The first couple years we were in America I refused to leave the house without my parents or at least my older brother. He’d take me up the sidewalk to a neighbor’s house, or we’d walk to the sports fields at the public school, but that was it. I did have a friend, David, but he always had to come over to my house because I wouldn’t go to his. I just couldn’t, I would tell him, when he’d ask.
We’d play under the shadows of the cherry trees in the backyard of my house, or inside in the shadowy low-ceilinged familiarity of the living room, where my mother could keep an eye on us. Mostly we’d play with cars, arranging them in a long line and driving them slowly down the hallway toward the bedroom, moving each one forward an inch at a time. Autoschlange, I called it, and my friend understood what it meant, because his father was German too.
One day his mother, Ramona, came to get him and I walked out to stand at the curb and watch as he got into her white Volvo. We always tried to talk as long as possible while our mothers said hello, so I got in and sat next to him on the leather seats. The car smelled like smoke, just like the Volvo my grandmother drove in Germany.
“Does your mother have a little rack for her pipes on the dashboard?” I asked.
“No, she smokes cigarettes.”
His mother leaned her head in the door. “If you’d like to come for a ride in the car we could take you.”
I looked at her and then David, who was smiling, and then out past her body at our house across the lawn. My mother had left the door open, and the familiar darkness was behind the closed screen.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“We’ll just go around the block once,” she said, “and then we’ll come right back here and you can go back into your house.” She was standing next to my mother now on the sidewalk, the wind lightly blowing her long dark hair.
I looked at my mother who was smiling at me encouragingly.
“Just around the block?” I asked.
“Just around the block,” she said.
“It’ll be awesome,” David said.
Feeling wild and brave I shouted “Just around the block!”
Everybody laughed and then Ramona hugged my mother and got into car. “Okay, here we go, nice and slowly.” We pulled away from the curb and I turned to watch my mother getting smaller as she stood watching in her apron. Our house slowly got blocked by the neighbor’s house, and then the next house and soon we were at the end of the street. Ramona put on the turn signal and we pulled onto Willamette, up past the graveyard.
“You have to hold your breath by the graveyard,” David said.
“My sisters say you die.”
I held my breath and together we looked at the graves passing. I was happy because I knew that I was doing something people like my brother did and also that soon we’d come back down and around the block and I’d be home again. His mother put on the turn signal and we had to wait for a car to pass before she turned. We were almost bursting. Once we got onto 49th we blew the air out and then we sucked and sucked to get the new air in. We both felt very proud.
“I have to run and get some groceries,” Ramona said as we got close to the end of 49th. “I can either do it now or I can bring you home first.”
David smiled at me.
“What should I do,” I whispered.
“I think you should come with us.”
I looked out the window at the houses passing. “And you’ll bring me home afterward?” I asked Ramona.
“Of course,” she said, “it’s the first thing we’ll do.”
I agreed, and so we drove slowly toward the store and right past it.
“That was it,” I screamed. “That was it right there, you’re going too far!”
“Oh no, honey, I’m going down to Sundance, the health food store. Do you still want to come or is that too far?”
I didn’t want to compromise the heroic feelings I had just earned so I sat there and thought for a minute. She was pulled over on the side of the road.
“How long will it take?”
“It won’t take long, and you can pick out a treat for yourself.”
I looked at David again and he smiled at me again, his blue eyes and sandy hair looking very friendly, and even though it made me uneasy I said yes, we could go.
On the way there he showed me how to play the game “sandwich,” which was where you threw yourself against the other person while the car was making a turn and pinned them against the door. For the next few blocks we were flying from on side of the car to the other until his mother told us we had to stop and wear our seatbelts.
By the time we got to the store we were wild and ran in before her. I only glanced up for a second, looking at the sky and the surrounding houses, thinking that my parents’ house was now very far away and if David and Ramona left me there it would be difficult to ever get back. But I decided not to think about that. I was going home after this anyway.
We ran around the store looking for treats while Romana walked slowly through the aisles, pushing her cart. In the end she pulled two long vines of licorice down for us at the cash register and we ran outside hitting each other with them.
“Do you mind if we drop the groceries off at our house before I take you home?” she asked me, once we were all inside the car. I felt like that might be too much but I was holding my vine now and David had his and somehow I wanted to keep playing.
“We’ll just help her unload really quickly,” David said. “And I’ll ride back with you.”
I nodded, but something inside my stomach became hard and nervous.
He lived in a big red house that was on a hill. His mother parked in front of it and then got out and began taking the groceries from the trunk. David ran out and started helping her. I sat in the car looking at the house and holding on to my seatbelt.
“Aren’t you coming,” David asked, holding two bags on either side and standing in his open door.
“I don’t know.” He looked at me for a moment before he turned and walked up to his house, opened the door and went in. I was all alone. I grabbed at the door, pulled the latch and ran out to the back, grabbed two bags and ran into the house. David was handing his mother things from the bags and when he saw me his face lit up. We ran back out and got the rest and then we ran to his room so he could show me everything and after that we went to see his sisters who were in their room and were really nice, one with black hair and one with brown, and then we built an autoschlange that went all the way to the kitchen, which took two hours, where his mother made us peanut butter and honey on bread, which I had never had before and I told her I didn’t care when she brought me home after that because everything was delicious!
“Well, you just let me know,” she said, before she turned to call my mother to tell her what had happened.
Matthew Zanoni Müller was born in Bochum, Germany and grew up in Eugene, Ore. and Upstate New York. He received his MFA from Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers and he teaches in his Community College system in Western Mass. “Fits and Starts” is from a forthcoming memoir he co-wrote with his father entitled Drops on the Water: Stories about Growing up from a Father and Son. The book will be published by Loyola University’s Apprentice House Press. Other works have appeared in numerous magazines and journals. To learn more about his writing, please visit: www.matthewzanonimuller.com.