Authors: Ben Dolnick
Summer’s a dangerous time for friendships—the whole predictable rhythm of the school year, with its drumroll of the week building, over and over, to the cymbal crash of Friday afternoon, is suspended; it’s music with no time signature. Could I sleep over at the Pells’ on a weekday now, since I didn’t have to be at work until ten most mornings? His parents would have been fine with it, but no, probably not, since Thomas needed to be at the library as soon as it opened. Maybe just dinner then? But wasn’t there something weirdly formal about that, as if I were an old college friend of Richard’s, just passing through town?
Anyway, we usually ate with his parents and then, because their house never got cool in summer, even at night, we’d go walk through his neighborhood, either down along Connecticut or back in the direction of the woods, where we’d sometimes bump into other groups of kids our age drinking or one of Thomas’s neighbors out throwing a tennis ball for his huffing dog. Most nights there were thunderstorms that were like indigestion in the sky, just a sort of redness and rumbling.
“I know I’ve been kind of the baddy,” Thomas said one night. “One of my regimen goals this summer is to be more
. I feel like I’ve let myself be cornered into being anti-fun. I feel like the reverend in
My baseball friends were spending those same nights, we both knew, in a handful of guys’ houses, drinking beer they’d
bought with laughable fake IDs, smoking pot out of glass pipes, calling around to their cluster of girlfriends to find out where the party had happened to coalesce. So I—and this must have been what Thomas was responding to—had a slight feeling of babysitting as we walked soberly along together, using all our old phrases, making all our old jokes, not quite feeling all our old fondness.
The mischief we got up to at first, in the hopes of proving to both of us that we were still capable of fun, was fairly tame; we were like a long-married couple venturing nervously into a sex shop. We rang the doorbell at what was supposed to be Bob Woodward’s house and then shouted,
“We are Deep Throat!”
as we sprinted off up the hill. We drank the red wine that his parents had left on the table and then pretended, him with much more excitement than me, not to be able to walk a straight line. We called the head of Dupont, Charles Gallant, and after planning to tell him we were from the IRS and that we knew how he’d
raised the money for the new gym, we hung up at the first sound of his Brahmin voice. I don’t think either Thomas or I enjoyed any of these hijinks completely, but they were gestures, as I say; they were little ceremonies undertaken on behalf of something larger, like sullen Friday nights at temple.
I think now, although I’ve tried at various points to remember it otherwise, that I was the one who first proposed our taking the Pells’ car out. We called this “committing grand theft auto,” even though of course it entailed nothing more daring than waiting for Richard and Sally to fall asleep, then taking the keys from the basket by the front door. We knew, when we were doing it, that this was the most serious mischief we’d gotten up to—I could see Thomas getting nervous, and I could see him seeing that I was actually excited about this in a way I hadn’t been about the prank calls or the doorbell-rings. This was when we’d just turned fifteen, so driving and everything to do with it, learner’s permits and driver’s ed and practice tests, had a kind of close-enough-to-touch electricity for
us, or at least for me. My stepdad had, in the parking lot of his club, let me drive slow circles in his Lexus a few afternoons, so I didn’t think of myself entirely as a beginner.
The Pells had an old black Volvo that they called “the Beast.” We agreed that if we were caught taking it out, or if his parents somehow found out what we’d done, we’d say that I’d had a terrible headache and that I’d been in too much pain to walk so Thomas had thought he’d drive me just to the bottom of the hill, where we’d buy Advil. A ridiculous, nonsensical story, but one we figured no one could definitively disprove, and if his parents were the ones who caught us, we knew, although we wouldn’t have said it, that the trouble we’d get in would probably only be of the you’ve-really-disappointed-me variety. It was hard to picture Sally and Richard much angrier than that; at worst Thomas and I could become like peers they disapproved of.
And anyway all we did, at first, was back the car out of the driveway with the headlights off, and then, once we’d pulled out into the road, drive a few houses down the hill toward Connecticut until we came to the yellow house with the perfect driveway for turning around. Then we’d go back up and pull in just the way we’d come (Thomas’s nervousness about what we were doing came across mainly in how obsessive he was when it came to leaving the car in
the same place where we’d found it; he would lay out pebbles as markers for the tires).
I was, especially at first, usually the one who drove. We pretended we were a couple headed home from the office (“How was your day, sweetie?”) or beatniks on the highway (“Unlock my window so I can get the breath of America in my hair!”). Of course everything to do with the car takes a much more prominent place in my memory now, but we probably did this a total of five or ten times over the course of the summer, always at around midnight, and with an increasing feeling of knowing what we were doing. Thomas once surprised me by stepping hard on the gas, so we seemed to lift off the
road for about twenty feet, before he stomped on the brake and sent us straining against our seat belts. I experimented with slowly swerving, with driving up the street backward, with driving with my elbows on the steering wheel instead of my hands. His street turned out to be almost as dependably, boringly suburban as mine, despite being a few hundred feet from Connecticut: all the neighbors’ houses were dark, and only once did we see anyone (a hurrying man with a cigarette) pass by on the sidewalk.
