I wasn’t faring well at the Backseat Olympics. Scratch that—I hadn’t even reached the continent where they were happening. At Jorie’s boyfriend’s basketball game, while sneaker-squeaks echoed off the walls, my friends vowed to help fix this. We spirited our Cool Ranch Doritos from the gym out to the student parking lot to inventory the cars.
‘It really is like the Olympics,’ Jorie said. ‘When you get back there, you’re so excited…’
‘But then you realize how much work you have to put in to get anything worthwhile,’ Kendra concluded. Her boyfriend wasn’t a jock. He had a weekend job at JiffyMart.
Jorie shrugged. ‘Practice makes perfect.’
Everyone was practising during our senior year of high school, except me. Jorie’s boyfriend kept blankets and a tarp to make the back of his pickup truck acceptable, plus he had his long, sporty limbs. Kendra’s boyfriend stocked his Grand Am with Twinkies and M&M’s and juiced up his stereo which she said kept things pacey. Lis found unexpected luck with a science nerd who traced constellations onto her skin in her Beetle. Brianne and Travis, the class president and football quarterback respectively, were a myth come to life. Everyone knew he’d scattered rose petals over his station wagon’s backseat and played ‘End of the Road’ by Boyz II Men. Then there was the horror story: Amy thought she’d won over Eric, the star of our school plays, but when she lured him into the backseat, he spent two hours crying about his parents’ divorce. Holding hands seemed to be his sport of choice – unless he fancied a different league altogether.
The girls and I stepped around cigarette butts and burger wrappers in the parking lot. With Mom’s new baby and the medical bills for my brother’s cerebral palsy, my family couldn’t afford Drivers’ Ed, let alone my own car, so I needed a guy with one. We located a clean, unadorned Volvo, angular and safe. It belonged to Richard, a geek like Lis’s new boyfriend.
‘I like your car,’ I told him.
‘Thanks. It can go from thirty to sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit in just five minutes.’ He frowned at the sky behind me, scraped colorless by branches thrashing in the November wind. ‘These gusts are twenty-three miles per hour. Don’t you have a jacket to go with that sweater?’
‘Go, girl,’ Jorie encouraged me.
I didn’t get Richard to take me for a drive until the new year. He’d ask pointless questions such as: ‘Where do you need to go?’ He’d pronounce the roads too slippery or the visibility too poor. Finally, I convinced him to get pie and coffee at the truck stop.
‘Pie tastes best at one hundred and ten degrees,’ Richard said.
‘Hot enough to melt the ice cream,’ I agreed.
He furrowed his brow as we cruised down the highway at the exact mandated speed. ‘Combining hot and cold is a conundrum for me.’ He went on to talk about states of matter.
In our sophomore year he’d won the science award, beating out Lis’s budding astronomer and Brianne, who intended to be a doctor and took the award our junior year. My trailer home wasn’t great for studying so, apart from Chorus, the only subject I’d ever achieved above a C in was freshman French. I managed a B en francais before we had to do much conjugating. I hoped to prove better at conjugating in my personal life.
I convinced Richard to try pistachio ice cream with his cherry pie, the color scheme matching the lingering foil Christmas decorations above the cash register. He didn’t say he disliked it.
As winter faded, we went out more. Richard spent whole bumpy drives reciting the week’s low night temperatures and high day ones. Potholes lent inflection to his raspy monotone: ‘…Down to three degrees Fahrenheit Tuesday at five-thirteen in the morning, while Thursday night it didn’t even freeze…’ He never guessed the temperature. He just knew.
We drove to the abandoned mill and ate donut holes from a paper bag while watching icicles drop off the dented guttering. Cloudy shards splashed into the pond, scattered ducks, then torpedoed down the falls, disappearing in murky froth. When we dipped into the donut bag, our sugary fingers brushed hot against each other.
I wasn’t gaining in the Olympics yet, but we were approaching spring training when Richard’s attention might change from forecasts to foreplay. Even as the grass became visible, though, and the thaw charged through the rivers, temperatures fluctuated. Jorie’s boyfriend switched from basketball to baseball, which she said left more energy for the backseat. A particularly athletic session to the strains of ‘Jump Around’ cemented Kendra’s boyfriend’s rear wheels into the muddy ruts at the lakeside boat launch. They did a traipse of shame to the payphone by the Methodist church. Richard took me to see the weather observatory on Mount Westford and explained the causes of dew and fog.
