“Where are you from? How old are you?” he asks through broken teeth as the cab shudders through the night. The city distracts me: Car horns collide with urban noise, motorbikes hurl themselves across traffic lanes, pollution obscures the descending sun. I return his questions with vague answers in Mandarin. I don’t tell him that I am American and fifteen. My hands are sticky with sweat and street market mango.
He dances in front of me on the New Haven cement, inflecting his voice as he repeats, “There is nothing to be scared of. You are making up your own fear.” I don’t know this part of town, but I do know two men behind us are snorting something. My phone is dead in my bag. I soberly turn to my friend, “You don’t understand.”
His laughter shakes his entire body and he slaps my thigh. I am pressed against the side of the cab when I realize that we are no longer headed towards my home. Before he asks me another question, he slaps my thigh again. The radio plays old Chinese hits as I lodge my tote bag near the packs of cigarettes surrounding the stick shift, between the driver’s seat and mine.
A sofa store with cheap neon lights is our lone landmark as we try to locate campus. “You’re scared?” he asks again, smirking and jumping into the road. Behind him, the lights glimmer in the bruised black-blue of nighttime, reflecting across the windows of the unidentified buildings surrounding us. I am wearing a cream dress and a memory. We keep walking. My necklace breaks.
I look at the road more than he does. I don’t want to see him look at me. I fumble at my phone and send several messages to my friend, Phil. “I don’t know what is going on” and “What should I do?” are among them. My address is written down on a slip and I try to confirm it again with the driver. He paws at it, but does not respond. It’s been twenty minutes and he instead wants to know where I study. There is nothing lost in translation.
Our conversation tugs back and forth. I make our return to campus into a game, “Want to bet on who can find the right way back?” I want to ask him about the first time he realized he was vulnerable. I want to ask him about his hidden fulcrums and fabrics of experience that he wears and that wear at him. Disguising my vulnerability as something he could win was the only way to ensure that my concerns were taken seriously.
Text messaging becomes a phone call. “Phil, I need you to speak to this driver. He won’t listen to me. I know he understands me.” The maroon handheld passes between the driver and me. Phil brokering the situation with the cab driver momentarily suspends his questions and taunts. The pollution is back and I watch the incremental increase of renminbi on the cab fare meter. I press back up against the door as we take a sharp turn.
I locate the blocks leading to Broadway. One of my last maneuvers is wrong so he suggests we swivel around. Spotting the shops I am familiar with, I realize I lost my own game in one sense — I didn’t find the right way back — but that I won it in another.
My grey apartment complex later emerges. I pay the cab driver, closing a transaction that I had not wanted to be a part of. Before climbing up the stairs of my complex, my breath has already peaked.
I hold my broken necklace at the intersection and think about cab rides, being nineteen and people — myself and others — not understanding. I think about making up fear. I wonder if I should have asked my friend if that taxicab ride was not real. I walk back to my dorm with other friends whom I find getting late night meals at GHeav, but he and I remain friends with questions, pollution and places unknown.
I realize that my sense of fear is heightened and often not justified. So what do I do with it? How do I get out of the taxicab?