Sarah is a cautious driver and we idled behind cars, at little intersections in the Target parking lot, and then at the road had to back up because a pickup was parked in the lane, a trailer hanging behind. We tried a different exit and swung slow into the road and immediately into a red light wait. Behind us a horn started up. Sarah asked if the horn was for us and I said no because people in this city, in Orlando, honk at everyone and no one, they’ll honk if you drive the limit or ten over and they’ll honk if you keep to one lane. They honk behind you at intersections like this one, angry at the queue of cars, screaming through their horns, their faces focused in accusation, little masks in your mirror, as if you’ve caused the red light or the pile-up or the speed trap that’s brought the road to a crawl or a halt.
We got north onto Orange and aimed for home. I was thrown back in the seat, a leg up, relaxed about the weekend, about the holiday, but Sarah kept looking into the mirror and eventually I did the same. We switched lanes and the black car behind us switched lanes. It was sleek and dark and when we stopped at lights it whispered close and when we switched lanes again it switched behind us. Sarah turned an unexpected angle at a gas station and it followed us around, and then beneath an underpass. The 408 ran overhead, a toll road you start on if you aim for the Atlantic Ocean, and I imagined us spinning onto it, wished we were in my car with its toll transponder so we could roll through the gates. I imagined us driving east until this black car behind us spent all its change, or pulled off, or blew a tire, or until we ran out of road and had to stop and yell at each other. I get a wild and amused tenacity sometimes in desperate situations, and I wanted us hours from now to be slipping up the east coast of the peninsula, watching the tank’s dial till it hugged the left, then stopping so this chase could end in a showdown outside a filling station. But we had groceries in the car, and we didn’t have my transponder, and we weren’t crazy, and it was the day before Halloween and we wanted to clean the apartment just a little, drink some beer later, find something spooky to watch on the channels our rabbit ears dragged in.
She’s following us, Sarah said, or something like that, and she was right. I’d been avoiding the mirror because I’d imagined this was an accident, a coincidence, but Sarah took more turns and this black car kept close behind. We rolled past our apartment and kept on east and I felt heat in my chest. Strange things happen in Orlando, things too strange and violent for a city this size. Recently, someone had opened fire on Interstate-4, the main route through town, after being cutoff. Someone else on the same road kicked his girlfriend out of the car at highway speed. People carry guns here and bludgeon and stab each other with improvised weapons.
I said something that was a half-joke, that we should stop and be done with this, because I used to drive pizza delivery and before that lived in a tiny town where people sometimes followed you over gravel roads for amusement, and I’d imagined scenarios like this before and was ready for them. I am tall and have been called scary and am thick-voiced and vulgar. But too I was afraid that I would go too far and threaten someone strange or that someone strange would go too far and we’d both be arrested red-faced and hoarse, pulled from a grapple on the sidewalk.
Sarah remembered a police station near a taco shop, but when we drove by it wasn’t really a police station, was just a City building that housed Parks and Recreation and a Fire Department training center. The black car was close behind us still and I felt the day slipping away, the entire afternoon and evening being chased off by this event and whatever fallout would come from it. Sarah was getting frantic and gripping the wheel too tight and asking what to do. She works as a victims’ advocate and tells her clients to call the police if they find themselves followed and now she asked if she should call the police. I thought we should just stop but then I imagined violence again and said she should do what she thought best. She called the police and the 911 dispatcher told her she’d made the right decision.
The dispatcher advised her to pull into a public place, a safe place. We drove ahead and the next big parking lot in sight was outside another Target. We rolled through to an open spot in the back and I thought this might still turn out as a misunderstanding, that the black car might pull into a slot down the line and that cheerful sisters might step out and head toward the store, laughing so hard they fell against each other. But the black car idled behind us, tinted windows up. It’s blocking us in, Sarah said to the phone. They’re not here yet, she said. I looked out the window for the police. The black car pulled around, into the slot next to ours.
Sarah said to the dispatcher, She parked next to us now. She’s waiting. She said, What does she want? No, she’s just waiting. What does she want? she said again, and there was this jagged edge in her voice and I told myself not to yell and I opened my door. The dark window slid down and a blonde woman, maybe 40, looked at me. Great sunglasses ate her face and her hair clung to her scalp.
