When people say there aren’t any accidents I just feel kind of sorry for them, the way you might feel about newborn rabbits, so defenseless and ignorant about everything. But the people who say things like that are usually people you can’t tell anything to, and you especially can’t tell them there’s something they don’t know.
We had an accident, Keith and me, back in high school, out there beyond the woods where that woman was. Some accident of fate or whatever had happened to her and it was an accident that happened to us, too. There wasn’t any reason at all but plain bad luck that made us choose that old gray Buick on class trip day in the fall of 1996.
A black car in the summertime is not the best choice, but it’s Keith’s pick, so we’re sitting inside and sweat’s making a little stream between my breasts and I’m wet under the arms. Keith’s staring out front like he’s looking down the road.
“I’m dead for sure,” he says. “But you might be all right.”
“You don’t know that,” I say. “Maybe you weren’t wearing your seatbelt and got thrown clear and landed on a bush or something. And I might’ve just hit my head like that guy in the book in Mr. Taylor’s class that got that mark on his chin and that was all but he died.”
“James Agee,” says Keith. He knows everything, of course. Just like he knows he died in the crash and I didn’t. Well, I let him have his way since we’re about to make out and that puts me in a good mood. That’s why we’re in the back seat. The BMW is kind of big, not one of the little boxy things, those ancient 2002s that are cute but they don’t make them anymore and you mostly see them in places like this or else all fixed up, maybe painted lavender or orange, and the guy behind the wheel is thinking he’s just the coolest guy on the road.
The black car’s hood is smashed in like something came at it mostly on the driver’s side. It has a scrunched-in place and broken glass all over the front seat.
I didn’t even want this one. I wanted the Town Car. Those seats! But no. Keith wanted the BMW. The car snob’s wearing his brown T-shirt today. It’s just an old shirt but he looks so cute in it. My boyfriend is definitely the hottest guy in school. Don’t my girlfriends all get jealous, and wouldn’t every single one of them push me under a truck to get him. Not Jen, of course, but she’s got Mark.
Keith goes down on me and then me on him. Just once today for each of us. That’s all the time we’ve got since we used up half an hour picking cars. Still, we sit for a minute. He smoothes my hair with his fingers, making them like the comb that’s back home in my book bag, which I forgot. Which I hope my mom doesn’t start poking around in.
When we graduate in the spring we’re going to get an apartment together. College can wait. Keith’s going to buy a car with what he saves from work. We’ll both be eighteen then and nothing they can do. I want it so bad. We both do.
“We have to get back,” says Keith. He gives me his hand, so sweet, and we walk to where the woods start and then to where the path forks, left to his house, right to mine.
My mother’s Subaru is in the driveway when I get there. She’s working through a pile of papers on the kitchen table and my book bag’s sitting in the hall where I left it. I grab it and run upstairs. She’s shouting something up the stairs, like I could really hear her with the door shut. We used to talk a lot, Mom and me. Now she works all the time, nights, weekends, whether Dad’s around or not. She’s going to be a real estate agent as soon as she passes the test. She’s got to study, study, study.
The next day I wear my Gap jeans and white long-sleeved shirt. That’s my favorite outfit. Now that my hair’s down to my waist (at last!), I look pretty good. I dress for Keith, just Keith. He doesn’t dress for anyone. “What?” he’ll say if I try to talk clothes. “Huh?” Like it’s too worthless to be a subject of conversation.
We talk about other stuff. What we’ll do when we get out of here. Where we’ll live. Poetry, sometimes. He writes these poems that he recites to me when we’re in the car. Usually after we do it, but sometimes before. One time he even says some lines right when we’re starting and keeps saying them when he’s inside me and he can barely breathe anymore but still he’s saying the words almost up to when he comes and then we just fall against the sides of the car and laugh and I say, “Nice poem.”
Now any time of day, in class or at the cafeteria or whatever, all I have to do is say “nice poem.” It makes everybody else kind of mad since they don’t know what we’re laughing about, but there’s an excuse for us I guess because we’re in love and they know it so they just make a face or look off somewhere else, that little eye roll thing.
Sex. They have to talk about it in health class, and that’s when we just about fall asleep or groan or maybe even act like we’re really interested, asking dumb questions and all, which makes us crack up. This is what gets me: they come at us like some freaking Moses to tell us the big news. Wow, like if you have unprotected sex then you’ll get pregnant or you’ll get AIDS and die young and beautiful like what’s his name. A beautiful corpse. So don’t have sex but remember to use a condom.
