By Toti O’Brien
He just pushed the door open. I hesitated, then slipped in without further thinking. The passenger seat was far back, too inclined. I fumbled underneath for a lever. He might have smiled, kind of. I remember his upper lip pearled with sweat.
I remember his upper lip, purplish. I glanced at him often, though my gaze was most riveted to the landscape—rushing in, slamming in my face through the windshield. Dizzying me. He did not turn my way, not even—I think—when I first got in. He was watching the road and he better did, for we were speeding like crazy.
It was dawn. No one was on the streets while we raced in his Testarossa. Was it his? How would I know? And it was yellow. I had never seen one that color. I had never seen one of any color, in fact. Sticking to the road as if on suckers, yet sliding avalanche-like, the Ferrari gulped up our downtown, swallowing plazas, alleys and fountains. Lacy palaces, bell towers and churches. Churches and bell towers again—peeking after each turn, waiting at every corner, hovering above us, then seemingly falling on top of us . . . but we had dashed elsewhere.
How could he think of riding those medieval streets, this labyrinthine topography—our maquette of a town—in a bolide launched at ninety per hour? He knew how. He must have done it enough, maybe to sober up.
I hadn’t. Soon I turned on the side, cheek against leather, my eyes tightly shut. “I am sick,” I said, though I wasn’t really. Then I looked out again. The sun shone in my face—a large incandescent disk, scarlet, gorgeous. I breathed deeply, then closed my eyelids again. Time for a serious nap.
I woke up. Things had totally changed. First of all, I was chilling. “Could we turn off the air conditioning, please?” He laughed a high-pitched giggle, almost fake. The AC wasn’t turned on. I rephrased: “Could we get the heat going?” “I am not sure.” He chuckled again, this time gently. I sighed, then I looked for something to throw over my back—a sweater, a T shirt, a shawl? A towel would do.
I hadn’t paid attention so far to my clothes. I was in my nightgown, and it didn’t matter, of course. I often lingered in such attire in daytime. After all, it was just a loose dress with thin shoulder straps, was it? Pretty, and covered with lace. Only, too light.
The surrounding landscape was pale and monotonous. Mostly grey, in contrast with the technicolored sunrise we had started upon. Stretching by the highway we raced on, so linearly it felt motionless. That—again—gave me a sort of vertigo, of a different kind. “Where are we?” “Europe,” he whispered matter of fact. “Where the hell?” I wished to add.
I relaxed instead. Before slumbering once more, I took a good look at him. Truly, several ones, but he didn’t notice or mind. He was pointy. Small chin and French nose. Meaning a bit thin, a bit protruding. His lips, inconspicuous, had a tinge of purplish, I said. Small ears. Little facial hair but lustrous black curls, sticking tight to his skull as if for a Roman statue.
His body, slouched into the driver’s seat, sort of melted with it. He wore faded blue jeans, white shirt, leather jacket, battered cowboy boots. Quite banal . . . unnoticeable. And I wasn’t noticing him. Only cataloguing, for the sake of it. Only chronicling.
When I awoke, we were stopped. Parked in a resting area. All around us a pine forest spread generously. No villages in view.
He was not in the car. Did he walk to the shop to get cigarettes, a sandwich, a drink? Should I do the same? I felt ravenous. How long had I gone without eating? I was cold still. I should get some wrap-around sort of thing.
Could I leave the car unattended? Should I lock it? None of my business. I should leave the car as I entered it. Unconcerned—unconscious. None of my business. It was crisp outside. I shivered more, though the scent of pines briskly reached my nostrils. I breathed deeply. It was wonderful.
I heard the sound (should I call it noise?) then I saw him. Oh God! In a picnic area—near the woods, crowded with snacking families—the smartass had set up his number, butchering tunes on an unfortunate violin while shaking his meager hips like a rock star.
I got nervous. Police would show up any moment. Our travel would be interrupted. There would be some kind of annoyance. Should I run, avoid trouble altogether? Good question. Only, where should I go, on foot, among forests and highways, in the very middle of Europe?
