When my father and I first find my car—which will soon be known as “the Wing”—it’s parked in front of the Shell station on Mount Hope Church Road, a FOR SALE sign taped to the passenger’s-side window. It’s August in Guilford County, and heat rises off the bleached road in sinuous, hallucinogenic waves. The world smells like hogs and chicken shit and gasoline. Gas is still cheap, the unleaded going for about $1.20 a gallon, thirty cents lower than the national average. This is rural North Carolina: the land of failing tobacco, megachurches, and Jesse Helms. Gas is cheaper out here than it is Greensboro, and cheaper in Greensboro, I now realize, than pretty much everywhere else in the US.
This is good news for us, because, other than driving, there isn’t much else to do. After school lets out, teenagers hang out at gas stations, either this one or the Amoco closer to school. Red is a popular car color in my peer group, making everyone look like a NASCAR driver or firefighter. On any given day, you’ll see a kid who keeps his stereo bass thumping as he swaggers inside to buy chips and a twenty-four-ounce Mountain Dew. A group of girls stand with their sedans at the periphery, their eyes raccooned in makeup. Most of them wear tank tops that end just above the navel, and bellybuttons are adorned with rhinestones, souvenirs from unchaperoned weekends down at Myrtle Beach.
I am sixteen and have just gotten my driver’s license, the result of being able to straight-line back, do a three-point turn, and use my blinker when changing lanes. The person who gave me my test—a middle-aged blond woman in a blue uniform shirt who reminded me of a camp counselor from the 1950s—also instructed me to pull into one of the DMV’s diagonal parking spaces, the easiest of all maneuvers, even for chronically bad parkers like myself. The North Carolina test does not involve parallel parking, for which the occasion, given where we live, is infrequent.
My family lives on a dead-end road at the rural border of a subdivision: two-story houses on one side of the woods, cows and horses and brick ranches on the other. There are tobacco-curing cabins in the woods east of the house. Though we are not especially wealthy, it has never really been a question whether or not I will get my own car. It’s a cultural mandate where we live. You can’t walk anywhere, not even to school. There are no sidewalks. Bikes are for the kids in the driveway, or a cul-de-sac, if you live in one of the subdivision neighborhoods that are slowly cropping up around the farms. My two sisters are at state universities; both have cars.
In North Carolina, if you can’t drive yourself somewhere, you can’t do anything. Even the poorest kids at school get cars, somehow, either as extravagant gifts, or the result of their after-school, minimum-wage savings: lifeguarding at Emerald Pointe, driving farm machinery, bagging at Winn-Dixie. It’s common to pass one of the nearby trailer parks and find two or three newer-looking SUVs, trucks, or sport sedans parked in front of each unit. And the enormous high-school blacktop is always full of that new-car shine: candy red, coastal blue.
But the Wing’s exterior is white: a color reserved for Oldsmobiles, grandmothers’ cars, or the Buick Skylark my mother owned back in 1985. There’s a photo of her in which she poses, nine months pregnant, in front of this car, so long and so white that it could be a pantsuit on Dynasty.
My friends think the Wing is dated: an ’89, almost as old as we are. The model was discontinued in 1993. It’s a Volvo 240—a long, boxy sedan, an IKEA living room on wheels. European cars are not common at my high school, and there are only two or three other Volvos in the school lot’s sea of Fords and Dodges. These other Volvos are wagons, mostly recycled middle-class mom-mobiles, as old as, if not older than, mine. This is because, as my father explains to me in his best diamond-seller voice, “a Volvo is forever.” His own 240 wagon has clocked nearly 300,000 miles.
No one has told us that in the rest of America, the Volvo is the liberal family’s trademark, the older models a marker of a kind of faux-bohemianism. Volvos are what college friends and I, later on, will call “bourgeois.” But my father, an ex–farm kid with a strong North Carolina accent and a bachelor’s in computer science from NC State, bought his first Volvo in 1988, because of a wreck on I-40 that totaled my mom’s old blue Mustang and smashed his nose, jawbone, and some teeth. He watched people die, their cars crinkling up like accordions. Somehow he was spared, but the Mustang was not. Months after the accident, my father researched cars to find the least dangerous model could get. Buying that first used Volvo—and the second, third, and fourth, and fifth—wasn’t about being bohemian or countercultural or artsy. This is a guy who voted twice for Reagan, and then twice for Bush. It was about safety.
