FICTION: Uber Pool
It was around two in the morning when Manfred left the party after what had been a successful night. He did not get too drunk (5 beers). He won a round of Celebrity Heads (Marlon Brando). And Max’s girlfriend had outdone herself with the finger food (parma ham with melon and grilled halloumi skewers).
He walked towards the road, arrived under the light of a street lamp and opened the Uber application on his phone. His rating—4.97—appeared at the top of the screen. It would have been a perfect five had Max not berated his driver that time. Still. It was a good rating. And it was only Uber. In China they had ratings systems that could bring shame on your whole family.
That’s the future, he thought. Soon human worth would be reduced to bivariated data sets, coordinates on Venn diagrams. What would his rating be then? Sure, he was a model rideshare user. And yes he paid his taxes and observed a rigorous personal hygiene regimen. But those things only made you tolerable. To be desirable you needed to be cool and have rugged looks and professional status, criteria against which he was a 3.2 at best.
Imagine trying to catch an Uber with a rating of 3.2, he thought. You can’t catch a bus with numbers like those!
As the app searched for nearby cars he thought about his life. His father had a wife, a house and two kids by his age. It seemed unobtainable to Manfred. After rent, bills and food, he had just a couple of hundred dollars at the end of each month which he invariably blew on booze. Sometimes he felt bad about wasting his money. But getting drunk was his only indulgence. His only release. Without booze he would probably have killed himself by now. He had no god. No home. No family. The central theme of his age was disposability, and he was human garbage.
The miniature cars roamed around the map on his screen. He was far from home, and fares were twice the normal price. It would cost him $42 to get home using the normal service or $4.50 with UberPool. He’d never used UberPool before. It was bad enough making conversation with the driver. Sharing a car with other passengers, probably drunks and reprobates all of them, seemed too great an ask. But money was all he had, and he did not have enough of it to waste on transportation.
Pool it is, he said to himself. He confirmed the journey. Finding your best route popped up on the screen and a minute later Ahmed—4.75 stars—was on his way. The pick up point was two blocks over. The car pulled up soon after Manfred arrived.
“Manfred?” the driver said.
He nodded and opened the back door. There were no other passengers inside. He sat down on the back seat, put on his seatbelt and the car took off.
Manfred and Ahmed made friendly conversation. They talked about the high demand for cars, and Ahmed asked Manfred what he had done that night. Manfred said that he was at a party, prompting Ahmed to ask if he’d had “any luck”. Manfred noticed Ahmed's twisted grin in the rear vision mirror. No wonder you’re a 4.75, he thought.
“No,” he replied. “Not tonight unfortunately.”
“No worry…” said Ahmed as the car slowed down at the traffic lights. “In a minute we pick up two girls.” He turned to face Manfred, the smile on his face again. “One for you and one for me,” he said and let out an impish laugh. This guy is on his way to a four star rating, Manfred thought. Less if he doesn’t tone down the macho remarks.
The car stopped in front of a bar. Two girls approached it looking a little unsteady on their feet. One of them was skinny and had tattoos and was dressed a little slutty, Manfred thought. The other was chubby and dressed more discreetly. The skinny one got into the front seat beside Ahmed. The chubby one sat in the back next to Manfred.
“Hello,” she said. She had some kind of European accent.
“Hi,” said Manfred as the car pulled away from the curb.
The girl in the front spoke with Ahmed about the music she wanted to listen to.
“Where are you getting out?” the one in the back said to Manfred.
“Near the town hall.”
“I don’t know where that is.”
“You’re from out of town I guess?”
“We’re from Sweden.”
The two of them were tourists and only in town for a few days. Manfred asked them about the places they had been and where they were going next. She had a friendly and pleasant manner, he thought. Manfred decided to introduce himself.
“I’m Alice,” she replied. “And that’s Mia.”
Alice asked him what he did. He explained that he was a security administrator but that he wanted to be a writer. Alice commented that this was cool and that she would like to read some of his stuff some time. Manfred said he would be happy to send her some stories and that they ought to exchange email addresses. She agreed and handed him her phone.
They were getting close to his neighbourhood.
“Where are you ladies getting out?” he said.
“Just up here,” Alice said.
“I’m a little further.”
“Would you like to join us for a drink?” Mia, the one in the front, said.
The question caught Manfred off guard. Mia had barely acknowledged him to that point. And it was after 2.30 am meaning none of the bars in the area were open. He wondered if they were aware of this but decided not to mention it and simply said yes, he would like to join them for a drink.