Maybe I was over worrying. He looked perfectly at ease, I discovered when I got closer. On the pavement I saw his instrument case, covered with undecipherable stickers, lined with faded velvet, once the color of peacock feathers. It was full of coins . . . various metals, copper, brass, silver, gold. Currency of many different countries, I guessed. A few bills floated on top.
The though suddenly struck me I did not have a dime. I felt colder and hungrier. The impulse of grabbing a bill or two became aching. As if he had sensed my presence, he stared at me, briskly, without stopping his maddening playing. And he winked, with a grin—not unsympathetic.
A warm breeze blew from the pine trees. It surrounded me. A comfy, smooth, caressing tide. I would wait a while, then borrow. I hoped he wouldn’t mind. If he did, well, I’d bargain. There might be something I could do for him, right? Why would he have taken me aboard otherwise?
As they left the tables, those red-cheeked voyagers—fat, thick, country-style—came by, unfailingly dropping a bunch into the violin case. No coins—only bills, piling up like autumn leaves. I couldn’t believe it. A smile glued on his face, he kept playing, ending with a long shrill note after the place was cleared. Unfatigued, while I was tired and trembling.
Mute, he grasped a few notes between two fingers, as if holding a cigarette. He pointed them my way. I hesitated half a second. I felt as if I was pimping. Then I grabbed the cash. He was stuffing his wallet, looking satisfied. I walked toward the shop.
I came out biting into a hot dog, and bedecked with a whorish top of red plush. Whorish or Santa-ish . . . I had found nothing else in the crappy mall that would fit me. It was scarlet, over my lacy white gown. I had a glimpse of my ridiculous self in the car window. Something sharply familiar came to mind. The woods helped, perhaps.
But was he the wolf? Please. He looked innocuous. Resting against the Ferrari, he was smoking, staring at the languorous sunset. I could also appreciate it, now that my body temperature was restored to normal. Sunrise. Sunset. Had we been away for twelve hours? Apparently. It felt like a couple of minutes at most. Or eternity, of course.
Yet I needed to speak out, way of getting things straightened up. “Where are we going?” He took time. Crushed the butt of his fag, gingerly, under the tip of his boot. Strolled around the car, caressing the hood with his knuckles, as if appraising its shine. Pleased, surprised. While he opened the driver door (was it ever locked?) he said, “Thinland.” My door was unlocked. I said, “Finland, you mean.”
We zoomed out like a fuse from Canaveral—my hot dog cartwheeling up and down my esophagus—all tires squealing like mice. “Thinland,” he repeated. Then he added the longest speech he had yet uttered. “No seals that I would know of. They are just regular folks. Only very thin. But no fins.” How absolutely hilarious. Thinland—as you wish, dude, as you wish. Time for napping.
While I tried to awake, a rocking motion pushed me back into sleep, as if lullabying me. In the end I came to my senses. We were cruising, now, taking time. He looked pensive. His eyes loomed larger. I hadn’t noticed them yet. They were beautiful. Long dark lashes and pale irises. Mud colored. Striped and dotted. Green, gold, silver. A mushy kaleidoscope. Quite remarkable.
Christ! Were we riding on water? No wonder Jesus came to my lips. I had casually glanced through my window, and the ocean was there. I could not see the road on my side. How was it possible? We were edging the waves, thick and oily. How deep . . . ? Vertigo almost chocked me.
I turned towards him. Relaxed, he admired the cute waterfront. Quite touristic indeed—a miniature Venice. Only red. I mean, everything. Various shades. All possible tones. Red shingles, pink or apricot walls enlivened by red shutters. White curtains embroidered with red hearts, balconies bursting with geraniums in bloom. Red awnings for stores, advertised by red lettering. Words I couldn’t decipher. Tiny familiar pictures. Pigs and bottles. Dresses and pipes. Clogs, guitars, sausages, pans and pitchers. Dolls (were they girls?) and soldiers. Cigarettes and syringes. Syringes? Bows and buttons.
