Bitch better have my money! Y'all should know me well enough. Bitch better have my money! Please don't call me on my bluff,” I belt out, wondering if the people I’m passing on I-80 are getting a kick out of my half-assed Rihanna impression. At least my oversized sunglasses are covering most of my face, on the off chance I pass another Nevada student heading home for winter break. My ice-blond hair is pulled into a ponytail under a baseball cap to further complete the disguise. I’m like Leo DiCaprio, hiding from the paparazzi and my adoring fans.
“Pay me what you owe me. Ballin' bigger than LeBron. Bitch, give me your money. Who y'all think y'all frontin' on?” My voice may be cracking, but I’m really feeling myself. The only other time I’ll sing like this is drunk, or when I know for sure that no one can hear me. Maybe it’s the adrenaline of racing through the turns in the road, or the excitement of Tara finally speaking to me, but for some reason I can’t help but sing my heart out.
Something about the road, especially at the beginning of a long drive, is so freeing. You’re only responsible for yourself; you have complete control. You can choose when and where to stop, how fast to drive, what to listen to. You could make a sharp turn and throw your car through the guardrail into the ditch below, if you really wanted to.
The Sierras, outlined by the remains of last week’s snowstorm, are rushing towards me, cutting sharply through the blue sky. I’m passing Cabela’s and Boomtown, racing towards California. I can’t wait to get back; to see my mom, my dad, my sister, my dog. The little red Corolla in front of me is only going five miles per hour over the speed limit in the fast lane. I sigh and step on the gas to pass them. I don’t plan on postponing my homecoming by another second, if I can help it. I’ve got to see Tara. Plus, when I drive somewhere far, I like to play a game with myself, where I try to beat the GPS-estimated arrival time by a good ten minutes or more.
As I begin to pass, the Corolla driver notices me and speeds up, shortening the distance I have to pass. There’s a huge 18-wheeler Budweiser truck in front of me, and I’m gaining on it—fast—so I stomp on the gas and swerve in front of the car, missing the back of the big-rig by less than a foot. The reckless asshole honks at me, but before long they’ve disappeared from my rearview.
I always get myself into things like that, but God or the universe must be looking out for me, because for some reason I always end up okay. Scared, but okay.
Last year, I was driving home for Thanksgiving in a snowstorm, and I nearly wrecked my little orange Subaru—Frida. It was my first time driving in the snow, and despite having thoroughly prepared myself with a quick Google search and a call to my dad, the expert driver, I still managed to forget to slow down to less than thirty-five miles per hour.
I couldn’t even see the outline of the mountains, the air around me was thick with white, like the inside of a terrifying snow globe. I half expected a Yeti to jump out in front of me. I had left my music off to focus, so I could only hear the sound of the wind rushing around my car and the ice crunching underneath my tires. Squinting through the blizzard, I saw a line of brake lights up ahead, and began to slowly tap on the brakes to avoid skidding.
But I came up to the stopped traffic sooner than I had thought I would, and I had to press down on my brake pedal, hard. Underneath me, the wheels lost their grip on the road, sliding over the ice. I was heading straight for the tan suburban in front of me, with no control.
At the last minute I swerved, slipping through the middle of the two lines of cars and in between the two cars in the next lane over. I finally reached a 43 INSIGHT stop on the shoulder, shaking. Later, my recounting of the accident would result in a sympathetic look from my mom and a twenty-minute lecture from my dad. They always had their own specific ways of showing concern.
Despite having to be alone for the close calls, these drives are still a lot better than the strained family road trips I used to endure. Every year or so, my parents would find some reason for us to make a five-plus-hour drive, and every time my parents would be tearing each other apart before we even started the car.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my family, but being trapped in a car with them for a long time tends to be a little more than I can handle. Dad will always drive way too fast, cutting it close at least once every time and making us all carsick (a trait I clearly inherited). Mom will always find something to complain about, like where we’re going or the place Dad and Tara want to stop at for lunch (a trait I also inherited. I’m not picky, but I can’t stand any fast food other than In-N-Out). She gave up on complaining about Dad’s driving, though. And Tara, well, let’s just say I’m glad she always kept her headphones in to avoid fighting with Dad, blasting rap or hip-hop at a level that doesn’t even seem comfortable to me.
