Summer 2007 Volume One Issue Three

Passenger - David Taub

I can tell she used to be beautiful. I can always tell, even if Eric doesn't believe me. Her eyes are locked forward, staring off into the distance. I doubt she even notices me sitting next to her. Few of them do.

Eric hasn't even looked at her yet. He's driving straight ahead, doing his job as always. It was hard for him in the beginning, and for a while I didn't think he'd make it. But he adapted, coming to terms with the way things were -- something I've never been able to do myself. And I doubt I ever will.

A pretty red and yellow floral dress shows off the woman's figure, still slim despite her age. The passengers always look so nice. Her long white hair is gathered in a thick braid draped loosely over her left shoulder. The style fits her thin, sharp face where the lines of age have made her look wiser instead of weaker. A hard, yet well-lived life.

She blinks and looks confused. As if trying to remember something important, something she can't quite get a hold of.

"Good evening," she says, turning to face me. "I didn't see you there."

I nod and smile.

"It's nice to have a little company." She tries to roll down the window, but can't find the handle. "Is it a bit warm in here?"

"It won't open," I say. "Personally, I think it's too cold."

I notice Eric sneaking a peak in the rearview mirror, but it's too dark to read his expression. At least he's listening, that's always something.

The woman stares straight ahead again, trying to see the road through the windshield. I watch the concern ripple across her face as she tries to understand what's wrong with the way the headlights reflect off the darkness. Unable to put her finger on it, she gives up and drifts back into her dreams.

It hurts when Eric loses interest again. Though he tries to shield his feelings, I can see enough. Part of him still fights, still wants to be with me as much as I want to be with him. But it's too hard for him. Adjusting to this place cost too much. We can't have both here. We have to choose between lack of compassion and madness.

The woman is holding a picture in her right hand, something I should have noticed earlier. Her whole body curves around it, protecting it, shielding it from me. I stretch and twist until I finally see the face of a beautiful young woman with long, red hair, also in a braid.

"Were you married?" I ask. It's a stupid but necessary question. I have to start somewhere, even if the gold ring on her finger gives me my answer. It's important to not sound threatening, just curious. Besides, rings never tell the whole truth.

The woman looks around and opens her mouth to say something, then closes it again, wrinkling her forehead. I can tell she doesn't want to be here. Her thoughts are with the woman in the picture.

"What did you say?" she finally asks.

"I was curious to know if you were married." It feels wrong now. I should have started with something else, something less personal. I've been thinking about marriage a lot recently -- a difficult topic to avoid when so many passengers are married. I often wish I could talk to Eric about it, but it's hopeless, he won't listen to me. He thinks it's all a bunch of crap. Of course it's too late for us, even if he were willing.

I wish I could find a way to reach him. Everything would be more bearable if we could get back some of our old selves. If we could touch each other now and then.

The woman looks at me and for the first time actively tries to see me. And she does. "Who are you?" Her voice quavers with an edge of fear and uncertainty.

Eric's paying attention again, now that it's more interesting. "A passenger, just like you," I lie. But it's what she wants to hear -- something familiar and easy to understand. She turns away.

"I was married once," she says, gazing back through the years. "He was kind and considerate. Good looking too. All my friends were jealous. But he died many years ago."

But you didn't love each other, not really. She doesn't say that part, nor does she need to. It's a work-related injury -- knowing everything about love. I understand the situation immediately without another word from her. He lived up to everyone's expectations -- society's, their parents', their neighbors', but not to hers. She grew up on fairy tales and happy endings, and got her prince in the end, but the great storybook love didn't follow.

I see Eric waiting for the rest of the story, his blank expression reflected in the rearview mirror. He thinks the man is important. He always thinks the man is important. Sometimes he's so dense I don't know why I want to be closer to him. Maybe it's not real. Maybe I only want him because there's no one else. Maybe. In the end, I'm not sure the truth matters.

I can't handle thinking about it too much; I'm tired of going round and round in circles and never getting anywhere. I know I want him and that's enough. That's what I'm good at, knowing without thinking. And Eric . . . well, he's good at doing what needs to be done.

"That's a beautiful picture," I say.

The woman looks confused again, her eyes shifting around nervously as she tries to understand what I said.

"She's beautiful." I point at the picture this time. It doesn't help, and I realize that this is going to be harder than usual. She doesn't understand what happened yet. I want to grab the picture, show her what it means. I want to scream the truth at her, but I can't.

"The girl with the long red hair and blue dress, what's her name?"

The woman blinks and smiles. "Sara. Her name is Sara."

Now we're getting somewhere. Pictures are fairly common, though it's usually the younger passengers that hold them so tightly. The older ones tend to have several pictures, often slightly blurred, but none so important. And they usually understand the situation. This woman doesn't fit the pattern, which makes me happy and sad at the same time. This is my job, what I'm good at. But to do my job I need empathy, I have to touch their feelings, and this woman is feeling a lot of pain and grief.

I take a chance, letting my intuition guide me. "You must have been very close?"

"Yes, we are. She's been my best friend for more than fifty years."

I nod, but the woman doesn't see me anymore. Her focus is on Sara. "She must have been a very special woman," I try again. The woman turns back to me.

"That she is. She's quite extraordinary." The woman's voice has grown sharper without her noticing. She doesn't understand why she's angry.

"You were lucky to have a friend like her."

The woman's eyebrows draw together while her body stiffens. Maybe I pushed too hard, but I can't help noticing Eric's curious eyes in the mirror. I'm no longer sure if I'm doing this for myself, for the woman, or to impress him.

"She's my friend," the woman says. "We're going to . . . we're . . . " She looks at the picture again, disoriented. "We're going to eat . . . we had . . . we planned on . . . we were going to . . . " With her hand over her mouth, she stares at the picture, trying to find answers. She's starting to understand now. I can see the panic edging its way in. It starts at the base of the spine, spreading out to the finger tips, and then grabs hold of the brain like a giant, ice cold claw.

"Can't we open a window?" she asks again, almost begging. Her breaths grow shorter and closer together, her eyes wide open. The picture finally starts to fade.

"Very few people get to experience such a deep love," I say. Her anxiety pains me. I want to take her hand and cry with her, but I can't.

"Love?" The word invokes a confusion which slows the rushing panic. "With my husband? Sure I loved him, but . . . " She can't continue.

"Not your husband. With Sara. You loved each other very much."

Worry stretches over the woman's face, a consequence of society's expectations, of a secret too frightening to tell, but too strong to abandon.

"Sara was my friend," she says, but her voice rings with doubt. "Sara was . . . "

And then it comes. Understanding. And sorrow. Deep, deep, sorrow. The picture is gone.

Her whole body shakes with the release of tears and emotion, but it's grief without anxiety now. I've done my job. Eric turns around and looks directly at me, and the hint of a smile on his lips warms me to my bones.

He waits patiently for the woman to stop crying before speaking to her. "We've arrived."

She peers out the window and looks afraid. "Isn't it a bit dark here?"

"It's okay," Eric says, flashing her a smile. "Someone will be along to show you the way."

"But I don't have any money. How can I pay you?"

"The ride is free, but take this for your guide," I say and place a copper coin in her palm.

"You did a good job," Eric says after the woman leaves.

I shrug my shoulders and look away. Without another word, he turns around to pick up the next passenger. But he knows. He doesn't need to see the smile on my face to know how I feel, and the fact that he knows only makes me happier. And right then, at that moment, it feels like I could do this forever.

- END -

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