He stopped dead. I instinctively ducked, waiting for the next car to crash into us. But no car was following. We were cruising anyway. “Don’t you need buttons?” he asked softly, as if whispering a romantic, maybe an obscene proposal. What did he mean? As a matter of fact I could use buttons. I loved buttons. I actually collected buttons. I couldn’t resist buttons. How did he know?
On my side there was water. Now that we were stopped, I thought I saw fish under the surface. Dark shadows. Maybe I just imagined them.
The impulse took me by surprise. The irresistible wish to get out and swim. I shall leave my plush jacket behind. I almost took it off. All fear had deserted me. That’s when he grabbed my hand—gentle yet deadly firm. “This way,” he said, and he pulled me after himself through the driver door. I squeezed my way out.
We entered the button hole. I mean the button shop. Truly, it was so small and so crowded it looked like a cave. The walls were entirely packed with file cabinets, labeled with small cardboard displays, sewn up with samples. A large table was covered with crates, jars, and baskets, filled up to the edge with multiform miscellanea.
On the side, behind an equally loaded counter, an old couple was taking care of costumers, most obsessing on merchandise, though—storing, shelving—as if it only mattered. A crowd bunched up at the center table where the bargains were—greedy, intent, rapacious, enthralled.
I saw things pretty and precious. Pastel colors. Wood, bone. Ivory and ebony. Patchwork. Mosaic. Filigree. I saw velvet, brocade, and silk. Golden leaf. I saw abalone, coral, mother-of-pearl. I saw enamel, glass, embroidery, and lace. I saw sailor knots, forget-me-not, edelweiss. My eyes popped out, my hands hitched. Then that multitudinous grace gave me a heartache.
“I need air,” I murmured to no one. I stepped to the sidewalk. The ocean lapped at my feet. Again the impulse of diving overwhelmed me. He must have known. “You are not a seal yet,” he said tonelessly. At my side, he was lighting a cigarette. I pulled it off his mouth, took a draft. It felt great, not sure why. I breathed deeply before he took it back.
Then he took something out of his pocket (the zippered one on his chest), put it into my palm. “What is it?” “A walrus tooth—and a kind of button if you wish. If I were you I’d sew it to my favorite dress.” Mindlessly, I looked for a pocket. My nightgown had none. I closed my fist. “I miss Mother,” I mumbled to myself.
My words startled me. Not sure what they meant—if I had said them—if they were even true.
“Was it because I looked at myself in the mirror?” I asked a bit later. We were back on the road. He said nothing.
I had lingered in front of the thing, the night before, playing with my budding breasts. Noticing for the thousandth time how the left one was larger than the right, differently shaped, trying to decide which one I preferred.
“No, baby,” he answered after a while. I had already forgotten what to. “Anyway, you don’t even know where to look. It’s more complicated than that.” He stared at my breast—so frank and so fast, I felt kind of slapped. I figured his eyes dropping between my tits, like pickled onions, slimy and squishy, icy cold.
His stare was unflattering—as if he had spotted a scrawny steak on a market boot—a slightly battered fruit—an old fish, smelling bad. He repeated: “You don’t even know where to look, do you?” and he laughed. I should hate him perhaps.
I woke up chilling to my bones. It was pitch dark. First my fingertips felt the plush. I was wearing the thing, yet freezing. Bunched in fetal position, laying down. Did he recline the seat?
Then I realized I was on damp grass, inhaling its smell, and the smell of dirt. What on earth . . . Indeed. I sat up, spotted a faint luminescence—a stripe, like a Milky Way. The road, doubtlessly, with cars going by. The road, far away, while I was in the fields.
Had I fallen off? No way. I would have killed myself—while I was intact, only dead cold. Hungry perhaps? A hot-dog was all I had eaten . . . for how long? Thinland . . . Was it what he meant? But I wasn’t bruised at all. Did he take the pain of carrying, then deposing me? I was clenching my fist, still holding the walrus tooth. Damn it.
