On Being Driven

Kristen Millares Young

Point is, we’d been drinking. I didn’t know him, but he was the official driver for the small resort where my dad and I were staying. This evening’s activities were a personal kindness on the driver’s part. Hearing my interest in Bahamian culture, he invited me to a political rally held a few miles down the road. I said I would love to. People often offer me nice things for little reason other than my presence.
Just as promised, metal bleachers were set up alongside a parking lot in front of a spare building with buzzing lights and kegs of beer. The man who needed votes shouted into the bullhorn, though no one listened to anything but each other. I got a lot of looks and compliments on my long wavy hair, but I am used to that, whether or not I am the only white person there, as I was that night. They passed around plates of peas and rice and conch fritters, and I took one down like I hadn’t already eaten dinner.
Still, I was pretty drunk when the driver took an extra turn down a long lane from the main road back to the resort. The crushed shells were so much louder under our tires than the asphalt had been. I couldn’t help but become alarmed. I thanked him for showing me around and asked him how I could possibly repay his kindness. When worried, I offer small talk, a survival skill from my childhood in the south, which taught me to be gracious under duress, or else.
He glanced over his big round shoulder. “There is something you could do for me.”
“Great!” I perked up.
“I have never been with a white woman. Not once in my life. And here you are.”
Clearly, my “I am claimed” strategy of namedropping my husband from the first moment of contact had not been effective. I tried again, though, to keep it light. No dice. He asked me what would happen if he pulled over. I told him I would be unwilling.
“What’s to stop me?”
He was in his fifties, a grandfather, built like he worked with his body. I looked him over from where I sat in the back of the resort van. The bulk of his shoulders dwarfed his seat. Something about this driver-and-driven scenario, an echo of the pre-arranged pickup from the airport, had made me feel safe enough to get in. I thought I was being served.
“Everyone saw me get into this van.” I took up as much room as I could on the bench seat, aware of the empty rows behind me. “It would come out sooner than you think.”
“They won’t say nothing to the police against me.”
The coast was never farther than a mile on this strip of sand. He would probably not dump my body in the water just here, the sea wild on this windward side, as it would bloat and be beached by the waves, perhaps visible to a search craft.
I told him we wouldn’t need the police. That he might have noticed my father was a pilot. There’s a rich military tradition in my family, actually. His father was a marine aviator. Very well known, the best. And my husband, a naval officer, a specialist in surface warfare just like my sister.
The driver raised his eyebrows, scanning the scrub for a pullout, biding his time.
“It’s her husband you’d have to worry about. Ever heard of special ops? They sneak in, kill their targets and get out before anyone knows what happened.” We made eye contact in the rearview mirror, and I held him there until he looked back at the road, silent. “Money is king. He’d find you.”
“Let him come.” The driver leaned over the wheel. “Like to see a white boy try.”
“He’d save you for last. That’s how that would go. He’d hurt the people you care about first. My sister wouldn’t let him rest until it was done.”
He settled back into his seat and bared his teeth. “Why should I believe you?”
“You know one thing about white people, they always take more than they give.”
He chewed his cheek and nodded at the road. “You said something true right there.” He took the next left, and another one, and we soon emerged onto the main road. He checked my face, now and again, in the rearview, and I kept a blasé smile as we passed by the turn he first took.
We acted as though our little loop had not happened. But we both knew he had considered and decided. Our minds were made close by that knowledge. I have rarely been so intimate with someone I have not touched.
I paid him for the ride. I breathed in the tiniest sips of air, like I was being filmed and pretending to be dead. As a girl, I always wanted to be an actress. My dad’s nickname for me was Sarah Bernhardt.

“You know one thing about white people, they always take more than they give.”
My answer to him came easy, though I’ve examined it since.
It would have taken some time to find my body in all that scrub, if not for the circling vultures, so thick on the airstrip I thought we might suck one into the engine when we landed. Which happens, though I don’t think the death of two people in a private plane would occasion much sadness for society. It’s not that kind of island, and we’re not the Kennedys.
Of course, my brother-in-law would do no such thing as I had threatened, though I believed my own bullshit at the time, which lets me know how politicians live with themselves. I still think of the driver, chewing his cheek and nodding at the road. I can hear his measured reply. “You said something true right there.”
I want to make sure you doubt me, since I dread it is already so. I like to ride that edge, to hint at what I fear you are thinking. That rich bitch was asking for it.

