OBJECT: Stripped Cars
BODY OF WATER: East River
On a Monday morning in July, it is reported that a car has been sighted floating down the East River. This is breaking news sandwiched between traffic reports and an interview with a couple who made a virally popular video of their wedding. Alex asks, “What are you thinking for dinner?” He likes to plan his eating for the day.
I say, “I haven’t given it any thought.” Although I do plan to pick up meatloaf slabs from the grocery store after work, I like for Alex to leave some things up to chance. He kisses us goodbye and leaves with the last banana. I will try to remember to pick up bananas, too.
Sophie cries as I comb and braid her hair, Alex’s hair: thick and wavy. She hates all the pulling, but I don’t know what else to do with hair like hers. It makes me feel like a bad mother. Between her sobs, I work through the tangles and watch the news. The first image we see of the car nose down in the river comes from a cell phone video. From this blurry, shaking footage she calls “stunning,” the anchorwoman thinks she sees a person trapped inside. The situation is christened: Terror on the River. I am still waiting for the weather report.
During the commercial break, I pack Sophie’s backpack for the sitter’s. She cries, No, as I shove in a pink lamb, a concession to her still missing Bunzy. Sophie tells me she hates that lamb. I promise, promise, to get her a new stuffed rabbit from the stuffed rabbit farm. She does not know that Bunzy met with a mangling accident in the washing machine.
When the news returns, an expert, a Brooklyn fire captain, is on the phone explaining what a person trapped in car, traveling down a river should do. He says, “Call 911. Stay in the vehicle, and know help is on the way.” His voice, while trying to make viewers feel safe, makes me feel sexy. Makes me feel like breaking shit.
I stand in front of the television holding the clicker, my keys, and Sophie. “Most importantly,” he says. “Remain calm.” His name fades up on screen.
“Here.” I hand the clicker to Sophie. “Wait for the weather.”
I find Ben, as most everyone can be found, online. There is an article about him and a woman he saved from a burning bed. A photograph in front of the firehouse shows a version of Ben I could never have imagined. Ben is a hero, and he has assumed the character. Instead of the weaselly dyed-black hair I remember, his hair is now wise, flecked with confident greys. His thin shoulders have grown into round, burly joints. His face is sharp, and he is not squinting, looking bad-ass for the camera wearing a baggy Violent Femmes T-shirt. In this photo Ben smiles, still closed lipped and still letting his eyes do the work, but his stare, rather than invoking rebellion, inspires trust. He is buttoned into his crisp dress uniform. He still has that scar above his eye. I look up the phone number for Engine Company 279 and dial, but I hear Sophie running down the hallway towards me.
“Mom,” she yells. “It’s gonna thunder later!”
I store the number in my phone.
As we leave the house, Sophie plays the game where she is blind. “Where are you Mommy? I can’t see you!”
“Here I am!” I say walking ahead of her in the driveway.
She spins around with her eyes closed. “Where, Momma?”
“Follow my voice!” I say, playing along. “I’m right here!”
I grab her hysterically flapping arm and my blind daughter to the car. “You’re always here,” she says.
“Is there somewhere else I should be?”
She opens her eyes. “At work. Or with Daddy. Or at the store.”
I drop Sophie off, and I call Ben at the firehouse.
“Hey Buddy,” he says, like he’s been waiting for my call. I tell him that I didn’t know he was in Brooklyn. He asks, “Why would you?”
I sit in the parking lot at work, sweating because I refuse to idle. Ben asks, “What’s been going on with you all this time?” and I tell him about “all this time,” this fourteen years, that has passed since we very decidedly parted ways at an Arby’s in the mall. “So, here we are,” I conclude after easily divulging secret feelings of contempt, which I have never before said out loud and don’t know if I mean for real. This is Ben’s effect on me. Anger, anarchy and the like. Ben is quiet. I repeat, “Here we are.” Am I fabricating unhappiness for Ben’s sake? I get the loser chills. The anxiety cringe. Starts in my stomach, bleeds out my arms. I have to shake my head to make it stop. I hear the firehouse intercom echo in the background. I ask, “Do you have to go?” hoping something is on fire somewhere.
Ben says, “You should ditch work and come see me.” So, this is why I have never searched for him before. I call work and tell them I will not be coming in; I feel a migraine coming on. I call and tell Alex the same. I stop home, grab a toothbrush and run away.
I ride a train out of New Jersey and another through the city. Perhaps I am passing under the floating car and the trapped woman. I assume it’s a woman, one who drove her car off the highway. We do things like that, big things to spark change.
The F train hurtles out of the tunnel and high up over a Brooklyn neighborhood, pocketed between industrial yards. I come down off the subway and walk without knowing where I’m going. Brooklyn is the other side of the world, and I didn’t take the time to print out a map. Instead, before I left I put on dramatic eyeliner in liquid black, and nice underwear: leopard print.
