It was close to the end, on a slow moving Friday, that I decided to leave on a train for Connecticut to spend the weekend. It was a decision I’d made quickly earlier that same day while at work, and the location I had decided upon just as quickly after briefly looking on a map: a small town near the coast, chosen for its inexpensive hotels, its convenience of transportation, and its distance away from the things troubling me in New York.
Once the plan was made, the next few hours dripped by as I watched the clock hands move. I ended up walking out of work ten minutes earlier than I should have that day, flying up Broad Street with such haste that I clipped the sides of several unsuspecting bystanders who looked to me with surprise, but I didn’t care what they thought of me nor did I slow my pace until I was outside my apartment, where I stood for a few seconds with my hand on the door before unlocking and pushing it open in one quick motion: everything lay quiet and untouched, private and still – no one was home yet. I walked around the apartment grabbing things – a few items of clothing from the white dresser by our bed, my electric toothbrush, three of my most well-worn books from the bookshelf – then threw them all into my bag and left for the subway to the train station as fast I could walk.
Grand Central was more grand and more beautiful than I remembered. The last time I was there he was with me and we’d run through a long echoing terminal so that we wouldn’t miss our train to the beach, my summer sandals slapping smartly against the grey stone floor.
That Friday, I was alone, though still in a rush, but for different reasons now. I looked for the booth with the shortest line and bought my ticket from a woman whose quick words and efficient movements eased my restlessness and impatience.
The earliest departure time left me with more than an hour to kill, but I had a train ticket in my back pocket now, a bag of comforts by my side, and the promise of a weekend all to myself ahead, and these things, too, were calming. I found an empty bench off to the side of a walkway and sat against the marble wall for a long time watching people walk by in clusters and groups, alone, in twos and threes, to and from the gates and shops and restaurants. Then I read until it was time to leave. Right before boarding, I took out my phone and composed three versions of the same text to him, then deleted them all and wrote simply that I would be gone for the weekend.
The train ride was comfortable but long, and really I didn’t mind any of the stops in between because the growing distance began to feel like something I could touch. I fell asleep at some point, drifting in and out of dreams that left me feeling more tired upon waking. The clock read a quarter past midnight when I finally stepped off the train and onto an isolated platform so humble in size and appearance that it looked more like a wooden stand than a real train station. I had written down directions to the hotel on a piece of paper earlier that day at work after I’d made my reservation, but enveloped within that unknown landscape cloaked by darkness, the streets looked too black and too broad just then, and so I stayed where I was in the cool quiet night, trying to orient myself.
I was about to start exploring when I saw the cab down the road to my left. I began walking toward it, relief hurrying my steps, and upon reaching the car, peered into the open window at the driver. He was a big imposing man in his mid to late forties, and he looked tired and bored and had a thick neck and coarse brown hair that looked a little like a helmet half resting on his head. I said hello and told him the name of the hotel I wanted to go to and the address. He never quite made eye contact with me as I spoke to him, nor did he say anything to me, but he made a noise from the back of his throat and gave a curt nod, and I supposed that was communication enough. I watched him as I opened the back car door, hesitating for only a second or two before getting into the back seat and slamming the door shut.
We were both silent as he drove, neither of us acknowledging the other’s presence, and this arrangement suited me, for I was tired and didn’t want to feel the pressure of making idle small talk, and he didn’t seem like he cared either way. So we sat like statues, him staring straight ahead, and me looking out the window trying to make out the amorphous shapes passing by in the dark.
I don’t remember exactly how long it was, but I do know that we’d been driving on the highway for a while before I stopped looking out the window and started looking around inside the cab, and that’s when I saw the small sign posted on the dashboard by the driver man’s hand. It read: Cash Only.
Uh oh. I grabbed for my wallet and looked through all its pockets and folds, then opened my bag and dug deep into its corners and crevices, but found only a few stray pennies and nickels and nothing else so much as a single dollar bill. My eyes snapped back to the front of the car, scanning the entire area around the driver’s seat – sneakily, oh so sneakily – but I didn’t see any kind of credit card reader anywhere. I looked at the meter and saw that it was up to $16.75 by now, and we weren’t even at the hotel yet.
