Vanishing Point

Belinda Hermawan

Vanishing Point

Belinda Hermawan

N.B.: We recommend mobile viewing in landscape.

Jesus appeared in the night to save me twenty miles north of the Nevada-California border. He moved quickly, arms flying around like an inflatable Wacky Waving Tube Man. Lug nuts loosened. Hubcap off. Flat tire removed. Spare tire on. Lug nuts tightened.   

I’d driven to the sickening thump of that flat for what felt like miles, failing to get to the 24-hour gas station Google Maps had told me was within reach. Fortunately, Jesus had just finished his evening shift and spotted me on his drive up I-15.

I jumped when he spoke.

“Look at this goddamn thing!” He held out the offending hardware, a three-inch nail, bent at ninety degrees. I expected it to gleam in the light emanating from his emergency lamp, triumphant at thwarting my escape to Primm Valley. It didn’t gleam, though. It didn’t give a shit.

Stunned, I nodded dumbly in response and took the nail from him. I tried to guess his age. In the lamplight he looked to be mid-forties, though it was hard to tell, given his long hair, bearded face, and attire– red puffer jacket, plain-wash Levi’s, and lace-up boots.

“So where you from?” he asked.

“New Jersey.” My voice was scratchy. The air was weird in the desert winter, stale like refrozen water.

He whistled. “You’re a long way from home.”

I hooked my thumb over my shoulder. “I’m on a three-day conference in Vegas but I needed to get out.”

“Yeah? Why’s that?”

The honesty was automatic. “Big Pharma.”

He contemplated my answer, head tilting. “Well, I can’t help you with that, but I can recommend you hightail it before it gets any later.”

“Thanks to you, I can do that,” I said, offering my hand. His handshake was firm, which surprised me, as if I expected him to be ethereal.

He ambled back to his patchy blue pick up truck, lamp swinging at his hip. Only after he’d driven off did I haul myself back into the rental car, my eyes stinging from tiredness and my back aching from being so tense.

On the approach to Primm Valley, I could see the red and yellow flashing lights of casinos in the distance, the buildings as small as Monopoly hotels. They grew in size until Buffalo Bill’s was on my right, reminiscent of a large, red farmhouse with many extensions— a rollercoaster in the backyard. It was a resort that looked homely compared to the green behemoth that was the MGM, where I’d been staying with my team. I turned in and tossed the keys to the valet and tried to call my colleague Corinne. She didn’t pick up, and even if she had, she would have been drunk with the rest of the delegates. I left a message saying I was safe, a vague statement I wasn’t even sure was true.

 

The night before, we’d hit the drinks hard, coming back to our room around three. For a woman in her late forties, Corinne was a hell of a lot of fun, which was probably how she’d survived when the other older reps had been replaced by younger, hotter women. Well, that and her rigidly adhered-to routine of Botox injections, designer clothes and too-bright lipstick. Damn, I could still picture her on the slot machines, out-drinking me two-to-one and whooping with delight. At thirty-three, I was already wondering if I’d be pushed out before I had the strength to leave. She was walking proof that I wasn’t already too old, which simultaneously relieved and scared me.

Operationally, Corinne spent most of her time in Boston making sure major hospitals like Mass Gen were happy, while I was an interstate operator. My trajectory around the country, if mapped with red string and pushpins, would be the bloodlines of Big Pharma. No need to set up the map to find the criminal. We knew drugs were cheaper in Canada, why people risked buying medication in dingy Mexican drugstores. I once went to Tijuana by coach on a lark during a conference in Anaheim. Shop fronts with towering signs advertised a long list of drugs in hand-painted all caps, the same scene corner after corner, backdropped by a mountain of slums. I knew tourists would be sourcing their goods in these shops before driving anxiously back into the Land of the Free, hopefully without getting caught with meds under the  seat, the situation ironically increasing the need for the hidden meds: Lopressor for high blood pressure, Xanax for the panic, Oxycontin for the crippling migraine, and Ambien for the sleepless nights to follow. Trust me, it had been a mindfuck to bypass the traffic jams, the bus only subjected to a half-hearted search prior to us slipping back into California like a well-lubed suppository.

Yet companies like the one I worked for were criminals in plain sight. We kept paying off who needed paying off, kept swatting away the invisible hand that hovered over the free market, hissing at it to get out of our goddamn way.

