Outside Needles, California, on their way to see his friends who lived in a yurt in Flagstaff, Crowbar let Regan eject the Leftöver Crack cassette from the stereo of his ancient Datsun. The radio played Taylor Swift, a song she loved: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” When they pulled into the Chevron, a few men her dad’s age were hanging out in front of their trucks, cigarette smoke blowing away from their faces in the cold.
Regan hummed along with the song, but she was still fuming from the argument she’d had with her mother two nights ago, when they’d both ended up in tears, Regan’s mom incapable of understanding why her daughter would have dropped out of the University of San Francisco over Christmas break. “I don’t know why you feel the need to do this to me,” her mother had said on the other end of the phone in Charlottesville before Regan hung up.
She touched her head, which she’d shaved that fall, the feel of the short hair still unfamiliar under her fingertips. What her mother would say if she could see Regan now.
“You want anything?” Crowbar pulled up to the pumps. When he shut the engine off, the car shuddered. Regan imagined the Datsun falling apart, hubcaps rolling into the desert, like a cartoon jalopy. Even if the Datsun did die, she and Crowbar would keep trucking. Arizona awaited, a place that seemed to promise a different idea of herself: no longer the Catholic girl from Virginia who listened to Mother, but something feral, untamed, and free.
“It’s Valentine’s Day,” Regan said—testing him, but she couldn’t help herself. They’d been invited to a weeklong shindig in Flagstaff, one of those things that promised to make her forget where she ended and other people began. She had no idea what they were going to do after that. Since they’d met volunteering for Food Not Bombs last fall, all she knew was that they weren’t drinking from the same cup her parents had: chocolate, flowers, monogamy, and other such bougie bullshit.
Crowbar laughed. “Kind of a girly holiday, isn’t it?”
She punched his shoulder. “Pig.”
“You know what the male version of Valentine’s Day would be?”
She loved the uneven hanks of greasy hair that hung over his ears and the India ink lines around his left eye, the beginning of what was supposed to have been a tattooed star, which looked like shrapnel. He was 29, ten years older, and he’d dropped out of City College after half a semester—two facts that had all but driven a spike through her mother’s heart.
“No,” she said, “but I bet you’re going to tell me.”
“Steak and a Blowjob Day.” He grinned. Was the joke funnier because he was a vegan and called himself a feminist? He could be a bonehead, she imagined telling her mom, but he meant well.
“Surprise me with something from inside,” she said.
The sun was rising, turning the distant mountains blue. It must have been 50 degrees, and she snugged her leather jacket around her torso. He’d earned his nickname putting one through the window of a Starbucks during a protest in Oakland last year, and if she’d had the guts to bring him home, her parents would probably throw him out of the house. But smashing a shop window wasn’t the same as punching somebody’s face, which she’d never seen him do—or as bombing another country. Crowbar was the gentlest person she knew, and the fact her parents were too stuck up to see that made her care for him like she might have for a child. She’d held him, sobbing, when his pet rat Darby—named for a famous suicide, the singer of the Germs—had died a few months ago, and she’d known this was love.
Crowbar pumped the gas, his cargo pants hanging off his hips like a boy’s. On their last night in San Francisco, they’d stayed at the Hunter’s Point co-op, and she’d felt as though this trip would wake a part of her she’d only begun to access.
When he came back from the store, he was carrying a brown paper sack.
“What did you get me?” she asked.
The sun had moved higher on the horizon. Snow shone on the peaks. He started the car, the bag crinkling on his lap.
“You should pee if you have to because I’m not stopping again,” he said.
“Jesus, Dad.” She fastened her belt. “I’m fine.”
When he passed her the bag, she took out the tee shirt: a black and white image of Taylor Swift with the album title Red written across it. On the way out of the lot, Regan blew a kiss to the horny old men standing in front of their trucks.
As they drove into the Mohave Mountains, she kissed Crowbar’s cheek, smelling his hair. She felt sorry for her mom, who’d never done anything like this in her life, and who’d never been with anyone except Regan’s dad.
“Easy.” Crowbar put his arm around her, and she snuggled into his armpit. “Let’s not make me go off the road.”
“Just drive.” She changed her shirt. The cold stung. The desert scrolled past. She was still humming that song, like she was breaking up with her mother, and the feeling came like a beat of doom: disappointment not in the shirt, but in the fact he’d caved so easily, as though underneath their pretension of being something else, there they were, a man and a woman in a car.
Photo used under public domain.