Valentines

How thoughtful, I thought, and slammed myself into darkness.

Photo courtesy of Michael ten Pas, http://www.michaeltenpas.com/.

RED HANDS

The last time I was home visiting my parents, I drove my mother’s car to the grocery store, a large gray box set on an expansive parking lot. Glowing orange letters announced its name across its sturdy face all day and all night. I parked beside an elaborate empty hutch with a peaked roof loaded with snow. Shoppers were supposed to leave the carts beneath the hutch after they finished, but everyone abandoned their carts willy-nilly, often about two feet from their cars. A harried man with Down syndrome paced the lot, collecting them with red hands.

I bought supplies to shore myself up against the freezing weather: three bottles of wine, a bar of chocolate, a nail file, and a sack of lemons. As I was leaving, I wished I had used a cart instead of a basket, just for the satisfaction of returning it to the hutch under the man’s darting eyes.

Back in the parking lot, a gray car had parked beside my mother’s car. I unlocked my door and put my purse and the groceries down on the passenger seat, keeping my eyes on my new neighbor. It was an old sedan, frostbitten and ugly. Sometimes I do this, stare at a meaningless thing while my hands do menial work.

The gray sedan’s trunk was unlatched, its lid hovering an inch above the seam where it should have met the body of the car. I closed the door to my mother’s car, put her keys in my coat pocket, approached the sedan, and lifted the lid with my ungloved hand.

The trunk was empty, upholstered in worn gray fabric. Without thinking much about it— or rather, while thinking “I’m not thinking much about this”—I climbed in, folded my knees so that I could lie in a straight line, and reached up. My hand found a lanyard tied to the inside of the lid.

How thoughtful, I thought, and slammed myself into darkness.

Inside the closed truck, it was colder than I had expected, and less dark. The power of the light leaking in around the margins of the trunk surprised me. Illumination came from the seam where lid met car, and also from the edges of the taillights.

I remembered a meme my mother’s neighbor had once posted on the internet: If you are ever trapped in the trunk of a car, punch out the taillights and thrust your hand out to flag someone down. This has saved lives!!! When I read that, I had thought: how easy could it be to punch out a taillight with one’s bare hands, particularly from a prone and uncomfortable position? Now I eyed the taillights, wondering. I wouldn’t try. I didn’t want to damage the car. It wasn’t mine, and besides, I had climbed in of my own free will.

Time lengthened. I had left my cell phone inside my purse on the passenger seat of my mother’s car, and I had stopped wearing a watch years ago. There was no way to know how long I would be in there. What was most likely to happen, I figured, was that the car’s owner would return with his groceries, open the trunk, and find me there. I’d have some explaining to do.

But I wasn’t worried. I am white and well educated. The primary lesson of my education has been how horribly invincible these qualities make me. It was unlikely I would be shot simply for being unexpectedly in the trunk of a stranger’s car.

I lay in the dark, feeling relaxed, practicing yoga breathing, for what felt close to an hour but was likely more like fifteen minutes. Then I heard footsteps approaching the car, fast and sloppy, boots stumbling and slipping through slush. When the walker reached the car, he or she fumbled with the door, jangling keys in a cold, likely gloved hand. I cocked my head, making my position more otterlike—I lay on my back, arms curled up at my shoulders, knees stacked like clothes hangers in a cardboard box—and rubbed my cheek against the rough upholstery. The fabric was gray, I reminded myself, not inky navy, as it looked in the dark. I hoped the car’s owner was okay.

There was a click: the lock giving way as the car’s owner opened the door and sat in the driver seat. How well I could hear him now that he was inside, his heavy breathing and restless shifting inside his heavy winter clothes! He muttered “Fuck” under his breath, over and over.

I couldn’t say for sure that he was a man, but I liked to think that he was. His voice was deep and the music he turned on—washed-out AM rock crunched in layers of static—struck me as manly. I saw the little building that housed his radio station, out in a deserted office park somewhere like Sugar Grove or Grayslake. Cinderblock and an ambitious antenna: it was enough to make me weep. But I wasn’t going to weep. I liked being in the trunk.