My dad and I buy the Wing for around $3000—not from an aging hippie, but from a run-of-the-mill white guy in McCleansville who hangs doors for a living. We replace the air-conditioning fluid and the brake pads, but new shocks are expensive and will have to wait. For now, the back of the car flies up over railroad tracks and country potholes, like a dog trying to run with a bum leg. A crack creeps up from the right-hand side of the windshield, bifurcating the profuse green landscape as I drive. I have adjusted the seat all the way forward, a setting my father calls M, for midget. He buys me an old-lady cushion that matches the car’s blue cloth interior, a step up from the phone book I sat on to learn to drive. The Volvo sedan, long and big-boned, is obviously designed for Swedes. At sixteen, I’m only four feet eleven, and just over a hundred pounds.
Each morning, I ease into my new parking space beside the main school building, a drab, one-story cracker box set off by cow fields and a couple miles of woods. My parents met here in 1972, in study hall, which no longer exists. My father was “a mild-mannered hick,” my mother tells me, a guy who owned a blue Barracuda, the result of working the second shift at a mattress factory and saving everything. My mother, on the other hand, was a Raleigh-raised middle-class girl, Southern through and through but more or less a suburbanite—though she’d been uprooted halfway through her junior year, when her father took a job on the edge of Greensboro. My mom drove a baby blue Mustang, which her father presented to her in an enormous jokey box that he had built in their driveway. My mom fell for my dad because he invited her to a party after she moved. They married four years later.
In my time, the high school is a mix of middle-class suburban types, as well as poor kids and farm kids. The black/white breakdown is about 30/70. In my grade, the most common last names are Garrett, Johnson, and Causey, and my friend Faith is the only other person at school who has my last name, Rogers. She is dark-skinned and husky, wears glasses, and feels like a freak because she gets such good grades. “Black” and “nerd” don’t sync at our school. I’m red-haired and freckled, and my skin is so white that people make fun of me for it. The standing joke is that we are sisters.
Faith sits behind me in trigonometry class, our first block of the day. The mowers hum outside the low windows, and the cinderblock room is drowsy with sunlight. Our teacher, a big woman with a lilting voice, asks, “Did you ever hear the legend of Sohcahtoa?”
She holds her marker like a baton. No one answers. She writes SOH CAH TOA on the whiteboard.
“Sohcahtoa was the only child of a great Indian chief,” the teacher says. “And she was a very bright Indian girl. She was especially good at math.”
I can feel Faith rolling her eyes. “Is this the part when she discovers the earth is round?” Faith whispers.
In the teacher’s anecdote, Sohcahtoa climbs the sacred Theta Tree and learns to calculate trigonometric functions using her name as an acronym: sine is opposite over hypotenuse, cosine is adjacent over hypotenuse, and so on. Eyes roll.
I look down at my binder, filled with notes and triangles and signs. For me, just in the past year, math is finally beginning to make sense. Not in the cheesy, forced sense of Sohcahtoa, but in the way that I am starting to trust math, moving toward what I can’t see right away. As I child, I thought of math as stressful: the tricky word problems, the “trial and error” methods, the timed tests, the one-mistake-could-destroy-everything computations. Even when I was a freshman, my geometry teacher, Coach Smith, told me that I had no imagination, because at first I could not picture the straight dotted line from the base of the pyramid to the point, or the faces of a prism that weren’t drawn out on the page.
But the more advanced the math gets, the more I feel I am delving into some other realm, one where you don’t have to see or understand everything right away—the laborious processes will eventually lead you to an answer. I am fascinated by the hyperbola, how its two arms stretch out forever, coming close to those dotted asymptotes (God?), but never touching them completely. And that first time I graphed a sine wave on my calculator, I almost couldn’t believe the shape. It just snaked on and on, like radio waves or electricity, or the uphill and downhill of a country road: perfect, and suddenly visible through the fog.
