Fiction: ‘Breakdown in the Right Lane’

In bumper-to-bumper traffic, a sinister plan comes to fruition.

breakdown in the right lane, illustration
Victor Juhasz

Friday, January 13
Around 4:30 p.m.
Near the Sepulveda airport tunnel, Los Angeles

Camron picked her up from the airport—that’s how I knew he was in love. Camron didn’t pick Sienna Rogers up from easier airports in Burbank or Long Beach. No, sir. Camron picked her up from LAX, the third gluttonous circle of hell with its millions of cars and buses and travelers pulling suitcases and creeping farther out from the sidewalks and into the street to flag down their rides.

“Your turn, babe,” Camron says now.

I glance at him, sitting behind the wheel of my BMW and texting on his phone. Last year this time, the car’s cabin used to smell of his sweet, citrus-scented cologne. But he no longer wears cologne because she’s allergic.

“OK, let’s see,” I say, closing my eyes to think. “Oh! Got one. It’s illegal to curse in front of a dead person in Texas.”

Camron snorts. “You’re kidding me.”

“So don’t ever give a eulogy and say, ‘This bitch kicked the fuckin’ bucket, y’all.’ ” I laugh. “Your turn.”

He squints out at the traffic surrounding us. “The western lowland gorilla’s scientific name is Gorilla gorilla gorilla.”

I cackle. “Cuz its genus and species names—”

“—are the same,” we say together.

The phone in my purse vibrates, but I don’t pull it out. Not yet. I keep thinking about all those things he does for her. That makes me shake, makes me pant, makes my pulse a pinball, zigzagging from my toes to my ears to my front teeth.

Camron doesn’t hear my breathing—he’s texting on his phone and singing along to Champaign’s “How ’Bout Us” now playing on the radio. Even though we’re headed to a romantic sunset picnic at the beach, we are no longer made for each other. Even though his hand is on my knee, we will never love each other for life.

How ’bout us?

There is no “us,” not anymore.

I’m a fact-checker for an encyclopedia publisher, so I know this is true.

This story appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.

Six months ago, I sat in my backyard at the firepit. A shaker of Paper Planes rested between my feet as I held a cocktail glass in one hand and my phone in the other. After logging into the MY BMW app, I sipped my bourbon cocktail and watched the icon of my Bimmer circle the airport three times until it finally stopped at Terminal 5. I refilled my glass and swiped over to the app connected to the hidden camera in the Bimmer’s upper console that holds the garage opener.

Camron, his face as bright as all the lights of Los Angeles, hopped out of the car to help Sienna Rogers load her suitcase into the trunk. Then she slipped into the front seat, her black hair like satin ribbons and shinier than her chestnut eyes, looking just like that actress, what’s-her-face, in that movie.

Camron (if Lenny Kravitz made video games instead of music) held Sienna’s face in his hands and said, “I missed you like Sonny missed Cher.”

Sienna, the chief baker and founder of SiennaSweet, held up a bag of cookies. “I brought you some Johnny Cakes, your second-favorite sweet treat! Cuz I’m the first and best-tasting sweet treat in your life.” She waited a beat, then asked, “Where’s the lush?”

“Home. Drunk, as usual.” Then he said, “Next trip you take, it’s me, you, and Cancun.”

That night, I ignored the sky, a bruise of reds and purples. Breathless, I toggled between the icon and the hidden camera, watching my car inch out of the airport, watching the happy couple make out every time the car stopped. Every time they kissed, I took a long sip of my Paper Plane cocktail. The icon finally merged onto North Sepulveda Boulevard—that was seven sips for seven kisses at seven stops—and then it stopped again at In-N-Out, another circle of hell but with burgers at the end. After Camron and Sienna’s marathon make-out session during their wait for food, my cocktail shaker clattered onto its side, empty as a result of my pitiful drinking game.

Camron came home that night around midnight. His glasses were smudged, and his “Mordor Fun Run” T-shirt stank of grilled onions and musty-sweet cherry blossom body lotion.

If his Porsche hadn’t been repossessed—and if I hadn’t been charged with a DUI and couldn’t drive for six months—I would’ve never caught him cheating on me in real time.

breakdown in the right lane, illustration
Victor Juhasz

And now look at us.