The car pulled up at the girls’ destination. The three of them opened their doors.
“You’re getting out?” Ahmed said to Manfred. “We’re still eight minutes from your stop.”
“No worries. I’ll get out here. Have a good night.”
Ahmed looked at Manfred as though he were some kind of deity. It’s true, Manfred reflected. He was achieving something a guy like Ahmed could only dream of.
“There’s a store over there,” Mia said, directing them across the road.
They walked into the store and Manfred decided to take charge of the situation. He was the local after all. And he was the oldest of the three of them. He walked to the wine section. Beer was too cheap. Liquor was too strong. He asked the clerk where they kept the chilled bottles and found the fridge at the rear of the store. Normally he wouldn’t spend more than $10 on a bottle. But tonight was no normal night. He picked one out with a marked price of $24, took out his phone and opened his WineScan app. He held the device over the barcode. Notes of pineapple and cut grass. 4.2 stars.
That will do, he thought.
He turned towards the counter and Ahmed entered the store. Manfred was a little taken aback. But he gathered his composure and smiled and said hello. He did not want to jeopardise his rating. And it was entirely possible Ahmed was simply picking up a snack to sustain him through the night.
Manfred put the bottle on the counter and pulled out his credit card without the slightest tinge of guilt. If the cheapest bottle were $500 he probably would have bought it. He did not yet know where he wanted the night to go, but wherever it was he would need booze to get there.
He wished the clerk and Ahmed a good night and he and the Swedes left the store.
“Our hotel’s just around the corner,” Mia said, taking the lead.
“Wasn’t it strange that the driver came in after us?” Alice said.
“I don’t think it was a coincidence,” Mia said.
“Me either,” said Manfred. “He was a little creepy.”
Mia told Manfred that they were staying in a small room and that she hoped he wouldn’t mind. Manfred wasn’t worried. If it were a snake pit they were staying in it wouldn’t have stopped him going inside. They walked through the hotel reception and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Mia unlocked the door and the three of them filed inside. The room smelled of smoke. It had two single beds side-by-side and a small bathroom by the entrance. There were teacups next to the kettle on the mantelpiece. Manfred poured the wine into the cups and handed them one each.
“This wine is a favourite of mine,” he said as they took their first sips. He had never tasted it in his life. The girls offered no comment and he decided to omit the tasting notes.
“So what do you guys do back in Sweden?”
“We’re studying economics,” said Alice. “We just finished our first year.”
“First year...so you’re...what…19?”
“I am…she’s 18…” Alice said, pointing at Mia.
So he was 12 years older than them. It seemed a long time. He found it hard to believe he had been an adult that long. He began to rethink the whole escapade. These were young girls from a foreign country. Mia would have been with a few men before. There was no question about that. But Alice had the air of a virgin. Regardless. He, a much older man, was with them in their hotel room feeding them wine with an eye to a sexual encounter. Would it be ethical? As long as there was consent it would certainly be legal. He was expected to follow all of society’s rules including those he found absurd and unjust. Surely he didn’t have to go any further. Besides, who was he to question the collective wisdom of his fellow citizens?
His mind was now at ease. The party would go on.
“How about you?” Mia said.
“I’m 27,” he said.
Mia put on some music. Manfred got up and began to dance. He wouldn’t normally do so but he had thrown caution to the wind this evening and look where it had got him. He wasn’t about to change course now. After a few minutes he sat back down on the couch next to Alice while Mia sat on the bed opposite them. Alice asked him more about his writing and made him promise he would send her some stories. She’s definitely interested, he thought. But he wasn’t sure he felt the same. She was not a pretty girl. And she was only 19. Mia was less warm than Alice. But it seemed this was due to her nature rather than something she might have against him. It was she who had asked him to come for a drink after all. And it was she who kept offering him cigarettes now that he was there.
As Manfred topped up their cups, Mia produced a small bag of marijuana.
“Do you smoke?” she said, holding it up.
“Sure,” he replied.
He had only smoked weed a couple of times and hadn’t really liked it. But he didn’t want to kill the mood. As she rolled the joint, Manfred thought Mia must have been popular in high school. She had tattoos and attitude and knew how to roll a joint. Manfred had none of those attributes or skills. Not then. Not now. But enough time had passed for him to know that the popular kids usually ended up as bus drivers or real estate agents or dropouts injecting heroin somewhere. Manfred was not like them. Manfred was doing fine. Manfred was a writer in a hotel room with two adventurous young Swedish girls.
