by S.R. Ponaka
It is the end of our weekend trip. We stand outside the door on the stoop, saying our goodbyes. The sun hasn’t risen just yet. I booked my flight quite early in the morning, so that I’d still have most of the day available to me when I arrived home, although I have nothing urgent to attend to. It is darker still because the house where we are staying is far outside a city. I cannot recall the name of the town as I write this, even though I’m using every memory close to this one to remember. This trip was with Gita, whom I no longer speak to, so I cannot call her to ask. A forest surrounds us in every direction. There are no streetlights out here.
I am bundled up in a coat. Gita is in her pajamas and a thin cardigan because she has planned to stay for a few more days, to work on her thesis. The taxi driver waits at the end of the driveway, the light on the cab’s roof weak and flickering. Gita had rented a car, but the battery is dead because she had forgotten to turn the headlights off after we returned from dinner last night. She wrings her hands, nervous and apologetic for not being able to drive me to the airport. I am grateful to have booked a taxi ride at 3am.
“It was so good to see you.” She gives me a hug and rubs my back. “You too,” I reply, holding tight to her embrace.
She breaks away, and looks at me.
“We don’t do this often enough.”
“I know, I know,” I say, nodding my head. We had enjoyed ourselves over the last couple of days, but I am completely exhausted. A weekend with someone I might have called a close friend. Full of all of the intimacies and tension I’d grown to understand were a part of how we existed together.
She looks down the driveway, grabs the handle of my bag.
“Please make sure to be careful.”
She is like this. It is freezing outside. I’m sleepy and want to be in the backseat of a warm car.
“You aren’t listening to me. It’s a long drive to the airport.”
She rolls my suitcase down to the taxi. Knocks on the passenger window to peer at the driver, then smiles and waves at him. She is taking the kind of mental picture that would hold up at a police station, or in a court of law.
He pops the trunk and stays bundled up in his seat. She rolls her eyes at him, then walks around to the back.
As she lifts my bag, she speaks in low tones.
“It’s easy to get raped on rides like this. It must happen all the time.”
She is now her mother, and my mother, and so many of the women we know. “Just be aware of where you are.”
I have no idea where I am because Gita was the one who decided on this house in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t have phones or GPS then, just roadmaps and handwritten directions. We weren’t moving blips on each other’s screens, reproduced by satellite systems meant to record our every move.
“Try to memorize where you are, keep track of all the markers on the way. Please, don’t fall asleep on the ride. Do you have any pepper spray?”
I don’t. Do we need to remind each other of this?
“Gimme your keys,” she rummages through my bag. She finds them.
“Why do you have so many keys?” she says. Jangles them in front of my face.
She selects a few worthy, sharp keys and jams them in-between my fingers. Here I am with the key to my mailbox and my Accord and the back door to work and the front door to my house and an ex-boyfriend’s key I’ll never return, coming out of my knuckles.
Gita thinks this will protect me, or any of us.
A wrecking ball in my coat pocket.
I pretend to stab her in the stomach and giggle.
She is exasperated with me now.
“I swear to God, you’re hopeless,” she gives me another hug.
“You’ve got another subway ride when you get home. Be careful.” Gita believes in her mission, and my body responds. There is the bracing and churning of my gut that happens in the midst of all sorts of simple activities I’ve learned that, as a woman, I can be killed in.
She opens the back door of the car, watches me get in. Leans in to say hello to the driver.
“Good morning sir! Thank you for coming to get my friend. Please make sure you take good care of her.”
She tries to take a good look at his face, but it is partly covered by a woolly scarf.
“Sir, could you pull your scarf down? I know it’s early, but I would love to see your gorgeous smile!”
He stares at her.
She looks at me, mouths, “Please don’t die.”
On the way to the airport, there is a swarm of fear, whether mine or Gita’s, or a consciousness much larger than both of ours, to slough off. I let the keys go slack in my pocket, and watch the full moon follow us. I see how tree leaves turn silver in the night. There is the glitter of a creek behind a copse of pine. I catch a rabbit on the side of the road, frozen by headlights.
But fear doesn’t go anywhere. It resuscitates itself.
Still, I crack the window a bit, to get my last breaths of small town air. It is full of eucalyptus and salt and tree rot and old fires. I hook my fingers over the top of the window, let them hang, weightless in the wind. I don’t want to do anything but witness a moment, then the next one, then the next. To stay in this tiny threshold.
The driver must be tired too. He puts on an Oldies station, hums to himself. I never ask his name or get a good look at his face.
The car rocks as it coasts down an empty highway.
Even if I try to resist, eventually, I fall asleep.
* * *
S.R. Ponaka is a psychiatric social worker, therapist and writer living in the Los Angeles area. She has participated in the Voices of Our Nations (VONA) workshop and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.