I sink deeper into my BMW’s passenger seat. “You good?” I ask Camron.

He says, “Uh-huh,” then winks at me and squeezes my knee. The dragon tattooed between his thumb and index finger flexes its wings.

I hold his tatted hand to my face. “Slippery dick is a fish found in the Atlantic Ocean.”

A small muscle flexes around his right temple. Involuntary revulsion—my touch or the fish with the strange name?

Camron’s hands are smoother than mine. Game design is not coal mining. Game design is not emergency-room trauma work, either. Camron’s one callus, on his right middle finger, developed from years of holding a digital pen. He doesn’t feel pain in that spot, and he’s poked it with safety pins and he’s held a burning match to it. “I don’t feel a thing,” he’s boasted.

I told my younger sister, Aliyah, about the calluses that I, too, have developed over my 20-year marriage. There are calluses over my nerves. There’s a callus over my tongue. There’s one covering my heart, but my heart still feels pain in places that calluses can’t reach.

“Lotta traffic,” Camron says now. He winks at me. “Bet you don’t miss driving in this.”

Ruby-red brake lights from the millions of cars around us flash and burn. LAX, with its landmark Googie Theme Building, looms to our right. A Lufthansa jumbo jet roars over us, so close that I can reach up and run my fingers along its sleek, riveted belly.

“Maybe we should’ve taken the freeway,” Camron says.

“Turned-over truck on the 405,” I say. “Accident on the 110. Believe it or not, I do miss driving, even in stupid traffic.” I pause, then add, “Don’t worry. We’ll get there.”

Camron says, “Yeah,” but frowns and throws a peek at the clock: four thirty-five.

I tug his ear. “Stop stressing out,” I say, my mouth tasting muddy. “We’ll still catch the sunset—that’s at five-oh-five. And we’ll eat our fancy salami and cheese, and we’ll hike down to the tide pools like we used to do. The sea urchins ain’t going nowhere, ha.”

He says, “Ha,” then glares out the windshield.

“Your turn,” I say.

“Umm… A blue whale tongue…” He squints past the windshield and whispers, “Shit.”

We will soon enter the six-lane tunnel that runs beneath two airport runways. A little over 1,900 feet long, this tunnel is filled with thousands of cars each day—and most of them are now caught in traffic with us. Brake- and headlights reflect and slide off the tunnel’s tiled walls.

I snort. “Cam, why are you acting brand-new? You know there’s traffic on Fridays. Hey, we can reschedule if you want. Try again next week? I’ll be off suspension and I’ll be able to drive again.”

“It’s all good,” he says.

“All good,” I agree even as bile burns my throat. “A blue whale tongue… What?

“It weighs as much as an elephant,” he says.

I say, “Ouch,” then laugh and cross my legs. “Pass.”

Camron and I met our freshman year at the arcade in Westwood Village near UCLA. He was a math major. I was majoring in history. I beat him at Galaga, and as a reward he bought me a cup of Penguin’s frozen yogurt. He had kind almond-brown eyes, braces, and a lopsided Afro. Although he had no swag, he didn’t blink as I dumped two dollars’ worth of graham crackers on my strawberry fro-yo. He didn’t judge me after I told him that the TV in my dorm room came courtesy of my Uncle Mac, who’d looted Circuit City during the riots just weeks before. We came up with a game: Outgoof Me. We’d pepper each other with goofy facts. His first: penicillin was originally named “mold juice.” My first: a cloud can weigh more than a million pounds.

“He’s such a big-ass geek,” my sister Aliyah said, her lip curled. “You are, too. But you’re cute. Fix his outside, and you may have something.”

A good Black barber. Lasik surgery. Personal trainer.

It took a moment, but Camron is now King Geek, the kind of geek women love. The kind who owned a Porsche (repossessed) and a cabin in Big Bear (sold). We will soon lose our house. Sienna doesn’t know it yet, but she will lose the second bakery storefront he purchased for her as “an investor.” The King is broke.

