“Black Car Land” by Wendy Ortiz
When I said, I’m dying from the heat in here, he seemed to break out of his stupor. I guess it would be difficult to hear me. It might be like hearing something tiny and unassuming suddenly speak, lint or cat hair in a corner voicing an opinion. When the object of your lust is posed in front of you, legs carefully arranged in a V, and her shoulders are perfectly uneven, one higher than the other, mock-provocative, it really must be hard to connect vocal chords to the image, and even harder to hear the meanings the vocal chords shape in the air. The way he looks at me: he is a hammer and I’m the wood absorbing the nail. The wood changes: soft and pliable one day, petrified on other days depending on the content of my bloodstream. Cheap wine and the swollen ballet of my movements and poses keep me from dying of dry rot.
He turned the fan on, which meant he had heard me. I took a tiny gulp of the air that was suddenly moving and got back to work.
He had stolen me, but he would never use the word ‘stole.’ He was not as educated as to use the word ‘acquired,’ either. He took me from the place I’ve blotted from memory (mostly…) because that place is so mundane and the way I eventually fought so theatrical, that it’s better—safer—not to remember much. We’ve replaced my memory with layer upon layer of fuck films. Handheld DVD cameras, digital pictures. I sometimes get to see them but mostly not. I thought Polaroid cameras were extinct. My parents had one in their closet. I remember a thin coating of grime. I had touched its bulky body and immediately felt dirty and slipped it back into its ancient carrying case. Here they are again, thick contraptions, pushing and prodding at the already smallish space I’m allowed.
We’ve replaced my memory with layers of costumes culled from thrift stores. The clothes, benevolent all by themselves when in a plastic bag, border on little-girlish. They become-to-me a costume. Dizzy with forgetting, with stepping deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole (I’ve been reading a lot, you can see), I pull on too-tight tops, cropped at the belly, flouncy mini-skirts, cuffed anklet socks and sometimes a pair of sunglasses, the kind that don’t make me look that much older. Without anyone asking me to, I carefully arrange the skirt/shirt/underwear so that the cigarette burn/nail polish stain/loose threads threatening a tear are not quite caught in his lens. Their lenses are manifold, like flies, their various windows resembling eyes, focused on me.
Mouse, he calls me. We are mice to him, and we are mice to each other. I don’t even think of it as sexual anymore (and is it? was it ever? likening the object to a rodent?). This, after all, is the most adventure I can think of, what’s happening to me and the others. It’s the thing our mothers seemed to constantly prepare us for! They prepped us, glorying in our beauty, trying not to take too much credit for that beauty, and then, like a dark miracle, it happened: that moment, when we would have to fight for our lives on the street corner not far from school or home, or the seemingly empty ladies room of some restaurant, when the stranger might push us back into the dank stall or out a side door into the alley. And then your new life begins in a car.
When I try to imagine my bedroom, in my parent’s house, I feel like I’m sniffing endlessly at something with a dulled sense of smell. I search my head until I come up with something that is not my bedroom at all. I close my eyes and see something like a mushroom cloud where our house had been. The door is the only thing left standing, and my parents are on the other side, disheveled, their hair falling out, their hands unwilling to open that still-standing door, though the walls are gone, the roof is in a million pieces littered in the miles-long radius. I am not there. I am nowhere to be found, unless you count the moving pictures of me circulating in another dimension I’m suddenly privy to, light years from what I once knew.
The other mice and I are hardly the kind that scurry. We exist in spaces like warm lulls between staccato action. We sulk around, only appearing as the young adolescents we are when called to—that is, in public places. Our moods might be noticed and someone might suspect, so we are called upon to act. Acting was something some of us once wanted to do but we had imagined that life very differently.
The last book I read came from a boy mouse. His hair was thick and fell in a clump over one eye. I could smell his armpits when he reached over and dropped it into my lap. I could feel a bit of his life force when he extended that book to me. I let the book fall between my legs and picked it up when everyone was involved in the next scene in which I had no part.
This is abhorrent, I can hear my mom saying, as though she could watch me like a movie playing in a pitch black theater. But really, I know by now she too must have created her own layers, layers that buffer her from that day when I disappeared, the day she had always cautioned me against, the day all the other girls remained in the movie of our school, our neighborhoods, our mothers’ lives. Sometimes when I concentrate on it, when I try to work my way into her brain across however many miles we are apart, I can feel the layers she’s constructed like ribbons and ribbons of wispy gauze made thick. It holds her together, like the trussed chickens she used to pull out of the oven that I would beg to untie. Since I’ve been gone, my father, for his part, has maybe removed the glossy cheesecake calendar from the garage. Maybe he’s given up the DVD collection under the bed.
