- The Oil Man
Imagine a girl walking down a street in Paris. The Champs-Elysées. The Eiffel Tower rising, stretching its flexed frame to a golden tip, in the distance. No, it cannot be Paris. I’ve never been to Paris—which remains a dark bruise inside me because fifteen years ago my younger sister went to Paris with my parents and I was not allowed to go. My father had decreed that I had too much studying to do and couldn’t take the time, and he didn’t want the squabbling and hair dryer noise of two teenage girls in Paris with him anyway. So if it were Paris, the story I really want to tell would be crowded out by all those other things seeping in. My bitter jealousy and love for my sister; the fact that I, somehow, during adolescence, fell off the neat square of our family of four. Besides, Paris would require French, at least some French. And even after two years of high school French and one year in college, I remember nothing but a few verbs and the word for fish: être, marcher, rirer, poisson.
Imagine a girl walking down a street in New York City. Wall Street. The massive financial buildings made of stone and glass shining in the distance, rising like cliffs against a clear blue sky. No, it cannot be New York, either. Because, though I went there once when I was sixteen, I remember nothing except one street corner with two dumpsters and a battalion crowd thronging toward our car. Then, later, an evening with my uncle on Cape Cod: the long estranged brother of my father who had agreed, for just one night, to see my mother and my sister and me.
But that’s not the story I want to tell, either.
It must be London. I’ve written this story before, always moving it somewhere else, changing the names, events, masking my identity. But this time it has to be London. Because it was London, and that may be the only way the story can be told. [End Page 260]
So. Imagine a girl walking down a street in London. It is a Sunday. The streets are wide and empty. The caged steps leading to underground train stops empty now of the constant rush of people; they are scattered instead with cigarette butts and stray sheets of tabloid newspaper. The cars, driving on the left side of the road which looks wrong no matter how many times you see it, are sparse and slow-moving, powered by those small, growly English engines. The girl is walking alone in a soft, brown leather jacket, a black backpack slung over one shoulder, black boots. She is headed . . . No, the girl cannot be wearing those things. The leather jacket that I own now and wear almost every day. The black backpack and boots that would have been stylish and right for London. They would change the story entirely by making her more sophisticated, different than she really was back then. That would make what happened to her so much less possible.
The girl is walking. Baggy blue jeans, a hot pink sweat shirt with a hood. A huge neon green shoulder bag that says Ciao! in black letters across the side of it. She is walking toward a cathedral, because it is Sunday and there is nothing else to do. Her fellow student travelers are sleeping in because they were up drinking whiskey and bitters at a pub called the Gorgeous Goose until four this morning and she, in her little girl clothes, got lost in a crowd of toothless, whiskered Brits, but none of them offered to buy her a pint. So she went home. Went to bed early. Awoke at 8:00 a.m.
She is carrying a book, a chunky travel guide, open to the page that lists Catholic churches in the Kensington area. Mass time: 10:00. She checks her watch; she is an hour and five minutes early. The sky is open and clear and blue and looks exactly like the sky back home.
So she tries not...