I didn’t get my drivers license until I was 21. I had been in a particularly bad accident when I was 15, and I was absolutely petrified at the notion of getting behind the wheel. So I put it off, and put it off. And put it off. As much as my life had been turned upside down after my accident, and I was dealing with PTSD daily while trying to pass the tenth grade, my accident would turn out to be the thing that would eventually save my life.
The thing about not having a car or a license when you’re between the ages of 16 and 21 is that you have to depend on the kindness of others to give you a ride everywhere. The problem with depending on the kindness of others to give you a ride is that you often find yourself stuck in situations that are boring at best and terrifying at worst, with no way to extract yourself from the situation.
Good example – the last time I witnessed someone shoot heroin in front of me was the night before I got my first car, twenty years ago. Haven’t witnessed it since. It’s not because I found Jesus, or even a better class of friends. It was because from the moment I got that car, as soon as I could see the sleazy direction an evening was going, I would jump in my car and get the hell out of there.
There was no such thing as Uber or Lyft back in the 90s, and if you didn’t live in a big, metropolitan city, there were no cabs, either. Sure, you could call a cab and wait over an hour for one to maybe show up – and that’s a big “maybe” – and even if one did show up, the driver was typically a large drunk man who wanted to know if you were “single, honey”. As teenagers, we ended up hanging out at places we could walk to. It was the only way to have a social life.
Anne and I were at the beach one night, hanging out where all the bad teenagers and young adults hung around and smoked weed, played guitar, and generally bothered passers-by. She and I weren’t into drugs or mayhem, but it was the closest place for two teenage girls to hang out that was within walking distance of Anne’s parents’ house.
There was a deadhead bar across the street from the pavilion where everyone hung out, and a Grateful Dead tribute band played there every Saturday night, the music spilling out the patio doors and into the street. Under-aged neo-hippie girls twirled their long skirts as they danced across the sidewalk, while over-aged guys who went by names like “Jester” and “Willow” tried to convince them to come down to the lifeguard stand on the beach to smoke out with them.
Several of the girls I knew from my high school art class had smoked out with Willow, a tall, skinny, blonde hippie guy who was apparently allergic to wearing shirts, but could always be found wearing a black hat. Like an actual villain, if The Traveling Wilburys had allowed villains in the band. He literally asked me, “What’s your sign?” when I first met him, that’s how hokey this guy was. And when I told him, he then asked me what my “rising sign” was. I swear, this guy was like a propaganda cartoon of a hippie pervert.
The girls he had smoked out with told me that he typically demanded a certain form of “payment” in exchange for sharing his Kind Bud with them, but that he wasn’t “like, pushy about it” or anything. How hard do you have to push a teenage girl whose high out of her mind to blow you on the beach? I know what you’re thinking. While Willow was a real gem, he’s not the one. He was just exactly the type of guy who hung around there on a Saturday night.
One Saturday night Anne and I walked down to the pavilion and there were two guys we hadn’t seen there before. Not hippies! They chatted with us while they passed a guitar back and forth, both claiming that they wished they’d had their 12-string guitars with them so they could play whatever songs guys play on 12-string guitars because they think it impresses girls.
(By the way, girls are not impressed by 12-string guitars. In 1992, they’re impressed by how much you look like Nuno Bettencourt. Do an image search on Google for “Nuno Bettencourt 1992” and you’ll see I have no ax to grind here. You could play a triangle and girls in 1992 would swoon if you looked like Nuno Bettencourt because if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times, women are just as shallow as men.)
The guys introduced themselves as Tony and Steve. I thought Tony was the most rock star thing I’d ever seen and he, in turn, seemed like he was mostly indifferent to the fact that I existed. This fact made Tony fully, thoroughly, almost shamelessly, my type. Anne and I flirted and chatted some more with them, mentioned that we’d be around the same place, same time, next Saturday and then walked home.
Over the next week, Anne and I made a plan for the next time we saw Tony and Steve. The plan consisted of one element:
- Do not get in a car with Tony and Steve.
While we were as dumb as any teenagers, we had been taught that it was never okay to get into a car with men you didn’t know. We determined that if Tony and Steve showed up at the beach and wanted us to get in a car with them to go somewhere else, we would say no, and that we would just keep hanging out at the beach. Simple. Easy. We figured if we spent a couple of weekends getting to know them, then it would be okay to go somewhere else with them.
Our mothers would have been proud. Okay, not really proud. Relieved? Nah, probably not relieved, either. As it was, they had no idea that we got all dolled up every Saturday and snuck out until 2am to hang out with a bunch of delinquents and druggies at the beach.
Saturday night finally came around and Anne and I were sitting on a bench at the pavilion. Tony and Steve pulled up in Steve’s old and beaten up four-door black sedan and parked in front. Tony got out of the car and walked up to me and said, “Hey, wanna get out of here? Steve’s still got the car running.”
I don’t think we said, “Okay!” fast enough as we hopped off the bench and bounded towards Steve’s car and climbed into the backseat. So much for our plan.
It wasn’t my fault! Why did Tony have to look so goddamned much like Nuno Bettencourt?
