17th Street Review

Drinking Story

Saira Khan

Three too many dirty martinis in and way past her bedtime, Joanna stumbled out of an overpriced cocktail bar on a fancy street on the Upper West Side to wait for her Uber to arrive. Under normal circumstances, she would never have gone out on a weeknight, but nothing felt normal since the election. 

As she watched Jenny, an old friend from high school, weave her way down the street and disappear into the subway station, something she hoped was water began splashing down on her from above -- a much needed reprieve from the heat of the alcohol in her veins. She closed her eyes and plunged one hand into the bag hanging off her shoulder, looking for her phone. She was about to check the app when a black Toyota pulled up up next to her.  

“Joanna?” the tender voice of a woman asked. Joanna stumbled forward and struggled with the door, heard the clicking of the electronic locks and tried again. This time she was successful. The door opened and she practically fell into the vehicle. She closed the door, checking to make sure she hadn’t caught her dress in it, and looked up to examine the person who would be driving her. 

A woman Uber driver! Joanna thought. 

“A woman Uber driver!” she yelled. 

She was met with a chuckle and then a question. “You’re Joanna, right?” 

“Oh, yes. Sorry, it’s not every day you get a woman driver,” she replied.

“Sure.”

“And your name is….” she used her thumb to unlock her phone, which conveniently opened up to the app. Joanna squinted to read the print. “Ryan, your name is Ryan. I knew there was a reason I was surprised to see a woman.” 

“It’s Rayyan, actually,” the driver responded. “RAY-YAWN.” 

“Beautiful,” Joanna said. She thought she had detected an accent in the driver’s voice but couldn’t place where it was from. 

“Do you want to plug your phone in to play any music?” the driver asked, catching Joanna’s gaze in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were dark brown. Perhaps even black.

“No, I’m fine. No music or radio is good.” 

The jerky motions of the car, left, then right, then left, then right, were beginning to make Joanna feel sick. She rolled down the window and stuck her hand out, leaned her head back, let the wind weave through her fingers and the raindrops wash over her face. It had been a while since she had had so many drinks -- since the Women’s March, at least, which, coincidentally, had also been the last time she saw Jenny. She had guilted Joanna into taking the train down to D.C. for it (“Now is the time to act!” she had said). She actually had a good time that weekend, making signs, taking photos, marching with hundreds of thousands of women, and drinking with Jenny’s D.C. politico type friends. They were all much more motivated by the political climate than she was, but they didn’t make her feel stupid or uninformed. 

Joanna smiled thinking of that weekend. She opened her eyes and watched the driver’s reflection in the left-hand mirror. If the driver had been white and had had blonde hair she’d definitely be conventionally beautiful, Joanna considered, but her coloring gave her an exotic look. This woman is too pretty to be driving a taxi, she thought. 

At that very moment, the driver looked in the mirror and locked eyes with Joanna; she sat up and pulled her hand in from the window. It was drenched. 

“You know, you have a beautiful name,” Joanna said. “Where is it from?”

“It’s Arabic,” the driver replied.

“Is that where you’re from?” 

“I’m from Arizona.”

“Oh, but originally though?”

“I’m originally from Arizona,” the driver said. “But my parents are from Iraq.” 

“That must be tough. I’m from Maryland, a small town right outside of Baltimore,” Joanna replied. 

“What must be tough?” the driver asked. 

“Being from Iraq.”

“Not really. Is it tough for you being from Baltimore? Like, with ‘The Wire’ and all,” the driver responded.

Joanna laughed. “Oh, we didn’t live anywhere near that kind of stuff. It wasn’t like that at all.”

“I know,” the driver said.

“But really though, it must be hard for your parents. I try not to follow the news since it’s all so depressing these days. But from what I recall, it’s quite the mess over there isn’t it?” 

“Traffic,” the driver said, pressing her foot on the brakes. “Do you mind rolling up your window? It’s starting to come down.” 

“Sure,” Joanna said, complying. The inside of her door was streaked with water. She hadn’t even noticed that the pleasant drizzle had at some point turned into pounding rain. 

“So, are you Muslim?” Joanna asked, wiping her hand on her dress. 

“Yup.”

“The guys who own the bodega on my block are Muslim. They’re great. Sometimes they sell me loosies for 50 cents,” Joanna said. The thought of smoking made her feel nauseous, so she cracked the window a little. 

“I don’t do this full-time,” the driver said then. “It’s my side hustle. I’m in law school.”

“What kind of law?” Joanna asked. She glanced at her phone to see if anyone had texted her. Nothing. 

“I want to be an immigration lawyer.”

“That’s amazing,” Joanna repeated. “We need more.”

“Lawyers?” the driver asked. 

“Yes. I work in advertising,” Joanna said. “Do you plan on moving to D.C. once you’re a lawyer? They probably need people like you. I have a bunch of friends who work in politics there, I’m sure I could connect you to some people. Remind me how long you’ve been here?”

“How long I’ve been where?” the driver asked. 

“In America,” Joanna said. 

“My entire life?” 

“I try to avoid politics and the news and whatnot but sometimes I think about the fact that over fifty percent of white women voted for that man, and I get so angry,” Joanna said.  

“53%,” the driver said.  

“53%! There was a segment on NPR the other day, about how hate crimes are on the rise. All these little kids in schools are being bullied, and they’re all so scared for their parents. I just can’t even imagine,” Joanna went on. “And all of this wall business. This nation was built on immigrants. How can they forget that?” She was yelling again. “I’m sorry, I get worked up about this, as you can see.”

“It happens,” the driver said. “But most of this isn’t new.”

“What do you mean?” 

“The wall, Make America Great Again, the racism.”

“You’re right. What am I even going on about? You probably know better than I do how it can be. I imagine it must be so tough for your parents.”

“Not really. We don’t have much family there anymore, and my parents have been here for many years,” the driver said. “Although, I suppose there is something to be said about knowing about the destruction of your homeland. I’ve never even been there, to be honest.”

“Wow,” Joanna mumbled. She checked her phone again. “I just think of all those little kids and my heart--” a warm feeling began creeping from her heart into her throat. She saw the driver look at her in the the rearview mirror, just as her eyes started filling with tears.

“Are you alright?” the driver asked.

“I just feel so helpless, so --” Then, all at once, the steak frites she had had for dinner, the bread, the calamari, the tiramisu she shared with Jenny, and whatever was left of the three martinis were forcefully ejected from her body. She left a spray of vomit on the back of the driver’s seat and the rest of it by her feet. She leaned over and heaved, making sounds like she was exorcising a demon. Over the noise her body was making, she could hear the driver yelling. She felt the car come to a stop. Joanna’s purse, which was sitting beside her, fell off the seat and rolled into the chunky puddle that had formed on the floor of the car. She quickly snatched it out of the wet. With one hand the driver rolled down all four windows, and with the other she shoved a box of tissues at Joanna, who grabbed a few of them and began dabbing at her bag. She was still crying, but she felt much better.

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