At school, you get your parking space based on seniority, but also, unofficially, what kinds of grades you make. The smartest seniors, the ones taking all the AP classes, park right in front of the main entrance, their cars lined up like an octave of piano keys. I am a only a junior, but I make A’s, and so my space is also prized: by the cafeteria door, so close to the building that I hardly have time to open an umbrella before I enter it.
But one morning, I get caught behind a tractor on the way to school and I wade in just before the bell to find someone else’s sedan parked in my space. It’s a Ford Escort, a two-door hatchback. Cherry-colored. Looks new. It forces me to park in one of the empty gravel lot spaces, which are mostly for sophomores, or freshman who are really old because they’ve failed a couple of grades.
I leave a purple Post-It note on the windshield of the offending car: “This is my assigned parking space.” The next day, the car is back. “Please park elsewhere,” I write. “You’re in the wrong space. –BR” After that, the space stays open for a couple weeks, but during the first week of September, the red car returns.
I discover the culprit, eventually, unlocking this car in my parking space. She’s in that group of girls who are always taking up the bathroom stalls with covert smoking, scattering their ashes across the worn toilet seat, leaving the rest of us still desperate to pee when the bell starts ringing. She’s a gruff country girl with bleached-blond hair and very black eyeliner: a bustier, sturdier version of Lucinda Williams. Across the lot, I hear someone call her Shannon.
She puts her key in the ignition of the mean little Ford, a car that seems about a third of the length of the Wing. On the other side of the tinted windshield, she fiddles with some knob—air conditioning, probably—and then gets out again to yell something across the parking lot, where her girls are loitering.
“Excuse me,” I say to her.
Shannon doesn’t turn around. She’s still yelling at her friends, throwing up her hands in a dramatic way. She gives one of them the finger, and then laughs.
“Hey!” I say. “Shannon!”
She whips around, confused that I know her name. “What?”
Despite the distance between us, she seems to be looming over me. I feel like an eighth-grader who has wandered over from the middle school next door. “This is my assigned space,” I tell her.
The round headlights of her sedan stare me down. She rolls her eyes.
“Just move your car,” I warn her, “or I’m going to say something to the office.” The tattletale approach: always guaranteed to be successful.
She smirks. I’m starting to wish I hadn’t said anything. I turn toward the gravel lot, hoisting my heavy backpack as I go, my purse on one arm and my argyle-print lunch bag crumpled under the other. The bag alone is a sure sign of weakness. It means I am a nerd, that I don’t eat the pizza and crispy chicken sandwiches that the school cafeteria sells. It might even mean my mother packed my lunch.
“Go ahead, you stupid ho,” Shannon yells. I keep my eyes fixed on the gravel lot, seeing the white promise of the Wing in the distance. As I get farther away from her, she starts to yell over the roar of all the cars trying to get out of the lot. “Go ahead and tell. I’ll kick your ass!”
But rather than tell, I just make sure I get to school before she does. That next week, I roll in early each day, finding the two yellow lines like a landing strip through the morning fog. But on Friday, after school, I find a one of my old Post-Its, now tucked under my windshield wiper. Underneath my own serial-killer scrawl—the least girly handwriting of anyone I know—there’s a response. “Whatever bitch,” it reads in bloated, curly letters. “UR car is UGLY!” And, underneath: “PS You need to learn to park straight.”
I circle around to look at the rear of the Wing. The tires are skewed to the right, the result, I know, of pulling into the space too late and too close. The long nose of the car rests in the right hand corner of the space, while the back left wheel is grazing the left yellow line. My face goes hot. So this is what my father means when he says I’ve “overcorrected.” I sigh, shoveling my load of books onto the enormous blue back seat.
On the second Monday in September, the first full week after Labor Day, I wake up from a dream where I’ve been wandering aimlessly in a hallway. When I sit up in bed, the sheets are balled up at my waist. I’ve got a foggy feeling in my stomach as I head into the week.
I eat some cereal and take some Mylanta. My father, who has never been a morning person, goes off to his office, half-asleep in his Volvo. (Sometimes he falls asleep in the shower, and my mom has to knock on the bathroom door until he responds.) My mother, sensing my silence as I head off to school, asks if I’m okay.
