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For What It's Worth

Before he could shut it M. drew her coat tail out from under the car door. She caressed the pockets for the coat looked to her in need of comforting from the crisis potential of becoming damaged goods. The coat had no mind of its own but M., of course, gave it one. Against the battered and bruised seats of the taxi the coat needed the safety of its moral fiber. It needed to feel renewed in the face of decay. Its stitching, its patches, its elbow-pads, it needed to keep its threadwork together at all times.

‘Where to, miss?’ the cab driver asked.

M. didn’t hear him. She was looking for a seatbelt.

‘I asked where to, miss?’ he said, turning to look at her over his outstretched arm. He had a runny nose that matched his wet face. He wore a light brown corduroy beret that M., finally looking up, was certain would have a light brown smell, like potatoes and paper bags and autumnal branches and warm chocolate ice creams, and all the things that reminded her of the color brown.

‘Just start the meter,’ M. said, needling her back into the pleather seats. She unknotted her scarf and pulled a book out from her purse. She was reading Dostoyevsky, and it was too cold then to read in the park. That winter M. wanted desperately to be an existentialist. She drank copious amounts of orange juice after smoking copious amounts of marijuana, but often, just before her high would abate, she’d forget all that she read and entertain faint visions of the past instead, anything really that had not just come to pass. Yesterday M. remembered the stoics, whom she was reading up on last year, who taught her that the way nature intended it, truth, like all things, was meant to be eloquent. No? Then they taught her she could decide when she’d had quite enough of this life. In the end every book she read was about the same thing, the art of telling stories back to herself. 

~

He gave her his copy of Notes from Underground just before he’d left her in May. M. hadn’t expected it. When he held it out to her she took his hand in hers and planned how they would read it together in bed and the set temperature of the air conditioner and how he’d ask if he could turn it up just a little and how she’d shake her head gently so that her hair would fall over her face at just the right angles and how she’d kiss him and how he’d say, ‘Okay.’ He never got up to the fiddle with the thermostat while she was in the bathroom and slept at night with a serene smile on his face. M. thought he was happy. Was M. happy?

He called the book a parting gift. It was without an inscription. M. didn’t look at it for days at first, allowing the dog to use it as a pillow or tossing whatever was in her hands at the sight of it, her keys, bag, blanket or coat. Not once did she cry in front of it. It wasn’t a book of poetry, after all. But some time in September a friend reminded M. she was a hopeful sort of girl, the kind to string librettos out of cloud shapes. M. felt good remembering herself like that. So she searched everywhere for the book and found it underneath school papers she was grading. She felt, instinctively, she’d set herself up. She panicked and hid it from herself by throwing the book into a dark room.

In December M. had not heard from him in five months. She gathered the book, this time from behind some shopping bags, and began to read it hoping it contained a secret message from him. He was excellent at puzzles and often made things difficult for M. to understand. The more effort M. put into solving them the greater their love seemed to her. It will take a brilliant woman to love a brilliant man, she told herself. Because she could not climb inside his head, not even when he was around, M. settled for the margins where she hoped to catch a stray thought or two scribbled in his handwriting and any last vestiges of his touch. M. believed everything he had to say about the world, even when he said little, which he always did. He was so good at it, she thought, he’d somehow made Dostoyevsky up too, like a magician, but without a trap door. 

After swallowing sixty pages whole, M. asked the cab driver to stop. By then he realized M. had nowhere to go and since she looked like she could afford all the cab rides in the world it didn’t cross his mind to get rid of her. What made a successful passenger, after all? The journey, he thought, and he looked at her again through the rearview mirror.

‘We’ve stopped, miss,’ he said.

M. looked up, her lips hidden by the edges of the book. It masked her. ‘Why have we stopped?’ she said.

‘Because you told me to right now. You asked me to stop,’ he said, pointing out the window at what expanded in view to be a hospital. It was steely grey and looked like it had damp walls. All hospitals look like they have damp walls, they both thought, though neither one of them shared the thought aloud.

‘I’ve changed my mind. Just keep on driving,’ she said.

‘Okay, miss,’ he said, and he kept on driving.

The hospital was a fluke stop. He wasn’t there. God knows where he was. Around sixty pages in M. had only had the sudden desire to stop reading altogether and it was the ‘stop’ she’d exclaimed to herself that the cab driver overheard. M. had also caught herself thinking how much calmer she’d feel if he was dead, or dying, a paralysis of distance that needed neither reconciliation or explanation, unlike the perturbing silence of his live absence, which lit like fire all her thoughts.

~

Why did he leave her? M. couldn’t say for sure but she guessed her long sentences were the cause. She was excellent at saying how she felt about things, especially the things she feared. She was afraid to heat things up in a microwave in case the whole appliance popped like a kernel, she was easily startled by scarves and such slipping down her naked shoulder, she was anxious how to use her legs around the physically challenged, but most of all she was scared that he would leave her because time would just take him away. She told him so every night. M. could talk about anything, from shadows to wallpaper and how, essentially, when thought about the right way wallpapers were only wall shadows. He laughed whenever she said such things, a gleaning twinkle in his eye like he could see, and was taking in, all of her. M. found his touch irresistible and invariably asked him for a hug afterwards. He’d indulge her because her ways were gentle and her face so child-like but if given a chance he preferred not to touch her because she was so soft, so irresistible herself, his own skin could chance to melt. He loved the idea of her presence but feared his own absence. He never told her any of this.

