Ellen Geist

Car Trouble
     My father is torturing me. He calls me on the telephone. "I'm working on a sketch for the headstone," he says. "Do you want me to spell out Jesse's name in full?" I don't want to answer. Instead of planning my son's headstone, I want to be planning his Bar Mitzvah. I want to be sending out engraved invitations, hiring a Motown band, making chopped liver in the shape of a fish. This is what I would have been doing had Jesse crossed the street at a different time, a moment when no van careened around a school bus.
     The next afternoon my father phones me again. This time he wants to replace Jesse's middle name with our last name. "But that's not his name," I cry out. If he wanted to change his name he should have thought of this earlier, when Jesse was alive. "If you talk to your ex-husband will you ask if its OK?" my father insists. "Or maybe use just his middle initial," he says. I don't know what my father is after with this business of Jesse's name, and I don't have any idea how to simply ask. "I'll talk to Danny," I say helplessly, hoping to put an end to this tombstone talk.
      "Do you know what?" my father asks me when he calls the next day. "No," I say, wearily. 'What?"
      "In working out the lettering for Jesse's stone I found the day that he was born and the day he died are exactly the same on the Hebrew calendar. The 17th of Tammuz."
      "He should give you five thousand dollars to make up for giving you that information," Eric says when I tell him about this. I let out a squeal of delight, because, once again, only Eric gets it. Only Eric truly understands.
      "I'm going consult with Rabbi Ruben on this," I tell Eric. "It's nice to have a Rabbi who's so good-looking," I add. "I thought you said he was married," Eric responds, with that tone of jealous irritability I love to provoke.
      The truth is, though, Rabbi Ruben loved Jesse. "Everyone has a light within them, but in some people it is more covered over," he tells me. We are sitting in his study. 'With Jesse it was all right on the surface. You have to listen to your teachers wherever they appear. Whatever age," he adds. I know none of this is bullshit. That's the worst part. I tell him about the 17th of Tammuz.
      "Why would my father even think to look that up?" I ask.
      "He has a scientific turn of mind," Rabbi Ruben says. Just to make sure, we look in a book. He runs his finger from Jesse's birth date on the Western calendar until it lines up with the Hebrew date. It is the 17th of Tammuz, the same as his death, shaded in black. We both shiver. It's an obscure minor fast day in Judaism, the Rabbi explains; thats why its darkened in. The beginning of the destruction of the Temple, the day the walls of Jerusalem fell.
      "I think some things are beshert," he says, "meant to be. The way you run into a person you think you might never see again, for instance. But what does it mean that Jesse was born on a day of mourning? That a shadow was cast over his life? I don't believe that," he said. "Not that kid. His enthusiasm . . ." He stops and we both remember.
     I fear I have inherited my father's obsessive bent. I mention this to the Rabbi. "Oh, I don't think so," he says. 'What do you mean?"
      I tell him how I go over the details of that day again and again in my mind, hoping to find the one flaw, as if finding that, I could make the outcome change.
      I agree to have lunch with a friend of a friend's, a thirty-year-old reporter for the New York Times. I feel guilty, though Eric and I haven't had anything so normal as lunch in months. The reporter is interested in my story. "When I was thirteen," the reporter tells me, "I had the same accident as your son. I was hit by a car while I was getting off a school bus. I broke both my legs. It took me six months to heal."
      Why are you alive? I wonder.
      My ex-husband's wife, Louise, calls me. We've become close since Jesse was killed. She is calling with the details of the trial for the guy who drove the van. "There are things that came out in the trial I didn't know before," she says. "I don't know if I should tell you. I'm glad you weren't there."
      "Things like what?" I say. "I want to know."
      "Like he was five feet one, in the coroners report, not five feet like we thought. 'What else?" I ask. "Like the van ran him over," she said. "I didn't know that."
      I realize now why Jesse didn't break both his legs. "If the van driver hadn't actually run him over. If he'd stopped short," I say.
      "But that's not what happened," she reminds me gently.

      Eric tells me that I am torturing him. Last night an oncology resident who interviewed me before chemo called me at home around eleven at night. I didn't think I'd flirted with him. He was Irish; I'd only asked him if he liked Yeats. I agreed to meet him for lunch at the hospital the next day when I had my bloods done.
      At the hospital, instead of meeting the resident, I beep Eric instead.
