We’ve got a bag of Wonder Bread in the backseat. It’s hot in the car with the vents blasting and I keep turning to check if the plastic of the bread bag is melting, fusing with the Peace Train’s blue vinyl upholstery. I like this car. It’s got window cranks and exactly one temperature option and you never have to worry about whether pressing a button will cause the car to back up, or sound its alarm, or ask you intimidating and direct questions about your mileage. It doesn’t confuse you with icons that hint at window washing and instead trigger emergency wheel locking systems. If you want to defrost the windows, you rub them with your sleeve. I long for that kind of simplicity.
Betsy embraces simplicity, in all its forms. She’s a very “in the moment” kind of person. In this moment, we’re driving down to Pacifica, where our boss supposedly lives, where our boss supposedly drinks Mai Tais with hookers, at least that’s the story Betsy claims she’s gleaned from his sales call records. I don’t think it’s true, I think it’s just something she said to make me feel better, on account of our boss being a total dickwad. Last week he overheard us talking about my ex-girlfriend having an abortion, and said, “Well, at least you can be sure it’s not yours.” Then he cackled.
He also likes to hold doors open for women and then close them when he sees me, because I’m a “feminist,” which is the word he uses because he’s too chicken to call me a dyke, plus the anti-harassment policies that the nineties instituted in our workplace, plus the fact that his boss, Liam, is a total closet-case, which makes him prone to violent outbursts, and so if Boss Man said what he means to say Liam would probably strangle him with his tie. When he calls me a feminist he comes down really hard on the “t,” and it emphasizes the pointiness of his nose. He looks kind of like a chicken hawk, and is going bald, which does make me feel better.
I’m the only out person in the office, though I suspect at least seven on our floor. It’s a wide floor, but still. Publishing is rife with sensitive types. The non-sensitive, I have noticed, are a little insecure because of this, feel the need to beef up their handshakes. Talk loudly at office gatherings, that sort of thing. I’m the only girl, though, who fits the first category, so Boss Man knows what he can get away with, where to draw the line.
“That guy needs to be loafed,” Betsy had said.
“That guy needs to be run over in traffic,” I said.
“I don’t want you going to jail.”
“Wait, what the hell is loafed?” I asked, and Betsy grinned.
* * *
Loafed, for Betsy, is a family tradition, akin to a mafia revenge killing, only with Wonder Bread. Essentially you walk into the place of business or hangout of the target, throw a bag of Wonder Bread at them, declare yourself, and walk out while the bag of Wonder Bread still steams with their public humiliation. One cannot loaf someone at home for this reason.
Betsy explained all this to me when she picked me up at my apartment in San Francisco, and we drove down 19th to the freeway. I’ve learned a lot, actually, about Betsy in this car. I learned we like the same weird old music, and that we both do this funny thing before we fall asleep where you balance your arm in the socket and let it just stand on end until all the blood drains from you hand, and you let your whole arm fall over like dead weight. I learned that she likes salt-water taffy and horror flicks and that occasionally she’ll use a word I have to look up, but that I can probably ask and she won’t make too much fun of me. She reads big fat novels and is the only person in our age group who still uses the library. Betsy thinks it’s the arm thing that really cements our friendship, but there’s room for future possibilities. We’ve only been working together at the publishing house for eight months, so every car ride still offers some little intimacy I can file away under Things I Know About Betsy. Today, it so happens, is the subcategory of criminal activity, and I, she has explained, am to become involved in these practices myself. We are simpatico.
