Sara Jane Stoner
From behind, the driver's hair appears short, dyed black with dusty brown roots, the appearance both careless and careworn. The black sheen of the still-dyed hair looks more real than real against the mottled and torn gray of the ceiling, the dull white of the face.
The driver's cheek glistens wet in the late afternoon light, though it isn't raining—despite the fact that it's always raining in story cities, isn't it? But the skin is wet, as if the driver has been driving with their head hanging out the window, a joyous hound, heedless of the raindrops, even reveling in their acrid coolness.
But the latest sky report assures you: nothing but blue skies for months.
The meaning of the city is short like sentences today and noticeably darkened by the lofty pitch of the cloudless sky. The ground has been hollowed out for trains. The monuments of the city are blackened, though this has no effect on the buildings' ability to impress or be identified. Even at a distance, the city's pollution only heightens your satisfaction at the moment their façades part the curtains of smog to thunderous traffic noise.
However, you strive to ignore the quarter inch of grass stubble because it makes the city look dingy in its sad struggle for greenness. You are reminded of your unremarkable plodding to and fro, your incidental employment, your own history of bad dye jobs. Your mood is worsened by memories of healthy suburban yards swaddled in fence that begin to loosen in your head like aching teeth. Even the city's canines do not assuage this sudden pain; the dogs' panting, anticipatory joy at the stunted blades results in immediate waste. Somehow, the city smell of dog shit offers your mouth the added insult of a foul taste.
And if you haven't yet noticed, notice! She is crying, weeping, sobbing—tears everywhere so that the collar of her shirt is soaked and the fabric of her pants at her lap is damp. A hollow moan throbs in her chest, at a pitch something like warning.
She has driven through the streets, her ears aimed toward the closed doors of theaters, her radio tuned to the message, the never-ending herald of that perfect blast.
OUR LADY OF PERPETUAL ... BOMBING IN A NORTHERN NEIGHBORHOOD ... IRREPLACEABLE! ... EVERYONE BUT THE ONE WHO MATTERED ESCAPED ... ALAS, POOR ... ALAS ... THE SHATTERED GLASS OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY.
And if she wore glasses they would be fogged; and if she were a cartoon, tears would spurt in geysers and pool at her feet; and her makeup would be miraculous, perfect; and if this were that kind of story, she would flood the car with the liquid volume of her pain and the tinny violins would play, and of course it would be raining—how else would the landscape express its compassion? If this were that kind of story. And if the city were prone to such hopeless fits of emotion.
First thing: she drives a taxi, one that you assumed when you called the service would be yellow but—never more wrong you are—it is pink. Though once it could have been red.
But you're in a hurry! You have that meeting, conference, signing, facial, social drinking, dinner, matinee, free day...Your wallet a proud bulk in your back pocket; your backpack a quiet child slumped on your lap; your purse a sliver of liberty wedged between your knees. Perhaps it rubs you a bit how your brown calfskin satchel cries "foul!" on the cracked burgundy leatherette—which pinches your legs even through the thick wool of your pants, whose fineness demands your constant vigilance and a travel iron—but at least she arrived quickly. You admire the fade of your jeans at the rounded cliffs of your knees. You spread your skirt across the seat in a romantic fan. You scratch at a crusty spot on your jogging suit. You are distracted by your own pants. You are in the back seat of a taxi that is headed, thankfully, in the right direction.
So when you lift your head and really take notice of the fact that you have a woman driving, as you give the address, careful to say "please," you finally see she is weeping, and think: she is weeping as women sometimes weep. She is taking care to check her blind spot and signal her return to traffic; and she is weeping.
And you wonder, despite your careful politesse, if your tone was rude. You smooth your lap with your palms, resolved that this display of emotion has nothing to do with you. All of this must have pre-existed your arrival in the cab. Indeed, something must be wrong with her, or something must have happened to her.
Imagine from above if you can, at cloud level, the city thrown like a holey net strung with stones, bits of glass, and cars that appear like gems. Those pale exhalations you expect to dissipate are plant life. The people of the city almost go missing from this height; they look smaller than ants and less persistent. You imagine that the city dogs who aren't tucked away in studio or townhouse or loft or hole are dead in the murderous streets, though you wouldn't be able to see them anyway.
At this distance, anyone can observe that the colorful human kinesis along the grid is undetermined—clever, but not confident—and little is different at night; only that the cars are reduced to the color of sparkling lights and the buildings simple stumps, freckled with glow. The monuments, of course, are rouged and lit for the stage.
