Leon has me in his car. He has taken me from the prom—“I’d like to spend a little time alone with you, please”—and put me in this car, where the ash trays are filled with chewing gum wrappers, and the fabric on the ceiling sags. The points of my crown jut up into the beige billows.
Outside the window there are brilliant lights, white and red, white and red, glittering through the glass: the gas station, the ice cream counter. There is only one route through our town. It is familiar but eerie, streaking by in the dark. Leon apologizes for his car as he drives. “It’s my dad’s,” he says. “He’s hard on cars. He never replaces anything till the whole thing falls apart.”
“My grandfather too,” I say, absently, before remembering my lie. “He works at a car dealership and gets the unsellable ones for next to nothing. And he drives them and drives them until eventually they blow up.”
“Blow up,” he says, and there is a laugh in his voice. “Blow up?”
“Like when you’re on the highway, and it’s hot, and you have to stop the car because it’s smoking,” I quietly explain.
“Oh, you mean overheating,” Leon says. “Is that a family thing? ‘Blow up?’” He looks over at me though I don’t look at him. “It’s cute,” he says, and it’s too earnest. Too fond.
We drive further, and I still know where we are, but what lights there are begin to fall away, the way they do on the country roads that lead back to my grandparents’ house. I look over at Leon’s dashboard panel; it’s lit up in rusty orange by some nearly burnt-out bulb. I learn his engine fights him if he goes over 35. I learn his gas tank is full.
“Where do you live?” I ask.
“You know where I live,” he says. “Don’t you?”
I shake my head.
“We rode the same bus in junior high,” he says, voice lilting with soft surprise.
“Oh.” My hands are in my lap, making tucks in my skirt. The stupid crown pulls at my hair; a single strand is caught the wrong way in a tooth. I’m familiar with the feeling—from crimping necklace fasteners, worn-out clasps of barrettes, bobby pins stripped of their plastic tips. There is no relieving the pinch until you’re alone, taking everything down for the night, and you’re ready to not look good anymore.
“I used to imagine asking you out at the bus stop,” says Leon. “Maybe we’d talk while we waited, and maybe one day I’d walk you home, and drop the question under the trees, with no one else around. Then they started sending one bus to pick you up at your end of the neighborhood, and another to pick me up at mine. I don’t know why; we could’ve walked that far. We did before. But I guess I had my car, before long, anyway. You had his.” He leans back in his seat and holds the steering wheel at 10 and 2, like they tell them in driving school: like good boys do. “I thought the bus stop idea was more romantic,” he keeps going, “that’s what I’d always pictured, but I waited so long I missed my shot and settled for prom. I felt bad to ask you at our lockers. I didn’t think about how people would see. I didn’t want to put pressure on you. Then again, I wanted badly for you to say yes. I shouldn’t lie.”
His voice is warm over the low, gritty scream of the highway. He has coaxed the car up to 45 now. I don’t feel like talking. But I ask, to keep up chatter, “What made you put your name in for queen?”
“I put my name in for both.”
“Why?” I ask.
He clears his throat. “I wanted you to get the crown, and I knew if you didn't, I could,” he says quietly.
The mile markers count up on the side of the road, flaring; they take longer to pass than I thought miles would take. Driving is slow, and Leon’s nerves have struck him silent. I see a sign for a city whose name I know from basketball games. I know what highway this is—it is the only one—but I’ve never known where it goes.
“Next exit,” Leon says, squeezing the wheel. “It’s not much longer.”
And I know, because he’s nervous, that whatever is there is supposed to be the thing that will make me wish I’d gone to prom with him.
Leon pulls off the highway onto a road I can barely see. There’s nothing in either direction that would tell you you’ve arrived anywhere. No lights, no spidery silhouettes of telephone poles—just flat, veiling dark, nothing to separate ground from sky. We take a right.
We drive several minutes, impossibly slow, navigating ruts and potholes. I hold on to the center armrest as the car jostles and rocks. Leon apologizes and apologizes. Then the wheel takes a plunge beneath me; I am sent bouncing, my crown hitting the ceiling, digging deep into my scalp before sliding forward, finally snapping that captive strand; it hurts like hell, and I must yelp, because Leon full-on stops the car, his arm shooting out across my chest like he expects me to fly out the windshield. His eyes are wide and his mouth open in a gasp in the dark.
I look at him and say, “What?” There is a slow, ticklish creep at the top of my head. First I think it’s blood, but when I reach up I find it’s curls—my careful nest of curls, drooping with loose hairpins, wilting sadly at the top of my head. “Rats,” I say softly. It is the only out-loud curse my grandmother will allow.
Leon withdraws his arm, settles back into his seat. “I’m sorry. It was really pretty,” he says. “It’s still pretty now.”
“Well, no,” I say, teasing out hairpins one by one. “It was professional. Now it’s a mess.”
Leon’s breathing hasn’t slowed any. He’s thinking about what he thought happened to me and not what actually happened. “Sorry,” he says, and resumes driving.
Maybe five minutes more down the road—I’ve got my hair down, relaxed as much as I can get it, picking through the hair spray with my fingers—Leon takes a turn into a near-hidden drive and draws to a stop in front of a wall of corn stalks. He turns off the car, takes the key out of the ignition, puts it in his jacket pocket. Sits in his seat, breathing. Sitting on his hands, about.
“It’s your spot,” I say. “You have to lead the way.”
In his headlights the corn is lit unnaturally bright, like the colors in a cartoon movie. Leon has turned in his seat to look at me. In the moon-yellow glow his face is a little ghostly, sick, slack with frown. My nerves bristle in me as Leon puts his hand to my cheek, brushes my lips around the edges with his thumb. “I feel like I haven’t gotten to take a good enough look at you tonight,” he says. His skin is soft, or mine is.
He touches the side of his fingers to my cheekbones, the sides of my nose, the sweep of my jaw. His eyes flicker across my corners, forehead to chin and cheek to cheek. His breath hits my lips, and I am a good kind of frightened. My eyelids fall, my mouth draws full and plump, to tell him it is okay. I feel this happen and am surprised to learn it—to learn I think it’s okay, that I’d like to be kissed by him, right now.
He says, “I’m sorry to take so long. We can go.”
His car door opens and shuts. It is the loudest sound.