Rest Stop by Aimee Bender
I was nineteen and driving up the five with my first boyfriend who had a thing for public sex. Not super public, not really about getting caught, but more just the outside lip of danger, of other people a little too close by, of something pressing against the perimeter. Recently, we’d wrapped ourselves in a blanket beneath the umbrella shade branches of a drooping fir tree near the coast in northern San Diego, and we had kissed and pulled into each other there, amidst the footsteps of strangers and the misty swirl of ocean breeze.
Two things come to mind now, as I look back. First, I did not enjoy this sex outside, this sex with the tiny possibility of discovery; it did not, in any way, match my desires or my comfort level, and the second part is maybe that was the point. It was distracting enough, figuring out these details, who was where, what was visible, who might see us, what was covered, that neither of us had to pay much attention to the other person at all. Plus, I was nineteen, and preoccupied with what the girls on TV were doing and if I was doing such things equally well. I had a friend at the time who told me she practiced her moaning sounds in the car when driving, as a way to pass time while travelling the north-south freeways from San Diego to L.A. and back. I found it so depressing, when she told me that, picturing her groaning and rolling her head back while speeding beneath green exit signs as the radio went on about scandals in the political parties, but somehow I did not find it depressing when, under the umbrella needles of the fir, with those footsteps clip-clopping past, I played a reel in my own head about how adventurous a girlfriend I surely was, even though I barely remember anything physical, and I could sense my boyfriend checking off a list in his mind of places he’d done it, making both of us the kind of people who say they’ve been to Germany if they’ve had a layover at the Frankfurt airport.
On that day, though, we were heading up the 5 from San Diego, already halfway to San Francisco, having rolled over the mountain and crossed the grapevine. We ate our nutritious packed snacks and stopped for lunch at the In-N-Out Burger in Kettleman City, the only one on the freeway at the time and a worthy way to apportion hunger timing on the road. We’d been back in the car for over an hour, listening to a murder mystery book-on-tape, digesting, zipping past the miserable cows in Coalinga who lived in the stench of warm unfree bovine bodies, when we passed a rust-colored sign for a rest stop. Yes? Steve asked, pointing, and I nodded, sure. I did not have to pee, he did not have to pee, but maybe we both needed a little rest from having sat for so long. By that point, we were about sixty miles north of Harris Ranch, a palm tree oasis of wealth and poolside bathing that still reeked of cow shit—proof of the inability of money to do away fully with the existence of the G.I. tract—but the manure odor was mostly gone by this rest stop, and so what all we smelled were exhaust fumes from cars of all sorts driving north and south in straight lines, in an age when spending money on gas was not something that needed much consideration or thought. Steve drove an old Dodge Challenger, a pure sky blue, and he had refurbished some of the ripped interior with a friend who did good seat-repair work. I’d tied a red scarf around my head, even though it wasn’t a convertible. I felt like an old-time movie star best-gal girlfriend as we held hands and he pulled past the rest stop sign to park in the small lot. We tumbled out of the car. Ninety degrees, in early June. Three in the afternoon.
I had just finished my second year of college, and Steve was several years older, a graduate hanging around town, unsure what he wanted to do, and we were going to San Francisco to try to mend our relationship, which had not been feeling very interesting to him for the past few months. Steve, who had been his high school class president, enjoyed giving persuasive speeches, and his latest was about geography and surprise and how a relationship could not survive if located in the same city for too long. “To see the same buildings over and over, with the same person,” he said, during a burrito dinner one night, “is a recipe for zombie-dom.” He waved a tortilla chip in the air. “To Frisco!” he declared. He was my first real boyfriend, and we’d been together for a year and a half at that point, and I believed everything he said. I nodded into my cup of beans. I had landed a job as a hostess at a fancy fish restaurant in La Jolla for the summer, but it wouldn’t start for two more weeks. To pass the first few days of June, I’d subscribed to those flimsy poor-smelling newspaper-material magazines that are chock full of games, and my roommate and I sat next to each other on our navy-blue garage-sale couch that smelled of old perfume, and, together, we did word searches and crostics for hours. It was a mini-hell. A change was needed for all, so I said bye to my roommate, who was still in her pajamas and had been stuck for hours on a logic puzzle about housing developments, and Steve and I cut up fruit snacks, packed our long-sleeved shirts, and gassed up the old car.
At the rest stop, I took off my scarf and drank a warm bottle of water, and Steve used the restroom. I watched a family with two kids run around a tetherball court that had no tetherball. The kids were twins, about three years old, two girls, with brown-reddish hair and faces dusted with little scatterings of freckles. They screamed with delight, making circles.