Well, shit. I usually tried to keep a little cash on me, but I had been in such a hurry to leave that day that I’d completely forgotten to do the sensible thing and stop to withdraw money for my little impromptu trip. But what was worrying me at that moment wasn’t simply that I had zero dollars on me: the real problem, I knew, was that not only did I not have any cash, but I also basically had no way of getting cash that night. Something had happened to my debit card about a week ago and ATMs couldn’t read it anymore.
I sat back and considered my options: should I speak up and tell the driver that I’d just realized I had no cash? But I knew he would then offer to take me to a nearby ATM. And then what? Then I would have to explain that I couldn’t get cash from the ATM. Then he would ask me why. And then I would have to explain that the reason why I couldn’t get cash from an ATM was because my debit card had stopped working last week, at which point I was pretty sure he would decide I was a good for nothing liar and kill me and dispose of my body in what was conveniently the dead of night by the corner of what was conveniently the middle of nowhere that we’d been driving through for the past ten minutes. And conveniently, there’d be no witnesses for him to handle either, because the streets were about as bare as my wallet and I had in fact not yet seen a single soul since stepping off the train, with the exception of the cab driver.
Well – I looked out the window at the lonely dark highway surrounding us – we’ve already driven this far, I thought to myself, might as well just wait until we get to the hotel.
So I sat there quietly and watched the meter tick higher and higher until finally we got off the lonely dark highway and onto a lonely dark street. He slowed the car to a stop by a small hill, where the hotel stood hidden behind a thicket of trees. The meter read $20. He didn’t say anything; he just sat there, waiting for his payment.
I handed him my credit card. This was my brilliant plan: play dumb.
“Cash only,” he said gruffly, pointing to the sign by his wheel.
“Oh –” I tried to sound as surprised and dismayed as I felt five minutes ago when I first realized that the cab was cash only. Feeling like a liar and a fool, I made a little show of fumbling around through my wallet and then my bag, checking and rechecking the same pockets and folds that I had looked through just moments ago for money that I knew wasn’t there. After searching for what seemed like a credible amount of time, I slowly looked up at his unsmiling face and said apologetically, “Er — I’m so sorry, I have my credit card, but I’m afraid I don’t have any cash on me. I didn’t know this cab was cash only.”
There was silence. And then he said – rather gruffly, I thought – “Well do you have an ATM card?”
“Um. Yes.” I said. This technically was not a lie.
“I’m taking you to an ATM,” he said shortly, and started driving before I could say anything. Not that I knew what to say.
He drove down an empty deserted street with the meter still running up and up and up while I sat there with dread growing in my stomach. I was almost certain that my debit card was not going to work – I had tried using it in several different ATMs in New York just a few of days ago with no success. So what was I going to once I’d gone through the charade of swiping my broken card again and again and it got rejected again and again and he realized that I’d just wasted more of his time? The driver, who hadn’t been friendly to begin with, now seemed downright irritated, and though admittedly it was with good reason, as it was getting very late and he was still stuck chauffeuring around an irresponsible chowderhead, it was worrying all the same. It also worried me that he seemed so resolutely determined to get his money, and it was looking increasingly unlikely that he would let me go without getting his due payment.
Maybe I should make a run for it, I thought. I imagined myself running out the cab as soon as the car stopped and hiding in a bush somewhere in the dark while the driver drove around yelling for me to come out. I smiled.
The car stopped.
“There. Go get money.”
He had parked in the corner of a tiny empty parking lot next to one of those 24-hour ATM centers enclosed within a glass vestibule. Off in the distance, about 80 yards away, there was a Safeway and a few cars parked outside on its giant lot. I stepped stiffly out of the car, and noticed that he’d left the meter running. Fair enough. I walked quickly to the ATM center, said a little prayer as I swiped my card at the entrance, exhaled a little sigh of relief when the little light turned from red to green, and swung open the door. There were three ATMs in the room – I went to the one farthest from the door, carefully punched in the numbers of my pin, and waited in half-hearted suspense while the machine considered my card, my fingers absentmindedly tapping out a nervous little beat on the side of the ATM. An error message appeared on the screen, and though it was what I expected, I winced all the same. I looked out at the cab still idling in place in the parking lot with angry little clouds of exhaust puffing out from its behind, and saw that the driver was watching me. He was not smiling and he did not look like he was in a good mood – in fact, one might even say he looked like he was in a bad mood. I made a confused face at him, then turned around hastily. I swiped my card again, reentered the numbers of my pin with heavy fingers, and waited for the error screen to show up again. I could feel his eyes on me as I swiped my card again a third time, and that’s when she came in.
