Air whooshed into the car when Brian opened the passenger side door of my ’96 Ford Taurus and stuck his Doc Marten boot out above the moving pavement. Brian’s Doc Martens were hand-me-downs, scuffed and cracked and almost grey with age, the yellow laces laced all the way up and wrapped several times before being tied around Brian’s skinny leg just above the ankle, his cuffed jeans lifting as he stretched one leg out of the door.
Brian wasn’t a metaphor, or imaginary, or like a hidden aspect of my fractured personality or anything like that, he was just a kid that happened to have the same first name as me, because we were around the same age and a lot of people named their kids Brian in the early 1980s.
I was behind the wheel, sitting high in the fabric seat of the Taurus. Looming my body over the steering wheel like I like to do. My long thin fingers squeezing the foam of the steering wheel, the toe of my Converse All-Star pressing gentle on the accelerator, easing above 15 mph, coming quickly to the cul-du-sac end of Brian’s street.
Brian had picked up a summer job working construction at a place down-Cape, and since he didn’t have a car, he intended to hitchhike to and from work each day. The problem, as he saw it, was the number of creeps picking up hitchhikers to sexually assault them. The solution to this was to teach himself how to jump out of a car moving at highway speed. He was positive he could do it, he just needed to learn how. Our process was to practice jumping out of the car at low speeds and then work our way up. Start at 5 mph, then 10, etc. If you can learn how to do it safely at 20, 25 mph, all you would have to do adjust your calculations for 55, 60 mph.
I thought this was a great idea.
I volunteered to be the driver because of course I did. I’m an enabler.
Plus, Brian said he wouldn’t trust any of the other dudes with a thing like this.
This was our third run up and down the street. We had first tried 5 mph, was almost disappointingly easy. I was riding the brake, moving slower than the Taurus would have on its own, and Brian just kind of got out of the car and stood up. The next pass was supposed to be at 10, but I actually kept it more around 8. I guess my instinct to go a little easy was part of the reason I was chosen as the driver. That time Brian had to take a few steps, running alongside the car for less than a second before I pulled away.
Brian rubbed his palm hard against the blonde fuzz of his buzzed skull, a lopsided smile on his pinched and elven face. His voice was high pitched with a kind of nasal warble, “I think the move is, man, to like have one foot hit the ground flat, and then tuck into a roll as quick as possible. I just need to keep my dome from hitting the ground, if I can curl tight enough, I can totally land on my shoulders or back, and they can take the hit, don’t you think?”
“Makes complete sense to me,” I told him.
Brian let out a squeaking laugh, “although we Sterlings have notoriously thick domes!”
Brian Sterling was the youngest of the three notorious Sterling brothers, the other two of which had ambled out of the garage to watch the proceedings, along with Ben Castle. The eldest of the brothers was Dave, a kind of ogre of a man, who at turns was jovial and furious. He was tall and broad shouldered, with a square head and a firm jaw, short strawberry blonde hair and a patchy beard, and would’ve have been an arrestingly handsome man if he wasn’t so puffy from drink. Dave lived in the attic above his parent’s garage and rarely could be coaxed out of his hovel. When he was tempted to come out to a party, he was the type of guy who tore his shirt off and challenged people to punch him as hard as they could in his voluminous beer belly. I once saw Ben Castle smash a square glass Jack Daniels bottle on Dave’s head and Dave did not get hurt.
John Sterling was the middle brother, but no one called him John, he was Sterling. Even though Dave was older, Sterling was the ur-Sterling, he was cooler than his brother, had that kind of quiet vacant thing about him, chill, unimpressed, I don’t think I ever heard him say more than a handful of words in the time I knew him. He had a big, chiseled face with a prominent nose, which made him look a bit like Elvis Costello, and wore horn-rimmed glasses, which made him look even more like Elvis Costello. He was long and lanky where his older brother was thick and brutish. Sterling and Ben Castle had been friends forever, and Sterling was the drummer in every band Ben formed. The kind of music Sterling liked was that he only listened to the bands Slayer and Devo. This informed the way he played the drums, which was as fast as possible and as hard as possible, all of the time.
