May 16, 2023

     She sat wearily on her up-ended suitcase on the dusty shoulder of a two-lane highway, across from a rustic gas station and bar. A sailor with his left hand inside the breast of his blue shirt stood a short distance up the road, wagging his right thumb at the non-existent traffic. A truck finally came by, then stopped up the road, though it passed with such a blast of wind, it nearly rocked her off her suitcase—and when she glanced around, she saw the sailor chasing his hat into a field.

     There were two metal rungs to one side of the cab door, and she climbed these and grabbed the top of the door to hoist herself into the head-high seat. She hadn’t wanted to ride with a truck driver—had promised herself she wouldn’t accept a ride unless there was a woman in the car—but the afternoon was wearing on and she was beginning to feel desperate. It turned out there was a divider between the seats that separated them by almost a yard, which reassured her—somewhat.

     “You’re American?” he shouted in Spanish when they were underway, louder than necessary over the rumbling engine. She nodded. “My truck is American!” he grinned, as though that established a bond between them.  He went on to tell her he had two brothers in San Francisco, a lawyer and a butcher, and that he was a bachelor.

     He was a hefty man, with grizzled hair on his forearms and head, good-looking except for the large gap between his front teeth.

     The ride was slow and rough, and for a while she watched ruefully a couple of small cars whizzing around them and disappearing in the distance.

     “Cuando llegaremos a Barcelona?—When will we get to Barcelona?” she asked anxiously.

     “A las tres,” he answered.

     Three. Too late to cash a traveler’s check, and she had only a hundred pesetas in her purse. But she didn’t want to bother him with stopping to let her off so soon after he’d let her on, so she didn’t say anything.

     Over the miles they established a curious pattern of communication. They would drive along in silence for a long while, then he would bellow a question at her. She would answer two or three times—he never understood her first efforts—her voice getting shriller with discouragement at each repetition. After a while she pulled some wedges of foil-wrapped cheese out of her satchel, and he offered her warm wine—which she refused—from a plastic bottle he kept next to his seat.

     Eventually she explained her dilemma to him.

     “There’s a bank in the next town,” he reassured her.  “We can stop there.”


     When she had cashed her check and climbed back into the truck, he said, “Ahora puede andar mas tranquila—Now you can relax.”

     And she did. She rolled down the window, so the glass didn’t dim the vividness of the view, and watched the countryside unfolding before her, as picturesque as travel posters—ancient stone walls and squat stone huts along aimless muddy rivers, colorful patchworks of cultivated plots, wild fields streaked with red poppies, and an occasional crumbled castle on a hill.

     “I’ve never seen red poppies before,” she told him.  “In California, we only have gold ones.”

     “Would you like to pick some?” he asked unexpectedly.

     She stretched out her stiff legs, flexing her feet to acute angles.  “Yes!”

     She crossed the highway and followed an eddy of red flowers around the foot of a hillock. It must be past their season, she thought—most of them were black and curled around the edges, as though they’d been scorched by the sun. She picked only the freshest ones. The truck driver followed her and picked a few himself, which surprised her a little.

     “Here!” he said, extending his bouquet to her when she turned back. But as she reached to accept it, he grabbed her roughly.

     “Dejeme en paz!—Leave me in peace!” she cried, since she couldn’t remember the word for “let go.” He ducked his head and tried to kiss her breast, at the same time pinning her arms behind her back.

     “Dejeme en paz!” she screamed again, freeing one hand and hitting him wildly in the face.

    “Don’t strike me,” he hissed menacingly, trying to throw her off-balance.

     It’s come, then! she thought with a shock of fear and recognition—a transcendent knowing, as though this memory had always existed in her consciousness, as though she’d always shared it with women throughout the ages. Time slowed, and her thoughts became hyper-clear.

     Go for his eyes, she thought. Only she couldn’t. Yet. Amid the wrenching and blows, there was an instant when they both froze, she with her hand back to strike, he with his elbow up to ward it off—and their eyes locked.  They stared at each other in stark, bestial confrontation.  His eyes were opaque, depthless—like something on a taxidermist’s shelf.

     “I like American girls,” he whispered hoarsely. 

     She gave a scream and a violent twist…and suddenly she was free—running through the tall grass—around the hillock—down the dashed line of the highway, waving her mangled poppies like a flag—directly into the path of an oncoming truck.

     When it pulled to a screeching halt, she looked up into the face of the driver with supplication, wondering whether he would be her deliverer or someone else to be delivered from.

     “That man…that man!” she shrilled, with a violent gesture, as though pushing him away from her, though he stood now on the other side of the road.

     “I wasn’t going to do anything,” her attacker muttered through clenched teeth as he pulled her suitcase out of the back of his truck.

     On the passenger side of the second truck, she hoisted the suitcase over her head and shoved it halfway onto the high seat. But the next instant, she felt all the energy drain out of her. Her knees buckled and she dropped, limp though still conscious, to the ground. And when the suitcase started to slide out on top of her, the driver caught hold of it just in time.

     Reading the journal I kept throughout my trip, I see that this short story is accurate in all its particulars except for the moment my attacker paused and we locked eyes. In reality, there was no pause—I kept fighting till I broke free.