She knew she looked good when she arrived, promptly, at 10:30, for her first pick-up. Her white blouse, with its starched collar and cuffs rolled over her black blazer and her black creased pants coming to the edge of her pointed small-pumped shoes were looking as fresh as when she left the house this morning, which was only an hour ago. Her hair, her long beautiful black hair, was braided in tight cornrows down her back, swinging with beads, not too many. It had taken the woman at the salon three hours to create the design. She had her aviator glasses, which she could push up on her head or lower to her nose, never really using them like glasses. They were an accessory.
It was her first day of her new job. She was psyched. She swung the long black stretch limo into the parking lot, jumped out of the car, and greeted her first passengers with a professional bright smile and a friendly warm hug.
I’m Victoria and I am your driver. Whatever you need, you tell me. Water? Soda? There’s a bunch back there with you but I have it cold up front. Pit stops? Let me get your luggage. We’ve got one other pick-up, then onto Newark Airport…Newark, right? And then JFK. Let’s get this journey going. Let’s have some fun! I got you guys.
She let the passengers, an older single woman, traveling alone, and a middle-aged couple, settle into the back. She heard one of them say she had never ridden in a limo before, she felt like she was going to the prom.
Victoria smiled. She was happy, nay, proud, that she was giving someone a new experience. She checked her Garmin GPS on her dashboard, informed her passengers that their next stop was Delmar, arriving in 45 minutes, and rolled the limo onto Interstate 87 like she was riding a wave. She listened as the passengers, who sat in the far back, talked and became acquainted. The older woman talked the most, of course. The man kept trying to interrupt her but she was having none of that. She was going to England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, driving herself through the countryside. The man tried to give her advice about driving on the left side of the road. She waved him away, said she had been driving a school bus for years, she wasn’t concerned about driving on the left side of the road.
So the three of them listened to the older woman, whose name was also Victoria, just like the driver. The two Victorias bonded immediately over their shared name, even though one was a gray short haired round white woman wearing dumpy comfortable sneakers and a new shiny sleeveless shirt and the other was a stunning young black woman that male drivers would check out from their car windows, honk or smile or wave or just nod. These two Victorias also shared strong opinions, energy, and smoking. They couldn’t smoke, of course, in the limo, but they would both jump out together at the few stops and quickly suck on a cigarette or two.
I’m not one to judge, declares the driver. I mean I love people. I love how everyone is different. I don’t judge people but look at that guy. Look at how he just swung into my lane without even checking in his review mirror. He didn’t even check. Or put on his signal.
Victoria points to the car in front of her, gestures like she is shooting a gun. Her long graceful hands and fingers, her perfect nails with clear polish, complete her captivating image.
That’s the problem with the world, the other Victoria chimes in. Everyone is so self -absorbed.
Don’t get me wrong, says the younger. I love people. I am a very spiritual person. I don’t judge anyone but sometimes you gotta wonder.
Right on time, Victoria picks up her next four passengers, two young men on their way to Las Vegas and another couple on their way to Germany. She senses everyone’s anticipation about traveling and knows that someday, she, too, will travel. She wants to go to Italy. That is why she is going to do a really good job for her new company. She is going to save her money and travel. She is going to take all the driving gigs she can get, work hard for a year or two, and then see the world. She keeps her focus on the road and on her GPS, not engaging, but listening, to her passengers.
She gets lost once driving to Newark. Somehow she misses the exit to the airport and drives a complete circle, past the shipping and freight yards with massive cranes twice, without saying anything but she hears a ‘déjà vu’ from the far back. Despite the extra time because of spacing out and missing the exit, 20 minutes more, she thinks, she delivers the two young men and the couple on their way to Germany on time, at the respective terminals, which after some shouting back and forth between her and her clients, she moved the limo into the right lanes for delivery. Not angry shouting, just: ‘Wait, there’s terminal 3, turn right, turn right!’
She follows the GPS out of Newark to JFK. Good to go, she thinks. The company promised to get them to JFK by 4:00. No problem, she thinks. She pulls her aviator glasses down to the middle of her nose, rolls her window down to signal with her long slender fingers to the cars in the left lane next to her that she is pulling in and waves as she pushes through.
Sometimes you just gotta be a little aggressive, she says, and laughs. Okay, folks, onto JFK.
Something about what she said, about being aggressive, brings her mother to mind. Her mother died when she was nine years old. Murdered. By her boyfriend. Adults think that children don’t understand death and murder but Victoria did at nine years old. She wasn’t stupid. She knew the man had been hitting her mother. She’d seen it. And maybe he didn’t mean to kill her but he did and now he was spending his life in jail. That was 24 years ago but still Victoria thought of her mother and how proud she would be of her when she was successful at her tasks. Like this one. In charge of driving a big limo with precious cargo, helping people begin a journey. Victoria’s mother was funny, kind, generous. Everyone loved her. You would have loved her. She was the best mother. The kind of mother Victoria was trying to be for her three children, ages 16, 11, and 6. There was a bit of a snag in Victoria’s desire to be like her mother, however. Victoria and the children’s father had been together since there were 18 and Victoria was loyal, loyal, loyal. High school sweethearts, although they never married. Now they were apart. They had split up a year ago because he wanted to get married and she couldn’t commit, although she was completely loyal. Now he is with another woman and she is pregnant with twins. They got married. Victoria agreed that he should have their children because she was going to take these long-distance driving jobs but that didn’t work out so she took the job with the limo company and she is going to save all her money and figure out when and how to see her children again. In the meantime, she is very happy for her high school boyfriend. She knows her children are excited about the new babies. And she has this cool job, she is quite certain her new boss has a crush on her, but she is done with relationships, driving a black stretch limo.
