He opens the door and says my name. It’s louder than a marching band. I ask, “you’re heading to Surry Hills?” He nods. I am looking at him in the rear-view mirror. He wears a forget-me-not surgical mask, which forms the bottom half of a frame around his eyes – the upper part composed of his hair, dark and falling softly in two curtains. The eyes themselves are quite unique, large with disproportionately small irises. They’re damp too, like his clothes. It’s good to feel the rain again, two weeks in isolation will make any person mad.
I pull away from the curb and set off toward the city, glancing once again at the man sitting in the back. Why did he choose the back?
He is glancing into his phone, raising his eyes every-now-and-then to check how far we’ve come. The glint of the screen is reflecting in his eyes and I am trying, failing, to see what lies inside them. Ashfield Park.
He takes the phone to his ear and I look away to listen closely. “10:30… No. I’m not on the train… Yes… You can’t be too careful…” Surely, that’s why he sat in the back. He’s scared of the virus. He’s got nothing to fear from me. I lock eyes with him as he hangs up, I couldn’t help but look. His small pupils dart out the window and mine drift out the back windscreen. The Empire Hotel.
“It’s pretty crazy, huh?” I need to hear him speak again.
“Oh, the coronavirus? Yeah, it’s crazy. My uhh, manager’s sister has it. You can’t be too careful…”
“Well, I just got out of two weeks in isolation,” I laugh, “you’ve got nothing to fear from me.”
He’s looking out the window again. It’s a lovely voice. Low, like a baritone, but he inflects his vowels with a climb toward the end of sentences. The university.
I’m getting greedy. He’s stuck to his phone, leaning into the corner as if he doesn’t want me to see. In the reflection in his eyes I see the colour of flesh. Are those breasts or freshly turned bowls of clay?
His curtains part as he looks upward. I turn away before he catches me. Did he see me looking? I imagine what would have occurred if he did catch me, if he caught me and liked it. I imagine what would have happened if he sat in the passenger seat instead of the back. He coughs into his mask quietly. Prince Alfred Park.
My phone reminds me I don’t have much time. Two minutes to his destination. I take every chance that I can to look at him. I can’t let him go, are there any detours I can take? I try to imagine the face under the mask. If he had stubble, would it scratch? I lock eyes with him again and smile. This time his stare lingers.
“Thanks dude, have a good night.” Oh, I’ve stopped the car. And he is gone.
I confirm another trip and pick them up on Oxford St. A pair of women in their mid-thirties stumble into the back. I drift back to the moment he first said my name. After a few minutes lived in his life, I tune into the conversation behind me.
“Do you think she has coronavirus?”
“No, she swears she was only in southern Italy and they quarantined the north.”
“Isn’t Palermo in the north?”
“What about her boyfriend? He’s staying for the month, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, and she’s worried about him. One of his lungs collapsed when he was in high school, so if he catches it, his chances won’t be good, only having one good lung.”
“He’ll be okay.”
“She really loves him, I reckon. Won’t acknowledge it, though.”
“I think she loves him so much she’d want him to infect her, so that they could be sick together.”
I interrupt their conversation, wishing I didn’t have to, “We’re here.”
They thank me. I confirm another trip and whistle Young Americans to carry me there.
“Yes. Aiden? Going to Pyrmont?” The trips continue as they always do and I get lucky with several around the CBD. I speak to Aiden about music. I speak to Isabella about wine, Tasha about WestConnex. Many of the passengers are silent. Some sit in the front, others in the back. Some wear masks, others don’t. I want to kiss the forget-me-not mask, feel its pleated centre folds under my tongue.
Of those that do speak, the conversations always breach that one topic. The virus is causing mass panic, and yet it’s become a stock conversation – like the weather, unimportant to most, but to farmers and those with one good lung, everything. Fuck. What was his name? I never checked his name. I’ll go back through my trips when I’m done.
It’s raining heavily by the early morning when I pick up Grace, who gets into the car with a man. As soon as the door closes and the light goes off, she places her hand on his knee. He whispers something in her ear and she laughs quietly. They’re sopping wet, which almost masks the smell of what they’ve been drinking. As they begin to kiss, I look away. I know better than to watch. I’ll listen.
There’s the distinct sound of denim rubbing on denim and then a frustrated “No.” They stay quiet until I drop them off.
I think about that denim sound and squeeze some Dettol onto my hand, the smell of wetness and alcohol I rub into my jeans between the thighs. I wonder if he’s somewhere drunk and wet.
I pick up Andrew, whose destination is close to home. Perfect, I’m getting tired. He, like Grace and that man, is soaked from head to toe.
We drive in silence for a time. He coughs into his elbow and I offer him a tissue, which he takes, smiling gratefully, and uses. The university. The Empire Hotel. Ashfield Park. Quarantined or not, I am still indentured.
I begin to imagine again. I imagine him back in my car. He’s in the front seat, his mask off. I imagine him not wanting our trip to end. I imagine him inviting me into his home, he promises me a tip if I come. I turn and see that I’m parked somewhere I recognise.
“Thanks dude, twice in one night, huh? Crazy how that happens.” I see his slick wet hair fall in front of those eyes, his baritone echoing in me. Where had his mask gone? Fuck. No. He shuts the door.
I drive the long five minutes home and park. Frantically, I search the back of the car for some remnant of him. I find the tissue crumpled shyly behind the passenger seat.
I take the tissue into my mouth and suck on it until it turns to pulp. Words from earlier rebound: “I think she loves him so much she’d want him to infect her, so that they could be sick together.”