As cool as Sterling was, Ben Castle was perhaps the coolest human I had met, ever, or since. I desperately wanted to be his friend, I mean I already was his friend, but that feeling remained, even when you were around him, that you wanted to be his absolute best friend and around him all the time. Ben was a guitarist and a writer and poet, he chain-smoked and wore a blank black baseball cap low over his piercing blue eyes, bill of the cap curled into an upside-down U from being folded into the back pocket of his jeans and had the loose and sexy stance of a gas station attendant. When he was giddy and in a good mood his voice took on this faux-British accent, would exclaim “Most Excellent!” while wiggling his fingers. The rest of the time his voice was a sleepy grumble. Often, Ben seemed like he had just woke up. When he was listening to you, he would turn his ear toward your mouth, his eyes on the ground, the smooth skin of the back of his neck exposed to the air. Ben was the one that started calling Sterling Sterling, he was the reason the rest of us did.
Neither of us, Sterling or I, as much as we wanted, could be Ben’s best friend, because Ben’s best friend was dead.
His name was Grove, that was how everyone referred to him, and he had died of a heroin overdose thirteen months ago. He and Ben had been like brothers since they were little, had done everything together, up to and including their junk habit. As far as Ben was concerned, Grove was the coolest person he could imagine. Grove was Ben’s Ben. When Grove died the friend group had shattered, lots of people blaming each other, others clinging tighter, and in that vacuum I entered.
I hadn’t been friends with these guys long. Six months tops. This is what I did, floated from one group to another, changing who I was in the process. I had grown up a town over, and my friends from there simply hadn’t stuck. Or maybe I was the one who hadn’t stuck. Either way I had entered this vacant space in these people’s lives, and they took me on as one of their own. I knew everything about them. I didn’t know anything about myself.
His boot sticking out the open door, the world rolling under us, Brian’s light eyes bounced from the mouth of exposed air, back to me, back to the air. Brian was the youngest, which meant he was the cute one, the friendly one, easiest to get along with and the conciliator, the one who smoothed things over between his brothers. Also, as the youngest, he had something to prove.
Dave lifted his fleshy face and hooted into the air, shoeless on the scraggy yard. He was holding a Budweiser loose by the top of the can, low by his thigh. Sterling was standing with his shoulders high, hands tucked into his armpits, blinking and looking cold. He shouted, voice cracking, “fucking do it already!”
Ben held a lit Camel Light to his mouth and pulled it away with a snap of his hand, a sharp yank. His face was in shadow under the curled bill of his cap.
I crested the slight incline of the loosely paved street, speedometer needle twitching in the direction of 20 mph. Brian had done so well at the lower speeds, I was raising the stakes, it was time.
The problem was commitment. I was one who committed too easily, I was a sucker for a moment. I was there holding your hand through a breakup or your hair while you puked your guts out, I could promise and be vulnerable, be the person you needed on the worst night of your life, but I didn’t know how to stick. From the time Ben and I had met, I felt like I had been his friend forever, but I was scared of that too, scared of what that meant over time, if I would ever be able to stop myself from being the one who left. There was that balance, of knowing when to commit to someone, to be there for them, and knowing how not to go too deep too fast. Knowing that you won’t stay. Or perhaps, learning for once how to be there for the long-haul. You had to know yourself enough to be able to trust yourself, and I was not even close to a place where I could consider myself to be at the beginning of that.
There was sound, like a schurpt, and Brian’s body shunted out of the open door of the moving car, swirling air washing around me, now alone behind the wheel.
Brian Stephen Ellis is the author of four collections of poetry, with a fifth collection, Against Common Sense to be release from Limit Zero Press in 2023. He lives in Portland, Ore.