September 27, 2001
The drive from Philadelphia to Trenton, New Jersey only took about an hour, not counting the breakfast run we made in between stops.
Unlike the cities we had previously visited, Trenton is far from a tourist trap. Though there is some historical significance and a few attractions within its confines, Trenton was, more than anything, the typical run-down Jersey city. With plenty of shady, borderline grimey street corners and questionable establishments and people lining them, it was a far cry from the quaint, old-timey feel of Richmond, as well as the sophistication of Washington D.C. and its many monuments.
Of course, I was no stranger to the rougher parts of urban communities. Back when my apartment was still mine, I had a view of the complex’s adjacent alleyway, infamous for its role in various drug deals, drunken brawls, and extramarital affairs. The alley’s resident rats and stray cats were the most innocent parties to set foot in it, and even they ate from the Dumpster where the humans dumped their garbage of the literal sort.
Thus, I drove through Trenton without issue. Then again, it was also broad daylight.
As I drove, I thought about the events of the day before. I started with Grant and I’s discussion in LOVE Park, the picture of the statue still in my pants pocket. Then I moved on to Hersheypark, the feeling of almost freedom I got on the Lightning Racer and the strange sort of understanding between the two of us on the ferris wheel, seeming to open the door to a world that I still hadn’t figured out. Finally, I reached the moment I sat on the bed and showed Grant my scrapbook, my younger self staring up at me with a sparkle in her eye that I could only imagine now.
Though I could open my mouth and tell him the truth about any one of these things, the one thing that came out of my mouth when I spoke to Grant was about our conversation while leaving D.C. “Do you remember when I asked you about driving?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “Why?”
An involuntary smile began to spread across my face. I bit my lip to keep it from traveling into Joker territory. “Would you maybe be interested in trying it out?”
Grant didn’t reply for a while. Apparently, he wasn’t expecting that.
Finally, he spoke again. “Here?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Well, not on such a crowded road, but while we’re in Trenton.” Stopping at a red light, I turned to look at him. “So are you in or not?”
Watching him consider this, every bit of me expected him to say no. He kept his eyes fixed on his sneakers in the floorboard, hesitant. Just when I was about to let it go, however, he shocked me. “I’m in.”
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was full of surprises.
We finally found a road that wasn’t packed, a few other cars riding by leisurely. I pulled off to the side of the road, circling around to the passenger door. Grant got out as well, taking the driver’s seat. He buckled his seatbelt, sitting up perfectly straight, stiff as he stared at the steering wheel as if it might bite him.
I laughed. “You start with putting it in drive.”
I placed my hand on top of his, leading it to the gear shift. I couldn’t help but notice his slight trembling. I tried not to do the same. “Pull it down to the part with the D next to it.”
Hands still shaking, he did.
“Good,” I commended him. “Now, grab the steering wheel. Then you press down on the gas pedal with your foot.”
He froze, hands gripping the wheel as if his life depended on it as he looked down at the floor.
I leaned over the center console and pointed to the right. “That one. Be really gentle, though.”
However slowly, he obeyed this order as well. It was all I could do to remain calm as the motor came to life without my control. I was beginning to think that this was a terrible idea. Then again, I had known for quite a while that I’d probably die at the hands of my own stupidity.
Trying my best to keep my breathing even, I gave him my next order as quickly as possible to keep us from ramming into the nearest tree. “Alright. Now turn the wheel toward the road.”
He did, and soon, we were moving. And he was doing okay. Slow, but okay.
“Press down on the gas a little harder,” I said. “You’re sort of making me feel like I’m in the car with my grandma.”
With a chuckle, he pressed his foot against the pedal. I rolled my window down, happy for the breeze. I took a deep breath in through my nose, feeling the fresh air fill my lungs. I exhaled before inhaling once more, starting over again.
Grant was driving faster now, getting the hang of it. The quicker the car moved, the more air came in, raising chill bumps on the skin of my arms and making me want more of that rush. As I stuck my hand out the window to feel the wind traveling with us, I remembered the thrill of racing down the hills of the roller coaster the day before, as well as the epiphany that occured as I did so.
It was then that I realized that, as of that moment, I was experienced the freedom that something within me had promised I would recieve. With Grant behind the wheel of my beloved XT, I was finally beginning to let go. I was no longer in control, and it felt fantastic. Though I knew that I was still far from the end of the road, it was one hell of a push to guide me towards the finish line.
Feeling the road pass by underneath me, I knew that was all that mattered.
Life did move pretty fast, and I was finally starting to move along with it.
Neither of us drove to dinner that night. Instead, I sprung for a cab in a fit of boldness, asking the driver to escort us to the nearest bar and grill.
