Lies I Tell Taxi Drivers
by Chris Kuriata // from issue 1. Vol. 2
We close the spa at 2am, during the height of bar traffic, yet none of the girls wait long for a taxi. A few drivers always hover in the area, ready to pounce the moment dispatch puts the call over the radio: “Dispatch, this is 7-2, I’m just up the street. I’ll get it.” The taxi drivers’ eagerness concerns me, as does the way some of the girls encourage them. Last week, a hard-up driver comped Lexie’s fare for taking her top off. I wonder if it was my driver, who just now at the red light on Victoria, has offered to turn off the meter if I show him my tits.
“Give me your name, sir.”
Immediately, the driver knows he’s made a mistake. “Why do you need to know?” he asks, placing his hand over the photo ID license hanging from the dashboard. “I don’t say anything to you.”
It’s stupid to make trouble, but I left work feeling angry. One of the girls, Mina, forgot her purse under the table in Room Two and got cleaned out of her day’s tips, either by one of her gentlemen or one of her co-workers.
I know I should give the benefit of the doubt to our co-workers, trusting them over the customers, but I don’t. Mina was robbed by one of us. I’m positive.
I take out my phone, letting the driver see the glow in his rear view. I hope he feels threatened.
“I’m calling the cab company to report what you just said to me.”
The driver shakes his head. “I don’t say anything to you.” The light changes and we proceed down the street. “You are a liar,” he says and nods, agreeing with himself. A block later he repeats, under his breath, believing himself fully, “You are a liar.” He doesn’t remove his hand from his ID the entire trip.
Jillian’s husband used to drive the girls. After being diagnosed with stomach cancer, he hung up his keys and we were left to find our own way home, which meant adding a new expense to our budgets. Some of the girls asked Jillian for cab money but she told us Albert’s driving had been a perk, nothing owed to us, so she hoped we appreciated it while it lasted.
For a while, it looked like the optimistic predictions Albert made were true; he was going to beat his cancer. When the end did come, brother, it was fast. He spent less than a week in the hospital before he was gone, which I guess is the way you’d want it. After diagnosis, Albert got a year to relax at home, walk his beloved dog and take a final trip to Italy. He was lucky; some people spent that final year suffering without ever leaving the hospital. Jillian told me Albert worried about what would happen to Jake. “He felt so bad about the dog missing him, not understanding why he’s gone.”
Albert worried less about Jillian, knowing she would survive just fine without him, only a little lonelier. He was Husband #3 and knew better than to expect dramatic grieving.
Albert treated me nice, just a grunt and a nod when he drove me, a much-missed contrast to the chattiness of the taxi drivers I hired to replace him. In the time between leaving the spa and arriving home, I’m no longer Misty (38DD-29-36) but not yet Kirsten (Abbie’s mother, or Ms. Wendell when I volunteer at the school). During this period of being nobody, I want the taxi to be my cocoon. Keep me safe and warm and private. Only when I return to Abbie will I be the vibrant, awe-inspiring butterfly. Chitchat from the driver is like pin holes in the cocoon, letting light in when I should be transforming. Especially when they ask questions they already know the answers to.
“What kind of place is this? Is this a business?”
I see through the driver’s feigned naivety. He knows full well what we specialize in behind the spa doors. He hopes I’ll take this opportunity to advertise, flirtatiously suggesting he treat himself to a luxurious soak in our Jacuzzi. Maybe treat himself to me and one of my sexy friends for a four handed hot oil massage. He wants me to giggle or speak in an alluring voice or emphasize my cleavage. This driver would never be so bold as the one who asks to see my tits but really, there is little difference in what these two drivers are seeking: something warm for the rest of their long shift. The only difference is the first driver offered something in return. This driver wants me to titillate him for free.
There are many answers I could give: hostile—“None of your fucking business”; smart-ass—“Why don’t you ask your wife”; enigmatic—“It’s where the rainbow ends”; passive-aggressive—“It’s for losers”; or misleading—“We do skin care.”
Instead, I sit silent, pretending I haven’t heard him until he drops me off at the yellow apartment tower off Broad. I take a deep breath before stepping out of his cab into the snowy night, preparing to unfurl new wings and resume being Kirsten, Abbie’s mother.