Keith wrote this silly poem during health class one day and passed it around the room, which got us all laughing or at least awake again but the teacher never noticed anything. It went like this:
Remember the text
When you’re thinking of sex
Don’t be dumb, use that condom
Or you’ll get stuck with a kid
Like your mom and dad did
We met in the middle of tenth grade. His family had just moved here and everyone thought that being from New England he’d be stuck up. You know, we live in Virginia where the land’s red clay and everyone’s a chicken farmer. He was just quiet, which everyone took for totally conceited at first. Our lockers were next to each other and for a long time we wouldn’t even talk but then one day he’s standing there laughing and he smacks his hand on his cheek and I ask him what and he says he’s forgotten the combination. Just like that. Knew it for three weeks and then forgot. Now that’s funny, I think, and I laugh too and we stand there laughing until he walks off suddenly which I found out later was to the office to get reminded. After that we began to talk and then all the rest. The sex, the cars, the love.
One day Jen says to me, “What do you two do all the time, because I know you’re not hanging out at your house with your mom there and doesn’t Keith’s dad work at home?” But I don’t tell her, even though she’s my best friend and ever since the eighth grade I have basically told Jen everything and the other way around. The truth is, I don’t tell anyone. Neither does Keith.
The first time we see it we’re walking in the woods behind his place, which is six blocks from my house and close to where the town stops and the country starts. It’s mid-September and so hot even the gnats and the deer flies don’t have much pep. Daytime is about the only time we get to hang out since Keith started working nights at the restaurant. We walk in the woods because his dad and my mom each work at home so much. My dad, well, he’s gone a lot, especially lately. Business trips. Which sometimes get extended while he’s away. Once when it’s just Mom and me home I straight out ask her is there something wrong. But she just stares out the window like I never said anything.
Anyway, we’re deeper into the woods than we’ve ever been before. It’s pretty hot even here and I’m all for stopping where we are but Keith keeps going. The path’s real narrow and I’m watching his shoulders and the way the muscles move and the way his back trims down toward his hips when I hear him say “son of a bitch” kind of quiet like.
“Keith?” I say.
“Look at that, Ida. Just look at that. Who knew it was even here?”
Beyond the woods there’s an open stretch thick with tall grass and weeds that slopes down to a field with cars all over the place, lined up row after row.
Keith looks at me and raises his eyebrows and then we’re out of the woods and starting down the hill. It’s grassy and steep and I’m slipping and so is Keith and we take off and run the rest of the way down. When we stop we’re dizzy, which makes us feel trippy, and it’s like the cars are all vibrating. A Dodge truck a Chevy Caprice a Toyota Corolla and an ancient VW bug practically rusted into the ground. We’re naming them as fast as we can. He says Ford Falcon, I say Lincoln Town Car; he says Honda Prelude, I say Jeep Cherokee. We keep going as fast as we can while we walk around. Then we quit with the names.
A big old cloud comes over us and it’s suddenly cool and Keith puts his arm around me and holds me against him and I can feel his heart beating so close to mine.
“What if someone comes?” I ask, thinking somebody owns the place and brings the cars here.
“I don’t think there’s anybody around,” he says, tugging my arm. “Come on.” Then we start checking out the cars.
“Whoa, look at this baby,” he says, his hands flat down on the hood of a long black Cadillac. We’re looking at all the chrome and he says, “1982.” He’s like that with cars. It’s hard to see what’s wrong with it until Keith pries the hood up. No engine. Plus it’s all bashed in on the passenger’s side.
“Just think what it’d be like if we could get the parts for this baby,” he says. “Keith and Ida’s partymobile.”
I call him over to a little Ford Escort, a kind of bright royal blue. It’s smashed in on the roof and the driver’s side, and there’s broken glass all over the front seat and I can see a magazine and some other stuff. A tiny pink shoe. I can reach the magazine by leaning through the broken window. It’s a People from 1987. Princess Di on the cover. I put it back on the seat. The rule just started itself right off: We look at stuff but we don’t take anything. Everything stays the way it is.
We’re sitting on the hood of an old Pontiac when Keith gets that dreamy look.
“Let’s get in the back. In the shade.”
He opens the back door on the driver’s side and I scoot in and he gets in and shuts the door. We smoke some weed and roll the windows up and down with the handles, which are the funniest things, going around and around. A breeze floats through and it’s nice and cool and Keith leans back against the seat and looks out the window. I’m looking at the line of his jaw and that little place on his neck where I like to put my tongue.
“It’s ours,” he says.
“Our place. Our cars.”
We sit there a while and then Keith touches my cheek and moves his hand under my shirt, his fingers light like a breath on my breasts. I lay my hands on his chest and kiss his neck and he groans and grabs my shoulders and pushes me down hard on the seat and then we’re grabbing at each other’s clothes and our own clothes and we didn’t bring anything, we didn’t think we’d really be doing it today but we are.