I make a left instead of a right and walk past nothing. Vans and trucks lining sidewalks. Coiled barbed wire. Mostly anonymous edifices, and one massive storage facility, a place for keeping the things people don’t have room for. It is beginning to smell like the asphalt of summer and my thighs rub together, sweaty under my skirt. Finally, after circling the block I find the open bay door of Engine Company 279 with two tattooed firemen outside smoking cigarettes. This seems ironic.
They have Ben paged, and invite me inside. I drag my fingertips over the rig, all its compartments, thinking how perfect of the fire truck to have everything it needs tucked away inside. I expect Ben to slide valiantly down the fire pole, but instead he comes out from the kitchen, a dishrag over his shoulder. “You found me.”
“I Googled you.” We hug and he holds onto my hands, kneading his thumbs into my palms. My chin rests on his hero’s shoulder. He smells like a grown-up workingman, like gasoline and rubber, and he tells me I look good. I do look good considering the last he saw of me, that day at the Arby’s, I was wearing overalls and a stripy shirt, my hair a shaggy, faded pink boy cut, stainless-steel ball chain choker.
Ben leads me through the firehouse like he is helping a woman in labor into the hospital. We move past a row of boots with pants attached, limp jackets on hooks, helmets resting above, ensembles waiting for bodies. Ben hurries me to the kitchen where he’s in the middle of getting dinner ready for the house. Irish beef stew and salad. The other firemen eye us. I realize that this station is why firemen calendars are made. I correct my posture and bite my lower lip.
“Is it okay that I’m here?” I ask, hoping we were breaking some rules.
“Sure. Why not?”
In the kitchen, the television shows the noon recap of the Terror on the River, and I say, “That was good advice you gave this morning.”
“Waste of time,” Ben says, slicing carrots for the stew. After emergency crews had raced to the scene they discovered that there was actually no one in the car. The Mayor, however, commended rescue efforts and response time during a press conference. “Just another piece of junk in the river.” Ben tells me, “There’s a whole graveyard down there, rotting. Most of them are stolen, stripped down and sunk. This one must have come up somewhere near the Throggs Neck.”
“Or,” I say, “it was driven off the highway,” imagining the crazed woman who dropped a cinderblock on the gas pedal, threw it in drive and watched the car take off, driving on air just before gravity took hold and pulled the nose down.
“Either way, they’re going to have to trap that thing and pull it out of there,” he says. “Like roping a bull.” They report that the car is sailing fast down river, moving at almost four knots. It is identified as a Buick, a Skylark, an ‘82, maybe an ‘87.
I ask, “Do you think someone recognizes it?”
“What? Like a long lost brother?”
“No, like their car.”
“Maybe, but so what?” he says, sweeping the carrots into the pot.
The news shows photos of what the car would look like out of the water. This car is the car of my dreams. Not the car I want above all other cars in the world, but the car I am trapped in, the car that drives itself as I climb up into the driver’s seat. In my dream, I have never taken the wheel. I just sit, hug my knees, and watch the scenery because, apparently, the car knows where it’s going. But, I always wake up before we—me and the Skylark—arrive at our destination.
Ben asks, “Would you want that wreck back if it were yours?”
I think of a soggy pine tree air freshener hanging from the rearview, a rusting St. Christopher, and soaking wet maps. I tell Ben, maybe I would want it back.
He cracks open two beers, tall boys. I ask, but they aren’t for us. The beers are what make his stew Irish. I lean against the counter with a smirk. I never imagined Ben cooking anything other than Ramen noodles and bong hits.
“How are you with salad?” he asks.
I start with the cucumbers, peeling and slicing thick, bright circles onto a cutting board. They are sweet and dewy. “I read somewhere once,” I tell him, “that the scent of cucumber is an aphrodisiac.”
He covers the stew and asks if I have any pictures of the family. I open my phone and let him scroll through snapshots of Alex, of the cat, of Sophie. “She’s cute,” he says.
“She looks nothing like me. She’s all Alex.” I take the phone back; I don’t want him to see any more pictures of her. For the first time ever, I think I’m feeling something like guilt about not having Ben’s kid. (That kid, who would be starting high school in the fall.)
He hands me two heads of lettuce, bowling ball size, and I start peeling off leafy greens and ripping them into a bowl the size of a large pizza. I ask about the article I read. “What was it like to rescue a woman from a burning bed?”
“She couldn’t walk,” Ben says. “I mean, she was paralyzed.”
“No,” Ben said. “Wheelchair. I don’t really know what it was like. It’s just my job to make sure people are safe.” He tells me she suffered second-degree burns across her legs.
I say, “She’s lucky. At least she couldn’t feel it.”
Ben says that’s one way to look at it. I’m an asshole, but I do think she’s fortunate to have been reminded of what it means to be safe. I finish undressing the lettuce from its stalk and sink my hands down into the wet, shredded leaves. “This isn’t much of a salad. Any croutons or something to gussy it up? Carrots?”