When M. was around hundred pages in, the cab driver asked her a question.

‘You reading?’

‘Yeah, why? Is it weird to read or something?’ she said, not looking up from the book. She lost her place, however, and had to start the paragraph again.

‘No. There’s nothing wrong with it. I like to read. Why are you reading in here, in my taxi?’ he asked.

‘You’re just worried we aren’t going anywhere,’ she said.

He thought about it. ‘Maybe,’ he admitted.

‘Because taxis are for picking you up from one place and dropping you to another. From here to there,’ she said, like he needed an illustration.

He nodded. She noticed the poor shave at the back of his neck.

‘And then cars are for driving. Just driving. From here to there, or on and on. So you’ve got to decide, are we in a taxi or are we in a car? Aren’t you a driver, regardless?’

He thought about it again. ‘I’m a service provider,’ he said.

‘Well, then, even better. Please provide me the service of driving me around until I ask you to stop,’ she said.

He nodded again. She could make out that he was smiling. 

‘I can do that,’ he said. ‘But can you tell me what’s in there that’s so important? I got to know.’

M. considered why Dostoyevsky was Dostoyevsky but try all she did, she couldn’t recall what kind of writer he was or any of his major achievements. She didn’t even know where Notes from Underground fell in his oeuvre. All such information was blackened out of her mind. She could only remember how his fingers skirted against hers when he gave it to her, the soft swelling of his lips when he said goodbye. If Notes from Underground could simply explain what it was about and why she was reading it, she would have understood what the book was trying to say, what he was trying to say when he gave it to her. She was embarrassed to tell the cab driver, however, that all that could have been understood was not.

‘Because it was important to someone,’ she said finally. An answer, at last, and true at least.

‘Was or is?’ he persisted. He seemed to have surprised himself. The traffic cleared, the car in front of them making a sharp right into a narrow alley. He sped up on instinct, but on realizing he was, in fact, driving around aimlessly for over two-and-a-half hours now with a sweet and strange but in fact sad girl, slowed down again as if to lull her with an imaginary pat on the back.

‘I don’t know,’ she said, again truthfully, relieved at the appearance of a nugget of a thought, which unlike long sentences didn’t give everything away. 

He told her when they met he liked her so much more than other girls. Other girls, he said, were far too conscious about what they liked or didn’t like. Everything had to define them in some way, but M. could wake up, spend the whole day skating or grocery shopping or playing mahjong with old women and go back to sleep still uncertain of who she was. ‘I don’t know if I’m the sort of person who even likes the elderly,’ she said once, and weeks later returned from a writing class yammering on about her new eighty-year-old friend. He loved that she chased definition harboring no hope of finding it, like she stumbled into being who she was. It made her fluid, he said. Soft, he said. Supple, he said. Like butter, he said, and one would be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t like butter. Slippery, he said. Difficult to grasp, he said. Ungraspable, he said. Untrustworthy, he said. M. didn’t know if she was the sort of person who even liked language and the way it supported free association.

She was the only one he could return to after a long day of surgery, but when he did he invariably felt like he forgot something. Had he put the heart back in, sealed the stitches too tight? Around her he was distracted. She made him think of life in terms of possibilities but because she wasn’t very practical, when it came down to it, to actually living, the girl would just not stop dreaming.

~

It was about to rain. Thunder possessed M. and the skies equally and she felt a pressing need to be indoors except she was a long way from home. She stopped reading. She tried to remember how her front door looked. Was it red, or green, or brown? Did it have a handle or a knob? Soon it would be dinner time and she would know. After, she would eat a bowl of lentil soup in front of the mirror, look into her own eyes and say, ‘You’d better start looking for love elsewhere.’

With her finger thumbing down her last-read page, she cradled the book closed on her lap. She watched the cab driver’s head bobble every now and again as they hurried down an unmade road. Loose gravel caught in the tires and launched against the windows. They sounded different than the rocks near home, which were still and silent as a forgotten pond. M. was a long, long way from everywhere. At dusk distances seemed greater. Beginnings and endings blackened out, like memories, stretching infinitely, belonging to anywhere. Darkness was often undecipherable, precisely its comfort. It defied its own logic, played its own games. Anything could be anything in the darkness. Even M., a shape-shifter by day, could not argue with how much freer the nights were, after she went to sleep, of course.    

‘I have to be honest,’ she said to the cab driver. ‘I can’t tell you what the book is about. I haven’t really been reading.’

‘Then what were you doing back there?’ he asked.

‘Thinking. Just thinking,’ she said, cupping her forehead to comb back some stray hairs.

‘And here I thought you could tell me how it ends,’ he said.

‘It does end. I can tell you that. Maybe that’s just what we’re supposed to know, that things start and they end,’ she said.

He looked weary from driving around all day but he turned around and smiled kindly, then pressed down on the brake bringing the taxi to a graceful halt.

‘Is here okay, miss?’ he asked, generally gesturing to an ambiguous outside swept up in buildings and people. M. pictured herself ambling through the night-time crowd, tiresome and loitering, lacking the vigor of morning promise. But everybody had somebody and it was the only way to be anybody. To be alone was to be missing a part of yourself, perhaps vestigial, not vital, of course, but still a part of the self, which are things to be missed when they’re no longer there.

‘Not here, no,’ she said. ‘It’s better we make our way back to where you picked me up from.

M. had to keep on moving, even though the meter had rung up a couple of hundreds, even though she was not good for it.