But lately to get ahead in the game, I wasn’t swatting the male hands away. The sales pitch went more smoothly if I indulged a physician in flirtation, but that was the bare minimum. Sales were guaranteed if I allowed an attending to fuck me in his office, an executive’s bathroom, a hotel room, a car—even an on-call room. That way, I wouldn’t have to recite peppy one-liners on why it was better to pick our drug company over another– one dose gets you so hard, the FDA said it was almost too good! What I offered was like corporate stationery, doled out with a smile, enticing you, but no more valuable than the generic version.

*

In Atlanta two weeks before, the hospital executive I hooked up with had laughed uproariously when I insisted he accept a box of corporate-branded pens and notepads.

“I remember when you first started out, all doe-eyed and hopeful, trying to sell a new anti-coagulant, I think it was,” he said, pulling up his pants.

I was seated on the edge of his mahogany desk. “I don’t know what happened to me,” I said with a nervous cough, adjusting my skirt. I couldn’t feel much more than a blunt heaviness in my chest and the receding high, so when he didn’t reply, I wondered if I had said anything at all. So I added, “Gone are the days when I could get you to buy without something extra.”

“Hey, easy. This is consensual.” He zipped his fly and did up his belt, clipping the buckle into place. “You’re the one who lost your self-respect.”

I swallowed, surprised at his pointedness, though I shouldn’t have been. I tried to recover by invoking the carefree air of a vacationer, as if I was sitting on the edge of a dock on the fourth of July, no worries beyond needing another lemonade.

“It’s funny. It all started at a university hospital in Maryland with a doctor who reminded me of George Clooney. He said he would up the order by twenty percent, and since I was already interested, it wasn’t a loss. Of self-respect, I mean. My bosses were so impressed by the numbers, I got promoted.”

“You’re an ER fan?” He fastened one of his cufflinks. “That explains a lot.”

My shirt was still unbuttoned, my skin flushed with a mixture of arousal and shame. I was addicted to what my job had become but knew how to explain it away, like navigating the concerns of a drug’s side effects to allay consumer fears and sell, sell, sell. I often had nightmares of being drowned in pages and pages of medical disclaimers–the ones printed in  magazines beside glossy advertisements showcasing elderly couples jogging in a park and smiling after having beaten incontinence/heartburn/impotence/anxiety/youth. Just columns of text, like an old dictionary. Too much detail for anyone’s use.

The executive opened the box of pens to my left, picking one up and clicking it to reveal its ball-point. I hissed but didn’t move as he proceeded to write on my breasts, above the curve of my bra-line. I put my chin to my chest but when I tried to look down, I couldn’t see.

“That should help you,” he said, clicking the pen and tossing it onto the table. “Now if you don’t mind, I have a two o’clock.”

Desperate to know what he’d written, I ducked into a handicapped bathroom on the first floor of the hospital, unbuttoning my shirt in a hurry, each gulp of air corrosive. And then, I opened my shirt with the flourish of a superhero, revealing a diagnostic note mirrored back to me. The message, SHOWING SYMPTOMS OF REGRET, heaved as if it had its own heartbeat.

*

In the hotel room at Buffalo Bill’s, I sat on the edge of the bed and watched YouTube videos on my phone, explanatory clips on how to change a tire, knowing next time, Jesus wasn’t going to appear.

It occurred to me that I hadn’t even asked the man for his name, just called him Jesus in my mind. With men, I didn’t bother much with names. With clients, it was their titles that mattered— the M.D. after their names, their purchasing power.

I felt queasy from watching the unsteady footage, my hand shaking. I reached for my handbag and swallowed two Valium before pressing play again. Hazard lights. Parking brake. Wheel wedge. Hubcap off. Loosen lug nuts. Raise with jack. Unscrew lug nuts. Flat tire off. Spare tire on. Tighten lug nuts. Lower vehicle. Hubcap on. Next video.

It took a few more videos for the Valium to kick in, my limbs succumbing to the familiar heaviness. It wasn’t a high; instead, relief. The unclenching of my neck and back as whatever I was worked up about became obsolete. The fuzziness of my senses as worries lost their definition. I dreamed of being able to jack up a car with my bare hands, only to find there was no spare tire.

*

I woke up to a string of texts from Corinne, most of them autocorrected into incoherence. I had to scroll back hours and hours until I saw one that made sense: Brooke! Primm Valley has great outlet malls. Get me a Guess purse and then come back for the afternoon. This will pass.

