Ann K. Ryles



You have never ridden in a car with Amanda. But tonight she offers you a ride and you accept. You’ve been waiting for her to offer something more, waiting to accept whatever it might be. You walk together along First Street, just south of Market, in the financial district, at this hour empty, purposeless and shutdown. Earlier it rained, a drenching, heavy rain. Now the sky is fresh and clean and the pavement glistens in wet mirror spots. The streetlights are ringed with fuzzy rainbow halos and the air hitting your face feels suffused with softness and balm. A night like this, you think, a night like this.

Amanda turns her head sideways to glance at you. “Julio,” she asks, stopping as if something forgotten has occurred to her, “do you want to drive?” She stretches her open hand in your direction. The key in her palm is a slip of black plastic. You push her hand away gently and shake your head no. You won’t drive her car.

She turns from the sidewalk into a pay parking lot, walking past a metal box cut with rows of slits for inserting dollar bills. A sign on top reads, “Do Not Give Money To Persons Impersonating Attendants. They Are Pretenders. Call 911.” She leads you beyond the pay box towards a lone car in the corner.

The car is silver and bright in the dark. A metal circle cut in three triangles stands upright on the hood. When you see the car, you feel a plunging inside, something familiar and unsurprising, but still painful. “Un Merchedes,” you hear yourself say in your head, in the same way you and your sister Loly always do when you see one of these cars. Mer-chay-dees. It’s a joke you have with Loly, one of them anyway.

Loly is your younger sister, by five years. You and Loly have an aunt named Mercedes but you call her Menche. Menche’s days are punctuated by Meals-On-Wheels deliveries and weekly visits from her priest, Loly and you. Other than these visits, Menche spends her time watching telenovelas and praying for her only son Juan Carlos who is addicted to crystal meth. Amanda glances at you apologetically as you approach the car and shakes her head. “I didn’t want it,” she says, seeming embarrassed of the Mercedes, how nice it is. “He got it for me.”

This is a stupid thing to say. She is breaking the rules. You don’t want to know that her husband got her this car or anything else about him. You don’t know his name. If he’s never talked about, if he doesn’t have a name, then it can seem like he doesn’t exist, not between you. Amanda never mentions him. She knows not to. But she is nervous. You are both nervous.

A few feet from the Mercedes, Amanda presses a button on the black key to unlock the car. The interior lights up. You see a child’s car seat anchored in the center of the back seat, its fabric decorated with turtles. You knew she had a child, a son who inhabits the same constellation as the husband who cannot exist between you. But you’d thought her son was older. It doesn’t stop you to learn he is small enough to need a car seat. You get in the car anyway.

After she turns the ignition, lights appear on screens and dials displaying speed and mileage and time and temperature and the track of the CD that plays softly. The dashboard lights are multi-colored--orange and red and white and green and blue. On the ceiling of the car, between the sun visors, a circular amber light glows continuously like a tiny toy spaceship. You imagine her son, strapped in his car seat, pointing this out to his mother. And then you think Amanda would talk to him about astronauts. That would be like her. If you’re lucky, one day you could be one. You could become an astronaut and fly in space. Really. You could. You can hear just how her voice would sound.

* * *

In a few minutes, you are out of the city and on the Bay Bridge. You rarely cross the bridge; you can’t ever recall having driven across it at night. You don’t own a car, so when you visit your aunt Menche you take BART to the Fruitvale Station, traveling under the water beneath the bridge in the transbay tube.

Before you go to Menche’s each week, you buy her a lottery ticket with the same number every time, a combination based on Juan Carlos’s birth date. It’s lucky for me, Menche says of her son’s birthday. Along with the lottery ticket, you buy Menche a pink metal can full of chocolate-covered almond toffee. She can’t bite the toffee anymore; her teeth are a mess. But she likes to suck on it. It lasts longer that way, she tells you.

Sometimes at work you look at the view of the bridge you are crossing right now with Amanda. You work from three p.m. to midnight at a law firm as a night shift word processor. During your dinner break, to clear your head, you go into the main conference room on the thirty-second floor. You stand next to the sheet glass windows and watch the red and white lights of cars streaking across the bridge. You leave the fluorescent ceiling lights off. That way, if someone is working late, passing through the glass halls, you won’t be noticed inside in the dark. And no light means no reflection. You can see straight through and let your thoughts go with the cars, the motion of their lights.

