One springtime Sunday, at the end of a play day with my best friend Nick, I find myself in the back seat of a station wagon, shivering. I’m shivering because I’m cold. Because a Wisconsin spring is like most other places’ winter. And because Nick’s brother, Jason, is driving with the window down.
I sit, quiet, clutching my bony elbows, watching Jason’s dark arm hairs dance in the wind. I want to ask him to shut the window, but I don’t know how to do that without sounding like the kind of boy I don’t want Jason to know I am. I don’t want Jason to know I’m a boy who can’t handle a breeze, a boy who shivers when he’s cold, who cries when he’s sad. I don’t want Jason to know that because he is a big boy, a popular boy, a boy other boys wish they could be, and because I know that last year Jason’s dad got drunk and threw him down the stairs and even then Jason didn’t cry.
I keep opening my mouth, then closing it, like a little fish.
We’re halfway to my house when I feel the car slowing. Jason looks up at me in the rearview—it’s the first time he’s looked at me the whole drive—and there’s something funny in his eyes, in the set of his bushy eyebrows. For an endless second, I think he must know I’m cold, and now he’s going to stop this car and do what strong boys do to weak ones. But he just takes a hand from the wheel and points up ahead. So I lean forward, slowly, straining against the seatbelt, until I see it: a painted turtle, scrabbling across the asphalt. I look back at the rearview, at Jason, but he’s no longer looking at me. He’s just watching the turtle. So I watch, too. And as I watch, I think about how good it feels to feel warm, and also about how weird this all is. I’m old enough to know what boys are supposed to do to animals. I’ve torn legs from grasshoppers. I’ve kicked sand over antholes. I’ve watched a boy try to feed a firecracker to a frog and I’ve watched another boy hit a duck in the head with a rock and I have seen a man in a big gray Ford swerve just to hit a turtle like the one that’s now crossing the road.
Long after this, after I’ve grown some, after I’ve met more boys and men and begun to learn what it does and doesn’t mean that I have never seen them shiver or cry, I’ll think of this day. I’ll wonder why I remember it. And once I’ve figured that out, I’ll wonder about that turtle, and what Jason didn’t do when he saw it, and what sort of boy he might’ve been, might’ve let me be, if I’d found my voice before the wind blew back into the car.
Brian Benson is the author of GOING SOMEWHERE (Plume, 2014) and co-author, with Richard Brown, of THIS IS NOT FOR YOU (OSU Press, 2021). Originally from the hinterlands of Wisconsin, Brian now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches at the Attic Institute, facilitates free Write Around Portland workshops, and works as a Writer in the Schools. His short nonfiction has been published in Entropy, Off Assignment, and The Sun.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Marco Hamersma/Flickr Creative Commons