More than a dozen ice packs and three days later, I’m ready for action again. Jeff has invited me to meet up at Deer Valley’s MORP. Happy memories of MORP from the year prior make me eager to attend. However, Lesley is on a date tonight with Troy. Unusually, neither has invited me along. They haven’t seen each other as much lately, so I figure they need some time alone.
I’m at the dance. Just like last year, I cannot find my buddies. In one corner, there again are Larry and his group of breakdancers mixing it up. Meanwhile, Scott holds court with his throng of athletes in front of the folded-up bleachers near one of the free-throw lines.
Frankly, not much has changed. And yet everything has. It’s all the same groups and many of the same kids, but I feel removed from them. I feel much more confident internally after a year with Lesley, while my time at Brophy has opened my eyes to another world. No longer am I a part of this scene, and I’m finally starting to be okay with it.
I’ve been at the dance for about twenty minutes. I debate whether to leave when I finally spot Don and Jeff.
“Hey, I’ve been looking all over for you guys.”
“Oh, hey, where’ve you been?” asks Jeff distractedly. He’s looking for someone.
“Man, what happened to your eye?” asks Don.
“Got nailed by a baseball,” I respond. “Looks that bad?”
“Nah, makes you look tough. Tell people you got into a fight instead,” Don suggests. “Makes you sound tough as well.”
“I just saw some fine babes headed out,” says Jeff. “Help us look for them.”
We walk into the parking lot but can’t find them anywhere.
“Forget about ’em, Jeff. Let’s go cruising,” says Don.
“Alright, alright. Shotgun!” yells Jeff, beating me to it by a microsecond.
We, as kids in Arizona, are obsessed with the concept of ‘riding shotgun.’ Perhaps as a legacy of the Wild West, or maybe because we live in a society that celebrates the alpha male. Somehow shouting out ‘shotgun’ first to claim the front passenger seat and then sitting there for even the shortest of rides makes a statement of dominance. This is the opposite of the Chinese, where everyone deferentially tries to give up the seat of prestige in the back to those more senior.
Don is just about to drive off when Jeff spots the girls. Turns out they are Angie and two of her friends, the same ones Lesley had introduced me to and with whom we had danced the year before.
“Hey, I know those girls,” I say as I get out of the car.
“You do?” asks Jeff a bit skeptically.
“Yeah, let me talk to ’em.”
“You sure you don’t need adult supervision?” Don asks.
“Nah, I’ll be fine,” I say. In reality, I have absolutely no idea what to do.
Jeff tries to be encouraging, “Yeah, you’ll be fine. Just remember to zip up your fly first.”
I quickly look down. My zipper is up.
“Gotcha, buddy,” he says while he and Don laugh it up.
I walk over to Angie and her pair of angels. They tumble about a bit, giggling while they try to help each other walk a straight line.
“Hey,” I say. This is the best opener I come up with.
“Hey,” says Angie. She squints. Once again, she attempts to figure out where she’s seen me before. “I know you. Aren’t you Lesley’s friend? From last year’s Art class.”
“PE. Close enough. They’re both kinda useless.”
Angie laughs. “You’re funny. Nice shiner, by the way.”
“Yeah, I got into a fight,” I reply as Don had just instructed. Then I add because I hear it in movies all the time, “You should see the other guy.”
“Bitchin’. So you’re tough…and cute,” she says. Finally, someone notices what Lesley has realized all long.
“You gals wanna join us?”
“Where you guys going?” she asks with bleary but playful eyes. So that’s what they mean by bedroom eyes.
“Wherever you are,” I reply—my first ever cool line with a girl other than Lesley.
“Awesome. That happens to be where we’re headed,” Angie says laughingly. “You have room for all of us?”
Angie’s body has more attractions than Disneyland, so it doesn’t require much contemplation for me to utter, “Yeah, sure. It’s just me in the backseat.”
“Oh, sweet,” she says with a knowing look in her eyes, “Don’t worry. We’ll fit together just fine.”
We wobble our way over to Don’s car. As we do, for the first time, I see a glint of admiration in the eyes of Jeff and Don. Instantly, I feel more confident and resolute than I have ever felt. I’d finally done good, shot down some bogeys for us.
Boys always see picking up girls in tactical terms. We speak of engaging “multiple bogeys,” playing “wingman” for each other, and “being first man through the door” in approaching and picking up hot chicks. In ensuing years I would develop competency in being “first man through the door.” It just takes a lot of balls and thick skin to frequently take “no” or the rolling of eyes for an answer. For Navy Seals, I imagine it must be gut-wrenching to be the first to break down the door when there may be a hive of terrorists on the other side. Of course, in reality, the danger and stakes cannot be even remotely compared, but for a teenage boy, being shot down in front of friends can feel just as fraught.
Thank God I hadn’t yelled “shotgun” first. All of them squeeze into the back with me, and suddenly I am Hugh Hefner again with Don as our chauffeur and Jeff as the bodyguard. Jeff looks a bit regretful about his shotgun call but then welcomes them with a smile. Angie sits on my lap, and we’re off.
