Driving Home by Risa Nye

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Close up of a car controle consoleMy husband and I are driving home to Oakland after spending the weekend in Los Angeles. I’ve made this trip on Interstate 5 many times and I know that it requires good road music to counteract the miles of nothingness that parallel the freeway. He’s offered to play DJ for me while I take the wheel. Since his iPod has enough music to provide a sound track for several cross-country trips, I’ve got a lot to choose from.

My default long-trip-in-the-car music is old rock ’n’ roll. And I mean really old rock ’n’ roll. I want to start with the Beatles: the songs I listened to in my early teens when I bought packs of terrible bubble gum just for the pictures of the Fab Four inside. My closet door and the inside of my locker were shrines to John, Paul, George, and Ringo. First up on the play list: “I Want to Hold Your Hand”.

My hands grip the steering wheel at 10 and 2, my eyes focus on the road, but my mind reels back through the years to seventh grade when holding hands was a big deal.

Doug lived up the block. We sat near each other in most of our classes, since my last name started with an E and his with an F. The alphabet brought us together initially, but then we found ourselves under the influence of urges neither of us understood at the time. All the kids knew we liked each other, in the way that young teenagers pick up on the smallest vibe and make it into a full-blown thing. Our friends watched us: the girls cataloged every look, every smile, for nuance and reported back to me; the boys just acted stupid, as always. Tensions rose among our circle of friends. When would Doug make a move? Inquiring minds wanted to know.

One day in our history class, right under the nose of a teacher who had proven she had eyes in the back of her head, Doug grabbed for my hand under the cover of darkness. It was movie day, and we had inched our chairs together as the lights went out. Word spread in whispers around the class. We were supposed to be watching a movie about Mesopotamia, but to this day, there is a huge gap in my knowledge about the cradle of civilization.

Doug and I both moved at the end of that school year. We stalled at hand holding, never to reach first base even.

My husband asks, “What next?” and I request more oldies: the Beach Boys. Oh yes. Lots of good memories with the Beach Boys.

Sophomore year: slow dancing at a party with a junior named Chris. I had a huge crush on his cousin, but his cousin wasn’t at the party, so…. Chris wore a pale blue v-neck mohair sweater that felt soft against my cheek when I put my head on his shoulder. He had doused himself in English Leather cologne, which I happened to like. We barely moved, bodies locked together, and just swayed to the mournful sounds of “In My Room.” Or was it “Surfer Girl”?

A few years ago, I saw Chris at a party. We each had married people we began dating in high school, and are still married to those same people.

“Do you remember that time,” I asked him, out of earshot of our spouses, “when you had on a blue sweater and we danced a slow one to the Beach Boys?”

“Oh, I remember,” he said without hesitation.

“Didn’t you have braces then?”

“Thanks for reminding me,” he said.

On my personal sound track, Bob Dylan would have to be next; and Dylan always brings me to Phil. When I first spotted Phil surrounded by a knot of kids, I knew that he was not the type of boy who would give me a second look: tall, blonde, and dreamy in a 1960s-California-surfer kind of way. He emitted a golden glow of unattainable charm: a Jewish Adonis. I, on the other hand, presented as a frizzy-haired, borderline-socially-acceptable 15 year old with undependable skin and the wrong clothes. We were thrown together on a weekend bus trip organized by a local Jewish youth group.

In the movie High Fidelity, John Cusack’s character states, “In matters of love, you have to fight your weight.” I could tell right away that Phil was in a whole different class. The best I could hope for was a ringside seat as he chose a worthy opponent.

Somehow, miracle of miracles, I got his attention. I think he was attracted to me because it turned out we both knew the words to Dylan’s endless “Mr. Tambourine Man” and didn’t mind singing the entire song on the bus. (So I faked it a little. I knew most of the words and I didn’t want to let this guy get away.)  I was enchanted by his attention and felt something new and puzzling: could it be happiness? I checked my face at every opportunity; I sucked a lot of breath mints.