Steve came back and grabbed my hand, and we toured the rest stop together. Bathroom hut, half-tetherball court, three picnic benches, the rest stop sign, two garbage cans. In the car, we’d reached the halfway point in the book on tape, and I suspected I’d figured out the murderer. Steve had also kept us entertained with license plate challenges, and he had won by finding Alaska somehow, on a motorcycle I had barely seen. We threw out some of our trash and walked around the rest stop, and past it, near where the rest stop sign itself blocked out a square of shade, making a small partition between the actual rest stop and the remaining hillside, which was just a hump of earth, brown and sprawling, dotted with yellow weeds and a few smooth gray rocks.
“Come sit,” Steve said, beckoning.
The twin girls circled the tetherball court, still shrieking. Their parents, with haggard under-eyes, stopped running and leaned against the hut that housed the restrooms, sipping from straws poked into deep tubs of soda.
This was the late nineties, and Eyes Wide Shut had just come out a few weeks earlier, and I had gone to see it at an old moviehouse in Hillhurst, with Steve. He’d loved it. He’d wanted to have copy-sex that exact night, just like they did in the movie, with masks. I’d obliged. I held a cat’s-eye half-mask up to my face, bought in the sale bin at the local drugstore, and I tried to remember how they did it in the movie. Cat girls, who gawked at the camera. Steve put on some kind of electronic music and growled at me. The truth was, I had not found the movie sex very exciting and had been berating myself for my lack of adventuresomeness, and we struggled through that night, in our checklist sort of way, finally falling asleep without any teeth brushing, the mask in a twist on the floor. Later that week, on my own time, I took to reading movie reviews in a sudden frenzy of critical interest. It took the reviewers a little time to find their way into the film. Some hated it: A travesty, they said. Kubrik’s worst, they said. Others were intrigued. Some found it hot. But then around the second week of release it seemed like the consensus consolidated in the opposite direction, and someone stated clearly how it was not a very sexy movie—a movie all about sex that was largely unerotic—and with that it seemed to click into place. At least for me. I read those reviews ravenously, like I was catching a glimpse of something, maybe the way Steve caught the glint of that Alaska license plate as the motorcycle rushed by. Even the casting of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman made more sense, then, since there they were, a famously attractive couple who did not seem all that physically connected, in a movie with a bunch of naked people having sex that did not turn on a lot of its audience. I felt so deeply relieved, reading those reviews, the same way I felt relieved years later to realize having sex behind a rest stop sign doesn’t suit everyone. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the walk.
Steve had sat himself down on the hillside, and he leaned his back against the wood of the rest stop sign. Pulled me into his lap.
“If you straddle me,” he whispered, “we can be really discreet.”
No one at the rest stop could see us—just our feet, maybe—and there was no vantage for passengers or drivers of cars on the highway, and the girls and the tetherball were maybe fifteen feet away, but it wasn’t a draw, to go peek behind the rest stop sign. They were occupied with circles of their own. I was wearing a flow skirt—a long kelly-green fake-silk piece of fabric from a store that sold incense—that I’d picked out for driving comfort, and it was the easiest thing to just sit in his lap and unzip his pants and check off the act of having sex at a rest stop on a road trip to San Francisco, where soon we would be discovering that even the glory of fresh glimpses of blue bay from Nob Hill could not rescue a relationship that had passed its saving point many months before.
The sun beat down on us. A lizard ran across the rocks, bolt fast. Cars whooshed by. It was the most perfunctory sex I’d ever had, even with my adrenalin charged, with my heart pounding at the fact that at any moment, if things turned, one little curious three-year-old twin freckly girl still might decide to run over to the hillside. Steve had his eyes closed, breathing thick. He was in a popular local band, the lead singer. He sometimes threw himself into the audience, where her was borne aloft by his fans, who adored him because of the one song he’d written that was impossible to forget; it etched a pattern through the ear and mind in seconds. As soon as he sang that song, all the audience felt like he was the one they lived with, in their heads, all day long, and it was frankly kind of true. He’d written the song after his last breakup, in a swoop. He wrote it in five minutes, he confessed to me one night, in the darkness, in his bed, as if he was ashamed. His other songs were nice enough but didn’t stick. The ones he slaved over were annoying.
I had a hand pressed against the rest stop sign, to brace myself. I was preoccupied with splinters, getting found, and wondering if three-year-old minor memories could scar; at one point, Steve opened his eyes, and I closed mine in a teeter-totter effect, and tried to look as into it as I could.