I’m guessing that we are at the one year mark. That I’ve been missing, to them, for one year.
I miss school. I liked the structured bites of it. Chewing gum, the hard plastic cradle of the chair. Bite of teacher taking attendance. Bite of social studies, math, biology. Art. The glance of the English teacher. The smirks of the boys who never knew how to control their responses. School was like a thoughtful, well-balanced meal I can appreciate now more than ever.
I see everyday among the mice how to measure, how to assess. How to curb natural responses and how to let go into something unholy and kind of magical. We exist in what feels like a smear of time. Here there’s no structure, no bites of anything. Instead of history or algebra I learn to soften, recline. Adjust, control. Almost not breathe. I have seen the other mice do it, too. I am with them, there, in those moments on their backs, when they are posed passionless, or standing, little bellies struggling not to go in and out, chests finally stilled. Breathless. We learn to be statues.
I said, I’m dying from the heat in here. He stood, turned on the fan. Opened the window, showing me the sunlight, and I shielded my eyes. The wood changes. Soft and pliable one day, depending on the bloodstream. On other days it is stiff. Dry. Cheap wine. The swollenness of my movements and poses replace the feeling. Dry rot.
A television was left on one day in the motel room. I was perched on a bed, the scratchy bedspread under my bare legs. The hideous pattern of tropical flowers on the bedspread looked like it was leaking out from underneath me, a huge, dulled Rorschach I was sitting in. My legs were crossed but that didn’t feel right. I had learned many things on this adventure. One was to not sit in any suggestive manner when I was not in a scene. The adults might be sidetracked by the glimpse of my holey underwear. There was even a predictability to it. I could conjure attention when it was not my scene. I could create a rift in the schedule and cause a day to become watery and shiftless, death be to schedules. I could create a stir that upset things.
I also learned to keep quiet and still when I’d ingested anything meant to loosen me up. As whatever drink or pill or stinky bits of fungus or scrap of paper laced with acid entered my bloodstream, I had to be silent about the rapturous rupture it created in me. No one wanted to hear about the singular experiences I had. The other mice were in their own internal mazes. The adults, too, barely listened. If my pliability grew, it only meant that more was expected from me and this was most often not my preference.
But there were days when it was. There were days (nights, days, who really knows?) when I awoke, stepped out of my dreams like I stepped out of the various cars, and I craved feeling important, unique, or at least professional. If I felt professional, or projected this, perhaps someone would see that special something in me and everything would shift. My teachers used to tell me they saw something in me. I understand now how Ms. Pratt’s telling me she saw something in me was different than when Mr. Baker told me. If I let myself, I can recall the exact way his eye twitched sometimes when he spoke to me. It seems ridiculous to me now. I wonder if he’s seen me in anything lately. If he would even recognize me, my eyes, cheekbones, obscured by thick, black, curly wigs, or the straight platinum or blunt cut lime green wigs I favor.
In those early days when I sprang up from wherever I’d slept and took direction without fuss and looked deeply into the eyes of the photographer or cameraman, I didn’t realize that I became confusing. I was aptly molded by the people who seemed to possess me. I came to understand things about my parents in those moments, how they operated in the everyday world, how they folded up problems like packages and stored them under their bed or in the closets on hard to reach shelves. I knew early on to shelve my problems and live in the moments of stillness, poses, and to relent when necessary, give myself over to the scenes of other’s bidding. I didn’t pout or protest. The mice had it hard enough. Any behavior that marked you as trouble or worse would not be tolerated, or it would be—and then would appear in a scene, someone’s malevolent fantasy of struggle.
Children. We are and were children. I remembered this when I saw new ones come and go, some younger than me, though my age was starting to drift away from me, too. There was no talk of how this had happened to them, to us. As the days trickled by, each time I awoke, after stepping out of dreams, between shoots, between muscle relaxers and pee breaks, I began to force myself to recall each moment of the incident, in case it would need to be recalled later.
