Introduction by Jennifer Close
The opportunity to read a new short story by Katherine Heiny always fills me with delight. I know I’m going to laugh; I know I’m going to be slightly shocked by a deliciously inappropriate joke or line of dialogue; I know I’m going to laugh some more; and I know I’ll probably have my heart broken just a little bit.
Whenever I meet someone who claims they don’t like short stories, I give them one of Katherine Heiny’s and wait for them to admit they were wrong. The magic of her writing is how much she manages to do in such a small space. Characters are painted perfectly in two lines, entire worlds are created in a paragraph. Heiny finds the drama in the ordinary, highlights the absurd in everyday situations, and she can turn any location into a drama-filled hub.
Take, for example, the story “Chicken-Flavored and Lemon Scented” from Heiny’s collection Games and Rituals, which takes place at a DMV. The story opens with the lines, “Colette has been a driving examiner for twelve years—she’s 36—and yet it only occurs to her today that Ted Bundy had a driver’s license. And that means that some driving examiner had taken him for a road test.”
When would I ever be dying to spend time at a DMV? The answer is: when Katherine Heiny writes about it. In her hands, the world of driving examiners crackles on the page. The lunch of a coworker is described in such beautiful detail: “. . . all the foods in undersized portions: tiny sandwiches, miniature quiches, itty-bitty salads in old baby food jars, cupcakes no bigger than a quarter.” It’s a world you can’t help but joyfully settle into.
If you’ve never read a Katherine Heiny short story, now is the time to start. If she’s a favorite of yours, this story will make you love her writing even more. Take my word you’ll love it. (And you’ll never look at a DMV the same again.)
– Jennifer Close
Author of Marrying the Ketchups
Turn Signals and Turn-Ons at the DMV
Chicken-Flavored and Lemon-Scented by Katherine Heiny
Colette has been a driving examiner for twelve years—she’s thirty-six—and yet it only occurs to her today that Ted Bundy had had a driver’s license. And that means that some driving examiner had taken him for a road test. Think about it: some driving examiner had willingly clambered into Ted’s VW bug and driven off with him. Maybe the driving examiner had even been a woman. A woman who never knew she had ridden next to Death, never knew she had docked Death points for improper clutch control.
Why has Colette never thought of that before? But she thinks of lots of things lately that she hasn’t thought about before.
It is early February in Maryland, the day as bleak as a pen-and-ink drawing done on old gray paper—bare trees, muddy snow, the road clear but scored with white salt stains like the scars from old injuries. Colette parks behind the DMV building and walks up the sidewalk to the employee entrance. She’s a little late and the other driving examiners are already there: Vic, Gregg, and Alejandro. Vic is a pointy-faced man of about forty with slicked-back dark hair who looks like a weaselly sort of hood, or maybe just a weasel, with his small eyes and vicious smile. Before landing here at the DMV, Vic worked as a bouncer, a roadie, a security guard, a fitness trainer, an auditor, and a head cook—name a job where you got to intimidate people and Vic has held it.
Gregg is an older man with bushy salt-and-pepper hair, a bushy salt-and-pepper beard, and horn-rimmed glasses. He looks like a retired history teacher and is, in fact, a retired history teacher. He likes to do cryptograms between examinations. No one knows why Gregg works as a driving examiner instead of enjoying his retirement and doing unlimited cryptograms at home in his underwear. Colette worries that Gregg has been unwise with his pension and is short of money but Vic says it’s undoubtedly that Gregg doesn’t want to stay home with his wife. Gregg’s wife packs him the most elaborate lunches Colette has ever seen, with all the food in undersized portions: tiny sandwiches, miniature quiches, itty-bitty salads in old baby food jars, cupcakes no bigger than a quarter. “Can you imagine living with the woman who packs those lunches?” Vic asked. “His choices are probably to come here or stay home and help her organize her toothpick collection.” Colette thinks he might be right.
