So flew the god and the virgin – he on the wings of love, and she on those of fear. The pursuer is the more rapid, however, and gains upon her, and his panting breath blows upon her hair. Her strength begins to fail, and, ready to sink, she calls upon her father, the river god: “Help me, Peneus! Open the earth to enclose me, or change my form, which has brought me into this danger!”
-from Bullfinch’s Mythology
The first time your car was stolen, you were sleeping in the backseat in a pile of all your belongings. The thief didn’t know. He didn’t bother to check the back seat. He popped the lock and hotwired the car. The thief drove your car to the 24-hour grocery. When he left, to go to the store, he left the engine on. You were quick to take back the front seat and steal your own car back. Driving away, you saw him in line, buying a quart of milk. It was 3 AM, and none of the buses were running. You imagined him, with a baby that needed milk at 3 AM, and you couldn’t bring yourself to call the police on him.
At least he had somewhere to go. You had walked out on someone, after two years. You wanted to stay in the city, even if it meant sleeping in your car a few nights. If you went anywhere else, he’d find you – at your mother’s house, or a friend’s. He’d never find you in your car, deep in the heart of the city. You had nowhere to go, at the time, and you couldn’t hate the man who stole your car while you were sleeping in it because he had somewhere to go, for milk, with milk.
The second time your car was stolen, you wandered up and down the shopping complex parking lot until a security guard let you watch some suspicious activity on the security cameras. A woman led her toddler up to the car, and made him wait while she popped open your car door. She put her kid in the back seat, and her purchases in the back seat. She had stolen your car with her kid right there with her. If you could find her, you’d grab her and shake her and shout at her – Why would you do that? Why? Right in front of your child! But you know, people like that, you can’t reason with them. You can’t reason with their kids, either. You can pick your battles, but you cannot pick your family. The cops found your car under an overpass and said they’d look into it. They’d let you know if anything happened. You had been in the city long enough to know that nothing would happen.
You remember, that time, the cab driver who you called cursing in a foreign language because he had to fit a television into the back of his cab. You watched him struggling. He was from Ethiopia and he was tall and strong with a sharp crease on his jeans. You felt awful, and said to him that maybe you should return the television for a full refund because maybe you couldn’t afford it now that your car was missing. He rested the heavy television against the bumper of the car, and looked at you intently. This is no way to treat me unless you were my wife, he said. He forced himself into a smile. Come, he said. The fare will run.
You touched the cab drivers back and paid him five dollars at the counter where a bored clerk said you could only get store credit. The cab driver cursed you, the store, and the television, and argued with the Indian man in charge of management in French until a refund appeared. It was like they were magicians, dueling somatic French phrases. You tipped the cab driver twenty dollars and kissed his cheek. He was your hero. In the cab, he talked about how the city was a beautiful place compared to his home country. He had a rosary dangling from his window. He talked about how he had seen a boy carrying a rifle shoot a woman in the face on the street, back in his homeland.
The third time your car was stolen, you were out late at a bar and coming back from the bar alone. You saw them. They had popped your lock and had begun to steal the loose change from your cupholder along with anything they could find in the dashboard or under the seats. They were dressed for clubbing. The girl that was their ringleader had a red striped dress and high heels you couldn’t afford. When you ran over to them, they looked at you all terrified. Two of the kids ran for it. They had flat-soled shoes on.
The ringleader didn’t have athletic shoes. She jumped into the car, in her heels, and locked the door. It took her almost half a minute to get the car started with her bare hands and whatever she had in her little clubbing purse. She kept the door locked. You pounded on the glass and shouted. Just go! Just get out! Just leave! I’ll let you walk away! I won’t call the cops on you!
She didn’t listen. She got your car started. She drove out about a quarter of a mile before she crashed it into a tree. The cops told you about it, later, in serious tones. She wasn’t wearing her seatbelt, and she had flown through the windshield, into the tree, at 65 miles per hour.
The car, stolen three times, was finally totaled. Even if it hadn’t been totaled, you couldn’t imagine driving it after someone’s brains had been splattered everywhere.
You got a deal on a used car, considered yourself lucky.