My parents often spoke of ‘justice.’ I’ve forgotten details of their conversations, though I like to imagine them discussing what dinner will be, or how the neighbor’s trees have leaned over their property line. All I remember is that they read newspapers and felt justice was served, and when it wasn’t, I witnessed a curdling of their emotion, anger or indignation spoiling the atmosphere around us. But the atmosphere would clear fast and I would be reminded that my parents were simply justice-loving people, with minds and hearts that bled for things I didn’t yet understand.
I wonder how they’ve reconciled my continued disappearance with their perception of justice.
The televisions in the rooms we inhabit are never turned on for long, never allowed to transmit current events. They are mostly big dead eyes that reflect back to me the scene I’m already stuck in. The screens are often simply dusty, dark mirrors.
There was a show I remember seeing a long time ago, a show that featured most wanted criminals, most often men who’d abducted children. Did people call with tips, I wondered. If they had tips, what was their connection to the situation in the first place? I wondered if my parents would ever be able to bring themselves to televise this experience they were having, or had they already done it, helpless, hopeless, needing to try everything to get me back. If they did, who played me in the abduction scene? And did they get the scene right?
The day I disappeared I had kissed my teacher. Or, rather, he leaned in to kiss me and my lips met his. We were in his convertible, a car that felt small enough to hide us in the great big landscape of my life. My toes felt tingly, asleep in my shoes like hibernating animals. I’d been waiting a long time for this, and the afternoon seemed to get sucked into the space of just seconds.
There was a kiss. Our tongues twined. I was glad I had chewed gum earlier, and I felt like I wanted to throw up a rainbow. He was scared, too. He told me. In this way I felt less alone in the experience. I’d read about this, heard of this, but usually without the details—school gym teachers being arrested for inappropriate gropings of their underage athletes and gymnasts. I was no athlete, he was no gym teacher. I honestly believed we were falling in love.
When he dropped me off not far from a bus stop that could take me directly home and drove away, I knew I would not step onto a bus. I wanted the delicious feelings all to myself. I wanted the air around me to vibrate only with what had just happened. My mother told me, all the time, really, that I could tell her everything, but I knew in this case, I couldn’t. I had to savor it privately. The tree canopy shielded me from the too-big sky that might snatch my feelings from me and swallow them so they were out of my reach.
I walked streets I’ve always known and began to cross the park. The park was a place I’d last been in as a ten-year-old. I crossed it and stepped onto the hard cement of the parking lot, close to the public restrooms I’d never used because my mom explicitly asked me not to enter them.
The lot had just a couple of cars in it. I felt bouncy and light, and I was probably smiling. When he saw me, he leaned over and opened the passenger door to his car and beckoned me over. He looked a little familiar. I was invincible.
I still am. I must be, to survive this, right?
Welcome to my life. My body is paid attention to. My clothes are a little tight and buttons are often undone. I stand or sit near other sweet young things, boys and girls, and I’m fed and watered and given chemicals that soften and obscure everything. I may have once had a desire to act or model but now I understand that it’s lonely and boring and worse. This was never what I had in mind.
My period stopped awhile ago, which is better overall. When I look at my panties I think of my mother and her careful, sweet directions about how to use a tampon. I shied away from them, though—I would much rather deal with the thick, diaper-like pads than insert the little cotton bullets into myself.
Now there are no pads, no cotton bullets. I wish I could ask my mom about this. Among many other things.
Give me a swig. Give me a funny cigarette. Let me lean in, inhale the powder that will shorten this length of time into an instant, so it’s all just a string of instants, one overlapping the other in no distinct way.
Books have the opposite effect. They stretch afternoons out into long, open roads I can’t see the end of. This has its positives and negatives. I crave a story, a plot, a structure. My own story seems to always have the same ending.
We change locations. Cameras click. Digital movie cameras spin around and around me. Someone barks instructions to me. I am touched. I am touched. I am touched. I am asked to touch, to move my hair this way, to bend my leg a bit, to stand straight up, naked, smile like I’m a good girl and I like it.
Did anyone ever ask my teacher any questions? I wonder. Was he ever made a focus of investigation. Was he questioned. Does he miss me.
One day the television was on. We were in a motel room, a motel with a pool. My ‘brother’ was in the pool, playing, acting like the young adolescent he was, only he was unhinged, I knew, from the PCP we’d smoked a couple hours before. This time I’d watched the clock.
I’d been left mostly alone in the room. I mean, never alone, truly, but other things were happening that I averted my eyes from, shut my ears off from. I kept my focus on the television, which was on, loud, to mask the noises I was trying to ignore around me.
