I am pumping gas after work at an intersection I have frequented many times after dark without incident. I leave the pump unattended, am sitting in my car scrolling on my phone while the meter ticks off dollars and gallons beneath the fluorescents. I hear the click of the pump’s auto shut off and open my door to a man, probably late thirties or early forties, in JNCOs and a black puffer coat, a thin blue mask hammocking his chin. He scratches the salt-and-pepper stubble of his goatee, says, I don’t mean to bother you, but can I use your phone to call my sister? My kids are at the sitter’s, and I’m already half an hour late. I don’t give him my phone, but I dial the number he gives me. He shifts back and forth, the unseasonable cold of this April night like frigid shower water on our skin, chanting, Please let her answer, please let her answer. After two attempts ending in the same impersonal voicemail, I ask if he wants to leave a message. He shakes his head in distress, as if making an impossible choice, before asking, Can you drive me to the ER downtown, where she works? I know where she parks, and I have a set of keys to her car. I’ll ride in the trunk if you want me to.
Sometimes people just need a little help, so I invite him into my passenger seat and we drive downhill toward the river dividing the city. The ER is less than three miles away, through vacant roads, traffic lights changing for no one but us, tall streetlamps pooling mirror-smooth puddles of light onto sidewalks. I monitor him peripherally and try not to breathe too deeply, as I doubt he has pulled his mask up; I can tell from the clarity of his voice, a melodic Spanish lilt, saying, Thanks so much. My kids are probably crying now wondering where I am. He makes small talk, asks me if I have a husband, where I work. He tells me the rest of his family has moved back to Puerto Rico. You get your vaccine? he asks, and I tell him I got my first dose. He says, me too, and it’s the first time I don’t believe him. There is half a chance he’s taking advantage of my willingness to help, so I don’t want to give him any more footholds. The absurdity of letting a stranger into my car after dark at one of the most notorious intersections in the city settles over me like a slow drip of adrenaline invading my veins; my pulse quickens. He could do whatever he wants because we’re all alone. I tell him I have a husband when, really, I have a wife, afraid to give him a reason to steal from me, to hate me, to hurt me. I make sure my phone is face down, so he can’t see the lockscreen photo of me with my wife and dog, smiling on Easter Sunday.
I pilot my car through the last of the successive traffic circles preceding the entrance to the hospital, the “Emergency Room” sign a red beacon that could mark the end of our journey. Not this one, he says, gesturing to a large lot marked “Visitor Parking” on our right; It’s this next street, and I turn onto a darkened side street along which several cars are parked in parallel, thinking it odd his sister would park here instead of in a designated staff lot. She drives a white GMC Acadia, he says, and I wonder if he made that up on the spot, given the two or three white SUVs in our sight. Is that it? He points to one still dusty with dirt and road salt leftover from winter. No, that’s a Jeep, I reply. I park in the middle of the line of cars.
This night is unfolding like some slow-burning ecological disaster: an eroding shoreline, a canyon forming, coral reefs bleached and dying, time passing in small increments, yet surely culminating in irreversible damage. The effects will be beautiful, terrifying, something any singular person is powerless to stop: a beach absorbed by a Great Lake, a cliff crumbling into a frothing ocean, a canyon so large it becomes a new wonder of the world, reefs white like bone. The way a junkie decays.
Every time my younger brother is in jail or prison, I look at his mug shot online, reading his face like a cipher. In the first couple of photos, years ago, he looks genuinely shocked, scared, and out of place; eyebrows raised and asking, Is this me? In the next few, he looks unsurprised and nearly pleased, the shadow of a smirk, like he expected this. His hair gets shorter and darker, his profile takes on a bulbous, alien quality as he gains weight, then loses it in different places. In the most recent shot, less than a year ago, his skin is marred by two large sores near his mouth. Meth sores, I realize, a sign of the seemingly infinite immunity conferred by youth beginning to wane. These sores are caused by a lack of blood flow, the stimulant seeping through pores. After all these changes though, I want to believe he is still the brother alongside whom I grew up: an empath, an athlete, an extrovert. I could recognize him by the way he stands, the way he walks, by all the aspects of him a mug shot cannot capture.