Goosebumps are slowly forming on my bare forearms despite the sun beating down on the road, so I turn up the heat in my car a couple notches to warm up. That seems to help a little. Back to my family.
One trip in particular turned out really bad. The summer before my senior year, my parents decided that it would be a good idea to make the eleven-hour drive to the Grand Canyon, since they wanted Tara and I to see it and to have one last family trip before I had to leave for college. So, from the start, there was sadness and desperation hanging over the whole thing. Mom nearly cried about ten times, Tara kept pointing out the things she would have to deal with alone once I left, and Dad was straining himself to make sure we all had a good time, trying to show how much he cared since he could never quite say it himself.
In the car, dad was doing his thing, swerving around, revving the engine, flipping people off when they did something he thought was wrong. Mom tried to focus on her book, but after a few hours she couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Brian, could you stop antagonizing people? I actually want us to make it there in one piece, believe it or not.” She was practically gritting her teeth.
Tara and I looked at each other. Somehow, my mom’s voice had reached through her music, and she took out one of her earbuds.
“Here we go,” Tara said, clearly under her breath.
“You think I don’t know what I’m doing?” Dad growled.
“That’s not what I said. I just want you to consider everyone else in the car for once. Tara and Jo are practically green right now; you’re making everyone sick.”
“I’m not the one who’s crashed two cars. You can tell me how to drive when you haven’t had an accident in ten years.” His tone was hard, definitive; it was clear they were done arguing.
And like that, she went silent. We all knew we had to pick our battles with him, and that insulting his intelligence was the easiest way to piss him off. Tara shot me an angry look, as if to say, “Look what you’re leaving me with.” Not knowing this would be the best we could ever communicate again, I just shrugged sympathetically and went back to reading.
And so we continued to go see that huge hole in the earth. It was pretty incredible, and of course there were a lot of nice moments on that trip, but the thing I remember most is that snap. I can remember all of his snaps, actually, no matter how hard I try to forget.
But despite how scary he could be, I stopped being afraid of him when I figured out that all I had to do was act sweet around him, feign respect, and never argue or insult his intelligence. Once I did that, I could do what I wanted without suspicion, and he would keep treating me like his perfect little angel.
Like most r e s t l e s s teenagers, I would lie about where I was, what I was doing, and who I was with constantly, knowing exactly how to avoid getting caught. If I told my parents I was with someone they didn’t know well, I could go see one of the twenty-somethings that helped boost my low self esteem. If I told them my friends and I were having a sleepover, I could get as drunk or high as I wanted and not worry about having to come home soon after.
Half of me was this depraved, careless person looking for happiness and attention in the wrong places, and the other half was a good student and daughter, working hard to get into college and get my own life. I couldn’t wait to get away from where I grew up, away from all of the people I had fucked or fucked over that I couldn’t face anymore. It seemed like, with every relationship I broke, the town got smaller.
The one relationship I never thought I could break, though, was with my family. No matter how awful I was, I didn’t think I could be awful enough to make any of my own relatives hate me. But I guess I was wrong about that.
There’s the damn goosebumps again. My air conditioning is on a dial, with half cold and half warm settings. It’s almost at the halfway point of the dial, so I turn it a couple notches past halfway. That should work. So—back to the horrible thing I did.
My sister was a junior in high school while I was a senior, but she’d always been a lot better at making friends than me. Tara played volleyball, basketball, and soccer, and her boyfriend, Carlos, a senior, played football. Needless to say, she was popular. I, on the other hand, had managed to find the seven most negative people in my class to spend all of my time talking shit, getting drunk, and doing drugs with.