I assumed all us girls would attend the funeral, to be there for Jillian. Apparently not. When I mention the funeral to Lexie, she holds up her phone and says she already signed the guest book under Albert’s online obituary, thus making her appearance at the actual funeral superfluous. Trina, who’s worked at the spa less than a year, shrugs and says, “I met buddy twice.” As the one who has known Jillian the longest—since high school in that frighteningly distant century—it falls on my shoulders to represent the spa at Albert’s funeral.
“Andrea is going to be there,” Jillian warns me.
“That’s nice of her.”
“Just thought you should know.”
I keep my apprehension over the thought of seeing Andrea again to myself. “Don’t even think about it. We all want to be there for you.”
We keep a Lost and Found drawer at reception. Items like house keys and phones have the shortest stay. Sunglasses, gloves, and cigarette cases can linger for months. Stuff that isn`t claimed is thrown up for grabs. Real valuables, like a ring or watch, are held in trust by Jillian. When she isn’t here, I become the safe keeper of any valuables because I am the oldest.
Mina gives me a money clip one of her gentlemen left behind. She’s had two customers today and isn’t sure which one dropped it.
“Aren’t you giving the room a clean sweep when you’re done?” I ask. I know I won’t be holding onto the money clip for long. Whoever it belongs to will return the second they notice it’s gone, even if they’re an hour down the highway.
“Should I have kept it?” Mina asks, sounding afraid she disappointed me by turning the money in, like I rooted for her to take every possible advantage.
“No,” I said. “You don’t want trouble. He’ll be back for it.”
At closing time, the owner of the money has yet to return or telephone. Waiting for our taxis, Mina asks what happens if they never come back.
“Jillian keeps it.” Lost cigarette lighters and scarves may go up for grabs amongst us girls, but the valuable stuff went to Jillian. I don’t blame her, the money went right back into the upkeep of the spa.
“I just thought we might deserve, like, a percentage of it. As a reward.”
If I’d been talking to Lexie I wouldn’t have budged. If I’d been talking to Trina I would have told her to fuck right off, what did she know about rewards the way she didn’t even say thank you when we found the missing brooch she cried her eyes out over. But I feel bad for Mina, whose stolen purse proves she lacks the self-preservation necessary to make it out of this racket in one piece. So I give her $40. “Cab fare.” Her grin is so big I change my mind, now disappointed she didn’t keep the clip for herself.
My driver reeks of cigarette smoke, something that puts my antenna up. I want to be driven home by a professional, not someone as casual as a friend I’ve met at the bar. The metre stops on an even $15. I hold out a $20 bill and there is trouble.
“I can’t break that. I need something smaller.”
“You don’t have four dollars’ change?” Bare minimum, I’ll always tip at least a dollar.
He doesn’t have four dollars. Or at least he claims not to. A lot of drivers play games with the change. They expect everyone to be like characters in the movies, who leap out of cabs tossing a wad of bills through the window shouting, “Keep the change.” All the drivers keep their money in plastic yogurt containers or sandwich baggies. They dig out the coins with deliberate slowness, hoping you’ll get impatient and say their three favourite words.
“Do you have a ten and a five?” he asks, as if I am incapable of calculating the denominations making up $15.
I hold up the only other bill in my wallet. “All else I have is a ten.” He takes it and I undo my seatbelt, preparing to get out.
“Whoa! I said it’s fifteen.”
I barely know how to respond. “So what do you want from me? I should overpay ’cause you can’t make change?”
The driver shakes his head, muttering darkly, “Yeah, don’t worry about it. I’ll just make it up out of my own pocket.”
His attempt to make himself the victim infuriates me. “It’s not unreasonable to expect you to have five dollars. It’s not like I asked you to break a fifty.” The driver seems childlike in his pouting, used to others taking responsibility for his mistakes. I quickly get out of the car before he decides to lock the door and hold me prisoner until I settle my debt one way or the other.
I stand in the apartment lobby, scanning the notices pinned to the bulletin board. The taxi’s red taillights burn outside, hovering in the road like a pair of eyes. Was he waiting for a call? Was he watching me, wanting to see me go inside? I pull out my phone, pretending I have just received a call so interesting it arrests me right here in the lobby, one hand on the security door.
