Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 3.6]

Ryan returned home for Christmas break. Since he’d left, I’d received exactly four letters from him and two phone calls. The letters were always disheartening because they contained foreign jargon from new influences and because his tone was like a radio DJ’s announcing all the amazing things he was getting to do at UCLA. “Yo Babe! What’s up? It’s radical here. Sunny and a gorgeous 75 degrees all the time!…” He decided to rush a fraternity. There were parties with occasional celebrity appearances, midnight trips to the beach to steal sand for a party back at “the house,” drugs and hot blonds in his face all over the place, concerts to attend, and the “coolest guys he’d ever met in his life,” and on and on. Yes, he loved it there and was definitely staying. I responded to every letter, but never tried to call. I think deep down I was afraid to hear him use that DJ voice over the phone with me.

I was beyond pleasantly surprised when Ryan called me the first day he’d returned for the break. He picked me up for dinner and a movie. It was largely a one-sided conversation. He was bubbling over with exciting stories about his new friends and experiences. And I felt very small-town, with nothing really impressive to share, so I clammed up. The night ended in sex and him telling me how much he loved and missed me. His parents were going out partying on New Year’s Eve, so he was planning to have a small party with some guy friends. He wanted me to bring some girls over. I didn’t have the stomach to tell him the status on all that. The only girl who still spoke to me was Emily, and we hadn’t spoken all that much since the Cherry Vodka Party. She hung out with older girls and partied quite a bit now. Her reputation was about as bad as mine. Who knew if it was earned or not—I wasn’t about to bring it up. She had recently started working at the hotdog stand with me and I told her about the party at Ryan’s. She said she’d go.

I picked her up at 8 p.m. I’d only had my license since November, about one month. Dad was going to be out of town on a train. He gave me the El Camino (ugh) and not the Audi for the night. But Emily and I solved that embarrassing problem by driving over to the spot where my dad parked the Audi when he worked … and doing an “old switcheroo.”

The Audi had a sun roof, and even though it was the middle of winter, we opened it, cranked up the heat, blared the radio, and sang at the top of our lungs. Ryan lived out in the country, but we were there by 8:45. Ryan seemed excited to see us. He put his arm around me and led us downstairs to the bar. There were wine coolers in the fridge, which we could help ourselves to as long as we threw the bottles in a separate trash bag that Ryan planned to remove before his parents returned home. Emily chugged two right away. After the party was in moderate swing, Ryan led me upstairs to his room.

No sooner had we put our clothes back on, we heard a knock at the door. It was Emily. She said that the guy she had a real thing for, Aaron, wanted to come over, but he didn’t have a car, so could she go pick him up and bring him back—using my dad’s Audi? I hemmed and hawed for a few minutes, but Emily begged and promised she would take “extra, extra good care” of the car. She assured us she’d had her license for several months and was a good driver. She’d be back in thirty minutes. Completely ignoring my gut, I handed over the keys.

Ryan and I eventually returned to the party in the basement. It was almost midnight and his parents would be coming back soon. He began shooing everyone out and we cleaned up, hiding the bag of empty alcohol containers in Ryan’s trunk. We sat in the basement, hoping that Emily would return very soon with Aaron. At about 12:30 a.m., we called over to Aaron’s house. Aaron answered the phone and said that his parents hadn’t permitted him come to the party so late. Emily had hung out at their house for about ninety minutes and had left about twenty-five minutes ago. Phew. At least she was on her way.

Just then, we heard the garage door open above us. Ryan’s parents were home early! He hid me in a closet in the basement and told me he’d come and get me when the coast was clear. I was panicked that Emily and his parents might meet in the driveway. She should have returned by now. After fifteen excruciating minutes in the blackness, Ryan came and rescued me. Where in the hell was Emily?

On our way to the garage, the hall lights flickered for a few seconds then went out. My stomach churned. Something was very wrong. Ryan hid me in the garage while he spoke to his parents about the power outage. I shivered, not being able to shake my growing worry about Emily. It was gently snowing outside. I heard the phone rang. It was Aaron wondering if Emily made it back okay. “No?” He’d try to find something out.

Ryan came back in the garage with me. About this time, an ambulance drove by with its lights on, then two police cars. Ryan went back in the house, called Aaron, and told him about the ambulances. Aaron called back five minutes later and said that he’d called the police and found out that halfway to Ryan’s house, Emily had wrapped my father’s Audi around a telephone pole, knocking it and two other poles to the ground.