Steve backed out of the parking space, squealing the tires, and sped down the street about a hundred miles per hour like he was fleeing a crime scene. Anne and I laughed nervously, exchanged terrified glances with each other, and pretended that we hadn’t just made the biggest mistake of our lives.
Steve was the only one who was over 21, so our first stop was at a nearby 7-11 to pick up a 12-pack of cheap beer. He came out of the store and cracked open three beers and handed them out to everyone, then cracked open one for himself and started back down the road. He ran every stop sign, and at one point we were actually driving full-speed on the wrong side of a divided highway. I mouthed to Anne, “We are going to die tonight” and she nodded her head.
We had no idea where Tony and Steve were taking us, and when we asked, Steve said, “Don’t worry about it.”
The car slowed at the entrance to an industrial park. It was close to midnight now, so there were no cars or people there. Steve turned down a one lane road that ran behind the building. Way behind the building. As we passed trees that got more numerous and densely-packed, Anne and I looked at each other in horror. It was like everything our mothers had warned us about was coming true.
Steve eventually turned off the road into a small clearing, surrounded by pine trees. It was just big enough to fit around two cars. The woods surrounding it were deep, and Anne and I had no idea where we were oriented from the main highway. Steve stopped the car and turned off the engine. We sat there in silence.
After the longest minute of my life, Tony said, “Let’s sit on the hood and have some more beers!”
We got out of the car and the guys handed us two more beers. We started talking about mutual friends, bands we liked, that sort of thing. The conversation lightened up, and I relaxed a little. Maybe nothing bad would happen after all! I was surprised that the guys weren’t even trying to put any moves on us, though. You would typically expect two young guys who had been drinking to be pawing at us like fresh meat, but they kind of kept their distance, actually. They seemed more interested in talking and drinking than doing anything else.
After another hour or so and a few more beers, Steve started to become the angry-variety of drunk, and any sense of relaxing that I had previously had was evaporating quickly. He started making fun of my clothes, my hair, the way I talked. He said, “Girls like you, you think you’re hot shit. You’re just shit, though. That’s all you are. You’re shit. You’re SHIT.” It came out of nowhere, and it was particularly brutal. I expected Tony to jump in at some point and tell Steve to knock it off, but much to my horror, he actually joined in. It seemed like the two of them were feeding off each other’s meanness towards us, and Anne and I could see the situation was deteriorating quickly.
Steve managed to grab one of Anne’s shoes and threw it into the woods. He dared her to go off alone to go get it. She laughed it off and said, “No way!” and gave me a pleading look. I gave her one back because I just didn’t know what to do. We knew the worst thing we could do was to become separated from each other. Anne stood there, wearing one shoe. Steve continued taunting us.
Having spent so many years around scumbags in my neighborhood at that point, I had been able to talk my way out of plenty of scary situations in the past, so my mind raced to think of something, anything, that would change the course of events that were unfolding. I had to find a way to change the subject.
I blurted out, “Did I tell you guys that I got hit by a car last year? I broke my back, my pelvis, and my foot, and I had to learn how to walk again. I was in the hospital for months. It was really awful.”
Okay, so it was a slight fib. While I had been hit by a car and broke my back, pelvis, and foot, I had been in the hospital for two weeks with physical therapy for a few months after. I didn’t have to learn to walk again so much as I had to learn how to walk with crutches for three months. They didn’t need to know that.
What I wanted from them, what I was counting on, was enough time to create a shift in their mindset so that they would feel sorry for me. So that whatever they were planning to do to us that night, it would seem like I’d at least already been through enough in life, and Anne too, by association. They were talking to us like we were less than human, and I wanted to humanize myself as much as possible. I wanted them to realize that Anne and I were not merely “things”.
When I piped up and told them about my accident, Steve said, “So? You want me to feel sorry for you?”
Tony, on the other hand, softened. He asked me how it happened. He wanted to know details. He stopped focusing on what Steve was saying. A minute later, Tony said, “Hey, let’s get out of here. The mosquitos are eating me alive out here.”
We got back in the car and Anne asked Steve to point the car’s headlights towards the woods where he had thrown her shoe. She hopped out, grabbed her shoe, and got back into the car. Steve and Tony drove us back to the beach and dropped us off. There were no kisses goodnight and no phone numbers exchanged.
We saw them the next week at the pavilion, and Tony and I actually started seeing each other. He was surprisingly pretty cool when Steve wasn’t around, plus he continued to look like Nuno Bettencourt.
One night a couple months later, Steve asked me to take a walk with him down the sidewalk. It was in public, so I felt okay. He told me he was sorry that he had been so mean to me that night in the woods, and that he was only mean to me because he couldn’t stand that I was obviously interested in Tony and not him. He told me Tony was a real dirtbag and that he would ditch me the moment I slept with him (he did). He asked me to give him a chance. I told him I was sorry, but that I just liked him as a friend. He said that was cool.
Steve murdered the next girl he dated, in the same woods he had taken us to that night. He stabbed her and beat her to death with a baseball bat. He made a plea bargain, and with time off for good behavior, he was out of prison before I even hit 30.