Several minutes pass before the taillights blink shut and the engine turns off. The absence of its chugging hum leaves the street so silent I can hear the driver’s footsteps crunching snow as he walks up the path to the apartment.
He stands outside the lobby door. Hands in his pocket. “You lose your key?”
I point to my phone, wedged against my ear. “I’m fine. Thank you.”
“Are you getting the rest of my fare?”
My teeth clench. I wish I had fangs to scare him away. “We’ve settled that already.”
“Nope.” He sounds pleased with himself, like a sheriff cornering a horse bandit, catching them dead to rights. Somewhere in this exchange, he received the mistaken impression he had the moral high ground.
Mina’s money clip, pinching far more than his ratty five dollars, throbs in the bottom of my purse. I could give him his fare and be done with him, but I don’t see why I ought to go out of my way on his behalf. Not when this situation is entirely his fault.
“You have your money,” I said. “It’s not my responsibility to make change for you. If you don’t know how to run yourself like a professional, that’s your failing.”
The driver frowns and crunches the snow back to his car, surely looking forward to recounting my “theft” to his buddies on the radio, all the drivers using this lone incident to justify their prejudice of my brothers and sisters. Shaking the taxi from its slumber, the red eyes open just before the engine roars and disappears down the street.
I wait a couple minutes to ensure he isn’t circling the block then I step out of the lobby into the cold night. I cross the street and jog up the steps to my real
apartment building, excited to wake Abbie so I can tell her Goodnight.
“Don’t we have to be invited?” Mina asks.
“No. Funerals aren’t like weddings. You only issue disinvites.”
Mina asks to borrow a dress, even though nothing of mine would fit her. Her lack of mourning clothes astonishes me. I can’t believe at her age, this is her first funeral. In my closet, I find the black dress I never wore to my graduation in my slimmer days and pass it on to Mina.
Jillian greets us with hugs in the vestibule of the church, thankful we came. Members of Albert’s large family constantly trickle in behind us.
I spot Andrea sitting up front, keeping a place warm for Jillian. By her expression, it is clear she does not want to be here, but toughs it out, making the attempt to be a good daughter. I choose seats for Mina and myself at the very back, where it feels safest.
The last time Andrea and I were together her eyes burned with fury even as the tears streaked down her cheeks. I can’t remember if she hit me with something other than her hands (we were in the high school gym so she had access to all kinds of bats and lacrosse sticks) but I remember not even trying to reason with her. She had been out to hurt me, make me pay for the trespasses I had committed against her.
In the church, I stare too long and she looks back, catching my eye. I feel busted.
When the priest offers communion, Mina surprises me by joining the line. She is confused when I don’t follow, thinking communion is part of the funeral ritual, like sending flowers and filing past the casket. She didn’t know it was optional. Rather than get out of line, she pays attention to the people ahead and very skilfully, as if she has done it a thousand times before, gets on her knees to drink from the chalice and accept the host. The shoes she chose to wear, black high heels, are wholly inappropriate, clanking loudly against the hardwood floor like someone banging on the lid of the coffin with a hammer. I can feel everyone staring at her. Self-conscious, Mina takes a seat in the front row, afraid to make the return trip down the aisle in her
After the cemetery, everyone gathers at Jillian’s house, filling her living room and grazing from supermarket deli platters of greasy cold cuts and waxy vegetables. I’m saddened to see how many of Albert’s elders outlived him: three sets of uncles and aunts. His mother is in a retirement home, too sick to attend the funeral, too sick to even know she has a son who is now dead. That’s a blessing, I suppose.
Mina flops down on the couch and pecks away at her phone. I can’t fault her for rudeness; she doesn’t know anyone here. Her boyfriend has promised to pick us up once hockey practice is over. I can’t wait that long. Abbie will be done school in less than an hour. I need to be home. Jillian closed the spa today and I know who I want to spend my free evening with.
I am on the front porch having a cigarette when a distant voice reaches out for me.
I turn around to see Andrea stepping onto the snowy porch, her black funeral shoes picking up ice, chilling her exposed feet.
“It is so nice to see you again,” Andrea says, smiling like she’s just won a contest. She shifts her weight to one foot, leaning towards me, testing the waters to see if enough time has passed that she can give me a hug. I keep my arms at my side, unwilling to make physical contact. Andrea respects that.