When you’re back doing your job, you sit in a padded cubicle and type words exactly the way the lawyers want them, long strings of letters one after the other. You’re good at your job and the law firm pays you well because you don’t make mistakes. You hardly ever make mistakes. You like working alone, in the quiet at night. In the empty offices near your cubicle, phones ring in electronic, whirring tones. Otherwise, it’s mostly silent.

For the past few years, the law firm has been defending the Catholic Church against claims of pedophilia. Pedophiles do it to children. That’s what it means to be a pedophile. A pedophile does it to a child. You’ve been assigned to the case. The alleged sexual abuse, the lawyers tell you to type, and you do, hundreds of times. Their words are written on lined yellow paper or spoken on little Dictaphone tapes that you listen to through fat foamy headphones.

The people bringing the lawsuits are men who were hurt when they were boys. You know. You remember. I was a boy. He was a man. You say that to yourself so much. You say it when you are in the conference room alone in the dark looking at the lights on the bridge. I was a boy. He was a man. Not out loud, but in your mind. The priest was probably about the age you are now, maybe exactly your age. Twenty-six. You don’t know where he is anymore, a man fifteen years older.

It might have happened to Juan Carlos, too. You saw it. His hands on Juan Carlos, squeezing his shoulders, fingers circling the back of his neck, touching and rubbing. “You are very holy.” That’s what he said to you. Hear it? “You are very holy.” You wonder whether Juan Carlos heard it also, whether he knew about the hot room, the damp clothes, and the sour smell no boy should know. Maybe that’s why he does meth. That’s his way. Everybody needs a way.

Your mother wanted to know. No. You didn’t let her find out. None of it.

I can teach you. So you’ll know how. His mouth moving up and down like this like this like this, the white line of his part dividing the brown hair on his scalp as if it were the slenderest snake. You looking at three God’s eyes tacked on the wall, their yarn twisting around crossed twigs in woven diamond shapes. Staring at the patterned yarn until your own eyes close for the star explosion of everything when you disappear from where you are. Then his turn. Don’t be afraid. I’ll show you. His hand wrapping around your hand and moving together in strokes, pulling up and down until he moans lightly and his flesh pulses in your hand like a fading heart. After, washing your hands together in the sink with soap molded in the form of small white roses but smelling clean and sharp like carnations. Him taking a tube of toothpaste from the mirrored cabinet and wiping a small squeeze of mint over his teeth with his fingertip. And more the next time. Now with your mouth. We’re giving to each other. A drop of his sweat falling onto your face and dripping down your cheek like a tear, your mouth and throat straining to open beyond gagging, your eyes watering. It hurts at first but then it feels good. Open yourself to me. Later, hiding your blood-spotted underwear under your mattress and throwing it away the next day in a brown paper bag in a city trash can ten blocks from your house. And each time at the end, a kiss on top of your forehead, as gentle as a bath. You are very holy.

“What is it?” your mother asked you. “¿Qué pasó?” Always nothing, you said. She would put her hands on both sides of your face and stroke your eyebrows smooth with her thumbs and look into your eyes. Her fingers were hard and calloused, dry. Her hands were warm. Her thumbs would pass over your eyes again and again, like windshield wipers. Her eyes saw it inside you without knowing what it was.

* * *

Tonight in the car with Amanda, you squint at the red taillights of the cars moving ahead of you on the bridge to make them blur. Except for a few big drifting clouds, the sky is smooth and black with a bright, round moon. Clouds float across the face of the moon randomly. When the moon comes out again from behind a cloud, full and glowing white, it is a surprise. A hide-and-seek moon is helpful in forgetting.

Behind you, the city is passing away. Office buildings move to the background, windows in stacks and rows, boxes of light, white or yellow. If someone looked out from the conference room right now, they could see you crossing the bridge. The lights of Amanda’s car would be red, ones leaving the city, a going away car.

