Becky de Oliveira >

The Other Side

 

It takes me a few minutes to adjust my eyes to the sunlight. And after that, a few minutes more to figure out where I am. The spot is familiar in a vague way, perhaps because it is like so many places I've been before. A large parking lot. Low beige-coloured buildings. Gum wrappers skimming across the pavement, catching against curbs and fluttering before being lifted by a sudden breeze and hiked up into the air, twisting toward the nearest lamp post.

It is so quiet.

There is no reason it should be. The parking lot is full of parked cars and other cars file up and down the aisles, idling, waiting for spaces to open up. Families move across in wide waves, plastic shopping bags bumping their thighs as they walk. Mothers push strollers. Girlfriends and boyfriends walk hand in hand. Children scream for ice cream, mouths yawning open, backs arched, faces contorted. I don't know why everything should be so silent for me. I say a single world aloud, "Hello," just to check my hearing. I can hear my own voice like a tin drum rattling in my ears. The world passes before my eyes.

This is a shopping mall I used to frequent when I was a teenager. I remember once there was a lip-sync contest and a little boy, perhaps only five or six years old, wore a red jacket with lots of zippers and danced to Michael Jackson's Beat It. I was happy on that day, and I don't even remember why. I see myself, jumping up and down, laughing, head thrown back. The little black boy was adorable. He could moonwalk like nobody's business. Everything else blurs together. My whole life melts and flattens into one long shallow pool, reflecting nothing but clouds.

My car is wedged between two extra wide SUVs. They are parked so close I can't even squeeze my body past them. There is no way I'll manage to open either of the doors, but lucky for me, the sunroof is open. I climb over the hood and drop feet first into the driver's seat. My shoelaces get tangled on the windshield wipers and I have to kick and twist for a second or two, but beyond that, I don't have any serious problems.

Funny, I don't remember this air freshener. It's one of those shaped like an evergreen tree and it gives off a strong toilet-bowl cleaner scent. The ash tray is full of cigarette butts, Virginia Slims with pink lipstick marks on the ends.

This isn't my car. It is the same colour, same model, same year. Whoever owns this car has the exact same leather gloves that I have stuffed inside the glove compartment along with an ice-scraper and an owner's manual, just like mine. Funny. I don't smoke anymore. I consider climbing back through the sun roof, but just out of curiosity, I decide to put my key in the ignition. Someone once told me that with certain models, one key will fit every car and I've always wanted to know whether that was true. I doubt it very much—surely no car company could be that stupid. But when I slide the key in, it fits. When I turn it, the engine turns over. I push the accelerator just enough to make it ignite. I can hear the engine. I can hear my own voice. When the car fires up, the radio comes on and I can hear that too. I don't know the song, but the artist sounds angry and in pain. I turn the volume down.

This must be my car. It's starting to look more familiar again, though I still can't explain the cigarettes. Maybe I had a friend in here with me. That idea seems to stir a vague memory for me. Of course, the cigarettes explain the air freshener. If I had a friend who'd smoked in my car I'd probably stop somewhere to pick up an air freshener and try to get rid of the smell. Not because it offends me, but because I wouldn't want to tempt myself. There isn't a single self-destructive behaviour that doesn't attract me. I have to work hard at staying healthy, and I'm not always sure why I bother.

I don't remember my car being a stick-shift. I've never been very good with a manual transmission. In England, you get a license for a specific kind of transmission-like if you want to drive a manual, you have to get a license to drive a manual. My husband is always bugging me to drive a stick, but in England, my license is only for an automatic. I guess I can drive a stick in a pinch, but I don't like to. I have so many other things to worry about. The drivers in England are aggressive and the roads narrow. People don't look before they pull out in front of you. I've had hundreds of near-misses. I walk as often as I can.

