Pablo pulls his taxi up next to the glare of lights outside the hotel’s entrance. The Hotel Casanova, shining in big, bold pink letters above the rotating glass doors. He yawns, glancing at the radio clock, 11:59, it blinks to 12:00.
Midnight, he thinks to himself, when the day changes.
His taxi coordinator sent him over here on a pick up. Many of his drives are on requests, since he works the graveyard shift. San Francisco is too crazy during the day and evening for him. Back in Medellin, though. Oh, Medellin… Slumping into his chair, Pablo closes his eyes and remembers his old city. The wide, clean lanes he practiced on to get his taxi license. Flat roads and cool weather, unlike the steep and windy heat here. When he opens his eyes, he hears the faint tapping of rain, then come the little slivers of water streaking diagonal across the windshield, leaving tails like tiny comets.
Two knocks on the passenger window. Pablo opens his eyes and through the teary glass sees a woman. He unlocks the door and she comes in, slamming the door behind her, which makes him jump inside his skin. Even after five months, he’s still not used to that forceful sound when Americans shut doors, an indication of being upset back in Colombia. This woman does not looks upset, though, but distracted, her knees jittery and her eyes puffy and red. Her white coat looks expensive, as does her scarf that gives a silky sheen. But her shoes are white sneakers that don’t match her outfit, worn grey.
She says hello, then asks to be taken to downtown.
“Now?” he says. “But… nothing opens there.”
“It’s fine,” she says. “I’m just going to see someone, very quickly, and then you can take me back here. Please. Let’s hurry.”
Pablo hesitates, but his job is to drive where the customer requests, not to ask questions, not to even make small talk.
“Can we please get going?” she says, “What are we waiting for?” Her tone is not rude, just nervous.
“Alright,” he says.
It’s full on raining now. Pablo didn’t know she meant this side of downtown, miles down the business district and past all the warehouses, graffiti swimming across the walls. At least, if there are gangs here, they’d probably take the night off from robbing vehicles due to weather. Thank God for the rain.
“Down this way,” she says, pointing her finger. Pablo has to throw his foot on the brake to make the turn in time. Luckily the streets are empty.
“Sorry,” the woman says.
They hadn’t spoken a single word on the way over, nothing about the rain that suddenly came out of nowhere in the middle of June, even though the radio had predicted it, no ‘So how long have you been in America?’—a popular one once passengers hear his accent, or ‘Are you from here?’ from him if they’re dressed like tourists. All that was said was a silence that seemed to hiss softly between them, telling Pablo that she is worried about something.
“This is a dead ends,” says Pablo, pointing to the sign and slowing down. The lampposts are spread far here, dim and flickering. In the haze of the rain they look like drunken eyes.
“Yes, it’s okay. Keep going.”
Pablo feels fearful, like this could be some sort of reverse tourist scheme where the passenger leads the taxi driver to the place where the crime will take place.
“Here,” she says.
Pablo punches the brakes and they both jerk forward from the suddenness. “Sorry, you tell me late.” He peers out her window. A short, undecorated building, two windows above, one with a lamp on, a moldy yellow glass pane.
“Oh, sweetheart, we both know that’s not your fault.” She dips her hand into her purse, feeling for something, then says, “I’ll be back in 20 minutes.”
He nods, twisting the ignition off. “I have to keep meter running, you understand?”
“Yes, it’s no problem,” she says quickly. Reaching to open the door, she pauses. “Actually, it might be 25 minutes.”
Pablo can hear the shakiness in her voice, nervous like a scale that can’t seem to balance.
“Miss, you are certain you are okay?”
“Yes, yes, it’s fine.” She takes a deep breath. “Okay, it might be something more like thirty minutes, though, okay?” She locks eyes on him, a serious look, much too serious for her words.
“I wait until you come back,” he says.
Her eyes wander away, flitting back and forth and up and down, tracing crosses. Then without another word, she gets out, spreads her umbrella open, and runs toward the building. He watches as she disappears inside.
Pablo takes a deep breath. His windshield is fogged from the humidity and his body’s heat. The collar of his jacket pokes at his neck, which is breaking into sweat. Slipping it off, he tosses it into the back. He glances at the time, green blocked numbers. Exactly 28 minutes have passed now, and Pablo can already sense that the woman will not return within the next two minutes. The woman, now that he thinks about it, was looking at him in way that could be seen as, desperation? Or was it fear? He doesn’t know, but he knows it wasn’t good. What good thing could there be coming here at this hour?