I hardly noticed when he began to drive, turning to Grant with a smile. “This is a first, huh?” I asked.
“It is,” he agreed. He grinned at me. “You know, you’ve been awfully out of character lately. First, you put your life in my hands, then a total stranger’s. It’s almost like you don’t care anymore.”
I shrugged. “Traveling has some sort of effect on me, I guess.” I grinned slyly. “Besides, when was I ever careful?”
He shook his head. “It’s not that you’re careful. You just don’t seem like you put a lot of trust in others.” He paused, looking as if he were trying to decide whether or not to say something. He finally decided to jump the gun, opening his mouth again. “I was kind of flattered by the fact that you let me drive your car.”
I froze, dumbfounded. How much had he been paying attention to me?
Realizing that I probably looked like an idiot staring at him with my mouth open, I came up with a quick reply.
“We’re on vacation,” I said. “We’re supposed to cut loose. And speaking of cutting loose…” I grinned, eager to change the subject. “I don’t know if you plan on drinking, but I sure do. Hence why the cab was necessary.”
Grant considered this, wrinkling his nose slightly. “I don’t know. I’m not so sure if drinking is my thing.”
“Hey, you never know until you try,” I replied. “You are legal, aren’t you?”
He smiled at this. “I’m pretty sure I am.”
“We should be fine, then,” I said. “I just suggest that if you have to puke, you don’t do it on me.”
The cab soon stopped at a street corner, the light of the restauraunt’s sign shining through the windows. I handed the driver a twenty as we got out of the car.
As soon as we walked inside, the restauraunt proved to be more bar than grill. Rows of revelers, mostly male, sat on bar stools as they got increasingly inebriated, jostling their buddies with their elbows and hooting at the female bartender.
Not interested in joining the group of sloppy drunk biker types, I lead Grant to a booth across from the bar. The seats were tiny, proving to be tight fits for even one person, and vaguely sticky as if they had recieved the brunt of somebody’s spilled drink.
Upon recieving our menus, I decided to order one of their largest burgers and a cheap but tall amber ale. Grant picked the same thing, minus the beer, replacing it with a glass of Coke.
That didn’t stop me from pushing my glass to him when our beverages arrived. “Just a sip?” I begged.
He sighed before slowly lifting the glass to his lips. As soon as he tasted it, he swallowed with a pained look and put the glass down.
“Not a fan, huh?” I asked.
He shook his head, pushing it back across the table. “That’s disgusting,” he said. “Like… rotten water. I didn’t even know that was possible, but that’s exactly what it tastes like.”
I chuckled as I picked the glass back up, taking a hearty swig. Grant looked at me as if I had suddenly grown an extra head.
I continued to down my drink as the evening went on. It had been quite a while since I drank without trying to escape some sort of personal turmoil. It felt good to do it for fun, almost like a celebration.
By the time our food arrived, I was approaching my third glass, politely asking the waitress for a refill.
As the meal progressed, my mood got increasingly lighter. I ate my burger and watcheed the men at the bar, their clumsy antics becoming more and more humorous to me as I downed my own drink.
The waitress had left us the check when the bartender left for the bathroom. In her absence, the men looked for someone else to ogle.
It wasn’t long before I heard a wolf whistle in my direction. “Hey, sugar!” one called. “Wanna ditch fat ass and come over here?”
I looked down into my glass, pretending not to hear him. This wasn’t the first time some obnoxious suitor had made unwanted advances toward me. I had learned to ignore it, reaching for the mace on my keychain if I felt threatened.
“You deaf or something?” the man called.
I traced a heart carved into the table, waiting for the waitress to return to take the tab.
The man let out an unflatteringly loud snort. “Look at her with her head down over there,” he said to his friend. “Stupid ****.”
I looked up at Grant, only to see him fuming, jaw clenched and face red. He slid toward the end of the booth, about to stand up.
Knowing what he was doing, I held my hands up, attempting to stop him. “Don’t,” I hissed.
He paused, turning toward me. His eyes were dark, making his anger all the more apparent. “He’s being an ass,” he said.
“I know,” I replied. “But you don’t have to do anything. I’ve dealt with it before. Some people are just like that.”
He paused to consider this for a while. As soon as the men began to hoot and holler again, however, he left the booth, fist clenched at his side.
I cringed. There was only one way this could end: very badly.
It was all I could do not to cover my eyes as he walked up to the man’s bar stool. Even sitting down, it was obvious that my suitor was at least a head taller than Grant, and a lot bigger, his shoulders broad in a way that suggested steriods rather than heavy lifting. The only good thing about the situation was that the guy didn’t seem to be in the biker crowd; he and his buddies looked to be college age, probably getting their drinks with fake IDs.
