By Zoe Marquedant
We self-identified with our cars for ages. Specifically ages fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen. We savored the short bursts of escape they offered. Lapping the city on the Beltway, the Inner Loop. Breaking orbit with day trips. Justifying a trip to Baltimore with diner coffee, Washington with shoestring fries, Intercourse with pretzels. To us, the hours were worth it. Just to stand by the township sign, snickering. We could be defined for a time as: sex was hilarious, but we wanted it. And we were always hungry.
We’d pause in parking lots, unfurling plastic bags of convenience store candy. Ninety-nine cents a pop. Peach rings and sour gummies, shared unevenly depending on who’s favorite was open. Mostly, I did this with Beth. She preferred the purple tubes of Sprees candy, energy drinks, chiclets. We had met as kids, but she switched to a different middle school so I only saw her on weekends.
We’d stayed close ever since fourth grade; orchestra practice and recess were the things that had brought us together. After years of playdates and why-don’t-you-come-alongs, my folks grew familiar to the sound of her voice on the phone asking to pass the receiver. We’d talk then I’d yell across the house, asking if I could go to hers. They’d shout an hour at which I should be back. If it was going to be late, I should just stay over. Once one of us got a license, this became the emergent pattern. My folks didn’t like me on the roads past a certain hour and we’d want to talk until 2AM anyway. I never knew whether this behavior was the caution of having a child, a daughter, or a measure learned the day my brother’s car was hit and flipped. Whatever the reason, I ended up out at odd hours. With Beth driving, me sitting in the passenger seat, feet propped against the dashboard.
I wonder if they realized I never made it to Beth’s house. I’d slide into my seat, pocketing my keys, and her car’d peel away. A fluidity we managed to master. Her car a bead of mercury dripping up the cul-de-sac. We’d leave, then just drive around. Lie our way across the neighborhoods. We thought this was getting away with something. Not telling the truth, not behaving. Our idea seems to me now to come from the same bright bulb that hovers over teenagers everywhere. But how desperately we thought, at the time, that we were playing it off.
We went after what we figured were freedoms, like we didn’t already live comfortable lives in the suburbs. Like sixteen then seventeen was hard to bear when you had everything except maybe permission to get a tattoo. Grades and heartache were all that hurt us. But it was the oppression of the age. We felt cornered by a fenced in backyard. Cities or even their proximity could only be reached by road. And so we drove. If just to be close to that thing that was beyond us.
Beth and I had nowhere specific to go, but we rode around like there was something to be found on the Northbound lanes. Like something would come of circling our county using the same half dozen routes. Something to be seen, experienced, witnessed. Maybe we’d stumble into a break in the maze of developments and office buildings. One that we must’ve just missed last weekend, one that led to something different. With two sets of eyes, there’s no way it’d slip our notice this time. We had such faith in our finding something.
Our search would be called after several hours of roads, roads, roads. Beth would drop me off, then twenty minutes later text to say she was home. I’d stay there, stuck, but not grounded until next weekend. Knowing we were good at repeating. Not waiting by the phone, but knowing it would ring. Knowing no one would take my seat. I couldn’t have done, wouldn’t have done all that wandering, watching for change without her. It’s something we must’ve brought out in each other. Also, I didn’t have a car. Between my brothers and me, there was no ride to spare, so I had to catch one.
Beth had inherited some old, greying model that you could stand on and feel like something straight out of a Hughes movie. Very tortured, played by Molly Ringwald, pretty in your broken-hearted teenage best. At least that was Beth. Her life lacked that same kind of believability. At a time when we were all still creating ourselves, she seemed curated. She emerged fully formed. It was unreal. Almost cinematic in quality.
All her favorite clothes were fashionable. To me at least. Stores I was too scared to go into or styles I didn’t know how to pull off. I was comfortable enough in my brother’s shirts, hand-me-downs and sweats. I always wondered where she got hers. How she managed to carry off a characteristic set of sneakers and this fraying cloth wallet that was falling apart, but in a charming, well-loved kind of way. How did it all fit together? It all made you wonder whether or not she experienced gravity the same as everyone else.
