Featured Story for the week of 07/01/2015

Stick Shift

by Louise Marburg

I wasn’t offered the option of being given a car, as some girls were, instead of a big dance with all the works: a dance floor and a tent and an open bar, a band and flowers and catered hors d’oeuvres. A car back in those days cost, what? About $6,000, I guess, for compact, a Chevette or a Ford Fiesta. But a dance, depending on how big it was, could run upwards of double that. The girls who opted for a car were thought by some to be selfish because they enjoyed the other girls’ dances without reciprocating. But, as I say, I wasn’t given a choice, and my parents could well afford a dance. They’d thrown one apiece for my two older sisters, who were long gone — one to California, one to marriage — by the time it was my turn. A “coming-out dance” was what it was called, as it had been since the days, eons ago, when it was meant to be a girl’s first introduction to Society, though now it was just an excuse for a party, and no one was invited that I didn’t already know.

My brother, who was a senior in college, was full of contempt for me, as if he hadn’t thoroughly enjoyed going to coming-out dances when he was my age.

“Coming-out! What a farce!” “Farce” was his new word. “I’m surprised at you, Maddy,” he said.

I was surprised to hear that he thought about me at all.

“What’s it to you?” I said.

“I thought you were different, that’s all.”

Now I was interested. “Different how?” But he sank back into himself and refused to say, which I took to mean that he didn’t know. He was just acting superior, as he often did, for lack of anything better to do than make other people feel inferior.

“Jerk,” I said.

“Cretin.”

“Stop it,” my mother snapped from the living room. When she told you to stop doing something, you stopped. She was in there with the woman who was in charge of the flowers. I drifted in and sat on the arm of the couch. The dance was in two days.

“Isn’t Madeleine a pretty girl,” the woman said.

I had no idea about myself, whether I was pretty or different or what. That I had not yet attracted a boyfriend was a failure that weighed on my mind. If I was pretty, I figured, I would have one already. But if I was different, a fresh idea for me, that would explain the problem, for I thought that boys didn’t like girls who weren’t the same as every other girl they knew. I didn’t play varsity sports and look like it, and I wasn’t fey, I didn’t play an instrument or go in for the arts. I was smart, though. “Boys are intimidated by your intellect,” my married sister once told me, meaning it as a compliment. But I didn’t act nearly as smart as I was, so I couldn’t believe that was true.

“What color is your gown?” the flower woman asked me.

“Pink,” I said. “It’s got a white sash, and a big bow here.” I pointed to the right side of my waist.

“It was her sister’s,” my mother said, which was true, but it had been altered and updated, the sash and bow added on. My mother said that there was no point in wasting an expensive dress that had been purchased in New York City, regardless of how long ago. My friends had dresses they chose for themselves at local boutiques, dresses that I envied despite my belief in the superiority of anything that came from New York. My mother lit a cigarette and blew the smoke above our heads. I smoked, too, but she didn’t know it. She might not have minded, I honestly didn’t know, but it was my policy to keep the truth from her until I had some idea how she would receive it.

+

My best friend Wendy was one of the girls who chose to be given a car. She picked me up after supper, and we drove with all the windows down, smoking cigarettes and singing along with the radio, what girls everywhere do in the summer, until we got to a roadhouse so far out in the country that no one cared how old we were. Sitting at the bar, we ordered rum and cokes and continued our silly conversation. Wendy was not surprised that I was coming out, but perhaps because she had decided against it, we never talked about my dance. We talked about the boys we knew, and the uncharted terrain of sex and college; we talked about our friends and families. Wendy’s mother made heart-shaped waffles and hemmed up the skirts of our school uniforms; she bought Wendy the kind of clothes I wanted and didn’t have. But Wendy wasn’t smart and would be going to the local junior college. So we were even in my mind because of that, and because she’d never had a boyfriend either.

A couple of guys came in after we had been there a while. They were dressed as if they’d just come from construction jobs, paint and plaster slapped on their jeans. I liked the look of them, and poked Wendy so she’d take notice.

“Gross,” she said immediately.

“No, no. Look at the guy in the blue tee shirt.” Both of them were much older than us, and the one wearing the blue tee shirt really was nothing special, with acne-scarred skin and thin light brown hair, big muscles popping out from his sleeves. He saw me looking at him and came over. His name was Lance and he said he was a mason.

“My grandfather was a Mason,” Wendy said. “It’s a secret society, right?”

“Not that kind of mason,” Lance said. He didn’t elaborate. He sat down on the stool next to me. I sensed Wendy’s impatience on my opposite side. Lance’s friend came over and started talking to her, which I knew she would blame me for later.

