The worst part about a flat tire is the men.
You'd think it would be the lug wrench. It's so cold that it hurts your fingers to touch it but if you don't hold on tight the lugs will never come off. It's gangly, like you, but it's got four long limbs and you're the shortest woman in your family. It's awkward to handle. Sometimes when your fingers slip you crack your knuckles against the metal and it hurts enough to make you curse aloud.
It's not the worst part though.
Neither is the rain. It soaks through your sweater and the Save the Bees shirt underneath. Your jeans weigh a ton now and every step sloshes more water across your ankles and down into your shoes. Your socks make that great squishing sound that curls your stomach and chafes your feet. Every drop of rain stings your face, freezes in your hair. Your eyes are the only warm thing left outside of the car so your glasses fog up and you have to peer over the rims to change your blurry tire.
It could be worse though. Not snow, snow would be better.
Even the money you'll have to spend on a new tire isn't so bad. It's two weeks until Christmas and you haven't bought all your presents. Some aunt or 3rd cousin will look at you with pity and say they understand. It'll make you feel even worse.
But not as bad as you feel right now, drenched in every crevice of your body, and being hollered at by cars passing by inches away from your hunched over body.
Most of them honk. People tell you this is no big deal, it's just one honk, it's a compliment. But it's not. It's a slurry of them, one after the other, with just enough space that the guy behind the wheel thinks he's the only one doing it. You don't feel special. You feel panic when the sudden noise whirls you around. You expect to see a crash, maybe be a part of one.
Some of them, smokers, have their windows down. They yell words you can't hear in tones you can't appreciate or even understand. Is it the way your waterlogged pants sag down your already underwhelming butt? Or is it your vulnerability that turns them on?
A few even slow down and offer to help. You tell them thanks and they wait a minute, watching you, just to be sure. They may have been legit but you're fine, really, you just need to find the right angle and this last lug will come off.
It won't though. You've been trying for a while.
It's time to call Annie. A couple more men pause to offer assistance while you're on the phone and you're tempted to accept but you don't want to inconvenience anyone. Least of all Annie but now you don't have a choice. She'll be here as soon as she can.
You give the lug wrench a few more tugs, hoping and even praying that the stupid nut nudges so you can call her back and tell her it's fine.
That's when the worst part shows up.
You don't mean to sound ungrateful. You want to be, and in a way you are. Gratitude is something you cling to harder than you do your own safety.
It's a pickup truck like the one Annie drives. Six wheels, extra high beams, one of those hitches on the front for pulling damsels out of distressing ditches.
A man steps out of it and crosses the potholes with boots that don't mind the splatter. "You look like you need some help."
What can you say? He's right.
Maybe just a quick turn of the lug wrench and that's all, then you won't have to drag Annie into this weather. He's already out of his car, you might as well. "It's stuck," you say. You stand up, releasing control but not tension. You step back when he gets closer, and you tell yourself you're overthinking it. You're just being paranoid.
"No problem." He kneels down beside your tire and suddenly the lug wrench doesn't seem so big. His knee is muddy and wet now, and this is what you'll be thinking of when things get weird. This is what makes you feel like you owe him.
He's right, again. The lug nut comes away easy for him.
"Thanks," you say, "I appreciate it."
He keeps going. He takes the tire off the mount and rolls it to the spare.
"I can take it from here," you say.
"It's no trouble."
It makes you a little bit nervous. What can you do, stop him from helping you? He's twice your size and the lug wrench is on the other side of him. So you tell yourself it's fine, he's better at this than you, in a few minutes it'll all be over with and you can call Annie back and tell her not to come.
You tell yourself to stop being so paranoid but in your pocket, your fingers find your keys. Just in case.
"Headed to work?" He asks.
"You're in high school?"
"No, college. I'm studying microbiology."
"Ah, a smart one."
"I like to think so." It's just conversation, it's the least you can do.
"Beauty and brains, your boyfriend is a lucky guy." He smiles up at you then reaches for the pile of lug nuts resting on a soaked towel.
"I'm gay," you tell him.
"Oh," he says.
He spins each lug into its place. He uses his whole body as leverage to tighten them too tight, then offers to put the tire in the trunk. He's already doing it before you respond. He puts the wrench in there too, and the towel, and the jack.
When he closes the trunk he leans against it. You tighten the grip on your keys. "Thank you," you tell him. "I appreciate it." And you do, or else you would've said no a long time ago.
"No problem. Maybe we can get a drink sometime?"
"I thought you didn't have a boyfriend?"
"Yeah, I'm gay. I have a girlfriend."
"Oh." He stands up a little straighter. "Can she change tires?"
An image of Annie at work flashes into your mind. The garage is noisy but she hears you. Her face is smeared with grease when she slides out from under the car. She's wearing overalls and her dark hair is coming loose from a bun. She looks kinda like a sexy live-action version of the mechanic from Atlantis but you don't want to share that with this guy.
You just say "thanks anyway."
"Come on, it's just a drink. It doesn't mean anything but thanks." He takes a step closer, pulls out his phone. "What's your number?"
Your fingers tense around the keys, weaving through each one. The house, the car, Annie's car, the shed, your mom's house. A fistful of metal with sharp jagged edges. You don't pull it out yet but you're ready at a moment's notice.
"It's not a big deal," he says. "Your girlfriend can come too. It'll be fun."
Another car slows down, lowers its window. A voice from the driver's side asks if you need help and your rescuer answers for you.
"It's all taken care of, thanks," he says.
This new one might be genuine. He looks at the truck parked behind your Chevy and then at the man standing beside you. Maybe he sees the age difference, or maybe he sees the small pool of rainwater collecting on the still extended phone, you don't know. But he waits for you to respond. Maybe he just wanted to hear your voice.
You're probably being paranoid.
"I'm good now, thanks," you say, and you open your car door while you can. You know that the man won't push for your number with someone else watching, no matter how innocent his request is.
This new stranger waits another moment before he leaves, long enough for you to slide inside your car. You thank them both again and you shut the door behind you.
You take your keys out, each one still poking through the spaces between your fingers like improvised brass knuckles. You don't wonder if you would've had the strength to use them well, because you're just paranoid. He was just being friendly. You don't wonder why the honking and hollering stopped once you had a man standing next to you, because it's just coincidence.
You call Annie to let her know she doesn't have to come.