Reversing from the parking space is no simple task. Those SUVs are so close that I can't back up without scraping my side windows against their doors. I notice that the car ahead of me has moved, leaving a broad open space before me. I put the car in gear, release the emergency brake and inch forward. This side of the parking lot has really cleared out in the last few minutes. The sun is bright and full-on. The asphalt is speckled with mirages-puddles of water that fade in and out of view depending on which way you hold your head. I'm managing the clutch better than I'd expected.

When I was a child, my father and I drove across state on a sunny day much like this one. That was the day my dad showed me my first mirage and explained how the sunlight plays tricks on your eyes. I counted mirages all day. I counted all the way to two hundred and then fell asleep. My father dropped me off at my grandparents' house and drove another five hours back to be with my mother at the hospital. My grandparents owned a St Bernard dog as big as a horse and I rode on his back and ran through green fields and touched an electric fence just to see what it would feel like. I drew happy faces in fresh cow pies. I looked for mirages and proudly explained to my grandfather how the sun plays tricks with your eyes. No one told me my mother was dying. An electric fence, by the way, gives you a jolt you can feel in your hair follicles. I don't think I've ever been quite the same.

This parking lot isn't how I remember it. Someone has really let this place go to pieces. There are potholes every few feet. I swing the steering wheel this way and that, trying to weave my way around the deep holes, but even with my fancy driving I've heard the car scrape bottom a couple of times. This is a one-way system and I have to obey the arrows. I can see the exit and it is very near, but I can't drive in a straight line. I have to follow a series of switchbacks, as if I'm traversing a high mountain trail and must conserve my energy.

I've caught up with a long line of cars also inching toward the exit. Strange, but at some point we entered what seems to be a parking garage. I must not have been paying attention. There are high concrete walls. It is almost like a tunnel. Very little light. It reminds me of a parking garage in England—always too small, too tight. Always horns blaring in the distance. Always dark, always inconvenient, always unfriendly. I don't go to many shopping malls anymore, which is probably good. I hate talking to people-can't stand having to soften my accent until I no longer sound like me. No matter what I do, every day, without fail, if I talk, someone will ask me where I'm from. My husband doesn't understand what the big deal is. When he comes to the States with me to visit my family, he loves going out and having people ask where he's from. But Americans are different, I insist. They aren't judging you. You are not being weighed in the balances and found wanting. Try to imagine how an orangutan at the zoo must feel, I say. Everyone pointing, staring, waiting. If you wait long enough the poor thing gets up and does something, but he never looks happy. An orangutan at the zoo eats and walks and swings from tree to tree with an air of resignation, a loss of hope. No one is ever satisfied with anything he does. He's never funny enough, fast enough. He doesn't do what the spectators want. Half the time he's asleep or languishes in a corner, trying to hide. There's no animal in the kingdom that enjoys the feel of prying eyes.

There must be a problem here. It is much too dark. It isn't even safe. I wish they'd stop changing things. Every time I come home, I find they've built up, torn down, moved buildings, diverted traffic. Once, after I'd been away for over a year, I went to buy gas and found that all the pumps sold "regular" when I needed unleaded. I drove to four gas stations before I finally went inside to ask and found out that all gas is now unleaded, and therefore "regular". Sometimes I don't even understand the vernacular. Last time I visited I heard a young man talking about an item of clothing called a "wife-beater." I asked around and found out that a wife-beater is a white tank top, with or without grease stains. People at home say I sound English. People in England say I sound American. I run the risk of becoming a person who doesn't have a place in the world. All I want is to belong to something. All I want is for my face and voice to fade in with all the others.

I'm out of the tunnel but no nearer the exit. If anything, it looks further away. I'd cut straight across the parking lot if I had any way to go. There are cars on either side of me. I am practically driving in someone's boot. An SUV is bearing down on me from behind. That asshole doesn't even know what season it is. He still has one of those asshole SUV Christmas wreaths attached to his bumper. This one-way system seems to consist of three lanes, packed close together. I certainly picked the wrong time to try to leave the mall. I should have stuck around, had some sweet and sour pork in the food court, maybe drank an Orange Julius or sipped a double tall hazelnut latte. I am annoyed with myself for my lack of foresight. Why are situations always sneaking up on me? When will I learn to prepare? I don't have any good cassette tapes in this car, and when I turn up the radio, all I get is static. I drum my fingernails on the steering wheel to a beat, but that gets old real fast.

