03 Sep An Amateur
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"An Amateur"Written by Lucretia Vastea
Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
When it comes to my car, I have one rule and one rule only: no hitchhikers.
My car is everybody’s car. Really. If the good Samaritan had a car, I’d be in the bible. I had friends and family do everything to that tin can on wheels, including popping tires, busting radios, opening windows on rainy days, but hey! It’s just a car. It is my baby, a deep blue Range Rover I bought for myself with my self-earned money, but, at the end of the day… it’s just a car, right? It’s a useful thing to have when you want to go from point “x” to point “y”, but there are numerous cars out there. People, on the other hand, come in one edition each. If something bad happens to my car, yes, I’d be pissed and I’d have to invest a lot of money into fixing it or buy a new one, but if something bad happens to a person I care about… that cannot be fixed. Whether it’s mental or physical damage, I don’t care – if there are people in the mix, I’d much rather have my car minced to dust right before my eyes, than put someone in harm’s way.
And this is exactly why I came up with this rule, when people ask me if they can borrow my car: no hitchhikers. I don’t care how harmless they look, just drive away! There are some sick fucks out there and the worst thing is, they are masters of disguise. Why take the risk in the first place? What happens to strangers is none of your business. You can make random acts of kindness on your way out of the supermarket, by giving the local homeless person an apple or something. Why confine yourself in a 2-square-meter-box with a total stranger, when you could just give him or her some coins or food? For Pete’s sake, give them money for a subway ticket, if there really is a place they need to get to. This way, you are both safe and you can get home with a clean conscience. Do whatever, just… please. No hitchhikers. Not my beloved ones, not in my car.
It was late November: first snow of the year. It wasn’t supposed to get dark until about 6:30 p.m., but it was merely 5 p.m. and the sky was getting more depressed by the minute.
‘Winter is coming’. I laughed at my wannabe Jon Snow impression and ceased laughing as soon as I remembered that I used to watch Game of Thrones with my ex. That woman ruined so many shows for me…
Julia dumped me half a year ago. She and I haven’t slept together in over 7 months before our relationship ended. I was not the one to blame here, I really gave it my all, got myself a premium membership at the gym and everything. And whenever I tried to wine and dine her, she played the ‘tired’ card, just to hide the fact that the other man she was seeing, had already wined and dined her that day, along with other stuff I would have liked to do to her.
I was thinking about my ex when I caught movement far ahead. Just a figure in the distance, imitating a half-working windmill, to get a driver’s – any driver’s – attention. It was definitely not the first time I saw someone YMCA-ing me to pull over, but I never budged. No hitchhikers. People are monstrous creatures and I am not taking risks. I never even look in their direction, I don’t need to know what their faces look like. Why would I do that? To see their mugs later on the national news, alongside a cringe-worthy title like “roadkill with intent”? No, thank you, not me. I have enough shit going on as it is, I…
She was young. If not a teenager, in her early 20s, or so I thought. She had long, beautiful legs, her black skinny jeans outlining that perfectly. She was wearing sneakers and, by the looks of her, she had walked quite a bit that day. ‘Her feet must be freezing’, I thought. The jacket she had on, was also made of denim and I own two of those, so I know that they’re way too thin for a snowy day. Funny enough, even though her outfit exclaimed ‘chilly summer night’ from all angles, she had a fur cap and gloves on. I couldn’t see her face, but her long, light brown hair was falling on her shoulders from underneath the cap beautifully, and her gloves… Jesus, those gloves looked like oven mitts. Oven mitts! Like, how can anybody resist a beautiful girl wearing oven mitts?
Before realizing that I was slowing the car down, her face was close enough for me to catch green eyes and a smile of relief. Was I about to pick up a hitchhiker?! Scared for my life, I stepped on the gas like my life depended on it. Before she vanished from my rear-view mirror, I caught the sight of something else… thinking that I was going to give her a ride, she took her backpack off and, bewildered, let it fall to her feet. That was one big-ass backpack. It looked twice her size and just as heavy. I could still see her mouth was agape, before her outline blended in with the rest of the view I was leaving behind.