Today, Camron wouldn’t buy me a frozen yogurt if I asked. Once, he pointed to my thighs and my growing double chin and said, “Goofy fact: fear of an empty glass is called cenosillicaphobia. Maybe that’s what you have. And the glasses are martini and highball.”

Yeah, I’ve changed, too. My wide smile is now tight and weary. My boobs have become a bosom. My calves have become cows and are as hairy as a yeti’s. And according to Camron, I have a fear of empty cocktail glasses.

We can’t blame kids—we don’t have any, not that we haven’t tried.

We can’t blame pets—Norm, our chocolate Lab, died two weeks ago from cancer.

We can blame…money, success, the hustle, too many rib eyes, too much bourbon. We can blame social media, well-placed calluses, skipping Zumba, a baker named Sienna who first met my husband the day she pitched him a baking video game app titled Cupcake Chaos!

Right now, a bag of Sienna’s baked goods—toffee brittle cookies—sits in my car’s middle console, and a chilled bottled water sits in the cup holder.

Fact: Sienna’s cookies are the bomb.

Fact: Sienna’s cookies will make you wanna slap yo mama.

Fact: Sienna’s cookies are to die for.

Inescapable fact: Sienna’s cookies provoke violence.

breakdown in the right lane, illustration
Victor Juhasz

A white Lexus in the left lane tries to wedge into the right lane and in front of my car.

“To go where?” I ask, incredulous. “We’re stopped.”

“Nope.” Camron closes the gap between my Bimmer’s front bumper and the rear bumper of the Toyota Corolla in front of us.

The bitch in the Lexus sees Camron’s commitment to block her and decides to wait and wedge between our rear bumper and the old Benz behind us.

I laugh—at least we’re still compatible in this.

Camron winks at me. “We’ll get there. You know me: I never give up. And we’re celebrating, right? Your suspension ends tomorrow. Date night for the win.” He leans over and kisses me. “Truth: Anaya Frost still rocks my boat.”

“Truth,” I say. “Camron Frost is the most beautiful man in the world.”

“I call bullshit,” he says, eyebrow cocked.

“Siri,” I say, “is it true—?”

Camron kisses me before I can complete my query. I place my hand on his cheek, lean closer to him, and hold up my phone. “Smile.”

He smiles.

I smile.


Such a happy couple—the picture says so.

A year ago, I flew back from Chicago after my publisher’s annual retreat. After landing at LAX, I grabbed my luggage from baggage carousel three and hustled out to United’s pickup area. There, I waited for Camron to arrive…and I kept waiting…

Airplane engines rumbled over me. The noise of people and cars and squeaky hydraulics of bus doors and the hot and humid air and the waiting and anxiety… I started to cry.

With trembling hands, I checked the text messages I’d sent earlier to Camron.

About to board honey
Awesome babe
Plane lands at 6:37 pm
Sorry I know that time sucks
No prob
I’ll be there

I called Camron. “Where are you? Are you close?”

Camron said, “Huh? Shit. You’re flying home tonight? I’m in the Valley for a meeting.”

I caught a taxi home that night, and my heart teetered on the edge of something… final. I liked the quiet of the cab, the lack of conversation between me and the driver. Hasan, the cabbie, didn’t complain as we waited in the drive-through lane at In-N-Out. For his patience, I gifted him a Double-Double and a Neapolitan shake.

Since then, Camron has stopped picking me up from the airport.

Since then, he no longer checks to see if my food orders are correct.

Oh, no, they put mayo on your burger? I specifically said no mayo.

Oh, no, they put guacamole in your burrito? I specifically said no guac.

Oh, no, they forgot to put your fries/biscuit/wings in the bag?

Fuck Anaya and her plain-ass, dry-ass food—he said that once to someone on the phone. Probably Sienna.

I no longer rushed home, and I took freeways every chance I got.

The 405 for people-watching.

The 10 for the sunset.

The 90 to go nowhere fast.

Why reach an unhappy home and fucked-up food in 35 minutes when I could reach an unhappy home and starve in an hour ten?

Camron and I never meet for lunch anymore, either.

“So much traffic,” he’ll claim. “All that subway construction.”

“They closed two lanes,” he’ll say. “Crazy traffic.”