So that’s the first car we fucked in. A 1979 Pontiac, green, with four flat tires. Since then we have moved on to Jettas and Plymouths and quite a few AMC Eagles, which Keith says should have been sent here straight from the factory to save people all the trouble. We even found an old Pinto. Each time we sit in the front seat and take turns at the wheel and decide whether it’s the right car. One day we sat in maybe ten cars before one felt right.
Keith says it’s the karma. Like if there wasn’t anybody who died, but they just got banged up some or maybe not any and the insurance company totaled the car and the people sold it to a junker and got a new one. The bad ones we usually don’t do it in, but there are exceptions. Like the one we decide on today.
“So what,” I say. “If a car’s cool enough it’s exempt?” Because anyone looking at the Audi can tell the driver didn’t walk away.
“Something like that. Listen, Ida. I have to go away next Saturday. It’s my dad, well, both of them. They’re dragging me to look at Virginia Tech. I told them I’m not going to college yet and you should have seen them. Totally apeshit. Mom starts doing her crazy speed talking and my dad’s trying to calm her down but at the same time giving me that look, and just to shut them up I said okay.”
“Well, let them think whatever they want, right?”
Then Keith gets a serious look and says quietly, “I want to marry you, Ida. Right now.”
I just look at him.
“We’ll be old enough pretty soon,” he says.
I know how he feels, and I don’t say anything but only fold up beside him and the next thing you know it’s almost dark and we must have been sleeping for a couple of hours. We’re putting our jeans back on when we hear the sound of an engine.
“Shhh,” says Keith. “We’d better lay low.”
There’s no way we can get all the way to the woods now without being seen. There’s a tow truck coming toward us, pulling a car. Keith and I squish down as much as we can in the back of the Audi. The rumbling is so close that I’m sure they’ll see us when they go by but then again it’s dark enough maybe they can’t. The truck pauses right near us and I hear a whispered “fuck” from Keith but the truck goes on past. We peek out just in time to see it go down a ways from where we are, and a guy gets out and starts with the hand motions to the driver, who backs up, and the car, a big long thing, slides into an open space between two wrecks and the truck keeps backing up until the car is pushed up against some bushes and then the driver gets out. He’s a big guy, and tall. Both the men walk around the car toward the back and it sounds like they’re arguing and then they come back to the front of it and bend down. They must be undoing the hitch. They straighten up and get back into the truck and drive away.
We don’t say a word. We just get out of the Audi and walk fast to the woods and it’s so dark in there and when we come to the fork Keith says do I want him to walk me home and I’m like yes, I do.
When we get there, he gives me a quick kiss and then he’s gone down the street. Mom’s in the kitchen with some work papers spread out on the table. There’s a half empty bottle of wine on the counter. It’s not that she drinks all that much. Just enough, she says.
“Where have you been?” Not even hello.
“Studying with Jen.”
“I told you to call. I was worried.”
She gives me a little hug and I feel kind of bad that she believes me just like that. I tell her I’m sorry, and she thinks I mean about being late.
Class trip day for Keith and me is class skip day. We have it all planned, even down to the fake notes from home. We’re all set. We’ve got four beers, half a loaf of bread, peanut butter, jam, Goldfish, an Almond Joy for me and a Reese’s for Keith, a knife and a water bottle.
We head straight to the woods. We walk along not talking. It’s like, I don’t know, the woods are a church this morning and we’re quiet because it would be rude not to be. The sunlight makes streams of gold and dark in the treetops and I get dizzy from walking along staring up. I bump into Keith and when he yells “whoa!” it startles us both.
When we get there it feels all right to talk again. The sun is shining and all around us are the cars, so many of them we’ve sat in and made love in and even slept in a couple of times. Plenty of trucks, too, but the seats are too high and stiff and we prefer the cars. There’s a breeze here and the tall weeds are swaying back and forth and the blue of the sky is so bright, with clouds floating along like puffs of whipped cream, and we just flop down where we are and lie there for a long time, looking up.
The beer’s warm but we don’t care. We pop the tabs on two. It feels like there’s endless time stretching out. We’re in no hurry, for once. It’s bliss. Then Keith has to go and spoil it.
“They’re dragging me to some other places. UVA, maybe even up north.”
I just look at him.
“I know, I know. But it’s weird. It’s two against one. I’m just waiting them out, I guess. Checking out a few colleges, it’s no big deal. I mean, we’re going somewhere eventually.”