Once we hit the exit, we’re on the hunt. Pacifica is a small town, with a stretch of Highway 1 full of stoplights, gas stations, a few dive bars and steakhouses. The coast always feels different—that same glum as the city that I love, like a sweater with the neck all the way up. Here it’s mixed with the smallness of a beach town in California, Eichlers and other 1950s-style houses in green and blue and yellow, with small square windows, as if they’re trying to hide from the salt air that’s washing them pale, making the paint chip and peel on the garages housing their pick-up trucks, making the poinsettias people have left out on the front porch look like girls in droopy chiffon waiting for their prom dates to arrive, not willing to admit they’ve been passed over. In the back, the mountains are there, when you can see them, green and mossy in the winter and the spring. In the summer they are brown and dry and crackling with the smell of oak, but here, on the coast, everything is always, always damp. I never really feel like I’m in real life in a beach town. It’s more like a Hitchcock movie.
Today we’re the voyeurs, and the bad guys, and the innocents all in one. I’ve got a knot in my stomach and chest that needs to come loose. The source of this knot, I am convinced, is Betsy’s enthusiasm. I am not, as a general rule, an enthusiastic person. Rather, I hang out with enthusiastic people and study them, their particular pathologies of exuberance, all the while feeling an intense longing in my heart, and the rush of adrenaline’s warning in my hands and feet. This practice makes me a masochist, but also a sort of anthropologist. I liken it to being on assignment in the field, rather than a lab, or a library. Today, for instance, I am learning that when you are from Idaho, like Betsy is, you do not go home and fantasize about pushing Boss Man off a clock tower while staring at the wall, then fall asleep and have unsettling dreams where you stumble along the sidewalk at weird angles and gape at familiar looking strangers. You take a bag of highly processed, doughy, spongy, marshmallowy wheat, and you turn it into action. You throw cheap bread at people, and run screaming from the vicinity. It is the American Way.
Betsy looks like she’s doing something behind her sunglasses, and she’s slowed up on the gas pedal, so I ask.
“I’m checking the bumper stickers,” she says. “He’s got that stupid one, about getting drunk and doing the running man.”
“I thought he had the ‘My Child is an Honor Student’ one.”
“No, that’s Susanna. And that’s her mom’s car, so that thing has been on there since 1995. The honor student is Susanna.” Susanna is another editorial assistant in our department, except that she likes the boss. Occasionally, they carpool. Susanna is younger than my twenty-four and Betsy’s twenty-six years on earth and Betsy thinks it’s gross Susanna even touches Boss Man’s door handle.
“Maybe it’s a Northeastern thing,” I say. Boss Man is from Massachusetts. Unfortunately for Massachusetts.
“Do they know how to do the running man in Massachusetts?”
“Who’s from Connecticut?”
“Oh, so you know that about her, do you?” Betsy smirks. I ignore it. She does this sometimes, when I mention other girls.
“I didn’t mean the running man, anyway, I meant keeping bumper stickers on your car from the 90′s.”
“I think any person who puts a running man sticker on his car in the first place has some deep soul searching he needs to do. Some downright contemplation. And that, my friend,” Betsy says, tapping the steering wheel, “that is what we are here to provide.”
I contemplate. I wonder if all small towns of the West are the same, if what is so familiar to me about this beach town, about its low atmosphere and sad tenor is the thing that revs Betsy up, that makes her teenage menace come out, drive with the windows down and smack her gum and pump the cigarette lighter in the dash so she can light the last one in her pack, the lucky she’s been holding onto for nearly a week. I wonder if we’re just driving for the sake of driving, and not for the sake of seeing Boss Man’s face when he’s hit with our gooey, melted package of homogeneous crust, and I wonder if Betsy knows something I don’t about satisfaction. She seems more excited about this than I am, than how this fits with what I know about her, and that makes me wonder what it is, exactly, in between sharing my preference for lemon-flavored candies and my extremely healthy cynicism, she thinks she knows about me.
