The Difference
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Obvious"
Originally featured on 09-01-2008
As part of our series "The Ancient Trappings of Humanity’s Endless Summer (Age-Old Traps)"

The first guy was too tan — I knew right away. He was wearing one of those ski hats and a Buddha necklace (I have no idea why that look is so popular, I guess it’s a white-boy skateboarder thing). Totally wrong posture. I just shook my head.

There are corkboards lining the peach colored walls to my back, and they’re covered with thumb-tacked pages that look really official, kind of like I expected. Although I didn’t expect the walls would be peach; for some reason I just always pictured the décor of a station would be blue with a few white stripes — like the cruisers. I don’t know why I assumed that. No good reason, really.

There goes Bachelor Number One, I say to myself — actually say to myself, talking softer than I breathe, that way I know nobody hears me. I try to laugh, but it’s really not that funny. It’s not funny at all, actually.

I’m not reading any of the print on the documents stapled to the walls. Not that I’m afraid I’d get in trouble for reading it — if it was real juicy, classified stuff, they wouldn’t have it hanging out in the halls where people walking through could read it. I just…didn’t want to seem too curious, I guess. Plus, it’s tacked up there a few inches above my eyes, and I don’t feel like tilting my head up.

I don’t like being here. I’m not a short woman — I stand five foot five and a half without heels, that’s dead-smack average — but this place makes me feel short.

Bachelor Number Two is about thirty pounds thicker than Number One, and better looking, in a rugged way, but he’s not it. I wonder if they’re looking at me; they’re not here to look at me, they’re here to be looked at, like pieces of chocolate on an assembly line and I’m the inspector. But they’re not pieces of food, they’re people, and people naturally look at each other. They know what my deal is — or have some idea, anyway — but I don’t know what they’re thinking of when they see me; maybe they’re nervous, or maybe they’re totally cool, just thinking about calling their buddy to say they’ll be late for lunch. I’m looking for a certain face — that’s what I’m doing here.

It doesn’t matter what I look like. I didn’t dress up for this; I’ve got my jean vest, legwarmers and my hair in braids. I’m not smiling — should I be? Maybe the least I could do is smile at them, taking their time to come in, I mean, chances are they ain’t murderers or nothing, they just got picked for how they look.

Picked for how they look…

 

“Hey, do you got a couple bucks you can help me with?” He looks at me like I’m the first person he’s seen today. “The Thirty-four bus comes at eleven, I’m just trying to-”

I don’t look at him. I keep walking and ignore the hunched over guy with the dark blue nylon jacket and torn black pants. I don’t see the stubble on his face. I don’t see anything but the sidewalk, until I feel the metal pipe come down across my ear.

I shouldn’t have ignored him. Maybe if I had given him a couple bucks and smiled, he would have left me alone. I know I’m not supposed to think that — that’s victim-thinking, I should be pissed off, not wondering if it was something I did, but I can’t help thinking, what if I’d acted different? Maybe then I wouldn’t be in this car with a paper bag over my face and the smell of cigarette smoke and mint. At least I think I’m in a car.

It’s the mint smell that I really hate. I can’t even think of what that is. Toothpaste? Why the hell would there be toothpaste here? Or maybe candy.

 

They bring in four more candidates. Nothing.

 

My head throbs, like a cycle, a wheel that keeps coming around and sparking off pain. I think I’m bleeding. I hear their voices, what sounds like two men, maybe three, and I know what they’re going to do to me.

This doesn’t happen, not in my neighborhood, not to me. This definitely is not happening, because I just don’t fucking have time for this sort of thing to happen. I’m not in some strange car with a bag over my head, and I did not just feel the blade of a knife graze my thigh and a pair of greasy hands peel away the top of my pants.

I hear the fabric tearing and feel a shiver down my leg.

I’m on my back. I try to thrust my shoulders around, even though I know I shouldn’t be making any strenuous movements with my upper body if my head is bleeding — a nurse once told me that when I hurt myself in the gym.

There’s a fat guy on top of me, probably weighs three hundred pounds. I feel a hard crack against my elbow before I even know I’ve been thrashing my arms. I think I just accidentally nailed one of those fuckers in the mouth, because I hear him curse and I see little tiny dark spots on the paper bag that’s probably his spit. I feel a dizzying, happy excitement for just a moment, then it turns sour, remembering what’s about to happen.

 

Officer Patterson pats me on the shoulder and says, “You hang in there. We’re going to find that uncivilized piece of trash, and when we do, you get to look him in the eye.”

We’re in his office, which doesn’t look like what I thought a real office would look like. I guess I don’t know what I was expecting — high-tech machinery on the walls, rows of surveillance monitors or something, I don’t know. This place looks like it could be the office of a high school guidance counselor, or a therapist.

I want to tell him to get his hand off me, but I’m grateful that he’s helping me, and I don’t want to be a bitch. Is he helping me? I escaped by myself. But they’ll do something, I’m sure.

Officer Patterson is fat in a cartoon dad sort of way, not comically fat, not fat like he drinks a six-pack of beer every night and beats his wife fat, but tired fat. He’s bald, not completely, but he’s got that goofy wrap around thing going. I never understood why white guys just let their hair grow out around the back, why they don’t just say fuck it and shave it off. He’s got this long body, and the fat hangs over his belt like sand in a balloon that’s been stretched too much, and his shoulders kind of blend into his neck.

I wonder if Officer Patterson is looking at me. Nobody here should really care what I look like. I think he can’t decide if he wants to be all warm and fatherly, or if he wants to bed me. Gross. Officer Patterson’s like older than my uncle Vin, and Uncle Vin has kids who are old enough to have sex — they admit it to me, too.