Once, I joined in. “Police car chase—traffic was bonkers.” A lie even though police were probably chasing someone somewhere.

Goofy fun fact: In the City of Angels, there are 650 miles of freeway and 22,000 miles of surface streets. Sad that not one of them will ever bring us together again.

Camron and I are now officially late to our romantic picnic dinner in Rancho Palos Verdes. We were supposed to sit on the bluffs that look out at the Pacific Ocean and watch a beautiful sunset, with the last rays of light ricocheting off the endless blue sea. But we’re still 16 miles away.

We creep into the tunnel.

My stomach burns.

“We’re never gonna get there,” Camron says, rubbing his face.

“Well…” I pull up Google Maps on my phone and show him the thick red line that is our route to RPV. “We can turn around—”

“Turn around where?” Camron shouts. “We’re in the tunnel now, Anaya. We can’t turn around or get off. We’re fucking stuck.” He hits the steering wheel, pushes the horn, and growls.

With numb fingers, I touch his arm. “It’s OK, Cam. You tried.” I smile. “Fun, goofy fact: dolphins sleep with one eye open.”

He pushes out a breath. “Really?”

“To come up for air,” I say. “And then to watch out for predators. Basically, one half of their brain rests while the other keeps them swimming.”

He says, “Ha, that’s crazy,” then glares at the clock again.

I crack open the bottled water. “It is crazy. My Myers-Briggs personality is a dolphin.” Kindness, peace, a distaste for unpleasant situations.

Camron gulps half the bottle.

“Wanna know what your personality animal is?” I ask. “An octopus. Smart, quick thinking, innovative. Panicky when dealing with unexpected details and loses track of specifics.”

Camron chuckles. “Sounds about right.”

I grab the old iPhone from my bag and swipe over to messages.

Do I take your breath away?
Do you want my hot tight body?

I read these text messages to myself to remember—keep one eye open. Remembering will keep me alive.

“Another interesting fact.” I clear my throat, then say, “Your lungs are the only organ that can float on water. Incredible, right?”


We will make great parents
We’ll hire a nanny so that I can have you to myself
I will give you what she can’t

“Nannies used to be called nurses,” I say. “And they were sometimes required to breastfeed. Hence, the term wet nurse.”

Camron’s bronze face is slick with sweat. His nervous fingers fumble at the bag of cookies, and he pulls one from the bag and takes a big bite.

A nervous eater, Camron turns to food anytime he’s stressed out. Climbing the ladder to become creative director at M80 Games means he eats almost all the time. Unlike me, he loses that weight in two workouts. I gain three pounds on a diet of air and Tic Tacs.

We’re now almost to the middle of the tunnel.

The cause of traffic: a stopped Subaru with a crumpled hood and a Prius with its airbag activated. The cars’ hazard lights blink-blink-blink and glow in the subway tile.

We’re not going anywhere—and a tow truck won’t be able to plow through, either.

We’re trapped.

breakdown in the right lane, illustration
Victor Juhasz

Camron’s invitation to this date night was as random as an orangutan holding a flashlight. He said that he missed me. He said that he wanted us to reconnect. He said that COVID-19 had taught him to carpe diem and to love me the way that I deserved to be loved, that he’d neglected me, and as a result I’d become an alcoholic. One DUI—and I didn’t even know how that had happened—and to him I’d become a drunk-ass lush who needed his love.

That day, our texts planning our date night flew back and forth. I ordered charcuterie from Lady and Larder. He planned to pick up a bottle of fancy red wine—what’s $200 when you’re celebrating a much-needed
reconciliation—as well as dessert. Light fell golden through our living room windows. The taped-up moving boxes near the breakfast bar glimmered like treasure chests. The world had filled with magic again.

But then other texts started flying back and forth on the old iPhone he’d forgotten to deactivate on his last upgrade—and that phone vibrated from my back pocket. Sienna and Camron were texting again.

Sienna I’ve always dreamed of you
You are my real life Tinkerbell
I am under your spell
Cammy I can’t stop crying every time you leave me
Soon Tink these things don’t happen overnight
Just get her drunk again
Sneak some vodka in her sparkly water
Like last time
Make her drive somewhere
I’ll call it in again
Jail this time
Ha ha Bye bitch!!
Do what we talked about
Remember I know some people 😉

A vise locked tight around my chest. What?

