Last night, driving home from class, I was exiting off of I-30 when I felt a firm thunk.
“Holyshit,” I yelped, palm flying to my horn. It hovered there, not honking. In the rearview mirror, a Honda Civic—white like mine to fend off the hellish Dallas sun—idled behind me, the driver’s face cast in pre-thunderstorm murk. I tightened my fingers on the steering wheel. My heart throbbing in air-conditioned silence.
I inched my eyes up to the rearview mirror; the car was still behind me, the driver still inside. Do I get out?
I checked the mirror again, a line of cars creeping to a crawl on the exit ramp behind me. My leg muscles tensed. I didn’t know what to do—back home, in Chicago, everyone would be honking by now, the air alive with that unbroken urban symphony: sirens blatting, brakes squealing, motors glugging in place. Middle fingers waving briskly out of open windows, conducting.
But on I-30, it was quiet. Taillights glowed red, rainclouds swelling black and heavy above us. Any minute now the sky would rip apart and still not one middle finger waved my way, not one single horn honked. In front of me, a green sign shone bright in the dark: Drive Friendly—The Texas Way.
I hate driving here. I hate the meaty pick-up trucks that take up two parking spaces, I hate looking for parking, I hate paying for parking.
I hate that the turn signal doesn’t seem to be law but mere courtesy, a neighborly tip of the hat.
And I really, really hate the freeways, all tangled up together like a pile of snakes, one hot writhing gaseous mass.
Still: Texas is the friendliest place I’ve lived. Walking down the street I feel like an umbrella-twirling Mary Poppins, people smiling and greeting me like they never did in Chicago, heads thrust down against the brisk Lake Michigan wind. I couldn’t believe it when, on the first day of class, my new students formed a line at the front of the room as if receiving communion, smiling and waiting their turn to shake my hand.
One day, I asked my students why people don’t honk in Texas.
“That would be impolite,” said a thin boy in the front row, his skin tanned past the point of sunburn. “Plus,” he mumbled, “you never know who you’re going to piss off here.” A few heads nodded, eyes dropping to desks. Though I had yet to see anyone carrying a gun, it was the small, daily warnings that made me nervous, the NO GUNS sign on the front doors of the psychology building where I teach or the university’s concealed weapons policy bolded on my literature syllabus. Sometimes, while my students worked in groups, I stood behind the podium at the front of the room and looked out at the forty canvas backpacks lumped on the floor, wondering if one hid a gun inside.
And if I saw one? What then? Would I ask Back Row Bobby to please put away his gun as if it were an irritation benign as a cell phone under the desk? Or would I say nothing, just keep my mouth shut and my eyes pointed straight ahead like I do on the freeway, drive friendly?
On I-30, I looked back at the white car. In the dark, I could just barely make out a sliver of male chin, my nerves hardening suddenly to anger: Why wouldn’t this dude just get out of his car? Shake my hand and be nice about it like I’d come to expect?
In the rearview mirror, we locked eyes. Or I imagined we did, since it was still too dim to see clearly. I wondered if he thought I had a gun—if he might be afraid of me. The idea seemed laughable: I looked around at the discarded pistachio carcasses on the floor, a graveyard of empty La Croix cans knocking around in back. My car is one of few spaces, besides my apartment, where I’m allowed to be impolite. After teaching, I love to lean way back in the driver’s seat, my dress hitched up and legs spread apart at the wheel, snacking and basking in my own Dorito-musk. I tug my hair out of its bun and let out a hearty, day’s-end fart, turning up the radio: Girl you looks good, I rap, my left hand on the wheel as my right slashes the air, Won’t you back that ass up. I press down on the accelerator and feel my tired body waking up again, absorbing the car’s power.
In a burst of confidence, I pushed open the door and stepped out of my car, still idling at the yield sign. On Hampton Road ahead of me, the road I needed to merge onto, cars were rushing along as usual, trying to beat the storm home. Headlights bounced. An ambulance sped past on my left, sirens twirling but silent.
