It wasn't the things you said that scared me away. Or the way you had of taking my wrists in your hands, your fingers curling around them as if feeling for a pulse. It was the way you looked at me - your eyes hidden behind the oversized dark glasses you always wore, your smile pointed tentatively in my direction but refusing, somehow, to focus. There was something wrong with that smile. I saw you practicing it in the rearview once, when you thought I wasn't looking, and it came out fine, it came out beautiful. But every time you tried smiling at me, or at someone else, it was always hesitant, always forced. As though it didn't trust human beings, only mirrors.
I wonder if you ever realised that.
The day I decided it was over I told you that I wouldn't be needing the ride anymore because I was quitting my job at the music store. I had a whole story planned to explain this - how my grades at school had been slipping, how my parents felt this was a crucial year and I should be spending my time at home. But you didn't ask me what happened or why I was leaving. You didn't ask me anything. You just said "Oh" and went on driving.
We didn't talk much after that. We just sat there, listening to the hum of the car accelerating between us, like something momentous and menacing that we could barely control. It was the first time we'd been silent like this. Even that first day you gave me a lift - when you'd seen me walking towards the bus stop and recognised me from the Sharma's New Year party next door and asked me if I needed a ride - even then, not knowing the first thing about each other, we'd managed to find something to talk about. It felt strange, sitting next to you without saying a word. It felt like I was riding with a stranger. When we got to the store I had to keep myself from telling you where to stop.
Only you didn't stop, didn't drop me off outside the store the way you always did. For a moment I felt panic. Where were you taking me? You pulled into an empty parking slot, switched off the engine.
We both paused then, like characters who had arrived late to their own movie. It wasn't that we didn't know what was going to happen next, it was that we couldn't define what had happened, what was ending. Or perhaps it was just that we couldn't decide who had the first dialogue. You sat defeated behind the steering wheel, nervously turning the ring on your finger. I stayed frozen in my seat, wishing you would do something, say something. Ready to defend myself against whatever it was that you came up with.
After a while I opened the door. The hum of the traffic flooded into the car, unfroze us, plugged us back into the usual machine of arrival and departure. I edged my way out, careful not to let the door touch the car parked next to yours. Holding my breath till I had got clear.
As I reached back in from my knapsack, you laid your hand on my forearm.
"Thank you", you said, looking up at me.
It felt as though you'd slipped a hand under my shirt.
I could have asked "What for?", could have pretended not to know what you were talking about, but I figured you deserved better. So I just looked down and nodded. Then I whispered goodbye to you very softly and shut the door. Then I walked away.
Half way down the block I turned back to look. You were turned away from me, straining to see the traffic coming up behind you, trying to reverse into the street in order to drive away. From the angle your car was at, I could see you were having trouble. You never could back properly.