The siren began to wail the minute Mark opened the door to the car. He jumped in and slammed madly at the buttons on the dashboard until it stopped. He dropped his forehead down onto the steering wheel, taking deep breaths to calm himself. Finally, he felt his pulse return to a normal pace. Leslie, his sixty-eight-year-old neighbour, stuck her head over his open car door and made him jump. "When will you get rid of this piece of junk, Marky?" Half-grinning and playfully swatting her away, Mark closed the door and put the car in gear.
Zeenat had overslept. She really should change the alarm tone on her phone, she thought, as she simultaneously brushed her teeth and washed her face. She peered closely at her reflection in the bathroom mirror and frowned. Only two days since she’d washed her hair and already the grease was beginning to show. Zeenat had never been the kind of woman to wash her hair every day; her mother, like every other woman she knew from home, had passed down her healthy scepticism of chemical shampoos and conditioners to Zeenat, who had taken it to be a validation of her own lazy instincts. She calculated quickly in her mind - she could probably put it off for another day, no one had to know… Damn. She sighed as she remembered she couldn’t put it off. She took out the tiny box of baby powder she kept for the days she waxed her legs and dusted it onto her scalp – the poor woman’s dry shampoo. She shook her head vigorously to get rid of the excess baby powder and ran out of the bathroom, flakes of white clinging to the occasional greasy patch, stubbornly standing out against her dense, night-black hair. It took her a few seconds to realise the toothbrush was still dangling from the side of her mouth.
Mark wolfed down the last of his dollar McChicken parked at the corner of the park at 11th and Pine, wistfully watching muddied-brown boys and girls playing soccer. His phone lit up with a melodious twang; A woman was calling for a ride. His eyes narrowed as he took in the photograph accompanying the notification. The dark, thick eyebrows, the benign smile, the green headscarf framing her face. He ignored the request and turned back towards the soccer players. The twanging continued, a perverse, self-righteous bully calling him out on his pettiness when he had just spent his last two dollars on an ill-advised Oreo milkshake. Against his will, Mark slid the green button across the screen and started up the car.
Zeenat stuffed her feet into her one-size-too-small rain boots and grabbed her umbrella from the coat closet. Her hand moved instinctively to the small off-white cubby hanging from the rod. She looked at the mess of fabric inside, the shock of colours, silk and cotton and wool. Her fingers stayed suspended in mid-air as her mother’s tearful voice bubbled up, a fresh memory that made her heart constrict. She felt a disconcerting yet not-unpleasant buzz against her thigh. It was her phone. Her ride had arrived. She slammed the closet door shut and ran out the door.
Mark had not expected Zeenat to climb in front and sit next to him. He resented this move, this pretence of familiarity, even though familiarity was one of the ride-sharing industry's founding tenets. To be fair, she did check with him first, but he was so taken aback when she had opened the front door that he said, "Okay" without thinking. Now here she was sitting next to him, smelling of cloves and jasmines, her soaking umbrella drip-drip-dripping on the floor of his car.
"Busy day?" Zeenat asked, her standard question when she got into a ride-share. Her companion – it made her squirm to think of them as "drivers" – grunted in response. On any other day, Zeenat would have been bothered by this non-response and continued to engage in him, trying to draw him out, but not today. Today she wanted to disappear into herself. Today, she regretted instinctively sitting up in front of the car. She fished out her phone, counting on it to distract her. She scrolled through her twitter timeline, rapidly regretting ever signing up for the service. Between the imminent end-of-the-world headlines and goofy dog gifs, she couldn't tell whether she should be calling her Congressman or checking into therapy. Everything sucks, she thought to herself, and stuffed her phone out of sight. She looked up and saw Mark looking at her with a confused expression. Her fingers flew to her mouth. "Did I say that out loud?"
Mark instantly averted his gaze. "It's okay."
Zeenat laughed, her mood suddenly transformed.
"I’m mortified.” She let out an exaggerated sigh. “Social media, am I right?”
Mark felt a bewildering fear grip him. He rummaged in his brain for an appropriate non-committal response but he kept coming up empty. Time was running out. Finally, because his pause had long crossed the acceptable threshold for "awkward," he settled for another grunt.
This time, Mark’s reaction didn’t go unnoticed. Zeenat was nonplussed. Her previous experiences with ride-sharing had always been fascinating – young community college students working part-time, retired grandmothers with cookies and pictures of adorable grandchildren, refugees from Somalia with stories that made her blood run cold, ex-doctors from Ukraine – people filled to the brim with stories and experiences. Mark’s hostility disturbed her.
Mark didn't have to sense Zeenat's distress – it was written clearly on her face. He observed her closely. The unblemished chin, the thick, expressive eyebrows that framed her hazel eyes, the sharp nose. He glanced back at the picture in the app. Something didn't quite look right. It took a few more peeks back and forth for it to dawn on him. Then suddenly, his desire to ignore her and everything about her was overcome by a burning curiosity. He had a hundred questions and he needed answers right away.
"Do I have something on my face?" Zeenat asked, running her fingers over her cheeks. She had caught him staring. Mark went scarlet, a shade that particularly stood out against his pale, Irish skin. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to stare," he said, unable to get the words out fast enough. Zeenat shrugged and turned to continue looking out the window. Before he could stop himself, Mark blurted, "I was just thinking that you look different from the photo here."
Zeenat looked at the picture, unnerved. “It’s probably the headscarf,” she replied.
"The hijab? I thought you weren't allowed to take it off."
Zeenat was thrown. She hadn’t expected Mark to know the correct term. She let her guard down, very slightly.
"My mother called me last night begging me to take it off."
"Is that normal?"
She shrugged. "She did it herself for a couple of years after 9/11."
Her words catapulted Mark into an old memory. Sweat running down the back of his gangly, teenage neck, his ginger-blonde hair buzzed to the scalp, his nose stinging with the pungent, heady smell of paint as his sprayed across a simple off-white house with a brown door. A man steps out of the house, the red of his turban standing out stark, the same red as the word "Terrorist" on his front wall. He yells something – the words are a blur – something angry yet fearful. Mark bolts with his friends, but not before hacking a spit towards the man, just missing his foot.
A movement on Mark's screen brought him back to the present. The map had zoomed in; they were coming up to Zeenat's destination.
“I’m sorry about that. It sucks,” said Mark.
Zeenat couldn’t help but smile at that.
"You’re right,” she said. “It does. But I guess, dying would suck more.”
It was her feather-light tone, the matter-of-factness of it all, that Mark would remember years later when the world had gone to hell.
Zeenat regretted the words the minute she saw the look on Mark’s face. "Look, I’m sorry. I didn't mean to bum you out."
The phone clanged loudly, interrupting Mark's reply, if he had had one. He pulled over to the curb and put the car in park.
"Thank you," said Zeenat, as she climbed out of the car. The rain had slowed down to a drizzle. The sun was out, throwing millions of brilliant rainbows all over his windshield. The icy wind blew a few tendrils of her hair into her eyes, making her slam the door and turn away, feeling like she had accidentally worn a bikini to work.
Mark didn't move. There was something stuck in his throat – a feeling he couldn’t describe, a thought he didn't know how to form, a word he hadn't learnt yet. By the time he managed to look up, Zeenat had disappeared through the glass doors of her building.
About the Author: Shruti Swaminathan was raised in the bursting-at-the-seams cultural explosion that is India. She recently graduated with an MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA and currently lives in Seattle. You can find her on twitter using the handle @ashramsinanut.