“Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life.” –G.G. Marquez
The cars have people in them.
It takes me awhile to realize this, but after a few weeks in the Q, as the kids call it, I notice everything. Everything I used to miss. The people who live in this neighborhood of mine, a place that had been the equivalent of flyover country.
The places you don’t notice because they are in between destinations.
But the people in these parked cars don’t notice me—on purpose, I presume. Why are they filling up the lot of this deserted school? Their eyes are plugged into their phones or staring at a tree off in the distance. Their cars are shut, the engines running.
The parking lot is near my house, just behind a school. The school has a normal name, not a religious one, yet Mother Mary and Jesus hang from its walls.
Maybe they are here to pray?
I used to walk this path after dinner with my wife, just us and the two yappy dogs. We would talk about our day. That was before the Q, when we’d spend our free time together. Now we are both home, and I feel the need to leave. I don’t think she notices.
Early in the morning when the sun is just coming up, I leave with the dogs and walk the lot. As the Q lingers, I find myself getting out no matter the weather.
At night, we take the same path. But at night it is quiet, just other dog walkers, barkers, and droopy-faced pups, people with masks, a tennis ball ping-ponging off a racket in the distance, cars going the speed limit. Everything is slower and the lot is clean of cars.
But during the day when I am alone, the parking lot is ablaze, buzzing with muted activity within hermetically sealed cars. Lots of them, some slotted in their spots, some parked askew as if to say, “just visiting,” parked like they are curbside waiting for a pizza pickup.
On other days, they are parked one space apart like men at a row of urinals.
There are the regulars, and I have private nicknames for them all:
Folgers Man rests his steaming coffee cup on the back of his flatbed, staring out at the empty soccer field as if he were being filmed for a Folgers’ ad.
The Grunter grunts a few cars down three times a week. A woman parks her car between two white lines; a yoga mat and weights fill up the other spot as she squats and stretches, pushes and pulls, oblivious to the dog-walker.
Mad Man sits in his two-seat convertible, reads a newspaper while sucking on a cigarette.
White vans with ladders on top, waiting for jobs.
The Company Man paces in a blue vest with a company logo on the breast. On calls every day, just pacing, pacing, pacing.
Uber-looking cars waiting for food orders.
In between these pods, the dog-walkers stroll, the bike-riders slalom, a man pulls two kids in a red plastic Radio Flyer, and parents grab their children as engines fire up.
To me, they are just silhouettes—quiet, unemotional, and distant. But as the quarantine lingers, so do they. They settle in and turn off their cars, their windows come down, and their world opens up, to me.
Their voices echo off the doors in the morning stillness; their stories become clearer as I hear one, then another and another. The conversations are not a crowd-like mush of white noise, but more distinct. It’s a large dinner table with new friends, where you can hear whomever you focus on.
With each step, I hear pieces of confessions, pleas, and cries.
“I can talk,” I hear someone say, his tone sympathetic.
I want to stop and hear the rest of the story, but I feel compelled to act like I can’t hear him. Like I’m not eavesdropping. So I keep walking. I am embarrassed, not for me, but for them. Why don’t I want to be seen? I’m the one just walking; they are the ones doing something in whispered tones.
So I tiptoe through the lot, looking at my dogs, adjusting my phone to appear busy by scrolling.
I try to puzzle it together, but I hear only secrets that don’t fit.
“I am listening,” a woman says in a way that makes me think she means it, but that the person on the end thinks she doesn’t.
“I just had to get out.”
“It’s gonna be okay.”
“Does it make you happy?”
“I can’t take much more of this.”
They are mask-less in their cars, yet I don’t recognize anybody, except a man in the black BMW. There is a familiarity to him. I think it’s the same car I once drove? I walk past and try to look through the glare of his windshield, but I only hear fragments from his phone.
“He just left,” a woman says. Her voice is familiar; it sounds like so many voices I’ve heard on speaker phones. The words echo in a tinny vibration. When she finishes, he quickly drives off.
If everyone has three lives, as Marquez said, then these are their secret lives. They are here for the relationships now relegated to phone calls, the conversations they hope vanish into the ether, the release they cannot get in a house full of unattended kids. I see a man swallow Cheez Whiz straight from the can; a drunk woman swigs Coca-Cola out of the bottle. A woman eats ice cream from the carton without taking it out of the plastic grocery bag, and a man drinks small bottles of alcohol that he tosses into the woods when he thinks no one is looking.