Her phone was always charged. Her tank topped up. She had cash, ever present and explained away as “babysitting money,” and a debit card she was in charge of. She went to parties, the kind where senior boys offered spliffs for kisses. Even the upsets — she had two parents perpetually fighting, walking out, leaving, circling each other mad as dogs with foam on their lips — had that scripted sense to them. She lived what I, what any high schooler who didn’t know better, thought was a perfectly imperfect existence. The feeling of something about to happen. Like she was always and perpetually thumbing the edge of something sharp, a disassembled razor.
I guess I was honored that she never stopped slinging down my street, around the cul-de-sac, insisting we go out. There’s a certain confidence in being someone’s best friend, but there’s also an awareness that even strong bonds break. This is one of the first lessons of being a teenage girl. An assurance alongside trying to dye your hair and basing yourself off of one of three lead actors.
Now I wonder if what I thought was good luck was just the habit of showing up. I was busy thinking no one else would take me when, of course, she would. I was her best friend, yes, but also maybe I never challenged her. I never complained, sitting shotgun, chewing on a slurpee straw.
I was her passenger. Acted as if it was my job. To adjust the radio. Take requests. Shuffled jewel cases like a card deck and guess at what she wanted to listen to next. Things ripped from our siblings that couldn’t be found on any station we could pull out of the air. To hold everything. In my lap, in between my knees, cradled like a penguin’s egg on my feet. Mostly I just opened, closed, passed, checked the mirrors for things she missed.
We called each other besties, the kind that drew on your notebook, your arms, and legs without asking, knew our unseperatableness well, but we were also necessities in a deeper, stabilizing sense. When parents were fighting again, grades tanking past where extra credit could do anything, everything feeling as far from college as possible. We were standard dependent, suburban, and stranded, but at least sharing a raft with someone we could make laugh. Someone that made it all just that much easier. And sure, I needed a car and she needed a second. There was and was not anyone else.
We were close. I have to admit it. Distance and memory can make adults so dismissive of those early defining friendships, especially the ones that smell like blue raspberry and permanent marker. We cared for each other. Knew each other. Were acutely aware of every mood and hair trigger. Close in that way that teenagers manage to maintain via long, late phone conversations. Talking til the battery in the receiver went dead. Even when we were ignoring each other, she defined me as a teenager.
At least as much as two girls can. When you like the same bands, steal shirts from your brothers, and shop for posters in the blacklight district of the mall. We hated our parents, but so did everyone else. Everyone wanted a car. I couldn’t have been the only teen desperate to not be indoors for no real reason. Thankfully, we had each other’s numbers. And we both got bored. Shared a fondness for becoming unbored together. A loyalty never really examined for causality and rather just accepted as fact. Perhaps a protective measure. Those years were all about who you were and who you weren’t nice to. Beth and I didn’t fit together perfectly, but nothing ever felt perfectly right anyway. Wouldn’t for years. Whatever our equation was, whether it was built on charity or honesty or choice, resulted in Beth spending two days a week with me.
Saturdays and Sundays, we’d stop to haunt the grocery store. Buy warm cans of grapefruit soda, sold only there. Pink in a distinctly unnatural way, but it’s tartness I grew to crave. We’d then stumble in untied shoes across the parking lot, moving at our own pace, ignoring the paths of oncoming cars and shopping carts.
At a jungle gym we’d long outgrown, we’d swing, almost unintentionally, letting our feet drag divots into the mulch. Suspended there, we’d talk. Upchucking about nothing, our families. Of course boys, cars, future lives, magazines, school work, summer, anything that could be encompassed by “sowhatsup?” We’d trash on other girls. We’d ask advice for questions we did not want answered. We’d ignore what the other said about not doing that. Sometimes we’d listen intently with heads nodded in close. Sometimes we just wanted an audience for a paragraph’s worth of sentences about whatever bothered us. We were broadcasting, desperate to feel heard, and sitting tuned to each other’s frequencies.
