When I got into the back of that taxi, I was still in a good mood. It didn’t matter that I’d waited an hour at Port Authority that morning, with ticket in hand, only to learn that the bus to Middletown, Conn., had stopped running because the driver had retired. It didn’t matter that I’d sprinted across Manhattan to catch a train to New Haven, only to find out that no one could give me a ride from New Haven to Middletown, and that a taxi would cost $70. I’d negotiated with the cabbies at New Haven’s Union Station until I found one who would take me there for $50. I’d scooted into the middle of the backseat and crossed my legs, yoga-style. The day’s sense of emergency had given me a thrill. As we pulled away, the warm air from the open window felt like summer.
So I chatted with my driver. I answered his questions about the conference I was going to, and he told me about the one-car taxi company he’d started himself after coming to America from the Dominican Republic. He asked how old I was. “Twenty-five?” he repeated, like a hundred other well-meaning cashiers and bartenders before him; being small and round-faced, I get this all the time. “I thought you were 14, 16, tops." He told me he had a daughter back home, for whom he worked long hours, especially now — this was June 2008 — when gas prices were so high.
Then he glanced at me in the rearview mirror and said, “You’re very beautiful.”
Like any other young woman, I’ve been the object of plenty of unsolicited flattery from strangers. Dubious compliments trail me when I walk busy sidewalks, or burst from car windows when I’m riding my bike: Girl, I wish I was that bicycle! I know I’m supposed to ignore them entirely, but with half an hour left in this guy’s company, I didn’t want to be rude. My driver was in his 50s, with the gruff face and soft body of a person who spends his days in the car. I wanted to think of him as my friend.
“Thank you,” I said.
“What’s your name?”
I admonished myself for the flicker of hesitation I felt in telling him: “Helen.”
“Helen,” he repeated. “Beautiful.”
We got on the highway.
“Helen, are you married?”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
I cringed. I knew I should lie, but I couldn’t; to say yes would be a mockery of the longing I still felt for a boyfriend I’d broken up with almost a year earlier. “No.”
“Why not?” he asked.
In the backseat, I considered the question. Maybe this stranger and I would have a conversation on the subject. I could tell him my story of breaking up with someone I still loved, and he could advise me from the perspective of an older, more experienced man. In a few months, when my romantic life was restored, I imagined, I’d be able to say I had figured it all out with the help of my taxi driver.
“Do you like men?” he added helpfully.
It was an almost-too-perfect out. But in appreciation of his progressiveness, I decided to answer honestly one more time. “Yes.”
Then he said something I didn’t expect: “I love you.”
I'd waited entire relationships for those words, but hearing them now from this man only reminded me of how rarely I’d heard them in earnest. Once, in college, I’d given my number to a guy who followed me on a bike for several blocks of my afternoon jog. You don’t need to be running, you look good already. I did it mostly so he’d stop watching me, but I decided not to give him a fake number — it didn’t seem right. How did I know he wouldn’t be interesting to talk to? And so, for a week, he called every evening. He asked about my day, and I asked about his. He didn’t have a job. According to him, he spent his time watching TV, smoking weed and talking about me. When was I coming over? His brothers all wanted to meet his girlfriend, he said, and I was halfway through asking how many brothers he had when I realized that his brothers were his friends, kind of like how his girlfriend was me. When, at the end of the week, I told him I didn’t think the relationship was going to work out, it was exactly like breakups I’d experienced before: He begged to know my reasons, promised to change, and uttered those three magic words, whose implausibility served only to confirm my decision.
“I love you, Helen,” the driver repeated. He glanced at me again in the rearview mirror, then, when I didn’t respond, turned and beseeched me over his shoulder: “I love you! I love you, Helen. I love you.”
His expression was teasing but hopeful, as if he truly expected me to answer, I love you too. So I said, in what I hoped was a conversation-ending, please-watch-the-road tone, “Thanks.”
He laughed. “Take a break with me.”
“Take a break with me. Let’s take a break together.”