Suddenly I remembered what I was at. When? That I didn’t remember. I missed Mom in the most horrifying way. I recalled I was lost. Pardon, she was.
I recalled she had left—stepdad said. When to or whom with, he didn’t say. “She is gone,” he yelled, yanking at the kitchen table so hard, both his coffee cup and my bowl spilled all over. I sneaked out of my chair, went to the sink for a sponge. He didn’t pay attention. “Gone! Gone with the devil!” he screamed.
I had come all the way to Finland to find her. She must have gone back to where she came from. Maybe she was nostalgic. For sure. I should start walking—looking for Mother. Just walk, first toward the road, then longing the road. I would find a village. A town. Maybe I would hitchhike. I had done it before.
Him? The hell with him! Crossed over, forgotten. On his way to somewhere else as I should have expected. It was certainly the fault of my breasts, irregular, meatless, too thin even for Thinland.
I started off at a steady pace, though I felt slightly nauseous. Courage, girl. Aim toward the road—you’ll be there soon, then stick your thumb out.
Only, I got lost.
Deepening through the greenery. Wide meadows, interrupted by erratic patches of trees. The sun rose then climbed higher. I sat once on a while. It was sunset almost when—my head empty of thought, too tired even to feel it—I saw them in the distance.
They were quietly sitting on grass, as if for a picnic. In fact, Mother had a basket close-by. She was fumbling in it, digging out a cluster of grapes she started plucking—also tenderly feeding some to his mouth. I felt a pang of jealousy—more like sadness. Also Mother’s eyes—now I could see them, how much had I wished for this!—had a tinge of melancholy. Not unlike her. More intense, though, than I recalled.
He was holding a huge sunflower. While I approached, he gave the flower to Mom with a theatrical motion, almost kneeling in front of her. Was he ridiculing her? She didn’t exactly look pleased. But she put the bloom in her lap, lingering with her fingertip on its core, thick and grainy with seeds.
They both smiled at me. Still I felt like an intruder—my sadness sunk deeper. Suddenly a flash of genius lit my somnolent brain. How comes I hadn’t grasped it before? My eyes shifted between those two—my throat tightened. I hesitated as usual, not sure whom I should ask, then I burst at him: “Are you my father?” He grinned. “Do I look that old?” Mother didn’t laugh. She handed me a bunch of grapes from the basket. I devoured them.
At his side was the violin case, carefully shut. It was locked—a key stuck in the keyhole. He reached behind his back, then presented me with a geranium flower. Deep crimson. An unjustified happiness overwhelmed me. “From Thinland,” he exclaimed while I grabbed it, and he openly smiled for once. I noticed a bad tooth his lips tried to conceal. Might have been why he usually smirked.
I woke up with a slap on my face. My entire body tensed up in spasm. “What the hell!”
“You can’t fall asleep at the wheel!” he said. I was driving. Still wearing my nightgown and my plush. With the corner of my eye I spotted a branch of geranium across my lap, together with a walrus tooth. Clearly none of it was a dream. It all had happened, was happening. Thus I should watch the road.
The Ferrari ran smooth like a spill on wax cloth. It glided, unstoppable. Right and left there was water, but it didn’t scare me. Iridescent and muddy—by instinct I sensed it was shallow. Maybe freshwater. Then a flight of flamingos took off, passing us, vanishing towards the horizon.
“Where are we going?” I should ask. But before I opened my mouth I heard his breathing. Quiet and regular. His hand rested in his lap, loosely hugging a pack of cigarettes. I saw it with the corner of my eye, then proceeded toward his crotch, then abruptly stopped. “You don’t even know where to look,” he had said. I should watch the road.
His head, without me noticing, had crept to the side. Now it slumped against my shoulder—limp, weirdly weightless. I could not resist brushing his coiled hair for a moment. Nice. I breathed deeply. Go, girl. Go with the devil.
Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in The Courtship of Winds, Pilcrow & Dagger, The Peacock Journal, and Sein und Werden, among other journals and anthologies.