They rolled down the windows, letting in buckets of warm, tar-scented air. Bursts of frenetic salsa filled the car. The girl talked about LA in a low voice. No one understood a word. Further out from the city, the mood changed. They could no longer see the skyline. A tangle of cars and highways unraveled into a strip of ramshackle buildings, patches of no man’s land with potholes the size of small asteroids. They had no idea where they were. The boy was hungry, squirming and kicking the dashboard. Manuel stopped on a desolate parking lot and returned with four grease-drenched sandwiches. The girl picked at a small piece.
“I don’t really eat this,” she said.
Manuel stopped chewing. Fernanda could see the tufts of hair on his hand trembling, one eyelid fluttered. But he went back and returned with some broth in a styrofoam cup, which he wordlessly placed on the car roof. They drove on, past shabby houses. Suddenly Manuel slammed the breaks in front of a cramped-looking bungalow. A large man stumbled out the buckled screen door, one hand clutching the frayed ends of a pink bathrobe. Hey man, was all he said. Then he spotted the girl and his eyes wandered up and down her legs.
“Herman!” Manuel slapped the boy's back, sending him flying up the driveway. “Here’s your birthday party, what are you waiting for? Vamos! Go play.”
Inside the house a clot of teenage boys sat in the dark, yelling at a television, hugging two liter Coke bottles. Manuel disappeared in the back with the frayed bathrobe man. The bungalow was chilly, air-conditioned into a stupor. After a while, when no one came, Fernanda got up and rummaged for water in the kitchen. She found two green plastic cups filled with an unidentified, sticky soda. The girl grimaced and lit a cigarette.
“So – you’re new here too?” she asked Fernanda.
“No, I arrived a few months ago.“
“You know people in the city?”
“Some. Not a lot.”
“I’m thinking of going back to school”, the girl said in a flat voice, “but I guess I need a place to live first.”
She waited for Fernanda to say something. When nothing came, she noisily blew smoke out of her mouth and asked:
“So what about you? How come you’re friends with him?”
“Yes, Manuel. He’s kind of crazy. Like, he just dumped us here and disappeared? I mean, I know why I am hanging out with him, I’m looking for an apartment and he’s the real estate guy. But why are you hanging out with him?”
“He’s the uncle…of my boyfriend.”
“Really?” The girl paused. “You just arrived and you already got yourself a boyfriend?” She inspected Fernanda with renewed interest. “So is your boyfriend anything like Manuel?”
“Manuel is alright, you know. He's pretty decent.”
It wasn't exactly a lie. Manuel had decent moments. He had let them stay at his place for a while, rent-free. But then he'd also spied on them having sex at night. She wasn't sure where, on the spectrum of human decency, this left Manuel.
The girl raised a skeptic eyebrow, but said nothing. She smoked silently through a half-dozen cigarettes while they sat and waited. They were hours from the city by subway, but Manuel had vanished. It was the first thing you learned about Manuel, and mostly, it went downhill from there: his attachment to things and people was razor-thin.
GRIDLOCK, short story