Mia lit the joint. She took several puffs and passed it to Alice who took a drag. She coughed and passed it to Manfred who took three hits and gave it back it to Mia.
“Come and play us some music,” Mia said, drawing on it again. “Show us some local bands.”
Manfred recalled the gig Max had dragged him to a few weeks before. He tried to remember what they were called. Safeways? Stray Waves? After a few Google searches he found them played their most popular song. It had 3.6 stars on Spotify. The rating made him a little nervous. But the girls seemed pleased with the selection.
“I saw these guys a few weeks ago,” he said coolly. “Great show.”
He lingered by the computer, now and then pumping his fists to the beat of the music. Manfred was the boss of the music. Manfred was the DJ.
After a few minutes he felt the spell of the weed hanging over him. Now he felt silly. Now everything was funny. Now nothing mattered except the random and trivial stimuli of his immediate surrounds. Occasionally he would snap out his stoned haze and take account of where he was. What am I doing here? he asked himself. But those thoughts didn’t last long.
Mia disappeared into the bathroom. When she came back she was wearing sweat pants and a T-shirt. Manfred pondered the implications. Did it mean she wanted to fuck him? Did it mean she did not want to fuck him? Perhaps it meant she was ready for bed and it was time for him to leave.
Relax, he said to himself. We just smoked a joint. She’s just getting comfortable.
Alice was now lying on the couch, her head against the armrest, her eyes closed one moment, slightly open the next. She continued to hum one word responses to Mia’s questions, but eventually became unresponsive and started breathing in a way that suggested she was asleep and would not wake up soon.
So Manfred and Mia were alone.
He played an electronic track Max listened to a lot.
“I love this song!” Mia said.
“The guy was only 19 when he made it,” said Manfred, repeating what Max had said to him. “Can you believe it?”
Manfred usually didn’t care for electronic music. But now it seemed intricate and layered and absorbing. Mia was dancing with her eyes closed a few feet away from him. Should I make a move? He was in the right state of mind. The weed made him relaxed. The booze had made him reckless. But they had just met. She was so young. And her friend was asleep right in front of them. It would be so bad to fuck her. It would be so good to fuck her.
She was not wearing a bra underneath her T-shirt, he noticed. Nor did she seem to be wearing any underwear beneath her sweat pants. He wondered if she were wet. He could tear her clothes off so easily. He could be inside her within seconds. She was right there. The bed was right there. He began to swell inside his pants. She was still smiling and dancing with her eyes closed. Now was the moment. He had to do it now.
He shuffled towards her to the beat of the music and placed his hand on her hip. She opened her eyes and they began to kiss. It was a wet, open-mouthed kiss. All tongue and no lips. The kiss of an 18 year old. He ran his hand over her ass. Then he brought it to her front and slid it down slowly, into her sweat pants, all the way, until his finger was in her wetness. She was ready. So was he. And with Alice lightly snoring they had no time to waste.
“Do you have a condom?” she said.
He found his wallet and pulled out the solitary rubber which had been in there for over a year. She took her shirt off as he ripped the packet open but in his haste to pull it on it ripped.
“Shit,” he said.
They started kissing again.
“You can fuck me,” she said. “But don’t come inside.”
He lay on top of her regaining his breath until Alice’s snoring became the dominant sound in the room again.
He walked into the bathroom, wiped himself down and wondered what he should do next. He could hardly stick around for another round. Alice would wake up at any moment. They were lucky not to have been caught already.
He walked back into the room.
“I think I better…”
“It’s okay…you can go…”
He thought she sounded a little resentful. But he didn’t understand what he was expected to do. He wrote his number on the notepad on the table and told her he would leave it by the vase.
“Okay…thanks…” she said.
“Maybe I’ll see you before you leave,” he said.
She nodded and he closed the door behind him and walked downstairs.
Out on the street the sun was rising, throwing beams of gold and crimson onto the silent edifices about him. He took out his phone and opened the Uber app. Ahmed's face appeared and he was prompted him to rate his last journey.
He angled his face towards the blood red dawn. There were only a few clouds in the sky. But he thought it ought to rain. He thought it ought to come down hard and fast so that he might feel different somehow. So that he might feel renewed, reborn. His gaze floated back down to his phone. He stared at Ahmed’s face and his eyes welled up with tears.
This story was originally published on Terror House Magazine