Pablo begins tapping his fingers across the wheel. It starts slowly but a minute later, he’s full-on drumming to the rhythm of a song he once heard at a club in Medellin. He didn’t remember the song until now, as if its quick notes and bouncy beat have been brought along by the rain.
At the 30-minute mark, Pablo angles his body to face out the passenger window. When another five minutes pass, he starts feeling more nervous, bat wings flapping in his stomach. He leans over and peers up into that window. Still just a lamp, yellow light. No shadows anywhere. She’ll be back, Pablo thinks. If he needed to do something and had a taxi drive him here, he wouldn’t want the driver to barge in and interrupt.
At the 48-minute mark, though, each second that ticks by is accompanied with another large drop of sweat that crawls out of Pablo’s forehead.
“Okay, okay,” he finally says.
He reaches for the door handle but the moment he does, the passenger door flies open and in comes the lady, drenched.
“I’m so sorry!” she says. “I was just… got lost track of time. And then—”
Pablo flinches at how fast she’s speaking.
“—I didn’t know if I should come out and tell you to wait longer, but I looked out the window and you were still here. I’m so sorry! I’m so—”
“It’s okay!” Pablo says, his voice raised. This shuts her up, and the silence after seems to swallow the hammering rain for a moment.
Pablo hasn’t heard himself speak like that in so long—in fact, he can’t remember the last time he did. In the taxi, at home with his parents in Colombia, at church: he always speaks soft and meek.
“I’m… I apology,” he says, trying out the word he recently learned. “I was nervous a little, because I didn’t know whether you are okay.”
He turns cautiously toward the woman. She’s staring back at him, looking stunned. Finally, she offers Pablo a smile. It’s sweet but not completely there, still tinged with slight worry.
“It’s apologize,” she says. “Apology is the noun.” She traces her finger along his taxi license certificate pasted on the glove compartment. “There is nothing to apologize for, Pablo.”
The drive back to the hotel is silent, like before, the rain rolling off the windshield, the wipers swinging back and forth, rubbing gently against the glass. This silent is different, though, Pablo can feel it: The woman’s nervousness, though not completely gone, has subsided. It’s not anything she’s doing that’s changed—both the ride downtown and back, she sits still, brushing her fingertips together in her lap—but the space is less tense, like there’s more air to breathe in the taxi.
It’s only when Pablo is pulling in front of the hotel that he realizes the woman must have left her umbrella in the building downtown. The woman pulls out a fifty dollar bill and hands it to Pablo (the fare would be paid electronically by credit card).
“Thank you,” she says, her eyes lingering on him. “You have a good night, okay?” She opens the door, but he says, “Wait, Miss. This is too much!”
“No, please, take it.”
“No, really, miss,” he says.
“I’ve made a mess of your taxi. The seat and floor are all wet. It’s the least I can do.”
“That’s really okay,” he says. “I can to dry it with towels. It is okay.”
Her eyes flick away for a moment, then land back on him. Her eyes say it all: she doesn’t want him to say anything to anyone about tonight. Not that he would. Or any taxi driver. It’s part of the code, she and every person who takes taxis should know that. Escorts and rich businessmen who wish to keep their activities discreet sometimes even ride together, no one in the taxi or hotel business says anything. They simply provide transportation, and space. What you do with those are up to you.
She steps out, not stopping this time as Pablo tries to protest against the tip once again, dashing into the hotel.
The rest of the graveyard shift passes normally. Casually. A pair of women who are loudly drunk, tequila sunrise on their breath, that need to get home from a party. A friendly man who, at 3 AM, doesn’t seem the least bit tired, chatting Pablo up about his travels to Brazil ten years ago. A family that needs to get to the airport. A few others who sit in the back and fade into the shadows in silence.
When Pablo returns to his apartment, his body aches with exhaustion, and he has to slug his legs up the stairs to the 3rd floor where he shares a space with two others. It’s not actually a room, but an attic, partitioned by bookshelves into three areas. His space is a triangle, and has room just for his blanket (he sleeps on the floor), a chair, desk, and clothes on the shelves. He collapses onto his blanket.
Pablo’s not normally this tired, that incident with the woman must have zapped him of his energy.
He tries to fall asleep, his body sinking into the ground. But his mind darts here and there, the look on the woman’s face, waiting outside that building for her, tapping the wheel. His skin is moist with new sweat, drops crawling down his scalp and collecting inside his ears.