CRAMMING

There was a window in my life where I did unsafe things in moving cars. Never driving drunk or being driven by a drunk person, I’m far too neurotic for that. But on a few evenings in high school, I crammed myself into the back of a car that already held far too many people. Not for fun but because it seemed to us that necessity demanded it. We took no special thrill from riding eight or nine people in a mom’s Honda, although once crammed we all tended to titter nervously, as if we were breaking a law, which we were. We were so many and had to get somewhere, all of us at the same time. What were we supposed to do, walk?

The reason we didn’t walk on those nights was not cold weather. I can only recall cramming on warm nights. One justification for cramming was that I knew that my parents would be angry if I walked instead of drove. If I spent all day on foot, walking miles around our suburb, and returned home whole and choate in the evening and my parents had no knowledge that I had walked, that was fine. But if I told them I would walk five blocks to a common, well-known place, they reacted as if I had announced my intent to sell myself into sexual slavery. I don’t know why. Children were abducted, yes, but at that point I wasn’t much of a child. I think theirs was just lizard fear, the idea of their spawn exposed rather than concealed.

The point is, even when we crammed, no one ever went in the trunk. Girls and boys sat at each other’s feet in the passenger-side well, draped across each other’s laps, curled into a knot on the rise between the two front seats. But who would suggest or volunteer for the trunk? It seemed a barbaric space, and everyone claimed some claustrophobia. I prided myself on my lack of the latter, a perceived strength based on a half-remembered MRI I had undergone at age 7. All those nights (really, there weren’t more than four), I proudly announced, “Well, I’m not claustrophobic, so.”

Then at 23 I had to have another MRI—nodes in my brain, or polyps, I can’t remember which—and I learned that I had only not been claustrophobic for the first MRI because my body was small and inconsequential compared to the vastness of the machine. Inside again, full-grown and flesh-spread, I was terrified.

Like many common fears, claustrophobia was something I preferred to not suffer from. It was a convenient lie I told myself: that there were problems I didn’t have. At age 7, I was trapped in a hospital elevator, a frightening experience, but not because of claustrophobia. When my parents disembarked I was too scared to follow, thinking the doors would close on my body. The doors closed and they disappeared and I burst into tears. Among those remaining on the elevator with me were two women whom I dimly recall as wearing some sort of uniform: candy stripers, or maybe just cafeteria workers, for they were manning a great wheeled cart, on which stood a broad white-frosted cake, sloppily decorated with jam gels. They gave me a piece to eat as the elevator climbed into the sky.

BLACK ICE

So far, the trunk was not so bad. Now that we were moving quickly, air rushed through the seams at the lid and taillights, biting at my slices of exposed skin: neck, wrists, a hem of ankle where my sock had slipped down. Then my thighs began to ache and without thinking I tried to sit up, bumping my head nastily against the low padded ceiling. There it was, the flame-rush of claustrophobia, filling the room. The trunk-room.

I kept my upper body very still, breathing deeply, summoning the years-old memory of the MRI tech’s voice. Hearing my hyperventilation over his headphones, he told me to close my eyes. When the test was done he touched my arm and said, “I hope you feel better.”

I closed my eyes and I rearranged my legs to lie atop one another in the opposite direction. Air, I reminded myself, you have plenty of air. Then I wondered if it was actually true.

There was no reason to think that air was in short supply. I had never understood why people buried alive lacked for air. Why wouldn’t there be air down there? Why did the air inside the coffin run out? Wasn’t air in everything, didn’t it rush down through the packed soil and infiltrating the tiny seams of the coffin? Of all the problems of being buried alive, wouldn’t a lack of air be the least of them?

Don’t get me wrong. I want to make it very clear: at no point in the time I spent in the trunk of the stranger’s car did I begin to believe that being buried alive was not so bad. I was struggling with my own feelings about being locked of my own volition in the trunk of a car, not going soft on the general subject of entrapment in small, enclosed spaces.

My thighs already ached again. I grew colder and colder, amazed at how cold I could be. It was like lying in bed late at night, trying to sleep, and failing. The road thundered under me, the wheels catching on debris or unsettled pavement, skidding on black ice. I began to hear more. The voices of people in other cars flew at me from windows cracked because they were smoking or because they couldn’t stand the blunt boxing of car heat against their faces. I smelled their smoke and heard their music, each as individual and distinct as the driver’s sad, washed-out AM.