After telling me that he lived not far from the bar, Lance asked me where I came from as if I’d landed there from somewhere exotic.

“I live in town. Near the Museum.”

“Swanky,” he said.

“It’s boring, really.” I actually never thought my neighborhood was boring; I never thought about it at all. But now I saw it, as if from above, as a mundane province of houses and lawns.

“That’s why you came all the way out here, huh?”

“Yeah, I guess. I’m going to college up north in the fall.” I said that to impress him as much as I was impressed with myself, but he drew back and looked at me with an amused expression and asked me if I wanted to play darts.

I wasn’t as bad at the game as I thought I would be, perhaps because of the relaxing effect of the rum I drank faster than I normally would. But I wasn’t much of a drinker, so I refused a second round.

“Cheap date,” Lance remarked as he paid for a fresh beer. I didn’t know what that meant. I wondered if I should object to being called cheap, but he didn’t appear to mean anything by it.

I watched him fling another dart. His friend was talking intently to Wendy while she smoked and looked the other way. Let’s go, she mouthed at me. Finally she got up and walked toward the ladies room, signaling me to join her there.

“He’s not even good-looking,” was the first thing she said.

“I think he is. Well, okay, no. But there is something about him.”

“Trust me, Maddy, there is nothing about him. How old are they, anyway, thirty? Let’s go before they start thinking we like them.”

We were talking through the wall of adjacent stalls while we sat on the toilets and peed. The door in front of me was painted a very dark brown, maybe to cover all the old graffiti carved into the wood. The room smelled of urine and soap and pot. I stood and flushed the toilet, walked out of the stall, and confronted myself in the mirror that hung over the sink. My hair hung past my shoulders, dark and straight. I was having it styled for my dance and I didn’t know what the hairdresser would do with it. I didn’t have any say in that either, and hoped I wouldn’t look foolish.

“Come on, let’s go,” Wendy said.

I felt as if I could stay in that reeking bathroom forever, hanging on to one thing without letting go of another.

“You go,” I said. “I’m staying. I like Lance, he’s nice.”

Wendy stared at me. “You’re joking.”

“No. Honestly. Go.”

“God, you really are desperate,” she said as she pulled open the bathroom door.

+

I wondered if Wendy and I would be enemies now, or if the argument would blow over. When I came out of the bathroom, Lance was alone at the bar.

“Where’d your friend go?” I said.

“Your friend wasn’t interested, so he left.”

“I’m sorry about that. She’s kind of a snob.”

He nodded and said, “I guess you need a ride home.”

He drove a red truck with a white top over the bed and a stick shift on the floor of the cab.

“You want to drive?” he said. “You’re more sober than I am.”

“I don’t know how to use a stick shift.”

“Come on, I’ll teach you. Everybody should know how to drive stick.”

There was a field next to the bar that we practiced in. It took me a long time to get the motion of stepping on the gas while letting out the clutch, and I stalled so often it got embarrassing.

“Like this,” Lance said, moving one hand slowly down as he moved the other up, like a duck’s feet in water. He put his big hand on mine on the stick shift and showed me how to use it. “You can hear it in the engine,” he said. “The sound tells you when to shift up.”

I could hear it, and it was satisfying to me to do the right thing at the right time. But then I made the mistake of shifting into first when I should have shifted to third, causing the truck to stop with such a jolt that we both hit our heads on the ceiling. That scared me so much I wanted to give up, but Lance wouldn’t let me.

“You’ll be scared of it forever if you give up now,” he said.

“I don’t mind being scared forever,” I said.

“Yes, you do, or you wouldn’t be here right now. You’re bolder than you think.”

Eventually I was able to drive out onto the road, but I was afraid to go above third gear. We putted along the winding country lanes, which were dark but for the dim lights of a farmhouse every now and then. I sat very close to the steering wheel and stared out the windshield in mute attention. The night air coming through the windows cooled my face. I smelled hay and manure, and the sharp scent of tar. We passed a pond with a little dock that made me want to go swimming.

“You’re doing great,” Lance said.

“You know what I want to do?” I said. “I want to go swimming in that pond back there.”

Lance turned and looked back at the pond. “What, you’ve got a bathing suit in that little purse?”

I sat for a moment, trying to figure out what I wanted, or, rather, who I wanted to be. The night was moonless and there were no streetlights on the road.

“I mean skinny-dip,” I said.

“Huh. So, you are afraid to drive stick, but not afraid to swim naked with a stranger.”

“It’s not a matter of which I’m more afraid of, it’s which I’d rather do. I’m afraid of pretty much everything I’ve never done, and I haven’t done a lot.”

“I believe that,” he said.