I turned to face the opposing Civic. My heart thunked away, throwing a tantrum in my chest. The dude was still inside his car—I couldn’t see his face so I imagined it, his curled lips, eyes the red glare of taillights. Some quiet wreck.
I walked around my car to check the bumper. A sharp wind lifted my dress from my knees, my high-heel Swedish clogs wobbling on the rough pavement. Squatting down, I made a show of examining my bumper—which, save for a thin dirty smear, was fine—running my hand uselessly over and over the surface, making big shakes with my head. A raindrop hit my arm; I stood.
I faced the driver, headlights blinding us to each other. What now? In Chicago, I definitely would have flipped him off, a perfectly acceptable expression of rage in the city. But I didn’t know the code here in Dallas, didn’t know what I should do with my body; inside my car, I am someone who could have a gun, who could be dangerous, my small frame given the power of imagination, of possibility. Outside my car, though, I am exactly what I look like: a young woman in dumb shoes, alone.
Heart racing, I squinted into the Civic’s headlights like a stunned deer. The man watched me quietly, his face shielded by shadow. On Hampton Road ahead, cars were slowing, windows sliding down in anticipation of a fight. I lifted my arms slightly away from my sides—breathe, breathe—then let them fall again in a pathetic half-shrug. My middle finger itched; I curled it back into my fist, shoved the whole thing deep in my dress pocket. Fuck you, I attempted to say with my eyes, pointing them at the man’s windshield, but all I could see was my own pale face reflected back.
Maybe this is why I miss honking—it was a voice, however obnoxious. A small but honest protest.
I turned, tried to hold my head and neck straight as I tromped in my clogs back to my car. I slid inside and let out a breath. My keys still dangled in the ignition; with shaky fingers I twisted them in deeper, tugged my seat belt across my chest. Out my left window, traffic had slowed in the rain. Cars braked so I could merge onto Hampton Road, their windows rolled down, necks craning. Here, I’m learning how aggression hides in plain sight, masked by southern good manners.
But it wasn’t polite to stare. People rolled their windows back up and pointed their eyes straight ahead again, and I did, too.
Beware of Dog
In my new Dallas neighborhood, everyone has a dog. Everyone but me.
Mornings I wake to the twin Chihuahuas next door, yapping at cars and glaring down at me from their balcony like pissy little lords. A chorus of barks breaks the air. People stagger past my apartment in their pajamas, wincing in the sun, leashes in hand. With a thin plastic bag they bend down and wrap their dogs’ poop as if it were a delicacy, a scone in a bakery display case. I appraise them silently from my porch and give a little wave when they pass; here, it’s rude not to greet your neighbors. In Chicago, where I lived before Dallas, even the dogs ignored me as they clicked past on the sidewalk—tongues wagging, gums shining, jaws hanging open in a drooly grin—having adapted to the city’s noises, the constant crush of people.
But in the hard yellow eyes of Texas dogs, people are not to be trusted. Nearly every house in my neighborhood is protected with a fence or gate, dogs growling and baring their teeth at me as I pass on my evening walk. Pit bulls glare and press their flat heads to windows, saliva slicking the glass. Lawns are all accessorized with prominent BEWARE OF DOG signs, the hulking body of a German Shepard silhouetted on them in bold black.
I have never liked dogs. But when I moved here a little over a month ago, alone and lonely, I took comfort in their presence, thinking they might watch out for me. Dallas is a city of transplants; like me, thousands of people are relocating here for work, high-rise apartments seeming to spring up downtown overnight, paint still damp on the walls. Pressed for time, I rented my apartment sight unseen in Oak Cliff, an area that used to have a reputation for crime but is now undergoing rapid renovation. My street, Kings Highway, is flanked with a broad purple mural that proclaims itself, proudly, as The Conservation District. Here the houses are tall and old, wide porches protruding in front like an orchestra pit. Mine is so old the windows are all painted shut. It wasn’t until my landlord refused to cut them open—in order to preserve the 1940’s woodwork, he wrote me in an email—that I understood what conservation really means: not to restore, as I’d once thought, but to protect what has been there all along.
