“I should probably go.”
Claudia shrugs. “Okay, then.”
“I uh, had a…” You’re not sure how to end this. The truth is, you don’t really want to leave. Sure, the majority of this evening was spent wishing you were somewhere else, but talking with Claudia out here has been fun. Suddenly you don’t want it to end. There is that very loud voice in your head though, urging you to get out while things are still good because the longer you stay the more likely you’ll mess this up, do something embarrassing, or say something stupid and scare her away. “I mean, this was nice.”
“It was,” she says, watching you. “Thanks.”
“Can I, uh, call you?”
“No,” she says, looking down. “My dad is weird about that.”
“Oh.” You glance over your shoulder at Eric’s yellow Datsun in the parking lot. He flashes you once more with the headlights. When you turn back, her arms are crossed. “Can I walk you inside?” you ask. “I feel weird leaving you standing out here like this.”
She doesn’t answer immediately, but continues to stare thoughtfully back at you, her expression, part frown, part smile, is a mystery. “Come here,” she finally says, stepping toward you and taking hold of the front of your shirt. You realize she’s about to kiss you and you lean in to meet her half way. Your mouths bump roughly together, all lips and front teeth at first, but you slow down, soften to each other, take your time… until you hear whistling and hand clapping from the parking lot. You don’t have to look to know who it is.
Claudia pulls away. “Really?”
“Sorry.” Now music is blasting from someone’s car stereo, you think you recognize Kiss’s “Love Gun.”
“I’ll see you at school on Monday,” she says, raising up on her tiptoes to press her mouth to yours one last time. “You better come looking for me, Matthew Van Der Boot.”
“I promise,” you say, and then turn and hurry toward your friends.
“Dude,” Gus leans his head out the passenger side window as you approach. “Sure you’re ready to leave?”
You pull open the door and he moves forward to let you in the back seat. “Well, you guys aren’t helping.”
Eric lowers the volume. “Bring her with.”
“I wish. She’s here with her older sister.”
“Bring her too,” says Rudy, sliding over and patting the narrow space between the two of you.
“And her sister’s boyfriend.”
“Sorry,” Eric says. “No room.”
“Matt.” Rudy taps you on the chest. “Wanna beer?”
“Well, so do I,” he says, then reaching round the bucket seat in front of him he shakes Eric by the shoulders. “Let’s go already, Dude!”
“Yeah, yeah. Don’t get your chonies in a wad.” Eric puts the car in drive, turns up the volume, and heads for the exit. You look back toward the front of the gym, but Claudia is already gone.
“Dude, no more Kiss!” pleads Rudy. “Put on the Tears for Fears that Gus brought.”
“Fuck no,” says Eric. “That shit puts me to sleep.”
“The Cure, then.”
“Here.” Eric ejects the cassette and replaces it with one of several others stacked in the open tray above the gearshift. “This should make you happy.”
Expecting to hear Mötley Crüe or Iron Maiden, you are unprepared for the funky bass, synthesizer, and horns coming out of the stereo. Gus starts to bounce his head to the beat. You find yourself doing the same. “Give it to me baby!” demands the singer.
“Rick James?” asks Gus.
Rudy settles back into his seat. “Fine, whatever.”
Ten minutes later, the four of you are parked outside a Circle K convenience store in town.
“Matt,” Eric asks. “You got any money left?”
“Give some to Gus, he’s buying.”
Rudy leans toward you. “Homeboy’s got a fake I.D.”
“Not fake,” says Gus. “Expired.”
“Oh man,” you say, removing a five-dollar bill from your wallet. “Your brother’s?”
“Found it in his junk drawer.”
“Oh shit.” You lean forward to give Gus the five. “Let me see.”
He adds your money to the other bills in his wallet and then passes you the license. Except for the thick mane of shoulder length hair and the bushy, handlebar mustache, the man in the photo looks just like Gus. “Dude, your brother was a hardcore hippy.”
Eric frowns at you. “So, he got a haircut.”
“Man, I don’t know,” Gus says, retrieving the license. “I don’t look twenty-five.”
“Dude, of course you do,” Rudy says. “You’ve had a mustache since eighth grade.”
Eric reaches out and grips Gus by the shoulder. “Confidence man. Just believe. Don’t pretend to be twenty-five, be twenty-five.”
“Dude,” says Rudy. “Practice.”
“Yeah, role play it,” you say. “Eric, be the cashier.”
“Okay.” Eric snatches the license from Gus and holds it up to his face. “Son, you do not look twenty-five.”