The driver. I hadn’t thought about him in a few minutes; he had stopped repeating “Fuck” after the car warmed up. Or at least this was what I imagined; I didn’t know, of course, why he stopped saying “Fuck.” I pricked my ears to him—imagining the tips of my ears actually sharpening and pivoting toward him, as I always do when I think “I pricked my ears”—trying to tune out the road, the tires, the other cars. I could make out almost nothing above his music. Only a sound that might be breathing but could just as easily be a sub-road noise, a track of ice coughing up and down beneath us, and a tapping that I imagined was his fingers against the wheel but could have been the forgotten gas tank cover flying against the side of the car. I couldn’t remember if I had seen it open or not.

What did the driver of the gray sedan look like? I pictured him as a man, not young but not white-haired either, with a deep voice and a clear line of sight. The kind of man who wore hats and tucked in his button-downs every day, as he had since his third year of high school. The world had changed around him but little had changed in him. He had some good labor that he worked at, which had rewarded him in the way men and some women of my parents’ generation were generally rewarded for that good labor. He had been born and schooled and gone to work in that peak of time when the linear idea of how things would work was hewn to. Things had gone well for him, due to the powerful combination of his own ambition and skill and the general shapeliness of his world. He had eyebrows as bushy and well loved as small house pets.

I grew still colder. I wished I knew which way we were going. I have always had difficulty relaxing. Late at night, when I couldn’t go to sleep after hours of trying, I masturbated. I had done this for as long as I could remember. It was different from the way I brought myself off in the morning or in the afternoon. It was different from the way I did it when I was a little girl. I had learned how to do it without hands, by just closing my eyes and pulsing internal muscles together. It helped to have something to hold onto. It helped to feel that I was gripping an edge that I might look over, to look down and see, with one hand affixed to something and the other dangling and everything churning inside me.

I started doing it this way as a kind of rebuke or joke or challenge. I had heard that other women could do it but it seemed ridiculous. Or not ridiculous, the opposite: quotidian, boring. It was one thing or the other and I wanted to find out which.

SECRET PASSAGEWAYS

Eight or so years ago I was in love with a man who was my close friend. The complicating factor was that he was my boyfriend’s best friend. As things happen, my boyfriend ceased living with me and moved in with the man I loved.

I wanted so badly to make love to this man that I once waited in the house he and my boyfriend shared with several other people, pretending to be asleep in my boyfriend’s bed, until they had all gone to work. If they thought of it at all, which they likely did not, the roommates were undoubtedly not disturbed by my presence; I was friend to them all, amiable and omnipresent. In their kitchen I often jovially cooked dinner for several people for whom I had not planned to cook dinner. They lived in an old row house with a series of tiny rooms attached to larger bedrooms, a layout that baffled me until I noticed the nook, just below my boyfriend’s cramped loft bed, where a rod had once been installed, and I realized that my boyfriend’s bedroom had once been a large closet.

That day I waited until they were all gone, counting the closings of the front door, and then I climbed down from the loft bed and jimmied open the door that separated my boyfriend’s room from the bedroom of the man that I loved.

I crept in, upsetting the things on the bookcase he had pushed against the door between the two rooms, a blockade designed to create the illusion that the man I loved lived in a normal house with no secret passageways. The room was filled with yellow light from the windows, his bed unmade. I picked up a book called Fire In The Belly: On Being A Man and a photograph of the man I loved as a boy fell out. He stood in the woods, smiling wanly under a green baseball cap. His face filled me with foreboding. I replaced the photograph and closed the book.

I was eager to learn something I should not know. I went to the man’s desk and ran my hand across its surface. It was warm from the sun. I leaned over until my cheek touched the warmth and inhaled, imagining his smell. Then I opened the top drawer. Inside was a large vial of prescription medicine. I took it from the drawer and turned it in my hand, considering the pros and cons of swallowing one of the oblong dark blue capsules inside. Then I read the name and description of the medicine and felt ashamed and put it back in the drawer.