I ran away from home once, when I was fifteen, and I came to this mall with my boyfriend. He picked me up at the 7Eleven near my house in a beat-up Ford Pinto with furry dice hanging from the rear view mirror and we blasted The Scorpions as we drove, all the windows rolled down. We smoked Marlboro cigarettes. I smoked pot from a bent Diet Coke can. We went to a movie at the mall, but before that, I shoplifted a red-lace bustier from the lingerie department of a large store and put it on in the public bathroom. My boyfriend let me wear his leather jacket and I fancied I looked just like Madonna. My father didn't find me for thirty-six hours and by that time he'd alerted the state patrol. Customs officials at the Canadian border had faxed copies of my photograph taped to their booths. How little my father knew me. I never wanted to leave the country. Never.

This is outrageous. This is commercialism gone amuck. I'm not in the queue for the exit; I'm in a queue for Jack-in-the-Box. Well, actually both. These mall developers, these corporate hounds of hell, have set it up so that in order to leave the mall, you have pass the drive-through window of a Jack-in-the-Box. Wouldn't necessarily be that much of a problem, but today, everyone ahead of me is ordering something. What the hell-I am kind of hungry. It's been a while since I've had a burger on sour dough with Monterey Jack cheese. Maybe some kind of milkshake too. Probably chocolate.

By the time I get to the window, I realise what the problem is that's been bothering me. This is an American drive-through. I am in a British car. I am driving on the right side of the car. This doesn't make any sense. I don't understand what I'm doing in this car. What am I doing on the right side of a car in an American shopping mall? Ordering my food is going to be a real bitch. I hope the electric windows in this sucker work. They're always playing up in my car back home. Also, I hadn't noticed earlier, but this seat is set up in a wholly peculiar way. I am sitting far too upright-in fact, I'm more than upright. I'm being pushed forward. I am, in fact, sitting at an acute angle. My forehead is practically touching the steering wheel. I don't know how I've managed to get this far. It's hard to breathe in this position. I hadn't noticed before, but I'm sweating. I can't quite reach the lever to release the seat. I can't even reach the button to open the window. As soon as I've ordered my food, I'll find somewhere to pull over. I'll sort this mess out. Really, this is intolerable.

My turn. I'm shouting-"Sour dough burger, chocolate shake," but the guy at the window can't hear me because a) my window is closed, b) I'm on the other side of the car, and c) my diaphragm is seriously constricted and my volume isn't at the level it should be. I shout again, and he answers, "What?" I'm about to give up when somehow, he opens my window for me. I wonder if the button that controls the drive-through window also controls car windows. That would be a good invention. I never thought about that before.

"How'd you do that?" I ask.

"¿Que?"

"Don't you speak English?"

"¿Habla Espanol?"

"What?"

"¿Que?"

I want to scream. I cannot go forward. I cannot reverse. That SUV is the biggest mother I've ever seen. The Christmas wreath is bearing down on me like one of those scary cleaning devices in automated carwashes. (I hope that objects in the rear view mirror aren't really closer than they appear). To top it all off, I cannot make myself understood. Not here, not anywhere. Once, before my mother went into the hospital, she told me something. I didn't understand it at the time, and I don't know that I understand it now. She put one hand on each of my shoulders and made me look straight at her eyes. "No matter what happens," she said, "don't be afraid of life." I nodded because it seemed that was what was expected of me. She shook her head, closing her eyes, biting her lip. Tears squeezed out from under her eyelids. "No," she said, and she gripped my shoulders until they hurt. "Don't nod like it's easy. You'll see that it's not easy. It's the hardest thing in the world. You'll see. But no matter what happens, you have to try. Try not to be afraid." She grabbed my face in one hand, squeezing my cheeks together, giving me a fish-face. Then she kissed me. That was the last kiss. I was six years old.