We left the car at the crossroads and crossed the rough pasture to the pond. The water looked impermeable as glass, and I thought of the creatures beneath it, turtles and eels and fish. I stripped off my clothes and dove off the dock before I could think about it. Immediately I was blinded; the water was cold and black. I swam toward what I hoped was the surface and broke through it. Lance’s face popped in front of me; his wet hair was slicked back from his forehead, making his face look flat and wide.

“Chilly, isn’t it,” he said in a conversational voice, and swam away from me.

I watched his body slice through the water, his muscled arms smoothly wheeling. At the end of the pond he turned and cut back through his wake to me.

“You’re teeth are chattering,” he said. “Come on, you have to move.”

His body was gray beneath the scrim of water. I looked down at mine and saw it was the same. I stopped swimming once I reached the center of the pond, and looked up at the starless sky.

Lance swam back to me. His irises were black dots against the glowing whites of his eyes. “What are we doing here?”

I knew what he meant. “Swimming.”

“Is that all?”

“Maybe.”

He hooked one arm around my waist and kissed me on the lips. It was the nicest kiss I’d ever been given, and when he stopped I told him so.

“How many kisses have you had?”

“Not many, believe me.”

“A beauty like you?”

“I’m not beautiful.”

“You are, though. And even more so for not knowing it.”

He kissed me again and it was just as sweet. I felt his hard chest against my breasts. “What do you want?” he said.

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

“I’m glad it was me you picked up at that bar, is what I think.”

“I didn’t pick you up!”

“You surely did. And I’m glad it was me, or you would be in trouble by now. Maybe you were looking for trouble, or thought you were, but you don’t know what trouble is.”

“What is trouble, then?” I said. Coyly, I admit.

“Not me,” he said and let go of my waist. He left me and swam back to the dock.

I went after him and climbed up. Lance had already put on his jeans and was drying his chest with his tee shirt. I got dressed and we walked back to the car. I couldn’t see the ground beneath me, the tussocks and divots and rocks. When I stumbled, he said, “Hold my hand,” and we walked across the field like that.

“I don’t know about anything,” I said as we neared the car. “I’ve never been in trouble or even close to it. Being with you tonight is the wildest thing I’ve ever done.”

He pulled me to him and really kissed me this time. There wasn’t anything sweet about it, and it left me wanting more.

“You’ll do wilder things,” he said.

+

By the time we got to my house, I swung into the driveway as if I’d been driving stick all my life. Lance pulled up the emergency brake for me. He looked at the house.

“What a monster. I would have hated to lay all that brick. What’s going on there in back?”

“Oh, that’s a tent. My parents are giving me a party tomorrow night and it’s going to be held under there.”

“A party under a tent. I never heard of that.”

“When I get a car, I’m going to make sure it’s a stick shift,” I said.

“Is that so?” He chuckled. “You are really something.”

“I’m something, all right. I just don’t know what that something is.”

He turned in his seat and looked at me. In the yellow light from the street lamp his face looked ravaged by small scars and pocks.

“You’re a striking girl, and you will know it soon. Beauty is a power as valuable as intelligence, and you’ll find that out too. I’d like to meet you again ten years from now, though.”

“Do you want to come to my party?” I said. “You have to wear a tuxedo, though.”

“No. Thanks anyway.”

“The beer will be free.”

He laughed at that.

+

The hairdresser put a headful of curlers in my hair, but when she took them out, my hair fell down as lank as ever. She wet my hair again, put the curlers back in and made me sit under a hair drier for an hour. But my hair refused to curl no matter what. Unable to think of anything else to do, she wound it into a twist at the nape of my neck. Suddenly my New York dress looked dowdy, even my mother had to admit it. She took me to a shop where I picked out a long sheath: I wouldn’t look foolish after all.

I enjoyed myself at my party more than I thought I would. Wendy was friendly again.

“Did you have sex with him?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said impulsively. Of course she didn’t believe me.

By ten o’clock everybody had arrived, and the dance floor was packed. My uncle was pushing me around in a jerking foxtrot when I saw Lance standing a few yards out from the tent, barely visible in the dark. He was wearing a pale blue tuxedo and matching bow tie; white ruffles foamed from his chest. As my uncle led me around and around, I watched him search the crowd. His gaze passed over me once, twice, three times, four. But he didn’t find me, and then he was gone.

+++

Louise Marburg received her MFA in fiction from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in Prime Number, Labletter, Reed, Corium, Day One, The Louisville Review, and others, and her story “Crazy Talk” will be featured in the 2015 Lascaux Prize anthology. She lives with her husband, the artist Charles Marburg, in New York City.