Monday, May 14, 2007

The Car

An old fragment from an unfinished story that sort of works as a story, at least in the context of a blog.

Thalia was a little late getting away this morning; she'd already called in to say she'd be there soon. Coming in from the west end the city looked warm and alive, it was so sunny out. It was still only March but already the snow was gone. There was green visible between the buildings and in the ravines, and big pools of water on the flat roofs that reflected the blue sky. She couldn’t see anyone in heavy winter clothes to wreck the illusion. She tried to read a magazine, but rapid shapes of sunlight kept flashing off the pages and hurting her eyes. When the train dipped into the underground stations, she gave up trying to read and just stared at the ground.

They crawled through one tunnel, so slow Thalia could look out the window and see blue chalk marks on the wall. They slowed and stopped in the next, but only for a half a minute or so. Finally, in the next tunnel, the train stopped for good. Thalia thought again that if she hadn’t stopped to buy the magazine, she might have got on the previous train and avoided all this. Maybe that one was stopping, too. Maybe the whole system was fucked, and every train was trapped in a tunnel.

Thalia couldn’t get used to the time it took to get to work. She was used to thinking of herself as living pretty much in the thick of it, but the thirty or forty minutes she spent nodding and yawning on the train had destroyed this image. She and a friend had shared a car when they’d both first moved downtown, years ago. Their offices were close together – less than a block apart – and her friend got free parking where she worked, so it was perfect. The car was used, a pale blue compact they’d bought off somebody who was leaving the country.

“As is,” the guy selling the car told them. “It’s kinda lived-in.”

“Who lived in it?” Thalia asked, deadpan.

“No, I mean, it’s pretty lived-in, not… it’s kind of beat up inside.”

“I was joking.”

She didn’t say much else while they were looking at the car, or when they came back with the cash.

Even after they’d had the car for a few months and had cleaned it out, they still found peanuts and Smarties in the folds of the seats and beer caps under the carpeting. The floor was pocked with cigarette burns. They covered the back seat – which was dying from a dozen lateral slashes from a knife or a tool – with a quilt that used to belong to Thalia’s cat. She’d bleached it heavily to kill the smell of cat-piss: it looked as though there were clouds of frozen steam covering its surface.

They never came up with a funny enough name for the car, but they both liked to pretend it had a personality that only they could detect. They would send silly emails to each other throughout the day, commenting on the car’s mood that morning, imagining various pasts for it. They competed to find the ugliest air freshener to hang from the rearview mirror. The winner, hands down, was the raw pink set of over-sized tits that smelled like strawberries. Thalia had found it in a joke store. It sat in the glove compartment with the other joke fresheners, under a map and some paper, never hung.

The arrangement worked beautifully for almost three years until the car started shuddering and dying at stop lights – at first just once in a while, then on every other trip. It stranded them in the middle lane more than once and wouldn’t restart for minutes at a time. They had to stay off the busier streets.

“I’m not paying for repairs,” Thalia announced. “I think you should cover it.”

“What for? It’s both of our car!”

“Yeah, but you took it to your cottage a couple of times. And you drove up to your parents' a bunch of times with it.”


“So? It was supposed to be just for work and around the city. It’s an old car: probably all the long-distance driving is what’s wrecking it.”

They fought about it for a week, while the car sat like a shamed dog in the small lot behind a mutual friend’s apartment. Thalia refused to return her friend’s calls and wouldn’t answer her emails, except to bluntly repeat that she wouldn’t help pay for the repairs. The mutual friend attempted to negotiate peace between the two, but Thalia yelled at him over the phone, saying that the two of them were ganging up on her and trying to make her the bitch.

“Well, you are kind of being a bitch,” he said, and she hung up on him.

Finally, her friend gave up and took the car in to be repaired. When she got it back a week later, she called Thalia.

“It was just something with the fuel line,” she said, sheepishly. “The guy said the rest of the car’s pretty solid, so we shouldn’t have to worry about it for a while.”

“So?” Thalia said, as hard and as cold as she could.

“So… it wasn’t that expensive in the end. They hardly had to do anything. So it’s cool.”

“So?” Thalia said again, angry that her friend wasn’t taking her seriously. She felt as though no one was listening to her – the bill could have been for five dollars, she wasn’t going to pay it. Finally, she demanded that her friend buy out Thalia’s share of the car and take it all for herself. “That’s the way you’ve been using it, anyway,” she said.

Over a series of bitter phone calls, she brought out every minor grievance she’d collected against her friend, every petty annoyance, shedding more of their friendship with every call. By the end of it, her shattered friend gave Thalia exactly half of what they’d paid for it. Thalia insisted she mail her a money-order for the full amount, and she did, without complaint.

In the six years that followed, they only spoke a few times – mostly awkward meetings on the subway or in bars. They attempted one reconciliation, meeting up for lunch on an outdoor patio downtown. The two had joked and brought each other up to date on the shit that had been happening in their lives and in their jobs, but when the other woman started to talk about their broken relationship, Thalia went cold, as if her friend were a tenacious sales rep, pulling out for the millionth time the unwanted samples and brochures and price lists.

Since then, Thalia had heard that her friend had had a little girl and was living with someone in Montreal. She thought about sending something, a gift or some baby clothes, and for a few weeks she fingered the rows of bright, congratulatory cards whenever she was in a drugstore. But in the end, she did nothing. The card she did buy stayed blank inside and got slowly shuffled in with the junk mail and old photos in her front hallway. If Thalia saw her friend’s mother she would greet her warmly, ask her to pass on a hello, and get again her friend’s new phone number.

The official history of their friendship got sanitized and relegated to a back room of her mind, along with a few token objects – a funny T-shirt, a wine-bottle candle they’d made as a joke and never lit, the crazy singing toy they found in Chinatown. Her memories got debriefed: the end of the friendship was a sad but inevitable thing, something brought on by mere time and circumstance. Thalia still had a photo in a magnet-frame on her fridge of the two of them at a party, and she got a little sad whenever she noticed it. But none of this was connected to the fight over the car, the wistfulness never mitigated her sense that she’d been fucked around and was right to act as she had. It was as if the fight had been with someone else entirely, some treacherous stranger.

She even complained a lot about having to take the subway to work after driving in for so long, the car another phenomenon that had passed from her life for reasons unknown. The extra keys on her chain were mysterious keepsakes, something from her past she could finger half-interestedly, like the crater-shaped inoculation scar on her shoulder. It was all far away, on another planet from where she was now, encased in this dead train, its thin hull painted over with an ad for a movie.

1 comment:

john macdonald said...

Good stuff, Nathan. I used to share 'a car' with a good friend, too. I know exactly where Thalia's coming from.