When he talked, I could visualize the cohesion of warming droplets. I linked them to the stages Richard and I would finally go through, any day now. I murmured to my brother Thomas about condensing temperatures when I got home and poured his nutrient shake slowly into his feeding tube, but once our mom and stepdad started fighting, or the baby started shrieking, it all evaporated from my head.
By the time mud season finally dried up, prom was only a month away and half our class was obsessed with college acceptance letters. Instead of college, I found a job at Village Pizza.
‘The pizzas bake at four-twenty-five degrees,’ I boasted to Richard. He combed a grated cheese curl out of my hair. It was the furthest his fingers had ever been. My stomach heated to five hundred.
‘You’ve just seen my house, Richard. There’s no way I could afford college.’ And no way I wanted to stay here, but if I said that out loud I’d cry, and crying is an instant disqualifier from the Backseat Olympics.
Lots of good colleges wanted Richard. He was going into fluid dynamics – something to do with how things flow. I could do with his fluids being a little more dynamic, but then again I felt content just in his passenger seat. I coaxed him into our trailer to impress Mom and Greg, my stepdad, with his acceptances and scholarship offers.
‘Barometric pressure is low right now,’ Richard said. ‘Might not be a good idea.’
‘They won’t mind; they’ve got bigger problems than that,’ I assured him.
So, while Mom mopped the baby’s spit-up and Greg eyed him over the fridge door, Richard muttered in his flat voice about going somewhere called Oxford. Thomas grinned sleepily from his bulky cushioned wheelchair.
‘What about the ones closer to here?’ asked Greg. ‘MIT, or other places in Boston?’
‘Lots of weather to watch here,’ Mom said.
‘I want to try living somewhere with less distinct temperatures,’ Richard explained. ‘It’s almost too easy to identify the changes here. I believe I’d enjoy the challenge of a climate tempered by the jet stream, observing the more subtle adjustments.’
I knew exactly what he meant, having become an expert in Richard’s subtle adjustments. I squeezed his hand when we got back in the Volvo. We were headed to the mall for frozen yogurt.
‘Oxford sounds great,’ I said. ‘Will we get an apartment? I have some job experience now so I’ll find something to keep us going.’
His fingers went limp. The leaves on the maple tree blew upside down and I realized what low barometric pressure meant. The horizon smoldered, deep charcoal.
‘Oxford is in Great Britain,’ Richard said.
I tried to picture where that was and all I saw was water. An icicle dissolving in the rapid spill over a mill dam. ‘You mean across the—why? I probably can’t go with you there.’
‘You wanted to stay here. You didn’t apply to any colleges.’
I slumped against the seat. ‘You’ve just seen my house, Richard. There’s no way I could afford college.’ And no way I wanted to stay here, but if I said that out loud I’d cry, and crying is an instant disqualifier from the Backseat Olympics. ‘Thomas really liked you,’ I mumbled.
‘Thomas seems nice.’
The low barometric pressure slowed everyone down. Kendra and her boyfriend split up. She cut her hair way too short and dyed her prom dress red. After failing with Eric, Amy tried another drama guy who ensured her Olympic tryouts became the talk of the school. Jorie’s boyfriend broke his ankle sliding into third base and my stepdad Greg got laid off from another auto repair garage.
Richard and I still went for drives. Lilacs bloomed around the abandoned mill, ducklings paraded, and we saw a doe drinking from the pond.
‘I guess you aren’t going to prom,’ I said, three days before. ‘I guess it’s not your thing.’
‘It would be ninety degrees in that gym.’ He touched his finger to the water. ‘Still only eighteen above freezing.’
‘We could go to prom and then dip in here to cool off,’ I joked. ‘Like pie à la mode.’
He looked down at the water. ‘Do you have a dress?’
‘J-Jorie said she’d lend me one.’ My voice shook like a leaf in forty-miles-per-hour winds.
Richard stood up. ‘I have a suit. And I kind of like ice cream with pie.’
