A month before heartbreak, we were in the car. My phone was hooked to the speaker by an umbilical cord of pink wire. Melly drove – I didn’t have my license yet.
“I’m gonna play a cover. It’s funny,” I said. A whiny man’s voice screeched from the stereo.
“Can you play the original version? The Kate Bush one?” she asked.
“Aw, come on. The original is overplayed.”
“This one sucks. No offense.”
“Mm. Okay,” I obliged.
Such were the conditions of my being a passenger princess: driver held the music veto.
Fields dipped down and up beyond my window. Golden sun buttered the grass. I put two fingers on the glass: these were a man’s legs. He surfed over yellow hills.
“Babe?” said Melly. “Can you not do that? You’ll get the window dirty.”
I peeled away my fingertips; indeed, two greasy prints remained. The man crushed into my fist.
“Can you hand me some gum, too?” she asked.
A pink pack of Bubble Yum, with a punk duck on the wrapper - its bill was pierced. It wore pink hair in a mohawk, thick studs on the neck. We looked alike, a little.
I scratched the gum wrapper off. The square, pink and naked, was placed in Melly’s palm.
“Aw, thanks for taking the wrapper off.”
“Of course. My pleasure.” I meant it. I loved doing this. I didn’t want this party; I wanted to be in the car, with her, forever. But, with no cars around, our wheels chewed fast through the highway. We arrived at Alice’s.
It was a costume party. No one but the straight couple knew. Melly went inside to see Alice. I dawdled on the front porch, where that couple took up all the stairs, sitting pressed together with their cigarettes. They wore flared jeans, corduroy jackets, cowboy hats.
I felt friendly. “Are you guys dressed as cowboys?”
“Yep!” said the man. “We just watched Brokeback Mountain - loved loved loved it! I’m Heath Ledger, and she’s Jake Gyllenhal.”
His beaming girl asked me: “What are you dressed as?”
“Oh, this is me.” I waved black fingernails over the ripped tights, the red plaid skirt, the chains dangling heavy on my waist. My thick eyeliner peeled dry.
“Hm,” the woman frowned. “No one else dressed up either.”
“Alice sent an email, about it being a costume party” said the man. “It was pretty last minute though. 2 pm today.”
“Gay people don’t check their emails on Saturdays,” I said.
“Oh, interesting.” He nodded.
The party leaked from the front door. Giggles, 80s bouncing synthesizers, cheesy whiffs of popcorn. Melly knew all these guests better. Bidding the brokebackers goodbye, I stepped inside, my intestines writhing like worms.
The dining table had been pushed into the living room. Atop it were bubbling cherry pies, with “Goodbye Alice & Melly” spelled cursively from woven dough. Glass bowls carved with stars held glistening wet grapes, plump oranges, bulbous strawberries. Alice baked the pies, and blew glass for the bowls. Her house smelled of cinnamon. It held not a speck of dust.
Alice stood with crossed arms, smiling at Melly, a golden flute of champagne dangling lazy from one hand. Melly laughed, and Alice touched her forearm.
“Alice, hey!” I said. “Great party.”
Indeed, the party was great. Clusters of gorgeous people leaned on her bookshelves and tossed grapes into each other’s lipsticked mouths. Gentle cheer brewed in every corner.
“Oh, I’m so glad you could make it!” She smiled.
“This is a really great new chapter for you both,” I said. “Grad school! Yay.”
“Oh, yes, definitely! Melly and I were just talking about Bard - it’s so great they do their master’s program in the summer. We’ll only be gone three months.”
Alice’s eyes jumped from my eyes to my skullcrusher boots, my fishnets.
“I’m glad you also dressed up,” she said. “It seems like no one read my email.”
“No, these are my usual,” I said.
“She’s trying out a new thing,” Melly explained to Alice.
“That straight couple on your porch dressed up, though,” I offered.
“Oh, really? I thought they always looked like that.”
Alice, as host, had stuck to the theme. She wore a Little Mermaid costume: her miniskirt shimmered with plastic scales and her chest was bound in purple shells.
“Oh, I feel so stupid.” She picked at the frayed ends of a noxious-orange wig. “I should change.”
“No, no.” Melly grabbed her hand. “You look great.”
“Do you have drinks?” I asked.
“Oh, sure! Follow me.”
On the kitchen counter was a pitcher of amber-brown, sweet-smelling drink: blended Fireball and apple cider. The beverage was autumnal for spring – too cinnamony and warming – but dangerously delicious. I drank one plastic cupful, then another.
The music suddenly sounded great. The cowboy woman swished her elbows by a standing speaker, with her eyes closed and face blissful. I approached.
“I love this song,” I told her.
“Me too! It’s, uh, what is it-”
“Running Up That Hill. Kate Bush.”