      Every time he answers my beep, which is nearly every time I beep him; I'm amazed. "Where are you?" I ask him, but he's doing surgical rounds on the other side of Yonkers.
      I tell him about the Irish oncology resident. "Don't you think that's unethical?' I ask, "taking my phone number off my chart? Have you ever heard of that?"
      "I've never heard of it," Eric tells me, "but I think it's great. I think it's super. Maybe he can be available to you in ways that I'm not."
      I don't like this. I am trying to manipulate him, but I'm in such a fog I don't even know when I've succeeded. First I make him jealous, then I beg for reassurance. It's the perfect wrong combination. I'm heading for disaster, pitching right in.
      "I don't want to go out with another resident. I don't want to go out with anyone else," I say. "I only want to go out with you,"
      "You can't say that," Eric shouts at me. "You can't feel this way about me. What are you going to do when I come to you and tell you I've fallen in love with someone else?"
      "That will never happen," I scream back. "You'll never meet anyone like me. You'll never meet anyone smarter, prettier, more talented, or who loves you more."
      We are falling right into our lines. Everything I say makes him angrier and everything he says makes me more hysterical. I feet like if I don't turn it around somehow, I'll die. I won't let him get off the phone and back to work. "Just one minute," I plead, "just one minute more." Then I try to think of something else to say, but I can't think of anything.
      "You're torturing me," he says. "You have no idea how much you're torturing me."
      "OK, something does have to change," I say. "I have to change," I tell him. "Can we talk tonight?"
      "Yes, we'll talk tonight. The first thing you have to change is how you feel about me. This has turned into an obsession. I absolutely hate you. I want you to go home and think all afternoon about what you did to drive me so far away from you."
      The prospect of spending the afternoon thinking about what I did to drive him so far away from me looms before me, a horror. I hang up finally.
      The Irish oncology resident walks into the examining room where I was using the phone. "You were supposed to meet me in the coffee shop," he says. He stares at me. "What's that red all over your face?"
      I look in the mirror. It's lipstick and tears.
      "Your blood count is 1.2," he says. "I just checked your results. That's low to tolerate a treatment tomorrow. Who were you talking to?"
      I shake my head. "Another time for lunch?" he says, standing in the doorway. "Are you OK?"
      I meant to stop by my best friend's apartment on my way home. "Just get over here," she says, when I phone from the hospital. If I can make it to her apartment everything will be OK. I can hear the promise of that in her voice.
      I try to drive fast, so I can get to her apartment where everything will be OK. My car is losing power on hills. I noticed this on the way to the hospital and figured I would wait to fix the transmission, another errand on the long list of things I can no longer manage. I floor the gas pedal, so I can just get down the West Side Highway to her apartment. The car is going slower and slower. I try to coax the gas pedal, as if it were a horse that would respond to my touch. The red stall lights come on. There is no shoulder so I just stop in the middle of the lane and put my flashers on. It won't start again. It's dead.
      The air is freezing cold and my blood count is 1.2 and traffic is whizzing all around me; I'm in the middle of the lane with no shoulder. I'm tempted just to step into the middle -- whoosh -- but I'm too strong for that. I'm so strong I irritate myself. I fear I'll become selfish and isolated like my grandmother who would line up all her pills in a row and take them all on time. I hated her efficiency.
      Some guy in a beat-up Honda stops. I have the hood open now. "Just leave it, and I'll take you to a gas station," he says. I gratefully abandon my car. I tell him the whole story on the way to the 96th Street exit, including the part about my son. When we pull off the exit, we are right near Eric's, I suddenly realize.
      I imagine the safety of Eric's apartment on a hundred and tenth, the white-beige sofa, the polished mahogany coffee table, the clean white shades. I imagine him offering me a glass of water, holding me on his lap, as he did the night before my first treatment. I remember him holding me in his arms, a distance away, like you hold a daughter, surveying me.
      "You do look pretty," he had said that night, his voice soft-spoken, filled with awe. "I'm so sorry you have to go through this," he said, meaning the chemo.
      "Is it bad?" I asked.
      "It's pretty bad," he said. He pushed my hair off my forehead and held it back in his hands, looking at me.
     He raised the length of me up close to him. "Go ahead and cry," he told me. "It's OK to cry." I sobbed noiselessly, dryly, grateful for the opportunity but unable to take advantage of it at the proper moment.