‘You are such a paranoid idiot!’ Julie’s words slammed against the inner side of my eardrums. It was her favourite thing to say. ‘Yes, my dad likes you! Yes, I locked the door! No, I’m not cheating on you!’. Even though my paranoia regarding that last one was right on the money, I am aware that I’m… overly-aware. The road was deserted and it was damn cold outside. Frostbite would start chewing at that girl’s toes, long before a car would pull over and, let’s be honest here, the hitchhikers aren’t the only ones who might be monsters in disguise…
Law and behold, even paranoid people have a conscience. I’m no exception.
The road was so empty, I risked driving in reverse. I could see she stopped walking the second she saw me coming back. She took a couple steps away from the car when I stopped next to her, lowering the passenger’s side window.
“Need a ride?”
She frowned at me, her oven mitts on the straps of her backpack.
“Come on, get in, it’s freezing cold out here.”
“I don’t mean the ride, I mean you.”
“Yes, well, your pallet of choice isn’t exactly abundant, now is it?”
Her green eyes were piercing needles into my own.
“Why did you run off on me like that?”
“Let’s just say, I’m not a fan of hitchhikers.”
“That makes two of us. Where are you going?”
“Are you taking the highway, or are you passing through Brightwood?”
“You need to get to Brightwood?”
“Good, then that’s the road I’m taking. Put your luggage in the back.”
I opened the trunk for her and heard a loud thud, as she let her bag drop. She closed the trunk and hurried to the seat next to me. She shuddered violently as soon as she entered my car.
“Take your shoes off and bring your feet up to the heater.”
She gave me a wide-eyed stare.
”Isn’t that… illegal or something?”
“I’m quite certain, amputation bills are more expensive than police tickets. Put your seatbelt on. Should I turn the heat up?”
I drove off as she fastened her seatbelt and brought her blue and purple socks on the air vent. She sighed in contempt and relaxed into the seat.
“Thanks for changing your mind.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“I don’t look like a serial killer on second glance, do I?”
“Good serial killers usually don’t.”
“Please don’t mind me asking, but what in the world are you doing on weather like this, in the middle of nowhere, with a sack of bricks weighing you down?”
“Living la vida loca.”
“Good thing I came back for you, ‘cause you’d be living la muerte loca about now.”
She laughed so hard, I heard the seat shaking under her.
“Did somebody watch Spanish soap operas with mommy when they were little?”
“I won’t admit to anything… It was my aunt and there was just one TV in the house, all right?”
She laughed even harder. Not gonna lie, it felt damn good to hear a woman laugh at my jokes again.
“What’s your name?”
My head shot in her direction so fast, my neck was an inch away from snapping. She had taken the hat off and her beautiful face was resting on her knees, smiling at me. When it came to women, I was always the one asking for names… I asked Julie for hers when we first met, and the girlfriend before her, and the girlfriend before her… but I was never the one asked.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise. You going home from work?”
I sighed my answer.
“That’s the saddest ‘yeah’ I’ve ever heard from a man who’s gotten off work.”
“Then, I guess you only asked men whose days weren’t as shitty as mine.”
“Why, what happened?”
“I think I lost a deal today…”
“Ah crap, you in sales?”
“Worse… real estate.”
Very few people know this about me: I hate my job, but I love talking about it. My type of woman lets me complain about work – my ideal woman, however, asks questions.
“How is that worse?”
“If you were to choose between a mean mother-in-law and a violent husband, who would you choose?”
“That’s sales. You have to confront the mother-in-law when she visits and, yes, the house needs to be spotless and you have to play perfect, but no matter how much crap she gives you, the visits always end and you get a chance to bitch about her to your girlfriends. The violent husband, on the other hand, is always there, and no matter how bad things get, unless you decide to finally leave the son of a bitch, not even your girlfriends will be of any help, ‘cause it’s not like you’d tell them anything, right?”
“Have you ever been in sales?”
“Not exactly, but I have friends who are and, by the sound of it, things are going really good for them.”
“Of course they are. If you’re the one with the ‘violent husband’ but keep quiet about it, your friends will think you have an amazing marriage, which is why they’ll want you to think that they’re doing amazing as well, so that they don’t feel inferior to you.”
“That’s stupid. They’re my friends, why would they do that?!”
“They’re in sales. It’s all about the competition.”
“Have you ever been in sales?”
“Yes, I have.”
I turned my head her way.
“It didn’t last long, though. Three months or so… I got fired for not reaching my target.”