“Yeah, I know,” responds Gus. “I don’t look my age. That’s why I grew the mustache in the first place, you know. Only the missus hates it. She made me shave it off.”
Rudy laughs. “What the hell, the missus?”
You ignore him. “Not bad, not bad. Keep going.”
“Sorry, young man.” Eric says. “But this I.D. is expired.”
“Yeah, it says right here, expires on birthday in 1983. And that was two months ago.”
“Expired? Shit,” says Gus, wide eyed with surprise. “I didn’t know it expired. Does that mean I have to take the test again?”
“Yes sir, it sure does.”
“Oh, kind sir,” says Gus, his voice softening. “You seem so wise, and strong.” He reaches out and places his hand on Eric’s arm. “Do you think you could help me study? I’d do anything to keep my driver’s license. Anything.”
Eric covers Gus’s hand with his own and grins suggestively at him. “Well, of course, little boy, I mean, young man. Why don’t you step into my private office in the back and I can show you a few, uh, memorization tricks on my couch.”
“Stop,” says Rudy. “This is getting too real.”
“See, you got this, man,” you say, patting Gus on the back. “Now get in there and buy us some beer.”
“Here I go,” says Gus, slipping the I.D. into the front pocket of his white oxford shirt.
“What are you doing?” asks Eric.
Gus touches the pocket. “What? I wanna be ready.”
“Does your dad carry his license all by itself in his front pocket?”
“No,” snaps Eric, “because no one does. Put it in your wallet.”
“Shit,” says Rudy as soon as Gus is out of the car. “We’re fucked.”
“So, what’s plan B?” you ask.
“Hit somebody up?” suggests Eric.
Rudy shakes his head. “The last asshole we asked gave us a ten-minute speech about not dropping out of school and wasting our lives.”
“Well, don’t ask assholes, then,” says Eric.
“I remember,” you say. “When he was done lecturing us, you were like, okay, so, is that a yes or a no?”
Rudy laughs. “I did, huh. And then he starts saying he’s going to call the police and that he could make a citizen’s arrest if he needed to.”
“Uh, yeah,” says Eric. “But that was after you hocked a loogie on his windshield.”
“Oh, that’s right.”
The door opens and all three of you turn in surprise as Gus slides into the seat with a case of Budweiser in his lap.
“Dude!” exclaims Eric. “You did it.”
Gus shrugs, looking disappointed. “He didn’t even card me.”
Sometime later, the Datsun is parked beneath a huge pair of cottonwood trees in an empty dirt lot on the edge of town. You and your friends are standing in a foursquare circle next to it with the now half empty case of beer resting on the ground between you. The car’s doors are open to better hear the stereo and its amber running lights are all you have to see by in the dark.
You’ve already downed three beers and are having a difficult time keeping more than one thought in your head for very long. A moment ago, you were appreciating the cool night air on your face, which caused you to recall Claudia’s perfume, which brought back the memory of her kiss. Right now, you are thinking about how much you love Tears for Fears and that you’re going to buy this cassette the first chance you get or at least find a way to borrow it from Gus.
“Remember when you swallowed that spit wad in Nelson’s class the day we had that sub?” Rudy asks.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” says Eric. “I never swallowed a spit wad.”
“Yeah, Jorge throws this mega wad, hits the board right next to the sub’s head, like the size of a cookie.”
“Size of a cookie,” says Gus. “What was he using for a straw, a water hose?”
“His hand,” says Rudy, holding up his own palm to better convey the weight and heft of the thing. “He musta chewed a whole piece of paper to get one that big. Anyway, the sub reaches over and scrapes it off the board with his fingers and says, I’m not too proud, or some shit like that, and Eric starts coughing and asks to go get a drink of water.”
Eric shakes his head. “I was laughing.”
“Yeah, whatever. You were getting ready to throw your own and you swallowed it.”
“Who was the sub?” you ask.
“Oh, oh…” Rudy frowns in concentration and hits his forehead with the heal of his hand. “I don’t remember his name, but you know him, that super tanned, old dude with the gold chains and white chest hair.”
“Oh shit,” you say. “That’s the same one who told Gus to stop, uh, what was the word, oh, patronizing him. I remember because I had to look it up.”
“That’s right,” says Gus. “I thought he was okay.”
“Why can’t we have more subs like Miss Laurie?” asks Rudy. “I’d be good for her.”
“Shit,” says Eric. “I’d be bad for her. She’d have to give me after school detention. Just me.”