“They’re simmering in the stew.”
“This is funny,” I say. “Us making dinner.” Had I been able to envision this, my whole life would have been different. I think Ben knows that, too.
“So, what’s going on? Why are you here?”
“You told me to come,” I say, tossing the cucumbers into the bowl. “This is done.” I offer him the dull salad like it’s a horn of plenty. Really, I want to throw it.
“Did you want to come here?” He is staring with those squinty eyes.
I guess I did. I shrug as he accepts my salad bowl offering.
He asks, “Why weren’t we ever a real couple?” We are face to face, and I can smell him again, industrial. I touch the scar above his eye. It is white and smooth and my fault. He could have used stitches, but we were drunk and in the habit of breaking shit, dropping bottles off a parking deck, kicking and skipping them across the empty parking spaces. I hurled one. It hit the divider, exploded, and gashed his head.
My fingertips trace the old wound and trickle down the side of his face and we kiss. We share breath for moments. He asks, “Do you want to fuck me?” still trying to figure out why I came all this way. He seems willing. I imagine myself; a single mother dating a fire captain who saves crippled women from burning beds. I will inform work, and friends, and the sitter. I’ll tell the pond clean-up committee I volunteer for, and I will tell Alex that we are moving to Brooklyn. Me and the kid and the cat. I will definitely take the cat. But maybe Sophie will stay with Alex. The thought of not being with my child isn’t as terrible as I imagined and for a second, I think it is because I don’t deserve her.
“You should go home,” Ben tells me.
But rather than leave, I kiss him again, press into him up against the counter. I remember his body, his bones, the smooth places. It has changed shape, but the core of him is the same. I remember what will make him hold his breath, what will make him let go. We were never a couple, not officially. We were not love poems and teddy bears and meeting parents and future planning. Ben and I just fucked around. Low maintenance. I never wanted more, now did I?
That time when he crashed his car, I took him out drinking and fucked him. He slept in a dining room with French doors and his roommate poured himself some apple juice and watched us from the kitchen. That was the night I got knocked up. That was the night our futures smashed into each other and a time line of surreal events was drawn out before us. We’d have to meet each other’s parents. There were definitely going to be teddy bears. And for almost too long we accepted this newly inked map of our life together. But, two months later, the afternoon at the Arby’s in my overalls, everything was over.
I smell the beer boiling in the stew, and I kiss harder.
He says, “Stop.” He nudges me away from him and smiles in his way, closed lipped, his eyes doing all the work. Loser chills. My gut drops.
I ride the train back to New Jersey. Whizzing past graffitied walls and billboards, speeding by egrets nesting in marshlands outlined in rusted steel. The train is quiet. It is in-between time, mid-afternoon as we pull through stations: Secaucus, Newark Broad Street, Bloomfield. My stomach cringes and I shake my head to make it stop. I take a pen out of my bag and scratch ink into the vinyl train seat: “I wuz here,” and date it.
On my way to the house, I pick up the meatloaf at the store. I don’t buy bananas. I stop by the stuffed rabbit farm and finally replace Bunzy. I get Sophie early. Her braids are undone leaving two, frizzy pigtails like white dandelion puffs.
“What happened to you hair?”
“I’m sorry,” she says, strapping Bunzy 2 in with the seatbelt. “They’re too tight.”
I tell her, that’s okay. “It looks pretty like that.”
At home, we make a salad with carrots and croutons and celery and even add garbanzos. When Alex comes in, I hug him. He smells warm and tangy and kisses my temple, asking how my headache is.
“Better.” I tell him that tomorrow I plan on making a lasagna even though I have none of those ingredients.
Before bed, I sneak my toothbrush out of my purse without Alex noticing. I change into my pajamas while he flips channels. I keep the leopard print underwear on, a little secret beneath his old boxer shorts and I wonder if in fact it is still going to thunder tonight.
We tune in to the East River Car Situation. The Skylark, having dodged a few boating collisions and nearly making it out to sea is now floating up river. An expert, (who I have no history with), explains that the East River is not even a river. It is a tidal strait, just a channel between the Long Island Sound and the New York Harbor and under the influence of both asynchronous tides. This is why when the Sound is pushing and the Harbor is still pulling, the East is still and why around midnight, as I sleep, my leg curled around Alex’s, the Skylark languidly drifts in the middle, safe, as tides are busy changing.
Apryl Lee teaches creative writing, composition, and screenwriting at Kean University, Bloomfield College and Seton Hall University, as well as at summer programs at Sarah Lawrence College. Currently, she is at work on her first novel. She received her MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and has completed “Go Nowhere Girl,” a collection of short stories. Her screenplays and films have been selected for festivals including the Cannes Film Festival Short Film Corner, New Filmmakers at Anthology Film Archives, the IFP’s Independent Filmmaker Conference, and as a finalist for the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriter’s Lab.