One night, Rhonda let me drive her car. Thirteen, and coming off a disastrous year in which my parents had gotten a divorce, an unheard of occurrence in my small, Baptist church, I’d struggled to find my way. But now I was old enough to be in the youth group, and my seemingly endless trove of useless information at least made me utilitarian in 1978 B.G. (Before Google). So the summer after my seventh grade year, I could at least find a ride if my friend Kerri wasn’t around with her enormous station wagon.
A group of people from church liked to camp out at the lake in the summer, and Rhonda had given me a ride out. Because my family didn’t camp. Or do anything together now. At the time I had no idea my parents’ divorce meant everything just remained in limbo, and I was free to wander. An utterly wasted opportunity. If your parents are going to rain down destruction, they might have the decency to tell you, “Look, your life will really suck for the next several years, so feel free to indulge in the life of a libertine.” Not that I would have committed any wanton acts of lust; being a Baptist took the starch right out of your dissolute lifestyle.
That was the summer of the lake. I seemed to be out there all the time, bobbing on an inner tube, a real one emitting a powerful smell of rubber, with Melicia and Lisa and Gayle. They were all in high school and Melicia wore a white bikini. Those pipe cleaner arms and legs and all that skin. Being quiet and harmless made me seem mature, so I got to tag along. And I think everyone felt sorry for me, because people at our church just didn’t get divorced; I was the innocent collateral damage of the scandal, an object of pity and fascination. Gayle would occasionally give me a kiss on the cheek to watch me turn scarlet, but that was a small price to pay for the bikini and the older girls.
Sometimes after church on Sunday, I would get to spend the night out at the lake. One of the families would feed me from their camper, and then some of us would sleep out on those woven lounge chairs, and we would wake up all damp and cold. Now I just think about how adrift I was. My father wasn’t around and my mom barely functioned; I’m sure she was relieved to have me out of the house. My younger brother, just eight, could be left in front of the television and didn’t ask questions.
Poor Rhonda. So beautiful. So sweet. So naive. She had the most amazing smooth complexion, a little turned up nose, short blond hair, and curves and curves. She was always kind to me and everyone else. A bit gullible; I hoped people didn’t take advantage of her, but she was so much older than me, and I wouldn’t have known how to ask. Her twin brother Rusty had the same disposition, although his enormous frame, always bulging out of a pair of overalls, proved a bit more intimidating. He seemed like the Incredible Hulk mid-transformation. I once saw him reach into a car and crank the engine over by hand. Was that even possible? Turns out it was, and the fact he knew how to do it filled me with awe.
I think The Rhonda Driving Experience was her suggestion, but who knows at this point. My task was to slowly guide the car through the grass by the lake to the dirt road and then Rhonda would take over.
The night was dark the way it can be only in the country. Poor Judgment 101 began with Rhonda telling me to put the car into reverse and to slowly back up. I heard: slam the car into drive, stomp on the accelerator, and crash into the boat sitting on its trailer directly in front of us. Which I proceeded to execute with utter perfection. That sickening crunch of metal on watercraft. You know the one from all the boats you have collided with in your car.
“Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!” Rhonda yelled, “switch seats with me.” Did I mention how angelic Rhonda was? Totally took the fall without a word of complaint, and lied with grace and perfection, and even made the boat owner Mr. Woods feel a little bad about the whole thing. Given the fact I assumed jail time would be involved or Mr. Woods had the right to stick my arm in the motor’s propeller, I was happy to oblige.
What did that mistake cost Rhonda? Her parents never came to church; we never went to her house; Rusty and she seemed totally on their own. He kept her car running. Perhaps he just bent the front bumper back into shape with his Hulk forearms. At thirteen you consider none of these things, have no conception of insurance and the enormous costs involved. I just sat in silent wonder that I beat the rap, as the girl of my dreams drove me home while suggesting neither of us ever mention what happened to anyone. Which I have never done until now. Lovely Rhonda, I hope your life has been one of joy free of clueless boys and men; it’s the least you deserve.