She was a short Hispanic woman in her mid-forties. Her fingernails were painted a brilliant vivid purple and clashed fantastically with the hot pink of her tracksuit, which looked soft and clung snugly to her round body. In one hand, she held a keychain heavy with keys and small sparkly objects that made bright jangly sounds whenever she moved, and in the other hand, a debit card that she was inserting into the ATM farthest away from where I was standing. A cell phone was wedged in-between her neck and left shoulder, and she was speaking into it, her voice a fast blur of Spanish. I listened to her talk for a few seconds and then walked up to her and said “Excuse me, I need some help.”
She looked a little surprised at being approached, said something to whoever was on the other end of the conversation, and then looked at me expectantly, though not unkindly, which gave me courage.
“I just got off a train and took a cab to this hotel nearby, but I, very stupidly, don’t have any cash on me, and the cab is cash only, and my ATM card isn’t working…” my voice trailed off a little at this point, because I knew I sounded ridiculous, but she was still looking at me in this open curious way, and so I continued on, “so…I know this is kind of strange, but can you please loan me some money right now, thirty dollars, so I can pay the cab driver, and then I will go with you to that grocery store over there” – I pointed to the grocery store – “and buy you thirty dollars worth of groceries with my credit card,” I showed her my credit card.
I could hear myself speaking faster and faster and I wasn’t sure if she understood everything I’d said because her face looked little confused. So I repeated myself, slower this time, and this time she nodded and said “Ah sure, sure sweetie.” She turned around, entered some digits into the ATM, withdrew some more money, and then handed me a crisp twenty and a wrinkled ten. I took the money from her, briefly considered throwing my arms around her and giving her a big hug, thought better of it, and thanked her twice instead. I ran out to the cab and gave the driver the money through his window, apologized twice to his surly dour face, and ran back inside the ATM center where the woman was still standing chatting on her cell phone.
She hung up when I came back, and the relief I felt must’ve shown on my face, because she smiled at me, as if to tell me to relax, and I gave her a little smile in return, silently promising myself that if I were ever approached for help in the future by someone in a suspicious situation that I would try my best to help him or her even if my initial instinct was to be skeptical and say no. Then because I didn’t know what else to say, I introduced myself and told her where I was from and where in New York I lived, and as I talked, I wished that she could hear and understand from my voice how much I appreciated her goodwill towards me. We walked out of the bank and I saw that the cab had gone, and suddenly I felt lighter and happier than I had that entire day. We got into her little red Honda and drove to Safeway to buy some groceries.
As we walked down the bright white isles of Safeway together, me carrying a basket and her pushing a cart that was squeaky at the wheels, she told me about her daughter who was around my age and who was studying to be a nurse, and about her brother who would come around on weekends to fix the broken things in the house for her, and about how she liked to eat her bread with a little bit of sugar sprinkled on top, and by the time we’d made our way from the fresh produce to the deli, I felt like I knew the basic outlines of her life as well as her general dietary preferences. She was looking through a carton of eggs when I thanked her again for helping me, and she waved it off, saying that if her daughter were ever in trouble, she would want someone to help her daughter. Then she asked me what I was doing out there in Connecticut anyway, in the middle of the night all by myself. I thought about the different answers I could give, but I didn’t want to lie, so I awkwardly explained in clumsy little bits and pieces why I was there, and she looked at me for a long time, and then told me that everything would be okay. And normally I hated when people said things like that to me, especially if the person saying it didn’t know me very well at all, but she said it in this way that was so sweet and empathetic that I actually started tearing up there in the dairy aisle, so I told her I needed to get something in another aisle and that I would meet up with her later. I came back with a box of cereal and a bag of chips. She bought some fruits and vegetables and chicken and eggs and water, and after I helped her put her groceries away in her car, she drove me to the hotel. I was sorry to leave her. As I was getting out the car, she told me to take care of myself – I said the same to her, then I waved and said goodbye, and closed the door.