My Older Sib cracked up Dad’s car within ten days of getting her driver’s license. Twice. She lost her driving privileges after the second crash. She also lost my driving privileges–eighteen months before I could get my own license. Collateral damage.
Our suburb, like all Detroit suburbs, wasn’t walkable. It was a bedroom community for people who worked for the Big Three. There wasn’t any public transportation to speak of, I think GM blew up the bus system. This meant that for pretty much all of high school, I had to bum rides with friends to go to the mall, games, post-game grub and parties.
When I got my first job, Dad was my taxi–even though there was almost always a car available in the garage. He could have made this easier on himself if he didn’t hold me responsible for the Sins of the Older Sibling. The drop off and pick up ritual became less painful for Dad when my boyfriend began to cover many of the evening shifts. Dad always seemed to like that guy, maybe I just figured out why.
It’s not like I never, ever drove. It just had the same frequency as a blue moon. This made me an inexperienced driver. My friend Jenny drove everyone around. She was a good driver because she drove a lot. She also didn’t drink which was good for the rest of us piled in and draped all over each other in the front and in the back of her mom’s Pontiac LeMans as we went from the liquor store to find an old guy to buy us beer and then to the football game where we drank the beer in the parking lot and then to get some pizza to sober up and cover up the beer stink.
Dad had a true blue 1972 Plymouth Satellite with a big V-8 that spent the winter months stalling and not running well at all and the summer months barely holding back a vicious growl. It was a dud in the winter. It was ready to go in the summer.
On the day of a blue moon, I was gifted the great privilege of driving myself to work. I’m not going to lie. It was awesome. I felt like the most grown up and amazing person. I had the windows down and pushed the tinny speakers past their safety, blasting WRIF–the Home of Rock and Roll–so everyone would know that I loved Bob Seger, too. I pushed in the bulb of the cigarette lighter and waited the amazingly few seconds for it to pop. I almost stared at the red hot coils concealed in the lighter casing. I lifted it to the cigarette in my mouth, barely missing being clumsy enough to burn my cheek.
I used my mirrors and my blinkers. I stopped at the stop sign and waited for the light to turn green before making my right turn. I had Dad’s car parked in the lot behind the restaurant before I finished my smoke. I considered driving around the block, but these suburban blocks were not square. They were filled with squiggly roads that doubled back on themselves or deposited you in a cul de sac without a exit to the main road. I knew how the streets worked in my subdivision, but was ignorant of the worming in this one. I didn’t drive. I didn’t know.
I was closing this night. It must have been a Friday or a Saturday since we didn’t close until midnight. There was a little less than an hour’s worth of closing tasks. There was the teenage manager and the grill guy, me and another girl. I was over the moon to be able to offer a ride to my shift-mate.
It was a congenial crewe, full of the banter and bullshit of a group of teens who just closed the store. We were feeling our oats. There wasn’t anything to do. The only thing open was the 7-11, and we already had all the coke we could drink. It was time to go home.
The grill guy walked up to his dad’s car in the lot. It was a long, long, long red Cadillac with a white vinyl half-top. The street lamp shone off the chrome surrounding the squared off headlamps. The grill guy was feeling pretty powerful, too. He started talking smack about how fast the car was.
“Oh, really? Not faster than this big blue monster in the summer.” I then quickly copped to the fact that it was a winter lemon. The grill guy jerked his head up.
The grill guy was very tall. He was a tall guy with translucent white skin topped with a head full of more red than brown loose curls. He wore his hair unusually short for those days. He was jonesing for a promotion, perhaps even a hamburger slinging career. He tried to hide his height by scrunching his head into his shoulders and scrunching his shoulders as close to his hips as he could. But when I put out the challenge he almost straightened.
“Yeah? Right. That’s not going to beat this Caddy.”
“Let’s go.” I ran to the passenger side of the Satellite to unlock the door for my girlfriend. He ran to the red car, chased by the teenage manager that he was giving a ride home. We were going to head out on 13 Mile.
It wasn’t a real race. We didn’t have a start and we didn’t have a finish. We were just going to see who was faster.
I fumbled with my keys and with the ignition and with the locks. Nobody used seatbelts then. I turned up the radio and rolled down the window. But the Caddy was already leaving the parking lot, heading toward the intersection at a good clip. There was a red light in front of us, and nobody on the road. It was after 1 a.m. I turned left into the corner gas station to skip past the light and take the lead. Oh the cleverness of me!
The light had turned just as I peeled out of the gas station. The red Cadillac was hot on my tail and looking to pass me. I hit the gas. He was gaining on me. My co-pilot was beginning to hyperventilate. Oh hell, there wasn’t time to begin to do anything. She started to scream. “SLOW DOWN! THIS IS TOO FAST”
I looked down at the speedometer needle that was moving past 65, past 75. The grill man still in hot pursuit. I was at 85, 95 and I knew he was, too. The needle continued to 100 and then 110 and up to 118. The Cadillac was lagging. I don’t know if he got over 100 mph, but when I checked my mirror, he was done.
I took my foot off the accelerator and the car slowed. Or at least it stopped going faster. I gently tapped my brakes. I didn’t want to fishtail. I don’t know how I knew that. Maybe I observed this as a passenger. Anyway, it seemed like it took a long time for the car to drop down to a normal speed. That’s when I realized that we were going fast. On a two lane road with a gravel shoulder. I was focusing on the race, not the speed. And the speed was exhilarating. To me.
My companion was no longer speaking to me. She had blown past her red zone. I don’t know when she stopped yelling, but her silence was worse. She was so angry. I had terrified her. I apologized. She never got in a car with me again. I never drove that fast again.
Me and the grill guy were just going to see who was faster. But that’s not what we did. What we saw was who was willing to push the risk. I am not saying we were testing our bravery, because the activity was stupid. It’s not brave to be stupid. We simply pushed each other in ways that people do when they are showing off. We had our hubris on full display. We were having fun and sped off like adolescents do. The grill guy listened to an inner moderator. Me? Not so much.
I didn’t drive Dad’s car into an accident, and it wasn’t the last time that I raced. But it was the last time I pushed a dare too far. But nobody crashed. Nobody was hurt and yet, it was too far. The truth is, you don’t have to drive off a cliff to go too far. Lesson learned.