By Kat Saunders
Natalie had a license, but even better, she also had a car, a maroon Volkswagen Jetta she’d named Jetty. When she picked me up on that Friday night, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I fluffed my hair in the foyer mirror as my mother pressed me for information about my new friend.
“Who is this girl?” she asked. I knew what she really meant: Does she smoke weed?
“I don’t know. She seems cool,” I said, slipping on my shoes when I heard a honk from the driveway. I knew that was going to piss off my mom. She hated when people wouldn’t come to the door to introduce themselves. She wondered what they had to hide.
“Be careful,” my mother said, pursing her lips, but I was already closing the front door.
“Get in the back,” Natalie said, rolling down her window. Aaron, one of our mutual friends, sat in the passenger seat. I got into the car, noticing that a cardboard cutout of Beyoncé was buckled into the seat beside me. A Belle and Sebastian song played on the stereo. Natalie backed out of the driveway without checking her rear-view mirror. I winced as her tires squealed, knowing that my mother still lurked in the foyer.
I’d met Natalie, a junior, earlier that week. I admired her distinct look. Her black hair was cut into a pixie and she wore vintage secretary dresses and layers of speckled amber pendants set in sterling silver. I knew who she was because we had some friends in common, but also because of the bizarre collection she kept in her locker—a wall of multicolored wads of chewed gum, some pieces still glistening with saliva. She seemed so cool. I was an awkward freshman with frizzy hair and a wardrobe from Delia’s.
One morning, as I trudged through the hallway to third period, I noticed Natalie rummaging through her gum-covered locker.
“Can I add a piece?” I asked her, shyly, with a wad of spearmint gum in my cheek.
“Sure,” she said.
“I’m Kat, by the way,” I added.
“I know who you are. You know Tommy and the boys.”
The boys were a group of sophomores I hung out with, flirted with—boys who shoved burned CDs in my locker with handwritten track-lists. They picked me up in their noisy trucks for dinners at Steak and Shake, but they never paid for me or tried to hold my hand. And they weren’t above sending texting me picture messages of their shits, brown and curling in the toilet. It was the price I paid for being “one of the guys.”
“We should hang out sometime,” Natalie said. “What are you doing this weekend?”
I said I didn’t have plans.
“Have you ever been to Swensons?”
“Nope,” I said.
“Aaron and I were going to on Friday. You should come with us. I’ll pick you up,” she said, closing her locker.
About thirty minutes after Natalie picked me up, we pulled up at Swensons, a concrete red and white building. The restaurant was decorated for Christmas, strewn with flashing lights and silver tinsel. An aluminum Christmas tree glimmered in the building’s cupola, and a layer of fresh snow blanketed the parking lot. Natalie parked her car, killed the engine, and kept the car’s headlights on.
Swensons is a local chain of drive-ins in Akron, Ohio, founded in the 1930s. Carhops still race to your car to take your order, regardless of the weather. Prices haven’t increased much since the drive-in first opened—a hamburger only costs $1.95.
This particular night was frigid and the carhops wore ear warmers, fingerless gloves, and fleece pullovers printed with the Swensons logo.
Natalie ordered for me. She didn’t consult a menu and rattled off the list effortlessly: “She’ll have a Galley Boy, potato teezers, and a California.” I had no idea what she was talking about.
“I’ll get that right up for you. Turn your headlights back on if you need anything,” the carhop said. He beamed at us before racing back to the building.
“So what am I eating?” I asked Natalie when the food arrived, piled high on a silver tray that the carhop placed in Aaron’s lap. He passed me a sandwich wrapped in wax paper, an olive-crowned toothpick stuck through its center. Aaron also handed me a packet of steaming, fried potato wedges and a purple beverage.
“A Galley Boy is their specialty. It’s a double cheeseburger with two secret sauces. LeBron James always stops here after home games to get a Galley Boy,” Natalie explained. She was a vegetarian and she’d ordered a Veggie De-Lite—essentially condiments on a bun, but she seemed to relish every bite. I sipped my California, which was a mixture of grape juice and ginger ale, served over crushed ice. It was refreshing and tart.
“They put sugar in the meat. That’s why the burgers taste sweet,” Aaron said. Natalie put on the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. Vince Guaraldi’s melancholy “Christmas Time Is Here” filled the car. I bit into a potato teezer and burned my tongue on the hot mixture of potatoes, cheese, and diced jalapenos. The parking lot was filled with other cars. More downy snow fell. Red-cheeked carhops streaked across the lot.
“Let’s go to Cadillac Hill,” Natalie said, crumpling her sandwich wrapper.
“I don’t know. It’s snowing pretty hard,” Aaron said.
“So what? It will be fun.” We paid our carhop and were on our way. Bates Hill, nicknamed Cadillac Hill for its proximity to several car dealerships, is the steepest hill in Akron. Salesmen once took their customers on test drives up and down the hill to show off the cars’ braking abilities. Now, Cadillac Hill is a popular destination for cars packed with bored teenagers interested in testing their cars’ speedometers. We drove through the old Italian neighborhoods to get there. As we teetered at the crest of Cadillac Hill, I realized I couldn’t see the bottom. What would my mother say if she knew what we were about to do?