“Look,” I say. “You go if you want. You must want to, because you keep talking about it. Do you or what?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” he says.
Then he’s lying down with his eyes shut and I’m mad but he’s so handsome and the sun’s shining on his hair, some brown, some blonde, and there’s this little pimple on his cheek that kind of breaks my heart. I put my hand on his arm.
He opens his eyes. “Let’s not fight.”
“You started it.”
“Kiss and make up?”
Later, we start looking around. It’s mid-October but it’s turned out to be a warm day. We leave our stuff where it is and walk to a new area, one with cars that we’ve never even sat in.
Keith says it’s probably an animal in the woods. Just an old rotting carcass of a deer or something. Whatever it is, it smells bad. I’m for getting out of there and trying a different place, but Keith wants to check things out here first. There’s a dark green rear-ended Porsche. He’s trying to get the driver’s door open but it’s stuck shut or maybe it’s locked. The smell’s not so bad now. Maybe the breeze shifted. Keith gives up on the Porsche.
“Hey, look at this,” he says. There’s a rusty little car with no tires. It’s really cute. A Morris Minor, Keith says. Is there any car he can’t name?
“I want this one,” I say, and we both laugh.
“Contortionists Do It in Minor,” he says.
He’s been doing headlines ever since we read The Shipping News in Mr. Taylor’s class. God I love him.
“Now here’s something promising.”
He’s looking at a gray Buick that’s in front of some tall bushes near where the woods start on this side. It’s pretty tight in between two other cars, but we can slip in and get the door open just enough. I slide in and then Keith. He drives.
He looks at me.
I try to feel it.
Both of us are kind of in a hurry by now.
“Come on,” he says and flips over onto the back seat and I do too and we kiss and the seat’s big and wide and he lies back with his head against the arm rest and his arms up and I pull his T-shirt over his head and fling it into the front seat and we tug off our jeans and we’ve got everything off and we’re burning up. I straddle him, there’s plenty of room, and hover over him a minute just to tease and then I move lower until I feel him inside me and I move up and down a little and he says I’m killing him and then I can’t not lower down more and we’re looking into each other’s eyes almost the whole time.
“Should have picked the Morris,” he says when we’re done. I give him a little slap on the cheek and he laughs. We aren’t in a hurry. There’s the whole afternoon ahead of us. But we start putting our clothes on. The smell’s back. I’m still getting dressed and Keith’s flipped over into the front seat and looking in the glove compartment. He turns around and holds up a map.
“Hey, want to drive this baby to Florida? We could go to the Keys, hang out, maybe meet Hemingway.”
“No kidding. We could see where he lived. My uncle Stan says he had this big old house with a ton of cats all over the place that still live there, well, grand kitties and great-grand kitties I guess. There’s even a graveyard with tombstones with the cats’ names. A lot of them were named after movie stars.”
He folds the map and puts it back in the glove compartment. We’re about to go get our stuff and have lunch when Keith notices the trunk isn’t quite shut. We never pass that up. I’m bending over tying my shoes and when I straighten up again he’s backing away from the open trunk.
“Fuck,” he says. “Jesus.”
Whoever she is, she’s curled up with her face away from us, long dark hair covering her cheek. She’s wearing a green dress and there’s a big dark stain on it and this is for sure where the bad smell is coming from.
Keith slams the trunk down and we start running and keep running until we’re back where we left our stuff. I spew up breakfast and beer all over the ground. Keith gets a cloth out of the bag and hands it to me.
Keith’s shaking his head and saying “fuck” over and over again and we’re looking around scared like somebody might be coming any minute to stuff us in a trunk too and then Keith grabs up everything we brought and jams it into the bag.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” he says without looking at me, even.
There’s nobody downstairs when we get to my house. Keith stays for a little while but we’re so nervous we can’t seem to keep track of what we’re talking about for more than a minute.
“Do you think she could be from around here anywhere?” I say.
“We’ve got to tell somebody. We’ve got to tell the police,” he says.
I feel so bad for her but I can’t think of what to say. I feel like we shouldn’t have left her there. I feel like we ought to tell somebody right away. But I don’t want to talk about it, either.
“Ida, we’ve got to tell people.” He kisses the side of my face. “I’ll call you later.”
“She was there the whole time,” I say.
He calls me that night, late.
“You asleep already?”
“No way,” I say. I’ll probably never sleep again. My mom has a migraine and she’s in her room, like she was when I got home. The blinds closed. The tiniest noise makes it worse.
“This is all way fucked up,” he says. There’s silence for the longest time, like there’s nobody there. “Look Ida, we could get in trouble.”
” We didn’t have anything to do with it.”