Sometimes waking up from a benzo sleep felt like being stuck in a groggy dream state, where movements seemed semi-conscious, like maneuvering an avatar in a video game. This was what I felt like after I checked out and drove to the outlet mall. One minute I was standing in a store of last season’s handbags, all monograms and red discount tickets, and the next, I was sitting in the food court, digging into a basket of chili fries, wondering if the fries were actually lukewarm or if my hand was going numb.

Another text from Corinne: Honey, you have to come back. We do what we have to do to get by. At my age, you won’t even feel guilty.

That was enough to get me out of my holding pattern. I sped out of the parking lot and headed up the highway toward Las Vegas, a knot of anger coiled in my stomach as I contemplated if this was the fault of every woman who’d come before me, their cowardice now my own—inherited, compounded. I had fled the conference after being pinched on the ass while bending down to pick up a dropped flier. I’d spun around only to be caught up in a crowd of nonplussed men ambling toward the lecture hall. I was silent in their silence, the perpetrator no one but, also, everyone.

The rage paired with the harsh midday sun, my eyes twitching at the plains of sand and chaparral on either side of the road. I started to see imprints in the horizon I knew could not be real. Mirages. Fifty-something Corinne flashing her whitened teeth during a sales pitch, her laugh lines smoothed over. Forty-something Corinne in a size 2 tailored suit, checking her new Apple watch to see if there’s time for a reckoning. Thirty-something Corinne batting her false eyelashes at a physician, her sweet drugstore perfume masking the pheromones in the air. Twenty-something Corinne in a miniskirt, a box of Prednisone under her arm, her new heels squeaking on the ward’s linoleum floor.

The 24-hour gas station was coming up ahead. That’s when I saw him again: Jesus, roadside, his waving arm transforming into a thumbs up as I approached. I waved back in appreciation, only wondering miles later if he had been trying to hitch a ride. By then the horizon was littered with so many Corinnes, a crowd awaiting my return. I drove on, toward infinity. And anyway, a man didn’t need my help.

Belinda Hermawan’s Vanishing Point appears in Flock 21.

Jesus appeared in the night to save me twenty miles north of the Nevada-California border. He moved quickly, arms flying around like an inflatable Wacky Waving Tube Man. Lug nuts loosened. Hubcap off. Flat tire removed. Spare tire on. Lug nuts tightened.   

I’d driven to the sickening thump of that flat for what felt like miles, failing to get to the 24-hour gas station Google Maps had told me was within reach. Fortunately, Jesus had just finished his evening shift and spotted me on his drive up I-15.

I jumped when he spoke.

“Look at this goddamn thing!” He held out the offending hardware, a three-inch nail, bent at ninety degrees. I expected it to gleam in the light emanating from his emergency lamp, triumphant at thwarting my escape to Primm Valley. It didn’t gleam, though. It didn’t give a shit.

Stunned, I nodded dumbly in response and took the nail from him. I tried to guess his age. In the lamplight he looked to be mid-forties, though it was hard to tell, given his long hair, bearded face, and attire– red puffer jacket, plain-wash Levi’s, and lace-up boots.

“So where you from?” he asked.

“New Jersey.” My voice was scratchy. The air was weird in the desert winter, stale like refrozen water.

He whistled. “You’re a long way from home.”

I hooked my thumb over my shoulder. “I’m on a three-day conference in Vegas but I needed to get out.”

“Yeah? Why’s that?”

The honesty was automatic. “Big Pharma.”

He contemplated my answer, head tilting. “Well, I can’t help you with that, but I can recommend you hightail it before it gets any later.”

“Thanks to you, I can do that,” I said, offering my hand. His handshake was firm, which surprised me, as if I expected him to be ethereal.

He ambled back to his patchy blue pick up truck, lamp swinging at his hip. Only after he’d driven off did I haul myself back into the rental car, my eyes stinging from tiredness and my back aching from being so tense.

On the approach to Primm Valley, I could see the red and yellow flashing lights of casinos in the distance, the buildings as small as Monopoly hotels. They grew in size until Buffalo Bill’s was on my right, reminiscent of a large, red farmhouse with many extensions— a rollercoaster in the backyard. It was a resort that looked homely compared to the green behemoth that was the MGM, where I’d been staying with my team. I turned in and tossed the keys to the valet and tried to call my colleague Corinne. She didn’t pick up, and even if she had, she would have been drunk with the rest of the delegates. I left a message saying I was safe, a vague statement I wasn’t even sure was true.