Don is a bit pissed. Perhaps he fears one of them may throw up in his car. Or that we’ll break something as we’re all jammed in together. Or because it’s too noisy, which sometimes seems to bother him. Don plays the role of Greek god when it comes to girls. He doesn’t condescend to flirt or parry with them; he simply allows them to bask in his sheer physical awesomeness.
So this leaves Jeff and me to regale the girls a bit. We find it surprisingly easy to do so. I guess there are far more challenging or dreary tasks than entertaining girls drunk off their asses. We just have to be kinda cute, not say anything too overly dim-witted, and instantly we’re Belushi and Aykroyd.
We head out into the desert, which is basically saying we drive north for about three minutes. Anything beyond that, and we are driving across the desert. Angie knows of a huge bonfire party just past Pinnacle Peak. I’ve been in the vicinity a few times when our parents took us to a fantastic steak restaurant named Pinnacle Peak Patio, where they cut your tie off if you wear one and serve up a cowboy boot if you order a well-done steak.
It’s typically a forty-minute drive that Don does in twenty-five, and we make the most of it. We’re rolling to KDKB because it “Rocks Arizona.” We scream in our strained falsettos to the soaring power ballads of Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, and REO Speedwagon. Their songs feel expressly designed for a night such as this, blasting through the stereo as we glide under a moonless desert sky filled with a million points of light that softly illuminate the desert landscape of lonely saguaros.
Angie is grinding on my lap, keeping time with her shapely ass to every power chord and chorus. She’s wearing a red ribbed cotton tank top and a black miniskirt that continues to creep upwards as she sashays about. It takes every ounce of energy to prevent myself from revealing too obviously just how happy a particular part of me is to have her undulating on top of me. I recall hearing that thinking of baseball aids in this regard. When visions of a Lopes-to-Russell-to-Garvey double play fill my mind, I find that it indeed does help, but not enough. She looks back at me and smiles. She’s fully aware of her effect on men and what’s going on in my head. She knows I wanna do stuff to her.
I should be having the time of my life, and to a great extent, I am, but not nearly as much I would have imagined. Over a year ago, before Lesley, I would have gladly lost my left eye to a stray baseball to have Angie vigorously lap-dancing on me. It would have been the stuff of dreams. However, even as we all “live on a prayer,” “pour some sugar,” and “keep on loving” each other in Don’s car, my mind drifts beyond the backseat of his Pontiac Firebird.
It’s like I’m a kid in a candy store, and yet strangely, all I want is ice cream. For although my eyes are firmly fixed on Angie’s curvaceous backside while watching her squirm and listening to her squeal to the music, my mind’s eye looks for her friend, and not one of the two beside us, even though they are very captivating as well.
We arrive and get out of the car. Angie straightens her mini-skirt and turns towards me. She plants a ruby red lipstick mark on my cheek before saying, “Hey, thanks for the ride. See ya around.” She and her friends bound away. So much for all the heartfelt grinding. However, it’s all good. My heart lies elsewhere. Besides, while Jeff looks a bit disappointed, Don looks moody; I sense he needs a long drive, like something’s on his mind.
“This party looks lame,” I say, in stark contrast to the reality that surrounds us. The rager is rocking with what seems to be a hundred carousers surrounding a bonfire, all in various states of inebriation. It’s fascinating and intimidating at the same time. Nonetheless, for some reason, I feel this may be one of the last times I get to hang out with Don and Jeff in this way.
I suggest, “Let’s go driving.”
“Yeah, let’s do that,” says Don.
“Shotgun!” shouts Jeff, again a millisecond before me.
We resume our places in Don’s car. As he drives away from the blazing bonfire, my eyes slowly adjust to the dark of the desert again. In this moment of quietude, I’m able to make out more than just the outlines of the magnificent saguaros that stand as sentries throughout the landscape. Aside from the sagebrush and boulders, I see cacti of all shapes and sizes: prickly pears, jumping chollas, golden hedgehogs, to name but a few. I spy what looks to be a Joshua tree in the distance, although supposedly they only grow north of Wickenburg, about a forty-minute drive away.
I’ve got a mixtape that seems better suited for our current, more contemplative mood. I stick it into the tape player, and on comes Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” Jeff starts to sing along. He always sings Cetera well, so I just listen. As the power ballads from before make way for these tender love songs, I feel strangely nostalgic as my eyes and heart search across the desert.
Dave, Don, and Jeff have been my closest friends at Deer Valley for a long time. I first met Dave and Jeff in our fifth-grade class with Mrs. Barnhart. We weren’t as tight back then but close enough in friendship and height to have stood by each other three in a row in the class picture.
Dave has always been Mr. Popular with his quick wit and wry sense of humor. We are just one small but meaningful arc in his vast circle of friends as he flits about and fits in with virtually every group in school. He can be maddingly charming and is unquestionably the worst wingman for a double date. Even Don has seen more than his fair share of crushes crushed after they fell for Dave’s effortless charisma.