The fourth time your car was stolen, you were at work, working overtime to pay off your used car. A drug addict had slipped into the office parking garage and run off with your new car. You saw your new car only one more time after you parked it, and that was on the security cameras next to the chief of security, who pointed it out to you – how the man had slipped in behind a sleeping security guard, and chosen your car out of all the cars, even though it wasn’t the nicest car or the fastest car or the easiest car to steal. Bad luck, he guesses. You had parked in the spot that was most hidden from the sleeping guard. The sleeping guard got fired. It didn’t bring back your new car, and you didn’t want him to be fired. You felt like it was your fault, that your cars get stolen and that it wouldn’t have mattered if the guard had been awake or not, because your cars get stolen.
That car’s gone, now. You’ll never see it again.
You buy a cheap car, next. You let trash pile up in the back seat, hoping that no one would steal the nasty, cheap car. After a few months of security in your filthy car, you were driving home from work late at night, and you saw someone walking down an empty highway, and you pulled over, you asked him – he was handsome, and he was wearing a nice suit – if his car had been stolen. He laughed, and confessed it had been stolen, along with his wallet. You offered him a ride. He peered into your car for a moment – your dirty car, that smelled like take-out wrappers. He looked back with a blank smile. He said he’d be all right. He was going to be fine as soon as he found a phone. He waved good-bye and kept walking. He was sure.
You drove away. You watched him from the rear view until the road bent and traffic piled up and there was nothing you could do. He had seen you, imagined a filthy apartment, dirty children, him far in the future, lying in a mess in his old man diaper and you not helping him with it and him getting a painful rash and his grandchildren all have painful diaper rashes. He had looked in your car and saw a future of food wrappers. You remembered sleeping in a pile in the back seat of a car, once, and how it felt to you exactly like confessing you slept in your car when he looked back there – like maybe he thought you slept there.
And, anyway, what if your mother ever came to visit again? She’d stop what she was doing and immediately clean the car. Then, you’d have to drive her to the store and she’d be mad at you for being such a mess. She had failed as a mother. She’d say Look at all those criminals walking around with grocery carts, dirty and sleeping on the street. I remember a time when children played there, and ate ice cream with their friends. This used to be a wonderful place for a family. And it would all be a secret code for how come your car is so dirty? What did she do wrong to you as a child to make you grow up into that person with the trashy car.
The city has changed – gotten harder – like it used to be a cute kid and now it’s a reckless teenager stealing cars and fornicating before marriage and listening to angry music. You’ve changed, she’d say, in her way. You’d tell her how you came to the city because, you see, a man, and when that was over but he didn’t know it was over and he was shouting and waving his fists over his head you got in your car and then you were asleep in the back seat of your car, with everything you owned; when a stranger stole your car, with you in the backseat, and drove to the store for some milk, you swore to yourself that you wouldn’t be weak again, like you used to be, but even though you’d say that was when you made your personal discovery it had happened gradually, over months and months of thought and time without a man chasing after you. You didn’t swear that to yourself until you were telling the story to your imaginary mother during her imaginary visit much later on. It was true, though, that you swore to yourself not to be weak.
You can’t afford a new car, and you can’t imagine what would happen if your car was stolen again.
That night, you went to a dark parking lot, in a bad part of town. You turned off your lights. You climbed into the backseat, and hid under a blanket. You had a knife and a can of mace with you, there. You waited for someone to come and steal your car.
You fell asleep in the back seat, under your blanket, and dreamt of how things used to be. When you woke up, you were alone in the parking lot, in piles of food wrappers and trash you had put back there to keep your car from getting stolen. Your whole body ached. The knife was missing somewhere under the seat, and you didn’t know where the mace went in the trash, but you could smell it all over your shirt.
You were lucky to get home in time to shower, and change, and get to work on time.
You tried again that night, and again the next and the next.
A man came. He opened your locked door like magic. He smelled like sandpaper and bleach. You smelled him before you saw his face. When you saw his face, he startled at you, in the back seat. He looked like the kind of man you’d meet at a backyard barbecue, with a ball cap and clothes dirty from painting the fence. If he wasn’t stealing your car, you’d think he was the kind of salt-of-the-earth blue collar guy you see on buses giving up his seat for old women. Maybe that’s who is in the daylight.
Relax. You can have the fucking car. Before you take it, I want you to teach me something.
What the fuck are you doing sleeping there?
