From Autonomy, a novel


April 1967

Montauk Highway

Striding, for how many minutes? Her watch face not luminous. As Helen moved through enough ambient light to see her shoes striking the pavement, she began to cry. She had wanted to stay with the group. Now they would accuse her of copping out, sneaking away from them. She felt as if she were a wretched outcast in a Coleridge poem, the low shapes of beachy vegetation stirring off the faintly sparkling road.

She made out a car ahead, stationary, with its lights on, hogging the center line. Officers, please! The sitter left my six-year-old all by herself and I have to get home! Could you give me a ride to the station? Before daylight, she hoped, she would tiptoe inside their apartment to find Bridget sleeping in prayer position, her bent head beseeching the wall. It would be Helen who begged for forgiveness tomorrow. 

But, look, you’re okay! You’re a very brave girl!

Now she could see it wasn’t police, just a regular beach jeep, the driver’s side window open. There was a boy framed inside, shirtless, unmoving and chewing on beach grass, so absurdly gorgeous that it was impossible to turn away. Like one of the Warhol boys: smooth-skinned, broad-cheekboned and wholesome. Too wholesome.

 He blinked. “You runnin’ away from home?” This made her see herself as she must look to him, a tear-stained woman running out of the darkness with an overnight case. 

“I’m trying to get home.” She considered explaining that Bridget was waiting for her all alone in Manhattan, before noticing that his eye contact was not right and one of his nostrils was actively bleeding. 

“What are you doing in the middle of the road?” she asked him.

“Heading to a party.”

She glanced back and forth to check for headlights. “Well, you’re not in any hurry.”

Farm Boy meditatively turned the long grass in his teeth. Then she almost jumped. She had thought they were alone, but squinting through the warped plastic window, Helen made out a figure behind him. A submerged instinct told her to act calm. Hello, she signaled to the tall passenger on the rear seat, then turned back to the boy. “Do you think you could give me a lift to the East Hampton train station?”

“You’d be waiting till the 5:55. We’re still on the winter schedule,” spoke up the shadowy person in back. Shivery, bronze over silver, the voice somehow familiar to Helen.

So, they hadn’t been lying to her at the house. The train had stopped running. 

“Hey!” Helen said, cocking her head as if she weren’t half terrified. “Do I know you?” There was shifting in the dark, the hunky boy got out, and the rear passenger exited, rising to his full height. The black actor, Seli Cristobal. After years of trying to catch his attention through many off-Broadway productions, they were having their first conversation. Did he recognize her? Helen had often had the impression he addressed his onstage lines to her, but other people said he produced the same effect on them.

They both seemed to be on something. Helen introduced herself, tingling. “Is there any way back to the city you know of? I’m desperate. Any chance you could give me a ride?”

“We’re not going your way.” Seli turned. “Randy? We’re still headed toward Montauk, right?”

“We ought to bring her along!” The friend wore tight, low-cut trousers from which his torso emerged, smooth in moonlight. They were going to a party, he explained, where there would be hundreds of people who had come from Manhattan. “And if you can’t get a ride before it’s over, one of us could run you to the station.” This idea actually made sense. She wouldn’t be stuck outdoors all night and if she did have to hitch back, the sun would be rising.

The skin above his lip was dark with blood and Helen dug in her purse for a Kleenex. When she looked up again, Randy had produced a small bottle from his pocket, and was unscrewing its rubber tip to administer drops, first to Seli’s eyes, then his own. Was this an actor thing, cosmetic?

The glass wand hovered. 

“Look up!” he cried.

Later, when Helen tried to figure out what responsibility she bore for what happened after, she asked herself why she hadn’t closed her upturned eye. As she blinked the stinging liquid out, and felt it reabsorbed, she realized this could turn out to be serious. And that it was partly her fault. 

She had wanted to be tricked.  Not autonomous.