Meanwhile, since I met Don in the seventh grade, I’ve always known him to be mercurial. One moment he is filled with vision, verve, and a guarded warmth and optimism. The next, he can be ornery and caustic, delivering comments that snap and bite. He can be brooding, even morose, as he carries the weight of the world upon his broad shoulders. He has grown up as the youngest of eight kids. His parents never seemed to pay much attention to him, which I envy.
Meanwhile, I suspect he covets the attention that Jeff’s parents lavish upon him, or even the vigilance with which my parents watch over me. Moreover, I sometimes feel that Don somehow needs us more than he will ever let on. In the end, how can he? He’s Adonis, and Adonis does not want for other men.
Jeff, my Caucasian twin. Together we have come of age in fits and spurts. We try making our way across the dangerous river of high school by feeling with our feet the eddies that swirl and the mossy rocks that lie below. While we both steadily gain confidence in our areas of strength, we remain acutely awkward and insecure in arenas just outside of our comfort zone. We try to hide these in a blaze of jokes and a veil of sarcasm when we would likely be better served if we simply embraced ourselves and each other. Instead, we maintain an emotional distance due to our persistent self-doubts. If somehow we could overcome this, we could buttress the other’s frailty, be stronger together.
The feeling that this may somehow be our last ride together grows stronger with each passing mile. I can’t help but see that Brophy has shaped me into someone new, one who perhaps has to travel a parallel path to the one my friends will continue upon. Which one is the best path for me? I have no idea. I just know I wish Dave were with us to complete the scene.
Then I realize I wish it were just Lesley and me in the car, with me driving and her in the passenger seat, windows rolled down, and love songs guiding our way as we soar through the desert night.
Don drops me off at Lesley’s house. We have been driving for more than an hour. In my sentimental mood, I want to be near Lesley, or at least where she lives. Despite knowing that she is still out with Troy, and I will have to run the “Children of the Corn” gauntlet soon, it’s worth it. As I look across the grassy field where Jeff and I practice baseball, I can sense her presence. Her kindness and sweetness envelop me. I feel comforted despite the thought that I am losing my childhood friends as we grow in different directions.
Just before I turn to leave, the door to Lesley’s house opens. Perhaps Leia has felt Luke’s Force nearby.
“Hey, you about to Peeping Tom me?” Lesley asks with a gentle laugh. “If so, do it like a professional and crouch behind the bushes. We can see you standing there from our living room window.”
“Oh, sorry. Did your parents see?”
“Nah, it’s just Esther and me awake. She couldn’t sleep. I was watching TV. So we were chatting in the dark,” Lesley says. “She spotted you, said there’s this cute Asian stalker. I told her I had some experience in dealing with this type.”
“Thanks. I assume you would be much gentler on the Peeping Tom than her. Or your dad, who may or may not be Delta Force. Which you can’t tell me, ’cause then you’d have to kill me’.”
Lesley laughs almost inaudibly. Then I notice the red in Lesley’s eyes.
She quickly dabs the corner of her eyes. They look even more beautiful moist, with the barest hint of smudged mascara. I go over to hug her, and she folds into my arms.
“I broke up with Troy,” she says. “I think I hurt his heart. He slammed his car door so hard before he drove off. When I called to check on him, he wouldn’t speak to me. Toby talked with me instead.”
“I’m so sorry,” I say. And I am sorry. I feel bad for Troy, who has always been very kind to me and head-over-heels for Lesley ever since I first introduced them. I feel bad for Lesley, who I know had wanted to love Troy but ended up only liking him a lot. And I feel bad for myself. Our triumvirate of Han, Leia, and Luke is coming to an end, just as it will for the three after The Return of the Jedi.
She looks at me, points at my besmirched cheek, and says, “Looks like someone had an exciting evening tonight.”
“Oh, that? Courtesy of your friend, Angie.”
“Wow. Did you guys…”
“Nah, we just gave her and her friends a ride. Or I should say, Don gave them a ride in his car. I gave Angie a ride on my lap. She was a bit buzzed, but nothing much happened.”
“Really?” Lesley queries.
Do I detect a hint of jealousy? “Yeah, trust me. Nothing happened.”
Lesley starts to wipe the lipstick away on my cheek with her fingers, still moist from her tears.
I try to cheer her up a bit and say, “I guess now would not be the best time to resume our make-out session.”
Lesley laughs a bit ruefully and again dabs at her eyes. “No, I don’t think this would be the best time for that.” Then she adds, “Thanks for being here for me. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
I let her go, and she goes back inside. I turn to face the Children of the Corn once again. But this time, I’m not afraid. Somehow sadness trumps fear as I slowly trudge home alone.
Richard C Lin and his family live in Shanghai and Portland, Oregon, where he focuses on writing, supporting his wife’s philanthropic efforts, and making sure their two teens and one toddler don’t sit on any of their nine hamsters. His stories have appeared or will soon appear in Sonora Review, The Dillydoun Review, The Write Launch, Potato Soup Journal, Prometheus Dreaming, and other literary journals. “Drive” is an excerpt from his book, Arizona Awakening, to be published in 2022.
Richard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via his author website at https://www.richard-c-lin-author.com.