“I just have a weird feeling,” I say to her, shuffling down the basement steps.
She pauses. “Be careful.”
I get into the Wing, do one windshield-wipe to clear away the pollen and dead insects. I’m running a few minutes late, and all the way to school, I’m dreading the parking lot. Instead of the red car, I imagine Shannon herself taking up my parking space, her body towering between the two white lines. But when I get there, my space is still open.
While one side of my brain is still abuzz with Shannon-fearing, the other side is full of spaces and angles. I start my day with math class. Trigonometry passes quickly as the white clock in the classroom moves, unseen, toward the small angle of 10 a.m., marking the second block of my school day: US history, advanced placement. It rains. We scuttle under the walkway between the two school buildings.
In the afternoon, I take 421 north to the commuter arts school in town, where a couple friends and I now take a guitar class. The school is about two blocks from the Woolworth’s where the lunch counter sit-ins happened in 1960. This old space will eventually become a museum, but in 2001, the project is still stalled due to lack of funds. The storefronts on that row are all empty.
The rain has stopped, and the air coming in the windows is steam. In the tobacco fields I pass, the remaining leaves are wilting and yellow. Harvest time. We have been talking in US history about the Virginia Colony, and the way Europe only wanted North Carolina for more tobacco and cotton and lumber and ports. We have been reminded that the Mayflower got caught in northerly winds, and the Pilgrims were supposed to be much farther south than where they ended up.
I turn on the car’s terrible radio. No news, as far as I can tell. The noise switches back and forth between the left and right speakers, refusing to come out of both. The Wing’s enormous rear flies up over the abandoned railroad tracks, making the guitar in the backseat knock against the side door. I roll the windows down. At the edge of town, I bear west.
My clearest memory of that next morning involves not the actual events, but, strangely, what I wear to school: flared jeans with a carpenter’s handle. A green tank top and an old plaid shirt rolled up to the elbows, which I bought with my guitar friends on my first thrift-store trip in Greensboro. This will be the year I ditch eyeliner, and, much to my mother’s dismay, painting my toenails. It’s also the first day since the age of twelve that I go to school without a bra on. Rural North Carolina’s culture is one in which a small chest like mine is subject to a considerable push-up in the bra department. Under the plaid shirt, without the bra, my breasts disappear. All day I walk around feeling naked.
We’re finishing a trigonometry test when another teacher appears at our door. There have been two plane crashes in the last hour, I hear her say in a hushed tone: one at the Pentagon, and one in the middle of New York City. I can feel ears eager for an interruption pricking up all over the room.
I know something is wrong, because Ms. K isn’t doing her usual raucous corralling as we scuttle into her room after the class change. She’s our US history teacher, a loudmouth from upstate New York, a law school dropout. She’s one of the better teachers at our school, but totally ruthless. When we get into her classroom that day, she doesn’t mention the usual quiz on the previous night’s reading, or try to hustle people into their seats. Instead, she turns the TV on. All the stations are showing New York City. One tower at the World Trade Center has already collapsed.
If you’re a kid in the South, New York is not the center of the world. It might as well be Japan. We’ve got no sense of what a plane crash in the middle of Manhattan might mean—physically, symbolically, or otherwise—for the general health of the United States. But twenty minutes into our class period, we’re all watching the second tower—the northern tower—with its top engulfed in smoke. For a moment, the long radio mast on its top, erect as an arrow, is still intact.
I feel myself holding my breath.
“Shit,” Faith says.
It’s when that mast begins to slide down our screen, still completely vertical—like a rocket launch, but in reverse—that we gasp, seeing that the trusses have given out, and this second building is collapsing. That two-dimensional needle drags from the top to the bottom of the TV, then disappears behind the smoke tendrils. And just like that, the northern tower vanishes.
After history class, the hallway seems to be leading to some another dimension. The pipes running the length of the ceiling remind me of an abandoned railroad. There is very little sound in the long corridor. I only hear the custodian emptying the trashcans, and the crumbled loose-leaf paper crunching inside the bags.