I woke early, sunlit on the hard sofa, a slime trail of drool on the throw pillow, and rolled a joint. The driver hooked me up with weed before we left the rally. There was that. Maybe I’d asked him about it, earlier. It’s my body, yet I have long been compelled to defend what I do with it. Weed is the very best cure for a bad hangover.
I used a broken cigarette sealed with spit, a skill learned on another island, the one where my mom was born, where I once loved a man called un negrón color de cartucho by his jazz mentor, a man who would be called black anywhere north of the keys.
I am white on both sides of my family, and I am Cuban on my mother’s side. In fact, those things are not separate in my body. I am a white Cuban American, though that term feels very 90s. I call myself Latinx in solidarity. When I am feeling festive, I call myself a Cuban cracker, since my father’s family claims the south as a birthright.
Cracker is a style of Floridian architecture—think wraparound porches—and a word derived from a Gaelic term for a lively conversationalist. Lots of Scots settled South Carolina, where my father’s people indentured themselves to King George the Third. My dad still has the certificate, signed in 1771, promising that years of servitude would be repaid with 100 acres in Craven County. A trade, though not with the land’s tribal owners.
Others think crackers are named for the sound of whips opening the backs of black slaves. When Bubba is inscribed on a family tombstone, there’s no avoiding such truths. They are your blood.

My dad slumbered on in the bedroom as I wandered back into my memory of the night before, scrubby palms flickering past, those eyes heavy upon me.
I worried about going to jail on this island, where he would know everyone watching over me inside. Worried even about stepping into the building to make a report. And what would I have said? That we had a dangerous conversation. That he left bruises on my mind.
That I cursed him. That I cursed him, and he believed it. That I cursed his family, threatened to rain down destruction on their black bodies, invoked centuries of white oppression, and he believed me because he lived that truth.
That I would do it again, and again, and again, just as he hoped to do me.  

I gave my dad a straight telling. What precision I have is due to him. It is hard to say whether I grew or shrank in his estimation. As a lawyer, he knows how to withhold the appearance of judgment until the time is ripe, a move I can only mimic on the page.
“Is there any reason why we should not report what happened?”
A fair question, worthy of my consideration. The driver had lived here all his life. This would not have been his first go. I’m no stranger to predators, have watched them marshal whatever they need to continue that bitter harvest. The driver was greeted by name by the politician, the one who promised water and jobs that everyone knew weren’t coming.
Perhaps, though. Perhaps the driver was just a guy keeping tabs on a slut who drank like a man. Perhaps I’d have to hear that as I sat up straight so the judge would believe me. Should have known better, even if it had gone the other way, me picking thorns and shells from my back if I were lucky enough to limp to my room and fly to Florida for treatment, knowing the damage would remain, regardless.
What would it mean to get involved in the legal system on a barrier island in the Bahamas? A strip of sand and shell where people vacate their homes for a year after someone dies, as many empty houses as inhabited, fronted by junked cars they could not afford to send elsewhere and so abandoned to their ghosts.

How many ghosts.
Once the day warmed, my dad and I went on our way. We had plans. Down the road there was a cave. It became known when the ceiling collapsed under its own weight to let in light. Plants followed. Then the bats. They winged between us as we walked among stalactites, careful to keep our heads far from their burden, not wanting to disrupt.
We brought flashlights. At first, there was no need. We had to squint, sometimes. The earth smelled wet. Green crept along thick stalagmites pointing at a sky unseen from this deep inside. Above them hung their twins, no branch unmatched by root, the elegance of their shape defined by the separation we all long to erase.
When they met—after years, after decades, after centuries—the ugliness of that contact could not be denied. Their long trunks torqued and glistened, bleaching out beneath our bright beams. We did not speak. Pale drips echoed, finding nothing but themselves everywhere they fell.
We had a guide. I wondered what he knew. He showed us artifacts of white history, my dad filling in details about how British Loyalists had fled the states for the Bahamas, where they hid their sunburnt children in caves while hurricanes scoured the islands. I imagined the fraught boredom of the hours they spent carving a stalagmite into the shape of a woman’s breasts, her faced tipped up like a prow. We always leave our mark.
What amazes me now is that we didn’t leave. We had a plane. We could go wherever we wanted. But we had chosen this island. Also, we had a non-refundable resort reservation. This is how white people think.

I think I remember my father suggesting we find another place, and me, ever eager to appear unharmed, demurring and suggesting that we eat.
“He said he would take care of you,” Dad repeated. “What really bothers me is he made a promise to me and broke it.” I froze—an uplit deer, ready—my hurt made small by his authority. I didn’t know the words to make it right.
Writing this essay has not rid me of my unease, deepened by knowing my story is an eddy in the tide of white sexual violence against dark bodies. I was not afraid to step into that van because my skin has always saved me.
The driver took us to the airport the next day. The ride was included. I instructed my father not to say anything. There we sat, where I had been. I wanted to vanish into the air, and would.
Dad respected my wishes with tense movements, pursed lips, a few forced words. It’s hard to look angry in a broad brimmed canvas hat, but he managed it. The driver kept his eyes on the road. Gone was the ebullience of our first encounter, the easy banter, the kind offers. In their place rose a formality that functioned enough to carry us along.  
And they echoed—my childhood, and all those centuries—through this van ride thick with silence. Some days I won’t look in the mirror, eyes heavy on my flaws, past deeds flickering like psalms, aflame. I can still hear those shells under our tires.

Originally published in Moss: Volume Three.
moss logo