The transition, as I saw it afterward, came on a night (this would have been in July, because the Pells were just back from Maine) when I said that I wanted to act out a scene from
. Thomas hadn’t seen
, of course, so I had to describe to him the part I meant: T-1000, with one arm transformed into some sort of bar or hook, leaps onto the windshield of the Terminator’s car and hangs there, blocking his view, as the Terminator tries to shake him off. We would do this, I explained/argued, at all of three miles an hour, but still Thomas took some convincing. Finally he agreed, on the condition that if he so much as touched the horn I had to jump off to the side. So I lay there on the windshield a couple of feet from Thomas’s concentrating face for what must have been twenty or thirty feet, hanging by my fingertips from the little rim by the roof, enjoying the weird sensation of the car creeping along under me. Then he tooted his horn and we were moving so slowly that I was able to hop off and land on both feet. Thomas tried it too (I started to do some of the subtlest possible swerving, not to shake him off but to imitate it, and he pounded the windshield with his fist). Nothing happened and no one saw us, and we put the car back in the driveway having spent another night feeling better about each other than if we’d just sat in his house waiting for Letterman to come on, complaining halfheartedly about my stepdad or about people at school.
But the jumping on the hood, I’m convinced, was what put the possibility in our minds—the trouble with mischief,
like the trouble with drugs, is that you need more and more to feel what you felt before. So the next time we took out the car (and this was just after midnight on August 7, 1997, which for a long time glowed in my mind with a kind of black-light fluorescence), Thomas was driving and I was jogging along on the passenger’s side with the idea that I was going to dive in through the open window: that was going to be the stunt. But Thomas must have had another idea, or he must have misunderstood me, because just as I was timing myself to make my jump, he unclicked his seat belt, opened his door, and leaped out with a flourish, like someone leaping from a canoe as it approached a waterfall. He tried to say afterward that he’d thought that the plan was for me to dive in through the window and take over the driving, but I didn’t believe him; he would have known that a thing like that could never have worked, and even if it might have worked, it would have taken much better timing than we had. What I think happened is that he thought he was shifting the car into park when he was actually shifting it into neutral—he thought that for once, by leaping from a car he was driving,
be the one to take us both by surprise: see how impulsive and dumb he could be?
Well the car kept going. There was a moment when both of us stood there registering what was happening, in which all the sound seemed to go out of the world except for the paint-roller noise the tires made on the road:
Oh my fucking God, the car is still moving
. And if we hadn’t stood there for that moment, if we’d saved our disbelief for afterward … But maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference, because the moment was just a moment, and we caught up with the car well before the intersection. But by that time it was rolling a little faster, since this was where the hill got steeper, and the fucking passenger door was locked and I couldn’t have, or wouldn’t have, thought of diving in through the passenger window now, when there was a good chance that I’d just get stuck with my legs hanging out into the air and then where
would we be? But why couldn’t Thomas get his door open and get back into the driver’s seat? Afterward he said the door handle stuck but I didn’t and don’t believe him: it was animal panic, it was fumbling, it was the kind of physical idiocy that was never far from the surface in him.
Connecticut Avenue, even at midnight on a Wednesday, is never completely empty. And on that particular stretch, where it intersected with Thomas’s street, there wasn’t a stoplight for a couple of hundred yards, so the cars tended to speed, as long as there weren’t any cops around. So there’s every reason to think the SUV was speeding as it approached Macomb. And, so long as I’m speculating, it seems likely that the woman crossing Connecticut, who’d been at a friend’s house on Lowell and who was already halfway across the street, might not have looked for cars, since in the middle of the night walkers tended to be more reckless. These things, I think, aren’t just possible but maybe even likely. Anyway, even if he hadn’t been speeding, the man driving the SUV wouldn’t have had time to decide what to do about the Volvo; it was black and the headlights were off; its nose would have appeared in his view and his hands would have turned the wheel before he’d even have had time to make a sound.
I’d never before—not when my mom had fainted in an elevator at Hecht’s, not when I’d almost biked directly off a hiking trail into a ravine—felt horror anything like what I felt in that instant of hearing the scream of brakes and, half a heartbeat later, the scream of a woman.
There’s a moment just after breaking something (the glass slips from your fingertips, your elbow catches the vase) in which it feels like if you stand there, absolutely still, baring your teeth, you should be able to suck time backward like an indrawn breath. Your hand hangs there in the air, your eyes fall shut, you’re like someone playing a children’s game with a whistle and a voice that shouts,
I was still in that moment when Thomas, who’d been standing beside me, started down toward our car, which had
rolled to a stop half a lane into Connecticut and was sitting there untouched (only now did I register that among the things I heard
been the crunch of metal or glass). I must have walked some ways down the block too, although I don’t remember deciding to move, because I remember seeing the back of the man who’d been driving the SUV; he was bald-headed and wearing a white shirt, kneeling in the road, facing away from us. I remember seeing that our car sat in a puddle of dark between streetlights. And I remember thinking:
The cops aren’t here yet; no one’s come out of their houses yet; this won’t last
It was Thomas who slipped into the Volvo, quick as a mouse disappearing into a crack in the wall, and it was him who reversed, more smoothly than either of us had ever driven before: an indrawn breath. But it was me who ran after him, who guided the car into the driveway, who, trembling afterward in Thomas’s bedroom, trying not to hear the faraway sirens, agreed: not a word, not a word, not a word.
Anna and I were lying together on the bath mat in their guest bathroom one afternoon that May. This bathroom had an enormous claw-foot tub, which we’d been in and were now outside of, listening as it slurpily drained, and I said, thinking I sounded so casual that it couldn’t possibly be a problem, “What was that Max guy’s last name again?”
what this is about?”
“The way you’re being. You’re one of those jealous people! I told you!”
“One of what jealous people? I just couldn’t remember if—”