Alejandro is a compactly built man in his late twenties with close-cropped black hair, bright brown eyes, an easy smile, and chiseled features. Not chiseled as in especially strong or sharp, but chiseled as in some sculptor had apparently chiseled them especially for Colette, had known what Colette would find handsome before she herself knew it.
Alejandro had started work here six months ago. Colette had been out on a road test when he arrived—she’d come back to the office and there he was. He rose to shake her hand and introduce himself and Colette dropped her clipboard. “Sorry I’m so distracted,” she said, leaning down to retrieve it. “My last road test drove the wrong way down a one-way street.”
That was true. Colette had never been so grateful to have an excuse for looking flushed and out of breath.
The driving examiners work at four metal desks in a room with cinder-block walls painted the color of curdled cream. The only window is one-way glass and the view is not of outside but of the four scuffed blue plastic chairs in the hall where test-takers wait to take their road tests. (The person who accompanies them—usually a parent—has to wait over in chairs on the other side of the building.)
A moment or two after the test-taker sits down, Trina or Gina from Written Tests pops open the door to the driving examiner’s office, tosses the test-taker’s folder into the tray on top of the filing cabinet, and retreats.
Vic always volunteers for the morning’s first test, and today it’s a burly guy in a maroon sweatsuit.
“Okay, I’m headed out for coffee,” Vic says. What he means is that he’s going to make the burly guy go through the McDonald’s drive-thru as part of the road test. He does it every single day, and no test-taker has ever thought to complain, not even the lady who chipped the Ronald McDonald statue and had to pay three hundred dollars in repairs.
“None for me,” Colette says.
Vic frowns. “Why the fuck not?”
“It gives me headaches.”
“What, after decades of drinking coffee, it suddenly gives you headaches?”
“It’s possible to develop an allergy at any time in your life,” Gregg says.
Vic looks at him, annoyed. “Now you don’t want one, either?”
“No, I want a premium blend, black with two sugars.”
“Americano, with an extra shot of espresso. I’ll make up for Colette’s lack of caffeine.” He winks at Colette. The wink doesn’t cause her heart to leap with hope anymore. She thinks that must be a good sign.
The driving examiners are supposed to work in strict rotation, like a batting order lineup: the first available driving examiner taking the next test-taker. But Colette and Vic and Gregg have long ago developed their own system where they assess the test-taker through the one-way glass (and study the paperwork in the test-taker’s folder) and make their own assignments.
Rules apply, obviously. No one is allowed to strike every undesirable test-taker who comes their way because that would basically mean no one except pretty girls, men with kind faces, and librarians would ever get driver’s licenses. But they can pick and choose to some extent.
None of them liked to take old people. The problems with old people were endless: hearing loss, vision loss, memory loss, slowed reflexes, confusion. It broke Colette’s heart when she saw some elderly person shuffle out to take their test and knew that person had once been lithe and slender, brimming with intelligence and verve. And she knew that the old people still thought of themselves that way. They had no idea the younger, more capable versions of themselves had decamped decades ago. It was heartbreaking but it was also fucking scary. The old people led you out to their Lincolns and Buicks (they didn’t approve of foreign-made models) and the cars would be ringed with dents and scrapes, little souvenirs of the places the old person had driven. And off you went on a hair-raising road test with someone who could barely see past the hood. They straddled lanes, ignored stop signs, braked abruptly (without cause), accelerated suddenly (also without cause), pressed simultaneously on the brake and gas pedals, drove over curbs, nearly drove over people. All of them—every single one—remarked without irony about how more drivers honked their horns nowadays, how there’d been a mysterious uptick in honking recently. The old men said it was because young people are so entitled they couldn’t wait for anything; the old ladies said it just showed no one bothered to learn proper manners anymore.