Just one minute, I said. The police will be here in a minute.
Your tire needs air, the blonde woman said.
What did she say? Sarah said, when I shut the door.
Your tire needs air.
She said my tire needs air, Sarah said, to the phone. Okay. Okay.
The black car didn’t leave. The tinted window didn’t roll back up. The blonde woman yelled, And you almost killed me! She yelled for me to roll down the window. I wanted to tell her that I couldn’t even if I wanted to because the window’s mechanism is broken. The woman yelled again. Sarah was crying now. I felt this grit in my veins.
Sarah said, She said I almost killed her.
You didn’t almost kill her, I said, because I remembered pulling out of the first parking lot, the slow turn, nothing to worry about in the street except the pickup and the trailer parked in the lane, and I imagined this woman now coming up fast around it, eyes in her phone or on the radio dial or in her mirror until almost too late.
She yelled again for us to roll down the window. It’s broken, Sarah said, quiet. The blonde woman yelled that she had a daughter Sarah’s age and that Sarah needed to learn how to drive. I opened the door and said,
Hold on, just hold on. The blonde woman had a phone aimed at us and she said, I’m taking your picture so when the police come I can show them the girl who almost killed me. She’s taking our picture, I said, and imagined the shot: Sarah crying, red-faced, me angry.
Sarah handed me the phone and the dispatcher asked what was going on. The woman yelled, You almost killed me and I am a mother and I have a child! You nearly killed the mother of a child!
She’s yelling about how we nearly killed her, I said.
She’s overreacting, the dispatcher said.
Outside, the black car was sliding away, the woman was sliding away. You need to get air in your tire and you need to learn how to drive! the woman said. I’m going to read the plate, I said. I got out of the car and went to the back of the black car and saw that it was a Kia Amante. It’s a Kia Amante, I said. Then I saw the plate and saw a shield there in blue, the kind of plate you buy in our state if you want to donate money to a police association, and I felt hollow in my chest. The Kia was getting close now, and it pulled awkwardly forward in the space it had. I chased it with the phone to my head, reading the numbers and letters to the dispatcher, who wanted to know the direction, the road, who wanted me to watch it until I couldn’t. We got to an intersection and I stood behind it on the street while the light went from red to green and then the car was ahead and gone, past the airport and out of sight.
When I turned, cops were at Sarah’s car and the dispatcher told me I could go. They stood around raising their thick eyebrows, looking concerned but calm, and I wanted to touch their shoulders. One of the cops said they would have someone look for the car but they couldn’t do much just knowing it was black. Well, I said. I got the plate number. And the model, all that. You did? one cop said. He sounded genuinely amazed. I gave it to him and he said, Let me see, and he went to his cruiser. The other cop stood by Sarah’s open door and when I got back in he said, Maybe you should drive. I got out and Sarah got out. The cop said, Where did she follow you from, and when Sarah told him he said, Wow, that’s, that’s a good five miles. I sat in the driver’s seat and held onto the wheel, like I was being pulled over. The first cop came back and leaned down and said, There’s nothing for that plate. Nothing registered with that number.
Maybe you should go home, the second cop said. Go home, relax. He cupped air with one hand and brought it to his mouth. Just have a relaxed afternoon.
I drove us out of the parking lot. At the intersection where I’d stood behind the Amante I reached back and squeezed a sagging frozen pizza. We followed the car’s trail and I hoped to see it parked so I could return in the night and knew I wouldn’t and I wouldn’t. I wondered what I would really do if we saw the car and what I would say. I’ve wondered about it since and have spent stretches of minutes imagining terrible revenges that I would never carry out. Sarah was fine that night and I was fine—we voted, and then a friend picked us up, unexpectedly, and drove us to an unplanned party where we swallowed shots of tequila and watched awful Halloween programming on the History channel—and she drives now without much worry but when I asked how she felt about me writing this she said, I don’t know, I was kind of a baby. That’s the worst thing that came from this: her victim’s embarrassment, the shame of being chased. The woman from the Amante is probably asleep now, at midnight on a Monday, or comfortable in front of her TV, or her computer, but Sarah is embarrassed and here I am, typing all this up.