Fuck on all levels. I think I went into shock. Everything from there was a blur. Ryan had to go inside and ’fess up everything to his parents. They didn’t look pleased when they joined us in the garage and told us to get into their Bronco.

We headed toward the accident. It was eerie; the scene was lit only by the lights of the emergency vehicles. We all gasped at the same time. Emily had hit the pole head on. The steering wheel and front windshield of the Audi were smashed into the driver’s seat. There was lots of blood on the side windows. How could Emily possibly be okay? My sobs turned to panicky gasps. Ryan’s mom told me, rather insolently, to “calm down.” She wanted to know if my parents knew where I was. I said Dad was working out of town, that I was supposed to be staying at my mom’s, but I’d lied to her and said I was spending the night at Emily’s.

Oh, the webs we weave. I knew this was proof positive to Ryan’s parents that I was no good. As we couldn’t get past the scene the way we were headed, Ryan’s dad turned the car around and took the long route into town to the hospital.

As we walked through the emergency room doors, Emily’s dad, who happened to be a city policemen, grabbed me by the shoulders and practically yanked me the rest of the way in. He was furious and demanded to know why I let Emily drive my car. I explained the situation, the party, and how Emily had assured me that she’d had her license long enough to be a good driver. At that, his expression changed from fury to bewilderment.

He let go of my shoulders and said, “Emily doesn’t have her license. She failed the driver’s test.” Just as bewildered, I apologized and then asked Emily’s dad if she was okay. “No, her nose is completely shattered and she’s broken some ribs and her arm. But she was lucky she wasn’t wearing her seat belt. She would have been crushed instantly. Instead, she was flown to the back of the car. She didn’t get out of the car, thank God, because she remembered not to go near fallen telephone poles. There were ‘live’ wires down all around the car. She would have been electrocuted.”

Ryan’s mom called my mom, who arrived at the hospital to take me home. I collapsed at the sight of her and she took me into the bathroom. I’d started my period, pretty severely. A rather large volume of blood had soaked through my underwear and onto my pants. My mom put her coat around me and said she’d try to get a hold of my dad. Overall, Dad took the news better than he could have. He was glad no one was hurt. I was in trouble, but he needed to think about what the consequences would be.

Emily’s dad called the next day. They talked the situation over. I sat eavesdropping on the couch. Dad was tense and curt toward the end of the call, and then he hung up. “This isn’t good,” he said. “Because Emily wasn’t a licensed driver, their insurance company won’t pay for any of the damage to the telephone poles or the hospital bills. Emily’s dad wanted to know what kind of insurance policy we had and I had to tell him that ours wouldn’t cover her either since she wasn’t a licensed driver. They are looking at thousands of dollars in bills and damages. He started to get a little shitty with me, but I told him he should consider himself lucky because we could sue him for the $500 deductible if we really wanted to be nasty. We’re out a good car and our insurance will undoubtedly go up.” Dad knew I had done many things wrong that night, but believed Emily had some responsibility in this as well.

In the end, I was grounded strictly for three months and had to pay the $500 deductible. This also meant that I would not be getting the convertible VW Beetle I’d been dreaming about for years. The worst of it turned out to be that Emily absolutely and fiercely began hating me. Even running into her in passing at school was extremely uncomfortable. She told our boss to never schedule us on the same shift again.

One night after a home basketball game, I walked alone across the parking lot to my car. No sooner had I shut my door than I heard a loud knocking on my window. I looked up to see Emily standing outside. She pointed her finger at me and screamed, “Get the fuck out of the car now, Bitch!” There were other people with her. Not knowing what else to do, I reluctantly got out of the car. She screamed obscenities at me. I smelled alcohol. I was acutely aware of the audience around us and thought to myself, “She’s going to hit me in front of all these people.” I made a bad snap decision to at least get in one good punch. That way she—and everyone else—would know I hadn’t rolled over and backed down.

Well, Emily blocked the punch with one arm and put me in a headlock with the other. She got in about four hard punches before some older girls came and pulled her off of me. My nose and lips were bleeding, but I felt completely numb. Someone offered to drive me home. I shook my head and got in my car. A week later, I applied for a job at the Golden Corral.

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