She has maintained her athletic figure. We ran track together, friendly competitors dashing under the starter pistol smoke and comparing milliseconds. I have let nature take its course with my body. I’m sure if we rekindled our old competition, Andrea could still make her old times around the track while I’d be out of breath before the first lap. I focus on her facial lines, proof that, despite her pristine body, she hasn’t escaped the aging process. Her imperfections relax me a little.
“Mom mentions you once in awhile,” Andrea said. “She’ll say, Oh, I had lunch with Kirsty today. I can only imagine what she says about me.”
“Oh, only good things.”
“Huh. I guess that means she never mentions me at all.” It’s true. Jillian never speaks of her daughter, who decided not long after punching me out that she would seek her mothering needs elsewhere.
I ditch my cigarette and Andrea shivers. “You coming back in?”
I raise my phone to my ear. “I’ve gotta call a taxi.”
“Where you going? I can take you.”
“Don’t worry. I’m fine.”
“No. Let me give you a ride.” She drops her voice, forcing me into conspiracy with her. “I could use a break from all this.”
We go inside to say goodbye to Jillian, who raises an eyebrow, surprised to see the two of us together again.
Andrea has no intention of coming back. As far as she is concerned, this funeral, and her duty surrounding it, is over. For one tiny moment, I wonder if her friendliness is all a ruse and once lured to her car she will crack me over the head with a shovel and stuff me in the trunk, taking me away to complete the revenge fantasy she has been brewing the last 15 years. However, since she can take me home faster than waiting for any taxi, I decide to take the risk.
Andrea’s little car sits close to the road. The humming tires throw a steady stream of slush against the doors. Her phone sits in a suction cup attached to the dashboard, the screen displaying a young girl about Abbie’s age. I think back to Jillian’s house, unable to remember seeing a single photograph of this child hanging anywhere. No hallway pictures of proud Grandma holding the baby, no snap shots of Jillian smiling beside a mortarboard-wearing child at her kindergarten graduation posted to the fridge. I feel sad, wondering if Jillian ever gets to see her granddaughter.
Andrea catches me peeking. “That’s Miranda. Mom wanted me to bring her today. For what? The funeral of a total stranger? Why should I force her to be around all this death and bodies. It’s creepy. Ugh.”
I would never put Abbie’s picture on my phone like that, exposed to everyone—snoops, strangers. I think of all the questions her picture would invite. Who is that? What’s her name? How old is she?
“That man was not Miranda’s grandfather. He’s not even my stepfather. He didn’t raise me. I was already married when Mom and him got together. I mean, come on.”
I nod, like a good listener. Maintaining loyalty to Jillian, I don’t say a word.
The dynamic of our relationship has not moved an inch since high school, when I would sleepover at Andrea’s, curled at the foot of her stuffed animal strewn bed, a receptacle for her every thought and anxiety; our coach’s assistant kept messing up her time, the people at her after-school job condescended to her, did I think if this boy or that boy liked her. She’d unload all over me and get cross if I didn’t look like I enjoyed it. “Are you listening to me?” she’d say, but never returned the favour. One night, after she was spent, I crawled out of bed and found Jillian sitting up at the kitchen table. She looked at my face, laughing at the marks of mental exhaustion her daughter had inflicted, and slid her pack of cigarettes in my direction.
“Have a seat, honey.”
Different from her daughter, Jillian was genuinely interested to hear what I had to say. I told her about my mother, her sickness and sadness. I told her about the never-ending tide of cousins and stepsiblings rolling through our home, each demanding Mom break off another piece of herself to take care of them. It took only one evening for me to feel more of a friend to Jillian than I ever did to Andrea.
“I’ll keep my ear out for you,” she said about my desire to find a part-time job like Andrea had. I wanted to work not only for the supposed soothing balm only money could provide, but for the lessening of the hours I’d have to spend at home, waiting on all the new “cousins”. “People always want to hire a pretty girl like you.”