I turned to his unmade bed. I knew already that his mattress was not on a bed frame but was instead unevenly propped on a collection of milk crates and cardboard boxes. It wriggled when you sat on it. The man had invited me into his bedroom once or twice, to show me a book or a poster, to talk to me about the three girls he loved in a cycle, one after another after another and then back to the first, over and over, a cycle that never stopped to let anyone else in. I didn’t understand his bed situation, which seemed to be of the lowest possible quality. The man had a good job. He could afford a bed frame. And if I was missing something—if he couldn’t—shouldn’t he just put the mattress on the floor?

I saw the man I loved swallowing a cobalt tablet and climbing, wobbly, into his unkempt and mournful bed. It was a tender image. Almost without thinking but of course not without thinking, I laid down on the man’s bed and fell asleep.

THE RELEASE

The car slowed and made several turns, but I didn’t know we were going to stop until we stopped. The driver uttered one final, resigned “Fuck,” and exited the car. I stretched as best I could, trying to feel if the temperature had risen, if he had parked inside. But it was cold as ever. Colder.

I lay there for a long time, trying to use my muscles to have an orgasm. I have never been the sort of woman who is given sex easily. Love, yes. I’m lucky that way. But sex I have to chase. Most of the time, I don’t catch it.

I lay morosely considering this general trend until I became truly uncomfortable, cold all over. I remembered a book I had read as a child, in which a little boy had to sit inside a box in the back of a van for hours in order to be smuggled into the United States. When he was finally freed from the box, his foot didn’t “work right” anymore. Could that happen to me?
I began, tentatively, to tap at the roof of the trunk. The driver had long since left the car, but maybe he was still nearby. I tapped and tapped until my tapping became banging, but there was no response, only the echoes of cars on nearby streets and sometimes the rattling of one driving close by.

I started to cry. What if I never escaped? What if the driver never planned to open his trunk again? Would I starve to death?

I was in that wizened state, curled up and crying, when a faint glow caught my eye. I wriggled toward it. An upside-down T of glow-in-the-dark plastic hung near the front of the trunk. I took it in my hand and brought it closer. Shapes had been cut out of it: an arrow pointing down, a car with an open trunk, an arcing arrow, a fleeing body. The release.

Did I know these existed? I guess. Maybe not. The question was, had it been there all along? Had I seen it and willfully disregarded it? Had I thought, that’s not what I want, what I want is to be in the trunk? Or had I missed it entirely? It seemed an unlikely thing to miss, hanging there like that.

Now that I had my escape, I wasn’t sure that I wanted it. It was cold, but not that cold. I had read, I remembered suddenly, that many car trunk deaths were due to heat, due to the fact that trunks overheated easily. What was wrong with me that I had chosen a cold trunk instead of a hot one?

I wrapped my fingers around the release. It was light and cheap, just like every plastic toy I’ve ever had. I wanted to give it just a little tug, a test. I pulled and the trunk sprung open immediately.

I sat like a passenger in the opened trunk, and a winter evening in the Chicago suburbs sprung up in front of me like the set of a play: an odd rectangle of orange sky bright from the snow and city lights, slumped boulders of muddy slush mounded at the curb, naked trees sketched against all the gray and black and auburn. The gray sedan was parked in front of a nondescript brick bungalow on a street full of brick bungalows, the seemingly automatic dwelling for the towns and cities around Chicago, the place the car commercials called the Chicagoland area, a term my father always hated. “It should be ‘Chicagoland,’ simply,” he said. “Or ‘the Chicago area.’”

I swung my legs around and dangled them off the back of the sedan, enjoying the stretch. It seemed clear to me that the driver had gone into the brick bungalow slightly behind the sedan, although in retrospect I recognize the total arbitrariness of this assessment. The wind lifted the collar of my coat and bit through my scarf. Inside my gloves my hands were cracked and dry, despite the fact that the gloves were goatskin and were supposed to coat my skin with “natural lanolin.”

I thought of sitting there in the opened trunk all night like the patient audience at some hours-long art movie, waiting for the driver to emerge from his house. But after long moments of this I grew bored and a little scared. Inside the trunk no one could get at me, but out here, anything was possible.