He finished; we kissed; I pushed myself up and off him; we stood. I brushed off my knees, dusted with dirt. He brushed at his jeans. The sign stood five feet tall, and he protruded a foot above it, I about half a foot, and we stared at the girls, now sitting and quietly eating peanut butter sandwiches at the foot of the tetherball pole.
“Cute kids,” Steve said, zipping.
He pulled me close. Kissed my cheek. “Do you want me to go down on you?” he said.
“Here?” I said.
He shrugged. “Sure. I’m up for it. I feel great.”
“No,” I said. “Can’t concentrate here.”
He shook a finger at me, friendly.
“You’re not supposed to concentrate,” he said.
I mumbled something about sunburn and walked to the bathroom. There was no door, just an open wooden L-shaped entryway, and it was cool inside, with no mirrors above the sinks, and a push-faucet that sprayed for ten seconds. I pressed it seven times. The soap came out of the dispenser in a pink dribble, and I dried my hands on the starchy brown paper towel, added it to the many crumpled towels in the trash can, left by various women heading north. Every crushed brown towel was a marker connected to a former woman’s hands. These women had needed a break and come to the rest stop and washed and dried their hands. They had stood at the sink without a mirror to look into, and now all of them were north of me, somewhere above. I could feel that they knew things I did not. If, at that time, anyone had asked me point blank what specifically I found exciting, I would have stood for an hour, fumbling. I had to be everything, then, if I didn’t know. That there were women who did know what they liked I didn’t doubt. Their paper towels were right there mixed with mine; but instead of feeling so sorely left behind, as I usually did, that we all had stopped at the same rest stop on this one day seemed consoling, like we all needed to clean our hands, and we all had soaked up the coolness of the dark wooden walls, and we all, for a second, were separate from the car that had brought us here, and if I just took my time, maybe I, too, could get further up the road someday, and would not be how I was now, my cheeks still burning with the unnamed shame of performance and pretending.
When I emerged, Steve was back in the car, arranging a cut apricot at his right hand for easy reach.
“That was so great,” he said, kissing me. “That was so fun!”
“I know,” I said. “A rest stop!”
He tucked a hair behind my ear and kissed the mole above my right eyebrow. “You’re the best girlfriend in the world,” he said.
I flushed, pleased. Even though the words felt like paper cut-outs, I still enjoyed placing them on the carpet in my mind, and looking at them closely, enjoying them, the way I used to when I dressed paper dolls.
“Should we take the 152 through Gilroy?” he asked, tracking the map.
I told him that sounded good and settled into the passenger seat. Kicked off my shoes, adjusted the leaning angle. As I rearranged my skirt around my knees, one of the twins ran up to the car, a tiny little girl.
She stood at my window, beaming.
“Hi,” I said. “We were just doing some exercise. Over there.”
She was holding the top half of a tennis racket, the oval part that had somehow been severed from its handle, and she peered at me through it.
“Hello in there!” I said, and she laughed, her freckles little dots inside the squares of the racket weave.
“Bye bye,” she said.
I waved goodbye, and she backed away, pressing the tennis racket close so her skin bulged through the squares, making her whole face into a grid. A tetherball court with no ball; a tennis racket with no handle. The sports sucked here. Steve turned on the car and backed out, then headed toward the onramp. I kept waving at the kid, who just pressed her face as far as she could into that mesh until I thought she might strain her face right through it.
In the car, the murder mystery whirred back on, and the British voice of the narrator, who liked to do a sing-song lilt for the rich woman, resumed. Talking in detail about the manor’s garden. Steve merged onto the freeway and moved to the left lane, for speed.
“It’s the neighbor,” I said.
“What?” He adjusted the rear-view mirror. His face looked relaxed, the way it always did right before we fell asleep.
“The neighbor did it,” I said.
“Ah!” He slapped the dashboard. “Babe? Don’t tell the end!”
He sped up, and we passed several cars, and made record time into the city.
Aimee Bender is the author of five books: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) which was a NY Times Notable Book, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) which was an L.A. Times pick of the year, Willful Creatures (2005) which was nominated by The Believer as one of the best books of the year, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010) which recently won the SCIBA award for best fiction, and an Alex Award, and The Color Master, a NY Times Notable book for 2013. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, GQ, Harper’s, Tin House, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, and many more places, as well as heard on PRI’s “This American Life” and “Selected Shorts”.