“Ready?” Natalie asked, revving the engine.
I tried to look casual as I checked to make sure my seatbelt was still secure, and then I braced for the descent.
I was seven when my family moved to Rubber City. That’s what everyone called Akron—once home to General Tire, BFGoodrich, Firestone, and Goodyear. Although most of the rubber plants were gone by the time we moved to Akron, the specter of industry remained. F.A. Seiberling, founder of Goodyear Tire and Rubber, once lived in the sprawling Stan Hywet Hall. Now the estate is a museum, open for school field trips, weddings, and those who simply wish to see how the rubber barons lived. In our suburban house, on clear days, I sometimes saw the Goodyear blimp, blue and gold and hulking. It hovered in the sky, a distant reminder of prosperity and productivity.
When I went out with my friends on Friday nights, like when Natalie, Aaron, and I conquered Cadillac Hill, my mother would wait up for me. My father went up to read around 9:30 with a mystery novel tucked under his arm. By 9:45, when my mother went upstairs to wash her face and take out her contacts, my father would be snoring, his book still open and splayed across his chest.
My mother always wore fleece pajamas and two pairs of wool socks. Even though it had been years since we’d moved from New Orleans, she still wasn’t used to the harsh winters. She shivered in restaurants, malls, and church: everywhere we went. She craved sunlight, the south’s merciless heat.
On Friday nights, after my father was in bed, my mother ate cheese and crackers, maybe a runny brie, a cranberry stilton, or a cheddar with chives. She usually drank red wine, but in the winter months, she savored a finger or two of scotch. She poured from the expensive bottle my uncle always brought for us when he made his annual visit from Wales.
My mother watched the ten o’clock news on the trashy channel my father usually forbade us from watching before dinner. He thought the reporters were incompetent, but that’s exactly why she and I liked the station. The Cleveland news was seldom good, and if we laughed at the reporters’ incompetence, it made hearing it easier. A missing child. An entire family killed in a house fire. Another young Black person killed by police officers’ bullets.
“Where are you?” my mother always texted me at 12:01, one minute past my curfew. If I didn’t answer the text, she called. “Keeeeytherinnnne, get home now,” she said, her voice shrill, my name’s syllables stretched and bent. I cringed every time, and I knew that my friends could over-hear her berating me.
“I’ll be home in five minutes,” I’d promise, although I was usually at least fifteen minutes away.
As I’d fumble with my keys on the front porch, she’d fling open the door and light from the house streamed outside. She’d stare into my eyes, checking to see if they were red. She’d observed how I walked, how I talked—was my speech slurred? I knew she tried to smell my breath, to detect if there was a sourness that shouldn’t have been there. When she was finally satisfied that I was sober, she’d send me upstairs to bed. As much as this kind of inspection bothered me, even then, I understood her compulsion. What is more dangerous than a car full of teenagers? There’s the question of speeding, deer darting into the road, black ice, and drunk drivers. But even parked cars represent a threat. Drained Big Gulps, flattened packs of cigarettes, and bags of fast food litter the backseat of a teenager’s stopped car. Lips are wetted, joints are passed. Cars fill with smoke and coughing. There is sickly sweet strawberry malt liquor known as “wine.” Invariably, someone vomits on the car’s floorboards. Windows fog. If a boy and a girl are alone together, they pant against one another, joining uncomfortably and incongruously and briefly. Underwear is wadded and forgotten. Later it is brandished as a trophy.
Almost every girl I know has the same story about a car, about a boy. This is mine.
It was the Fourth of July, a few months after I’d first joined Natalie at Swensons. I was sun-browned from days spent at tennis conditioning camp. I wasn’t wearing red, white, and blue, but rather a lace dress with flowers embroidered across the bodice. My parents and I had attended a party at a family friend’s house, out in the township, where corn grew taller than knee-high. I held a sparkler in one hand, trying to write my full name in the air before the light from its tip was gone. I got as far as the first “e” in Katherine.
The party was a bore. Tommy, one of the boys Natalie and I were friends with, was there with his parents and his twin sisters. Our mothers were best friends. We were neighbors; our backyards touched. Our other friend, Eric, was there too. They skulked around a tin bucket of beer on the deck, hoping the grown-ups would turn their backs long enough for them to skim beer. Ice melted in the bucket, and flies drowned in the water. Someone shot off fireworks in the yard. They were vermillion blooms in the sky.
“Let’s get out of here,” Tommy said. “This is lame.”
“Where should we go?” I asked.
Tommy shrugged. “Let’s just drive around.”
“Let me ask my mom,” I said. She was laughing, talking to a group of her friends from the garden club, including Tommy’s mom. She told me to be home by midnight.