It is as if Victoria is practicing a monologue. If any of her passengers ask her about herself, she would tell them all of the above information. She wouldn’t hold anything back. She is an honest person and she can tell people want to know about her life. She might reciprocate. Now, tell me about you. That’s what happens when you travel. People open up about themselves. Victoria was practicing.
She stopped practicing her life monologue when the GPS led her into the gridlocked streets of Manhattan.
Have you ever driven in Manhattan? Drivers don’t look at each other. Not like bumper cars where you aim for the car in front of you with a smirk on your face and ram into it and push it aside. Oh no. But Victoria didn’t know she was only to face forward. She looked left and right. She shouted. She waved. She’d roll her window down to point and roll it back up. No matter the time of day, two-lane or three-lane streets are packed with cars and buses. Bicyclists weave in and out; taxi cabs honk and switch lanes without looking. The lights change from red to green to red to green without any forward movement. Nobody looks anywhere but forward. You inch forward. If you need to merge, like onto a cross-town bridge to take you to a borough, fuhgeddaboudit. If you think that traffic is opening up and you are finally going, fuhgeddaboudit. You are powerless, at the mercy of something you are not sure what it is. There is nothing you can do.
By the time they reached JFK, Terminal 4, the middle-aged woman passenger was certain they were going to miss their flight. It had taken three hours to drive through Manhattan and across the bridge into Brooklyn. They watched Victoria gesture and scream at traffic. She kept tapping her dashboard GPS with her manicured nails. They heard her yell that she didn’t sign up for this, she was a country girl. She never knew there were so many cars and mean people in the world. She is just following the GPS. What is she supposed to do? She was never going back to this company again. She was never coming to New York City again. This was her first and last day at this job. She had never driven in New York before. The limo was overheating. The engine was going to blow up. Her passengers told her to turn on the heat, full blast. What? Were they crazy? Turn on the heat? And the fan? Are you sure? Was she yelling at them?
The middle-aged woman moved up from the back of the limo to sit behind Victoria. She felt like she was whispering sweet nothings in her ear. You are amazing. You are doing a great job. You handle this limo really well. Look, there’s the exit. Go right. Follow the signs for departures. Take this exit, screams the man in the way back. This one! This one! This one? Victoria swings the limo over two lanes.
The limo stopped before the actual passenger drop-off access. The traffic was at another standstill. There are red barrier cones by the curb. Old Victoria said she would get out and walk. She could see her airline. The second she stepped out of the stretch, she lit a cigarette and stood there smoking, as if she had forgotten she had luggage.
Victoria’s long braided corn rows had been tucked into her black blazer. Her collar was pushed up as if she was trying to make it into a hoodie, a place to hide. Her aviator glasses were firmly at the bridge of her nose. She was hunched over the steering wheel, resting her forehead.
You too, she said, to the couple. You get out too. I was told to drop everyone off at the same place. Everyone out. I’m not doing this anymore. Get out of the limo. (And only three hours ago she was talking about making dinner for everyone.)
The woman replied that she wouldn’t get out of the limo until she saw the sign for their airline. She was afraid she was going to have to walk a mile. Just go up a bit more, she said, so I can read the signs.
Victoria huffed, put the limo in gear, and moved an inch forward. She threw both hands in the air. What was she supposed to do? She couldn’t go anywhere.
We’ll get out here, said the passenger. She caught a glimpse of her airline sign.
Victoria threw open the back tailgate so they could get their luggage. She pointed at it, implying they should take it out of the car.
She didn’t look at them, this couple who had been so nice to her, who she had loved like they were her parents. She didn’t say goodbye to them or bon voyage or good trip or all those things she had dreamed she would say to her passengers when she was falling asleep last night (or tossing and turning, anticipating her first day of her job). She didn’t even check to see if they got all their luggage or if they had even shut the car doors.
She pulled out into the departure traffic without signaling by hand or by car. She was hunched down in her seat, anybody looking in might wonder if it was a driverless car. She pulled into the far-left lane, rolled down her window, and lit a cigarette. No smoking in the limo rule was out the window, as far as Victoria was concerned. She would air the car out, buy a zillion tons of air freshener but there was no way she didn’t deserve a cigarette right now.
She chain-smoked her way back up state, drinking two Dunkin’ Donut coffee lattes, one frozen, one regular, and let sweet New Orleans jazz music sing while she drove alone for four hours, forgetting.
She returned the limo to the garage by 10:00 pm, all the paperwork filled out carefully. Her boss was waiting for her. She told him it all went smoothly, happy passengers, no problems, some heavy traffic, nothing she couldn’t handle and she would see him in the morning.
You ought to let people request drivers, she said to him on her way out. I’m sure these folks would ask for me again. They told me I was a great driver.
She was telling the truth. She had no memory of screaming at the couple to get out of the car.