There I was.
And so was she.
I could barely breathe. The days leading up to this moment couldn’t go by fast enough, but unlike Christmas, the minutes didn’t passing by in a blur once the time came. They were slow, almost agonizingly so, because just underneath my excitement was a thick layer of fear. There were more ways this could go wrong than it could go right.
Karen and I had been sort of a couple for half of the year. There was no formal asking out. We didn’t even hold hands at first. There were some notes passed between us, and we gravitated towards one another in the halls. For a while, that was that. And that was enough.
Eventually our friends started asking us questions. We told them we liked each other. But we didn’t go out on dates. Our relationship consisted almost entirely of notes and instant messages. There was no need to tell our parents, though they knew of our mutual existence, and in retrospect, I’m sure they figured it out. When you spend so much time talking to someone, eventually you mention their name. Then you bring it up again.
Then someone ends up driving a car with a daughter and her first boyfriend in the backseat.
I had no idea what to do. It was awkward knowing that anything we did, Karen’s mom could see. Anything we said, her mom could hear. In a way, that was almost a good thing. I didn’t know what to do, and this gave me an excuse.
Karen looked at me and smiled, but not too big a smile, lest she give everything away. I smiled back, hopefully not showing too many teeth.
“Have you helped out at the food bank before, Miguel?” Karen’s mom asked.
“No,” I cough and clear my throat. “No, Ma’am.”
“How did you hear about it?”
“Same way as Karen, I guess. Our teacher brought it up as a good way to get some volunteer hours.”
Karen made a face. I hadn’t learned all her expressions yet, but I could tell this one wasn’t good.
“Karen has actually been helping out here since she was a kid,” her mom said.
She was testing me, seeing how much Karen and I had talked about. She wanted to gauge how close we were. But I didn’t believe this then. She didn’t know about us, after all.
“Is that so?” I asked Karen, thinking it was a smooth way to get us talking.
“Yeah,” Karen said, turning her head away from the window and smiling, again, in my direction. “Laura and I would go together.”
Of course they did. Laura and Karen had been friends for a decade, and they were only fifteen. Laura didn’t like me all that much, but Karen was sure we could still work out. She wasn’t letting go of either one of us, she’d say, with the implication being that both of us would deal.
I tried not to start fights about Laura, but it still bothered me to hear her name come up so soon in what I had looked forward to as an opportunity to get not just away from school, but from her.
Karen could sense this, and she threw me a bone. “Something tells me this time will be different.”
I felt myself blush. I hoped it wasn’t visible.
Karen’s mom didn’t say anything, but in hindsight, that sentence was pretty suggestive. We kids thought we were being sneaky, but we really weren’t.
“How many more hours do you need, Miguel?” Karen’s mom asked me.
“I’m down to six,” I said. “Ma’am.”
“Really?” Karen asked. “I’m still stuck at thirteen.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said the back of Karen’s mom’s head. “I’m driving, aren’t I?”
Clearly the two of them had fought over this issue. This would have been obvious even if Karen hadn’t already kept me up-to-date in texts.
A silence dropped between them and between us as well. The ride grows silent enough for me to hear each bump in the road. I start to learn the sounds of the engine, which hummed more heavily than any vehicle my parents drove.
The lack of conversation grew awkward enough for Karen’s mom to turn on the radio. It started on a country station, but she switched until she eventually landed on Christian rock. I get the feeling she put this on more for Karen than herself.
“How much farther is it?” I ask.
“In a hurry?” Karen’s mom said.
“No, just wondering.”
“Only five minutes or so,” Karen said. She gave me a slight pouty face, even though we were hardly even talking, let alone being a couple.
But that was the way our relationship was. It was the way it had always been. Neither of us knew all that much about how things were supposed to go, and in a way, that’s partly why we clung to each other. We could figure out at our own pace, which for both of us had been slower than most anyone else we knew.
Here I was, fifteen, and I had never kissed a girl. Maybe, if we had a moment to ourselves, that would happen before the ride home. It didn’t, but back then, I had hope.
Not only that. Before the drive was even over, I had comfort. She was there, and so was I. In those days, that was enough.