How Aleksandr Knew What He Knew, and How I Knew That He Knew.
BY ELLIE KEMPER
“I’m running late,” I panted, throwing my suitcase in the trunk of your taxicab. “My flight leaves JFK at noon.”
You grinned at me, maybe a little lecherously, and told me not to worry. “You have cash, right?”
“Doesn’t this cab take credit cards?” I was near tears. I had just spent my last $9 in cash on a chocolate muffin and a small black coffee, which you would later sip.
“It is easier for me,” you said, still grinning and glancing in the rearview mirror as I clambered into the backseat. “It is better for me.”
I slammed the door and searched frantically for a seatbelt that I would never find. “How is it better for you?!” I shouted. “What about me, and what is better for me?” I began to cry. “What about me,” I whispered softly, for emphasis.
“The credit card will be fine,” you laughed, taking a swerve that seemed unnecessarily sharp, especially since we were just continuing straight on Amsterdam Avenue, and there was no car or object in our path. “We will get you to the airport on time.”
I took a deep breath and tried to smile. “Thank you,”—glancing at your taxi license—“Aleksandr. Thank you, Aleksandr.”
“Nothing is a problem,” you pointed out, choosing to be optimistic.
I sat back in my seat and tried to relax. Four deep breaths. Filling my diaphragm with oxygen: that’s where the relaxation comes from. I stared out the window, trying not to judge, letting the experience simply wash over me. Mine is a Teflon mind, allowing experiences, feelings, and thoughts come to mind and then to slip out. My mind is a frying pan.
I practiced putting words on the experience:
“We have just passed a deli.”
“I feel in my body a sensation of hunger.”
“A thought, Am I gaining weight?, has come into my mind.”
“There walks a man with many pigeons on his arms.”
“You go to San Francisco often?” you ask.
I shook myself out of my reverie and met your eyes in the rearview mirror. “Often enough,” I murmured mysteriously, taking the last bite of my muffin.
“Wait,” I cried, spitting out the last bite of my muffin, “how did you know I was going to San Francisco?”
“I guessed you were going to San Francisco,” you chuckled, equally mysteriously, but also similar to how I imagined a child molester might chuckle.
“Your guess is right,” I sighed, throwing the wet muffin bite out of the window.
“What you throw out my cab?!” A fierceness in you that I had never seen before flashed in your beautiful sea-blue eyes.
“The last bite of my muffin,” I replied, shaken but feigning confidence. “I am getting fat.”
“The mice will eat it,” you comforted yourself. The calm had returned. “You should be fat like women should be fat.”
We both paused, reflecting on what you had just said.
“Does your boyfriend like you to be fat?”
I turned away from you, in such a way that I was now sitting backwards in the seat and staring out the rear window. I started to feel carsick. “My boyfriend does not exist,” I breathed.
“If I was your boyfriend,” you began, also turning around to sit backwards in the seat and face the rear window, “I would feed you strawberries every night.”
I could feel myself redden. My ears began to burn. “You are just saying that,” I blushed. “You don’t mean it.”
“I am not just saying that. I am saying that because it is true. I would feed you strawberries right now.”
Several cars honked. “Aleksandr!” I shouted. “Aleksandr, keep your eyes on the road.”
“How did you know my eyes were not on the road?”
I turned back to face him. Our eyes met through the plastic divider. I inexplicably slipped a quarter in that money scoop device. “I guessed your eyes were not on the road,” I responded, smiling coyly.
The cars continued to honk. Several deep and angry voices rang out. A policeman appeared, seemingly from thin air.
You gunned it.
Sailing over the Triborough Bridge, we discussed all matters of love. You had fed strawberries to more women than I ever thought possible. You firmly believed that I deserved to be fed strawberries. You slowly, but surely, opened my eyes to a new and innovative world. A world where women were encouraged to have big thighs. A world where men were encouraged to treat women’s bodies like steak. A world where nearly all of your romantic relationships, however short or fictional, consisted of you feeding women strawberries.
