How to Keep Running

Sometimes you wind up in situations you never imagined you’d be in, and you do what you have to to get out.

Lauren Quinn is a writer and teacher. Her work has appeared in The Believer, ...

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Joey had a collapsed lung and a tiger tattoo that crawled up his arm like it could leap off and sink its claws right into you. It didn’t, of course. It just lay there, blown-out and faded, tensing when he tensed and twitching when he twitched.

He showed it to me, that first night in the truck, all the places where it was wrong: missing a toe, tail crooked, its front paw as big as its head. “I told the guy to stop, to just stop, he was fucking it all up.” He puffed on his vape and the sick-sweet smell of maple swirled around me. “But he finished it anyway.”

We’d been in his truck all night: In-N-Out drive-thru and a drive-in movie in City of Industry, which is exactly what you’d expect from the name—all wide streets and parking lots and stoplights that never seemed to change. They say people in LA live in their cars, but this was a whole new level.

The actors’ voices crackled through his radio, but we weren’t listening. He pulled me on top of him, over the parking break and gear shift, so that my back was against the steering wheel. He didn’t take my clothes off, didn’t do much of anything except run his bare hands along my skin, trace the outlines of my tattoos, washed-out relics from another life. He asked me questions: which one was first, what the words of that one said, what the picture of this one had been before it got blasted in the California sun.

His nails were brown with grease that didn’t wash off. Through my jeans, I could feel the tip of his hard-on poking into me. Through the back cabin window, I could see the truck bed, all the gear strapped down: a motorbike, an alternator, a toolbox.

Damn near a whole mechanics shop, right there and waiting.

*

My sister had warned me: “A guy like that won’t know what to do with you.”

My sister, she’s always spot-on about this stuff—sex, intrigue, anything related to attraction. Twenty-five years as a sex worker leaves you knowing a thing or two.

“It’s just the relationship part I don’t know how to do.”

*

He was the AAA dude who changed my car battery.

The car had only been struggling for a day before it downright died in the Trader Joe’s parking lot on Hyperion, the one with so many cars cramming into it that they hired that little attendant to stand in the sun and wave us all around. We pretended it helped.

“It’s the heat,” Joey told me when he pulled that big truck up, blocking half the driving space and causing all the cars to back up even further. “Batteries die faster in the heat.”

It was March and already ninety degrees in Los Angeles. I’d lived in the city for six months, most of which I’d spent crosstown commuting in my econo-car, a light blue Yaris with a couple of dents on the side and three of its hub cabs. I’d moved to the city after a long, celibate stint living in Asia, breathing toxic smog and riding motorbikes and forgetting what it was like to attract or be attracted. I’d run away to write a book, to live the expat dream, to escape a tailspin of bad relationships with sketchy dudes. I’d only succeeded in one of those ventures.

I’d moved to LA for grad school, and quickly became one of the Angelenos who lives in their vehicle—who eats lunch, talks on the phone, applies mascara and checks the GPS while making a left turn across three lanes of oncoming traffic—vanilla air freshener swinging from the rear view and a glove compartment full of Kind bars, hand sanitizer, breath mints, tampons, anything you might need at any moment—your own self-sustaining, climate-controlled world until it up and dies on you on a blazing Sunday morning.

Joey wrenched open my hood. “You from the Midwest?”

I laughed. “No, why?”

“You pronounce your words right. People here never say their words right.” Joey rattled off the places he’d lived: Detroit, New Orleans, Flagstaff, Pittsburgh—a restless, itinerate list that made me think: He was raised in an alcoholic family. He’s running.

I watched his hands disappear inside the belly of my hood. I have no idea what happens in there—valves and gears that grind and whistle, a whole wilderness of metal and grease that propels me forward, makes my life possible, and I don’t have the slightest clue how any of it works. I don’t even like to open it.

His elbows moved as he cranked some unseeable cranks, lifted my dead battery, pulled a new one from his truck, turned a few more cranks. The tiger on his arm flexed and flinched.

When he ran my credit card, he lingered by my window and there was a moment, a split second, when I thought: I wonder if this dude is gonna ask me for my number.

But he didn’t. He handed me my card back and told me to have a good day. Then he walked back to his truck and drove away.

I forgot all about it as I went on with my day—cleaned the apartment, made a vat of food for the week, got stood up for a Tinder date, went to my sister’s for dinner—until I was driving home and my phone dinged with an OkCupid message.

“Hey, didn’t I change your car battery today?”

I grinned into the line of brake lights on the 101.

*

“The thing about these polyamorous guys is that they act like they invented fucking other women. It’s like, guys have been doing this for thousands of years. You did not make this shit up.”