There is rarely any good or bad in our world. Often, it comes down to simply making a choice. I climbed out of the trunk and shook the wrinkles out of my coat. Or maybe I shook because I was cold. I looked into the trunk one last time, that no-place, that fuzzy and cold blotted-out gray, and I shut the lid and walked toward the house.

The front door was unlocked.

MY FIRST IMPULSE

Inside, the first thing I saw was a muted television’s blue light dancing off a white wall. I stood in a small entryway, a coatrack overhung with several layers of dun coverings. The TV threw frantic shadows across the floor.

I walked into another room, which turned out to be the kitchen. I didn’t want to startle the driver, which was what would happen if I followed my first impulse and walked into the blue-lit room and stood in front of the television. I wanted to slip in and out of his life like a figment. To make my way through like an unexpected guest in a children’s movie, tasting his food, washing with his soap, disappearing before first light.

At this I was already failing. I had considered removing my boots at the front door but decided against it: what if I had to flee quickly? What if the driver woke and saw not me but my boots? What if their removal made noise? So I kept them on, tracking dirt and melting snow across a pale carpet and onto the red tiled floor of the kitchen.

The house was neither nice nor not nice, a remainder of the middle-class world I’d grown up in, a place with mudrooms and basement play dens, everybody got up in colorful synthetics and teased hair, perms on the men. Now all of this was gone and I understood that my family had been wealthy where others were poor. Once I realized I hadn’t truly inhabited it, it was impossible to say if there had ever been a middle class. Whatever the reason, it was gone now.

In the refrigerator were the remains of a six-pack, two cans still in their translucent holster, a foil-covered red casserole dish, a lone carrot, and a big black-lidded pot. I lifted the foil, revealing a gnawed leg of lamb, its bone jutting insistently out of the oily muck. Under the pot’s heavy lid was a dense ruby liquid that smelled of nothing at all. I took a beer and downed it quick as I could. The light feeling rose in me like wings, so I did the second can, too. I’d had nothing to eat that day and became immediately drunk.

I let myself be borne on the tide of my own foolhardiness into the television room, ready for confrontation, invincible. But when I turned the couch was empty save for a cheap lavender throw, the ones always on sale, two-for-one. Looped in one curl of the throw was the remote control. I picked it up and turned off the television. For what came next, I needed to be able to hear.

I went back to the hall and climbed the little cramped staircase. There were no family pictures on the walls, just smooth thick white paint. The only adornment I’d seen so far had been flowers on the kitchen counter, a thick bouquet of purple asters in a sawn-off two-liter soda bottle.

The carpet stopped at the top of the stairs, and fine hardwood floors began. I faced three doors. The first turned out to be a closet, stuffed with more dull clothes; the second, a bathroom, large and well kept; the third, his bedroom. From the doorway I saw a large picture window decorated with the glimmering lights of the town, and beneath it, a large bed, with one sleeping body.

There was a moment, I’ll admit, just before I went into his bedroom, when I worried about the legality of what I’d done, of what I was about to do. But then it left me, as these things do. I stepped inside, leaving the door open for the light, went to the bed, and sat on the edge, expecting the driver to wake. When he did not, I undid my boots. I wasn’t going to climb in bed with him with them on.

A MAN I ADMIRE

When I was a teenager, newly initiated into the world of having sex, I thought there was nothing sexier in the world than waking a man with a sexual request. I tried it all the time with my boyfriend, a generally kind and even-keeled fellow teenager, with whom I had my happiest sexual relationship to date. (If someone had told me this at the time, I would have wept; but in retrospect, I had it good.)

My boyfriend and I would be sleeping beside each other, and I would wake, or otherwise I had never really gone to sleep in the first place. Insomnia is a lifelong trial, and its severity rarely lessens with time. In any case, finding myself alone with his unconscious body, I would put my hand on his cock. With a little effort I could turn it into my favorite thing in the world: an erection felt through fabric. Over the years I’ve tried to explain this to people—how wonderful it is to feel a man’s hard-on like that, full of promise and excitement, a game of hide-and-seek—but no one has ever understood, including men whose erections were thus praised.