We left in Tommy’s car. I sat shotgun. Eric was in the backseat. We drove along the curved, rural roads with the windows down, and I inhaled the scent of fire and manure. We gossiped about people we knew and commiserated about the new school year, which was only a few weeks away. Every few minutes, fireworks sounded, loud cracks like cannon-fire. I jumped each time.
“I’m horny. I haven’t gotten laid in months,” Tommy said after a while.
“You’re not a virgin?” I asked.
“I am,” Eric said. “But I’ve gotten head a couple of times. Why? Are you a virgin?”
“Yeah,” I said, quietly. I didn’t add that I had only been kissed one time, and I wasn’t even sure if that counted, because it had been at a party, and the boy and I had been dared to kiss one another while our friends watched.
“Drew’s girlfriend told me I have a big cock though,” Eric said.
“When did Drew’s girlfriend see your dick?” Tommy asked.
“She just asked me to whip it out when we were over at his house because she wanted to know how big it was. She’s a fuckin’ freak.”
“What did Drew do when you did that?” I asked.
“He just laughed,” Eric said.
“Kat should be the judge of whether you really have a big dick,” Tommy said. I felt my face redden, my skin grow hot. I’d never seen a man hard before, except in the pixelated free porn clips I sometimes downloaded on my family’s computer.
“Do you want to see?” Eric asked, eagerly.
“Yeah, she wants to see,” Tommy said. “Don’t you?”
I shrugged because I didn’t think I could say no.
“Okay,” I agreed. I heard Eric fumble with his jeans as he pulled them down. My eyes were fixed on Tommy’s face. He smiled encouragingly at me, but his eyes were mirthless.
“I’m ready,” Eric said. I forced myself to look. Even though I didn’t want to, I was still curious. I don’t really remember what his cock looked like, if it was big or not. I didn’t have anything to compare it to back then. It reminded me of a pig’s stretched innards.
“Well?” Tommy asked.
“It’s fine,” I said, turning my head to face forward again. The boys were clearly disappointed at my reaction. Eric cleared his throat awkwardly, as if to say, “Well, then.”
“Maybe you should drop me off,” he said to Tommy. “My curfew is at eleven anyway.” Tommy drove Eric to his house, on a cul-de-sac lined with identical houses.
“This was fun, guys,” Eric said, before he got out.
“I need to get home too,” I said.
“Sure,” Tommy said. He took the back roads, the longer route to get back to our neighborhood. Possums and raccoons hid in ditches lining the road, their eyes gleaming in the dark. Tommy slowed his car, eventually stopping on the road’s gravel shoulder.
There weren’t any streetlights. The night was lighted only by occasional fireworks, mostly obscured by the treetops. Mosquitoes rose from the bracken rainwater that collected in the wide fields surrounding us. A coyote howled; his voice was distant—as lonely as a train whistle. I noticed how clearly the stars stood out against the country sky. In Akron, they were obscured by the city’s smog. I searched for a familiar constellation, to steady myself, before asking Tommy why he had stopped the car. I already knew the answer.
“I’ve wanted this all night. And I know you do too,” he said. He leaned across the seat, grabbing my face with one hand, unbuckling his seatbelt with the other.
“What are you doing? I asked, squirming away from him. He stuffed his hand down the front of my dress, his fingers twisting and searching. My bra’s underwire dug into my flesh. Tommy’s breath was shallow, excited. He rose from his seat. I knew he was going to straddle me, to pin me down.
“Get off me,” I yelled, sinking my bitten, dirty fingernails into his arm as hard as I could. He yelped and withdrew his hand from my dress.
We sat in silence until Tommy finally turned the key and the car pulsed again. We didn’t speak for the rest of the ride. I stared ahead at the black road. When we finally pulled into my driveway, I expected him to say something, anything. I thought he would apologize.
“I’d prefer if you didn’t tell anyone about this,” Tommy said instead. I felt dazed. I just wanted to run up the steps to my house. I wanted to scrub the day off my skin and fall into my bed.
“Alright,” I agreed. Tommy unlocked my door, and I smoothed my hair and my dress as I walked towards the house. The lights inside were blazing. It was only 11:30. I knew my mother would be surprised and pleased that I was home so early.
As Natalie’s car raced to the bottom of Cadillac Hill, in a delicious instant, Jetty’s wheels separated from brick-street and the tires lifted from the ground. We were borne through air as my stomach plummeted. There was only the dusk-bathed city—streetlights, smokestacks, lines of empty factories and warehouses and parking garages. Graffiti-wreathed freight trains screeched to a halt on their tracks. At the station downtown, people waited for late buses in silence. They were motionless and we soared.
As people and time calcified around us, my kneecaps shook and I gritted my teeth. I screwed my eyes shut, in both ecstasy and fright. Open them, Natalie urged. Because even though we were suspended in flight, it was only for a moment. ■
Kat Saunders received her MFA in creative nonfiction from West Virginia University in 2018. She is an editor at the Kent State University Press and lives in the Akron area. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Harpur Palate, Cleaver, Into the Void, and other publications.
Cover photo by Jon Dawson via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).
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