Madame Blanche by Rhian Sasseen

 

hake

Maybe it was because it was snowing. Maybe it was because it was late, and growing later; or perhaps it was because we were now one mere week away from Christmas, and it was easy to convince myself that I deserved a little luxury. Whatever the reason, that was the night I decided to hail a cab.

Ordinarily, I took the train. There’s something magnificent about a subway, all that narrow, compact space – it’s just a thin line separating your life before and your life thereafter, your life above or belowground. I far prefer my belowground life. That’s where, if you glance just so, between all the grease and smears coating the red line’s windows, you can see someone strange: My face, and not my face. My face, and someone else. A mirror’s reflection is always a disappointment, but a window’s? – A window is an escape hatch. A possibility.

That night, though, when I hailed the cab, I wasn’t thinking about any windows. It had been a difficult evening. A famous poet had stopped by the restaurant, a sort-of regular, and though she usually never came more than once a month, she wreaked havoc whenever she did appear. There was a particular way she liked her salad – one order, but split between she and her dining companion, who always looked hungry afterwards. Sparkling water, never still. No dessert, but yes to coffee – but never cream. Soy only. She seemed incapable of realizing that we by now knew all her tics, and so she’d hound you throughout the night, reminding you again and again that tap water simply couldn’t pass those lips. She had spent too much time around books instead of people.

The worst part was that I was a fan. She terrified me, so instead of treating her with the polite disdain she deserved I only grew more and more nervous, running through her lines in my head while she berated me for extra napkins. That night, I found myself continually mispronouncing “hake” – I kept emphasizing the e, as though the fish were Japanese instead of from New England. On the third time, she corrected me.

“Hake,” she said, enunciating clearly. Her dining companion did not meet my eyes. “It’s pronounced hake.”

“Hake,” I repeated, again somehow mangling it. She ordered salmon instead.

In the kitchen, Kerry berated me. “You know how to pronounce hake!” she cried, looking like she might bash her head into the wall. A grease-stained piece of paper hung behind her, a list of all the VIPs dining in tonight – the poet was there, the third name on the list, in my handwriting. “You’re the one that sold the most of it tonight! And I don’t understand – who is this woman? I’ve never heard of her.”

“She’s a very famous poet – ”

“Obviously she’s not that famous!” Poor Kerry stood there for a moment as the salad cook ran past her and some upscale deep-fried pickles caused a minor explosion on the stovetop. She massaged her temples before sending me back out there. “Don’t let her mess up your rhythm –just remember, no one gives a shit who she is besides you.” Such is the life of the American poet – no one knows their free verse from their fish sticks. This was why I needed a cab.

It took a couple tries before I got one to notice me. Most of the city’s students had only just finished their exams, and so every car that whizzed past me was filled with them, drunk and celebrating the end of their semester or drunk and attempting to reach the airport. At last, though, a little white one slowed down beside me. The driver rolled down the window closest to the street.

“Where to?”

“Inman Square – ”

“Hey!” A woman was walking over very quickly. “Hey!” she said again as both I and the driver stared at her, which only ignited her fury. “What do you think you’re doing,” she demanded, “stealing my cab? He just stopped for me.”

The driver looked over at me and quickly rolled up the window, not wanting to be a part of this. My trousers were soaked, though, and my feet hurt, and besides, she was wearing a white wool coat in December – and it was immaculate, too. She could afford to wait.

“Um, I think you were a block away when he pulled over.”

“No,” she said, imperious. “No, I wasn’t.” She tapped on the cab window as the driver steadfastly ignored us. “You stopped for me, right? Right?”

“Lady,” he said at last, “I don’t give a shit which one of your rides in here, I just wanna get paid.”

“I’m obviously standing right next to it,” I said, trying to be the voice of reason. “You can just hail another one, or take the train.”

“I can’t,” she said stiffly. “It’s one a.m. The trains stopped running.”

“Fucking Boston.”

Somehow, this diffused the tension, and she laughed. “Where are you going?” she asked me, and when I told her she perked up. “Me, too! Well, to north Cambridge, which is close.”

“Well, godspeed.” I turned to get into the car.

“Wait!” She moved as though to grab my shoulder, but stopped just before the point of contact. Her black-gloved fingers hovered over me, but then faltered. I looked up at her in confusion.

“Do you want to share the cab?” She looked shy. “I know, it sounds strange, but I just – I’ve had a really long night, filled with not really good news. And all these cabs keep driving by me, since all the students are going home – ” Is it harder to be vulnerable in front of strangers or in front of people you might know? – I can’t decide. But in that moment, she looked very vulnerable indeed, and it touched me. Something about the snow, and the way it glistened over us and dampened the city – these are quiet moments. As terrible as winter is, it’s also very lovely, and it’s lonely not to share. For this reason, I agreed.

Over the bridge, she turned and asked me whereabouts in Cambridge I lived.

“Around Rose Street, just off Inman Square.”

“That’s a lovely neighborhood. Lots of young families.”

“I guess. There aren’t that many on my street – it’s mostly just grad students.”

“Are you a grad student?” She gestured towards my tote bag, where a few books poked out.

“No, I work in a restaurant.”

“Oh!” She turned away, as though embarrassed. The gesture made me cringe.

“I read a lot.”

She kept looking out the window, studying the trees going by us. Trees turned into bars into a CVS; we turned right on Prospect as she said, “I should read more.” But though she said this out loud, it didn’t seem directed towards the cab driver or me; it seemed more that she was saying this to herself. Something about her tone of voice, too – it turned hollow, like dead wood.

We reached the square, and I told the driver to let me off near the café. She gestured towards me and said, “I’ll pay;” I didn’t argue. Just as I was leaving, though, I paused, and grabbed a book from my bag. “Here,” I told her, handing it over. She took it, looking confused. “Since you’re paying for the cab, this is my payment. To you. It’s a favorite.”

“I can’t take your favorite book away from you.”

“I’m offering it.”

“How will I give it back?”

“Flip to the front page.” She did. “There – that’s my name and number. Just call me when you’re finished. We can talk about it, if you like.” I don’t what possessed me to say this. She seemed like someone who wanted to talk, though – why else would she berate me? Something, I thought wildly, had drawn us together, and I wanted, narcissistically, to believe that it was more than chance – Suddenly, I felt an odd urge to kiss her. Instead, I told her farewell.

As I turned to trudge towards my apartment, I heard her voice again. “Wait!” she called, adding my name this time. She had rolled down her window and was leaning outof it. Snowflakes dotted her face, her neck, her coat; they blended in, as though she was mere snow herself. I walked over and leaned against the car. “What?”

“I – ” She faltered. This had been a very strange twenty minutes, I thought to myself as I waited for whatever it was she wanted to say. She stayed like that, half on oneside of the window and half on the other, a kind of stillbirth. The cabbie asked us what the hell was going on. “Thank you very much,” the woman in white told me hurriedly, slipping back into the car. “I’ll call you.” As she and the car rolled away, I noticed, she kept looking at me, a puzzled expression on her face – as though she recognized me, but also didn’t.

I turned away again. A purple light buzzed in the window of the coffeehouse; it had closed hours earlier, leaving only that light. The streets were empty. The snow kept us quiet. I walked back to my apartment, and realized that she would never call.

 
 

Rhian Sasseen, a graduate of Smith College, has written for Aeon, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and others. More can be found on her website, rhiansasseen.com.