Somehow, though, Carlos and I crossed paths. I can’t really remember now, but we had some class together. Spanish, I think. Yeah, Spanish. Anyway, we knew each other through Tara, so we were friendly towards each other, and we exchanged numbers in case either of us needed help on the homework.
Up until it happened, I didn’t for one second think that I would be capable of hurting my sister the way that I did. I loved her like crazy, and I considered her one of my best friends since we were so close in age. With the same ice-blonde long hair and tan skin, we were practically twins. I was dating someone at the time, too—but only casually. She was a senior at the rival high school, with dark hair and a sweet face, and we had met through mutual friends. I had cheated on a few people before, but I hadn’t planned on cheating on her.
Then it happened. I was at a small party one of my friends was throwing while his parents were out of town, and I drank and smoked way too much, way too fast. Tara didn’t come with me; she didn’t really like any of my friends. The girl I was with wasn’t really into parties, so she wasn’t there, either. The night itself is almost completely faded in my memory now, but when I looked at my phone and talked to my friends the next day I was able to piece together what I did.
I texted Carlos, basically asking him to come to the party to “keep me company,” but to not tell Tara. I guess he hadn’t been too concerned about her, either, because he showed up shortly after without asking anything more than the address. He wasn’t there for more than five minutes before I led him upstairs to my friends’ room. About an hour later, he left, I came downstairs to drink some more, and passed out on the couch shortly after. I woke up the next morning with a piece of my hair sticking to my cheek, feeling sick to my stomach and vaguely guilty before I realized the extent of what I had done.
After vomiting, I stood in the pale blue bathroom, staring at myself in the dirty mirror. It was summer, so I had on a low-cut black tank top with thin straps and a pair of light-wash cutoff shorts. There’s a little spot of vomit on my shirt, but I didn’t bother to try cleaning it off. My skin was sticky with sweat, and my face oily and bare, with most of my makeup faded off. Gripping the cold tile countertop, I closed my eyes and dropped my head. Looking up at myself, I saw lifeless, cold eyes and a harsh face, close to what I would see when I looked at Tara after she found out. I hardly recognized the person in the mirror. When Tara found out, she was beyond livid. He told me the day after that he didn’t want to tell her, since it would probably be better for her to hear it for me. When I asked what he would do if I didn’t tell her, he told me we could just forget about it. But I couldn’t just forget about it. I might be a shitty person, but at least I’m open about how shitty I am—for the most part.
So I told her myself, in the car on the way to school. Since I was older, my parents had only gotten me a car, knowing that Tara and I could carpool until I left for college. Needless to say, this thing I did made driving to school for the last four months of the year pretty tense. Right when I said it, explained what happened, and confirmed that no, I was not kidding, she lost it. "What the fuck, Jo? How could you be so fucking selfish? I don’t care how messed up you were or what was going on in your head, there’s no reason good enough for you to go and do something like that. What were you thinking? Were you trying to— “
“I know. I’m so, so sorry.”
“Let me fucking finish!” She was yelling now. “You slept with my boyfriend! And I know we weren’t that serious, and I’m not naïve, I know he would have cheated on me eventually, but that’s not the point! You’ve never cared about how I feel, you’ve always stomped all over me and you never once stop and think about how all of the stupid shit you do is going to affect anyone else! How selfish can you be?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know, I’m sorry,” I choked out, knowing now that my hope of her forgiving me was just that, a hope. Judging by her voice and the look on her face, there was no coming back from this. I really, really fucked up.
So I left home, six months later. Those last six months were the most painful ones I’ve been through in all twenty years of my life. Tara and I, who used to go out to eat, talk, shop, and work out together all the time, couldn’t even look at each other, much less talk to one another. I had lost one of my best friends, and it made me constantly anxious and sick. When I asked my friends what I should do, they were stumped.
“I don’t know, Jo, what you did was pretty bad,” Trevor said, shaking his head. Everyone else was quiet. They were some of the shittiest people I knew, but even they could tell it was beyond bad.