On the night of my DUI, Camron and I met at a party for friends. I’d sipped one vodka tonic and had Camron bring me sparkling water with lime for the rest of the night. Two hours later, I got behind the wheel of my car to drive home. It didn’t take long for a patrol cop to pull me over—a call had come in about a swerving black BMW with my license plate. I said, “Huh?” then blew into the Breathalyzer—I’d drank the equivalent of four vodka tonics. I swore to the cop that I’d had one drink two hours ago. The Breathalyzer knew better than that.

But I didn’t.

Those text messages kneecapped me, and I sank to the kitchen floor in tears. Then I took an Uber since Camron was now using my car. Jabari, the Uber driver, carried me 17 miles, past coffee shops and BBQ joints and weed depots and mariscos and falafel and kitfo spots, to reach Tommy’s way up on Beverly. There, I consoled myself with a chili burger and a tray of chili cheese fries.

Three cops ate at a tall standing counter, white napkins draped over their blue wool shirts.

I wanted to show them the text messages and scream, “See what he’s trying to do?”

But I let the boys in blue eat, and I gobbled my chili-covered crap in silence as the forgotten phone’s screen filled with love texts between my husband and the baker.

Stuck in traffic, I continue to read those love texts between Camron and Sienna.

I want her gone
Cammy, Niko got the money
Just needs a place to swim to
Working on it

“Eye-opening fact,” I say. “On average, a drunk driver drives 80 times before getting arrested the first time.” I shrug. “Guess I’ve always been the exception. One and done for me.”

Camron gobbles two more cookies, then guzzles the rest of the water.

I cock an eyebrow. “You really like those cookies, don’t you? Unless you’re nervous.”

“Why would I be nervous?” He swipes crumbs from his T-shirt. “And the cookies taste a little stale. Recipe’s different.”

“They’re from Sienna’s shop.” My pulse bangs in my ears—I can barely hear myself speak.

“I know—I’m the one who ordered them.”

I snort. “You didn’t order this batch.”

“Johnny Cakes—they were delivered this afternoon.”

“And I replaced them with Bangin’ Brittles.” I pause, then add, “I didn’t actually go into her bakery—I’m not that stupid. They should be stale—they’re about a month old. I saved them from Aliyah’s baby shower, froze them, then reheated them before you got home today.”

“But…Bangin’ Brittles have peanuts.” He squints at me with bloodshot eyes. “I’m allergic to peanuts.”


No she can’t swim so not the third cave
Cammy two oxy tanks for Niko’s dive will cost extra

“Sixty-four percent of Black Americans can’t swim,” I say. “Me included.”

Camron’s knuckles whiten as he clenches the steering wheel. “Anaya, are you for real? You just let me eat…?”

“Cookies with peanut-filled toffee bits?” And now, I read the text messages aloud:

Bluffs near RPV Sacred Cove
We’ll be there for sunset
There’s wine
Good wine so she’ll be drunk too

Pink welts slash Camron’s cheeks. “Anaya, babe. Let me explain. Wait—” He points at the iPhone in my hand. “That’s mine.”

I say, “Fact,” then read:

High tide is 7:54 pm

“I was gonna call it off,” Camron says, his eyes flaring with fear and forced cheer.

I say, “Fake news,” and read:

Glug-glug pop-pop glug-glug lol

“You sent ‘pop-pop glug-glug’… Wow. Just 20 minutes ago. I was riding with you in this car 20 minutes ago.”

Camron reaches over to open the glove compartment. He pushes out the car registration, the owner’s manual, service invoices…

“What’s wrong, sweetie?” I ask.

“My EpiPen—where is it?” His tongue sounds like it’s made of cold, unshaped clay.

“Oh, no. It’s not in there?” I ask, eyebrow high.

Camron’s wet eyes shrink into his swelling face. He holds his throat with puffy fingers.

“Did you know,” I say, “that without proper treatment, you can die from anaphylaxis in less than 15 minutes?” I tilt my head and squint at him. “Did you know that the little greeting card that Sienna sent today with your original cookie order said, ‘Till death do us part’? Ha ha.”

