The car is a yacht. They are sailing under the dripping roof of the night’s weird cave in a black Cadillac convertible and he is freezing. She can’t remember the procedure for getting the dirty old rag top back up. She doesn’t know the year and wouldn’t even know the make if Cadillac weren’t in her mind a word like Hoover or Xerox or Biro, a brand name jumped up to a category through common consent. She has heard her husband say about a dozen times in twice as many years that the car is nineteen feet long, that’s all she knows. She feels lucky enough that the keys turned out to be in her purse and not in his pocket as she had initially believed. Her fur coat of course insulates her against feeling too bad about the top being down but her new friend, in his baseball cap and thin jacket, collar up, is on the brink of pneumonia.
“I never could stand the look of Berlin in the sunshine,” she says, “but at night she’s a real doll, don’t you think? Tragic ‘n sexy. Kinda like a teenage welfare mother in Old Tijuana.” She pronounces Tijuana correctly. You can just see her flirting with a Mexican pool boy. You can see her holding out a ten dollar bill with gentle insistence, offering a leaf to a fawn.
She looks much better with the yellow wig (now stowed in the glove compartment) off and her hair turns out to be a pearly bob raked by the wind’s dark fingers, thin as champagne but luminous and full of bounce, snapping back into shape at every available opportunity of stop light. Her facelift is a cartoonist’s allusion to speed, it looks intrepid, the way the corners of her eyes and mouth sweep back as she leans forward over the wheel, driving far-sightedly, but she’s a handsome woman with a softening jawline and a debutante’s nose, upturned, decorative, a master’s knifework. Her ability to snap back into sobriety in order to drive indicates that her husband is an incorrigibly boyish drunk and that she is the best kind of mommy, countering her little boy’s missteps at every turn. Flat-chested older women like her almost always have men who play the role of only child to the hilt, it seems to him. Runnels of the remains of a quick drizzle play across the Cadillac’s black hood like cold sweat.
“Where are we going?” he asks. But he doesn’t care.
“We’re escaping, doll,” she answers. “Can’t you feel it? Gravity slipping away?”
“Don’t you have to be back on the Queen Mary in the morning?”
Good joke. She laughs way deep down in her throat: a coughing growl. The kind of sound you make when your husband struts forth in his leopard-print undies. “We’re not complete tourists here, you know. As a matter of fact,” she says, with a half-hearted attempt at a posh British accent, “We keep a house in Grünewald. Little stone thing surrounded by trees. Care to see it?”
“That’s the spirit.”
“Do you know that your husband offered to suck my cock for me at the party?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised. He’s going through a phase of late.”
“It doesn’t bother you?”
“Not half as much as it would if I caught him picking his nose. You’re not a nose picker, are you?”
She asks him to keep a hand on the steering wheel while she retools her lipstick in the rearview.
“Much much better.”
She reaches across the armrest and the rain-beaded expanse of the red leather seat and rests a hand on his biceps, where it remains until she needs it again to hit the clicker and make a drastic left turn over a long iron communist-era drawbridge. The tires hum as they cross the drawbridge and the moon is a saucer and the saucer’s teacup is smashed in the water, smashed china, lilting away in shards upstream. It’s a scary old bridge that implies they are entering an earlier, unhappier era as they cross it towards a horizon either of low clouds or black trees. They cross it and see industrial fields left and right, near and far ruins, a factory gaping rotten in the grass, squatting on a zipper of rusted tracks, staggered away from the tree-lined road, harassed and destroyed not by triumphant capitalism but by diligent little boys with their slingshots.
“Do I look like a breeder? My husband is enough.”
He can see that she had once been very striking, if that’s the word for it, and that she’d never been fat, or poor, or forced to beg for any favors. Her confidence strikes him as a kind of wisdom and he wants to pose questions to her as he would to an oracle. But he just can’t think one up, or fix on one long enough to body it forth in words. He is tired and cold and not averse to having his cock sucked at some point but not counting on it, either. Sometimes it’s just nice being looked at.
“When I was coming along, it was always a matter of pretending that the guy was better at stuff than you were… this elaborate charade of deferring to the male as the default superior in everything but homemaking. God. My husband was the first man I ever met who was, in truth, truly better at some things than I was… which freed me to admit that I was better at the other things… he wasn’t threatened by that. You know what I mean? What a relief! But of course he has his quirks. Germans seem funny enough to us anyway, don’t they?”
She asks, gingerly, “Have you ever been with an older woman?” and he laughs so hard and long at this that she turns as red as a silver dish of Thanksgiving cranberries on her grandmother’s white embroidered table cloth in 1957.