There is so much to protect against here—I smear a concoction of zinc and SPF 50 into my cheeks several times a day and arm myself with mosquito repellant at night, a long-sleeved shirt and two bottles of water always in my purse—that I’m not sure I will recognize real danger when it’s in front of me, not sure what it will look or sound like. Here, what I would normally see as threatening—high-speed freeways, drive-through daiquiri stands, billboards for gun shows—is commonplace. This can even be confusing for police. When, one month before my move, a sniper opened up fire on a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Dallas, officers said they had trouble discerning between suspects and marchers who were openly carrying rifles. From my boxed-up bedroom in Chicago I watched videos on my laptop, neon-vested officers scurrying through the shadowy crowd with guns pointed every which way.
Screams. Sirens. Eyes locked to my screen, I watched and I watched and I watched, dread opening a hole in my stomach.
It’s easy to do here, let fear carry me away. For one, I am not used to the vastness of Texas—in Chicago, open spaces held a sense of danger, an empty street or unpopulated El car to be avoided at all costs. But here, people are distanced from each other by freeways and heat, shut away inside our air-conditioned homes. I look forward to late evenings, when Kings Highway finally comes alive. I sit outside on my porch swing and watch the last of the sun fading from the sky, an orange burn doused by cool white clouds. Around me joggers jog, sprinklers hiss on. Dogs trot up and down the sidewalk, chests panting. With wet noses they sniff the grass, the air, their dark, quick eyes scanning the streets like I do from my porch, staking a claim, guarding our territory. Neighbors pass, gripping leashes. They look up at me and smile. I raise a hand to wave, a sense of comfort—of belonging—settling briefly over me.
But once the sun sinks, the neighborhood packs itself back up. Garage doors lower, front doors lock. I am alone again. I stand and go back inside my apartment, silent except for the air conditioner humming away. Dark presses in against my windows; I pull down the shades and turn on all the lights.
Nights like these I need the dogs. Their vigilance is a relief to me in this new seamless smothering dark, uncut by smog or city lights. Sometimes one will bark in the middle of the night, my skin jumping—knife in the kitchen, mace in the dresser drawer. Startled awake by my own quickness to violence, that same raw physicality of a dog straining at its leash.
They say dogs can smell fear, one of those beliefs everyone seems to know instinctually, as if it were part of them. When confronted with an angry dog, you are supposed to stand entirely still, just lock eyes and keep still like in one of those Old West shootouts, tensed and waiting. If you are scared, though—if the dog can smell it on you, your sour sweat—then it, too, will become afraid and lash out.
Tethered, all of us, to this hazy liminal space between restraint and attack.
Late last night, I was taking the trash out to the curb when a dog somewhere let out a bark, short and sharp. I froze to listen, my stomach muscles clenched, but all I could hear was my own heart beating back at me in the dark.
Welcome to NorthPark
Between Rolex and Tiffany and Co. live the mall turtles. I stand staring down at them as they swim around and around the fountain’s T-shaped perimeter, feet flapping, heads woggling back and forth on plump necks. The water is heavily chlorinated, so blue as to seem unreal, and I think this is the point—to simulate a reality that is purer, brighter than the multi-storied parking garage outside. In the fountain’s perfect chemical blue, I can see clearly the tiny cement tiles gridding the bottom, not a candy wrapper or even a single penny in sight.
I’m not exaggerating when I say these are the fattest turtles I’ve ever seen. Several are hanging around what must be their food court, a cluster of stone slabs raised above the water and topped with a dog-sized bowl of hard, beige, kibbleish bits. Turtles dunk their heads in and out of the bowl, tongues squirming. Their bulk heaving against their shells like flesh in a too-tight pair of jeans.
