals are evacuating the city before the work day is done. Retreating from their counting houses and brokerages they carry bags of money and chocolate under their arms, rushing home to their eager children, and less eager in-laws.
As I watch the temperature fall in tandem with the air pressure, the cozy orange glow of the dashboard offers no consolation for missing the lighting of the yule log on Christmas Eve. No heat escapes the screen on my telephone as I watch my kids touch flame to dry branches. The only smoke I smell is from the line of stationary exhaust pipes ahead of me.
As I emerge from the city’s tunnels, angry tail lights illuminate the expressway ahead of me in red strands of faux Christmas cheer, stretching eastward out in front of me in the dark, seemingly to the border and over the river.
A heavy snow flurry, caught in the beams of the headlights, disorients me as the traffic lurches in starts and stops. Frightened that I am accelerating into the car ahead of me, I push the brake pedal to the floor. In my periphery I hear the brakes of a heavy truck lock. Bumpers crunch. Steel crumples. I have no time to stop and help, besides, if I saw nothing, how could I help? Fleeing the scene of frustration in my mirror, I inch forward, crowding the driver in front of me. I exhale loudly, forcing myself to breathe.
The rolling hills to the south glow white in the dark. A weather warning, broadcast over all stations, is softened by a female Flemish accent: at least it will be a white Christmas. Clumps of ice on my windshield wipers streak the blowing snow instead of clearing it. The traffic is becoming chaotic as the markings on the road are compacted under snow and ice. I feel the car shift laterally, the tires unable to feel the asphalt as my hands grasp the steering wheel tighter, wrestling for control. I tap my brakes. A horn behind me blasts with contempt. My gut sinks as I read the flashing notice on the traffic boards: road closed ahead–conditions dangereux!
White hot flares compress four lanes into three, three lanes into two to funnel the traffic through a single lane off ramp. Defeated commuters stand still on the shoulder with amber hazard lights flashing, weighing their options, calling home.
I hear the kids bouncing in the background, high on expectation, as my wife deflates over the telephone. She laments “You really should’ve worked from home today,” but the tone of her words says, “I told you so.” I hang up and turn right, following the snaking parade of cars through a dark village and out the other side. Stationary lines of headlights heading in the opposite direction, white, blue, and yellow, blind me. We crawl forward, feeling into the dark, driving by braille to the next crossroads where the road signs point in no discernable directions, “Which way to Bilzen?”
I have been in the car for three hours. I do not know how to get home from here without a map and compass. The usually unflappable voice from the navigation system is no longer trying to hide her annoyance as she reroutes me after every missed turn down impassable country roads. With Mariah Carey’s personal wishlist squelching over every radio station, I fear I will go insane if I do not pass out from carbon monoxide poisoning first. I take a deep breath and hold it until my will to live returns.
Dimming headlights reveal batteries being bled dry as I wait at a four way stop in the heart of another town with clogged arterials. There is complete paralysis. Even the emphatic blue flashing lights of an ambulance fail to reanimate the traffic. Next to me, good Samaritans in party attire, step out into the slush, to help push a dead delivery van from the road. The undertakers sing merry carols as they slip and slide as if on skates.
At five minutes to ten o’clock, three cars ahead of me, a driver climbs out of his seat in a panic and nearly falls on the ice. He waves, desperate to be seen. Something is very wrong. I roll down my window trying to hear his appeal, “The baby is coming! The baby is coming!”
The Samaritans direct traffic, knocking on foggy windows, pointing, smiling, celebrating. Slowly, miraculously, the red sea of brake lights parts to the let little hatchback on bald tires pass through. The mother-to-be, contracting on the narrow backseat, screams in distress, begging for delivery. An ambulance is called. We all know it will not find us on time.
The father-to-be helps me collapse two rows of leather seats in the back of my SUV to make a wide flatbed. Woolen blankets and a sheepskin seat cover donated from stalled motorists are woven into a stable but scratchy maternity bed. Bottled water and sterile spirits, meant for Christmas nightcaps, are stacked high in anticipation, “If it’s a girl she will be called Eve. If it’s a boy; Mohammed; the name of a first born son.”
We all hold our breath and remind each other to breathe as each contraction passes. A makeshift midwife, hunched over on her knees, in her own labor or love, soothes the woman in travail with her glowing, angelic voice, “Just one more time.”
A peel of new born laughter breaks the tension.
A gasp of joy.
Car horns blow in unison announcing the birth to the inhabitants of the town.
Outside, at midnight, the snow storm has passed.
A winter starscape never seen before emerges in all its heavenly glory.
Inside, a baby is swaddled in a golden silk robe, a gift meant for my wife, and laid on her mother’s chest.