By Lindsey Jones
I grew up on the trashy side of town. Not necessarily the poor side, though we were that too, but the side where off-duty cops went to party and drunken rednecks used the highway as their personal dragstrip. The kids were dirty, the yards were full of cigarette butts, and the city-limit sign was far in the distance.
In theory, we could have done better for ourselves. Our poverty and lack of class were a choice. We lived like that out of spite. I’m not exactly sure who it was in spite of, but we were definitely sticking it to someone. At least, that’s one of the many lies we told ourselves. Whiskey is good for the soul, roaches come from the trees, and we live this way because fuck you, that’s why. If our parents were sober enough to offer a better explanation, they would just shrug, mumble something about freedom of speech, and start drinking again.
In my neck of the woods, we grew up fast and wild, like summer weeds in a road-side ditch. It was to be expected. When you’re raised by adults who can’t be bothered to act grown, you find your feet fast. While our classmates were still worried about making the soccer team or what brand of jeans were cool, we were drowning in debt and inherited addiction. We were employees, delinquents, hustlers, and even parents, long before we were old enough to vote.
We were millennials before millennials were a thing, starting high school in the late nineties when “I couldn’t find a phone” was an acceptable reason not to check in. Sure, some kids had cellphones, but me and my friends? We were not those kids. If we weren’t calling from jail or a hospital, it wasn’t worth the quarter. This combination of poor supervision and zero accountability gave us an unhealthy level of freedom we whole-heartedly abused.
High school in general was more of an afterthought. While I didn’t have grand illusions of a diploma granting me a better life, I wanted to graduate and made a reasonable attempt to attend class. So, when my friend Logan and I walked out of school mid-day on a Wednesday, I wasn’t being rebellious. I was tired. I had worked late the night before, and apparently, falling asleep in class was unacceptable and showed a clear disregard for the importance of my education. Whatever. I’d reached my limit of stuffy, patronizing authority figures, so I grabbed Logan and headed out.
Always down for delinquency, Logan was the best friend a girl like me could have. We were as close as two people could be while still knowing nothing about each other. I used him to feel superior to the many girls who wanted him, and he used me for my car and cigarettes. Maybe it wasn’t the best arrangement, but hey, there are worse ways to be used.
I met Logan in a pool hall the year before. It was a ratty place with seven good tables, two bad ones, and a whole slew of drunk and disorderly patrons. You may be thinking, that’s no place for a teenaged girl, but I was right at home among their sweaty numbers, as fluent in their slurred, suggestive mumblings as if it were my native language. Sure, they were the bottom of the barrel — the slimy, rotten sludge of society — but they were useful. I was a hustler, and their infallible ability to fail miserably at pool kept me clothed, fed, and my tank full of gas.
Logan was different than the others. For starters, he was my age and didn’t smell of desperation and skunk weed. Through the thick haze of smoke and wasted potential, we locked eyes, him noticing my short skirt and me noticing his overpriced designer t-shirt. I thought I’d found an easy mark, but it didn’t take long to realize I’d made a mistake. The hustle was a bust. There was no money to be had.
I had to hand it to him though, he hid his poverty well. But kind recognizes kind. He couldn’t fool me for long. Beyond the handsome grin and knock-off designer clothes, I could see the hunger in his eyes, the mud on his boots, and the frayed belt cinching jeans a size too big. We were the same. Just a couple of lost kids scamming the world for our supper. We were magicians, offering glittering distractions to hide our ugly truths. The illusion shattered, I bought him a burger and decided to keep him.
And there he still was, sweating his ass off as I pulled out of the school’s parking lot in my old, beat-up Mercury. The air conditioner didn’t even try to keep up, so we rolled the windows down, letting angsty alternative music out and the smell of fast-food and pine trees in.
Our town was never designed to support a state university’s worth of frat boys, sorority girls, and all the bars and coffee shops that go with them, so cars sat real snug on the cramped four-lanes of the main street. The whole drag was comically punctuated with red lights and the speed limit never breached thirty-five. It became a place to cruise with the windows down, hunting for parties or gathering phone numbers. It wasn’t unusual to see people swap cars altogether if a better ride came along. Being that it was the middle of the day, our red-light companions consisted of dredged out businessmen, soccer moms, and the occasional retiree.
I was checking my makeup in the review mirror, when a sleek, silver car with dark tinted windows pulled up beside us. The window slid down to reveal a smoozy-looking guy in the passenger seat. He was young. Not young-young, but young the way adults could be young. Still handsome, still excited about his new career as a junior lawyer or accountant or whatever job allowed him to ride shotgun in a car like that. He might have been a scrub, but he was a fancy scrub.
Despite the fact he was most assuredly looking at a teenage girl with too much eyeliner and flat, middle-parted hair, he smiled at me. I smiled back. Rich boys liked white trash girls.
Logan nodded in his direction, “Ask him for a light.”
“Think he will know what it means?”
“Oh, he’ll know.”
I gave him a little backwards wave with an unlit cigarette between my first and middle fingers. In my world, this was the universal sign to borrow a lighter. As the light turned green, I stuck the cigarette between my lips and drove the short distance to the next red light. As the other car rolled to a stop, he was already hanging out of his window, a shiny, sliver lighter in hand.
“Told you,” Logan smirked.
“Do you know him?”
