“I’ll ditch my friends if you ditch yours,” you say.
She looks toward the entrance to the gym and back, then smiles. “Okay.”
You take her by the hand and pull her with you across the parking lot to your car.
“Nice,” she says as you unlock her door and let her in. When you walk around she reaches across to open yours. Inside, she runs her hands over the rounded dash. “This car is adorable. Whose is it?”
You start the engine. “It’s a ’74 Super Beetle,” you say. “See how the windshield is curved and not flat?”
“Yeah,” she says, nodding. “So, whose—”
“Oh,” you say. “Check the glovebox. Pick something you want to listen to.”
“Okay.” She squeezes the latch and the door drops down. “Oh, wow.” The inside is stuffed with cassette tapes. You reach up to turn on the dome light and she grabs a handful and starts shuffling through them. “Journey, Van Halen, Rush … oh, yes, Tom Petty,” she says holding one up. She takes the cassette out of its case and hands it to you. You eject the Led Zeppelin you were listening to earlier. “Oh. Wait.” She holds up a second tape. “David Bowie. I can’t decide.”
“Petty first,” you say, inserting the cassette. “Bowie second.”
“Fine, China Girl will be waiting.” She places the cassette on the seat between her thighs.
The first song begins somewhere in the middle with Tom Petty’s high, nasal growl belting the refrain to "Refugee." You return Zeppelin to the glovebox, snap it shut, and switch off the light. “So,” you say. “Where to?”
She turns and looks at you as she seems to consider your question. “Where would you and your friends go?”
She frowns. “Of course, honestly.”
“Try to find a party and hope there are girls there.”
“I see,” she says, eyes narrowing. “And how often does that happen?”
“Uh, let me see.” You pretend to count on your fingers, one, two, three, and then abruptly drop your hand. “Yeah, that makes, uh … never.”
She laughs, a soft giggle, and rakes the fingers of one hand across the top of her head to push the hair out of her face. You breathe in her floral shampoo. “And then what?” she asks.
“Try to buy beer from a Circle K and then park somewhere in the boonies to listen to music.”
“Okay,” she says. “Let’s do that. I know a place.”
You put the car in reverse. “To buy or to park?”
She gives you a sly look. “Maybe both.”
As you pull onto the street, Tom Petty starts singing, “Here Comes My Girl.”
She directs you to a small market and bait-shop only a few miles from the school, tucked between two towering groves of date palms. It looks less like a store and more like an old house with a boxy addition to the front. The iron bars on the door and windows of the store are the same beige as the heavy stucco exterior. “Naldo’s” is hand-painted in black above the single door entrance and a red-neon OPEN sign burns in one of the windows. A lone floodlight shines a weak glow over the two trucks and car parked in the gravel lot out front.
“I didn’t even know this place was here,” you say as you pull in, leaving a car’s width between you and the nearest truck, an old beat-up white Chevy. You lower the volume on Tom Petty's "Even the Losers," but leave the engine running. “You think they’ll sell to me?”
She looks at you a moment before shaking her head. “No, but they will me.” She reaches for the door handle.
“Sam, wait. Shouldn’t I come with you?”
“Trust, me,” she says. “That’s not going to help.”
“Are you sure? I don’t think—”
“Matt.” She puts her hand on your arm. “I’m in here all the time. They don’t know you. Don’t worry.”
“Okay, but…” You reach for your wallet. “Let me give you some money.”
“That,” she says, holding out the palm of her hand, “I won’t say no to.”
She’s gone for the entire length of the next song. You start to get anxious and think about going in. You could act like you don’t know her, buy some chips or something. You’re about to shut the engine off when the door opens and a man walks out with a case of beer under his arm. He’s wearing a white t-shirt and his head is shaved clean, with only a shadow of stubble. He walks to the old white Chevy, yanks open the door, and sets the beer on the front seat. Before climbing into the cab, he turns to look at you for an uncomfortably long moment. He looks back at the entrance, then at you one last time before getting into his truck and driving away.
Finally, Sam comes out of the store with a twelve-pack in one hand and a bag of Doritos in the other. You push open her door and grab the Bowie cassette before she sits on it.
“Sorry that took so long,” she says, placing the beer and chips on the floor between her feet. “Some guy in there wouldn’t stop talking to me.”
“That scary looking dude that just left?”
“Yeah,” she says, scrunching her nose. “Kept calling me baby, saying I was beautiful.” She shrugs and shivers at the same time. “I was waiting for him to go already.”
“Why didn’t you just leave?”
“I don’t know,” she says, looking at you. “I felt safer in there with Naldo. I’m pretty sure we’re cousins or something. Anyway, I didn’t want that creep to see you.” She gives you a cautious smile. “You know, see us. Just being careful.”
“Okay. I get it.”
“Which way did he go?”
You motion with your thumb. “That way.”
“Good,” she says. “Because we,” she points in the opposite direction, “are going this way.”
She has you drive slowly up the same street you came in on as she scans the edge of the date grove.
“There,” she says.
You see it, in the earthy embankment surrounding the rows of tall palm trees is a gap wide enough to drive through. You turn in and continue rolling cautiously forward. On each side, the evenly spaced trunks of the towering date palms pass like stone columns in an immense cathedral. About fifty yards in, you make a slow, three-point turn, positioning the car for a quick exit, and shut the engine off. The date trees disappear as it becomes utterly black outside, the only light inside is the glow of the dashboard.
You switch out the cassette and “Modern Love” begins playing as Sam hands you a cold can of beer. You pop the tab, tap your can against hers, and take a long drink.
