The radio’s on loud. Heidi’s singing along to the early nineties hit song “I’m Too Sexy.” She bats the steering wheel with her hands, swings her shoulders from side to side like they’re hips. Shiny copper bracelets jingle from her wrists. Three other girls are also in the car, her friends, and also singing. Carl has seen them all at school but has never said a single word to any of them before. They’re all at least a grade above him, a year older. Whenever he happened to pass them in the hallways they pretended not to notice him, but now that he’s stuck in a car with them they pretend like they’ve known him for years—his presence feels about as weightless as an autumn leaf. He shook their hands at the ferry landing after asking if they were headed to Bumbershoot, and from the touch of their hands and their eyes on him, he had felt a thrill, which an hour, almost two hours later, he still feels.
It’s thrilling to be stuck in a car with these older girls, thrilling to capture how thrilled they are by life. It starts to rub off on Carl a little, their wild, uninhibited energy. But he can’t let go completely. Not like them. He’s too shy to, and innocent.
Heidi passes a large freight truck in the right lane and the girls all wave at the driver, whose bearded face looks down at them, then grins as a hairy arm pulls down on something rope-like, sending out a honk that sounds similar to a fog horn. The girls go berserk.
“Jules, flash him your tits!” Heidi says, and Julia laughs. Everyone laughs, even Carl laughs a little, though discreetly. A joke, he soon realizes as Heidi speeds up and leaves the truck in the rearvew.
“I’m Too Sexy” ends and a sad-sounding song comes on the radio next. The girls momentarily quiet down. Julia says something to Heidi that Carl can’t hear, and Heidi nods. Julia and Heidi roll their windows up, and one of the two girls sitting in the back next to Carl does the same. Carl follows suit, rolls his window up as well.
“Let’s hotbox this bitch!” Julia says, and removes a joint and lighter from her purse.
“Hey!” Heidi says. “Don’t call my car a bitch, Jules. She’s sensitive.”
“Sensitive, my ass,” Julia says before sticking one end of the joint between her lips, then putting the flame of the lighter to the other. Carl watches the paper curl up on itself, watches Julia blow out a trail of smoke, then cough a few times. He studies the haze of smoke as it spreads through the car before it slowly evaporates. He’s the last of his friends to try weed. He heard it’s addictive, and he doesn’t want to be addicted to anything. The idea of being dependent on something frightens him.
Julia passes the joint to Heidi, who takes it in her thumb and index finger, her other hand on the wheel. She coughs up another smoke cloud and then, wordlessly, passes the joint behind her, to Carl.
So this is it, he tells himself, taking it from her hand, his fingers brushing her fingers.
Maybe it’s just his imagination, but it feels like the girls are all watching him to see what he does next, as if they know that this is his first time. But Heidi suddenly starts singing along to the song, and Carl’s able to relax some as he puts the joint to his lips.
“This song’s depressing,” the girl sitting next to Carl says just before he starts to cough, sending more smoke into the air.
Heidi turns the song up a little, says, “How can you hate on The Smiths? I love sad songs.”
“You’re an old soul,” Julia says.
“I like to feel,” Heidi says.
With watery eyes Carl passes the joint to the girl sitting next to him. So that’s weed, he thinks. What’s the big deal? He feels nothing.
His parents pop into his mind though, and then he feels guilty. He’s confident they’d shake their heads and say how disappointed they are with him if they knew he was smoking weed. They have no idea he’s in a car full of girls right now. They thought he’d gotten a ride with Jimmy, which had been the plan until Jimmy had called Carl to say he’d taken an earlier boat.
“What am I supposed to do now?” Carl had said into his phone, disappointed that his friend would be so indecent as to desert him.
“Get a ride with someone,” Jimmy had said. “Lots of people are going. Call me when you’re in Seattle and we’ll meet up, okay?”
Jimmy the unpredictable. Carl thinks he should’ve expected something like this. Thoughtless and spur-of-the-moment, Jimmy’s like all the other cool kids. For some reason though, he’s one of Carl’s best friends. They’d sat next to each other in a Mavis Beacon typing class back in sixth grade and ever since then they’ve been close. When the teacher wasn’t looking Jimmy would go on porn sites, and sitting next to Jimmy, that had been Carl’s startling introduction to sex.
The joint comes back around. It is noticeably shorter now. Carl hits it again, coughs again, and passes it again to the girl on his right. Outside they pass an Indian casino, and the land on either side opens up to fields of agriculture. The Cascade Mountains loom straight ahead, some thirty, forty miles away.
The sad song is still playing when Julia suddenly turns in her seat and looking at Carl says, “Hey shy-boy. If you could kiss any of us right now, who would it be and why?”
Carl’s heart seems to freeze. His stomach is suddenly host to a million wild butterflies. All the girls giggle except the driver, Heidi.
“Uncool, Jules,” Heidi says.
“What? I’m just trying to loosen him up a little. He’s as stiff as a stick.”
Heidi shakes her head. Carl looks out the window, ashamed. He won’t answer such a silly question, though if he were to he knows whom it would be: Heidi, because she has the best manners.
“I bet he hasn’t even kissed a girl yet,” Julia says, and again all the girls, except Heidi, giggle.
Carl opens his mouth, thinking he needs to defend himself. “I have,” he says.
“Oh yeah?” Julia says. “When? Who?”
Carl can feel the eyes of all four girls in the car on him as he blurts out, “Summer camp.”
“Where’d you go to summer camp?” Julia says.
“How’s Wenatchee?” Heidi says, her eyes meeting Carl’s for a second in the rearview. “Never been.”
“Hot,” Carl says. “Stickier than here.”
“Ooh, listen to him,” Julia says. “Hot and sticky. Maybe he has kissed a girl. Maybe he’s done it all. Have you done it all, Carl?”
“Jules,” Heidi says. “Shut. Up.”
And now, finally, she does.
Heidi passes Carl, thankful for the bit of silence, the joint once again. The car smells of nothing but weed now. Carl isn’t sure, but he thinks he might be feeling something. The joint is so short now that it’s barely long enough for his thumb and index finger to hold onto. He puts it to his lips, blows smoke, coughs, passes it again and remembers the day less than a month ago when he’d gone river rafting down the Wenatchee River. There had been four to a raft. His raft had had two girls, himself, and a guide. The water had been rough that day, but their guide had said it was nothing the rafts couldn’t handle. The current had carried them down the river, past rocks that jutted up from the bottom. The water had been wild and white, the raft had tossed and flexed, water had kept hitting the lip of the raft and spilling over Carl, soaking him and everyone else. After one of these waves had crashed over them, the girl sitting in front of Carl had suddenly slipped over the side, into the water. Instinct had led him to reach for her, and his hand had caught her arm and then he had been pulling with all his strength, trying to get her back into the raft. The guide had helped Carl get her back in, and later that day she had led Carl into the woods and then kissed him on the mouth.
Heidi slows down and then pulls into a gas station, and all the girls get out and go inside the store, along with Carl. His mouth feels dry now, and he has a hankering for junk food. He buys a can of sugary tea and a Snickers bar, also a bag of Doritos.
Then they’re back in the car, and soon are on the freeway, heading south for Seattle, some sixty-odd miles away. A loud, high-energy song comes on the radio now and Heidi turns it up.
They pass a mall, chain stores, a Costco. Carl crunches his chips and sips his tea. The girls pay him no attention now. They’re staring out their windows at the world around them, and so is Carl, wondering what to make of it all.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Across the Margin.
T. E. Cowell lives in Washington State.