The group’s evening social event took place at the local religious school. Phil and I wandered off together to explore the grounds and ended up in the children’s playground, which featured a tetherball.

“Wanna play?” I asked him, hoping he wouldn’t think it was a dumb idea.

“Sure,” he answered, and we squared off in our corners.

Playing a child’s game while infused with the tingling heat of attraction gave me the same rush of feelings I’d had during spring days in elementary school:  running around on the playground ahead of the boys—wanting to be chased, but really wanting to be caught, practically jumping out of my skin with excitement. We batted the ball back and forth around the pole, pretty evenly matched.

Who knows how things might have ended if he hadn’t accidentally missed the ball and punched me in the face—hard.  He clapped his hand over his mouth and then fell all over himself apologizing.

“Oh my god, oh my god, are you okay?” I’d fallen to my knees, down for the count. He knelt in front of me to check for blood—there wasn’t any—then threw his arms around me and kissed me on my stinging lips.

TKO Phil.

All I remember after that is spending most of the weekend in the back of the bus with Phil—wherever the hell it was were going—lips locked for hours, thrilling to the feel of his hands on, and then under, my t-shirt, not caring about anything else.  Back of the bus with Phil: as close to happiness as I’d ever been.

I smile when I think of Phil. He was really mine for a weekend, though I’m sure I was just low-hanging fruit for him.

We’re making good time on this drive home. The shadows grow longer and the golden hills glow alongside the road. The changing afternoon light marks summer’s subtle shift into fall. We passed the smelly herds of cows that crowd together on the hills at Harris Ranch a couple of hours ago. Now it’s just a long straightaway until we cross the Alameda county line and snake through the windmills at Altamont Pass. I glance over to the passenger seat. My husband is reading, engrossed in his book. He has no inkling about the ride I’m taking right next to him.

Back to the Beach Boys and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” a song about the frustration of young lovers: wanting to get married so you could spend every night together, which is a pretty outdated notion—and was even when the song came out. I consider all the things people imagine about marriage as the boys sing:

We could be married, and then we’d be happy….

But the truth is…it’s complicated.

My daughter has been married for more than 10 years. We talked about that important benchmark recently, and she told me, “Mom, I love to tell the story of what you said on your 20th   anniversary. You know, when you raised a glass of champagne and said to Dad, ‘Here’s to 17 wonderful years.’ I think I get it now.”

I look over at my husband and recall the conversation we’d had earlier while he drove—a variation on the “what if” discussions we have on long trips.

Me: What if we’d moved to LA and you went to law school there?

Him: Yeah, things would have been different, for sure.

Me: We’d probably still be in LA. The kids would have been born there.

We think about this for a moment.

Me: What if we’d gone to Virginia? Why were we so scared to leave the Bay Area? Why was I so sure that I couldn’t possibly get a job anywhere else? We were so naïve and wimpy. Our kids are fearless. They all left home!

Him: But everything worked out, didn’t it?

Which is what he always says, and I agree with him. Things have turned out fine.

I want to sing along with the Beach Boys as they echo each other:

God only knows what I’d be without you….

We brought up our kids near our extended families, we set down deep roots in the Bay Area, and we love where we live. And yet, and yet… I think it may just be my nature to look back and wonder about those what-ifs. Road trips provide fertile ground for introspection. Time to shift gears musically.

“Motown,” I say next.

If I’d asked for Cream, he’d know I was thinking about Kelly, the guy I was with before we got together. He knows a lot of my history, but not all of it.

Motown songs carry a lot of weighty memories too, though. High school dances, fingers snapping, summer nights at the beach when I used to visit my aunt and uncle and cousins in Southern California.

The beach town had its own code of conduct—and in particular, a general relaxing of rules for teenagers. We didn’t really have a curfew, we didn’t need to be specific about where we’d be or when we’d be back or who we were with.  Getting away from the overly restrictive regime of my parents was especially wonderful for me, and the thing I looked forward to the most.