We move slowly, more like particles or atoms than people. I cross between the math/science/history building, known as the Annex, and the main building, shuffling under the ramp. The sky is that otherworldly blue of late summer or early fall. Leaves are still green.
Later, I unlock the driver’s side of the Wing. I’m leaving early for my class at the school downtown, but no one seems to notice. The interior of the car is sweltering. I take off the plaid shirt, the greenhouse heat pressing my bare shoulders. My flip phone, sitting in the passenger’s seat, indicates two missed calls on its neon screen. Both are from my mother. I understand this urgency, even though she knows I’m in school all day, and we can’t use our phones in school.
On the road, I turn on the radio, spinning the dial, searching for a clear signal. When I get to the news, the pitch of the voices alarms me. One says the words “terrorist attack.” Another is predicting war. I think of the uniformed recruiters who show up at our high school in the spring, setting up their table near the main entrance’s double doors.
I pass the Amoco. There are no teenagers in the parking lot, but, as if someone had predicted a hurricane or ice storm, all the pumps are occupied in the middle of the afternoon: a red Ford 150 pickup, a black Ford Explorer, a Dodge Caravan that’s painted the light blue that everyone calls “Carolina Blue,” because it’s worn by UNC teams. I ease onto 421, accelerating to fifty-five, then sixty. At the first major pothole, I lose the sound coming from my front left speaker, and the right one sounds garbled. I slap the left one. The sound returns for a second, then goes out again. I wonder how much it would cost to get this fixed.
When I’ve given up on the radio, I realize how fast I’m moving. I’ve edged up to sixty-five, and I’m suddenly terrified. I feel my stomach moving toward my throat. When I lift my sandal from the gas, I hear the motor start to descend in pitch, but the Wing’s interior is quiet and unchanged, a living room on wheels.
A living room with wings. That’s how my dad’s friend, who flies small planes, once described the static feeling of being on a commercial jet. But I know from all these problems in trig class that most jets are moving almost ten times as fast as I am right now. A plane flies at the rate of 600 mph at 81 degrees west of south, I hear in my head, the rhythm of the math problem so familiar, it’s almost innate. It turns due north suddenly, and crashes into a tower, and burns up.
I squint into the bisected windshield: late summer’s green-and-blue glare, the afternoon sun bearing down on the white car from the left side. I see a floater in the corner of my left eye, which is the same color and thickness—about the width of a pencil lead—as the windshield crack. As an adult, I now know that this is a string of cells in my retina that appears when I am exhausted, or have been looking too long at something too bright. But as a teenager, it’s still inexplicable, a translucent wave that comes at times I don’t understand.
When did I get to be old enough to drive alone? Though I don’t turn around, I can feel the country receding behind me. For once, I don’t think about where I’m going. My car seems to know the way on its own.
That morning’s trigonometry review, just before the test, was filled with bearing problems: nameless boats and planes and bicycles headed out at 30 degrees or 200 degrees away from true north. We were asked to calculate the number of nautical miles directly from the shore to the boat, or how long it would take to get there. Our teacher filled the whiteboard with blue and green vertical lines labeled N, which, in the case of these problems, is supreme, unquestionable. In reality, N was pointing toward the ceiling. Strangely enough, this is always how I imagined north as a child. It was a mystical idea, a place covered with ice, where the world eventually doubled back on itself.
Driving now, in real life, as I approach my usual turn toward my other school, I feel a strong urge to cut class—even though it’s music, my favorite—and keep going forward, through the low-income-housing neighborhoods, and then the nearly abandoned rail yard. Up to the blocks where Greensboro’s few tall buildings stand—mostly banks, or insurance—in that small glass heart that is downtown. And past that, out to the airport, and toward the state line, toward Virginia and New York, and whatever comes after that. Due north—if there is such a thing—and forward and up, as if following that strange vertical aperture in my windshield. If I look up, I will notice that no planes are flying today.
While I drive, I’m also replaying a scene from earlier that day, just after history class and the tower’s demise, when I headed to the girls’ room. Strangely, it was almost empty, though it still smelled of smoke, with ashes scattered on the floor of the stalls. When I unlatched the door, about to head over to the sink, I looked over and froze.
