I wrote the following piece in response to my first Fiction Workshop prompt at Emerson College (classes started on September 5th): Write a short, short story about a chance encounter between two people. Characterize one of them through his/her reaction to the encounter. As you may guess, my strength does not lie in writing short, short stories. But I drew inspiration from a real situation in which my friend found herself a couple of years ago.
The metallic jolt of contact sent shimmies of aftershock through her foot and up her calf and thigh and lower back; the vibrations fled from her in a solitary chirp as her rump lifted off the driver’s seat and bounced back down.
Gia had finally slammed into the bumper of the beige Camry whose brake lights had been warning her all throughout the curve of Sturrow Drive. Her thoughts could have drifted for only a second—she was too busy fuming that she was ten minutes late for her appointment at Mass General with the gastroenterologist. And even though she would have probably picked at the pills on her shirt for an hour in the waiting room as that dry, industrial soap-like hospital smell saturated her, she knew that she had missed her window and would have to reschedule.
She threw on her right directional. The thunking of her heart and the blinking of the Camry’s right rear signal joined in. She hugged close to the dented tail of her victim as it nudged between cars in the outside lane and pulled up over the curb.
“I am SO sorry!” Gia spilled out onto the pavement. “Are you okay? I don’t know where my mind was! I’m pissed because I’m late for an appointment—stupid traffic—I was just distracted…don’t worry, it doesn’t look too bad” – she bent over, hair swinging over her head and blood rushing into it, and studied the bruise in the Camry’s fender – “and you can definitely drive, so maybe it doesn’t have to go into the shop right away—”
“Hey,” said the girl. “Relax. And you might want to get out of the street.”
Gia stumbled backward between the two cars, up onto the strip of land that ran alongside the highway. “Sorry—I get kind of freaked out sometimes…seriously, are you all right? Does anything hurt?” Her father’s voice popped into her ears: Never acknowledge that you’re at fault. She clamped her lips together. Breathe. Stop talking. Stop talking and breathe.
The Camry girl was dressed in eclectic juniorwear, the kind of outfit that Gia’s seven-year-old would salivate over: turquoise capri leggings with a silver skirt made of tulle and a black baby tee punctured with tiny rhinestones. Her blond hair raced away from her cheekbones and through a fuzzy elastic at the back of her head, then poofed out into a deliberately tousled mane. Gia wasn’t sure the girl was even old enough to drive.
“No big deal,” the girl said. “I got nowhere to go. But you might be in trouble with that big chunk of your car hanging off.”
The fender of Gia’s Civic bowed away from the front grating and the curve of it gave her car a dopey smile. Gia ran her palms over her face as if to rub away the offensive sight of the scene before her, and sighed. She deserved this, she supposed.
“Should we exchange registrations?” Gia said. Part of her question was an invitation, and part of it was really a question. “I think that’s the next step?”
The girl shrugged. “I don’t have insurance,” she said.
“Oh.” Gia lowered her gaze, thinking. The girl’s feet were naked and white in the grass.
“Yeah, I know—I don’t have shoes, either,” the girl said, and laughed. “Had to leave my house pretty fast. I just jumped in the car and drove.” She slid out a cigarette from somewhere in the tulle. “Want one?”
“Oh, no.” Gia crossed her arms over her chest. “I teach Zumba three times a week.”
“Healthy body, healthy mind.” Camry Girl recited the words as though mocking the advice of a seventh-grade Health teacher. “That’s why I’m so fucked up in the head.”
Gia paused. “I’m sure that’s not true.” Now she saw the pockmarks in the girl’s skin, and, as the girl’s hand raised the cigarette to searching lips, the fingernails housing dirt bugs (when she needed to take to Millie’s and Leo’s nails with an orange stick, she used this appalling threat of disease). Something pinged back and forth inside her when she thought of Millie and Leo, hair slick from their baths and bodies warm in pajamas they had picked out of the laundry basket just carried up from the cellar.
“So fucked up, I’m not sure how I’m gonna get that fixed.” Smoke coiled languidly out of the girl’s nostrils. “Can’t go back to where I came from, that’s for sure. Maybe I’ll just hang here with you for a while.” A half-smile pressed back the corners of her mouth.
The pinging inside Gia grew into a small bowling ball of unease that settled in her gut.
“Again, I’m really sorry,” she offered, rubbing her upper arms in the brush of the riverside breeze. The girl had her nose tipped up to the sky, exhaling her drag, and her profile glowed. “Is there anything I can do?” She felt the magnetic need of the girl pulling at the air between them.
Gia had at least forty minutes to wait. Her father was on his way with a supply of rope, bungee cords, duct tape, and a Triple A membership card, just in case. She tucked her feet beneath her, wedging her knees comfortably under the steering wheel, and leaned back her head.
She had found her snakeskin heels in the trunk from the time she and Kent spent a night away from the children at a bed and breakfast in North Conway. She had also found, in her imitation Coach Hobo bag, a travel hairbrush, a cranberry and pomegranate Preventia bar, and a pocket poncho in camouflage print. When Gia added seventy-three dollars and thirty-two cents to these items of charity, Camry Girl had closed both hands like an alligator’s jaws over Gia’s and scooped the treasures away.
“Must have been fate to meet you,” the girl had said.
From the driver’s seat, Gia glanced around and registered the staticky echo of tires churning over asphalt, engines grumbling, the weary voices of drivers and passengers and the tangled notes of music floating out of open windows. Everyone was going somewhere. Everyone always had somewhere to go. Didn’t they?
Gia thought about how she had given away the money that she was supposed to use for the week’s groceries, and about how she was going to pay to have her car fixed. She braced herself for her father’s scolding.