That was all it took for my imagination to offer up a feast of clichéd nightmare scenarios. “Sorry, I’m already late,” I mumbled, while scolding myself, in a voice like my ex-boyfriend’s, to relax, he was just a friendly old guy. But in a fictional highway-side forest somewhere, my mouth was already taped up, my hands bound with rope, this man’s belt already unbuckled.
“Just half an hour,” he said. “Come on. Let’s take a break.”
“I love you, Helen. Please.”
“No,” I said. It didn't want to sound too defensive, but the word came out almost as if I actually regretted it.
“What’s half an hour? Ten minutes. Let’s take a break for just 10 minutes.”
Again he turned to look at me, and I turned to look out the window, at the banks of trees, the movie theaters and the malls. Did he have some hidden spot where he took young women all the time? I tried not to imagine him opening the taxi’s spare tire compartment to reveal weapons, or worse. Maybe, when he pulled off the highway, I could open the door and run. If I scooted from the middle seat to the window now, I wondered, would he recognize the action as preparation for escape? Would he feel provoked?
“I love you. Please.”
“Just 10 minutes.”
Would I struggle? Would I scream? Kick him in the groin? Dial 911? Or would he simply buy me a coffee, caress my face, and tell me how much he loved me?
“Let me be nice to you.”
“No, thanks.” Trying to be discreet, I eased toward the backseat door and rested my fingers on the handle. My grip was shaky, and I couldn’t help recalling scenes from "Eye for an Eye," the 1996 movie in which a delivery man rapes and kills a teenage girl, vividly seared into my memory since seeing it in a theater at 13. I wondered, for the first time, how that movie had affected my perception of men in the service industry. Maybe this taxi driver really did just want to buy me a coffee. Let’s take a break together, Helen. Please.
It’s strange — the first few times I told friends about this, I actually stopped here, lopping off what happened next entirely. Ugh, I would say, I had this creepy taxi experience. But that’s not the whole story; I’ve just never really understood the rest.
It felt like a miracle when the taxi exited in Middletown. Going slowly, pleading with me all the way, my driver steered us toward the building where I was supposed to check in. The gearshift went into park; the trunk got popped. I opened the door and stood, my heart pounding with relief. Finally, I was safe.
Outside, my driver handed me a business card. “This is my cellphone number,” he told me. “If you have free time this week, call.”
“OK,” I lied, grateful for the chance to part on friendly terms.
“Whenever you want,” he added. “It’s far, but I’ll come get you. At night, in the morning, we’ll take a break.”
I put the card in my pocket and pulled out my wallet. “How much do I owe you?”
“Helen …” he said mournfully, shaking his head. He leaned against the trunk of the car and crossed his arms.
With a frown and a little jut of his chin, he said, “You know what I want.”
The only thing that came to mind was no: “No.” Suddenly I was angry. “I don’t know.”
“You know what I really want.” Arms still crossed, he made sloppy kissing noises in my direction. Kiss, kiss, kiss. His lips were pink and gray from smoking; that morning he hadn’t shaved.
“What?” I asked.
“You know.” Again his lips smacked against each other.
And then I took a step forward, slung an arm around his shoulders ... and kissed him.
Even in the moment, I felt shocked; I had no idea why it was happening. I still don’t know. Maybe I did it out of relief; maybe out of pity or sympathy; maybe because, at last, I had the chance to take control of the day’s misadventure.
It didn’t go on for very long. My lips stayed closed — I pressed them firmly together when I felt the wetter parts of his mouth roaming mine. His hands were on my hips, pulling me toward him. My arms stayed around him in a hug. Soon he’d be driving off, maybe laughing at the stupid girl he’d persuaded to kiss him, maybe fantasizing about our upcoming rendezvous, who knew? In the backseat of his cab, I’d been hung up on the question of what he wanted, but maybe the real question was what I wanted: to be paid attention to or ignored, to be desired or just left alone.
When our kiss was over, he grinned at me. “Helen, Helen, Helen,” he murmured. I extricated myself and handed him some cash as he implored me, one last time, to call. But I was already on my way inside, already hurrying to a bathroom stall where I locked myself in privacy, half-laughing, and trembling with some mix of horror and glee.