No driving examiner liked to take teenagers, either. Teenagers were almost scarier than the old people. Teens had excellent vision and hearing, superb reaction times and hand-eye coordination, but their prefrontal cortexes were not fully developed. Teens were always speeding, running red lights, weaving in and out of traffic, tailgating, pulling out in front of oncoming vehicles—all this when they knew they were being tested. Shouldn’t teenagers be used to taking tests and know how to concentrate? Weren’t they beaten down by the educational system’s focus on standardized testing? Apparently not. Colette had had teenagers behave in ways she at first took to be pranks: checking their phones in the middle of the road test, answering their phones in the middle of the road test, taking their hands off the wheel to do a little victory car-dance after turns, reaching into the back seat while driving to root around for a water bottle. Nerves accounted for some of the behavior but Colette thought most of it was just plain old terrible teenage judgment.
But the test-takers weren’t all old people and teenagers. There were many other categories, and these were the ones the driving examiners were eager to volunteer for, depending on their own strengths and style.
Sometimes Colette thinks that Vic becoming a driving examiner had been like an artist picking up a paintbrush for the first time: that rush of exhilaration that comes from finding your calling. As a driving examiner, Vic can intimidate people full-time—and in the privacy of their cars. He breaks people down and enjoys doing it, like a professional torturer. He excels with aggressive test-takers: the impatient executives in power suits who carry briefcases to show how important they are, the medical professionals who wear scrubs or white coats to show how busy they are, the people who can’t stop tapping their shoes and checking their watches, the awful and angry types who shout at DMV employees. Vic meets these test-takers with a shine in his small eyes, his sharp crooked teeth bared in a predatory smile. He takes them on the most challenging routes, requests impossible accuracy in parallel parking, asks them to read road signs that have already blipped by, shakes his head and clucks his tongue just to unnerve them. Vic is a bully and a tyrant, but sometimes when Colette watches him swagger out to meet a suited, loud-voiced man who has just yelled at Trina or Gina in Written Tests, her heart swells with gladness. Justice will be meted out swiftly.
Gregg’s style is loose, casual, almost bumbling. He goes out to meet the test-takers still pulling on his coat, his clipboard fluttering with papers, a cup of coffee sloshing in one hand. He’s particularly good with people on a deadline: the young mothers who check their phones for messages from their babysitters, the housekeepers and domestic staff who have obviously called in sick to work and won’t be able to return if they fail, the anxious landscapers and construction workers whose livelihoods depend on them passing this test. They seem to understand that this cheerful, bearded man considers the test a quick disruption of ordinary life—the sooner it is over, the sooner they can get back to their jobs and he can get back to his cryptogram—and they adopt his efficient attitude.
Colette knows her own strength as a driving examiner is her ability to project calm. She’s like a kind of reverse microwave—molecules slow in her presence. She approaches test- takers with a gentle smile and a measured step, her fine blond hair smoothed into a low ponytail, her pale gray eyes free of makeup or judgment. She keeps her voice low, her gaze steady, her movements smooth. She volunteers for the extremely nervous test-takers (and all test-takers are nervous; it is just a matter of degree). She takes the teenagers whose hands shake so much they keep dropping their documents, the women who shred tissues compulsively and thin their lips into nonexistence, the men who grow unhealthily red cheeked and sweat huge amoeba-shaped stains on their shirts. And she takes the people who are not only nervous about the road test but seem nervous about life. People who come to the DMV wearing pajama pants and slippers, or cardigans with food dribbles and shoes without laces. Or—this is somehow worse—people who have dressed up. They wear clothing which has moldered unworn in their closets for years: shiny polyester blouses, corduroy blazers, mismatched suits, dresses bought on clearance with the price tag still attached. Men with crumbs in their beards, women with fearful white-ringed eyes, teenagers who swallow with loud clicks—all of them looking like they want to put their hands over their ears. Everyone hates going to the DMV but these people fear it. These people don’t function well in the world for whatever cause—anxiety, illness, trauma, abuse, or just a lifetime of having been bullied by assholes. But they still need to get places, so here they are to get their driver’s license, and Colette is here to guide them through the process as gently as possible.
“I know you’re nervous but this is no big deal,” she says to them softly. They look at her with mistrust—everything is a big deal to them. “I’m going to talk you through it. No surprises, okay? I’m not here to trick you. I’m here to help you. I want you to pass.”