In the corner, on this news show, I saw the time. I saw Pacific time, Eastern time. It made me dizzy, because if it showed both of these extremes of time, I knew I wouldn’t be able to figure out what part of the country I was in. But what was a country, anyway. I was lying in my own distinct country, my skirt a little too short as was the custom in this country. I felt the float come on, and I ushered it, faster, faster. I wanted to fly away from this country.
On the screen, a man was talking and words got thrown into the room and lodged in the corners. Abduction. Missing. Disney World. I willed myself to stay unmoving, hoping that not even my breath would alert anyone to the fact that I was using every last cell of my body to concentrate on the words coming out of the man’s mouth into the air around me.
I witnessed a flowered bedspread, the kind that covered all the landscapes of my country, smothering beds in motel rooms all over the land. On the bedspread, though, was a black shape, the outline of a small person. A girl. The silhouette had slightly spread legs. She was a void on the landscape of the bed. You could reach into her and touch nothingness.
I wanted the television to be bigger, the image to enlarge so I could absorb details I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold onto. My fingers moved, uncurled from the claws I hadn’t noticed they’d contorted into. Even as I wished for an enlargement, I knew I didn’t need it. I was staring into the dusty mirror again. The black shape was me, blotted out, but me all the same. It was a trick, a disgusting trick, because now no one would see me, no one would be able to identify me. This image was being projected into a million homes but lacked a face, a body. I felt electricity in my fingers and tried to grasp the words that filtered out of the box: F.B.I. A purposeful blotting out, to protect the young victim. Evidence just the same, at Disney World no less. The bedspread had been identified, traced back to one motel in a million.
how how how how how how how how how how how how how how
That black thing was me. I was practically in the same position now as I’d been on that bed, however long ago it was, in whatever dimension I’d been in at the time. I willed my legs to move, so I could move across the bedspread I was on, puke-colored triangles stretched out underneath me, scratchy surface that I propelled myself against, holding my sloughed skin cells, dustings of DNA.
In the bathroom, door open, pretending to pee on the toilet, I silently repeated to myself the images I’d just seen so as not to forget. Forgetting is what I was getting better and better at. Now more than ever I needed to remember.
That girl I was leaned into the black car. She tried to catch what the man said the first time. When she couldn’t quite hear, she put a tentative hand on the door that was flung open. He patted the seat next to him. He was nice-looking. She didn’t look in the backseat or at his pants or at his hands. She slid into the seat and the car engulfed her, sucked her in like a breath of cool air. He smiled.
That girl I was believed she had entered the space of men, men older than her, men who were willing to kiss with their warm tongues and knew what they were doing and what they wanted, so desperately different from the boys she knew her own age that were like puppies, their desire all over the place, unwieldy and messy. She had just come from kissing her English teacher in his convertible and she felt powerful, infused with blind courage and white hotness.
She would take another ride. She would take that ride because she knew she wasn’t the only one the English teacher kissed, probably. He had access to women his own age and probably younger, like nineteen or twenty. He could have parades of women. She could only have tastes of what she wanted. The kiss unlocked something overwhelming and she felt a sense of satisfaction when this new man turned the ignition, pressed a button that urged the windows up, sealing them in, safe.
In the seconds, minutes, hours, days after I saw that program with its hideous bedspread and black hole shaped like a girl, something lived and died inside of me. I might never catch hold of that image again, but it was somewhere now, I knew. It was held as evidence, viewed over and over by men in suits or uniforms. Women who might be mothers had to look at it and feel something in themselves unravel. The real identity of the girl that was me was hidden from the public but investigated, deeply, by strangers, men assigned to find me.
What did this bring about in me? The seed rumbled, stirred, broke open in me, making me a little more alert, less hesitant to take direction. I felt my mouth smile into something I’d been prodded into previously but had resisted. My mouth was loose and open, my tongue captured in digital images that someone, somewhere would focus on. Here, look at this. See this. When I opened myself up for the camera it was with a sense of contempt that felt so big it could swallow everyone in the room. I liked it.