* * *

You met Amanda a month ago at the baptismal party Loly threw for her first baby, her daughter Paula. “Mrs. Amanda is coming,” Loly told you. “She’s the only one of them I invited.” Loly cleans houses in the Oakland hills and Amanda is her Wednesday job. Loly says the views of the bay from Amanda’s house are like postcards, you can’t believe your eyes. She cleans the house, which has four bathrooms, every Wednesday, even if the house and its four bathrooms are not at all dirty, which is usually the case, so Loly tells you. Amanda wore a white dress and pink shoes to the bautizo party. She was short and slight and very tan. Looking at Amanda, the first and only thought you had was, She’s rich.

When she arrived, you were standing in Loly’s living room, drinking a beer, leaning against the wall. You were wondering if Juan Carlos would show and thinking of the excuse you’d give Menche if he didn’t. Menche sat shrunken and gray in a corner of Loly’s couch. Amanda sat down next to Menche and started to talk to her, in Spanish, you knew it had to be, because that’s all Menche understands. You inched closer along the wall to hear what she was saying.

You saw Menche’s dark, purple-veined hand reach for Amanda’s. Amanda took Menche’s hand in her own and stroked it. She asked Menche if she had children. Menche told her about her only child, her son Juan Carlos, and how he was a trained BMW mechanic. “Do you drive a BMW?” Menche asked Amanda hopefully. Amanda said No, she didn’t. But Menche still insisted on giving Amanda the card for the garage where Juan Carlos worked.

You could see Menche and Amanda reflected in a mirror across from Loly’s couch. So you didn’t have to look right at Amanda. You looked in the mirror and listened, drinking your beer, taking her all in.

Menche admired Amanda’s pink shoes. Pointing at her own feet, Menche told Amanda that she had worn slippers to Paula’s bautizo; her feet had been too swollen to fit in any of her shoes.

“You wear mine,” Amanda said, glancing down at Menche’s puffy feet in their blue vinyl slippers. Amanda kicked her shoes off and bent down to remove the slippers, replacing them with her pink sandals. Amanda’s dress didn’t have a back and as she bent over Menche’s feet her shoulder blades moved at sharp angles, thin and small, like you could break them. Her spine made a bumpy ridge down the middle of her back.

Even swollen, Menche’s feet were tiny; Amanda’s sandals were loose and long on her feet. Looking at her feet in the pink shoes, Menche laughed in a way you hadn’t heard her laugh since the days when her teeth had been strong enough to bite toffee and Juan Carlos hadn’t yet snorted speed. Loly poked her head in from the kitchen to look at Menche laughing and raised her eyebrows in surprise.

Later, in Loly’s tiny backyard you talked to Amanda. She stood barefoot holding Paula who was wrapped in a christening blanket. Pink balloons tied to the chain-link fence bobbed behind her, an audience of nodding heads. The hair on Amanda’s arms was standing up and you could see the outline of her nipples pressing against the front of her dress. Her eyes and hair were light brown, flecked and streaked with gold, like metallic glints or veins in polished stone.

“What do you do?” you asked Amanda as she cradled the baby in her arms. You asked her this question without really meaning to. It was a question women asked you in bars. Usually, when they found out you were a word processor, these women left you alone.

“I don’t do much,” Amanda said. “I’ve got a good gig. How about you?”

“I don’t have a gig,” you said. You weren’t making a joke but she laughed. Then you both laughed about gigs, her having one and you not.

“You could have a gig if you wanted to,” she said. “I know you could.”

* * *

Tonight in the Mercedes you don’t make conversation. Instead, lyrics take the place of the words you cannot say to Amanda but would like to, if only you could think of the words instead of just feeling for her what you do. The music is rock, popular songs you hear on the radio, groups and singers you recognize. She turns up the music by pressing a button implanted in the steering wheel. Your leg leans against the car door and it vibrates from the speaker set inside it. Your ears buzz from the loudness of the music.

She smiles at you when the lyrics say something she wants you to hear. Something about forbidden lust or love or sex. What a man or woman wants but shouldn’t have. She seems to want you to appreciate the words of the songs. She pushes buttons to select discs and tracks; she knows the ones she wants you to listen to. She has lots of CDs with songs about what is wrong.

