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Driving Lessons

November 6, 2011

Holly’s parents owned a summer house in Plum Lake, New Jersey. You may have heard of Plum Lake. Anyone who’s no one has lived there at some time. They’re famous for their warrior mosquitoes, flesh-eating flies, sand-crusted hot dogs, and their beach.

How we wound up there one warm August day is hard to say.  I’d only met Holly a few nights before. She’d been to the movies with Jimmy, my best friend, and walked out on him and Dustin Hoffman in the middle of a love scene.

He’d gone for popcorn, Jimmy, not Dustin, and Holly figured she’d visit the ladies room while he was gone. When she got to the lobby, she caught him trying to pick up some chick. I almost laughed when she told me, but I could see she was upset. I told her the Benson theater’s popcorn wasn’t that good anyway.

She laughed between tears.

“It’s not worth crying over,” I said.

I’d known Jimmy since grade school.  He was a good friend, pathetic at times, but basically decent.

She asked me if I’d take a walk with her. We walked around the block, then kept on walking until it was late and we circled back to her house.  We stood there a little while longer and I got the feeling she wanted me to kiss her. I did.  And she let me.

“This is not good,” I said. But it was good. And I didn’t want it to stop.  But she said good night and went inside.

My shirt held a faint whiff of her perfume.

A few days later, a Wednesday, the temperature in town read 84 degrees at nine o’clock in the morning. My car’s air-conditioner had stopped working Memorial Day, and I’d been driving with the windows down, enjoying the humid air blowing in my face. I was driving to work when I saw Holly sitting on a park bench. I beeped and pulled over. She came over, her fingertips orange from the cheese curls she was eating.

She offered me one. I took it. Cheese curls at nine a.m. Must be an acceptable breakfast on some planet.

Next thing I knew I was calling out from work.

“Do you think you’ll get into trouble for this?” Holly asked.

I wondered if Grayson, my boss, had ever skipped work because of a chick.  Or if it wasn’t for a chick maybe because he got up one morning and saw how the sun hit the lawn or lighted some branches on a tree he’d seen a hundred times before but never in that particular light, and he forgot about ledgers and stats, thinking instead that spending a day being reckless or foolish or not caring about consequences was all that mattered just then.

“Said I was feeling sick to my stomach,” I said.  “The boss didn’t make a fuss.”

I didn’t tell Holly everything. How I’d hung up twice without saying a word. How it’d taken a five full minutes of hard concentration before finally getting the nerve to try a third time.

She crunched a cheese curl and shook her head. “I’d be too scared to say that.  What if it actually came true and I really did get sick to my stomach? Maybe I’m just superstitious.“

I flipped through the radio stations, while Holly enjoyed her cheese curls. She ate from the bag one at a time, finishing each in three little bites, and afterward rubbing her fingertips together like a safe cracker’s, loosening the powdery coating, before reaching in for another one. The coating fell like dust onto her bare thighs, which she lightly brushed off.

“Well, as long as you don’t get into trouble.  I wouldn’t want you getting fired over this.”

The light at the corner turned red and I stopped behind a late model black Mustang.

I reached for the map to locate once again where they were headed.  I wasn’t familiar with the Shore except for some photographs I’d seen of the weather beaten towns that lined the coast.  The few times I’d gone down I’d always gotten lost, taking a wrong turn onto a highway then  exiting only to wind up on another highway. By the time you found your way back, you were miles off course.

“I’m telling you, we don’t need a map, “ Holly said. “I know the route by heart.”

She was right.

The cottage was vacant when we arrived.  Her parents came down only on weekends.  She reached on tiptoes for the spare key above the doorway, spidery fingertips skittering along the dusty frame.  It was a clean open room, furnished with second hand furniture brought from their house in Brooklyn.  She said they bought the colonial style couch locally.  It was large enough to sleep on.

Beach towels were folded and neatly piled on a corner chair. Drinking glasses were set upturned in the drain board. Holly went around busily testing faucets and light switches, a ritual she‘d apparently gone through many times before. The kitchen table faced a window that looked out onto the back yard. Tufts of grass sprouted here and there but it was mostly bare and sunbaked.  The curtains looked homemade and matched the tablecloth’s checkered material.  A jigsaw puzzle on the table had been started and left unfinished.

“Would you like anything?” she said, opening the refrigerator door. “Something to drink?”

“Maybe just to use the bathroom.”

Before we arrived at the cottage she wanted to stop at a store in town for a sun hat.  She tried out different ones, spinning around in front of the mirror, then asking which one I liked best. I picked a yellow one. She said she liked the pink one better.

When I returned Holly was by the kitchen table standing over the puzzle, one knee resting on the chair cushion, a piece of the puzzle between her fingers.  The sunlight was hitting her face at just the right angle. Her head was tilting downward, which made her hair fall around her face.

I reached for the glass of soda with ice she‘d poured for me. As I raised the glass the cardboard coaster stuck to its bottom and I nearly spilled it.

“Once you start these things . . . ” she said.

For a moment I thought she was talking about us, but I realized that she was still gazing intently at the unfinished puzzle. She fit in several more pieces then looked over at me and invited me to give it a try.  I gave the excuse I wasn’t good at puzzles.  Truth was I had no patience for them.  Apparently neither did Holly. She suddenly announced we were going to the beach.

It was a short ride. The beach was nearly empty.  The sand was warm and we sat for a while watching the waves breaking onto the shore.  It was late morning and the sun was hot so we got up from the blanket and walked along the wet sand where pieces of scallop and clam shells had collected. She found one streaked with pink that she liked, the edges worn smooth.