He’s not sure if he’ll ever get used to the weather here. The sudden heat waves that wrap their fingers around your face. The humidity all caught up in it. Unlike Medellin… Medellin, the perfect weather, everyday a t-shirt, shorts or pants it was up to you because it never got too hot or too cold, at most you’d bring a sweater. His family had moved there from Barichara, a small, modest pueblo, when he was 12, the age when childhood still reigns but ambition trickles in. His father had gotten a job as a construction worker, a hookup from Pablo’s uncle. Pablo hadn’t gotten into any universities when he’d graduated, and thus began the taxi driving. It was a decent life. Living with his family, he was able to save enough to come to America, one of his childhood friends already in San Francisco to help him settle in. America, where dreams are made of, his last thought before letting go, melting into sleep.
As usual, Pablo wakes up to the sound of water gurgling through the chamber of the large glass bong of his roommate. The bookshelves that separate him from his two roommates extend to the slanted ceiling, but all sounds can be heard, not even muffled.
Pablo sits up and his roommate starts coughing. Then Pablo hears the careful passing of the bong to the other roommate, a lighter flicking and smoke being pulled into the chambers. The sour but sweet, ashy smell, it nauseates Pablo, collecting in the room, stale, no windows. Pablo glances at the clock that was already on the desk when he moved in, 2:01 in the afternoon. His roommates cough, say,
“That’s good shit.”
Pablo spends an hour washing his clothes in the kitchen sink and hanging them on a rope he ties taut across his space. With the 50 dollar bill, he goes to the local supermarket and buys a bag of rice, cans of beans, and bananas. He visits a discount store and finds a pair of shoes that provide comfortable padding to accommodate his somewhat-flat feet, only $11. But he decides, after much back and forth thinking, to not get them. A big tip doesn’t mean he shouldn’t save for something that could come up. And something always comes up when Pablo finally manages to have a few leftover dollars after paying rent. Whether it’s his family asking to wire something back for his sister’s school supplies, or his jacket gets caught in the door and tears, there’s always something.
During graveyard shift, Pablo is assigned to pick up someone in a residential, gated community. Pablo only gets past the gate after the guard confirms by calling the residence, who only answers the phone after Pablo insists the guard try to call again a fifth time, the first four being no answers.
“YEAH!” shouts a man over the receiver. The guard’s phone isn’t on speaker but Pablo can hear the commotion and music in the background from where he sits in the taxi. “WE’VE BEEN WAITING, WHERE IS HE?”
The guard ushers Pablo through, and when Pablo gets to the address, a modern, Victorian-style mansion, he sees a group of five crouched on the front steps, the front door and windows all open and bright with the house’s lights, people scurrying around inside and music jazzing.
Pablo pulls up next to the group and one of the guys stands up, nearly stumbling, drunk. He wraps on the window loudly. Pablo rolls it down.
“You our taxi?”
“Yes, I am,” says Pablo.
The guy turns around. “Hey! This is the taxi guy, come on, let’s go.”
One of the women in the group, wearing a blue sparkling dress, holding her head between her hands, says, “No shit, Pearce. We know what a fucking taxi looks like!”
The group swings open the doors and start climbing in one by one. Two of the girls are chatty and laughing and squeeze into the back, along with the girl in the blue dress, and the guy named Peace says, “Oh, hell no, I’m not squeezing into the front with Richard.” The guy named Richard’s eyes are lulled closed and he’s swaying on his feet, trying to steady himself as he walks over.
“Sir,” Pablo says. “There is seats for four people in the taxi only.”
“Linda, you and Meg should be the ones in the front.” Pearce says, not acknowledging what Pablo says.
“Sir,” Pablo says. “There is only—“
“We’ll be fine,” Pearce says. “It’s no big deal.”
“You don’t understand,” says Pablo. “I am not allowed to—“
Pearce is already helping his friend into the passenger seat. “Richard, man… I told you not to drink so much.” Pearce plops Richard into the seat, whose head tilts back against the headrest, eyes blurry. Then Pearce squeezes into the space, barely managing to slam the door shut.
“Sir, I’m sorry, but I cannot to drive the taxi this way. It is not with the law. And, you don’t have seatbelts—“
“Come on, man, just take us back,” Pearce says. “There’ll be a nice tip in it for you, alright?”
Pablo hesitates, glancing into the rearview. The two girls are still smiling, now chatting in whispers. The girl in the blue dress says, “Can you please just take us, sir? We’re all going to the same hotel. We just don’t want to be separated, you know?”