It was Shannon, standing there alone in a cloud of cheap vanilla perfume. Her back was to me. She stared at herself in the mirror, her ponytail like a bundle of blond straw on the nape of her neck. Then she rubbed under her eyes with a tissue, holding a chubby black eyeliner pencil in the other hand.
The empty bathroom, with its mustard-colored tiles and slit of frosted window, suddenly felt cavernous. If I were to have said anything, I don’t know how loud or echoing it might have sounded.
She must’ve noticed me standing there, because I saw her expression change in the mirror. Her face hardened, as if she were about to punch me, or else be punched in the face. I braced myself. I’d seen girls shove each other against the wall when one stole the other’s boyfriend; maybe the same rules applied to parking spaces.
She finished lining her right eye, started re-drawing the border underneath her left. Liner on your lower lid makes you look trashy, I could hear my sister—a math and business major—say mockingly, all the way from college. But Shannon kept drawing with a steady hand and deep concentration, as if solving a math problem. Her eyes were small and brown. From the way she layered the lines on top of each other, I could tell that she wished they were larger, or maybe another color, like blue. She put the cap back onto her eyeliner and slung her enormous purse over her bare shoulder. She wasn’t carrying any books. Were they in her locker? Was she going to get them before class started? Did she even care?
I decided to make a run for it. Or a walk. A deliberate walk. When I was almost halfway to the door, she turned suddenly from the mirror, her shoulder almost touching my shoulder as she passed me and exited ahead of me. Our eyes didn’t meet, because her head was down, and also because I kept mine fixed forward, afraid of what might happen if I turned to look at her square-on.
But I did realize, as she zoomed by me, that she was almost as short as I was. I heard the hem of her jeans drag a bit on the floor as she shuffled out the bathroom door, and then down the hallway, becoming a blond and blue-jeaned blur. I don’t know where she was headed. She might’ve turned down another hallway, going to her next class, or she might have decided to cut it, going straight for the school’s back entrance, and out to the lot.
In the car now, I wonder where she’s parking these days. Where is her assigned space? It is, in a sense, weirdly unfair, the way they assign them. For a second, I think maybe I should just surrender my space and let Shannon have it. She’s a senior. She probably wants it more than I do.
Shannon’s car disappears. The fall and winter pass, the leaves disappearing, then refilling their usual places. The next time I see her is at graduation the following spring, an event full of whooping and cowbells that takes place at the coliseum in Greensboro’s downtown. Since my grade point average is the one of highest out of about three hundred eleventh-graders—I’m ranked below the obnoxious fourteen-year-old genius, just under Faith—I am part of the special group of juniors made to lead the senior class procession. We wear black dresses or black suits draped with white sashes. I think the fanfare is stupid, but I’m not brave enough to opt out of it completely. My mom snaps a picture of me in the driveway before I head to the ceremony, as she did for both of my sisters.
The announcer makes a point of mentioning people’s future college or military plans. She doesn’t say anything about Shannon. I wonder if this means she will go to work full-time, as many kids do, or maybe she will have a baby, or be married to someone by this time next year. Or maybe she’ll live with her mom for a while and take community-college classes, her little red car shuttling her back and forth to Greensboro or Burlington or Asheboro, a student parking permit hung from the rearview mirror.
I shift inside my high-heeled shoes, uncomfortable from standing up for so long. From my post beside the platform, I watch Shannon climb up, her blond hair fanning out of the bottom of her black graduation hat. She flashes a smile to the crowd when she passes, less than two feet away from where I’m standing. She doesn’t look at me. Maybe, by now, she’s already forgotten who I am.
She doesn’t wear any special cords around her neck. In her plain black polyester robe, she files through the diploma line, and climbs down from the platform. From here, she will head back to where she’s been sitting, a number of rows back from the stage. The coliseum, with its endless lines of collapsible chairs, suddenly feels like the high-school parking lot, but without the cars. I can’t see Shannon anymore. As the rest of the names are called, I keep looking for her, trying to tease her small figure out from that long black arrow of students filling the wide space in front of me.