“And you told him this?”

“Yeah. I’m doing this for women,” my sister replied when I raised my eyebrow. “I’m saving the world, one angry Tinder message at a time.”

The light changed and the car stalled out. My sister jiggled the key and tapped on the gas, while my nephew waved his arm out of the window for the other cars to go around.

My sister was full of anecdotes like this. She’d been dating on the apps for the first time since her ex—the kids’ dad—had relapsed, gotten arrested and sent away, for good this time. But because she refused to pay for a sitter, she’d have the guys over to the house, or else bring the whole troop to a coffee shop. So my nieces and nephew were basically dating too. “This is me,” my sister said about it. “This is my life. They better get used to it.” Her Tinderonis, she called them.

So far, no one had gotten used to it.

We were driving through Pacoima to look at a BMW a guy was offloading because he couldn’t get it to pass smog. Outside was a flat, stark stretch to the mountains, all busted sidewalk and broken glass, Virgin of Guadalupe murals on the sides of liquor stores.

We made an illegal U-turn, and I stayed in the car while my sister hopped out to meet the guy and look at the BMW. Usually my sister buys cars at auction. She got into flipping cars with her ex. It’s tweaker shit, but it’s easy money and involves a hustle, which she likes, and it provided enough cash to finally get her out of stripping. By this point, she can get anything to pass smog. She can get anything to run again.

Her shirt was low-cut, her ‘90s boob job prominently displayed, and her jeans were low, too, a denim line across her hipbones. She walked across the simmering pavement and from inside the car, I caught a glimpse of her, the way I suppose men see her. And even there, in the dusty desert heat, she was still so shockingly beautiful—despite the cigarettes and the childbirths and the bottle of wine at night. The kind of beauty that can support four kids and a meth addict, the architecture of her bones enough to make your heart stop.

My nine-year-old nephew looked up from the backseat. “Oh good,” he said, glancing at the back of the BMW. “It has its plates.”

I watched without sound as my sister talked to the guy, smiled, leaned in. She’s good at this part, getting the cars for cheaper. She was always good at this. Her ex was better at the selling, had that smooth-talking addict charm. “And people always take a man more seriously.”

My sister signaled and I tailed them as she test-drove for a couple blocks. More smiling, more hair flipping, a wad of hundreds pulled from her purse. The hot, dry air pushed up against the windows.

I tailed her to one of the cheap auto shops—she needed a new tire before she’d drive it on the freeway—then we went somewhere air-conditioned to eat tacos while we waited. The kids downed Jarritos and chips and not anything else.

“How much you think you’ll make off this one?”

She shrugged. “Three, four hundred maybe. Not bad for a day’s work.”

The baby started fussing and my sister pulled her tit out and started nursing right there in the hard plastic booth.

My nephew shook his head. “Chris hates that.”

“Who the hell is Chris?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s one of mom’s Tinderonis.”

*

Joey was different from the other guys I’d met in LA, and I liked that. Kind of. He didn’t have a man-bun or an urban safari hat. He didn’t manage social media accounts for teenybopper celebrities I’d never heard of, and he didn’t suggest we meet at a six-dollar coffee shop. He hadn’t moved from a suburb to chase a dream, or from New York to escape a dream, or from San Francisco to escape the techies.

He was in mechanics school and worked for AAA on the weekends. He had non-descript sweaty brown hair and wire-rim glasses that weren’t any style at all. He wore a Bob Dylan shirt and a generic reggae-style lion shirt, or else one from a three-pack he’d bought at a dollar store.

I didn’t know how he’d managed to live in LA for three years and still be so Midwest. I couldn’t tell if I liked it or not, but at least it was different. Refreshing. I was coming off a string of twelve first dates, of which I’d heard back from exactly zero of the guys. “Just try it out,” my new friends suggested. So I did.

Our first date, Joey picked me up in his ratty truck, with all the machinery strapped down in the back, as though he might pull over and work on a broken-down car at any moment. He took me to play pool at a dive in Hollywood, where I didn’t know legit dives could exist anymore—a dingy place squeezed into a strip mall and filled with a bunch of other guys who looked like they’d just gotten off shifts at AAA or UPS or the loading dock at Costco, who looked like they’d also just barely left their Rust-Belt hometowns.

My sister knows things. And not just about sex and attraction and intrigue. She knows how to survive.

He bought me a soda water and told me how he’d really come a long way in cutting down his own drinking. He told me lots of stuff, over the course of a few dates—about leaving home at sixteen; about living in his van and selling jewelry at gem shows across the country; about the hotel room in New Orleans that caught on fire, how he narrowly escaped as the flames licked up $17,000 in cash; about his dad dying from a heroin overdose; about still sending money home, still paying his mom’s phone bill; about moving to California to try and stop his own drinking.