I said, “You have nice hands.” She looked at me, surprised. “No, really. There’s something nice about a girl’s hands.”

A cold foamy wave crept up covering our ankles and she jumped back.

We followed the shoreline’s gradual curve a mile or so, unaware until we looked back of its crescent.  Sea birds outran the surf, tracking tiny prints across the darkened sand.  The last beach house disappeared behind folding sand dunes.  We came upon a jetty and managed to climb the jagged rocks.  We found a place to sit and looked out onto the ocean.

She asked about girls I’d dated.  She laughed when I told her the list was short. She said she hated living in Brooklyn because everything was so close together.

“My yard’s a box between three other boxes,” she said, her eyes turning toward the ocean.  “That’s why I love coming here.  It so . . . . ”

“Open?”

“Yes. Exactly.”

“Jimmy been here?”

She thought for a moment.  “No, he’s never been . . . doesn’t even know about it.”  She looked at me. I nodded.

I hated to leave.

I helped her down from the rocks, brushed against her.  She looked up at me and shook her head ever so slightly.  I wasn’t sure what I felt just then, or how long I waited before running to catch up with her along the water’s edge, chasing after her as she ran, and, reaching her, why I didn‘t pull her onto the sand.

We drove back, pulled onto the grass outside the cottage, and she said, “I want to drive.”

“No one’s ever driven my car,” I told her.  But there I was pulling the car back behind the house where there was plenty of open space and level ground.  I left the engine running and walked around to the passenger’s side.  She slid over behind the wheel.  She looked good there, confident.  I started to explain the controls but she elbowed my side.  “I know all that.” She changed the radio station to something local. She turned up the volume, grabbed the steering wheel, and floored the gas pedal, throwing us both back against the seat cushions.

She proceeded to make tight circles around the yard, sending dirt and pebbles flying out from under the back tires.  “So,” she said above the music, “how long’ve you known Jimmy?”

“Years.”

“You’re not at all like him.

“Guess not. Never thought about it.”

“Really?  I’m always comparing myself to someone.”

“Why?”

“That‘s how I am.  Insecure, I guess.”

“I’d never take you for insecure.”

“Yeah, insecure but with nice hands.”

I laughed.

“Jimmy let you drive his car?”

“I didn’t ask him.”

“You asked me.”

”That’s because you’re not like him.”

All this time I’d been bracing myself, anticipating a crash.  Finally, I said, “You’ve got a heavy foot.”

I didn’t mean anything by it, but she took it to heart.  She hit the brakes, threw the car into park, left the engine running, and walked out, leaving the driver’s door open and the sun hat on the seat where it had fallen.  I called out, “Hey, you forgot this–”

The bathroom door was closed, and the shower was running when I got back inside the house. I sat on the couch, lit a cigarette and waited.  It seemed like a long time and she still hadn’t come out of the bathroom.  I walked over to the puzzle.  It was supposed to be a flower garden.  She was taking too long.  You start thinking the worst in these situations.  I knew very little about this girl.  What if she were mentally unstable?  Or overly sensitive.  I remembered a kid named Neil from junior high school whose mom got all hysterical just because someone called her crazy.

I started thinking that I shouldn’t have stopped this morning when I saw her.  She probably wanted to be alone. Sitting by herself at that hour of the morning what else could it have been?

I tried turning the bathroom door handle but it was locked.  What if she had swallowed a bottle of pills and was lying unconscious on the bathroom floor?   I ducked out my cigarette and tapped on the door.  “Hey, I didn’t mean anything when I said that.  It’s just an expression.”  There was no answer, only the running water. “You’ve actually got a nice foot. Two, in fact.  They’re both nice.  Neither one’s heavy.  Hey, c‘mon, I said I‘m sorry.”

Just then the water stopped.  It was a relief, a good silence, a comforting sound, if silence was a sound.  The shower curtain rings pulled quick across the metal shower rod. I remembered it was an old claw-foot bathtub. The picture I’d held of soft white thighs stepping up over the rim now faded to black. The lock clicked.  The door inched open.  A beautifully sun-reddened face decorated with wet strands of sandy blond hair that dangled around it appeared.

“Eight years of dance lessons,” she said quietly through the small opening.  I leaned forward to kiss her and she let me, but only for a few seconds before she withdrew, and once again closed the door.

When she came out again she was wearing cutoffs and the rainbow-striped tank top she’d bought earlier in town along with the sun hat. I thought she’d walk straight passed me and go outside to sit alone on the porch steps.  The same way she’d been sitting this morning when I drove passed and saw her there alone.

Instead she joined me on the couch, and sat close enough so that the tiny freckles lifted by the sun were visible on her nose and cheeks, close enough for me to smell the fragrance of shampoo on her still damp hair. She reached for my cigarette then leaned her head sideways facing me against the thick cushion, her legs tucked beneath her.

On the way down we shared cigarettes, a minor intimacy that touched me all the same.

Now in the vacant cottage we sat in silence, then she said, “Sometimes I feel like a piece to a puzzle, waiting for someone to press me into place.”

I touched her cheek and asked if the sunburn bothered her.  She poked lightly at her cheekbones making momentary white dots.  “No,” she said, then turned her pale blue eyes back to me and said, “I don’t want to go back.”

I felt there must be words that would heal someone who was hurting, words that were not just stupid or funny. Words I hadn’t yet learned.  I knew they were somewhere but not within me, not then. I could think of nothing.  As much as I tried, as much as I tried, I could think of nothing.

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