Rudy laughs. “You wish. What, put you over her knee and spank you?”
Eric smiles. “Hey, you know she’s the dominatrix type with those long nails and high heels she likes to wear.”
You hold onto that image for as long as it takes you to toss your empty can over your shoulder and get another beer. “Remember,” you say, after you take a sip, “when we snuck into the auditorium and found that back storage room with all of that old drivers ed. equipment?”
“Oh, yeah,” Eric says. “Those things that looked like go-carts with no wheels.”
“There’s so much junk in those rooms. I don’t think anyone even remembers they’re there.”
Eric smiles and nods, the thumb of one hand hooked confidently into the waistband of his cords. “I’m thinking of some chicas I’d like to take back there.”
“Oh, really? Like who?” asks Rudy.
“Dude.” Eric tosses his empty and reaches into the box for another. “Whoever I fucking want.”
“No, really.” Rudy points to Gus. “Who would you take back there?”
He considers the question for a moment, then smiles. “Perla Martinez.”
“Perla Martinez?” asks Rudy. “Perla would go back there with anyone.”
“Fuck you. Not with you she wouldn’t.”
“Dude,” Eric says. “That’s fucking harsh.”
“To me or Perla?” asks Rudy, trying not to laugh.
“That’s all bullshit, anyway,” says Gus. “Like you fucking know.”
“Hey, man,” Rudy steps forward, fishes a beer out of the case, opens it, and hands it to Gus. “I’m just playing, dude.”
Gus responds by lifting the can to his lips and tilting his head back for a long drink.
Rudy looks over at you. “And what about Matt?”
“I already know who this one’s got a hard-on for,” Eric says.
Rudy waives his hand dismissively. “No shit, Claudia Ortega.”
“Nope,” Eric says. “Ruth Hernandez.”
Rudy laughs. “Who doesn’t? Keep dreaming, Matt.”
Eric just smiles, but Gus is staring at you. “Naw, dude. Look at him. It’s true.”
“What?” you say, avoiding Eric’s gaze. “I didn’t say anything.”
Now Rudy is staring too. “Shit. That’s your problem, dude,” he says, shaking his head. “You’re always aiming too high.”
You lift your beer and keep drinking until it’s empty.
Soon after, you are all back in the car again screaming and laughing as Eric speeds through the desert like Mad Max, driving in circles and kicking up dirt in his wake.
When Eric finally slows down, Gus points to the highway in the distance. “Look. Is that from us?”
The dirt you’ve been stirring up has made its way out to the traffic. A huge cloud of it is drifting across the road like a thick fog, obstructing your view of the passing headlights.
“Oh shit.” Eric comes to a complete stop and shuts off his lights.
“Dude,” says Gus. “We should probably get out of here before someone calls the cops.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Eric puts the car in gear and begins to accelerate forward in the dark.
“Turn on your lights, man,” Rudy says from the back seat. “How can you see?”
“No way,” Eric says. “They’ll catch us for sure. I can see enough to get out of here.”
You lean forward for a better view. The street lights in the distance seem to be enough of a guide.
“Shit,” says Eric. “There’s nothing out here anyway, just dirt and—”
Something big lands on the hood of the car with a metallic thump and rolls up against the windshield.
All of you scream at the same time as Eric slams on the brakes. Suddenly the shape on the hood is gone. “What the fuck was that?” shouts Eric.
“You hit someone,” says Gus.
“There’s nobody even out here!”
“A deer?” says Rudy. “Maybe it was a deer?”
Eric turns toward the back seat. “There are no fucking deers around here!”
“It was a body,” says Gus.
“Maybe a dog,” says Rudy. “A big one?”
“I wasn’t even going that fast!”
“Listen!” shouts Gus. “It was a person, goddammit! A human being. I saw a hand! A fucking hand!”
The inside of the car goes silent and for several seconds the only sound is the vibration of the engine and the rapid thumping of your own heart in your ears. Finally, Eric switches on the headlights.
“Let me out,” you say, pushing on the back of Gus’s seat.
Both doors open and all of you hurry toward the front of the car. There on the ground is the body of a young woman. She is lying on her side with one arm flung over her face and her naked legs scissored in opposite directions as if in the act of running. She is wearing black, military style boots and a red, over-sized hooded sweater, which is currently pushed up past her waist revealing either black underwear or a pair of very tight-fitting shorts. There is some kind of purse or small backpack clutched beneath her other arm.