 

The night before, we’d hit the drinks hard, coming back to our room around three. For a woman in her late forties, Corinne was a hell of a lot of fun, which was probably how she’d survived when the other older reps had been replaced by younger, hotter women. Well, that and her rigidly adhered-to routine of Botox injections, designer clothes and too-bright lipstick. Damn, I could still picture her on the slot machines, out-drinking me two-to-one and whooping with delight. At thirty-three, I was already wondering if I’d be pushed out before I had the strength to leave. She was walking proof that I wasn’t already too old, which simultaneously relieved and scared me.

Operationally, Corinne spent most of her time in Boston making sure major hospitals like Mass Gen were happy, while I was an interstate operator. My trajectory around the country, if mapped with red string and pushpins, would be the bloodlines of Big Pharma. No need to set up the map to find the criminal. We knew drugs were cheaper in Canada, why people risked buying medication in dingy Mexican drugstores. I once went to Tijuana by coach on a lark during a conference in Anaheim. Shop fronts with towering signs advertised a long list of drugs in hand-painted all caps, the same scene corner after corner, backdropped by a mountain of slums. I knew tourists would be sourcing their goods in these shops before driving anxiously back into the Land of the Free, hopefully without getting caught with meds under the  seat, the situation ironically increasing the need for the hidden meds: Lopressor for high blood pressure, Xanax for the panic, Oxycontin for the crippling migraine, and Ambien for the sleepless nights to follow. Trust me, it had been a mindfuck to bypass the traffic jams, the bus only subjected to a half-hearted search prior to us slipping back into California like a well-lubed suppository.

Yet companies like the one I worked for were criminals in plain sight. We kept paying off who needed paying off, kept swatting away the invisible hand that hovered over the free market, hissing at it to get out of our goddamn way.

But lately to get ahead in the game, I wasn’t swatting the male hands away. The sales pitch went more smoothly if I indulged a physician in flirtation, but that was the bare minimum. Sales were guaranteed if I allowed an attending to fuck me in his office, an executive’s bathroom, a hotel room, a car—even an on-call room. That way, I wouldn’t have to recite peppy one-liners on why it was better to pick our drug company over another– one dose gets you so hard, the FDA said it was almost too good! What I offered was like corporate stationery, doled out with a smile, enticing you, but no more valuable than the generic version.

*

In Atlanta two weeks before, the hospital executive I hooked up with had laughed uproariously when I insisted he accept a box of corporate-branded pens and notepads.

“I remember when you first started out, all doe-eyed and hopeful, trying to sell a new anti-coagulant, I think it was,” he said, pulling up his pants.

I was seated on the edge of his mahogany desk. “I don’t know what happened to me,” I said with a nervous cough, adjusting my skirt. I couldn’t feel much more than a blunt heaviness in my chest and the receding high, so when he didn’t reply, I wondered if I had said anything at all. So I added, “Gone are the days when I could get you to buy without something extra.”

“Hey, easy. This is consensual.” He zipped his fly and did up his belt, clipping the buckle into place. “You’re the one who lost your self-respect.”

I swallowed, surprised at his pointedness, though I shouldn’t have been. I tried to recover by invoking the carefree air of a vacationer, as if I was sitting on the edge of a dock on the fourth of July, no worries beyond needing another lemonade.

“It’s funny. It all started at a university hospital in Maryland with a doctor who reminded me of George Clooney. He said he would up the order by twenty percent, and since I was already interested, it wasn’t a loss. Of self-respect, I mean. My bosses were so impressed by the numbers, I got promoted.”

“You’re an ER fan?” He fastened one of his cufflinks. “That explains a lot.”

My shirt was still unbuttoned, my skin flushed with a mixture of arousal and shame. I was addicted to what my job had become but knew how to explain it away, like navigating the concerns of a drug’s side effects to allay consumer fears and sell, sell, sell. I often had nightmares of being drowned in pages and pages of medical disclaimers–the ones printed in  magazines beside glossy advertisements showcasing elderly couples jogging in a park and smiling after having beaten incontinence/heartburn/impotence/anxiety/youth. Just columns of text, like an old dictionary. Too much detail for anyone’s use.