I like to lay my hand fully over a penis, fingertips against the head, and see what happens. I used to think that this alone was enough to bring a man to tumescence, and it may be, but not in the case of men whose penises I’ve been interested in touching in the past decade. In any case, my move will rarely do the trick on a sleeping man, so it is time for the gentle encouragement, not quite a grip, more like a caress. One and two fingers moving up and down the length, urging up, friendly, discreet.

A little of this could get my slumbering high school boyfriend going, no problem. But every time he woke—and I’ll admit I was a prurient mess at that point, panting some drivel like, “Your dick is so hard”—he was confused and tired.

“So?” he asked me once, as my hands were busy in his lap.

At the very beginning of our relationship, when I was 15 years old, he could be counted on to wake up and get to it. But by year three that was over. And men I’ve tried it with since have reacted with a combination of aggravation and fear.

I get it. If the genders were reversed, I would understand that it was a not cool thing to do. But the genders are not reversed, and in my life that has made all of the difference.

I lined up my boots by the edge of the bed. I took off my coat, stuffed my hat with my gloves and scarf and packed the yarn satchel into the sleeve of my coat and folded it nicely on the floor by the boots. I lay back and sought the driver’s face.

He was an older man, as I had suspected, and boasted an impressive pair of eyebrows, as I’d hoped. His skin was smooth and his hair full and dark. It was impossible to tell how old he was. Older than me. Older than my father, maybe. He looked simply like himself, maybe that was why I couldn’t tell. Because I knew who he was.

The man I lay beside was famous. A man I admire. Maybe famous is the wrong word; most people wouldn’t know who he was. But I did, because he did the thing I hoped to do, the thing I had whittled and pecked away at for all my short life. The fact that he was the driver in whose trunk I had stowed away seemed a comic assertion of the good will of the universe.

I lay on my side, very still. He was on his side, too. If a second stranger had entered the room, from the doorway they would have seen only two bodies, facing each other: a couple.
He wore a gray T-shirt. The duvet covered his bottom half. I peeled it back to see red plaid boxer shorts.

I tried to keep track of his breathing but my thoughts drifted, to the lemons and wine and chocolate I had left in my mother’s car. Would they have frozen by now, sitting out in the parking lot? Could wine freeze? I wondered what time it was. Was the grocery store closed? They stayed open until eleven, or at least they had the last time I checked. I found that so comforting when I was growing up: the grocery store, open late, just in case you needed an extra something.

I crept my hand toward the man, stopped it, crept it again. I don’t know what I expected, creeping and stopping like that. Finally I draped my palm over the approximate location, a compromise. If this worked, then there was a certain order to things.

ESCAPE

The driver’s member did not respond to my hand. He slept on as if drugged. I can’t say I was surprised. I allowed myself one feel of his oddly thick hair, and then left his bed and flounced into his dingy bathroom.

There was toothbrush, a round hairbrush matted with light brown hair, and in the cabinets an endless parade of hair products stacked neatly as if the cabinet were a store’s back inventory. They were in the shower, too, a small pharmacy of expensive shampoos: volumizing, “fullening,” growth-encouraging. Argan oil, Moroccan oil, other oils.

On the edge of the sink sat a worn brown leather billfold. I opened it and found the driver’s driver’s license. He was the man I thought he was. I studied the photograph, obviously decades old, and then replaced it. I took all of his cash. He had a lot, four hundred dollars.

I cast my own gray face a weary look as I turned to leave the bathroom. I would walk to the corner and find a phone, beg one off a gas station attendant, or ask a tired woman. I would call a cab and use his money to get back to the grocery store. I would unlock my mother’s car, put the bottle of wine between my legs to warm it, gnaw hunks from the lemons and chocolate.

But when I looked in the mirror to see myself, I saw my memory of the driver’s face instead, the way he had looked asleep beside me, prone and vulnerable. I remembered the feel of his hair in my hands, thick and lovely, surprising for a man of his age. A carefully curated illusion, a bit of theater.

How it had felt, lying there beside him. He didn’t even know I was there.

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