I was seventeen. It was summer. It was Southern California. It was hot. Super hot.
I had spent my Saturday morning at a special class for really cool kids. Ok, it was traffic school. It was my second of two classes and I learned the week before that the teacher liked to keep the room at a frigid -2 degrees. Ok, it was more like 62 degrees. I had shivered for four long hours in my t-shirt and shorts, so this week I was prepared. I wore jeans and a huge, dark blue sweatshirt. My legs were sheathed in socks that went up to my knees, which may or may not have been my brother’s. My ensemble, or any ensemble for that matter, would not have been complete without my Doc Marten Mary Janes, which I fastened with care. I dried and straightened my hair so that it provided another layer of warmth and then, and only then, was I ready to learn. To be a learner of things.
I drove home from my special class for really cool kids in good spirits. I had caught up with a few friends from days of yore, namely Jen Hanley who had gotten a ticket for unnecessary honking. Yeah, it’s a thing. We had laughed more than most people do at traffic school, I would assume, but I think it warmed our blood just enough for us to fight off the frostbite. I think everyone should get to go to traffic school at least once in their life.
I drove in the fast lane doing 80, because I was seventeen, in my family’s gray beast of a Suburban. I had dutifully put five whole dollars of gas in only the day before, so you can imagine my shock when the Burban started sputtering and losing power. I clenched the steering wheel with my thawing fingers. This wasn’t the first time I had run out of gas–just my first time while on the freeway. I miraculously crossed through all the lanes of traffic, going about 15 mph, and the steering gave out as soon as I was safely parked on the shoulder.
I sat there for a minute, then pried my shaking hands off the steering wheel–or Circle of Life, it could be called. I was about a mile and a half from my exit. The cars zoomed by me at what could only be described as California Speed. I looked around at the desolation all around me and saw only one option. I would have to walk.
I opened the car door and the hot wind burned my face off. Clean off. I locked the door and felt a swoosh as a car sped by just feet from where I was. Oh sure, walking was a dumb idea, but I was seventeen. That was all I had. I found out later that walking on the freeway is, like, illegal or something. But I was coming home from traffic school. What the heck was I supposed to know about laws of the road and such?!?
Now, imagine if you will. It is about 110 degrees outside and you’re driving along with your air conditioning blasting your eyeballs into ice and you see a girl walking along the freeway dressed for a Southern California winter. And if you’re from where I’m from and you’re a guy, the only logical thing to do is to roll down your window and hurl insults in the form of compliments (or compliments in the form of insults) at her. Yes, I saw many a dashing young gangster-wanna-be hanging out his window yelling things at me that made me blush, which only made me hotter, which only made me madder. The adults were kinder. They simply honked at me and looked at me like I was an idiot, and I was grateful.
I kept my eyes focused on my Mary Janes–their gentle pit-pats offering a kind of solace in the arid heat of my humiliation. My poor bangs that had once been perfectly curled under were now plastered to my sticky forehead and my hair hung unforgivingly down my back and I was dismayed that I didn’t have one single scrunchie on my person. Once I reached the Automall, I knew I was getting close. I walked down the off-ramp, where humans are not meant to be and dashed across the busy street, my Mary Janes sticking to the asphalt and making a slurping sound with each step like I was walking in boiling mud. Somewhere along the way I had rolled up my sleeves. I’m sure that simple act may have prevented me from dying of heat stroke–having my forearms exposed and everything.
I was so happy to be off the freeway until I realized I had at least another mile to my house. I barely remember that part of my trek. Perhaps it was because I didn’t have cars zipping by every few seconds to keep it life-threateningly interesting.
But, I do remember walking up to my house. My dad was working in the garage and he looked up with an expression that said, “Um, you’re missing something.” Maybe it was the huge gray Suburban I was supposed to be riding in. Just a hunch.
I told him what happened and I could tell he was battling amusement and bewilderment. He might have been angry if I had been the oldest, but since I was my parents’ fourth teenager, they probably would have been more surprised if I had arrived safely to the house driving the same car I had left in. He grabbed the gas can and we got in Red Ned Nissan–the Pathfinder I had almost totaled the year before. I’m an excellent driver, I promise. No, really.
We got on the freeway, and what had taken me a good hour or two and about four-and-a-half gallons of sweat and shame, took us about five or ten minutes. We pulled up behind the Burban and Dad got out the gas can. As he was walking to fill ‘er up, he started laughing.
About two feet away from where I was parked was a call box. Now, if you’ve never seen a call box, it’s a cute, friendly blue box placed about every mile or so along the freeway. This adorable box houses a handy little telephone. You simply pick up the phone and it automatically calls the police if you’re stranded, or you, say, have run out of gas, and they will quickly come to your aid. I had walked and sweated and been yelled at and honked at and had just felt plain old stupid on my long walk home. But it was nothing compared to the stupid I felt at that moment. Help had been waiting for me to see it; calling to me, if you will, and I had missed it.
I learned a lesson that day that has stuck with me, which is why I’m writing about it now, an obscene eighteen years later. There are so many times in life where we’re stuck and we can see no other option than the most ridiculous, extravagant solution. Sometimes it’s stubbornness or pride or even inexperience that gets in our way, when if we would just look around us and remember the basics, help is only a phone call away.
And when I say literally, I do mean literally. Except when I mean figuratively, such as when a phone could represent a friend, or a good piece of advice, or . . . you know what I mean. Pick up the phone!!