“Nice, huh?” she asks.
“Yes.” As your eyes adjust, you can just make out the trunks of the nearest trees. “Your door is locked, right?” you ask, double checking yours.
You hear hers click. “Of course.”
You take another drink. “You are, by the way.”
“I am what?” she asks.
She doesn’t respond and you think you might have waited too long. “Yeah, well,” she finally says, and you turn to see the dash lights reflecting in her eyes, just like in the gym earlier. “It’s nice when you say it.”
You sip your beers and listen to the rest of “Modern Love.” When “China Girl” comes on, she raises the volume and sings along. You are enjoying the song, but at the same time thinking about what you would do if a car were to turn in off the road, right now, just like you did, a police car, or an old beat up white Chevy with—
“Hey,” she says. “You ready for another?”
By the time you finish your second beer, you’re feeling pretty relaxed and there isn’t much room in your head for practical concerns like murderers, or the police, or the fact that you might be running down the car battery listening to the stereo with the engine off. No, not even the impenetrable darkness of the date grove is distracting your thoughts. The scope of your senses has narrowed to one focus, her.
Her full lips and dark eyebrows, the way her eyes throw back the light, her long hair that continuously falls like glossy curtains about her heart-shaped face no matter how many times she pushes it away.
She catches you staring. “Matt,” she says. “It’s short for Matthew, isn’t it?”
“Nope,” she says, shaking her head. “My parents actually wanted a boy.”
“Uh-huh.” She twists sideways in her seat with her back to the door. “They were expecting a Samuel. When I showed up, the best they could do was add an a to the end.”
“That’s my name,” she says. “Don’t wear it out.”
“Samuela,” you say, letting the word roll slowly out of your mouth. “Samuela. Samuela.”
“Seriously, Matt. Stop it.”
“But it’s a beautiful name.”
Her eyes seem to be searching yours, maybe trying to decide if you are being sincere or not.
You risk it one more time. “Samuela.”
“Come here, Matthew,” she says.
You lean toward her and she quickly closes the gap. Her lips press into yours then part, taking first your top lip between them and then your lower. Her tongue finds yours. It’s like dancing. You follow her lead and do the same.
You slide your right arm around her back and pull her closer. Your other hand finds its way up the side of her neck and into her hair. She is touching your ear, squeezing your thigh. You let your hand slip down over the front of her blouse and onto her breast. She doesn’t flinch or push it away. Her own hand slides between your legs and firmly grips your crotch.
Suddenly she stops kissing you and pulls her hands away. You do the same.
She settles into her seat, her back against the door again, her hands between her knees.
“I’m sorry,” she says, not meeting your eyes. “I don’t think I, I didn’t mean to—”
“Sam, it’s okay.”
She looks up at you and then quickly down at her hands again. “I’m just not…”
“Hey, I’m sorry if I was too—”
“No,” she says, meeting your gaze now. “You weren’t doing anything wrong.”
You don’t respond, letting David Bowie softly croon in the background for a while. She’s watching you from her side of the car. “Sam,” you say. “I really like kissing you, and I like what just happened, but I can be just as happy sitting here talking and listening to music.”
“Really?” she asks. “Are you being serious?”
You can still taste her mouth, smell her hair. “Of course, I am.”
“I thought, once guys got, you know, excited, they had to.”
You feel yourself smiling, maybe to hide your embarrassment.
“You better not laugh at me, Matthew.”
“I’m not.” You hold up your hands. “It’s just that guys are always, uh, excited.”
“Oh, really,” she says, crossing her arms.
You shrug. “Well, I guess, but we have some self-control.”
She doesn’t immediately respond, but reaches out and touches the outside of your thigh with the tip of her index finger. “Kind of unreal if you think about it,” she says. “Us just meeting. I don’t know anything about you, and here I am parked in the dates all alone with you. If this was a movie you could be the serial killer who lures me out here to murder me.”
You move the tip of your finger closer to hers until they touch. “Are you kidding,” you say. “Out here? Two teenagers making out in a car? This would be a horror film for sure. I’d be the first to go, and then, well, if it was near the beginning of the film, you’d definitely be next.”
“Oh, thanks,” she says, placing her hand in yours.
“Don’t worry,” you say, lacing your fingers between hers. “You’d be the star so you’d survive, but with some recurring trauma, you know, for the sequel.”
Something knocks against the car. You feel it more than hear it.
“What was that?” asks Sam.
“I think something hit the car.” You twist around to look out the driver’s side window and then check the mirrors. If something was out there in the dark, you’re not sure you could see it anyway.
“Maybe it fell,” says Sam, still holding your hand. “You know from the trees, a branch, or date or whatever.”
“Yeah, I’m sure that’s what it was.”
“Maybe we should change the subject,” she suggests. “Talk about—”
The car moves, like someone shoved against it. “Shit!” You let go of her hand and reach for the keys in the ignition as the car lurches again. “Fuck!”
“Matt, let’s go!”
You start the engine, but grind the gears when your foot slips off the clutch. “Fuck!” The car is shaking nonstop now. You get it in gear, shove the pedal to the floor, but nothing happens.
“The brake!” yells Sam.
“Fuck!” You release the parking brake, give it more gas. “Nothing’s happening!”
Something moves outside your window.
“Oh God,” gasps Sam.
You click on the headlights just in time to see someone disappear behind a palm tree.
THE MISADVENTURES OF MATTHEW VAN DER BOOT is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental … no matter how many times you ask.