“Not exactly. I was relieved, actually, I hated it. I just needed the money…”
“Yeah… don’t we all.”
“If you hate it so much, why don’t you just quit and do something you really like?”
“That’s a great idea. You know what? I’ll brush the dust off my guitar tonight and quit my job first thing in the morning.”
“Awesome! Go for it!”
I laughed at her promptness. When I looked at her and saw earnest excitement on her face, I couldn’t help but remember how it was like, to be her age and dream big…
“I can’t do that, kiddo… rent doesn’t pay itself, you know. Besides, this is the real world we live in. You can be the best there is – unless a good producer spots you, you’re doomed.”
“Then, you’ll just have to place yourself in the eyesight of a good producer.”
“Hah! Easier said than done. Besides, looks matter way more than talent nowadays.”
“Which is exactly why should go for it!”
My neck started to hurt from the times I twisted it to look at her. She was dead-serious. I hadn’t been so intrigued by someone in ages.
“You’re mocking me.”
“Why would you think that? Don’t you own a mirror? You got three in this car alone. Four, if you count the sun visor. You could put them to good use.”
She winked at me.
“Aha. So you are a serial killer.”
She laughed again.
“Either that, or I’m just somebody who listened to her heart and advises others to do the same.”
“Fine, you win. I’m curious, what’s your story?”
She put her feet down.
“I don’t have one yet, but I’m getting there… I’d rather hear what yours is.”
“You seem like a smart girl, and I’m sure you’ve already painted a picture.”
“Oh, come on, play along.”
Not wanting to risk a stiff neck the next day, I looked at her from the corner of my eye. She looked like an alert kitten, who was witnessing a can of her favourite food being opened right in front of her… grinning.
“How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?”
I did mind. Just looking at her made me feel old.
“Pff… 29?! You talk like you’re 50. Do you have kids with a woman you hate?”
“Then, you shouldn’t be this lifeless.”
“Let me know if you’ll be any different by the time you reach 29.”
“That’s actually not too far ahead for me.”
“You’re kidding! How old are you?”
“Really? I would have said you’re 20… 22, tops.”
“When I was 22, somebody said I look like I’m 27.”
“I shit you not! But, back then, I did look like I was aging a year a day…”
“Sorry to disappoint, but I dropped out after 3 semesters.”
“Why, what happened? No, wait, let me guess…”
Amused expectation had her raise her eyebrows a little. I knew her for less than 15 minutes and could tell by the richness of her facial expressions, that she had a thing for performing arts.
Mackenzie gasped and applauded my answer.
“I haven’t been to the theatre in ages. Which do you work in? I’d like to see you perform sometime.”
“I’m still in acting school, but I plan on auditioning for Krestovski’s Faustus in January.”
She paused for a couple of seconds, taking in the fact, that I was decently cultured.
“Either her, or Mephisto.”
“You’re kidding. You as Mephisto?”
“What? You think I couldn’t pull it off?”
She gave me a somehow seductive smirk.
“Yup… I was right about you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You really are a serial killer.”
She laughed again and I couldn’t help but notice that we were halfway to Brightwood.
“Why are you slowing down?”
I looked at the speedometer. She was right, I was slowing down.
“I, uh… I don’t have my winter tires on… the weather is ruthless and I know some violent turns are coming up, so I don’t want to–”
I looked at her and, this time, really looked at her… she was stunningly beautiful. Really… and I don’t mean that cover-girl/makeup commercial beauty. I mean that fierce beauty, the one that’s witty and clever and likes to snap at the most trivial things, just to get into a fight to make the sex better.
“You’re slowing down because you want to make this ride last longer.”
“Can you blame me? I never picked up a hitchhiker before. My rides are never this interesting.”
“I’m not complaining.”
I had goosebumps run up and down my arms. Last time I felt like this, was when Julie finally decided to come in for wine after we had dinner at a fancy restaurant. It was our fifth date or so and she was a little drunk. We didn’t have sex, because she fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. We had sex the following morning, but… how can I put this nicely? I was never a morning person…
“I think you’re really cool, Felix. I really appreciate you giving me a lift.”
“Don’t mention it, Mackenzie. I’m happy I came back for you.”
Her hand crept on my knee. Her face was composed, not throwing me glances to witness my reactions or anything. It was composed, as if she had done this to me numerous times before… she looked as if we were having dinner with two of her girlfriends, and her hand on my knee was her claiming ownership of me in front of everybody. I liked her hand there. I didn’t want it retrieved.