Thinking of this makes me cry. With tears pouring down my cheeks, my neck bent to one side, elbows cutting into my torso, I cry out: "Please! Por favor! Uno hamburger. Uno chocolate shake. Please! I need you to hear me." I know my voice is muffled and garbled. I don't think anyone can understand.

But then, suddenly, there is a new guy at the window and he has a square jaw like Superman. His fast-food golf shirt is starched and clean. There is a row of gold stars on his plastic name tag, but no name, as if the stars speak for themselves.

"Welcome to Jack-in-the-Box," he says. "May I take your order please?"

I am still crying, but relieved that maybe someone can help me. "Just a sourdough burger and a chocolate shake," I say. "Medium. No onions on the burger."

"O-kay!" he says, punching buttons on the cash register. "That'll be a forty-five minute wait on the burger. If you want to pull into one of those parking spaces, I'll bring it out when it's ready. Four nineteen please!"

No one can help. That's the problem. You drive around dodging obstacles, jumping through hoops, avoiding land mines, trying not to scrape your mirrors, trying not to fall into potholes, trying not make any mistakes, trying to be understood. No one understands, and when you finally find someone who does, they want to make you wait forty-five minutes for your hamburger. I don't know what my mom meant when she told me not to be afraid of life. How can I not be afraid? How can I have any confidence when I am unable to accomplish a single thing? How can I stand fearless when I am alone in the universe, peering into an endless abyss? She was dying. She must have known about the abyss. I don't know what she was talking about. Maybe it was just one of those speeches adults feel obliged to give. You know? They need to share something, pass on a kernel of wisdom. In my thirty-six years of life I learned that the most important thing is—

"Never mind," I tell Superman. "I'm in a hurry."

When I make it to the traffic lights, I turn left, which, as I recall, is the direction I need to go to find the freeway. But a left turn moves me onto a wide highway, awash with golden light. There are no double yellow lines, or dotted white lines or cat's eyes. The road is made of small, smooth bricks-not a notch or a blemish anywhere. I search the horizon for a range of mountains that will tell me which way is east. Once I know which way is east, I'll know everything else I need to know. But I can't see the mountains. Either they've disappeared, or I'm not where I think I am, or the light is playing tricks with my eyes. I drive forward and find that if I push my back hard against the seat, I can almost sit upright. I push again, hard, and something in the seat makes a loud pop. Whatever I did, I'm comfortable now. I can breathe again and I'm sitting in a normal position with a comfortable amount of leg room. There are no obstacles before me—no potholes, no other cars, no fast-food outlets, no tunnels. There is nothing but me and a wide open road with no landmarks and no directions. I am not used to driving without trying not to hit something, but now it doesn't matter what I do. I can weave down the road. I can spin in circles. I can execute hand-brake turns. Nothing stands in my way and I haven't a thing to complain about.

This moment holds a significance, as if it is the culmination of a process. I conduct a moment of silence out of respect for everything in the universe I don't understand. I close my eyes and tilt my head until I can feel the sunlight warming my nose.

A flock of geese pass overhead, honking, flying in a V formation. I suppose they're headed south for the winter. This directional clue should help make my next decision, but I decide to ignore it. I'm fed up with compasses, with three dimensions, with arrows and stop signs. I don't want a road map or a GPS system. Get thee behind me, Satan.

I don't know what to do, so I move toward a shimmering puddle of water near the horizon. I know it's only a mirage. I know that it will evaporate long before I reach that spot, but I don't care because I also know that when I reach that point, another puddle will appear at the horizon and after that, still another. One long trail of effervescent puddles, of rising steam, of golden sun beating down on the bricks and making me think I see things that were never there. I have before me an endless chase, the work of a lifetime, so long as nothing pops up to stand in my way.