In this thing I might call a line of work (though I’m not getting paid, except in places to sleep, and free travel, and food, and drugs), I’ve found that rehearsals are not necessary. It’s a beautiful thing, really, because I used to watch my friends perform, the ones who took drama class, and I was mystified by the way they had to practice the same scenes over. And over. And over. My mom wanted me to take drama, too, but something kept me from it. Like: I thought I might be a natural actress. That somehow I was already creating the most important act of my life and it took up every minute of the day. Why be in any other production? I’d rather lose myself in a book anyway.
One thing, though, that I wondered about: the scene my mother painstakingly constructed for me. It came in part with the request to never enter the bathrooms at the park, or in places that seemed not safe (to her), unless someone was with me.
You will be standing there, minding your own business and you will suddenly have to pee. You will think nothing of walking to the nearest public restroom. It will look fine from the outside and it will seem decent on the inside. But I want you to check each and every stall before you go into one and close the door. Make sure you see female-looking feet underneath the door.
She paused, thought a moment.
Of course there’s always a chance someone could stand on top of a stall, but there’s only so much we can do.
It was not this scene which freaked me out, back when freaking out was something I had license to do, and did, sometimes to my parents’ amusement.
It’s just like what you hear on the news or see in movies and you must be careful. Someone pulls up to you, wherever you’re walking, and they lower the window of their passenger side door and try to talk to you. They ask directions, or the time. Somehow they come off as trustworthy. Do not trust these people. Walk away. Go in the direction of people. Never, ever talk to them. Please.
I rehearsed these scenes again and again. The bathroom scene I could do quite easily. It did happen that I had to pee, it did happen that I checked stalls before locking myself inside the one I chose.
It was the stranger in the car scene that I rehearsed in my head.
He would push the door open. I would stand stock still on the sidewalk, hands on my hips, and say NO.
He would get scared. He would drive away. I would continue walking, and later at home, I would report what happened to my mom and dad and they would call the police.
In other scenes, he would grab my arm.
I would be pulled into the car and I would kick. Scream. Punch at him with one hand until he let me go because I was making a scene. A scene of escape. A scene of triumph. I broke free and swung that door open and ran fast and hard in the direction of people.
I rehearsed it and rehearsed it and rehearsed, if you can call playing it back in your head over and over a rehearsal. In any case, I knew what to do and how it would turn out. It was the most important act of my entire life. Once I even told my mother just how I would do this, should the situation present itself. She listened to me tell each move, and I felt like she was imagining along with me every detail I put out. She was inhaling it like invisible, pleasurable fumes and her eyes were getting twinkly and I knew she must be proud that I had worked this out on my own. It’s better to know what to do, to have rehearsed it. And to treat it like it’s the most important act you will be called upon to do.
It’s hot. I’m never alone. Alone enough, in my head, where I can wander around the mazes in my brain, trip down my cortex, feel all the little neurotransmitters shutting off. Then on. Until I am called upon for my next scene. I rehearse different scenes in my head now, when I can keep track of the breadcrumbs I leave behind to remind me. In this scene, I escape. I escape because I suddenly recognize where I’m at and know which direction to walk towards, until I run into someone who I can trust who will know what to do next.
In another scene, several people, men and women, will be waiting at the door of the motel room we’re in, and when I step out first, with him behind me, they will seize me and him and I will know it’s over. They will tell me that they recognize me from the black silhouette of a girl on a bedspread in a motel room, a photograph they studied down to the most minute detail they had access to, the patterns of hair on my arms, the slightest angle of my nose. They will tell me this after they’ve given me a glass of water and tissues. They won’t ask yet about the drugs or the man or the other children. They will know that it will come in time.
Until then, there is the memorization of lines, the ones I’ve heard that I might need for later. I’m throwing away that old scene I’d rehearsed because it’s impossible now to play. I’m not sure what I’ll be but the time for that act, that episode, is over.
The fan is turned off and I’m forced to look around and take in whatever I’m able to take in. The air immediately fills in, gets thick, my head feeling like a cloud that’s going to break. For the moment, I am not asked to do a single thing. I can feel every cell of my body and every goddamned second pass by. For the moment, I’m free.
Wendy C. Ortiz is a Los Angeles native. She is a writer and a marriage and family therapist intern at a community counseling center. Recent publications include creative nonfiction on the website “Gender Across Borders” and poems in Spillway and Sweet: A Literary Confection. She is co-founder and literary curator of Rhapsodomancy (www.rhapsodomancy.org), a reading series that began in 2004 at the Good Luck Bar in Hollywood. Wendy has an essay forthcoming in The New York Times.