Though it significantly lessened his chances of getting chased up the street by a bunch of guys on motorcycles, I wasn’t quite sure the outcome for Grant would be much better, judging by the way the pack of frat boys were looking at him.
Still, he didn’t seem to be stepping down. Instead, he looked Beefcake in the eyes and delivered three words with great conviction: “Leave her alone.”
Within a matter of seconds, the pack erupted in howls of laughter. “You think you can take me, huh?” Beefcake slurred. “Bring it then, fatty.”
I only got a glimpse of Grant raising his fist before I jumped to my feet, grabbing him by the arm and heading for the door.
“Are you crazy?” I asked when we were back on the sidewalk, desperately attempting to hail another cab. “That guy was huge, and drunk off his ass. If he was going to end up hurting anyone, it would be you.” I sighed, stopping my waving momentarily to pout with my hands on my hips. “I didn’t even get to finish my beer.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. It wasn’t like you already had six or anything,” Grant replied.
“I did not drink six beers,” I argued. “Just three.”
He shrugged as I waved down a quickly approaching taxi. The cab stopped. The two of us climbed into the backseat. I gave the driver the name of our hotel, and we left the bar behind.
“Thank God,” I muttered. “I was starting to worry that Beefcake might try to chase us down.”
Grant stared at me with a look of amusement. “Beefcake?”
I shrugged, leaning my forehead against the window.
By the time we got back to the hotel, the bit of alcohol in my veins was beginning to sink in. Though I was far from drunk, I had calmed down quite a bit since rescuing Grant from a certain pummeling.
One thing I liked about drinking was that it made me feel like I wasn’t me. Though this may sound concerning, it’s really relatively harmless; alcohol was just an occasional pick-me-up for me, a sort of filler for whenever I lacked something. Whatever I needed, it gave me, my boozey Fairy Godmother. If I was depressed, it turned me into the happy drunk. If I was retreating into myself, it gave me the ability to be bold.
And now, it was making me sleepy. That was a rare occasion nowadays, so I was thankful. It was all I could do not to climb into bed as soon as we got to our room. I forced myself to remain upright long enough to brush my teeth and change into my pajamas. As soon as I got those things over with, I went straight from the bathroom to one of the room’s double beds, pulling the covers up to my chin, nuzzling my face into the pillow.
Grant laughed. “Wow. Those six beers must have been special.”
I groaned. “It was not six.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He walked back to the front of the room, cutting the lights off. I heard the rustling of the covers on his own bed as he climbed underneath them.
I got that feeling in my chest again, urging me to talk to him about what had happened at the bar. As tired as I was, I listened to it. “Hey, Grant?” I whispered.
“Yeah?” he replied.
“Why’d you try to pick a fight with that guy?”
He sighed. “I thought I told you. He was being an ass.”
“Yeah, but I told you not to, and you did it anyway.” I stopped, yawning before continuing. “Why was it so important to you?”
He considered this for a while before speaking. “Well, for one thing, he was being really disrespectful towards you, which I didn’t like. You were ‘sugar’ until you didn’t talk to him. Then, you were a ‘stupid **** ’ How horrible do you have to be to treat somebody like that?”
I listened, unsure of what to say, though I knew I had to give him some sort of reply. “Okay.”
Though he was reluctant to talk about it at first, he appeared to be far from done with his reasoning. Now that I had gotten him all fired up, he was on a roll. “And when I got up to talk to the pr**k, you told me not to, because you were used to it. And that really p*ss*s me off.”
Now I really wasn’t sure what to say. “I’m sorry, I guess.”
“You don’t have to be sorry!” he replied, the frustration evident in his voice. “It’s as*h***s like Beefcake who have to be sorry!”
I couldn’t help it: I burst out laughing. I wasn’t sure if it was from my fatigued delirium or just the fact that he didn’t let it go on the ride back, but his use of my nickname for the frat guy was the funniest thing I had ever heard.
“What’s so funny?” Grant asked, still coming down from his rant.
“Beefcake!” I yelled between laughs.
“Oh,” he chuckled. Then, he was laughing right along with me. By the time we began to calm down, my stomach was sore and I could vaguely make out Grant wiping tears from his eyes.
A silence settled between us, leading me to believe that he had fallen asleep. I broke the silence again. “Grant?”
“I don’t think that you’re a fat ass.”
He laughed. “…and that part was just the icing on the cake,” he said. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” My eyelids becoming increasingly heavy, I pulled the covers closer to me.
Then, for the first time since Richmond, I said it first. “Goodnight, Grant.”
“Goodnight, April,” he responded. “Sleep well.”
Eyes flickering shut, I did just that.