Around the fountain grow tropical-type plants, yellow leaves so yellow that I assume they’re fake until I see a pair of landscapers bent over them, wielding pruning shears. A third landscaper unloads medium-sized pumpkins from the back of a small truck, placing them in neat, symmetrical rows around the fountain. It’s autumn in the mall; everywhere, real pumpkins and winter squash are on display, their stems cut smooth and perfectly straight. Mannequins are all draped in cable knit sweaters even though it’s ninety degrees outside. There are no windows in here to tell me the season or even time of day; the lighting is invitingly dim, the air conditioning is as cool as the turtles’ temperature-controlled water. I stare down at them and wonder if they like it here—or if, beneath their shells, they can feel the hard blast of air conditioning or see the Rolex sign reflected on the water’s surface, a bright blur. But then one side-eyes me from the food court, his cheeks swollen with kibble, and I decide they’re doing just fine.
It’s Tuesday, a little after 9:45am, and already people are lined up outside of Macy’s, waiting for the roll-up gates to clank open. I expected this—Dallas is famous for its malls, and this one, NorthPark, happens to be one of the top dozen in the U.S—but still I’m a little surprised at how many people are here so early, trash cans already spilling over with Starbucks cups. As for me, it’s my day off from the university where I teach. This morning, after a long argument about dental insurance with my plants, I decided I had better leave my apartment, where I’ve lived alone since moving to Dallas two months ago. Plus NorthPark is a great place to go if you want to dip your toes into social waters but not get your hair wet. The layout has the same inclusiveness of a town square, with leafy trees and vibrant plants everywhere. Benches are arranged in close circles around fountains, the steady rush of water a pleasant change from the sickly muzak usually piped through malls. Even its name—NorthPark—conjures an idyllic neighborhood park, a feeling of comfort that I never experienced when shopping in Chicago. No matter how deep into a store you wandered, you couldn’t escape the reality of the city outside, the wailing sirens or squealing brakes five stories below. You couldn’t brighten the steel-gray sky with fluorescent lights or pretend not to see the homeless men slumped on the curb outside, their dirty palms stretching open as you pushed through Zara’s heavy glass doors, purse clutched tight to your side. We’d all heard the stories—flash mobs on Michigan Avenue, a gun pulled outside of Old Navy. In H&M, after a friend had her wallet stolen out of her backpack, we hurried out of the store arm in arm, her face pale with panic. Stepping onto the streets again, I felt my muscles tense. My pulse beating in time with my footsteps, quick and nervous.
But here, at NorthPark, our environment is strictly controlled: everything is clean and vanilla-smelling. Security guards roam the polished concrete halls. Their eyes dart around beneath wide-brimmed black hats, scanning for potential disturbances. None of us knows yet about the shooting that will occur this afternoon in Houston, three hours away. None of us knows yet about the middle-aged lawyer who will open up fire in a mall parking lot, injuring nine shoppers. It will be another two hours before I sit down to lunch at Corner Bakery and see it on the news, see the ambulances weaving through the gray, now-empty lot, people crying and clutching each other. On the table, my phone will vibrate: “Woah, Houston—scary!!” texts a friend, and I’ll see then how I’ve confused cleanliness with security. How NorthPark, with its beautiful sculptures and too-lush landscaping had made me imagine I was safe—a concept that, I will realize, is as much a fantasy as NorthPark itself, too comfortable and tidy.
But none of this has happened yet. Right now I’m still staring down into the fountain, watching the turtles swim. One lugs himself up out of the water and onto the slick stone slabs, his feet making wet slapping sounds as he plods toward the food court. Another turtle is already there, torso buried deep in the kibble bowl. He lifts his head with surprising quickness and snaps his jaws at Turtle 2—Turtle 2 snaps back. They face each other, yellow eyes glaring, all three of us waiting to see who will strike first.
Amy Bernhard is a writer living in Dallas, Texas. She is a graduate of the Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa, and her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, VICE Magazine, Ninth Letter, Redivider, and The Colorado Review, among others. Currently she teaches creative writing and literature at The University of Texas at Arlington. You can find her on amybernhardwriter.com or on Twitter: @amybernhard.