It’s what we’d done since freshman year. When we were soft heeled and unsure whether our friendship would weather long distance. Without the confidence of lunch tables and seating arrangements in Latin class. Would we still pair off? After Beth transferred, we laid the tentative initial tracks that we knew by spring like the backs of our hands. What roads to take, which businesses to hit, where certain sodas, flavors of Nerds could be found, and which had cameras. There was little variation to the map, the path we made in our heads.
The seasons changed, I assume we did too. Must’ve layered up, ran to the car. Cut our hair. Around us, the playground were painted, the roads relaid, but through it all the town looked relatively the same. Slumped into the shadow of the Capital, a clumping of schools, hospitals, family homes, and shopping malls. We wound Beth’s beater through the same root of this suburbia, from summer to pre-season. With the same soft drinks, bad language, posture, and academic standing. On upgraded phones, we messages to confirm the same plan we’d had for years.
What adjustments we saw we’d blindly, casually accepted like demoted planets. The things that left, like first real boyfriends and lead singers of our favorite bands. The woods we walked were cleared for cars. Tower Records closed its doors. Things lost like missing socks. My family cat. Several grandmothers. Our brand of chips and video stores came to be considered critically endangered. How did we not spin out of orbit?
We were gaining a grip on what was permanent. Sorting out what we wanted, needed, had to have if we could have it back. A grey striped sweater I still look for whenever I’m home, Keane’s Hopes and Fears CD, my Nationals cap. And then there’s what we didn’t want to find again, like the change from the twenties our parents gave us, our awkwardness, lack of confidence, the progress report sent home after a test. We were shoring up a stronger sense of self and what it took to be Her. And what did we do with our failures? Who was I: knowing we’d lost the championship, I’d failed the exam? Who was she: knowing only her mom sleeps upstairs, knowing her dad moved out? Every addition, every negative informed the process, changed the score, changed on some days who we were and who we were becoming. Did we have any say over any of it?
The greater shifts gave increasing reason to slip away into the hours when it seemed at times no one else was awake. In the hours that were empty, we’d careen around while others slept as if suspended in animation and we were the only particles in motion. At midnight even the green lights went to bed. Every minute then until morning belonged to the yellows and reds. They’d blink in unison, meaning use caution. Slow at the intersection, but if all is clear then go ahead. It felt like disobeying the rules of traffic, like we were getting away with something. In a constant state of uninterrupted motion.
When it came to breaking, Beth and I saw rules differently. I texted in class, she skipped school. I stockpiled my Ritalin because it made me irritable, she offered me her Adderall. Beth was the rebel, a title she would’ve owned if she had to. I was a good kid with nothing to show or say about it. We both knew our roles. Though our parents probably hoped their baby girl was the angel and the other was just a side effect of grade school. Even if we were both bad apples, they had it easy. We didn’t really party, drink. When we did, her mother found the bottle in the trash can. She agreed not to tell my mom as I sat looking guilty on Beth’s bed. She blamed me even though it was Beth who got a boy to buy the beer. I would’ve corrected her, fought my corner, but I didn’t want to be caught doing anything.
I was spending increasing amounts of time trying to steady the ship my brother tipped with harder drugs. Beth was doing the opposite. Her brother was sent off to boarding school, mine was still in the basement. I was trying to be good, to keep an even keel. Beth was taking on people like water, just to upset the balance and her parents.
Dating seemed mostly a way to frustrate them. The most unoriginal way to piss both parents off turned out to be the most effective. On top of their judgement, I stood as a third, a sawed-off gun-toting figure. Beth and I introduced each other as “maids of honor,” which was a future so far off its light barely hit us, but we considered it settled. Despite being teenagers, we were oddly comfortable with becoming adults. As a member of this one day wedding party, I became the person to impress. It was a role expectant of a best friend, so I spoke in riddles like the Sphinx and sunk their hopes like battleships. I was good at it.
