Borders and Boundaries by Karen Levy

 First it was problems with the brakes, then the spark plugs with this new car. She didn’t like going to the mechanic for any reason because she felt belittled there and taken advantage of.  It was a place for men.  But when her boyfriend’s buddy opened Jose’s Car Repair, she felt more comfortable when her fan belt went loose and when the check engine light came on. 

Then a fuse blew.

Go see Jose about it, her boyfriend said.

But I’ve been twice this week.

See him, her boyfriend says, because he doesn’t want to be bothered with a fuse.

 Could you - ?

I don’t want to miss the game.


Even though the sign says: Employees only beyond this point,  Jose always invites her to step in past the garage doors to watch the repairs.  She’s spent so much time here that she knows where the starter is and the oil filter. She knows what the brakes really look like.

She stands by Jose and watches him reach into the fuse box and pull out the bad part and replace it with a shiny new one. She loves his smell of clean laundry and gasoline. He explains everything to her as he works so that she won’t feel belittled or taken advantage of, but she still feels uncomfortable here around the other men, so she thinks about becoming a mechanic herself and starting up an all-female shop. 

She tells her boyfriend about it.  Women would feel comfortable there, she says.

Do it, he says.  He always encourages her.


It’s another day at Jose’s Car Repair and she’d peering under the hood with Jose, trying to understand how the coolant works. He explains it again, slowly in his lisping English. She’s starting to feel more comfortable, she likes the crispness of his jumpsuit and the attention he pays to her, so it’s hard for her to pull awaywhen he turns to her and says,  I know no ways … but directly to say ‘I love you.'

 It sounds almost natural, but thoroughly wrong. How he can love with her without her even knowing?  And isn’t that a line from Shakespeare?

 She wonders if anything has ever even been wrong with her car. 

She goes over all the time they’ve spent together on the brakes, spark plugs, fan belt, oil change, carbon filter, and how he’s always been there to help. She thinks about how her boyfriend has encouraged her to spend time with someone who will take care of her; while he enjoys his game, alone on the sofa, oblivious to the tender treatment.

She lets Jose’s words I love you sit with her for a day and they alter the way she thinks about him. Remembering his shadow of a beard, she finds him almost handsome. The way he works with his hands, how sure and strong he is. Maybe she could be in love him, too.  It’s just a thought, because he’s already in love with her.

She stays away from the shop, even though the steering wheel is hard to turn and she’s pretty sure it needs fluid. One day she doesn’t even drive; she takes the subway instead.

When she steps in the subway car, she lowers her eyes to avoid the crazies and any confrontation. The air smells bad.  She thinks about Jose and how good he smells. She lifts her eyes for a passing flicker and she’s caught by the glance of a seated man. 

The air between them goes electric even though he sits beside his girl and she

 stands alone at a distant pole.

She lowers her eyes, embarrassed but happy.

When she lifts them again, he’s still looking at her. His hand is still on his girl’s thigh but his smile is just for her. She leaves the pole and walks toward him until she’s standing right in front of him.  She looks directly at him before she reaches up to hold on.  She likes the way his eyes feel on her as she looks out at her own reflection in the window over his head. 

Stop staring at her, his girlfriend hisses, but there’s nothing she can do.  

On the ride back from work, she thinks about Jose again, and the way he says spark plugs, leaving off the final consonants so that the words are soft inside his mouth. It’s hard to understand him.  When she gets home, she notices how her boyfriend’s belly is soft from lying on the sofa.

I took the subway, she tells him when he asks why she’s home so late.

Go see Jose, he says.


Jose doesn’t touch her but he stands so close that she can feel him.

You’re right about the fluid, he says.

She smiles because she’s right and because a woman should smile when she’s with a man who loves her.  She can take advantage of him because he’s vulnerable or she can love him back.  She’s still not sure.  She watches him pour the fluid into her car.  His hands are greasy; his fingers are long, the joints and knuckles strong and pronounced but careful and delicate at what they do. 

When she gets home, she thinks about his hands.  They are man’s hands so they would be rough like her boyfriend’s, but from all that engine grease, no, they would be soft and callused, muscular but gentle, each hand big enough to hold one of her large breasts comfortably.  He would take good care of her, pay attention to the details, all her freckles and curves and all the points that make her sigh. 

She turns over in bed to watch her boyfriend asleep beside her.  He is a good man. She’s comfortable with his snores. She puts an arm around his and presses up against his back to breath with him into sleep.


© Karen Levy, 2016

Karen Levy is a native Brooklynite and Oberlin College graduate. She has spent the last twenty years as a NYC High School English teacher, writer and storyteller, performing her work at the Cornelia Street Café and other venues around New York City.  Her short fiction has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Network, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Icarus Down. Her novel, The Story You Choose to Tell, was short-listed for the 2016 Virginia Prize and the Longleaf Novel Prize.

Borders and Boundaries was read by Amber Bogdewiecz for Borders & Boundaries on 1st June 2016