But you will marvel at the roundedness of your body, ballooning thighs and toes hovering so large over the diminished city. This disorientation makes possible the foreshortening of buildings.
Remember that other people of the city drive past monuments, thinking, Oh that cathedral, Saint.. Something—perhaps it's a visit that they've always, for years, been meaning to make. As it is, they are quite friendly with the landmark, the exterior, though sometimes they are bored, you are bored, by the dimness of the stained glass windows from the outside.
People still expect that a bright glow from within will charm them as they pass, with no need for them to enter or grow silent.
She knew where you were going before you had to utter a word. From behind her, your weeping taxi driver, you imagine the full impact of her face before you: her look soft, or perhaps rather hard, with narrowed, swollen eyes and a mouth chapped by ragged breath, lips chewed through for fear or worry.
As it is, peeking over the seat and through the gap in the plexiglass, you can only make out her profile: a shiny curve of cheek. In the rearview mirror, so cracked as to be useless, you catch odd slices of her, blotches of red at her neck, around her nose and eyes, spoiling the apples of her cheeks.
You figure that she would probably look better if she weren't crying. And you hope, for her sake, that she didn't wear mascara today, and where is that travel pack of tissues you had in your purse? And of all the times to be tissueless; and so much for kindness, or even simple custom.
But who would actually accept a stranger's monogrammed kerchief, no matter how starched and bleached?
You think of her nose steadily, how tears and snot must run around her mouth and into it—but surely, as you dig through your bag, surely you must have a napkin left over from that recent indulgence, that quickie hot dog on the city corner. But you cannot offer her even the silliness of a wet nap. Instead you fish out the gel sanitizer and massage it into your hands.
Frankly, you are annoyed by all that blubbering up there in the front seat. Even if you aren't a parent, you feel like one in your search for tissues. Even if you aren't a therapist, you feel a sudden pressure to be helpful, to cross your legs at the ankles, to ask thoughtful, open-ended questions, to dispense benign advice. Even the daytime talk show dilettantes would catch a whiff of tragedy in the tight space of the cab, and just beyond this smell is fear.
As everyone knows, and has come to expect, there is murderous traffic in the city. It froths with maniacal honkers, surgers, cutters—professionals. Of these city drivers, most swear by the most offensive of offenses. Off the road, they calmly reason that inspiring fear among their fellow drivers will make everyone more vigilant behind the wheel, and therefore safer. Many stud their tires and protect themselves with bubbles of steel, massive vehicles that do most of the driving for them. The cars halt midway into intersections, swerve with the force of a cornering train, and carve S-curves into the putty of the pavement.
Despite all this careful planning and equipage, a great many "close" calls result in metal-on-metal groans. All across town, sirens chase the protests of shattered windshields. A legion of flame-retardant brooms clears the wreckage and its pool of gas. And the surviving drivers go on to buy new cars, bigger ones with stronger skeletons.
And there are those, like you, who simply will not drive, who have the luxury not to. Those who cover their eyes, who grope for their seatbelts without thinking or needing the warnings of mayoral placards or earnest movie stars. They know that skill is rare among the drivers of the city.
People ask less of skyscrapers, a launching upward of the eyes, a simple dizziness. On blue sky days a certain thrill. The city people nurse their disbelief until it grows up to be cynical. So the tall buildings are mostly left to themselves and their insistence on being so very vertical.
Because the truth is, in fact, the heights challenge you; sometimes, even the buildings' basic demand of you to look up! look up! is asking too much. Your neck aches and your eyes throb. Better to whiz by them in a jewel-toned sedan or a seasoned cab, forced only to reckon with the stacked floors that fit in the frame of the car's window, than have to struggle to fit the whole monster in your mind.
You prefer taxis to trains. You avoid the subterranean, its music, its hellish smells, the dark mouths of its corridors. No where to go to avoid the blackened city water gushing from a crack in the arch above the tracks in front of you. Nowhere to hide and so you cower from that pack of city children, their flashing eyes trap you where you stand. You cannot achieve enough distance to see them and still love them. Instead you always end up studying the slack and darkened pores of the man sitting next to you.
There are other excuses for your abandonment of the city's trains, but you often cite—on bad days—your crushing claustrophobia—on good days—your enjoyment of the city's surface, rendered in other people, glass, light, and commerce. The urgent messages of billboards.
The woman driving your cab now vibrates with a low, prehistoric moan, and you begin to think of hormones—their shrewd manipulation of woman into a crisis of gratuitous empathy. Nature's plot: a feminine inadequacy.
How many female cab drivers are there in this world?