Beth would be “just talking” to some guy, a few years older than us. As they exchanged messages, she and I sat on the swings. I read the texts and was filled in. Shown pictures taken in a mirror. A shirtless teen and obscured by where the flash caught in the glass.
They’d chat back and forth. I didn’t mind getting that sort of ignored, the kind that goes on when you’re not part of the conversation someone’s having in your presence. At least she mentioned me. Some iteration of “Zoe’s here too.” I was to be expected, he knew. Wedding party, remember?
They’d date as seriously as high schoolers for months, maybe a year. Then they wouldn’t. When the break came and it was just the two of us, I was the kind of relieved you’d never admit face to face. But who was I to shame her? To pass judgement on whomever had come and left. I had dated a Republican faithfully until him calling me idiosyncratic became annoying and I broke it off. What was my opinion worth? To her? To anyone? At our age, we couldn’t vote, couldn’t drink, couldn’t do anything but maybe drive, so what did it matter what we thought? Our belief systems were mostly carbon copies of our parents. I never questioned religions, political affiliations; just accepted those qualities amongst the others my folks had given to me, like my hair color and how I took my coffee.
Disapproval — of the relationship, the break-up, or some other fascite — was said with an apologetic lilt, like you were confessing to a ding in the car or breaking the hinge on borrowed sunglasses. As much as I was supposed to have an opinion, it wasn’t always welcome or received.
My opinions were also entirely lopsided. My best friend was everything and the boyfriend was sort of an inevitable accessory. It never occurred to me that by all likelihood they were someone else’s best friend and my friend, the now ex-girlfriend, was equally gladly gotten rid of.
How could I claim to know any of them when we only saw each other through one lens? These boys existed as texts. A vowel-less language of parenthesis and 3s. Sometimes we’d meet, at a school play or some event where numbers were possible. But I barely remember them, beyond vague, disembodied characteristics. A certain tattoo, a self-made haircut. Mostly, they were merely representative of emotional states my friend buoyed through. Happy then heartbroken. The endless rise and fall, as expected as breath.
I wondered what I must have looked like to them, with their trimmed jean jackets and moustaches, as Beth’s ever present friend, with my seat up front and stiff jaw. Overprotective and always around. Were we both making assumptions? Or was there no real reason to exist in conversation? Did they have a separate life?
I tried to trust that Beth knew what she was doing. She always had a handle on things. A reaction preloaded, in the chamber, ready to go. She knew the times of movies and their synopses when our parents didn’t believe where we’d been. When we’d driven elsewhere. She was the person you called when the condom broke and, crying uncontrollably, you needed to be driven the familiar path to the CVS. I never once saw her look at directions no matter where we went. At that age when we were expected to fumble with things, she caught on instinctively. What couldn’t be reacted to in real time could be ridden out.
Sitting shotgun, I passed the peach rings. Through all of it, I drank Icees, drained soda cans. I picked favorite jams, spun the volume dial to full blast. I gave the “ok” to merge, looking over my shoulder at the oncoming cars. It was what I knew how to do. I knew how to be present, second.
From the passenger seat, I watched Beth navigate boyfriends, mom’s boyfriends, stray cats, guitars, stud belts, piercings, advanced classes, college applications. Whatever it was, whether it was something we knew what to do with or not. Even when it didn’t feel After School or Special. Even when it poked holes in our airtight existence. When it overwhelmed us. We moved to alleviate, to sooth however we could.