The roads are bad, forcing Andrea to drive slowly. The main streets fill with after-work traffic. Every red light lasts an hour. I want to roll over, pull my coat up like a blanket to keep warm, and nap until we reach home, ready to burst out of this cocoon and fly away with Abbie. But Andrea is talking, and common decency won’t allow me to tune her out like one of those babbling taxi drivers, who revel in their captive audience, subjecting them to their corny jokes and unpopular political opinions.
By the time we get to my street I feel exhausted. Andrea parks on the curb. I undo my seatbelt, filling the car with warning pings. I reach for the door, but it is locked. I wait for Andrea to hit the button on her side and release me, but she isn’t through with me yet.
“Can I ask you something?” Her face has grown serious and her voice heavy. Whatever she wants to ask is clearly something she has been carrying around the entire funeral, maybe longer than that. Years. “Do you ever think how your life might be different if you’d never met my mother?”
I try very hard to remain calm. There is nothing to be gained by yelling at her in this little hot-boxed car. Andrea slathers on her most sympathetic expression and lays her hands open should I decide to grab on to them, desperate to reclaim our friendship. Despite her phrasing, I know what she really means to ask me is How different I think her life would be had I never met her mother.
As if that would have made a difference. As if Andrea still wouldn’t have been humiliated after Jillian’s arrest. As if the intensive interviews she and all of our classmates suffered at the hands of the police to determine if Jillian was “grooming” girls at the school to join her roster at the spa wouldn’t have occurred. As if her friends, humiliated to attend what was now known as Hooker High, wouldn’t have abandoned Andrea, coldly turning her from most popular to pariah in a single week. Her companionship became tainted and everyone froze her out, wanting no association with the sordid stories filling up the newspaper and airwaves.
Ugly rumours swirled around me. I kept my head up, ignoring the snickers from boys who thought they were oh so clever to be the hundredth wag to shout at me “How much?” The police initially questioned me with great sympathy, telling me I was a victim, promising me no harm. Weeks later they were frustrated and
began making threats, but I stuck to my story, insisting the relationship between me and Jillian was a personal one, not professional. Lying to everyone was easy. I pretended the police and my teachers and my school mates weren’t talking about me—it was someone else who found periodic employment at the freshly painted office Jillian rented in the warehouse district that always smelled of fresh laundry and baby oil.
“I was wrong to be mad at you,” Andrea said. “You weren’t the one who did anything wrong. I blamed you for stealing my mother from me, but she was the one who took people away. She’s the one who ruined you.”
Andrea stares at me like one of the hard-up taxi drivers. She wants me to take off my top not so she can see my tits, but my heart, which she falsely believes aches with a shame and self-loathing only her love
All these years later she still can’t hear me.
Before I can speak, Andrea leans over and snares me in a tight embrace. “I promise I’m going to do everything I can to help you,” she whispers in my ear. “You don’t have to work for my mother anymore.” Andrea needs me to be in a bad situation, would never believe me no matter how many times I assured her I’m fine. Andrea sees herself as a White Knight, crashing through the forest clearing, determined to use her armour and strength to save me, but really, she is just another in a long line of people who believe they have the right to dictate what women do with their bodies.
I pat her on the back and say, “Don’t worry,” but of course, she won’t listen.
Andrea leans back and dries her eyes. I hear the door click and am flooded with tremendous relief that I’ll make it out of this racket in one piece.
“I’m serious. Let’s get together. Miranda can play with...” she runs out of steam, grasping for the name, unable to remember I haven’t yet told her Abbie’s name yet. “Sorry. Brain fart. What’s your daughter’s name?”
I pause for a moment. “Mishale. Her name’s Mishale.”
Andrea pulls her phone from the dashboard and asks for my number. Insists I give it to her. I’m busy fumbling through my purse, pulling out some gas money.
Andrea waves it away, “Don’t be silly.”
“It was a long way.”
“I’m not a taxi.”
And that is precisely the problem.
Minutes later we are still haggling over price. Andrea begins to get annoyed but I am insistent. I urge her to take the money. Once money changes hands, you can lie with a clean conscience. We sit there idling, the money hovering between us. I wish she would hurry up and take it. I think about Abbie, surely home from school now, and I want nothing more than to invent a phone number for Andrea, get out of her car, walk into the lobby of my fake apartment and study the posts on the bulletin board until she drives away and leaves me alone to unfurl my new wings and become Abbie’s mother once more.