“Yes!” Her fist shot up.
“You know, there’s this cover of it I really like.” I said. “I wouldn’t say it’s better than the original, but-”
“Send it to me!” She grabbed my wrist. “I love covers!”
“Right! Me too.”
Cover songs, I thought, free performers of constraints their own lyrics shackle them to. With originals, if, for example, one felt sad writing certain words, one forever had to perform them sad, matching their inflection and emotion for eternity. With fan-favorites this especially was true; if a popstar sings her hits on stage differently then how they sound recorded, the rabid crowd will hiss their disappointment. But with covers, a performer already knows the words, and while the words do mean something to them, the meaning will never be as personal as lyrics personally penned. Thus, the original melody and words become mere guideposts for one’s most joyful, soulful, heartfelt self-expression. Think of the utter glee of Christmas songs - a genre composed mostly of covers. Think of every performance of the National Anthem, peppered with vocal runs and vibratos, alterations in speed and sadness, and consider the different flair of sentimentality each new cover brings it. At least, this was my theory. Melly did not agree with me, and she was the one getting her master’s in music.
I did not share my ideas with the cowboy woman, but I suspected she’d agree. One of her eyes squeezed open, and she smiled at me as we danced, bopping like corn kernels to that silly synth beat. Her hand clawed onto my wrist; we spun.
Mix movement with liquor - you get sicker. My brain swirled from our spins. Vomit rose slow in my throat, like mercury in a thermometer. I threw myself onto the couch. The woman, kindly, followed.
“When I get my license,” I said, “I’ll only play covers in the car.”
“You don’t know how to drive?” she asked.
“No. I know, it’s embarrassing. I’m too old.”
“I can teach you.”
“Wow! Thank you!”
I threw up. It didn’t get on her, thank goodness. But the dining table suffered. The glass bowls caught chunks. The pies were ruined. Alice was gracious, quickly Cloroxing everything. She dabbed the corners of my mouth with a rag.
Before we left, Melly apologized on my behalf. Alice nodded, understanding. Her hand sat low on Melly’s back. I wondered: did my eyeliner rub off?
Melly drove me home. The windows slid down an inch and inhaled dark dewey night air. Our headlights melted yellow on black asphalt. My legs folded in like a cricket’s, and my knees sat on the dashboard. The final act of any passenger princess are bare feet on the dashboard, but I did not deserve such luxury that night. My legs were too tightly bound in leather anyway, weighed down by ponderous boots.
Melly slid into my driveway. My hand slid into hers. She kissed it.
“Are you going to be okay while I’m gone?” she asked.
“Yes, of course. I’m gonna learn to drive. And you’re gonna have so much fun with Alice. Grad school will be great. Like, you guys are such great friends already, and I’m glad y’all get to do it together.”
The moon, a sliver, spied on us. I spied back on the crescent, peeking at it in the mirror.
I did not kiss Melly -- my mouth smelled of vomit. I didn’t cry until I was inside. Only in there I’d realized: she was leaving.
We had not been apart since we got together. Next morning, when I awoke still trapped in boots, with fishnets further torn, I thought: What to do? Usually, if she spent the night, I’d crawl early from bed to brew her coffee. If she stayed home, she’d drive in before work, with her coffee waiting in my kitchen.
I myself didn’t drink coffee. It made my heart beat deathly fast. So, for the first time in four years, the coffeemaker slept in.
I called the cowboy woman - Sherry! That’s her name. We’d gone to high school together. I apologized for throwing up. She forgave me. I asked if she could still teach me. She said yes.
Her pickup truck crunched gravel in my driveway. Bright yellow stickers were slapped on the bumper: Please Be Patient - STUDENT DRIVER.
“My niece is learning to drive, too,” she explained, leaning her head with all its curls from the car window. “I’m teaching her on this truck. The stickers are a big help. People give you space. Come on, hop inside. I’ll show you the brakes and everything.”
Indeed, the stickers helped. When my jerky movements - gas pedal pressed and lifted, pressed and lifted - landed us on the highway, the truck had ample space behind. People literally steered clear. In my rearview mirror, even the closest car was teeny.
We practiced every day for weeks. I felt bad: I cracked a headlight against a fire hydrant, and dented the truck’s back corner when I parked against a curb.
“Don’t worry,” Sherry rolled her eyes. “This car’s seen worse. Do you wanna go get ice cream now? It’s an easy drive there.”
It was June then, sticky and sweltering. The truck lacked AC, and our bare thighs stuck to its seats. Melly had been gone a month. Ice cream sounded great.
I drove dangerously. I forgot the turn signal. I didn’t check behind to switch lanes. I sped. But people saw the yellow stickers. They honked sometimes, but they adjusted. They knew to stay away.
