You get the tux. You get the girl. You get the car. You take your chances.
The car. What I went through for this car. Two weeks of intensive stick shift training after as many lazy years of automatic. My best gear? Reverse. An oil change, a vacuum job, three coats of wax on that hot, pure red. My father's 1995 Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4.
I'd left it parked at an angle over two spaces in the lot. Right under a lamp post. Cue the Ferris Bueller music.
Sara tuned the radio to WCKG, at the time a classic rock station, and just as we hit I-57, I heard the words:
It's been a long time since I rock and rolled.
I never learned the distance to the Loop in miles. Only minutes. Forty-five to an hour--that's what my mother would have me believe. My date and I had after-dinner dinner reservations at a bistro just off Michigan Avenue in under half an hour. And we were going to make it. It's simple. A straight shot from the south suburbs. Almost due North. You can't miss. 57 North becomes the Dan Ryan. The Dan Ryan curves around to the west. You get off at Randolph. Or if you're feeling a bit daffy, detour to LSD and go the scenic route. She settled back into the seat and smiled at me the promise of a great night. I hit 4th gear before it was a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time. Yes I did.
But I'd be lying if I told you I remembered exactly how it happened. The first clue was the trees. Trees and the time gone by. Lanes merge, roads turn. With a hand on your knee and a lace garter in sight, things can get by you. Under the creeping darkness she'd fallen asleep, left me to the wheel, and I was suffering from an increasing awareness that my circumstances had become... unusual. Too many trees, I thought. And not enough streetlights. Not prepared to be anxious yet, though. Any moment, I was sure, the billboards would come back and the Sears Tower would leap up out of the forest. Just relax, I commanded. The absence of traffic means nothing.
My hands slid to ten and two. I raised my seat, adjusted my mirrors. She shifted, and I said a silent prayer to the Gods of Cool to keep her sleeping until I worked this out.
But I had spent my Fortune on the car.
"Where are we?"
"Well." This was bad. "There's a couple of ways I can answer that."
Her directness was one of the things I liked about her. Now it was backfiring. Heat gathered in my armpits. Fortunately, there is a protocol to follow. "No I'm not."
Ten more minutes at speed destroyed that defense. The fullness of night was upon us, and the brights on the Mitsubishi spoke only of the void. There was no Sears Tower. There were no placards. No off-ramps. No glorious green signs indicating which way to Wisconsin. Only the rare mile markers, winking as we passed as if they knew I had no car phone. As the fuel burned away, two things became clear: we had breached some strange stretch of concrete between civilization and the wilderness, and we were no longer alone.
For a moment, the two circles burning in my rear view were just another car. Then they became a nuisance. And finally a threat.
They crawled up to tailgate. An El Camino. An orange El Camino. A goddamn orange El Camino with three guys in powder blue tuxes and a girl wearing--well, it could only be curtains. Prom night in the Twilight Zone.
"Ok," I said, as my palms began to sweat. "Where the hell are we?"
Sara jumped when the horn blared. They started to pull around. Caution slowed me to the speed limit, and as they drew closer I could see that one of each of their hands was occupied by a bottle. The two guys in the bed in the back were trying to get to their knees. Laughter abounded.
The girl rolled down her window. The driver leaned over her. One hand in her lap, one around the beer and the wheel. "Nice fucking car."
My heart rate spiked. The sweat regrouped at my temples.
"Just slow down, let them pass," Sara said.
I reduced my speed. He reduced his, lined up our windows again.
"That your Daddy's car?"
I said nothing. Just set my eyes on the road ahead and felt deeply for the first time that night what I was. A seventeen year old kid wearing a tuxedo in the middle of nowwhere sitting next to a scared girl in my Daddy's car on prom night. I waited for him to step on the gas, and screech away into the night.
He stared. The boys laughed. And then he spat at me.
Physics is physics, so he missed. But when his window went back up he put on enough speed to bring the rear guard into place. They were in position on the side closest to us, thumbs over the bottle-mouths, shaking. One let loose and sprayed the one next to him by accident. That one fell back into the bed. I thought he was going to fall out entirely and kill himself. I panicked, and my fingers tugged on the wheel.