“Can I ask you something?”
Her answer was as silent, as the turn of her head towards me.
“Why are you carrying that bag of bricks in weather like this?”
She removed her hand from my leg.
“I didn’t know it was going to get this cold. I was planning on walking home.”
“Where were you?”
Her head snapped so suddenly in my direction, I heard her hair whip against the headrest.
“That’s none of your business.”
She was right.
“You’re right. It isn’t.”
Mackenzie sighed and I drove for a couple of minutes in silence. I wanted to apologize, so that I could get her to talk again, but I didn’t know what I had to apologize for… was I too intrusive? So was she, why would I have to apologize for a feature we both had?
“Have you ever been cheated on?”
Her voice sounded like the welcome bell of a candy shop. Big, angry snowflakes were trying to get through to us, but the windshield was ruthless. I loosened the pressure on the acceleration pedal. Julie popped into my head. Even though we had so many good memories together, I always went back to her wearing that horrible mustard-colored sweatshirt – the one she wore when she dumped me for her trainer.
“How did it make you feel?”
“That’s a stupid question.”
Thirty seconds passed before I managed to get out of my head.
“I’m sorry, that was rude of me…”
“Don’t be. You’re right, it was a stupid question.”
This time, whether I liked it or not, I had to slow down, because the fog in front of me was turning from water to milk.
“I wanted to rip her head off.”
My hand was squeezing the gear shift so tightly, I thought it would crack.
“I was angry with Julie. I was angry with her lover. But, most of all, I was angry with myself… I was angry with everyone.”
I heard a crescendo sigh coming from my right. Mackenzie’s beautiful face from the side was outlined by a wet trail, cutting from her cheek to her chin.
She looked at me… and the world stopped.
“I too wanted to rip his head off.”
We drove in silence the rest of the way. As we saw the shield welcoming us to Brightwood, my traveling companion asked me to pull over and just leave her anywhere. I wanted to drive her home, I insisted. First road to the right, then left, then the second building on the right and I stopped the car.
“I knew picking up strangers is not for me… look what happens: first time I do this and I made you cry.”
“It’s good to cry. And I can’t afford a therapist, so…”
Her pretty face met mine with the most genuine smile she had given me yet.
I nodded. She reached for the handle.
“How did you deal with it?”
There was no need for her to ask what I was talking about – she knew.
“Well, you know what they say about urges…”
I was all ears.
“I can’t say I’m a big fan of Nike, but they do have this one slogan that is really inspiring.”
“‘Just do it’?”
She reached for the handle again, but I just had to press further.
“And? Did you?”
Her smile was a sad one, but there was a very strong hint of satisfaction within it.
“My name is not really Mackenzie. I wasn’t supposed to go on this trip I just returned from… Nobody saw you, but in case anybody asks, you’ve never seen me in your life. All right?”
I froze. She was waiting for a better reaction, so I nodded and muttered ‘I see’.
“Just so you know, I memorized your license plate number. Please don’t do anything I wouldn’t want you to.”
On closer look, her eyes were too green. No eyes were ever that green.
“Wasn’t planning on it,” I told her.
My heart was pounding in my throat.
“Thank you for the ride. Really.”
“Don’t mention it.”
She got out of my car and as soon as she entered her building, the wig and the contacts came off, before the gatekeeper got a chance to spot her.
Lucky for me, my head was still clear enough for me to remember that I had to make another stop before going home.
I went directly to the deep forest river on the opposite side of town. I popped the trunk open and, as expected, Mackenzie, or whatever her name was, was a terrible amateur: her backpack was bleeding from all angles.
Fuck it, I was planning on washing the car anyway. I put on the oven mitts she had left behind and dragged the bloody mess on the brim of the precipice, where I let it roll down into the river. Good thing the water didn’t freeze. As a matter of fact, its surface was quite clear.
I could still make out the margins of my own backpack – the one I dropped in there six months prior.
I guess I could have told Mackenzie that Felix isn’t my real name either. She and I have so much in common. Now that I know where she lives, I’ll make sure to meet her again.
If I had known that picking up hitchhikers would be so entertaining, I would have started doing it years ago.
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🔔 More stories from author: Lucretia Vastea
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