By R. D. Falk
It was past midnight. Bus service had ended hours earlier, and I was stretched out in a deserted bus shelter, totally exhausted. I’d walked a mile and still had a twenty-minute walk before I could climb into bed.
I had spent the last eight hours working a temp labor job at the cramped and crumbling Meadow Gold Dairy packaging plant. My ears were still ringing from the constant din of machines and trucks. I’d been stationed at a conveyor belt all night grabbing cartons of orange juice, filling heavy plastic crates, and stacking them chest-high on pallets. The smell of soured milk and forklift exhaust lingered on my clothes.
Things had not gone well since I’d gotten out of grad school a year ago. I was overqualified for the jobs I could find. Jobs with desks, phones, and business cards were quickly filled. I started lying about my education, claiming only a high school diploma.
A sky-blue mid-70’s Plymouth Valiant pulled into the bus lane, easing to a stop. He was probably lost. Maybe he was waiting for somebody from the college dorms.
I heard soft music. The guy in the Valiant leaned over and rolled down the window.
“Need a lift?”
“Nah. I’m good, thanks.”
“Come on. No problem, really.”
“I’m just down the road, it’s OK.”
The door swung open. “Jump in. Glad to help you out.”
Why should I argue? Refusing his gesture seemed like an insult. My back hurt. My legs felt like stone.
The heavy door creaked when I pulled it shut. The seat engulfed me like a soft armchair. A cloying, woodsy cologne hung in the air. The chrome frame of the rearview mirror was draped with two large, fuzzy black and white dice, one hanging slightly lower than the other. The shimmering reverb of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover” softly wah-wahed from the speaker on the dash.
We headed off, driving north first to turn the car in the right direction. Navigating a U-turn, his soft brown eyes lingered on me. “I’m Jay,” he said with a languid smile. He fiddled with the volume knob on the radio, and his hand briefly brushed my knee.
“Howe and Broadway,” I said gruffly. “Just off of Brown Road.”
He nodded, humming softly. My my such a sweet thing…I wanna do everything…
Jay angled up Brown Road. A few more blocks, I told myself.
We drove in silence along the empty two-lane street. Marvin Gaye crooned obscenely on the radio. “Three more blocks on the right,” I said. “There’s a wide spot to pull over.” Jay nodded. The car floated hypnotically on its rubbery springs.
“Right here,” I said, as Howe and Broadway appeared in the headlights. Jay looked straight ahead and drove slowly past the intersection.
I stopped breathing. My chest tightened. A news story about a guy who had gone missing after working a night shift flashed across my mind. My legs felt like sandbags. I could taste the musky pine of Jay’s aftershave in the back of my throat.
The car slowed. Jay turned into the empty parking lot of a Mexican restaurant. The neon sombrero that usually flashed in the front window had been dark for hours now. He nosed the Valiant around back, out of view of the street, next to a stack of milk crates and a dumpster. He slid the parking lever out of gear.
After a moment, he turned and looked at me with his soft brown eyes, intimately, like a lover. He rested his hand on my knee, this time on purpose. He smiled languidly and started running his slender fingers slowly up my leg.
My mind split into a jumble of images and disconnected thoughts. This is not happening… Another part of me watched from someplace just behind my head.
“Please,” Jay said, a pleading look in his eyes. “It will feel so good. Just let me blow you.” I could feel his moist breath on my ear.
Confusion paralyzed me. I felt sorry for him. I wanted to somehow accommodate him. I felt strangely weak, helpless, horrified. And something worse. I was ashamed. I felt like it was me who had somehow done something wrong, in ways I didn’t understand.
The door beside me had a lock that pulled up from the window frame. It dawned on me it was open the whole time.
I stammered something about a misunderstanding. I pushed the door open and heaved myself out into the blessedly cool air. I walked fast. Tried not to think. I don’t remember how I got to my door.
That night kept playing through my mind over the next two weeks. The smell of that car would come to me and I would almost gag. Men’s hands ran over my body in my dreams; I’d wake up mumbling, scared. I recreated everything I had said, and everything I hadn’t, over and over.
That night, something deep inside of me had betrayed me. My self-respect was shaken. Maybe I had asked for this somehow. Why did a gay guy pick me out in the first place? Was I accidentally broadcasting gay signals? Did I look weak—easy prey?
There was nobody to talk to. I thought about how my friends would react. They would either guffaw halfway into the story and wait for a punch line, or they’d squint at me and say, “Why didn’t you drag his ass out of the car?” I had no answer. And I was naive. My eyes had not yet been opened to the furtive movements of late-night cruisers, out in droves, looking for pick-ups.
I ran into Joan, one of the few women I could talk to without it feeling like an awkward come-on. I asked if she had time for coffee. She said, “Sure.”
We found a quiet table in the back. She asked what was wrong. “You look worried. And tired.”
I looked down for a long time. Then it all came out. I almost cried. She didn’t interrupt me. She just nodded her head and kept saying, “Uh-huh…uh-huh.”
Finally she smiled, gently, placing her hand on my arm.
“I understand. Believe me. I understand.”