She wanted to talk about morals. About story endings. She said cycles were meant to be broken, that you can’t finish something where you began it. She had apparently never looked out a window.
I met Valerie on a wet and dreary morning when the damned C-line wouldn’t arrive and the tire of her 1997 Toyota Camry sprayed water up to my shins when she pulled up too closely to the curb. It was a red light.
Valerie looked at me, my faded blue jeans damp. She held up her index and middle fingers, a small space between them, and began wagging her tongue in their center, up and down, up and down.
Fuck you, I mouthed to her. This just made her move her tongue more rapidly, more deliberately.
I am not the type of person to assault a stranger. In fact, I often go out of my way to avoid upsetting anybody, in whatever way that might mean. When I traverse crosswalks, I wait for the traffic to finish before taking my first step onto the painted gravel. At movie theaters, I don’t chew my popcorn once the trailers have finished and the film has begun. I suck it.
But this day, the day I met Valerie on a cold and drizzly morning in Brookline, I did something that broke character with who I was, with who I had always tried so hard to be. I reached into my purse, pulled out a mandarin orange, the kind you buy in netted bags with faces and halos, and threw it at her window. It hit the glass with a thud and landed in the puddle beneath her tire.
Valerie opened her window. She did it slowly, because her car didn’t have automatic windows, and she looked like an idiot cranking the glass down, her shoulder jutting up and back like an old woman with a tick.
Get in, she yelled out to me, and because the rain was falling and my pantlegs were wet and the C-line was never going to come, I did. But instead of walking around and getting inside the passenger door, I walked up to the backseat and pulled on the handle. Valerie’s locks were manual, and she had to reach around and unlock the door behind her with greasy fingers, which I would learn later was a result of her need to constantly eat old fashioned donuts while she drove around town.
The backseat of Valerie’s car smelt like extra ripe bananas. This made it less surprising when I picked up the blanket that lay next to me in the middle seat and saw a pair of browning fruit beneath it.
Valerie, like Mallory, but with a V., she introduced herself to me.
I told Valerie, like Mallory, that she had a bunch of rotten bananas in her back seat.
Oh, that’s what stinks, she said, looking at me through the rearview mirror. Throw them out the window.
The light turned green, Valerie accelerated. She cruised through intersections and didn’t come to a complete stop at two of the three stop signs we passed through.
I told Valerie that I wasn’t going to litter. That I was, in fact, a volunteer in the parks and rec department of Brookline, and that by throwing garbage out of a car window, I would be going against my vows.
Your wedding vows? She asked me, making a right turn onto a busy street filled with shoppers. I had lived in the area for the past six months. The bookstore on Harvard Ave. was always filled with old people who only read friends of friends and young people who read everything else.
No, my volunteer vows. I said. For the parks and rec department.
It’s not litter. It’s biodegradable, Valerie replied.
She had a point.
And besides, she added, I’ve seen you throw fruit before.
I picked up the rotten bananas and carefully moved them over one more seat so that they were further away from me. The stem of one of them ripped while I did this. I put the blanket back on top of them.
Valerie drove in silence for another three blocks. I looked at the man who always sold local newspapers on the corner. He had never asked me to buy one. I had never wanted to.
Valerie drove without caution. At yellow lights she sped to dissect intersections. Around corners, her tires squealed. Once, she almost hit a dog that was trailing behind its owner at a pedestrian crosswalk.
I thought about the likelihood of this being how I died. A woman, named Valerie, who explains her name as rhyming with Mallory, taking me to a wooded area and hacking me apart, limb by limb, then keeping me in her Camry’s backseat like those rotten bananas. Maybe in a suitcase, but maybe just under a blanket.
Still, I stayed seated in her car. When she did get caught at a red light, I didn’t budge. In the rearview I watched as her eyes scanned the intersections, locked onto individuals, mostly women, and released.
Do you normally pick up strangers and drive them around silently? I asked Valerie, breaking her stare at a blonde woman whose roots were so outgrown she looked like a skunk.
What do you want to talk about? She asked and looked back at me through the mirror.
I looked at her hair, brown and frizzy, sticking out in pieces around the headrest. There were a few grays, really only three or four, and I wanted badly to reach for them and pluck them, one at a time.
Where do you work? I asked my chauffeur.
There, she said, nodding out the window. We idled outside a grocery store, with bright red lettering and a color scheme that reminded me of Christmas. It was where I bought my coffee, and sometimes, my wine.
You work at Trader Joe’s? I asked her, and she grunted. I asked her if she could get me a discount.
On what? she wanted to know.
No, no alcohol.
I knew this wasn’t true. My sister worked at Trader Joe’s in California, and I knew employees got ten percent off everything.
How about bananas? I asked her.
Yes, she said. Fifty percent off bananas.
She thought for a moment, then shook her head no, her brown hair rubbing against the headrest and creating a light snowing of dandruff onto my shoes.
No, grapefruit is full price.
She drove us away from the grocery story, and into the wealthy suburbs of the neighborhood. We drove past the home JFK grew up in. It looked like all the others.
Are you on edge? I asked Valerie.
Of course, she said back, then looked into the mirror. Aren’t you?⅋