When Amanda pushes one of the stereo buttons, music written for a child fills the car. It is a song about fish swimming in the sea, singsong and overly cheerful. The fish song startles Amanda and she quickly presses the power button, turning the music off. The stereo screen in the center of the dashboard loses its light and goes black. Your ears feel empty in the sudden silence of the car. A few seconds later, she turns the stereo power back on and pushes buttons quickly. You hear the fish song for a moment and then Amanda’s music again. This time it is Springsteen. “Prove it all night,” he sings over and over again. Amanda doesn’t look at you for a few minutes. You are afraid she is changing her mind.

But soon she smiles at you again. She is back. You smile at her whenever she smiles at you in the dark car with its glowing interior lights. “Do you like this one?” she says to you in a loud voice, so you can hear her over the music. You nod.

It is hard to talk about what you are doing. It is easy to listen to songs about it. It is the easiest thing you will do. Listen. Or squint at the lights. Lean back in your seat and feel the speed of the car as Amanda accelerates changing lanes. Concentrate on the throbbing of the speaker vibrating against the calf of your leg.

The only thing you have for her really, are feelings. You want to tell her how you feel about her. And other things. You want to tell her you plan ways to be gone. Cutting is one way. You would cut yourself and bleed until you were nothing. This is your most common plan, but you have others too.

Some days you take MUNI to the Golden Gate and walk across that bridge, planning. Now and then tourists stop you and ask you to take their pictures. The ones you can’t understand push their cameras at you and point and talk in whatever language is their own. As you press the buttons on their cameras, they stand smiling at you with the city behind them, beyond the orange lines of the bridge. You look through the camera lens and think about going over the rail and into the water, disappearing into the background of the picture. That would be a fast way. A for sure way.

Sometimes you think maybe you could tell Amanda everything. All of it. The only one to know. That Amanda would not be afraid. You’d tell her that you were a boy and he was a man. And about being told you were holy. That you have never known what that meant. To have that done to you and be called holy. Amanda might be strong enough to know what it really is and still hold it. But you can’t risk it. You would have to be sure. You need her eyes and what they hold now.

* * *

The first time she called you, Amanda asked you to meet her at a Japanese restaurant for lunch. And then every time after, every other time she called, she asked you to meet her there again, at the same place.

The entire restaurant is divided into small rooms by white rice paper screens. Inside each room, there is a low wooden table surrounded by flat pillows and straw mats. Before you enter a room, you take off your shoes and leave them by the sliding rice paper doors. You sit on a pillow and stretch your legs across the sunken space in the floor underneath the table. Amanda sits on the other side of the table, her shoes off too. Sometimes your feet touch accidentally beneath the table and you both smile and laugh and draw your feet back quickly. As soon as you are seated, a waitress in a kimono brings you tea in a clear glass teapot. You watch the water inside the pot turn dark while the tea steeps and you talk with Amanda.

When you are with her at the restaurant, Amanda tells you about the parts of her life that are only her. It’s strange to know a person like that, apart from the people and things that make up her real everyday life. She talks about music and movies and books. Once she brought you a small, thin cloth-covered book of poems in Spanish by Lorca that you’d never heard of before. Romancero Gitano it said on the cover in flaking gold letters. To have it be new to you made her happy. “Then I’m initiating you,” she said smiling. “And you’ll remember me,” she said, “for these poems.”

Other times she tells you stories from when she was a little girl and lived in Mexico, in a small city where her father’s company drilled oil wells. She was sent to a school where she couldn’t understand anyone; the teachers and children spoke only Spanish and scarcely a word of English. She tells you how much she wanted to understand the other children, to know what they were saying, and to talk to them and have them understand her. She taught herself, she tells you, by listening. “That’s all you have to do,” she said, “Listen. And you’ll start to understand.” Then she laughed. “Eventually,” she said. “Eventually it will happen.”

You feel like you really know her because it’s not about her in relation to anyone, just her, who she is when she is no one but herself. And it’s always just you two together. No one else can be there.

It’s not the same for Amanda as it is for you. She doesn’t worry about asking the wrong thing or knowing too much. She asks you everything about yourself. “Tell me about . . .” she is always saying to you, wanting to know all about you, like you are a puzzle she is putting together in pieces. She asks about your job, your apartment, and your family: Menche and Juan Carlos, your mother now dead, your father long gone, and Loly, who Amanda knows too, who Amanda sees every week. And she tells you about Paula, Loly’s baby, who Amanda takes care of when Loly comes to work at her house on Wednesdays.