I didn’t tell him much, mostly because he didn’t ask.

From the beginning he called a lot. He texted a lot and he followed me on every social media site I was on. It seemed a little much, but my friends assured me that this was what a guy did when he actually liked you—when he wasn’t too cool or too self-involved or too emotionally stunted to be available. Maybe they were right. I didn’t have much to compare him to in this town. Or any town, really.

“If you ever need anything done on your car,” Joey told me, “you can bring it into the shop. The guys will work on it for free.”

I imagined my Yaris splayed open, tires off and hoisted up on those poles, twelve greasy-elbowed guys digging around in the hood, under its belly, its insides.

“They don’t break down much,” I evaded. “I mean, that’s why I got the car. You kinda just put gas in it and go, right?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” Joey shrugged. But he said it like he was bummed, like he wanted to get in there, under there, root around and tinker and twist, even though there wasn’t a goddamn thing to fix.

*

“I think he’s obsessed,” I told my sister.

I showed her the line of texts—five in one day.

My sister rolled her eyes. “The last guy didn’t text enough, this guy texts too much.” She scrolled a bit, then handed my phone back. “He just likes you.”

“It doesn’t seem, you know, a little much?”

“He’s pursuing you. That’s what men do. We just forget, with all these weenies running around LA.”

Perhaps I should have considered that this was coming from my sister—a woman who’d had her Facebook account hacked, her phone hacked, her emails read, her clothes slashed, her panties sniffed. Who’d changed the locks and called the cops so many times that the locksmiths knew her by name and the cops had just stopped coming. Who’d lived like that for years, ten years—child after child, rehab after detox, misdemeanor after felony.

So it must have been pretty bad, whatever happened the night she finally did leave. She never said and I figured it wasn’t my place to ask, that I could afford her that much. All I knew was that there was a bullet hole in the TV. And that after ten years, she packed the kids, grabbed all the valuables that were still left, and split.

She didn’t go home for five weeks. She holed up at friend’s house, where she slept in the same bed as the kids every night. No one knew where he was, so she couldn’t even serve him a restraining order. She pulled the older kids out of school—she didn’t want them being anywhere where he could get to them. “He’ll get picked up eventually,” she said. “He always does.”

He broke into the house a few times during that period, stealing what was left to be stolen, ransacking what was left to be ransacked, leaving a trail of boot prints across the floor.

When he did finally get picked up, it was worse than anyone had expected. Kidnapping. Home invasion. Gunfire exchanged with the police.

There’s no way you do that without a death wish, I knew that much. There’s no way you look out of a window of a meth house, see those lights flashing and hear that voice on the loudspeaker, and decide to fire shots unless you know there’s nothing left. That there’s nothing to go back to.

That she’s finally gone.

That you can’t keep running.

So I understood the irony, of course, of taking dating advice from a woman whose longest relationship had been that. But at the same time, my sister knows things. And not just about sex and attraction and intrigue. She knows how to survive.

I’ve always looked up to her, in a crazy way. My beautiful sister, with her tragic cheekbones and dyed blond hair—always with a different, half-broke-down car in the driveway.

*

The night it happened Joey picked me up in a different car—a red vintage European sports car. “It’s a client’s car,” he told me as he opened the passenger door for me. “She’s driving mine while I work on hers.”

“Your truck?”

“Yeah.”

“Your client is driving your truck?” I couldn’t imagine any woman in LA driving Joey’s ratty old truck.

He nodded as he closed the door. I watched him walk back to the driver’s side, and decided not to ask anymore. It didn’t add up but I honestly didn’t care. It was our fourth or fifth date, and I still wasn’t feeling butterflies.

But when he brought me home later that night, I invited him up. Because I’d decided to sleep with him. You should know that; I feel like you should know that.

We were making out on my bed and clothes were coming off and I asked him if he had a condom and he said no.

I wiggled away from him. “Well I’m not gonna sleep with you without a condom,” I told him. “I don’t do that.”

“Okay,” he said softly. He kept kissing me. He kept moving his hands, reaching them inside me, and I didn’t stop him. Because it felt good.

“I mean, there’s other things we can do,” I whispered.

“Yeah,” he said, his face turned away from me.

He kept rooting around inside me. Then his hands pulled out of me, pushed against my thighs and spread them open. I felt him enter me.

I sucked my breath and froze a moment. Then I squeezed and pushed him out of me. “Nonono,” I repeated, shaking my head. “We can’t do that.”

“Okay, okay,” he sighed.