“Yeah, come on, man,” says Pearce.
Pablo sighs, and begins driving.
It seems to happen every time more than four people want to squeeze into Pablo’s taxi. Pablo says no, they insist, Pablo says no again, and they pressure him into doing it. Thank God, though, that Pablo manages to get them safely back. It’s not so much breaking the taxi rules (he could get fired if caught), but the fact that whoever are sharing the seat won’t have a seatbelt. Even cruising at 30 in a residential can send someone flying through the windshield if they hit another car. Then again, most passengers don’t even buckle up anyways.
After dropping them off and receiving a handful of scrunched up one dollar bills from the three girls and Pearce, totaling six dollars, Pablo drives to the bridge, the remaining lights of the city like scattered eyes watching him before the cavern of the sky. There’s something lingering in the car, in the space that the group occupied and seemed to take with them when they left. Part of Pablo’s generally positive (or maybe just-over neutral) mood. Or perhaps Pablo’s hope for a better future. Perhaps it’s disappointment, not in Americans and passengers, but in his expectations, losing that excitement he felt the first times he tapped the meter on. The passengers are no doubt a diverse mix of ages and backgrounds, but their conversations, if they do occur, only dive so deep. It’s always surface talk, nothing like he saw in the movies when he was training in Medellin, confessions, both lives changing in a 20-minute ride. Just people who need to get somewhere, Juan taking them there. Juan’s path a shadow of theirs. But what about his own path? He chose to come here. He took the risk, thinking it’d be better here. But is it? As this last thought fades, his work phone rings. He picks it up and receives his next pick up location. The hotel from yesterday.
Before Pablo even gets there, he knows that the passenger will be the lady. The time is 1:28, later than yesterday but not by much. As he pulls up to the entrance, the large, glass door swings open and out she comes, in the same white coat. She’s wearing jeans tonight, though, but also the same white sneakers, dust-stained.
She comes in and shuts the door, taking a quick deep breathe. “Hi, Pablo.”
“Same place as yesterday,” she says, seemingly calm.
He nods, glancing at her; she’s staring at him out of the side of her eye. As he pulls away, he thinks that, if she weren’t older than him by what seems like a decade (Pablo is 26), he might try to light up a conversation with her, and maybe even ask her on a date. It’d be the first time he’s done this.
Pablo drives downtown, the clear weather outside, silent, crisp blinking stars in the sky, the opposite of the rattling rain yesterday. The woman’s mood, too, seems to mimic this change. Her palms are relaxed on her knees. There’s often that awkwardness between strangers when neither he nor the passenger attempt to make conversation, fidgeting in the air, deciding whether or not to break the silence. With this woman though, it’s not there at all. There’s a feeling of familiarity, like a friend’s sibling, where you feel connected based on that link. A few times, Pablo wants to say something, but stops himself.
As they’re crossing the bridge though, she breaks the silence.
“Thank you for taking me again, tonight.” She clears her throat.
“You are welcome,” he says.
“You must have thought I was crazy, huh? The way I was acting.” She says this in friendly tone.
Pablo smiles, and shrugs. “Well, I was worried a little. You say 20 minutes, and then 25 minutes, and then 30. And then I wait for 30 minutes, and you don’t come. So I think, maybe something is wrong.”
She sighs. “Was it really that obvious?”
Pablo nods, barely.
“So where are you from, Pablo?”
“Colombia,” he says.
“And how long have you been here?”
“Around… five months,” he says.
They’re passing the middle of the bridge now, not a single pair of headlights on the stretch, as far as Pablo can see.
“I’ve… I’ve actually been to Colombia,” she says.
“Really?” he says.
“Si! A la orden!”
He laughs. A la orden, which means, at your service, or your welcome, a phrase specific to Colombia. “You know A la orden! I am impress.”
“Impressed,” she says. “Impress is the verb.”
“Yes, okay, thank you,” he says. “And did you vacation in Colombia?”
She hesitates, then says, “I was there on business.”
Naturally, he’d ask what type of business, but he doesn’t. He can sense it, her unspoken request for him to not ask further.
“Well, I hope my country make a good feeling on you.”
She’s silent, then responds, “It was beautiful.”
They get off the bridge and weave through the streets, and are soon downtown. Even though Pablo’s only been to that building once, he already remembers how to get there. There’s the same street with the broken lamp, and the mural of a Ferris wheel painted across a brick wall.