Seriously, I just want you to teach me how to steal a car. I don’t care if you take this one.
What the fuck are you talking about? Who do you think I am, Nicholas Cage? I ain’t here to help you.
Though that made no sense, you were confident he was sober enough to be an effective teacher of grand theft auto. You told him your name. You showed him the mace, the kitchen knife as big as your arm. You told him that you needed to learn to steal cars. You just wanted to learn how to do it, then you’d leave and he could have your car. You begged him to talk you through the act, while he steals your car, so you could learn.
He was pissed. He grabbed the steering column, yanked the plastic away in a mighty pull. He pointed at the wires like it was obvious, or it should have been.
You’re a fucking bitch don’t know how to jump it?
He got out of the car as suddenly as he arrived. He looked at you from the other side of the window, so angry he could kick a puppy. He walked away slowly. He shoved his hands in his pockets and wore his hat low.
You climbed into the front seat. You played with the wires. You didn’t know what you were doing with these wires. You were afraid to cut them because you didn’t know which wires to cut. There were more than two wires. They all looked the same. What was the difference between power steering, the horn, cruise control, and the turning of the key?
You guessed which wires to cut. You pushed them together. Nothing happened. You tried with some different wires, and still nothing happened. You were in a cop movie, standing over the bomb, but instead of defusing it you were trying to set it off.
It was your bomb.
You wanted it to explode.
Nothing happened. Now, the key didn’t work. Now your car was probably not going to steer very well, even if you managed to get it started, because maybe you cut up the power steering pretty bad, and maybe the horn wouldn’t work, and maybe the cruise control would be broken forever.
He had pointed at the wires like it was all so obvious, but it wasn’t.
How did they get their start, these thieves? You imagined them, out late at night with an uncle or an older brother, because stealing cars seems like the kind of thing that you learn from uncles or older brothers. Your uncle never taught you that. He wore a suit in the early morning, arrived on time somewhere, to do something involving either insurance benefits or logistics, you can’t remember which. He never took you out late into the city to steel cars, or into the woods to shoot guns at animals. He never taught you anything. His Christmas cards were always vague and forgettable. Your older brother was in marching band, and late at night, if he wasn’t practicing for state orchestra, he and his friends were playing video games in the basement. They could teach you how to steal cars in a video game. He could teach you how to win a fight in a video game. Your family never taught you anything you really needed, like stealing cars.
It’s 3 AM, now. You know that no one is going to teach you how to steal a car. You’ve got mace. You’ve got a kitchen knife the length of your arm. You smell like spoiled fast food after another long night among the trash in your back seat.
You walk into the city, into the night.
Bad people didn’t walk anymore if they can steal a car. You figured it was safe to walk, because any bad people around here would steal a car and drive somewhere where something bad is happening.
Everyone has somewhere to go.
In the morning, you called in sick at work. You did feel sick, but not in a hospital way, but in a way like you’ve been on a roller coaster too long, and you just stepped off.
When you were walking home, you could hear your footsteps on the concrete. All the lights of the city poured up into the sky. All the architectures and infrastructures of concrete and steel cast shadows all around the lights. You were alone in a vast desert of sidewalks. You were alone in a place built for millions. You walked through the world of the night watchmen, where silvery clouds shimmered over the moon, and the wind whispered through the artificial canyons between the skyscrapers.
At night, there’s a whole new world in the city, where cars wander off as if on their own and graffiti blooms in the shadows. At night, you were alone and you were doing the things you weren’t supposed to be doing, and you knew it because there was no one else there. If there was someone there, they were part of it – that other city.
You have a roof over your head, and you are stronger, now, though you couldn’t explain why. You don’t care that your car will be stolen if you leave it there, or that it will be towed, impounded, auctioned, lost. You can get a new car, eventually. Everything can be replaced, made new, and continue on, running into the night away from the long hands and shouts of the man that would press himself over you and sneer. For now, you walked to the bus stop, take it to the train, and rock to the hum of a thousand songs playing in a thousand headphones that a thousand people use to stand alone.
You can only just make out the hum of the song over the train wheels, rolling and rolling. All of you standing there, holding the nooses that carry you off to the next station, like a forest, all of the people standing still, windblown, packed into each other in silence.
The train sounds like a womb.