I have to say something, or he’ll keep looking at me. Doesn’t he have important cop meetings to attend or something? “Listen, um…” I fidget in the hard chair and chuckle a little bit without meaning to. “I really appreciate that you’re doing all this, standard procedure, whatever, but…it’s just, I don’t really see the point. I mean, there are bad guys out there, people robbing stores, shooting each other, kidnapping, lots of shit like that. You could spend all day trying to match faces, but I don’t really care about- I mean, it’s like I fell on a rusty nail. Bad luck, whatever. If you bust one asshole, that makes me happy, doesn’t matter which one, just means there’s one less asshole, y’feel me?”

“Like I said, ma’am, we’re doing everything we can to-”

Now I’m pissed. I’m supposed to be pissed at the animal with the cigarette toothpaste car, but I’m pissed at Officer Patterson. I breathe heavily through my teeth. “How can I put this another way. These…what’s the word? Lineups? The guy who, who- my assailant, yeah, he’s running around. I’m saying, don’t bother trying to catch him, it’s not worth it.” I twist my mouth and blow through my lip, swiveling my head like a flat tire. “There’s a hundred criminals just as bad as him, worse, so you’ll always be in business, right? So just keep doing what you do, your job, I mean, and I’ll just, whatever, live my life. I survived, it’s not that big a deal. I mean, it is- you know what I mean.”

 

Somebody’s punching me. My cheeks are swollen and numb. My tongue is bleeding, and I don’t remember biting it. He’s screaming at me, calling me a bitch and a stupid cunt, and half my pants are gone, and the fat guy’s still on top of me, I can feel his big fat dick poking against my stomach through his jeans, and I’m shouting but I can’t hear myself, really. I’m going to fucking kill them. Once I get my arms free (I can’t feel my arms right now, they’ve got some kind of rubber cord tied around my elbow cutting off circulation), I’m going to…now I can hear myself, but there’s a hand on my mouth, and I keep trying to bite it so I can keep yelling, but it hurts when I yell.

Fuck it if it hurts. They can’t do this. They can’t goddamned fucking do this to me I’m going to rip their goddamned fucking balls off with my teeth and chew up their fucking future offspring and then spit it in their fucking faces so they can’t ever fucking-

The car is shaking. Or it’s my body that’s shaking. I’m going to die here in this car with a three-hundred-pound fat fucking creature sitting on me and that toothpaste, that fucking smell of-

That’s when I lost it. Something inside me weighed more than the guy sitting on me constricting my airways, and that something shot up into my throat like a cannon and my fists tore free from the bungee cords and I pummeled outward with my fists, sucked the paper bag into my mouth, chewed it and then spat it at the roof along with a string of profanity in a voice that did not sound like my own. My knees struck at spines.

And then a weird thing happens. I’m fighting and yelling, and I can’t tell if it’s the real thing; it feels more like pretend. I remember doing shit like this in high school drama classes, yelling so loud and consistent I had to drink gallons of water. I remember a performance we did for one of those Awareness programs, me and Lonnie, he was supposed to be a gangster on the street trying to jump me. I remember how we staged it with chairs, he was holding me down and I fought back, like really fought back with all I had, because I knew Lonnie pretty well. We performed the shit out of that thing, then we’d catch our breath, bow, laugh it off, hug and go for pizza. That was high school.

I’m thirty-two, divorced, about to pay off my mortgage and I’m in a car that smells like cigarettes and mint toothpaste with a bag over my face, bleeding from my skull. The fat guy’s weight is crushing my hips and I’m pretty sure he wants to rape me- no, there’s no question about it. And this doesn’t feel any different than drama class with Lonnie.

That’s the worst feeling I can think of: the feeling that there’s no difference.

Then the fat guy rolls off me and they’re all yelling again, but it’s different; they’re moving me, the door is open, I feel the engine of the car jump and my back hits the pavement. There were sirens. I hear the car speed down the road and see the cops chasing them. The car has no headlights on.

I’m okay.

 

I look at Officer Patterson and I wish he knew. I just wish he knew, because I don’t know. “See, the thing is, they ain’t human. They’re a disease, like the city’s got a tumor on its neck. If the surgeon digs in and scoops out a few cells, then cool, but every cell’s just another cell, no different than… never mind.”

Officer Patterson is getting impatient. They say men never listen; I don’t think that’s entirely true, but I see now that whoever invented that saying must have spent a lot of time at police stations. “I’m afraid that’s all we can do for you today.”

I’m okay. He shows me out. I walk to my car, and I’m still okay. I drive home.

I laugh about shit on the way home — unrelated shit, insignificant shit. I’m not even thinking about that night anymore. I don’t have time for that shit to happen, I was lucky enough to walk away without too much damage, and I don’t have time to go into a stupid police station and I don’t have time to be all paranoid.

 

I’d forgotten all about it by the time I brushed my teeth at night. Then I tasted the toothpaste in my mouth and I started screaming and kicking the door.

It still kind of felt like I was just acting. Then it hit me that the guy lied about needing a couple bucks for the Thirty-four bus — obviously, if he had a car waiting for his catch. For some reason, I’d never thought about that, about the first thing he said to me, I’d just thought about everything that had happened after.

I know it’s best — healthiest — not to wonder about him, because wondering makes him sound like just a regular guy, like any of those look-alikes who stood in that line for me to shake my head at. But sometimes I can’t help wondering if maybe he felt like he was pretending the whole time too. If they all do.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Archives Archives
Advertise