I know where to find him, should I want to. He could be strolling in a hooded sweatshirt near the corner of Cherry and Division, the red brick streets downtown, less than two blocks from the ER: the address of a Christian ministry and shelter where the homeless can spend the nights. I work second shift at a restaurant further East on Cherry, in a more privileged section of town, and I go out of my way to drive past that corner on the nights when I miss him most. One time I see someone walking in a hoodie next to the bus stop, but I know within seconds it’s not him. Dad tells me he’s been kicked out of the ministry for drug use, so I might have better luck driving past the tent encampment in the park by the river, where he told Dad he was living last. I don’t have the courage to go there yet, for fear of being heckled for the quality of my car, my clothing, my gender.
After work on another night earlier in the year, I stop at a grocery to pick up a few things for dinner. On the way out, a young, skinny woman wearing a KN-95 mask comes within inches of me, smelling like cold sweat and begging for money to get a ride to a friend’s house for the night. The shelter has already closed its doors. It’s twenty-five degrees out and she keeps saying, I’m so cold as her eyes dart around and I think of my brother. I have a twenty-dollar bill on me, and I hand it over and watch her walk off into the moonless night until a van pulls up and takes her away, red taillights blazing.
Once, on the way to work, I swear it could’ve been my brother on the sidewalk, whizzing past on one of the new, electric city scooters. I’m glad he doesn’t know what type of car I drive. If I ever find him, I don’t know what I’ll say, because I don’t know how to show him I love him without ruining myself.
Damn. She’s not even here. She must’ve gone home, says the man in my car. We sit in silence for a beat before he asks to call his mechanic for a loaner car. I hate my car, he says, and I ask him what kind it is. A 2011 Mercedes, it’s a nice ride, but it’s always in the shop. I don’t know what to do now that we’ve met a dead end. We listen to each other’s breath before he says, I’m gonna need change for a hundred to pay the mechanic tonight. Do you have any cash on you? I tell him honestly, I’m sorry, I only have a ten-dollar bill, thinking myself safe for a moment. Could you get some from an ATM? The nearest one is right down the road, Lake Michigan Credit Union, he says, pointing North, a familiar name in an unfamiliar part of the city. I just need to call my mechanic to meet us there. I hand him my phone, but only after navigating past the lock screen to the number keypad.
I start driving, parallel to the river now, as he greets his mechanic. Ay, Papi. I want to tell him to get out of my car at the same time I want to tell him his voice is gorgeous, musical in its accents and staccato rhythms; I want to tell him to look at the lit-up bridge reflecting like a diamond bracelet on the water; I want to tell him how funny it is that the river seems close enough to touch; I want to tell him that I feel trapped in a fold in the continuum of time on this night that could be any other night; I want to tell him how I used to be proud of my ability to say no, until the word kept getting stuck in my throat like a lozenge accidentally swallowed. He ends the call and says, The mechanic’s on his way with a loaner. He’ll meet us at the bank. And then, out of nowhere, I’ve always loved this neighborhood, and I look at the houses, which are aged and preserved in tasteful ways, original brick and new windows and doors, tulips in the yard. I agree, there is beauty here.
I park in the bank lot, and he says, You don’t smoke, do you? as he takes out a cigarette and digs in his pockets. No, but I have a lighter if you need one, I say. I don’t say My wife smokes, which is why I nearly always have a lighter in my car. I hand him the one she left most recently, black with yellow lettering that looks like scratches spelling out “Nirvana” and a smiley face with x’s for eyes. You can keep it, I say, and he does, leaning against the building with a long inhale. He says, Shoot, if you weren’t married, I’d take you to dinner tomorrow. I laugh off his chauvinism as my insides convulse.
He tells me the entrance to the vestibule containing the 24-hour ATM is around the corner. I lock my car before setting out on the sidewalk that will carry me to the other side of the building. My legs feel robotic as I slip beneath the backlit glow of the credit union lettering, a splash of cool blue on the concrete.
A young woman with long braids is vacuuming the rugs on the other side of the double doors, and I consider pounding my fists on the glass and asking for her to lock me in while I call the cops, but I don’t want anyone to die tonight. I insert my card into the machine and glance outside before entering my pin. I withdraw five twenties, feeling like a character whose actions have already been written.