But this is morose, these are my thoughts coloring the field research. In fact, Betsy is driving with purpose, not aimlessness, toward an intersection, where there’s a sign for Nick’s Famous Crab Sandwich! and, beyond that, a wide parking lot overlooking the sea. All the signs in these towns look like they’re from the fifties, when the fifties were obsessed with what the future looked like. Apparently, in the future of everyone’s imagination, where we lived on the moon and rode around on hovercrafts, the future looked like a bowing alley, or a sleazy lounge joint. Nick’s is a low one-story building with a fake rock facade and large asymmetrically arranged red circles enclosing each white sharply angled letter of its founder’s name. The future was no more predictable to them than it is to me. I, for instance, do not predict Betsy hanging a left across the Cabrillo highway and rolling into the parking lot of Nick’s Seaside Dinners, but here we are, facing the back windows of the restaurant. It would have an admittedly nice view if it weren’t for this parking lot. Behind us stretches a curve of the Pacific, complete with bluff and sand spit, and the kind of damp that makes me pull my sleeves over my thumbs. The beach is covered with something, a row of plastic looking mounds—moon jellies, maybe, washed up from high tide.
“I don’t think he’s in there,” I say.
“He’s definitely in there,” Betsy says. She nods at a car at the rail. Sure enough, I see the running man sticker.
“How do you know these things?” I ask.
“I’m good with energies,” she says.
I am, I say, feeling definitive. Definitively, I want to curl up in the blasting safety of the Peace Train’s heater. I want to fish through the glove compartment and find stale gum and old phone numbers on napkins and ask Betsy if she can remember which guy in which bar gave them to her. I want to stare out the window at the ocean for an hour. I go on like this. I am melancholy, morose, it’s better to swallow my pain, to absorb it down into my nerve endings, what would the Buddha do, can’t we just go drink our own Mai Tais, or better yet, let’s go to the Dumpling King and get soup dumplings, I feel like some MSG, also, it’s freezing, and do you see the rows of quivering jelly death out the window? It’s a bad omen, I think, I say, I gesture.
Betsy reaches into her bag in the back and throws me a ski cap. Maybe somewhere in her sweet Idaho heart she believes she can heal me with criminal activity. Maybe that’s the secret she thinks she knows. I’m relieved; it won’t work.
“You’re not serious,” I say, convinced the joke has played out.
“I’m dead serious,” she says. “Why do you think we’re in all black?”
“Because you wish you lived in Manhattan, and that we worked for Random House and not an educational textbook company where you have to talk to eighty-year-old physics professors on a regular basis?”
“Why are you wearing all black, then?”
“Because I’m unhappy?”
“Because I told you to, and because you want revenge. Feel it. C’mon.”
“I’m a coward, Betsy.”
“Twenty-four hours ago you wanted to run him over with the car.”
“Clearly, I have some unresolved issues.”
“Put the cap on, O’Brien.”
I put the cap on over my dark brown hair, smashing it down around my ears. In contrast to Betsy’s light blonde bangs and freckles, I could be an actual criminal. Betsy just needs to throw a scarf around her neck and she’d look like an ad for Burberry. I begin to question things, not just my existence, which is generally how I occupy myself, but also the string of decisions leading up to this moment, a moment where Betsy is slicing an apple with a Swiss Army knife and offering me a section. If this were a Hitchcock movie I’d eat the apple and she’d stab me with the knife, not because she was psychotic, but because she was desperate, or angry, or some other untainted emotion that would cause her to struggle with me and flap the sheen of her blond locks under the camera. I would get to be Jimmy Stewart, awkward and slightly helpless. She would trick me into thinking I had accidentally killed her, only I hadn’t, and she was hiding behind the bluff and in cahoots with the boss man. Then I’d wander around in a daze until I realized nobody believed me, not even the police, and when I got back to my apartment in San Francisco there she’d be waiting for me, in the dark, and I’d have to throw apple cores at her head until the cops busted in anyway, due to a domestic disturbance call from a neighbor. It’s possible I would dangle from a ledge somewhere in that montage, but my mind is fuzzy on detail at the moment.
“This is not going to turn out well, Betsy,” I say.
“This is the best part,” she says. “Ready?”
“I don’t think you are.”
“No, I’m ready.”
“Get in the moment, O’Brien. You hear me? Get in the moment.”