Watch Us Go
My parents named all our cars: Wilfred, Arthur, Barnie.
By the time my father bought the Volkswagen squareback, no one was in the mood to name anything but death.
After he died, my mother gave me Barnie, a 1968 Buick Sportswagon, with a huge bench seat upfront. In the middle, three seats and one that folded down to provide access to the way back, a two-seater that popped up, the perfect place for car sickness and secrets. Behind that, room for bikes and groceries. This car had AC.
I can still see the glow of the lighter as I warmed it to smoke my first cigarette. My best friend Michelle riding shotgun, my younger sister in the middle row behind us, we barreled to school, windows open. We blared KFRC, the AM station, listened to Dr. Don Rose and his top 100.
Michelle and I would croon love songs with the Bee Gees. Her lips shone with bubblegum lipgloss.
On warm fall nights, I folded down the seats and created a platform so I could make out with Tim, the boyfriend who would break up me because I wouldn’t sleep with him.
Sorry was always the hardest word to say, Elton told me, every hour on the hour. He was right. I never talked to Tim again.
The world grew still. I drove to school, picking up Michelle, though she’d stopped talking to me as well. I still don’t know why. I ignored my sister’s eye rolls at everything I said. I drove home alone, as they both had after-school plans. I ate the peanut butter cookies my mother froze in Tupperware containers. I pretended that life was normal, that we were a family, but we were strung like lights in our separate rooms.
For long weeks, my mother flew off to visit relatives, and I drove both my sisters to soccer and violin practice and friends’ houses, Barnie never breaking down, his V8 a roar on the streets. I filled his terrible tank. He got 9 miles to a gallon, the engine glugging like boys at the keggers I wasn’t invited to.
On the weekends, I worked at an ice cream parlor and ate a cone a day for a year. My white apron was stiff and thick with dried sugar, pink and gooey with peppermint stick ice cream. Chocolate splattered my blue Keds. My pants got tight. Then I got fired.
I somehow showed up to take the SAT on the right Saturday. I forgot a pencil. On the way home, I listened to nothing, the car humming beneath me, wasting gasoline.
My sister got her license, so I started driving the Volkswagen, a stick shift 4 cylinder that could only hold five passengers but got 30 miles to the gallon. Without all the ice cream, I lost weight. Michelle started talking to me again. We drove together to the community college.
No one ever named that car.
Two years later, we sold Barnie to a family friend, and I never saw Barnie again. Maybe somewhere, he is metal in a heap. Or he is melted into other things, transformed the way I wished to be transformed the minute my father died and we began a life I’m still trying to drive away from.
Watch me. I’m on Moraga Way, the window open, a Virginia Slim in my left hand, my right on the wheel. Michelle is singing Don’t Leave Me This Way and my sister, finally, is singing with us. We sail past the school, over the hill, head toward the city. Barnie has a full tank.
We go forever.
Jessica Barksdale’s fifteenth novel, The Play’s the Thing, is forthcoming from TouchPoint Press in 2020. Her poetry collection When We Almost Drowned was published in March 2019 by Finishing Line Press. A Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in the Waccamaw Journal, Salt Hill Journal, Tahoma Review, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches novel writing online for UCLA Extension and in the online MFA program for Southern New Hampshire University.