I think of all the situations in which women must feel this way: going through the motions because they fear what will happen if they deviate from the script a man has proposed. Other nights come to mind, one nearly a decade ago, another the year before that. In both scenes, I am in a man’s bedroom, unsure of how I found myself beneath him, because the only signals I’d given involved simply paying attention and treating each man like a person worthy of care, talking and listening in ways friends would converse. In each situation, I dissociate from my body around 2 AM, gaze out the window into the street, a study in light and shadows, and hope that my car isn’t being stolen. I convince myself that material possessions and other persons’ pleasures are more valuable than me. At an impasse between these men’s polite manners and petty thefts, I feel my ability to trust fracture, and I am left unsure whether to feel angry or merciful. They don’t use overt verbal or physical force, and I do not consent to any of these things, but I don’t refuse them either.
On the way back to the car, I pass a tall man in a basketball jersey, wearing a large pair of over-ear headphones. We exchange nods, make eye contact, and I consider asking him for help, but to do so would be to put him in danger. The world seems blind and deaf tonight to my desire for help; the vacuum hums; the tall man’s music blasts into his ear drums, tiny bones ricocheting; my wife is asleep at home; my dad has been drinking too much to drive anywhere—he drinks to drown pain, to drown loss, and I can’t fault him for that; both my mom and my boss have their phones set to “do not disturb” after ten PM, and they couldn’t do anything anyways, because nothing has happened yet. As a last-ditch effort, I launch a mental distress signal, red and bright and burning, up into the sky, above the houses and high rises and just below the clouds, hoping my brother will see it and miraculously come to my aid. For a few steps, I want to believe in a miracle, but of course, he doesn’t come, and I shouldn’t need his or anyone’s help. I’m thirty years old and the only loss I can quantify tonight is one hundred dollars.
I hand the bills to the man standing beside my car. Imma call the mechanic, see where he’s at. Within minutes, a black SUV pulls up on the opposite side of the street. I watch the man walk over to the car, get into the passenger’s seat for less than a minute, and walk back over to me as the SUV peels out. I know already what has transpired: he has used my money to pay his dealer or someone else to whom he was beholden. There never was a loaner car, and now he must find a way to get rid of me.
The mechanic is going to pick me up at corner just down the road. He got ahold of my sister, so if you drive back to the ER, where we parked last time, she’ll meet you there with a hundred dollar bill, he says. We both know this makes no sense, but I start driving as he starts walking, shuffling as if carrying a heavy burden. We wave goodbye to each other as I pass him, and I know it’s the last time I’ll see him. The small part of me that still dreams of happy endings, of retribution, is holding tight to a fine silver thread of hope glinting in the night and pulling me backwards in time.
Déjà vu. I park in the same spot as before and wait for ten minutes, driving around the block three times as I scan the streets for a woman who probably doesn’t exist. There’s a man in a hoodie standing next to a bus stop and again, my brother comes to mind. I look through my call history to find the numbers the man used. I get the same voicemail again when I call the number he said was his sister’s. When I call the mechanic’s, I receive a message that the number is disconnected. A burner phone, or a lie altogether. I sigh and drive away, passing the river one last time, and follow the highways home as the city lights fade.
That night I sleep fitfully, have dreams with tragic endings. When I wake, an electric hum fills my limbs and makes my hands shaky and untrustworthy. The man’s ghost lingers in my passenger seat as I drive to work in the afternoon. I wonder what he saw in me last night that translated as an invitation to ask a favor. Was it an unthreatening young woman in a car so new, so shiny black that she must have money to spare? Did the thoughts of my brother that always invade my mind after work leak out of my skull like a thousand tiny beams of light from one of those lamps that project a map of the stars onto the ceiling? And what did I see in that man that made me soften and give him a chance to be good? Were we each just lonely enough to trust each other for a series of pivotal moments? Were we mirrors of people we love? When did he decide on an outpouring of fallacies, watching me lap them up like a thirsty dog? We shared space and breath for close to an hour but never even learned each other’s names.
Before I clock in, I tell my boss what happened. She’s the first person to know. Her eyes betray the way she hurts for me, the way she knows the part of my pain that any woman would: a primitive flash of fear like a wounded animal before practicality takes over. She tells me to call her husband if something like that ever happens again. Like a parent, she tells me to never do things like that, that on any other night I could have been murdered, that I’m lucky to be alive, and I do feel lucky he didn’t do anything worse. To make it through the day, I have to believe that the money helped him somehow. With that hundred dollars, I could have helped him pay off a vital debt, get high enough to keep on living, or high enough to die. I have to think that we exchanged kindnesses of different currencies. On any other night he could have been my brother, and I could have been someone else.