Road Trip Series: Grounded

It’s 1975 and writer Katrina Kenison is about to take a car ride that will change her life forever.

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There is a boy. (When you’re 16, there is always a boy.) It’s June 1975 and I have a small-town summer job at my mom’s friend’s clothing store. And I have a car, a huge 1970 red Plymouth Fury sedan, just handed down from my parents. Money and freedom.

It’s five o’clock on a hot Friday afternoon. Time to balance the cash register, close up for the day, make the bank deposit and head home to dress for the party I’ve told a different boy, one I could really care less about, that I’d meet him at later.

I lock the back door with a satisfying click, proud of my keys, my wheels, my independence, my newly grown-up life. The car makes anything possible. I love the very idea of stepping on the gas, of forward motion, of leaving my childish self behind.

In the parking lot behind the building the afternoon sun beats down. The air is hazy with heat, the acrid smell of tar. My enormous red car sits alone, floating like a low-slung ship on a sea of soft asphalt. And there, perched casually on the hood, is the boy of my dreams. He’s shirtless, wearing a straw hat that would look ridiculous on anyone but him. One leg is crossed over the other. He’s idly strumming his guitar. He’s waiting. For me. He looks up, smiles.

“Hey,” he says, and my astonished, rapturous heart starts banging around in my chest. “Hey.”

Hours later—after the boy I’m supposed to meet has called my house again and again to ask where I am, after my parents have phoned all my friends’ houses in search of me, after the boy and I have bought cigarettes and a six-pack, eaten pizza, cruised around town, gone to the drive-in, kissed and fallen asleep snuggled on the broad front seat of my car—my dad sets out in search of me.

There aren’t that many places to look. The second movie is still playing as he walks up and down the shadowy aisles of the drive-in. He bangs his hand down, hard, on the Plymouth’s roof to wake us up. And in that mortifying moment, as the boy and I fumble through dazed apologies and try to set stray pieces of clothing to rights, the thoughtless young woman I’m in danger of becoming finds herself face-to-face with a father who’s not about to let his forthright daughter go without a fight.

I am grounded for the summer. I’m only allowed to drive to and from work. And although I weep and protest and promise and bargain, a part of me is relieved. I have no idea where I’m headed or who I really am. I’m not sure whether I want to follow the speed limit or drive too fast, obey the rules or drink and smoke and go skinny-dipping at the quarry and play “Stairway to Heaven” over and over and let some half-drunk football player unhook my bra. Nor am I sure I want to risk my tenuous social standing by remaining the dutiful girl I’ve always been, making my bed each day, carrying blouses to ladies in the dressing room, starting dinner for my family, writing poems and sewing throw pillows.

My parents, in their fear for me or in their wisdom or both, have saved me from having to answer that question. At least for now. And I don’t dare to cross them.

The boy never calls. But my friends do, and I’m soon adept at handling them.

“I can’t goooo,” I say, drawing the words out to convey both scorn at my parents’ outrageous strictness and regret at missing out. “I’m grounded.”

And then I hang up the phone, wander out to the chaise lounge on the back deck, and return to my novel. In the end, it isn’t a red Plymouth Fury that takes me where I need to go this summer, but words, torrents of them. Each book offering its own escape and education, glimpses into other worlds, other lives, potential future selves. Experimentation without suffering the consequences. I can’t admit it to my parents, or to anyone else for that matter, but I’ve never felt so free.

Check out Kenison's summer reading list here.

Cars. They’re a microcosm of family life. A four-doored home on wheels. And, as this series of essays reveals, a little magical. Cars provide a window to the past and the future. They can shift gears to make you feel 20 years younger or add a touch of gray. They can wipe away emotional scars, bring us closer together or transport us somewhere else. We asked writers to take a look in their rearview mirror and recall a car ride that impacted the way they look at life, love and the pursuit of happiness.

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Kenison co-edited (with John Updike) The Best American Short Stories of the Century and has authored books including The Gift of an Ordinary Day and Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment.