Neutral Territory

Lily Trotta
    It was obvious you had never driven stick before. I imagined you an hour earlier, stalling your car as you turned the key for the first time. Stalling it as you shifted into reverse. Stalling it as you finally eased your foot off the brake and began rolling into the road. I imagined you muttering filthy slurs into the steering wheel and snapping your head back to ensure your step-dad wasn’t watching; he had told you not to buy this car.
    How relieved you must have felt as you drifted onto the street, experimenting with the pedals under your clumsy feet. Left one up, right one down, slowly, slowly, don’t stall again. I imagined your hand, clammy on the gear stick between the seats, jerking it into neutral and holding it there until you turned, too sharp, onto my street.
    You must have caught a glimpse of yourself in the rearview, brow furrowed, shoulders rigid, and taken a moment to unzip your hoodie, so the shirt underneath it showed. It was one I bought for you. Shit. You yanked the zipper up to your neck again–you looked ridiculous. Fuck it, you thought. Fuck the shirt.
    We started the lesson with our backs to the church–you let me drive first. The parking lot was a dusty oval lined with the thick, molding logs, across the street from a feeble wooden chapel. It was just large enough for extra parishioners who came on religious holidays, but this was January and a Tuesday, so we had the lot to ourselves.
    I held my hands straight in front of me, palms down, and told you to pretend they were feet. We began by miming the motions of shifting. Lift the left hand slowly off the clutch as you press the right one down on the gas. But, you know, with your feet. Equal but opposite movements. Your hands seesawed in unison to mine and you nodded. I moved on to the gear stick between us.
    “I know what the gears do, Kelly.” There was an edge to your voice now–you thought I was talking down to you. I felt my lungs fill all the way with air for the first time since you picked me up. The heater made my breath taste chemical.
    “Okay, never mind.”
    “Do you want to trade seats?” The edge was gone now, replaced by a higher pitch I recognized as the voice you used at work with the difficult customers. “I can do laps.”
    You got out of the passenger seat and headed around the front fender, so I made for the back. Equal but opposite. I left the car idling so you wouldn’t have to start it, but you stalled shifting into first anyway. You turned the music off so you could focus, but we kept talking, both of us staring forward through the dash. Your little brother was getting into trouble again. Your nephew was registered for pre-school now.
    I told you about my new job, that I’d found another roommate to pick up your share.
    “She seems chill. She’s a vegetarian.”
    “That’s cool, that you both are.”
    My breaths were too shallow to smell the heater anymore. I glanced over when you stalled again and noticed a smear of dried blood by your jawline. You must have cut yourself shaving.
    “My mom said she’d help paint my room. She’s excited to have me back, I think.”
    “That’s nice.”
    Maybe we’d do this all day. Twenty slow circles until you mastered first gear. Twenty more until you brought us into second without the seat belts tightening. Another twenty and you could downshift. After every lap, I had you park and start again.
    I thought reverse would come easy to you–you were learning faster than I expected. Still, we must have circled the lot backwards for half an hour before you made it a whole lap without stalling. The conversation moved forward to movies and mutual friends–neutral territory–as the sun started setting and the streetlights began to brighten.
    “I should probably get home soon,” I said, staring at my hands and interrupting your story about the DMV. They had been kneading one another like dough in my lap. My fingers were getting red. I sensed you looking at me as you stalled into park, so I puffed my cheeks into a kind of smile, which I continued to point downward.
    “Oh, yeah.” Were you still staring at me? I’d have to look back to know. “Thanks for teaching me Kel, I feel a lot better about this now.”
    “Good!” I was being loud again. “You did great, you’ll definitely be fine.” I paused to pick at a piece of skin on my pinky. One quick look, that’s what I’d do. You probably deserved that from me.
    My neck cracked as I breathed in the heat and faced you. The air tasted chemical again, made humid by the lack of space between our mouths. Somehow I hadn’t felt you lean over the middle console. Your pores looked big. One of my straight hairs had found its way across the car and was dangling from your curls as you stared at me.
    I reached for the hair with a dry, red hand and turned my whole body from you to sprinkle it out the passenger side window. It was the kind you had to crank open by hand. I swallowed some cold air, holding it tight in my chest for a beat so you could start the car, check your phone, do anything, until I heard the click of old speakers turning back on. It was one swift motion, mindless, like shifting gears. I let the cold air out and cranked the window closed again.
    “Do you want to drive?” I asked, leaning into my seat. “Or…?”
    But you had started the engine already, and it rattled into first, second, third.
Lily Trotta is an NYU graduate raised in Connecticut, but give her a break, okay? When not writing, she makes cookie dough, overshares, and tries to hold it together in public. Her poems can be found in Wu-Wei Fashion Mag, Vagabond City, and Peach Mag, and her heart can be found on Twitter @lilytrotta.