In that way of women weeping, she reminds you of an ex-wife, an aging mother, a child, a war bride, a sick sister, a girlfriend you once abandoned in that museum in Rome.
But there is the strange fact of her driving. As the sobs shake her rounded back, you are awed by her smooth negotiation of the most violently clogged expressways. You are breathless at the assertive leap and dodge of the cab, masterfully gliding across three packed lanes, dropping down some previously undiscovered alley to emerge on an avenue mysteriously clear of cars. On asphalt given to sharp-edged, hippo-sized gaps, her steerage makes you believe you could sip that coffee so hot it deserves its own warning.
Her tears, rather than interfere with her vision, seem to make it more acute. You grip the door handle as she makes a microscopic correction, sparing the lives of straggling schoolchildren without sacrificing an ounce of speed. Such is her fearless negotiation of the walker-bound elderly, drunken stumblers, and horse-borne members of the police force. In fact, you see a cop actually canter along side her, perfectly parallel, and give an appreciative nod.
You have a prescription for this brand of sadness. You finger the bottle in your purse, briefcase, backpack, pocket; imagine the tangy rattle of that life-saving orange.
Now imagine sharing.
Be reasonable with yourself. Tell her: I AM SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS.
For what else but someone or something's death brings this depth of sorrow? The kidnapping of a beloved pet? Besides, you can imagine yourself mourning someone in your life. Certainly.
At the intersection, a hardened city driver in his chariot of glossy steel swivels toward your lady cab driver with a vigor suggesting a challenge, a race, a derby. You're struck suddenly by the urge to serve and protect. But you watch as her sodden, distorted face catches at his eyes behind his sunglasses. The driver raises them off his face and begins to interpret her tears: a lost love, perhaps, a mugging, even a speeding ticket or a short fare—something he could imagine himself weeping over—something real. You see him looking at her and then he sees you, his eyes sharp and accusatory and wordlessly he decides that YOU ARE THE ASSHOLE WHO IS MAKING HER CRY.
You duck down then, pressing your knees into the driver's seat in front of you, until the city begins moving in the windows and once again you sense its profound ignorance of you.
And after the sympathy that you have imagined yourself into dries up, what is it that you believe she cries for? You can only nod and agree with her emotion like a bit of weather. Those in the high buildings of the city reach across the sky to shake hands on her sadness, as though it were an investment in the city they might be willing to take a risk on.
When she turns to look at you, to give you change, her wet face is clear, empty, transparent—through her the rain-covered city: the people with their umbrellas, splashing along the sidewalks and gutters behind her forehead. The street lights swollen into softer circles past her eyes and the damp fog at dusk, heavy and mauve. The buildings fade the higher they rise through the sheets of rain in her hair.
If she could talk, she might tell you a story about a woman who became an appendage of her taxi, an installation that was an upgrade perhaps, but still, a component. The wheel gripped her hands and began to direct her arms through an endless circular dance. Once upon a time, the woman woke to find herself in her taxi. Then night fell on her in her taxi. No matter where she went she ended up in the same place, and after a while she couldn't remember how she used to hold her children. The numbness in her lower lumbar region, the woman reasoned, was both due to the seat and the seat itself. And no pill or bottle could revive the good feeling like sunlight that she used to feel following her closely, warming her neck. Eventually, the woman didn't need mirrors anymore. She knew in her body when the taxi was clear or when she could back up no further.
And when she thought of those buildings—the "out of service" light just flickered on—how skyscrapers must tire of the sky. How they must wish to meet her and her pink cab down on the water by the pier, where she kept up her crying with the windows rolled down, waiting.
When she delivers you safely and her door slams home, the rushing of the air around you will remind you, suddenly, of falling. From the sidewalk you'll stand and watch her crest that bit of hill, funnel into the narrow bridge, pick up speed and pour into downtown. You imagine she will run uphill in rivulets, soaking the ground, and all the streets uptown will rise with a silent flood.
As you climb up your stairs or stand in your swift brass elevator, you'll find somewhere to file this vision away. Some dusty bin for the unusual. But when the rain returns, her story will slip out of your head. She will splash past you as you stand waiting on the street corner, a newspaper wilting above your head, and you will forget how to stiffen your arm to hail yourself a taxi.
I have a profound interest in discomfort as a means rather than an end, and hope someday to officially join the ranks of those known for such perversions. In this piece, I found the voyeuristic and beneficently sadistic pleasure of witnessing someone else's discomfort, even within the forced proximity of a cab, downright inescapable. Despite the fact that both sad and happy people frighten me, my stock in emotion rises daily.