Once again, that same light on in the building’s window. Pablo pulls over. The woman remains in the car, staring ahead and eyes vacant. Pablo wants to say something like, ‘We are here’, but decides to wait for her to shake out of whatever thoughts have immersed her. Finally, she says, “What part of Colombia are you from, Pablo?”
He shifts in his seat. “Medellin,” he says.
“Medellin… is that where you grew up?”
“No, actually, my home town is Barichara.”
Their voices amplify in the stillness of the air inside the taxi, the inactivity outside. She nods. “Barichara… is that a pueblo?”
“Yes, it is.”
“What is Barichara like?”
Pablo glances at the meter, which flips to the next dollar, and the clock, which reads 1:49.
He hesitates, then tells her. “Small town, but beautiful. Many artists.” He pauses, then adds. “Very safe, too”, as if this would matter to her.
“I see,” she says. He hears her gulp down some saliva, then she opens the door. “It should be 10 minutes at most.” She tries to smile at him, but it fades away as it forms. “And I promise to not freak you out when I come back, okay?”
“Okay…” he says.
She gets out, her eyes down, and goes into the building.
As Pablo waits, he notices that the old must of the leather in this taxi has a more pronounced smell, mixed with the aroma of ashy cigarette and fast food. He glances around the vehicle, the foggy stains on the windshield, the rear view mirror held in place by electrical tape. The wear on the steering wheel, gritty and faded. He wonders, how many taxi drivers have driven this vehicle, how many passengers, and how many places? How many taxi drivers sitting where he’s sitting came to America in search of a better life? Hoping to one day own their own business or find success in another way? How many eventually left taxi driving? And how many were happy with what they did, taking people where they needed to go?
He tries to answer them for himself.
How many passengers has he driven? Perhaps 20/day, on average. He’s been here for 5 months, so that’d be 20 rides x 30 days x 5 months. That’s 3,000 destinations delivered by him.
As for searching for a better life here, he doesn’t think he really believed this. He knew, growing up in Barichara, where everyone knew everyone and people never locked their doors, that friendship and community were what was important. Maybe, he did think things would be financially better here. His aunts and uncles certainly thought so. Pablo certainly does make more money here, it’s just that everything cost so much more here, too.
Was he hoping to start his own business? It was the American dream he’d seen in movies, no doubt, where he watched African-Americans and Latinos like himself oppressed by poverty and racism breaking out of those chains and making it. But those were only films, Pablo had quickly realized after the first few months here. Around the city, swarms of minorities trudged through the littered areas and crammed themselves onto the buses that drove through areas plagued with drug dealers and occasional gunshots. He was one of them, barely even making rent. How would he save capital to start his own thing?
But the most important question, is he happy? He’s certainly thankful. Of his entire pueblo in Barichara, only he has had the opportunity to live—or even visit—America. Work is work, and he’s lucky to have a job. He just wishes he could feel more connected to something. Pablo tries to recall the face of even a single one of his passengers, but can’t. Even the group yesterday, Pier, or Peter, or whoever, Pablo can’t see his face anymore. They all blur together.
Losing himself in his thoughts, Pablo doesn’t realize that 18 minutes have passed. Like yesterday, he begins tapping his fingers along the steering wheel. A nervousness sinks in, something itchy on his scalp, trying to get into his thoughts. Why did the woman have to say 10 minutes, ‘at most’? He sighs, glancing up at the building’s window. This time, though, he sees a shadow pass by, which promptly disappears. Pablo closes his eyes for a moment, telling him to relax. They’re startled back open when he hears the passenger door open, the woman stepping inside.
“Thanks for waiting,” she says, her words quick. She seems anxious, her eyes jumpy. “I’m sorry I’m late. I said ten minutes, but—“
“It is no problem,” he says, calmly this time.
He can hear her breathing, loud and slow and trembling on the exhale.
“You are… okay?”
“I’m… yes, I’m okay,” she says. “Thank you for asking…”
Twisting on the ignition, Pablo says. “Back to the hotel, then?”
“No,” she says. “I actually need to go to the airport.”
“What?” he says. “But, you have no carry luggage.”
“It’s fine,” she says, “Please, just… just take me to the airport.”
The drive to the airport is 30 minutes, but Pablo eases his foot on the gas to make the drive longer, feeling disappointed—but in what? Pablo doesn’t know. Either way, the woman said her flight would be at 3:15, so she’s going to have plenty of time for check-in, especially at this empty hour.
