by Emilie Staat
When you leave the concert, it’s after midnight in the Quarter. Sunday night is gone. Monday morning hasn’t truly started. You’ve forgotten how hard it can be to get a cab at this time, so you start walking. A few cabs pass you, already occupied. You start to worry.
You could call your friends back in the concert, but deep into the encore, they probably won’t hear. You think about the sudden panic that had risen up inside you, the heat of the crowd, the sensory invasion. You had wanted to escape, so it was all you could do to give your friends, this couple you’ve known a long time, a quick smile and reassuring hugs. As you ran away from their bewildered faces, the audience was clapping and whistling, begging for more.
Still, no cabs, and your phone is out of juice. If you go back to the club now, you’ll have to wait outside for your friends, but they’ll give you a ride, if you don’t miss them in the swallowing ocean of the crowd leaving the show.
Right then, a minivan cab slinks to the curb in front of you, all of the windows cranked down. You see passengers inside, a couple cuddling together in the backseat, a large two-headed snake, their limbs invisible, and you balk, but the cabbie leans over and says through the open passenger window, “Is okay girl, they say is okay.”
The female head of the snake nods, without meeting your eyes, so slowly that you realize she is probably too drunk or stoned to support herself and her male counterpart has happily wrapped himself around her.
“No cabs, too late,” the cabbie says and you know he is saying that most drivers are off-duty because it is the Sunday night before Carnival season. Soon, they’ll all be driving for two weeks straight, so they’re sleeping now.
You slide into the seat beside the driver and tell him you’re going to a bar near your house. He nods and takes off. You turn and thank the sleepy-stoned two-headed couple-creature behind you. They smile fuzzily, not at you, but at the air between you and them.
After a few minutes, the cab pulls under a hotel’s portico, getting tangled for a moment in the handful of other taxis regurgitating their passengers. You look away while the fare is paid, but remember the boneless quality of the couple-creature and watch while it climbs out, laboriously, somehow perfectly balanced.
The cab takes off again. From somewhere, a cigarette appears between the cabbie’s fingers. He lifts it in a silent question and you nod, looking out the open window and letting the air stream through your long hair, which is down now. You’d tied it up during the concert, it’d been so hot in the tight, sold-out crowd.
You notice the cabbie is not taking the route you would have, but you bite your lip because then you notice that he did not re-start the meter after letting the couple-creature out at the hotel. A thousand possibilities flash through you, but mostly you remember the frightening ride in the gypsy cab last year, right before Mardi Gras, too. That driver was very angry, he tried to charge you and a date forty dollars each for a ten-dollar fare. He threatened you if you didn’t pay. You thought you’d both be found dead in the river, but it was okay in the end. This time, you are alone and you wonder what the cabbie is thinking as he tosses out his still-lit cigarette and rolls up the windows.
Maybe you shivered and he’s being kind, you hope, uneasily. The opening segment of the hundreds of Law & Order episodes you’ve ever seen come to mind, all at once. Except the dead body is you and what the detectives discover is that this man took you somewhere and hurt you. After your experience with the gypsy last year, you made sure to check the cab company logo before you got inside. This driver is with a big company, but he’s off the meter and this spooks you. Why isn’t the meter running? Has he decided you’re his last passenger of the evening so he’s doing you a favor on his way home? You’re not comfortable with this, but it’s a nicer possibility than any other that occurs to you, that he may have a barter in mind or that he might not give you a choice. You’re not sure what to do or to say. You wait.
You watch the cabbie out of the corner of your eye, bracing for the moment he locks the doors. Maybe, if you’re diligent, you can see it coming and save yourself. He’s too close for you to look at him directly, but you try to see him, not just the fact that he is bigger than you. Middle Eastern, you decide, middle-aged. He is not bad-looking, but his age is hard to pinpoint. He could be just a bit older than you, or he could be your father’s age. You don’t know which would be good, or which would be bad. You don’t know what would make a difference if he is taking you someplace where you can’t find help. He’s not going the right way, but you still know where you are. If you had to, you could walk from here. You could run.
