I see the cab driver reach into the compartment on his door and pull out a brown paper bag. In it is wrapped a bottle of expensive cologne, the kind I can’t afford and wouldn’t buy unless I made a six figure salary. He looks at it pensively and wraps it back up. I notice the label before he puts it away and I tell him that I like the scent of that cologne.
“Me, too,” he tells me. “It’s a present I got today.”
“Oh yeah?” I ask. “From whom?”
He bats his eyes a little before blushing and saying, “My girlfriend.”
“Very nice!” I say, kind of grinning. But before I can say more, he holds his left hand up and shows me his ring finger.
“But I’m married,” he tells me.
And thus begins The Long Drive Home, wherein I hear all the details of this man’s seven year marriage, the fact that he has a daughter who is six years old, how his girlfriend is rich (he showed me the two cell phones she’s given him–one for work, one for pleasure, I assume)–and tells me how he’s building a house that he wants to move into with his girlfriend in the next month. Or at least by February, he assures me.
“How long have you been with your girlfriend,” I pry.
“Two months.” He looks at me in his mirror and I’m sure he can register my doubt about the success of this new relationship.
“You’re ending your marriage because–”
“NOT because of this woman,” he interrupts. “My wife is bad. The whole thing is just bad. My marriage is already finished.”
He tells me his girlfriend is rich, that he’s not sure how to hide this expensive cologne from his wife. “Maybe I could say someone left it in the taxi,” he thinks aloud.
“Is that common? I mean, do people leave things in the car a lot?”
“Oh yeah. But I always return them.”
In truth, there were plenty of ways I could have helped him lie. I could have given him any number of ways out, thought of excuses so that it wouldn’t seem strange to come home with a bottle of cologne, thought of something he could tell his wife so she wouldn’t suspect that her marriage was going to come to an end quickly. But looking at him, just his eyes, in that mirror, I couldn’t bring myself to support that lie. How strange it would be to participate in the break-up–or the apparent break-up–of a marriage. I put myself in that woman’s shoes. It didn’t matter to me if she were terrible, if she were mean like he’d told me. I had no reason to doubt him, yet I had no reason to believe him. The man was doing something wrong, and it seemed wrong for me to help him, even if was just to make up a story about a bottle of cologne. But it was also wrong for him to throw his banded finger in my face–to be the surprised audience to this man’s marital problems.
My first thought, however, was that I wasn’t surprised. Cheating, adultery,whatever you want to call it, is par for the course in this country. Moreso than I’ve ever seen it or heard of it elsewhere. It’s expected that a married man is going to have something on the side, that the woman at home that he leaves behind is all alone. That she is bitter. It didn’t surprise me to see his finger. Just like it didn’t surprise me when, months ago, a woman called in the very early hours of the morning, screaming into the phone, “Where is my husband? Where is my husband?” It annoyed me then, sure, just like it annoyed me today–this cultural openness, this general acceptance of something I find embarrassing.
“Good luck,” I told the man. And as I walked out of the car, I wished I’d been able to say something different to him, some smart sentence with words like “shame” and “sanctity” and “mortal sin.” But who was I? Who was I to be anything but a passenger to him?