“So where are you going to?” he asks after a few minutes of silence. Once again he feels as if he can sense her emotional state. It’s a strange mix this time, like a static in the air—electrical, wiry, jumpy; she’s nervous, or excited, or terrified, perhaps all three.
“I’m… I’m actually going to Colombia…” she says.
For a moment Pablo is struck quiet by the coincidence.
“You are… you are really going to Colombia?” He glances at her in the rear view mirror. They catch each other’s eyes, then both look away, back toward the highway, the divider dots blinking back the headlights of the taxi.
“Yeah, I am,” she says. “Although, I didn’t know I was going, until now.” She sighs, uninhibited.
“May I ask why are you going?”
The taxi bumps softly, even though the road ahead appears smooth.
“Business,” she says. “Just business.” And with the way she says it, matter-of-fact, Pablo doesn’t ask anything more.
“I see,” Pablo says.
“What did you say that town was again?” she says. “The one you grew up in?”
“Barichara,” he says.
“No, Barichara,” he says.
“Oh, okay. Barichara.”
“You said it’s a nice, safe town, right?” she says.
“Yes, it is.”
“Can you tell me more about it?”
“What do you want to know?”
“I guess, I don’t know,” she says. “Anything that comes to your mind.”
He tells her about the chocolate festival every year, where vendors from all over Colombia bring their locally-grown organic chocolate desserts and powders and for three days, everyone has a hot chocolate in their hands. Then, there’s the trail that connects Barichara with Guane, a beautiful 7-kilometer hike that wraps around hills, pulls through parts of forest, and curves along rivers. The food, of course, is great, and the weather, year-round moderate temperatures, cannot even be compared to here. Plus, being so far from any city, hidden in the mountains, it’s quiet and the air is clean and fresh. Mostly, though, it’s that everyone is friendly, willing to go of their way to help you if needed.
“That is what I most miss,” Pablo says. “The people. Sometimes, even a stranger talk with you for hours, if you want. It is normal to invite someone you don’t know for a coffee, just for talk.”
“Really?” she says. “That sounds wonderful. Here, people are always trying to just get to the next place. And those that you work with, it’s all business, you know? There’s no time to slow down and breathe sometimes.”
“Yes…” Pablo says. Even back at his apartment, his roommates only ever hang out when they are smoking marijuana. Otherwise, they don’t seem interested in each other’s lives.
“Well, I’m glad I met you, Pablo,” the woman says. “You’re very cool. For, well, I don’t know, taking me to the airport right now, and not freaking out last night.”
“It’s my job,” Pablo says. “To take you where you need to go, that is all.”
“Yeah, but… still. I’ve had a few bad run in’s with taxi drivers. People don’t really like surprises, you know?”
“Hmm…” says Pablo. “I am happy for meeting you too. You are a very interesting person. But I like you.”
She laughs, the first time, Pablo realizes.
“It’s because I’m a crazy lady, huh?”
Pablo can’t help but smile a little. “No, no, just, you are very interesting.”
“Interesting… huh?” she says. “Sounds like another word for crazy…”
They don’t speak for a while until Pablo is off the highway and they’re driving through the airport turnabout, about to park at the drop-off’s.
“I’ll be back in a week,” she says as Pablo slows to a stop. There’s only two other cars in the terminal, a woman hugging what appears to be her husband goodbye in front of them. “I’ll request you again, when I need to get picked up.”
“Okay,” Pablo says, smiling.
She smiles back, then opens the door and heads into the airport.
For a couple days after, Pablo, feeling refreshed from his encounters with this woman, the bond that seems to be forming between them, however undefined, makes a conscious attempt to connect better with other passengers. These attempts fail, though, simply because of the short time of the taxi rides, and the small talk about travel, work, and weather seems to always crop up and take over.
The most ‘real’ thing anyone tells him during the week is a talkative woman, who chats with him like a monologue about going to her father’s funeral: she tells Pablo that she suspects her father was cheating on her mother, and that she resents him for it. This revelation, though, comes off like she would tell any stranger.