You try to discount your fears, tell yourself you are being silly, but remember your best friend saying, “Nobody listens to their instincts anymore.” You know that it is more likely for a woman to be hurt by someone she knows, not a stranger like everybody thinks. What reason would this man have to hurt you?
Before you can convince yourself, you remember the time a few years ago when someone was killing girls your age, girls just like you. You remember exactly how it felt to carry on a normal life in the choke-hold of a fear that prevailed over every other emotion, day to day. You remember that everyone was afraid, everyone was reminded that some parts of life are inscrutable and violent and cannot be expected.
The silence stretches out uncomfortably. Maybe he can feel your fear, because he asks suddenly, “You have a good night?”
“Yes,” you say, struggling for a relaxed, carefree tone. “I saw a concert and now I’m meeting some friends at the bar.”
This is a lie. You are fervently grateful that you always, automatically, give the bar as your destination, rather than your address. It’s easier. He accepts your lie with another silent nod and you hope that he has changed his mind if he was thinking of hurting you. The blank meter could mean anything or nothing. Keep him talking, you think.
“How’s your night?” You shoot for friendly, trying to avoid overly interested or nosy.
“Ah, not bad,” he says, the answer coming fast, but the question following it even faster. You are dizzy from the speed. “Where are you from?”
“Atlanta.” You wonder if these questions are casual conversation or fact-finding. “But I’ve lived in New Orleans for years.” He nods. “Where are you from?”
“Lebanon,” he says, then again quickly asks, “You got family here?”
The questions could be dangerous for you. Or he could just be practicing his English. He’s bored, he must be. You would be, too. You’re not in the back, like a regular solo passenger. It would be easier to ignore each other if you weren’t sitting next to each other, like friends, like somebody doing somebody else a favor.
“Oh yeah,” you say breezily. “My boyfriend, who’s meeting me at the bar. We have really great neighbors. It makes the difference. What about you, your family?”
He nods. “Yeah, they’re here. My wife. Kids.”
“That’s nice,” you say. “How many kids do you have?”
“Three,” he says in that quick, clipped way he has said everything else.
You wish he would tell you more about himself so you could feel safer beside him. Family, family, family, you think, hoping he is thinking of his own, his little girl maybe, hoping he realizes you are somebody’s little girl. You can’t help but think of your parents very far away, sleeping probably, the empty house that waits for you here. Your last boyfriend always drove everywhere and he was a genius at finding free parking spaces in the Quarter. Even if you did sometimes have to walk a long way in heels through some bad sections of town, he was there and you felt safe. You have no safety net now, except for the great neighbors, who are the true part of your lie, but who don’t know where you are. Your friends must be leaving the concert, but they don’t know where you are, either. Only he knows.
“It makes the difference,” you repeat. It is hollow, but it is something to say.
You are both silent, once more. You’re scared to check your phone, worried that he might think you are dismissing or ignoring him. Your mom once e-mailed you tricks for accessing emergency numbers even if the phone battery has died, but you can’t remember a single one. You wonder if you are being paranoid or prejudiced, but the little hairs on the back of your neck are standing up straight. What will happen when he stops the cab?
You don’t recognize where you are anymore. You wonder if any of those girls just like you felt fear like this, or if the danger that got them caught them unaware. Your shoulders sag with a weird, sudden relief, as if your body was on a timer and every nerve-ending detonated all at the same time. You know now that either the danger will come or it will not and you will do everything you can to survive. You might not. People don’t, sometimes. But you have wasted half your strength on fear and now you are limp and numb.
“Where are we going?” you force yourself to ask.
He jerks the wheel and the cab stops at the curb. There is no traffic and the air is misty, an early-morning bath that washes away the weekend so that everything can start again, fresh. You put your hand on the door handle, but you are calm now.
“I don’t remember,” he says, sullen. “Where that bar is. What is address?”
You put your back to the door and look directly at his face for the first time on this ride. You can’t fathom what he is thinking as he looks back at you. Your hand tightens on the handle. Now or never, you think. He has taken you somewhere, either on purpose or by accident, but now, you are here.
No one will ever ask: why were you so afraid? No one will ask the question you can’t ignore or answer: who taught you to be so afraid?