Every time you see her, Amanda tells you how Paula is changing. That the black hair she was born with is falling out. That she wakes herself from napping with hiccups. That she will take a bottle from Amanda, but not Loly, who is nursing. “She smells Loly’s milk,” Amanda says. “Loly can’t fool her. But I can. I know how to trick her.”

On the day that Paula turned two months old, you and Amanda were together at the restaurant. “She was born two months ago today,” Amanda reminded you. She pulled the glass teapot in the center of the table close to her. The tea was very dark, probably barely warm. She wrapped her hands around the base of the pot. “I missed that time with my son,” she said. She stared into the teapot but you could see from her face that this was a big thing she was trying to tell you, a thing you needed to hear even if it was about the part of her life that you pretend does not exist, about the son who is the child of the husband who claims her from you.

“I went away from my son,” she said. “When he was a month old I left him. I had to leave him.” Then she told you about staying in a hospital and doctors and pills and electric shock and being completely apart from her son. And that she felt only relief to be away from him. That she wished for her milk to dry up so she wouldn’t have that as a reminder. She wanted no trace. “It can’t happen again,” she said looking up at you from the teapot. “I can’t have another baby. No one can make me. My son, he’s old enough now. He would remember this time. Do you understand? I could never do it again.” And you told her Yes, you understood.

When she told you about leaving her son, her eyes and mouth drawn in tight and afraid, you wanted to take her face between your hands and stroke her eyebrows the same way your mother did. But you were not sure about touching her. Whether it would be okay. So you looked at her across the table and hoped that your eyes saw what was inside her and held it for her.

* * *

You don’t know where Amanda is taking you tonight. Green freeway signs pass overhead but you don’t read them. You are driving away from the bay, past Oakland, farther east. Away from the flatlands where Loly and Menche live in their stucco houses with barred windows and gated front doors, away from the hills where Amanda lives in her house with its postcard views.

You enter a tunnel. The gray cement walls are lined with square orange lights. A pale light flashes into the car each time you pass a light. A motorcycle cuts in front of Amanda’s car and the rumble of its acceleration echoes off the walls. Out of the tunnel, you are in darkness again. Before tonight it has always been during the day with Amanda. It’s different now, to be together at night, in the dark.

* * *

Earlier tonight, Amanda touched you for the first time. She pulled you into the alcove of a doorway outside the Japanese restaurant and stepped close to you. “You have what I want,” she said. She gripped your sleeve, moving your hand toward her waist, putting it under her jacket and beneath her shirt, flattening your palm against the warm skin of her stomach above the belt in her pants.

“I won’t hurt you,” she said as she held your hand against the skin of her belly.

“Sometimes you need to be hurt,” you told her. She pushed away from you, opening her eyes wide and then looking at the ground. Your hand slipped from her body when she pulled back. But you knew the truth of your words. When your mother died, you’d put your hand through a window to hurt more, not less. It had felt better to add this hurt to the one you already felt. It was the same with forest fires. You’d been watching news reports about wildfires burning out of control. The firefighters could light a fire to put out a fire. One plus one equals zero. You could douse one pain with another.

To have Amanda will feel like something other than pain, it will feel like the opposite of pain to be lost in her eyes and her wanting to know all of you, the parts no one else knows. You have been needing her and she came to you with her eyes and her hands and her heart, her whole body, to find out about you.

* * *

Now, in the car with Amanda, when her hand moves across the seat towards you and touches your leg and rests on your thigh, you let yourself go beyond speed and lights and music and the math of hurting. You think only of taking her clothes off and memorizing the look on her face when she first feels you inside her. You want the lights to be on so you can see her face, and you promise yourself you’ll be brave enough to open your eyes and keep watching her face the whole time. You’ll make her feel what she wants to feel, which is what you want to feel too. You’ll both only want what the other wants. And it could be any way at all, so long as you’re touching each other, and it would still feel good because it’s not really happening but is contained in your mind where it’s perfect and imagined and doesn’t yet have an ending. It is an unvisited place where she is taking you fast through the dark in a car with loud music, her hand on your thigh.

Ann K. Ryles lives in Moraga, California with her husband and two daughters. She is a student in the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco and a graduate of UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law. "Taking You Fast" was originally published in Clare, the print literary magazine of Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


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