The first-place story from the 2012 Quebec Writing Competition.
Illustration by David Heatley.
Puffs of fog hide most of the branches, and she can only glance before his hand steals under her shirt. She hopes the driver doesn’t see. But the cab is an island of dark sunk in something deeper, an empty late-night street, navigated by a man who just nodded when she and the boy climbed into the back seat. The cab is hurtling to her address. Hot breath hits her cheek.
The boy’s hand slides up her stomach and she thinks about pulling his wrist away, then slumps down for him. Outside, factory walls shoot by. A woman in a skirt stands under a street lamp and holds her jacket to her throat, like she’s praying with her fists.
Meanwhile, the boy pants in her ear, fingers slipping under her bra.
She yanks his wrist down and jams her lips against his, swivels her tongue in his mouth. Beer, cigarettes, vodka. Nausea boils inside her, threatening to steam up her throat. She shoves him off, then wonders how her face looks: like an ancient Greek mask, she guesses, all painted eyes and woodenness.
The road angles east, past locked shops and the hazy orange glow of gas stations. The boy is hunched over, hands on knees, but then he straightens up and points at her window.
“My dad was manager of that Shell station.”
Her laugh comes out like a squawk.
“In grade ten,” she says, “Mom chased my dad across our lawn, throwing books at his head.” Her eyes bulge in the dark. “Smoke pot, read and eat rice is all he did—for fifteen years. And he shaved his head to look like a monk.”
She knows she’s ranting; she’s drunk. Still, despite the shooters-and-beer night, she feels weirdly lucid, and tells herself that right now is just part of the dance: the bar, the drinks, the boy, the cab, then home to whatever.
Stretching out her hands, she touches the cab’s padded roof, wonders about bars and clubs. Things that break you.
The boy suddenly laughs, a kind of long snort, and the driver’s shoulder jerks forward. His white sleeve thrusts into the dark, turns up the music.
A sonata, perhaps a nocturne. She thinks she knows it: the tune, not the composer. Her father played those kinds of records—he would demand silence—when she was growing up on the North Shore, her and all those psycho rich girls with their own daddy issues. She remembers thinking that classical music was not beauty, was not sublime—it was a hand covering your mouth.
The tumult of piano chords in the cab is jackhammering her head. She wants her music. She presses a button on the door ... air gusts in ... sticking her head out the window, she feels the wind scourge her face. She opens her mouth wide, hopes the wind will swirl inside her, flush her out.
The boy wraps his arms around the passenger-seat headrest and looks at the driver, his hoop earring and grey grizzle.
“Rain,” murmurs the boy, making his word last.
But that’s it. All she hears is piano mixed with hissing tires.
The driver glances at his rearview mirror, then ahead at the road.
Shivering, she puts up her window and wails to herself: Am I always the same? She pinches her left cheek, hard, hoping for some new thought or feeling, and all it does is hurt, and make her wonder about a mark.
She checks out the boy’s face, its pale oval shape framed by blond hair and cab dark, and she remembers why she left the bar with him. The hangdog grin, the way he touched her wrist when he talked, and all his stories: trekking in Nepal, hitchhiking across Newfoundland, coffee-picking in Guatemala ... She knows what he wants; she wants to float like fog. Perhaps evaporate. But she can hear her mother’s voice saying That’s not an option.
The girl sees buildings she knows; her apartment is close. For sure the boy will get mad if she sends him away, or tells him to stay in the cab. But she can’t even pay for his return trip to wherever. Beyond the window, she spies a shape crawling over the lip of a dumpster. Legs disappear in the fog.
She decides to see how things go in bed. But the easy thing, and the way to avoid all possible problems, is to let him do it. She wants to laugh. Having sex when-you-don’t-want-to is not traumatic—it’s boring. You want to finish and sleep. And you will, just like you’ll finish doing the dishes.
Outside is more mist than fog. A light rain. The waste coast.
Warm fingers stroke her hand.
“Right here is fine,” she tells the driver.
The cab pulls to the right. A car swishes past in the opposite direction, dance music thumping in the dark. She must act; she shuts her eyes. Tight as possible. A door opens and she can’t help but stiffen, scrunching up her body as if ready for a slap or punch. Damp air fills the cab.
And coughing. A cough-rattle from deep in a chest. It ends with a retching sound and spit hitting the pavement. She thinks about her dad wiping his mouth after he flicked away his roach.
The driver grunts out his thanks—the boy must have paid—and a hand is pulling her by the waist. She gets out of the cab; the boy’s arm tugs again. He is moving her to the sidewalk, whispering something about her apartment. A hand goes under the bottom of her top, above the back of her jeans. She is pinioned in the boy’s arms, standing on pavement.
His mouth grazes her face when she turns her head. The gunning of an engine. The cab speeds off, a pair of red eyes fading in the dark.
His fingers prod for hers, lock into the spaces.
She squeezes back and tries to put a lilt in her voice, as if what’s she’s going to say is hopeful.
“I didn’t tell you—tomorrow I’m moving.”
The boy makes a hmn sound. She drops his hand and looks down the street towards the city, avoiding his face in the dark.
“But tonight,” she tells him, “just do what you want.”