“Oh shit! It’s a girl,” says Rudy, stating the obvious. “You hit a girl!”
You rush to her side, your Junior Lifeguard training from last summer kicking in. “Lady,” you say, touching her raised arm. “Are you all right?” She doesn’t respond. You shake her by the shoulder. Her body stiffens beneath your hand causing you to flinch and pull away. “Lady,” you say, louder this time. “Can you hear me?”
She coughs, weakly at first, and then again with more force.
“Lady,” you start to say, but this time it’s as if your voice is a cattle prod jolting her awake.
“Don’t touch me!” she cries out, and suddenly she’s all arms and legs, scrambling backwards in the dirt to get away from you. “Don’t touch me!”
“I’m not!” you say, still kneeling in the sand. “I won’t!”
She gets to her feet, trips, gets up again, all the while clutching the bag to her chest. The sweater is so large it covers most of her hands and falls halfway to her knees like a shapeless dress.
“No one’s going to hurt you, ma’am,” says Gus from somewhere behind you. “We just want to know if you are okay.”
“Where am I?” She is squinting into the headlights. The hood of her sweater is still up, obscuring most of her face.
“You’re in the middle of the fucking desert, lady,” says Eric from just over your shoulder.
“Who are you?” she demands.
He snorts dismissively. “Uh, who are you?”
“Are you cops?”
“No,” you say, slowly getting to your feet. “We’re students.”
“Speak for yourself, dude,” says Rudy.
“Students? How old?”
“Old enough,” says Eric.
“Fifteen,” you say.
“Shit,” she says, wiping at her face with the end of her sleeve. “Really?”
“Fuck, Matt,” Eric hisses in your ear. “Why did you tell her that?”
“What, what are your names?” she asks.
“Lady,” says Eric before you have time to answer. “If you don’t need our help, then we’re going to go, okay?”
“No. Wait,” she says, stepping forward. “Sorry. You scared me, that’s all. Please, I’m really thirsty. Do you have anything, a bottle of water maybe?”
“A bottle of water?” asks Rudy, repeating the odd request.
“How about a beer?” you suggest.
She takes a moment to consider. “Okay,” she finally says. “Thank you.”
You return to the car and reach into the back seat for one of the remaining cans. When you turn around, Eric is right behind you. “Seriously, Matt?”
“Dude,” you say, stepping around him. “What’s your problem?”
He moves into your way. “Open your eyes, man. I know a junkie when I see one.” He looks back at her from over his shoulder. “She’s a fucking prostitute, man, a smack whore. Probably just got tossed out of some trucker’s rig onto the side of the road.”
“How can you know that?”
“Why else is she out here?”
“C’mon, man. We can’t just leave her.”
“Yes,” he says. “Yes, we can.”
“No.” You push past him. “We can’t.”
Rudy and Gus look on in awkward silence as you give her the can of beer. She takes it in both hands and fumbles unsuccessfully with the tab, pushing down on it with her thumb, as if this is the first time she’s ever tried to open one.
“Here,” you say, placing your hand over hers. “Let me help you.” You pull up on the tab.
“Oh,” she says, the side of her mouth twitching into a brief smile before taking a drink. As she tilts her head back, light floods the inside of her hoodie revealing dark smudges of mascara beneath her eyes and the charcoal stains of recent tears running down her cheeks.
“I’m Matthew,” you say.
She lowers the can and wipes at her mouth with the edge of her sleeve. “Hi Matthew,” she says. “I’m Jai.”
“Jai, these are my friends Gus and Rudy,” you say, pointing to each. “And that one over there, is Eric.”
Her large eyes take in each of them, Eric, more warily than the others it seems.
“Is there someplace we can take you, Jai?” you ask. “Someplace you need to go?”
She looks toward the highway in the distance and the neighborhood lights beyond, then turns to peer into the immediate darkness on her left, eyes drifting upwards toward the far-off mountains, jagged silhouettes against a scattering of stars. “I would appreciate that,” she says. “I just need to get my bearings.”
She makes another attempt at a smile. “Where were you going, Matt? Before I, uh, appeared and messed everything up?”
“Probably just going to drive around for a while, you know, listen to music, hangout.”
“Can I come with you, Matt?” she asks, reaching up to push back the hood of her sweater. “Maybe I’ll remember, see something familiar.” The hair on her head is shaved almost completely off with only a thin shadow of stubble left. Your breath catches in your chest. Maybe it’s the alcohol, the adrenaline, the night itself, but smack whore or not, you think she’s the most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen.
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.