The ice cream place was drive-through; I paid, and passed our cones to Sherry. That had usually been my role with Melly, hold the food until we park.
I pulled, crookedly, into the last free spot. Melly gave back my ice cream. It dribbled white on my black skull shirt.
“Do you miss Melly?” Sherry asked. She bit her swirl, pink streaking her lip afterwards.
“Very much so.”
“Aw. That sucks. I remember y’all in high school. My goodness, was I naive. I saw y’all holding hands and thought, ‘Wow, they’re such good friends!’”
“It’s okay. A lot of straight people do that, I feel.”
“Y’all weren’t that subtle either. I remember her tucking your hair behind your ear once, in the cafeteria. I just thought, ‘How sweet! What beautiful best friends.’ You just don’t learn to read these things at first.”
“Yeah. Can you pass me a napkin?”
Sherry produced a crumpled brown wad from the glove compartment. I dabbed at my vanilla-smeared shirt.
“Do you think I can pass the test soon?” I asked.
“Sure. We just need to get your parallel parking straightened out. Do you mind if I play some music?”
“Yeah. Wanna hook your phone up?”
“This car is too old. It doesn’t do that. Radio only.” She twisted the knobs.
“Wait, wait, go back to that other station. I love that song. It’s Iggy Pop! The Passenger. Do you know it?”
“Well, there’s a better version of it. Siouxsie Sioux sings it. Melly showed me. It’s the one cover she likes.”
On my phone, I produced a photo of the singer in all her goth glory. Sherry squinted at the screen.
“Melly likes these kinds of singers?” she asked.
“Interesting. She doesn’t really look the part. You meanwhile…” She considered my boots, laying heavy on the brake, with sweat condensing inside. “I mean, your driver’s license photo will certainly be something.”
Sherry didn’t let me steer with music yet. In the silent drive back, a bug of doubt burrowed in my ear. I thought of that day Melly showed me Siouxsie. She had called the singer hot. The next day, I’d worn my eyeliner thick, racoon-like. I thought the idea was my own. I thought I dreamt it, invented a rebrand true to my real self-expression. I was no longer sure.
At home, I scrubbed my face until the sink ran black with watered eyeliner. That was how I looked in my driver’s license photo: two eyes staring out, timid and naked.
After I passed my test, Sherry let me borrow the truck for my first solo road trip. I’d surprise Melly with a visit.
“You can take the stickers off,” Sherry said. “Both you and my niece have your licenses now.”
“Nah, I’ll keep them on. Let people know what they’re dealing with.”
Bard was hours away. The drive was gorgeous; mountains rising blue to the left, farms rolling lush and heaving green on my right. I couldn’t look for long; my eyes stayed on the road now.
The hour was golden when I arrived on campus. Fat crowns of trees filtered sunlight. Humble dorms stood boxy on the central quad. People gathered on the grass, smoking, chatting, playing guitar. I left the truck, and figured someone could help me find Melly.
Looking didn’t take long: there she was, on the grass. With Alice. Melly’s hand reached for Alice’s hair, and tucked it behind one ear. She smiled. The sun shone its approval on their smiling faces. I really had thought they were friends.
I turned back to the truck. I peeled off the stickers. They now seemed ridiculous. I could handle cars coming close.
There were few other drivers out as I headed home. Out here, people tailgated, their car’s noses sniffing the butt of mine. I didn’t care. I was singing to the quiet melody pumping from my phone. Running Up That Hill, but not the Kate Bush version. I liked the cover with the whiny man singer, how scratchy his voice sounded on that part of the song:
It doesn't hurt me (Yeah, yeah, yo)
Do you wanna feel how it feels? (Yeah, yeah, yo)
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This short story definitely felt much longer than it was, and that's always an accomplishment. You've truly captured this moment in these character's lives. I like the ongoing metaphors of how the songs and even the main character's style were all things tethering her to Melly the whole time. I smelled something fishy the second Alice "touched her forearm". Overall, I really liked this story. It was extremely well written and I was really excited to see you had posted! Some of my favorite lines: "my intestines writhing like worms." "That wa...
Thank you so much for your feedback, and thanks for letting me know about the whitespace -- hadn't seen that!
I have to say that this is one of the best stories I've read in quite some time. Your descriptions are stellar: creative, and not too long. Masterful work there. Favorite sentence: "Golden sun buttered the grass." Such a simple sentence, but it says everything. The story itself was wonderful. The portrait of a breakup isn't easy to paint in 3k words or less, but you did an amazing job of this. Nicely done. P.S. My favorite cover: "All Along the Watchtower" covered by Jimi Hendrix. Bob Dylan wrote and performed the original.