How to Drive on Empty

Tammy Delatorre

In the morning, check the freezer for steak. Realize there’s no ribeye, no ground beef. Not even a fish filet. Just an emptied-out ice tray he didn’t bother to fill back up. Put the tray against your face. The plastic is cold enough to draw the pain to the surface. The bruise over your eye feels baked in, like blackened grease upon blackened grease on an often-used oven rack. Inflammation, the body’s complex reaction to trauma, makes your face feel like hard salami.

By noon, the swelling subsides, but the colors remain. Black and purple, with violet striations. You know the colors will fade before you’re due back to handle the phones and filing for the accident attorneys you assist during the heavy-rain months. For today, resort to foundation, the kind found in a bottle. Amply applied, it looks like you just got a little too much sun.

At some point, nod off on the sunken couch, sunken since he broke one of the legs and evened it out by breaking the rest. Startle yourself awake with the memory of his steel-toe boots. Instinctually, feel both an urgent need to flee and a complete paralysis that often precede impending collision. Then remember: he’s at work. Those are just his beer cans on the floor. Through a black eye and bruises, it’s hard to see through your life—amidst the dishes in the sink and the mold in the shower—to anything that matters anymore.

When you first met him, he wooed you with crimson carnations, long sunset drives along the Pacific, and harmonies of Randy Travis, crooning how his love was “Deeper Than the Holler.” Not long after this courtship, your sweetie did holler: “What I say goes!” Not to you, to the waitress. Still, you should have seen it then, the resemblance to your daddy, just as fast with a backhand if his directions weren’t followed. Check the clock. He’ll be home early. Doubtless with apologies and a replayed promise to change.

Face the chores. Though the sheets are dirty, make the bed. Suffer the sharp pain in your side, where he brought down his heel, repeatedly. Put on fresh pillowcases, so something feels renewed. Organize the laundry into piles—darks, whites, and permanent press. Look down at the mounds and realize you’re too empty to start a wash. Stand over the dirty clothes until you can think of something to get you going again, like the fact that you managed to get dressed, although you feel barely held together by buttons and a drawstring.

Look outside. It’s not a lovely day. A thick gray haze presses down upon a layer of smog. Don’t make it a reflection of how you feel. Instead, cope with groceries in the future tense. Imagine standing in front of the cashier, wallet in hand, prepared to pay. Not at all ashamed of the heavy foundation and what it tries to hide—your eyes from hers, the monstrous swelling in your face. Hold this thought in your mind: car accident; got thrown against the windshield.

Because it’s true: you were wrecked. With a readied explanation, sit down and make a list. Scribble: steak, milk, butter. Get a flash of his hands, wrinkled and stained with grease from the repair shop where he works. Last night, when you tried to explain why dinner wasn’t ready, they leapt to your throat. Vice-grip tight, you almost lost consciousness. Contain your anxiety. By now, you’ve learned how to wall in every new wound. Shrink his actions. Think only of your recovery, his redemption.

Drive to the grocery store. As you pull into the street, recall the set of knives that sit in a wooden block on your counter. Imagine plunging one deep in his gut. Self-defense is a legal defense. But you’re only imagining. Turn right onto Main, and as you do, get a glimpse of the ghost in the rearview mirror. Adjust the angle to confirm what stares back.

Pull a U-turn, not like the last one, where you ended up at your mother’s place, only for him to come and beg you back. No, this is the turn to end all turns because you finally see it—through the layers of foundation, a dead girl stares back, but just dead in the one eye, the one that sees no future, no way out. The other eye, red with revulsion, demands a revolution. On your way out of town, stop and pick up Chinese takeout. Eat it in the car with chopsticks. For the first time, in a long time, feel nourished. Drive like you’ll never run out of gas. Because through the one good eye, you know there’s no going back. And through the dead one, you know the end. 

Tammy Delatorre headshot

Tammy Delatorre was recently named a Steinbeck Fellow. She has received other literary awards, including the Payton Prize, Slippery Elm Prose Prize, CutBank’s Montana Prize for Nonfiction, and Columbia Journal Fall Contest. Her writing has also appeared in Los Angeles Review, Zone 3, Hobart Online, The Rumpus, and Vice. She obtained her MFA from Antioch University, Los Angeles. More of her work can be found at