He can’t seem to sleep much that week. It’s not just the humidity but his thoughts that feel stuffy, not quite disappearing into the dark space behind his eyelids as he clamps them shut. There is nothing to be anxious about, but he imagines picking up the woman from the airport, and what he’ll say, what she’ll say. Perhaps she went and visited his home town in Barichara, maybe even happened into his aunt’s dress shop. Or she’ll resume her nervousness, fidgeting in her seat, and Pablo will finally ask her what the matter is, and she’ll tell him. The floor seems harder, pressing against his spine and he can feel the round nobs of nails making indents into his back, and there is a humming from the refrigerator that mingles with a mechanical clicking sound, a sound Pablo can’t figure out. And so those late night and early morning hours drift just along the verge of sleep but not quite, tiring him and making the sunlight glaringly bright across his windshield as he takes passengers around to where they need to go.
The only thing significant thing that happens that week is that he receives an email from his parents; their dog has died, a dog that had spent many nights sleeping on the floor of Pablo’s room, but Pablo takes the news casually, as if he’s heard it’s going to rain. It doesn’t hurt him nearly as he imagined, not even close. Maybe it’s the distance, or not actually having to help dispose of the dog’s body. Regardless, wherever the dog is now, he’s sure it’s a good place.
Finally, a week after the woman left, the call comes at 3 AM for a pickup at the airport.
On the drive over, as he crosses the bridge, Pablo, for the first time since he’s been to America, considers actually returning to Medellin. Maybe America isn’t the place for him. Some things are meant to be. Some aren’t. It wouldn’t be giving up, in any sense, he is getting by here okay enough, it’s just a feeling.
At the terminal, the woman is wearing a black coat and grey, professional looking pants, a blue button-up shirt, as if coming straight from a business meeting.
“Hi, Pablo,” she says when he gets out to help her with her luggage. “How are you?”
“I am good, and how was your trip?”
“Good, good,” she says. “I’m very good.”
“You bought many clothes in your trip?” he says, remembering the single purse she’d had on her for the departure.
“Yes, I did.”
They get in and he pulls away, out of the terminal, onto the highway. Not a word for now, waiting for her to say something about her trip, about Colombia, his home country. Steering the wheel, he can once again sense her emotions—what is it this time?—relaxation? No. Joy? Not quite. Delight. Something good has happened. But it seems fragile, as if perhaps it could easily break.
“How is the weather, back in Colombia?”
“Oh, it was great,” she says.
A stretch of silence.
“And were you able to vacation somewhere for your free time?”
“No…” she says. “Not really. I was busy the whole time. I had some meetings, and, yeah.”
Another silence, Pablo driving for several minutes, before breaking it.
“Can I ask you, what type of business you work?”
The woman laughs softly, a hint of self-pity. “Pablo…” she says. “You should already know, based on the times you picked me up and where you’ve taken me, I can’t talk about it…”
“Right, okay,” he says.
Pablo has been anticipating this the entire week, imagining a deep conversation, about what, though? He doesn’t know. But not… this.
Just taking her back to the hotel, getting her where she needs to go. Another passenger, small talk, and silence.
As they’re about to cross the bridge, though, the woman says, “Oh my God, I’m sorry I completely forgot to tell you. I need to go downtown, Pablo, not to the hotel.”
Pablo stomps on the brake, barely stopping them in time to swerve left and do an illegal U-turn before it’s too late and they’re stuck going the mile on the bridge.
“Sorry,” she says. “I should’ve told you sooner. I’m just a little distracted.” She clears her throat quietly.
“It’s… no problem…” Pablo says.
Outside the building downtown, Pablo once again sees that lamp waiting for her, a pane of yellow.
“15 minutes this time,” she says, half-smiling. “I promise, I won’t be a minute late, okay?”
He shrugs, nodding but not quite believing her.
“Really,” she says, getting out. “I promise.” Outside, she knocks on the trunk, and Pablo unlocks it. He’s gets out of his car to help her but she insists that she can get it herself.
“It’s really nothing,” she says, putting her hand up.
“Okay,” he says.
The woman rolls the luggage up the sidewalk and, after waiting for a moment, the door opens and she goes inside.
True to her word, the woman returns in less than 15 minutes, in 6 minutes, actually. She doesn’t have her luggage anymore, and it’s only then that Pablo starts putting things together. She must have smuggled something in. Drugs? Cigars? Merchandise?
“Thank you for waiting, Pablo,” she says as he pulls away. He drives for a while, and as they cross the bridge, the moonlight rolling on the waters’ waves at their sides, she begins crying.
“Are you okay, Miss? What’s the matter?”
Sniffling and wiping at her tears with her sleeves, the woman says, with a trembling voice, “I’m… I’m fine, it’s just. I didn’t exactly imagine my life turning out like this, you know?”