      "I should go," I had said, moving back away from him. "I promised I wouldn't stay." He didn't release me. Instead he kissed me, his tongue sweeping between the front of my teeth and inside my lip. That's what made me think he loved me, the way he licked my teeth right across the gums. "Lie down," he said, as if talking to a child or a patient, "just lie down and relax. I'll make you feel better." He reached under my skirt, pulled aside my panties, and thrust his finger in. "Here's my finger," he said. "Do you feel it?" I closed my eyes to feel it, wanting everything to vanish except his finger inside me, thinking it might if I only concentrated enough. Then he kneeled over me and dropped his pants down to his knees. His penis was very erect and elegant; tall, smooth, and finely shaped, directly in my face. I put my mouth on it. "That's right," he said, gently, "that's right," and then moved to put it inside me. "Just a moment, let me not get you pregnant on top of everything," he said, and pulled out. "I don't have anything." I knew I'd left a box of condoms there; I tried to calculate quickly how many we'd used together. I was afraid to ask where they'd gone if he hadn't used them all with me. I tried to remember how many were in a box.
      "I might have one in my purse," I said, and moved away slightly, but he shook his head, suddenly pulling my neck down to force my mouth on him, and shot toward it, missing; sperm sprayed all over my face, but I didn't care. He kissed me again, deeply, lying back down with me, licked all the semen off my face, like a cat, cleaning me up, softly and patiently, with his tongue. Then he looked into my eyes for a long time, with his dark brown ones, opaque. It seemed so quiet all of a sudden, and still, with him lying there, looking at me, like the hush of grace descending on us both, muffling the world.
      I'm afraid if I get dropped off at his apartment now, Eric won't be home; he won't let me in the door. "Take me to the gas station," I tell the man.
      The gas station man calls a tow truck. I'm not doing anything. I have thrown myself onto the mercy of mysterious forces in the universe that are taking care of me. I haven't stopped crying this whole time. The man drives me back to my car to wait for the tow truck. My car is right where I left it on the West Side Highway in the middle of the lane, and I watch as we approach it with a kind of distant curiosity, watch cars circle the lane around it. "Here you are," the man who drove me says.
      Just as I step out of his car, the tow truck comes around the bend. It's painted garishly yellow, pleasant as a circus. The driver looks like a hick with long dirty blond hair in a pony tail. I jump gratefully into the cab of the truck. I feel like a teenage kid again, hitchhiking, cruising the cornfields in a pick-up truck, smoking dope. Twenty years have slid away like nothing. I am aided in this illusion by the fact that styles have changed back to that time. Who would ever have thought long hair on men would ever return? I tell him my story: discovering the cancer last spring, then Jesse right after, and with this one I add the part about Eric. He glances over at me. "You're a nice looking broad," he says, "I'm sure you'll find someone else."
      He takes me to a garage somewhere in the Bronx where it's freezing inside. They let me sit in the back room and with the space heater and use the phone. I call Eric. He is home.
      "OK," I tell him. "We'll never see each other again. So now you can tell me the truth. There's something I need to know. The way you kissed me, for instance, the night before my treatments. The way you looked at me. Am I right about how you feel about me? Is it my imagination?"
      "You're right about how I feel. Anything you may have thought you felt from me," he says, measuring each syllable, "was not your imagination."
      I let out a breath of air, thank him, and hang up the phone.
      I go to the front of the garage to check on the progress of my car. It's only been an hour and they've fixed it. They cleaned out the catalytic converter which had something clogged in it. This never happens. They never actually fix your car.
      When I finally pull my car up to leave, four Latino men and the truck driver with the long dirty blond hair are standing by the side of the garage door. The truck driver has told them all my story. They stand in a row, as if they are in a reception line at a wedding.
      They speak in turn. 'We all wish the best for you," one says. "My aunt had cancer," says another, "I know what those treatments are like." "I have two children," says the next. "I can't even think how you must feel." 'We hope it's better from here on out," says the last. They are Elohim, the seventh rank of God's angels, these garage men in their blue jeans and greasy sweat shirts, waving me on, out into the world, with my fixed car.
      My favorite story about Jesse is the one Rabbi Ruben told at the funeral. This is the story: "I was in my study," the Rabbi said, "when I heard a clump, clump, clump, up the synagogue stairs. It was Jesse, in those roller skates he always wore. 'Jesse,' I told him, 'you can't go up the stairs in those roller skates.' 'Yes, yes; you can,' Jesse answered me. 'You just have to know how."'