So I retreated into solitude. I focused on school, took a break from dating, and only saw my friends in between classes. I talked to my mom more often since I no longer had Tara, and she knew that I was sad about something but didn’t ask what after I told her I didn’t want to talk about it. I spent a lot of time writing. I went on hour-long runs five or more times a week. Luckily, Tara felt no need to involve our parents in the drama, so at least they didn’t hate me. I moved into the dorms as early as possible, and decided I would try to use the next four years to become as good a person as possible.
So far, that’s been working out pretty well. I made some genuinely nice friends my first year, and I’ve been doing well in all of my classes so far. I cut my waist-length hair to my shoulders, and continued with running to keep myself sane. Things with Tara haven’t improved much, until today. I called her as I drove out of the parking lot, and she actually picked up the phone.
At first I was startled, and since I hadn’t thought she was going to pick up I hadn’t even thought about what to say. I was trying to get out a simple “hello” but my voice was stuck.
“What do you want, Jo?”
My eyes welled up, and I managed a low, “I’m on my way home.”
“I’m excited to see you.”
“Will I see you?”
“Sure, we can go to John’s after dinner.”
“Thank you,” I clumsily blurted out as my music started to play again. She had already hung up. Hopefully, she’ll stick to her decision to talk to me this time, and I can finally fix things. It has been three years, after all. How long can someone hold a grudge?
I think my heater is broken, because I’m practically frozen right now. My car says it’s seventy degrees out, and the sun is beating down on the Sacramento river to the right of me. But for some reason, I’m so cold that my joints are stiff. I lean down to take a closer look at the heat settings, accidentally turning the wheel to the right as I do. I feel my tires scrape the gravel, but suddenly the car jerks back onto the center of the lane as if it was pushed.
Startled, I sit up, looking around me to see if anyone saw that. The road is empty, which is weird for this time on a Friday. Actually, now that I think about it, there should be way more traffic than this. And how long have I been driving? I grab my phone to check the GPS, and it says there’s three hours left until I reach my destination. Usually, I would have only an hour left from here.
Weird, I think. For some reason, I really can’t estimate how long it’s been since I left Reno. Bitch Better Have My Money starts playing again, and I realize that this is probably the tenth time I’ve heard it since I started Pandora, which seems a little much.
But that doesn’t explain the lack of traffic here, past Sacramento. And I’ve been on this road for a lot longer than I should have been, especially since the speedometer says I’m going eighty miles per hour. I look as far ahead as possible, and I see the big curve in the road before the bridge. It doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. I press down on the gas all the way, until it touches the floor, and my speed stays the same. I hit the brake, hard, and nothing happens.
I start panicking; my cold breath shortens. This doesn’t make any sense. I turn the wheel, hard, to see if that will change anything. It doesn’t. My car stays straight forward, at the same speed, no matter what I do. I try the door, and it’s stuck shut.
What is happening?
I change my car radio from Pandora to AM, hoping to hear some traffic news that will explain where all the other cars are.
Expect considerable traffic this evening. A fatal accident involving a commercial vehicle occurred on I-80 around 2 p.m. this afternoon, just before the California border. The commercial driver was not harmed, but there has been report of a fatality.
My phone rings and I grab my phone to answer it. It’s Tara. Her voice comes out over the car speakers, and I can hear stress in her voice.
“Jo? Where are you? It’s been six hours since you left!”
“I’m almost at the bridge! But it’s taking a long time…”
“Jo? Why aren’t you saying anything? Hello? Hello??”
I look at my phone, and the call isn’t on mute. I turn off Bluetooth to talk directly into the phone, but she still can’t hear me.
“Jo what’s going on?” She sounds scared, and I can hear a quiver in her voice. “We’re all really worried, please just come home. I want to see you.”
“I’m here, I’m here, I’ll be home soon,” I cry. “I don’t know if you can hear me, but I love you Tara.”
“I love you Jo, please come home.”