At night when we walk the same steps through the empty lot, I don’t tell Katie about what I’ve found during the day, this waiting room to somewhere. I don’t share with her the fragments of the lives of our neighbors who are killing time or taking meetings or making deals with themselves about the time they need, validating this world they created.
Maybe it’s not so different. Before the pandemic, we talked about our day, but did I tell her everything? Did she tell me all the times she thought about something I would want to know?
I don’t tell her how the parking lot near our home has become a soccer field, a bicycle track, a workout room, a coffee house, a diner, a back porch, a dog park, a phone booth, a bar, a rec room, an office park, a confessional, a synagogue, a hotel room, a movie theater, a lunch counter, a drive-in. It’s a place where people act like no one is watching.
She would think it’s weird that I’ve created this place. But I would argue I’ve only discovered it. Others likely walk through the lot or toward the soccer field and never notice the people inside these cars. The ones I’ve become so curious about. The ones who keep me up at night wondering whether everyone has a secret life, and what do they do about it?
I feel like the man in the BMW recognizes me too. I’m not good with names. I must know him; I just can’t place him.
In all the weeks of walking, I only ever spoke with one person—or rather, he spoke to me. I’d seen him before, the hood-leaner. He was never in his car, always on a call, resting his elbows on the hood and smiling. Not a crazy smile, but a welcoming one; he was trying to make eye contact. I could feel it the way you can tell with some people that they are trying to interact.
“You must live around here,” he said in a friendly tone, pulling a pod from his ear. “You like my office?”
No one had even made eye contact, let alone spoken to me in all these months and all these laps. I felt oddly safe behind my mask. Startled, I pulled out my own earpiece. “Yeah, I live just a few blocks away.” It was reflexive; I have no idea why I told him anything.
I stopped to let the dogs sniff his flip-flops.
“I can’t work at home,” he told me without prompting.
I said nothing, unable to get my bearings with this guy.
“I go out to the field with some golf balls and work on my chipping in between calls,” he said.
I nodded and yanked at the dog’s leash.
We never speak again.
After weeks of seeing the same people, I am now convinced I know them, wondering anew if I know them from someplace else. Like Black BMW.
But I don’t reach out to him or any of them. It’s their time to stare into a bank of trees or the brick wall that surely makes up one side of the empty school gym. I don’t want them telling me their stories; I want to hear them, without editorial. They are here to live the life they can’t live anywhere else. All the things they did before the quarantine when the kids were at school, when they had a private office, when they had to commute.
Their public lives are filtered through Zoom.
Their private lives are confined within the walls of their homes.
But their secret lives are the ones that have been edited out by the quarantine.
There are still secrets; they are just housed in a parking lot outside a school.
I want to know how their stories end. Where do they go next? What lie are they telling someone when they come home?
As the reins of the pandemic loosen, I venture outside my neighborhood, and I search the crowds for my people from the lot. The relationship is one-sided; I hide behind a mask, and they sit behind a windshield.
All these people live within a football field of my house, and yet there’s not a hint of recognition? As hard as I try to place them, my only real memories are from the lot.
“Aren’t you going?” Katie asked me one morning from the other side of the bed.
“The dogs. The vet?” she reminded me.
I was tired, but she was right.
“Looks like rain,” I said as I shuffled to the bathroom to brush my teeth.
The dogs started jumping at the sight of their leashes. I tried in vain to explain to them that we weren’t going for a walk. But we went outside to the car, and they pulled me toward the park. There was still time and, besides, it was Tuesday and I wanted to see the Grunter and her yoga mat.
We began the usual route, and one of the dogs pulled me toward the lot, but the other wanted to head home, perhaps sensing the rain that was sure to come.
As the first drops hit the back of my neck, my head swiveled as the black BMW pulled past me. I hurried the dogs along as the rain began to fall. As I rounded the corner of my street, I could see my wife on the front porch, waving the black BMW up the driveway. The man emerged from his car, pulling up his jacket to hide from the rain as my wife ushered him inside.
Rob Granader’s work has been featured in Washington Post, Washingtonian magazine, New York Times, borrowed solace, and Umbrella Factory. He has won writing awards from Bethesda Magazine and Writer’s Digest. He has a BA in English from the University of Michigan and a JD from The George Washington University. He has published more than 350 short stories, articles and essays in over sixty publications, and he is now the CEO of Marketresearch.com.