But a couple seconds later, it was happening again—he was inside me, he was fucking me, and I’m not gonna lie, it felt good, but I didn’t want him to be doing it.

“Stop,” I said.

He didn’t.

“Hey!” I said louder. He paused. Slowly, slowly, he pulled out of me. He stayed perched on top of me though, sweaty and panting. His arms were planked against my sides, blocking me in. The tiger quivered.

“Look,” I said, “there’s a twenty-four-hour CVS three blocks away.”

And then he responded with something so LA, the most LA thing someone could possibly say, that I would have laughed at it under different circumstances and that I did laugh at it later, when I told my friends and tried to play it off like it was something other than what it was:

“I don’t want to lose my parking space.”

The next time he stuck it in, I thought about fighting him off. Forcing him off me, standing up, shoving his clothes in his arms and hollering at him to leave and waking up my roommate. I imagined what it would take to get him off me—kicking, screaming, biting maybe. He wasn’t a small guy.

So I gave up. I gave in. It wasn’t consent so much as not wanting a fight. But I could have forced him off me. I could have stopped it. He was well-endowed and I ended up cumming, despite myself, and I couldn’t have cum if I didn’t enjoy it, and I couldn’t have enjoyed it if I hadn’t somehow agreed. Right? These are the things I’ve told myself and they’ve kept me from giving up on dating entirely. And that’s the point, if nothing else, right?—to find a way to keep going.

We ended up fucking in the morning too. I mean, I was already gonna have to go to the doctor and take the morning-after pill and get tested for everything, and it would probably make him leave faster. It was easier than kicking him out.

When he finally did leave, he texted two minutes later. “Street sweeping. Got a $70 ticket.”

Maybe it was asshole-ish of me, but I couldn’t help but smile.

*

I don’t know why I didn’t cut it off right then and there. Guilt maybe?

“Guilt about what?!” my friends asked.

“Knowing I wasn’t that into it and dating him anyway?” Even I wasn’t convinced.

My sister just sighed when I told her. “Yeah, that always sucks.” She said it the way you might commiserate about a stolen wallet or a flat tire—one of those inconvenient inevitabilities.

I must have looked real bummed, because she added, “How do you think these four were born?” She glanced towards the next room, where the kids were watching cartoons in their underpants—color bars bent around the bullet hole. “‘Oh, come on, I’ll pull out,’” she mimicked her ex’s voice and laughed.

“It’s never happened to me before,” I said. “Not even when I was a drunk teenager.”

My sister gave me one of those sad smiles, the kind only a sister can give you, and hugged me. She smelled like dirty hair and sweat.

You can say a lot of things about my sister—that she drinks too much, that she screams at the kids, that she cries on the front lawn, that she stayed with an abusive meth addict for ten years. And these things are true. But sometimes you wind up in situations you never imagined you’d be in, and you do what you have to to get out, and you sell yourself out in the process. But my sister did get out. And she got her kids out, and she didn’t break down and she found a way to keep going—to tap the pedal and rattle the key and make it run again, however haltingly and shadily, semi-legal and under-the-table.

I let things with Joey linger. He kept texting, every couple hours for a few days, mostly dumb shit—his breakfast, his lunch, a part of some car completely unrecognizable to me, his hands covered in grease, inspirational quotes and links to pop psychology articles that “might be helpful.”

He ended up dumping me. Via text message, some 11 p.m. soliloquy so long my phone broke it into three speech bubbles—how it was clear I wasn’t ready for “this,” but how his life would be better for having known me, and that if I ever needed an ear he would always be there. I couldn’t tell if it was sweet or psychotic, or if I was jaded and unavailable, or if we were just two half-broken-down people, colliding with one another.

I took a little break after Joey, deleted the apps and then re-downloaded them, the way we do. Because what else is there to do but keep going? Keep swiping and messaging and going on awkward first dates with dudes I never hear back from. It’s the same way I get through LA—just keep the oil changed and the gas tank off empty and the glove compartment stocked, and hope to God nothing breaks down, hope to God nothing costs me money, nothing leaves me stranded, no one runs into me or breaks my window or steals my shit. It doesn’t sound like much of a way to live, when you write it out like that, but I feel like that’s how most of us get by—hoping for the best and bracing for the worst, from inside our own, self-sustaining bubbles.

*

Every few months, Joey would try to get in touch with me: text, Gmail chat, Facebook message, Instragram message. One by one, I blocked them all.

Six months later, he texted again. From a number I didn’t recognize, a number I hadn’t already blocked.

“Hey Lauren, it’s Joey, how’s it going?”

I blocked that number too. But for some reason, I saved the text.

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