He had to swerve to avoid impact. I jerked the wheel back the other way and felt my stomach rise as the car fishtailed, sputtered, and finally stalled to a whiplash inducing halt. I thought the El Camino would careen into the guardrail and pour out its occupants in a mixed pool of beer and blood, but the driver wasn't so drunk as that, or perhaps drunk enough. The guy left standing in the back went shoulders over but caught himself just above the wheel. He lost his bottle to the road. Their car wobbled a bit as the driver recovered, its taillights jerking side to side. A hundred yards away or so, they evened out. I turned to Sara.
"Are you OK?"
No. She was not OK. I wasn't OK. My heart was rattling my shirt studs, one hand white-knuckled on the wheel, the other about to pull off the gear shift knob. Her front teeth were deep into her lower lip. I took her hand. She took it away. I sensed I had not handled this well. The guys would have sprayed my car with Bud. Not a big deal. Instead, I nearly killed us, and them.
But worse than that, I pissed them off. When she opened her eyes again, they widened. And then she took my hand.
Headlights. Coming back down the highway in the wrong direction.
I wish I could tell you I lived up to my tux in that moment. That I prepared myself like a knight for a 20th Century joust, or was preparing Bond-like witticisms for the victorious aftermath. But I wasn't. I was breathing hard, nearly hyperventilating. You don't drive back a hundred yards for a beer spray. There was damage about to be done. I felt the sickness deep down in the guts. A liquefied intestine and tiny hiding balls. Fuck fight or flight. I was curl up and die.
But Sara was there. She summoned something. Put her hand on my knee again, and said, evenly, without a trace of fear, "Start the car."
OK. My brain went through the motions, gave the orders one by one. Put car in neutral. Hand goes to key. Left foot on the clutch. Depress. Turn. Release. We came to life.
I was not going to drive back the other way. Sooner or later another car would emerge from the black, and that would be the end. And you wouldn't believe me if I told you I agreed to play chicken with four drunks somewhere in bumblefuck. But as we sat still in our car, the engine power vibrating through the cockpit, trembling up my legs, it occurred to me that, yes, I was seventeen years old, wearing a tuxedo in the middle of nowhere, with a scared girl sitting next to me, in my Daddy's car on prom night. My Daddy's three hundred horsepower, high-performance, lightweight bright red sportscar.
The El Camino crept closer. A nice crawl, so I could get a good look at the guys in the back. One with a cut on his cheek. The other with something long, straight, and reflecting in the headlights. I looked to the sides. Two empty lanes and a right-hand shoulder. By the time he pulled to within fifteen feet, my engine was growling fast. At ten feet, he turned his wheel, and diagonally blocked my path. I revved a little higher. Louder.
When he was halfway out his door, I dropped it into gear.
Sara took the worst of it. She choked on her seatbelt when the car lurched backwards. In three seconds I put another twenty feet between the cars. My best gear. Then I slammed it back into first. He still had one foot on the ground when we passed him down the left side.
Their headlights showed in my rear view soon enough. But there was no more going the speed limit. At fourth gear, and with the confidence that adrenalin and adequate distance provide, I said--out loud--something I'd wanted to say since 1985:
"Let's see if these bastards can do ninety."
I don't know that I'd say it again under identical circumstances, but at the time, it was the coolest thing I'd ever done.
If they could do ninety, they couldn't do 120, which is what the cop pulled me over for right before the first offramp I'd seen in what seemed a very long time. He saw the car, saw the tux. Knew what night it was. But he also saw our faces.
"Boy, do you have any idea what you were doing?"
"Sir," my parents said you always call them sir--"I don't even know where I am. I'm trying to get to I-57."
"I-57?" He shined the flashlight into our faces. "That's way over back in Illinois. You're deep into northern Indiana."
"Ohhhhh!" We said it at the same time. Because that explained a lot. He sniffed at my breath, asked me to get out of the car. I told him about the orange El Camino. I was shaping up for reckless driving when it finally tooled by. Nice normal pace, no weaving. But you can't hide three powder blue tuxedos.
The cop took pity on me. Turns out I'd somehow veered onto the Bishop Ford Highway, and had been heading due east for nearly an hour and a half. He put me back in the car, and we had ourselves a police escort back to the state line.
It was a hundred miles away.
When we got back to our intended road, we turned south and called it a night. I walked her to her door, got something of a kiss, but it was not to be improved upon. Three in the morning, a light on behind her front door. Who could blame her. I stepped back to car and the drive home.
I took the long way.