Beach life meant freedom and a world apart. I had no real responsibilities, no obligations, and no push back from anyone. My aunt and uncle let me do my thing during my summer visits, even act a little crazy. The languid rhythm of days at the beach brought out an untethered and reckless side of me.

One night, my cousins threw a party. They’d invited some cute surfers and some older guys from nearby towns. We danced to the Beatles, the Temptations and Marvin Gaye on the dimly lit back patio. When the dances got slower, I looked in earnest for someone I could cuddle with. So many prospects: tan, blonde studs with long hair and sexy smiles.

But which one caught my eye? This skinny kid, a couple of years younger, with a mouth full of heavy metal. He was just a boy. Despite my being older and not in his weight class, some definite chemistry went on between us. He had a slow smile, long brown hair that hung over one eye, and nice hands. In the moonlight, on a cool summer night, strange, unpredictable things can happen: in my cousin’s room, with the door closed, happy hearts beating fast, metallic kisses and slow hands.

Before I left the beach at summer’s end, as I began shaking the sand out of my clothes to pack, I got a letter from Kelly. I’d sent him a story about a sad girl, a girl with a broken heart and some big regrets. My letter also made it clear that I’d like to see him when I got back.  And he wrote me a beautiful letter in return, full of comfort and longing. He’d be waiting for me, he said. He’d be kind to the sad, broken-hearted girl, he said. I couldn’t wait to get home. Maybe he smoked and drank too much, but his poetic and romantic soul drew me to him with a magnetic force I was helpless to resist.

How could I know that he would break my heart, after filling me with hope and desire in the upper reaches of Winterland as Cream sent shock waves to the rafters? I couldn’t know that to this day, every time I hear “Sunshine of Your Love,” I think about that night, and the nights that followed, with Ginger Baker’s drums pounding as loudly as our hearts.

Why do I let the music drag me back to that young and dumb and boy crazy version of myself? Who was that girl? Am I still her and is she still me? Do I still believe in the “magic” in that young girl’s soul, believe in the magic of rock ’n’ roll, as the Lovin’ Spoonful put it in one of my favorite songs?  Yes I do believe in that long-ago magic. It will be a sad, sad day if I ever stop believing.

Those boys of my youth have grown up and grown old; some of them died a long time ago. I think about how the road ahead of me looks a lot shorter than the road behind me. My thoughts return to the present as I look at my husband sitting next to me. We’ve shared our journey together for four decades now. When we’d just started dating in our senior year of high school, I asked him about the words to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”. He wrote them out for me, in tiny print, on a long scroll of yellow Zigzag papers. I kept the scroll in a special box for years.

I’ve looked at love from both sides too: the starry-eyed romanticism, the heat of passion, the reckless craziness of young love—and the day-to-day reality of what it takes to make a marriage last over the long run. I don’t think the Beach Boys got it quite right, but  I  do still remember those early feelings of excitement about spending every night together, the thrill at the newness of it all. My 18th birthday, spending the night together in a motel, wearing his shirt like in the movies. Yes, I remember that.

Sometimes, when my husband looks for me in a crowd, he doesn’t see me right away. I tease him that he’s still looking for that 17-year-old girl he fell in love with. I can’t forget that girl I used to be either, or I risk losing my sense of wonder and joy. If I want to go back several decades and relive first kisses and emotional meltdowns, if I want to capture the heart-pounding, sweaty moments—all the first times—and sear them into my memory with the original sound track, where’s the harm?

Are there more important things to think about on this long road, I wonder? Maybe, but not right now. Right now, we’re deep into Motown and I’m almost home.

risa bye playing guitar heroRisa Nye is a lapsed Guitar Hero icon who gave it her best shot. She writes articles and essays in a room that can best be described as “pink.” Risa has been writing for longer than she cares to mention, but decided to devote two years to an MFA program, from which she graduated in 2010. She blogs at www.zerotosixtyinoneyear.com –a one-year experiment that has outlasted its sell-by date. She is co-editor of an anthology for empty nesters entitled Writin’ on Empty. For reasons that take too many characters to explain, she tweets as @msbarstool.

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