“I mean trespassing or something. I don’t know,” he says. “It’s weird. You know how my dad is, reading the newspaper every single day of his life. And he never said anything about anybody missing.”
I don’t know what to say. I’ve got the phone wedged between my left shoulder and my cheek and I’m just winding the little yellow balls of thread on the ends of the curtains around a pencil until they take on the shape and then I ease the pencil out and go to the next one and wrap that one around the pencil until pretty soon I have the whole curtain full of little tails of thread twirled into this weird funnel shape and I’m thinking how bizarre it looks and I start to laugh but right away I stop.
Keith says good night. Just like that. No Ida, no nothing.
It’s raining when we meet in town the next night. The kind of dark downpour you can’t really see through. All you see is the rain slicing down in front of you and you could be in your hometown or some place a million miles away.
Keith has it all figured out, how we’ll call from a pay phone. “That way nobody can trace us. You know how it is. What’s the first thing everyone thinks? The one who calls has something to do with it, right?”
It’s not really that, though, because who would seriously think two high school kids would do anything like that. They’d make us talk, that’s what they’d do. About the place. Why we were there. We can just hear the questions. It’s been our secret place for so long we can’t tell anyone, not our parents, not the police, not anyone.
I should be the one to call, we decide. Keith’s got his arm around me as much as he can with me standing in the phone booth and him trying to fit in too and not get soaked. But still, I’m so nervous I could puke. We have the number on a piece of paper. My hands are shaking when I dial, and it just rings and rings. Then a recording comes on saying leave a message or if it’s an emergency press one. The voice says leave your name and a number where you can be reached in the daytime. I tell them the exact car and how to find it and then hang up.
We never go back to the junkyard. After a while we don’t talk about it anymore. And there’s no good place to make love, and when we do it at his place when his dad’s out it feels weird, sort of like she’s there, too. When we start, it’s the way it used to be. But then, no matter where we are, while we’re taking off our clothes, it’s as if she’s there, waiting, and when we’re done we’ll find her all over again.
One day after school we’re smoking weed down by the pond at Keith’s place and he starts up again about college. He’s thinking about the future, he says. How the sooner we go the sooner we’ll be done. As if years from now is a fine time to get our apartment.
“We could go to the same school,” he says, but he’s not looking at me.
“And we’ll what, live in a dorm?” I can’t believe this. I squint my eyes at him and he just shrugs and passes me the joint.
A few days later, I’m heading to history class when I see Keith way down the hall, leaning against some lockers and talking to a couple of guys I don’t know very well. They’re laughing about something but I can’t hear what.
I rummage in my pack and get out the newspaper with the article about the police finding out who the woman was, where she lived and everything. It’s such a sad story. I walk up to them and stop next to Keith and he looks as me and says, “Hi, Ida.” Very casual. I could be anyone. Then he turns back to them, as if he could be just anyone, too. I stuff the paper back in my pack without looking up so they won’t see my eyes.
Keith ends up going to college in Boston, where I heard he met some girl. His parents moved back to Massachusetts. Mine are splitting up, big surprise. Still, I didn’t think my dad would move all the way to California. His job, he says. Where she lives, my mom says.
I work at The Gap all summer and then I end up going, too. Virginia Tech, actually. Jen’s at Tech, too, but we aren’t close the way we used to be. There’s stuff I can’t talk to her about, for one thing.
We lived in the same dorm the first semester, but then I found an apartment in town, just a bedroom and a kitchen, plus a tiny bathroom, above the Donut Hole. A week after I moved in I was walking home from class and there was this bedraggled little black and white dog wandering up and down the sidewalk. She didn’t have a collar and as far as I could find out she didn’t have a home, either. I named her Bandit.
In good weather, when classes are over for the day, I go back to the apartment to get Bandit and head down to the quad and throw the Frisbee for her. Then we just hang out. Bandit sits next to me and keeps an eye on everything, the students and their dogs and the skateboarders whizzing along the paved paths. Every once in a while, when the sun’s warm on my back and the breeze passes over me like a breath, I get this feeling. It’s like I’m back in one of the cars and if I open my eyes real quick I’ll see that brown hair streaked with blonde falling over those brown eyes.
Sometimes I want to call him up. The thing is, I don’t know his number or even where he lives anymore. But I think about it, how I would call him, just to talk for a few minutes. Of all the people in the whole wide world, he’s the only one I could ask. What if we hadn’t found her?
Of course, you know how it is. Even if you could find him, he wouldn’t be the person you really want to ask. The person you really want to talk to is the one you knew back then, when it was just the two of you all by yourselves at the center of the world, and nothing could ever change that.