The executive opened the box of pens to my left, picking one up and clicking it to reveal its ball-point. I hissed but didn’t move as he proceeded to write on my breasts, above the curve of my bra-line. I put my chin to my chest but when I tried to look down, I couldn’t see.

“That should help you,” he said, clicking the pen and tossing it onto the table. “Now if you don’t mind, I have a two o’clock.”

Desperate to know what he’d written, I ducked into a handicapped bathroom on the first floor of the hospital, unbuttoning my shirt in a hurry, each gulp of air corrosive. And then, I opened my shirt with the flourish of a superhero, revealing a diagnostic note mirrored back to me. The message, SHOWING SYMPTOMS OF REGRET, heaved as if it had its own heartbeat.

*

In the hotel room at Buffalo Bill’s, I sat on the edge of the bed and watched YouTube videos on my phone, explanatory clips on how to change a tire, knowing next time, Jesus wasn’t going to appear.

It occurred to me that I hadn’t even asked the man for his name, just called him Jesus in my mind. With men, I didn’t bother much with names. With clients, it was their titles that mattered— the M.D. after their names, their purchasing power.

I felt queasy from watching the unsteady footage, my hand shaking. I reached for my handbag and swallowed two Valium before pressing play again. Hazard lights. Parking brake. Wheel wedge. Hubcap off. Loosen lug nuts. Raise with jack. Unscrew lug nuts. Flat tire off. Spare tire on. Tighten lug nuts. Lower vehicle. Hubcap on. Next video.

It took a few more videos for the Valium to kick in, my limbs succumbing to the familiar heaviness. It wasn’t a high; instead, relief. The unclenching of my neck and back as whatever I was worked up about became obsolete. The fuzziness of my senses as worries lost their definition. I dreamed of being able to jack up a car with my bare hands, only to find there was no spare tire.

*

I woke up to a string of texts from Corinne, most of them autocorrected into incoherence. I had to scroll back hours and hours until I saw one that made sense: Brooke! Primm Valley has great outlet malls. Get me a Guess purse and then come back for the afternoon. This will pass.

Sometimes waking up from a benzo sleep felt like being stuck in a groggy dream state, where movements seemed semi-conscious, like maneuvering an avatar in a video game. This was what I felt like after I checked out and drove to the outlet mall. One minute I was standing in a store of last season’s handbags, all monograms and red discount tickets, and the next, I was sitting in the food court, digging into a basket of chili fries, wondering if the fries were actually lukewarm or if my hand was going numb.

Another text from Corinne: Honey, you have to come back. We do what we have to do to get by. At my age, you won’t even feel guilty.

That was enough to get me out of my holding pattern. I sped out of the parking lot and headed up the highway toward Las Vegas, a knot of anger coiled in my stomach as I contemplated if this was the fault of every woman who’d come before me, their cowardice now my own—inherited, compounded. I had fled the conference after being pinched on the ass while bending down to pick up a dropped flier. I’d spun around only to be caught up in a crowd of nonplussed men ambling toward the lecture hall. I was silent in their silence, the perpetrator no one but, also, everyone.

The rage paired with the harsh midday sun, my eyes twitching at the plains of sand and chaparral on either side of the road. I started to see imprints in the horizon I knew could not be real. Mirages. Fifty-something Corinne flashing her whitened teeth during a sales pitch, her laugh lines smoothed over. Forty-something Corinne in a size 2 tailored suit, checking her new Apple watch to see if there’s time for a reckoning. Thirty-something Corinne batting her false eyelashes at a physician, her sweet drugstore perfume masking the pheromones in the air. Twenty-something Corinne in a miniskirt, a box of Prednisone under her arm, her new heels squeaking on the ward’s linoleum floor.

The 24-hour gas station was coming up ahead. That’s when I saw him again: Jesus, roadside, his waving arm transforming into a thumbs up as I approached. I waved back in appreciation, only wondering miles later if he had been trying to hitch a ride. By then the horizon was littered with so many Corinnes, a crowd awaiting my return. I drove on, toward infinity. And anyway, a man didn’t need my help.

Belinda Hermawan’s Vanishing Point appears in Flock 21.

Belinda Hermawan

Belinda Hermawan is a HR professional/lawyer from Perth, Western Australia. Her short fiction has appeared in Split Lip Magazine, Westerly, Going Down Swinging, and Typishly. This past summer she was selected to participate in Winter Tangerine‘s “Sing That Like Dovesong” workshop for people of color. You can find her on Twitter @bd_writer