“It’s not like I have a choice, though,” she continues. “I’ve made mistakes. And now I have to fix them, and there are only so many ways to do that.”
“I’m certain, you only must to do what you must,” he says.
“Yes, that’s exactly it,” she says. “I have to…”
He nods again, and she stifles her crying and neither of them say another word for a long moment. It feels strange to Pablo, isn’t this what he wanted? To see and hear someone’s emotions, something real, taste the salt of someone’s tears in the taxi air? But as she sobs quietly, Pablo only gets the feeling that he wants to get to the hotel as soon as possible, so he can drop her off and be done with it.
Perhaps he’s changing, or doesn’t really know what he wants anymore. Where’s his sympathy? His desire to connect with another? Was this what a year of taxi-driving has done to him? Numbed him so that this search to know a stranger deeply was just a romance in his head?
No, Pablo isn’t like that. Is he?
“Some time…” he says. “I feel like maybe, I am not living. I am only becoming much older, much faster. In just this past time, since I come to America, I feel like maybe I’m 30 years more old.”
The woman’s sniffling lessens.
“When I first come to America, I have many hopes. Many dreams about the future and what I will do. This and that thing.”
He nods to himself, barely.
“I even say to my little brother, I will take him here one day, and give him an American education. You know? He believe me, too. He still waiting for me to tell him the day I save enough money, and he can apply for the visa.”
The woman is now silent, Pablo can sense her listening intently, listening like these are the words she needs to hear.
“But I think, now, I just live to live. No dreams. No excitement about the future. Just live to work, eat, sleep. You know? It is difficult. The dream is only just the past now.”
He shrugs, shaking his head.
“I don’t know if this is my life, to be happy with it, or try to dream again.”
The only sounds are below, the washing of the tires along the road as Pablo pulls off the bridge and begins driving through the local streets, every light green. They don’t pass a single other vehicle or person, the lights of the apartment buildings all dark, only the two of them in the world, in that space of the taxi. Nothing else.
It’s not until they’re outside the hotel, under the radiance of the outside lobby lights, that the woman says something back.
“Pablo, promise me one thing. Okay?”
“What is that?” he says.
“First, promise me that you will, before I tell you.”
Of course, Pablo knows he can’t guarantee to do something if he doesn’t know what it is, but he nods and says, “Okay.”
“Never let go of those dreams you have, alright?” she says. “I don’t care how out of reach they seem. I want you to promise me that you’ll never let go of those dreams. Okay?”
“I… I do not know if I can continue to have them…” he says.
“Please, Pablo, promise me that you will.”
He sighs. “…I will try.”
“No, Pablo. You won’t try. You will, okay? You will at least dream. For your little brother, alright? And for your family.”
Pablo sees a flash of his brother’s light-filled eyes as Pablo placed his hand on his shoulder, telling him that he’d bring him to America soon. Pablo searches outside the window into the night, the streetlights in the distance, the blinking red dot of an airplane ascending above.
“Alright, Pablo?” she says.
When he turns to look at her, he sees her, for the first time, smiling without restraint, without worry, no flicker of doubt in the goodness emitting from her expression. Pure, genuine.
“Okay,” he says, and as he smiles back he realizes he wants to cry. But he sighs and does his best to stop himself, although she can sense it. “Thank you, for your suggestion,” he says.
She reaches over and gives him a hug, a long, tight hug and Pablo realizes he hasn’t been in another’s embrace since coming here, God how he’s missed it, the physical warmth and care of another’s body.
“Goodbye, Pablo,” she says, drawing away. “I wish you the best here. And remember. You’ve barely been here, for less than half a year.
Things take time. But your dreams can come true.”
“Yes, maybe, they can,” he says. There is no guarantee; she, too, acknowledges this—they can come true—not that they will—he has only promised that he will continue to believe in their possibility, not inevitability.
“Goodbye, Pablo,” she says, opening the door and stepping out. She gives Pablo a final wave, and then closes the door, walking away.
It would make sense that she would need more rides in the future, from the hotel to downtown, to the airport, to get wherever she’s headed next, that she would request Pablo from the taxi service and they would send him again, that once again she’d step into his taxi and say hello in her quiet voice, smiling or not, nervous or not. But as she disappears behind the rotating glass doors of the hotel entrance, something—a feeling—stronger than all logic—tells Pablo that he’ll never see this woman again, no, not another moment.