I sigh. “I’ve stuck by you for over 20 years. Paid all the bills every time you got laid off. Didn’t blink anytime you spent our money on bullshit. Cars, houses that were way too big and stupid for just two people. Here’s a fun fact: I’m a dumbass who refused to accept the fact that her husband was a selfish octopus with tentacles aimed at her neck.”

“Nya.” Camron reaches for me, then takes a deep breath. He sounds like a squeaking mouse. “I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I love you so much.” His tatted hand lands on my knee. The vein in the middle of his forehead hardens.

Tears fill my eyes as I take his hand and drape it across the chest he’s so proud of. “Sad fact,” I say. “I didn’t see us ending like this, Camron.” I tap emergency on the passcode screen, then tap 9-1-1 and call.

There’s a click and then: “Nine-one-one. This is Shawna. How can I help you?”

My freak-out starts in my gut and rolls like a dust storm up my throat. “My husband,” I cry. “He’s having an allergic reaction.”

“Where are you?” Shawna the dispatcher asks. “What is your location?”

A sob breaks from my throat and keeps me from telling her…

That I’m located where the roars of planes and the echoes of thundering car engines block all thought. That I’m located in a place with air that stinks of jet and car exhaust. There is no sky here. There is no quiet here. There is no easy way in.

In Los Angeles, the average emergency-response time is seven minutes.

breakdown in the right lane, illustration
Victor Juhasz

A ponytailed mom runs from her battered minivan back to our car. She jams an EpiPen into Camron’s thigh.

Camron doesn’t wince from the needle jabbing past his jeans and into his thigh muscle. His glossy eyes shine but have no life. His mouth hangs open, but there is no breath.

Funny how traffic changes people.

Between January and June last year, there were nearly 460 road rage incidents in L.A.

A minister on his way to a prayer meeting can turn into a foulmouthed merchant marine.

A soccer mom driving her kids to practice can transform into a soccer hooligan.

A fact-checker for the only printed encyclopedia published today can become a brokenhearted road rager in the Sepulveda airport tunnel.

After EMTs pronounce Camron’s time of death, a police officer with bright gray eyes escorts me to the back seat of his police sedan.

Weary from mania and distress, I shiver uncontrollably, like I’m stuck in the Arctic Circle wearing only these cargo pants and this fleece sweatshirt. I read the last text messages that Sienna and Camron sent before we drove into the tunnel.

I’m not doing this just for insurance
She is a reminder of my failures
New years resolution #1 done 13 days into 2023!!!
Lose 154 lbs!!!

“Mrs. Frost?” The officer meets my eyes in the rearview mirror. “Sorry about your loss.”

I’m sorry, too. But a dolphin’s gotta do what a dolphin’s gotta do to swim another day.

“If there wasn’t so much traffic,” the cop is saying, “EMTs would’ve reached him sooner. A cookie?”

“We used to keep an EpiPen in the car, but…” I take a deep breath, then exhale.

Up ahead, I see long-term airport parking lots, supermarkets and coffee shops, streetlamps and the purple nighttime sky. Up ahead, I see life.

The patrol car races out of the Sepulveda airport tunnel, heading north toward my soon-to-be foreclosed home on the bluffs of Westchester. “Hungry?” the cop asks.

A teardrop tumbles down my cheek. “Starving.”

“There’s Del Taco, Chik-fil-A…” He nods to his left. “In-N-Out.”

The scent of fried hamburgers and grilled onions wafts into the patrol car. My stomach growls, desire tickling my taste buds. “In-N-Out?”

He nods. “Wouldn’t be a trip from LAX without a burger, right?” He meets my eyes in the rearview mirror. “What do you want on it? Plain? Without onions? Cheese?”

I try to smile. “Thanks for asking. A Double-Double, animal-style.” I pause, then cock my head. “Wanna hear a fun fact about burger culture in Los Angeles?”•

Rachel Howzell Hall is the author of 11 novels, including the bestselling thrillers We Lie Here and multiple award–nominated These Toxic Things and And Now She’s Gone.
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