What we knew, what tools we had were mostly surface level, cosmetic fixes. The ends of relationships were meant to be healed with a mixture of sweet, melting ice cream and promises to swear off boys, which we occasionally, dramatically called men. According to all the teen magazines that we devoured, that we spent all our money subscribing to, boys were supposed to be trouble in a mostly undefined way. How they would hurt us lay half under the guise of “you’ll learn in time.” Girls were supposed to be catty, gossipy, the b-word. A harsher sentence, but this state of hormonal disarray was normal, something to be expected of our teenage bodies. It was our bounty, our harvest. Paragraphs and paragraphs reassured us of this. As did television. And movies. And at times, our mothers and fathers. It was all we were and all we had to worry about. It would consume us, should consume us. That and blemishes. For which we were given homeopathic remedies, meant for a Girls Night.
Beth kept meticulous track of these things that to me seemed purposefully hidden between glossy pages where they would have to be found, sought out. Unlike the subconscious lessons of pop music, insults, and talking at length about ultimately nothing, here was a trove of information. And we were primed for absorption, to balance what was written against the comments of our mothers, sisters, friends. The way to cut your own hair with or without the right scissors, the length at which to wear a skirts depending on the occasion, the cut that everyone will fall in love with come July, and the newest nail color.
Despite biting her nails, Beth habitually wore them polished. Swiped each fingertip gingerly, expertly, like the nail might break under the weight of the brush. Softly blowing, fingers splayed, completely comfortable in each movement. I could never keep myself still long enough. To sit, immobilized, cross legged on the couch or bed, waiting for the base coat to dry so I could then pluck Blue Dahlia, as if it were an overripe fruit, from the plump makeup bag where it was nested. When I did, I felt declawed, reduced to touching only with the pads of my fingers, palms of my hands. Separated from my dexterity. As if I had evolved backwards.
Where other girls seemed obsessed with these acts of preening, I stayed confused by the whole process. Unsure of it’s allure. The act of arranging one’s cuticles, of trimming off just enough. Of keeping toes apart when they were being done, walking on heels as to avoid getting polish on anything. Of using a paint that stains whatever it touches. The whole careful operation. Gentle. God forbid you step backward into a bottle.
There seemed too many opportunities to mock, to not take any of it seriously. The long rectangular adverts on the convenient store shelves of knuckles brushing cheeks, clutching bottles, spilling rivers of seven shades of red liquid. The names, particularly, snagged on my teenage attention. Each tiny bottle stamped with a title unlike anything I’d ever heard. Usually some variation of the time of year, a time of life, or an old-fashioned heroine from a film I was supposed to have seen. A cultural reference from time before you were alive, but wish you had been. Or a touch of bastardized French.
It seemed an anomaly. Why was nail polish exempt from what seemed to be the rules? In all other situations when color was a choice, there was red, blue, yellow. Sometimes sweaters were onix or slate, but even these deviations never reached the absurdity of nail polish. You’d never paint the baby’s room Boyfriend Tears or dinner room Second Glass of Burgundy. Never say someone’s eyes were Central Park After Dark. That level of artistry and exaggeration was best left to musicians and poets.
Each color suggested an occasion. Each color found a new division, between light pink and lighter pink, between Sky Before Rain and Sky After Rain, different shades of downpour to be bottled and sold. The browsing eye is somehow able to digest it all. The mind is able to find a reason to wear each one. To spend the few dollars, to take it out of the bathroom drawer, and shake it and sit in front of the television, painting on Twenty-Four Karat.
Options, even in the crawl space-sized convenient stores Beth and I frequented, went far beyond the seven primary colors, the recognizable shades, the guessable names. An entire palate, a spectrum of sunsets. An orange for any occasion. A specific white for every aspect of life we were yet to live. For all the whats that were going to happen. For all the things beyond us, far separate from algebra and athletics. More dramatic than boyfriends and best friends and standardized tests.
Not only would we eventually encounter greatness, hardship, anything and everything beyond our suburban existence, but we could match it. One bottle was meant to compliment a wedding dress picked out in a childhood dream. Another, a green for first houses. A green for desks in tall buildings. A red for favorite sweaters and certain seasons, for distant chapters. A yellow to go with all the unwritten. All this and it was available in the aisles of our local, humble CVS.