“Nah, but I know guys like him.” He snorted, “Hell, I am a guy like him.”
I threw the car in park and climbed half-way out the window. Instead of handing me the lighter, he took the cigarette from my mouth and put it in his own. He lit it, took a drag, and handed it back. Yeah, okay, that was hot.
Logan rolled his eyes. “What a cheddar.”
“Excuse me? That was not cheesy.”
“Yeah, it was,” he laughed. “If I did that hanging out of my mom’s old van, you wouldn’t have anything to do with me.”
“Sure, I would.”
“Well, yeah. Maybe you would.”
I was debating whether I needed a douchey, executive-type in my life when the car behind us honked. I slid back into my seat, handed Logan the cigarette, and blew the guy a kiss. He grinned, and I saw his eyes dart to the next stop.
For just a moment, I entertained the possibility of slipping him my phone number. I envisioned secret rendezvous, expensive gifts, and a one-way ticket to a better life. But I knew it wasn’t real. Rich boys may like girls like me, but they don’t like them for long.
“He’s a big fish, Babe,” Logan warned. “Even if you catch him, there’s no place to put him.”
I sighed. “I know it.”
When we got to the next light, I ran it. I didn’t look back, but I like to imagine he was disappointed.
A big fish. Someone who had never fought for a meal or endured the heat of an unairconditioned summer. Someone who shopped at thrift stores to be trendy and paid more for shampoo than I did for a week’s worth of gas. A big fish knew poverty like that old British dude on National Geographic knew African wildlife — just enough to make witty comments, but not enough to survive if he was dumped in the middle of it.
Big fish made big waves in big ponds. Me and Logan? We were swimming up a shallow creek in a field full of cows.
Don’t get me wrong, where we came from, I was a catch, a regular white-trash debutante. I had a job and a car, wasn’t too chubby, and knew how to weasel my way out of trouble. I was scrappy in all the right ways and a whole lot of fun in the wrong ones. I could pass an algebra test, change my own oil, and drink vodka straight from the bottle. But these things, the stuff that made me special, that made me unique, couldn’t stand up in his world of flashy cars and shiny, silver lighters. I wasn’t classy. I had never owned fine things or mingled in high society. Mimosas were trees, champagne was for sissies, and I knew fuck-all about brunch. I knew better than anyone that I would never be more than a tiny fish, flopping around in a narrow, shitty stream.
I went to take my cigarette back from Logan, but he was already putting it out. He crumpled the empty pack and threw it into the back seat with that same goofy grin he always used when he wanted to look cute and get away with stuff. It almost never worked.
Well, that was just great.
I pulled into Al’s, a convenience store on the edge of town. Walking inside, I said a quick “thank you, Jesus” for the blast of air-conditioning and nodded to Al behind the counter. He was busy with a customer, so I went to the back to grab a couple of drinks and a shaker of Lucas Limon salt. You can’t buy Lucas Limon anymore on account of all the lead in it, but back then, it was the best. You were supposed to add it to things, like mangos or something, but we ate it straight . . . which might explain a few things now that I think about it.
Al’s customer grunted what sounded like a “thanks” and hauled himself outside. I set my items on the counter and asked for a two-pack of my favorite cigarettes. Al grinned and passed them over. He didn’t care that I was too young. I was nice to him and had a pretty smile. We had an understanding.
In those days, I smoked Camel Turkish Jades. They were menthols, which I knew nothing about, and I only smoked them because of a magazine advertisement I saw once. The chick in the ad was beautiful, thin, and draped seductively across a pack of Jades. I was never going to be her, but I sure as hell wanted to be. So, I smoked her cigarettes. Never let anyone tell you advertising doesn’t work.
I walked outside to find an empty passenger seat. Logan was a few parking spaces over, leaning into the open window of a little red mustang. Inside, a perky blonde was eating up whatever nonsense he was dishing out. Logan thought he was hot stuff, so other people thought he was hot stuff. I never figured out exactly how that worked.
Sitting on the Mercury’s hood, I smacked a pack of Jades against the palm of my hand. I don’t know if it did anything, but I’d spent my entire life watching adults do it. Who was I to buck tradition? I unwrapped the plastic as I watched him flirt. Talk about fishing. That girl wasn’t just a big fish from a big pond. She was a freaking mermaid from the Mediterranean Sea or some other unobtainable place with clear water and rich, sunbaked tourists.
Reaching through the car’s window, I laid on the horn. The blonde looked over and frowned. This was the typical reaction when one of Logan’s girls realized he wasn’t alone. Seeing her irritation, he smiled. He liked them jealous.
As he jogged back to the car, I threw him the second pack of cigarettes. He stuck them in his back pocket and kissed me on the cheek. Giving the blonde a wink and a wave, he crawled into the passenger seat. As I opened my door, she glared at me.
I gave her an exaggerated shrug. I didn’t get it either.
Decades later, I still ask myself why we chose each other. Why we made the conscious decision to wallow together in the shallows even when a better prospect came along. Perhaps it was the familiarity, the unshakable bond of shared experiences. Perhaps we were simply too scared to venture out into unknown seas. While I’d like to think it was something deeper than fear, something more sentimental than an aversion to being a small fish in a big pond, I’m not emotionally mature enough to sort out the truth.
I suppose it was just something in the water.
Category: Featured, Fiction