“I would feed you strawberries tonight,” you offered, not a few times.
“Oh, Alek,” I would laugh. “Please stop. You are only trying to make me feel better.”
“Do all of your boyfriends like to feed you strawberries?”
I tried not to let my chronic depression show. “I told you,” I repeated, “I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“But before,” you continued, undaunted. “Surely you have had many boyfriends at other times in your life.”
I smiled. “I’ve had a few,” lighting a clove cigarette.
The anger I had seen only a handful of times—and I should mention, my hands are childishly small—reared its head once more. “You smoke in my cab, I throw you out of my cab.” Our eyes met. Yours narrowed. Mine crossed. “Only whores smoke cigarettes in cabs,” you said tightly.
You wanted to hurt me, and it worked.
I could feel the tears well up in my eyes, but I would not permit them to fall. That is a trick I taught myself a long time ago, along with forming my tongue in the shape of a W. “Well, what does that make me?” I asked, spitting on my own thigh and extinguishing the still-lit cigarette end directly on it. That is also a trick I learned a long time ago, but from my Aunt Barbara.
As soon as I asked, I regretted it. You didn’t need to answer me. We already knew.
“I guess that makes me a whore,” I said softly, doing the math in my head.
We rode the rest of the way in silence. I wished I had not thrown the rest of my muffin out of the window on 110th Street. Now I was hungry again.
I’ll get a Cinnabon, I comforted myself. JFK must have a Cinnabon. Or maybe something from Au Bon Pain. Remember, you like those yogurt parfaits from Au Bon Pain.
What if that Au Bon Pain you’re thinking of isn’t there anymore? I paused. In that case, maybe I’ll get some frozen yogurt. A large vanilla with Reeses Pieces and granola. Then for the plane, I will get a package of Flipz.
You stared at me. It was not a cruel stare, necessarily, but it did make me worried that you were going to rape me.
I stared back, hungrily. Hungry for your approval, hungry for something that had either salt or chocolate in it. Hungry for a diet regimen that finally worked.
Glancing out the window, I saw that we were at the Delta terminal.
“Aleksandr,” I said, nearly inaudibly. “Aleksandr, how did you know I was flying Delta?”
You looked pointedly at my chest. I held my head high and allowed you to stare, but hoped hard that you didn’t see how my left boob is slightly lower than my right one.
Then you stared a bit too long, and so I glanced down. I saw that my airplane ticket had somehow gotten caught on my Satya lotus necklace. Suddenly everything clicked.
“That’s how you knew I was going to San Francisco,” I said softly. “That’s how you knew I was flying Delta.”
“It is how I knew all of those things,” you agreed, still staring at my chest.
“But Aleksandr,” I said, gathering my purse and backpack and laptop case and SmartWater and oversized cardigan and iPhone, “how could you read such tiny print?”
“We see what we want to see.”
I swiped my credit card and walked around to the trunk. You waited until I had finished lugging my suitcase out of it, and then looked out from your driver’s seat. I approached you.
“I’m sorry you called me a whore,” I apologized.
“I will feed you strawberries when you get back to New York,” you offered.
I smiled. We were us again.
“That’s okay, Aleksandr. I’m not coming back for over a week. You’ll have forgotten all about me by then.” I asked for my receipt. You handed it to me, then frowned.
“Your tip is bad,” you commented. Your tone wasn’t insulting, just honest. Your spitting was both insulting and honest.
“Good-bye, Aleksandr,” I said, wiping the spit off my right ear. “Thanks for getting me here so fast.”
You winked at me and drove away.
There goes a real guy’s guy, I thought to myself. I didn’t know they had guy’s guys in Eastern Europe. I wasn’t sure whether to be happy or sad, so I chose sad.
One day, I told myself as I approached the automatic sliding doors, you will find a man who wants not only to feed you strawberries, but also to help you with your suitcase and not spit on you.
Oh, God, please let what I just thought to myself be true, I thought to myself, as the sliding doors closed abruptly on my roll-aboard suitcase, crushing the frame and everything inside it.
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