From which, Beth had an extensive collection. When she ran out of her usual teals or soft pinks, or when she was just feeling frivolous, we drove over. Parking close under the red and white sign. We’d stand perspiring in the Beauty aisle. Too cool, presumably, to carry coats, just unzip them. I stationed myself at the end, just shy of First-Aid, trying to look occupied with hosiery, but really keeping an eye on the man behind the register. Watching the shape of his blue and red polo for signs of movement. As I did, Beth would survey the choices.
The polish, at least the ones we were interested in, the ones we knew no one would miss, were kept below waist level. Dismembered digits adorned with what you, the paying customer, might look like should you buy Flower Stand or Prom Night. When casting your eye along the lower shelves, it was as if each row was clawing up at you with a set of fake fingernails. Oblong and plastic, they jutted out from each shelf like the scales of a rainbow-colored, many-taloned beast. Beth, with an ever gentle hand between the rows of hollow hands and fingers, quietly pocketed a bottle.
Winter, in particular, is the thieving season. The extra pockets and layers provided entire continents of hidden space. Space that Beth took upon herself to fill with the store’s December stock. With the last trip we had enough Candelabra, enough Cable Knit, and Cold Cheeks and Mittens to last for innumerable coats, for months, or at least until we were once again bored. We had only meant to help ourselves to a few bottles of Steely Lookz and Towpath Green, but the stomach pockets of our sweatshirts must’ve felt empty.
Guilt never followed us out to the car. We reassembled ourselves, nesting back into the candy wrappers and aux cables. Disrobing, fiddling with dials, as if this act was no different from the previous, the next. We didn’t see it as bender or rebellion. As far as I was concerned, it was practically my job to be concerned, and this wasn’t anything. This behavior raised no alert, tripped no alarm. There were no sirens. There was no harm. It was just being a teenager. Repeating our small wrongdoings. Persuing vanity in the parking lot behind the stripmall.
We were being ourselves at a time when the self was always moving. We were just moving with it. Nothing we did would leave even a nick in history. No one would notice. We would never turn heads, stop traffic. But we could run after the chance to try. We could keep pace, if not give chase, if not give it a run for its money. We didn’t have enough gas, enough cash to do anything, but eventually circle back home.
Later, laying on the floor eating Milk Duds with back issues of Cosmo built up around us. Splayed on a bed of scattered fragrance inserts that breathed what some designer thought Curiosity smelled like into the air. Of this, we were masters. This was the life we paid for in premiums of sour straws.
Maybe we didn’t know ourselves, but around each other we managed to pull off some state of solid. If not, we pretended to believe each other’s versions of just-how-I’ve-always-been. To not see any seams. Or to help in hiding them. Sitting across from Beth, her absentmindedly twirling a strand of hair and reading, I could exist for hours. Without need to ask what we were doing next. As settled as dust, one with everything else in the room. This was our other environment. Here, nothing needed from us, of us, but a blank stare into the floor as half the day passed without notice.
Time spent in silence. Time to think, forming and un-forming opinions. She, we, would be, could be thinking about thousands of things on which we hinged. About one-piece swimsuits. Unfrosted cakes. Pastel flats. Finished basements. Homemade face masks. Favorite bands. Names for future daughters. Shades of the day, fishing finally out of front pockets. How Heartthrob was a bad choice, too dark.
She’d think about undoing it. Usually resorted to a combination of picking at the edges and biting at the ends. Flecking off tiny sections until the nail was clean again. Then, starting over with a new color, new or old. Selecting, shaking, unscrewing, offering to do mine, me shaking my head, again, an unchanged answer. Both of us, retracing a pattern.
Ourselves, for now.
Zoe Grace Marquedant is a writer from New York. She earned her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and her M.F.A. from Columbia University. Follow @zoenoumlaut.