Twenty years ago we were still teenagers, still going home once a month and cruising down the streets we grew up on, still building death traps out of rusting Detroit steel. We were riding in that Trans Am you bolted together in high school, an engine big as a St. Bernard jammed under the hood, half a dozen clearcoats gleaming over silver paint. The first girl I ever loved was nestled in the back seat, and we were taking her around Birmingham and Forestdale and all the old places we grew up, and let’s be honest, we weren’t listening to the Pixies or even Nirvana, we were listening to Counting Crows and Stone Temple Pilots, playing driving-around-music with the windows down.
I loved that Trans Am. I loved that it could actually get fast enough that it was scary, that you could feel the heft of it beneath you as it roared, even though I could never get the dang door shut on my side, those bafflingly heavy metal wings that had sagged over the years, wouldn’t latch good.
I suppose that machine had retractable seatbelts—unlike my Camaro or the El Camino, which only had lap belts—but there’s no way we would have been wearing them back then, cloaked in the invincibility of the still-young, babies with hair down to our shoulders. My major remained undeclared and I still dreamed of being a painter.
So when you floored it and jerked hard pulling out of the Arby’s parking lot, going into a heavy U on the sleepy four-lane, and my passenger side door shot open, there was nothing to hold me back from the rushing pavement, scraping Pontiac steel spitting sparks in my face as it sanded down the Alabama asphalt.
A scream from the back seat mingled with “Plush” as your right hand shot out and grabbed my shirt—you put the TA in a muscular left jag and whipped me back into the cabin using a precise mathematical formula known to anybody that’s ever been on a Tilt-A-Whirl—and I did my part by using the same inertia to pull that tricky door shut on my way back in.
Your eyes were locked on the road. There was still screaming from the backseat. I realized that I was calm. The Trans Am growled.
We turned on the road to my grandparents’ house, the same road they’d lived on since our fathers were friends twenty years before, since they’d cobbled together deathtraps and screamed them up and down Highway 78.
At breakfast today we laughed and talked about small things and big things, tornados and water meters, breakfast talk. Your daughter chanted “daddy daddy daddy,” her blues eyes flashing in the fluorescent lights of the diner. When we got up to leave you put out that same right hand for her—that sure hand, that quick and strong hand—and she put her tiny little version in yours. Then you lifted her up, and we walked out into the morning light.