We stayed at prom for forty-seven minutes, even though the gym was only eighty-six degrees. Richard winced at every song that came on, and it was sad watching Kendra gyrate alone in her red dress while Jorie and her immobilised boyfriend necked in the bleachers and Amy cried over her punch. Lis’s dress had sequin stars for the benefit of her astronomer nerd and they looked like they were having a good time, as did Brianne and Travis, our Prom Queen and King. I was a little jealous until Richard’s one hundred-degree hand found mine to lead me away.
We sat on the old rail bridge and I slipped off Jorie’s extra heels to dangle my feet in the water. I liked the cold spreading up my legs, numb but safe. We didn’t say much that night, but Richard kissed the top of my head. I felt the brush of warmth.
I told my friends we had quality time at the mill pond and let them take it how they would. We did a few study sessions, but mostly talked about boys, clothes, and Salt-n-Pepa’s greatest hits. Richard was more stressed about his exams, even though apparently barometric pressure was high, the lilacs spoiling in the heat wave and the ducklings almost as big as the ducks.
After exams, Richard showed up at our trailer while Thomas and I were out front soaking up sun and watching kids play with squirt guns. Richard suggested a trip to the weather observatory. Once we reached the quiet roads to the mountain path, he pulled over and unbuckled his seat belt, turning to me. My face flushed to two hundred degrees. Every muscle below my waist tightened like I’d spent years training for this event.
‘Let’s switch seats,’ Richard said. ‘You should learn to drive.’
Driving could have made me even more nervous than sex. But I was too shocked. I moved to the driver’s seat. Richard explained each pedal and switch in his monotone. When the gas responded to my scared little tap and the steering wheel obeyed my turns, I was gold-medal-happy.
I practiced hard in that Volvo over the summer. Sweating against its vinyl, still smelling of pizza from my latest shift at work, I stopped thinking about the backseat. I passed my test two days before Richard flew to England.
He sold me the Volvo for only five dollars, so I enrolled in a business course at the community college three stops up the highway. I let Darrell from the other end of the trailer park into the backseat with me to finally try it. It went ok, especially considering how stoned he was. His unstoned self was kind of annoying: he’d hang out in our driveway kicking rocks and making dirty jokes that worried Thomas, so I cut those Olympics real short.
Ten years after graduation, our class had a reunion in the park. It was a cloudy June day, temperatures stagnant in the high sixties, with enough breeze to keep the black flies away. Jorie and Kendra hugged me and told me I looked great. Jorie introduced us to her three kids as their aunties. Her husband was an accountant, stout and compact-looking compared to her jock ex-boyfriend who had his own family now but grinned and waved at us. ‘Not all of him is short,’ Jorie whispered to Kendra and me about her husband. ‘I promise you.’
Kendra brought her cute gym trainer fiancé, although Eric’s boyfriend, a fellow actor with Puerto Rican heritage, was even hotter. He and Amy discussed Latinx recipes you can make in a slow-cooker. Amy had divorced but was awarded a Mustang in the settlement and she was rocking a cute pixie-style haircut. Dr. Brianne and Travis weren’t speaking to each other; apparently they’d had a nasty break-up a couple months into college. On the other hand, Lis and her astronomer had a kid with the straightest parted hair I’d ever seen.
Richard was too busy to come. He lives in Iowa, researching biofuels, and we email each other now and again. I don’t understand his work any better than he understands mine, but I’ve learned the nights can get awfully cold there, while the sun is as unforgiving as an eighteen-year-old with a tardy prom date. Beyond the temperature, I don’t think Richard notices the lonely nights.
Myself, I like company now and then, and I’ve gotten better at finding it. I still drive a Volvo, but a more recent model. I have my own lakeside condo and a king-sized bed, rendering the backseat unimportant.
I’m Deputy Manager at a home for people with disabilities, where we keep the thermostat at seventy-two degrees in winter, sixty-eight in summer. Every Thursday is pie-night, served warm. When my workday ends, I take a slice up to Thomas’s room, watch Indiana Jones or Home Alone with him, and mash a morsel of pie with ice cream so he can taste. Whoever I’m dating at the time, he knows to wait up for me.