She does want it. She wants them to have this triumph, this shining moment of success in a life that, for whatever unfair reason, has held precious few such moments. Some of them still fail—no amount of gentle encouragement and patient reassurance could calm them—but a lot of them pass, and Colette can share in their victories. Those victories are why she stays at the DMV.
In the beginning, Colette and Vic and Gregg had been nervous about how Alejandro would fit in. He seemed competent but lots of driving examiners are competent. But would he actually add anything to their lives, would he lighten their workloads in any way, would he find his own specialty? The answer to all of these questions was yes. Alejandro steps up to every test-taker with a welcoming smile and a very small and courtly bow. (Yes, an actual bow.) He takes the entitled people—the soccer moms and the private-school kids and the expats and the impeccably dressed rich people who disdain the blue chairs as too down-market to even sit in—and he defuses their entitlement with his apparent delight in their company. He flashes his dazzling smile at the cross, cranky older people who bristle with defensiveness and makes them goggle at him with unexpected pleasure. Alejandro also takes the “Mouths.” Mouths are people who talk so much in their professional and personal lives that they’ve forgotten how to be quiet even during a road test: hairstylists, bartenders, customer service reps, insurance salespeople, business recruiters, event planners, corporate fundraisers, backpackers who tell you how they’ve done Bangkok and it’s way too touristy and how they’re basically Buddhist now. No one likes Mouths because they talk all the way through the road test—usually they start talking before they even put the car in gear—and the test takes three times longer than normal. What’s more, Mouths usually fail the road test because they are too busy talking to hear instructions—and that means they’ll be back and the process will repeat itself. But not for Alejandro. He and the Mouth drive off and return precisely twenty minutes later, the Mouth having passed and Alejandro having somehow stayed sane. No one knows quite how he does it. He says it’s just a matter of really listening carefully to the first story, of making the Mouth feel heard and understood, but Colette knows it’s more than that. Alejandro genuinely wants to hear their stories (at least the first one) and this unfeigned interest makes the test-takers fall in love with him, just the way she had.
Vic returns, having failed the test-taker despite the drive-thru. “Sad sack didn’t use his turn signal once,” he says, setting a cardboard McCafé cup on Colette’s desk.
“Vic, I said—”
“It’s hot chocolate.”
“Oh,” she says, surprised. It’s so rare for Vic to be thoughtful. “Thank you.”
“You owe me two-eighty.”
Beyond this, the morning holds few surprises: Gregg completes a cryptogram in ninety-seven seconds, his personal best. A soccer mom impresses Vic by expertly parking her minivan and he reluctantly passes her. A Mouth tells Alejandro that dogs use eighteen muscles to control their ears. Colette takes an elderly man out on a test and then has to urinate so urgently that she forces him to do an unannounced and tricky left turn into a corner gas station so she can leap out and pee in the gas station’s horrible, sewer-smelling restroom.
Alejandro had not only lightened their workload, he had enriched their lives in a hundred ways. He was a saxophone player and he brought a portable speaker to work and played soft jazz for them from his iPod. He put up a whiteboard and wrote WE HAVE GONE _____ TESTS WITHOUT NEARLY DYING and they all changed the number after every test. (They never got higher than fourteen before going back to zero.) He printed out copies of a daily cryptogram and made all four of them solve it—the winner got whatever Gregg’s wife had packed him for dessert. He talked to Gregg about bird-watching (who knew Gregg watched birds?) and the Battle of the Somme. He talked to Vic about workout routines and how he, Alejandro, could build more muscle, and about the Hudson Hornet that Vic hoped to buy someday. Once Colette had glanced over while Alejandro and Vic were talking, and Vic’s pointy face had softened and his weaselly eyes had widened until he looked almost human, almost kind.
But Alejandro had changed Colette’s life more than anyone else’s. She realized that before he came, her life had been pedestrian—although could a driving examiner’s life accurately be called pedestrian? Maybe it was more like she had been puttering along in a school zone at twenty-five miles per hour. But after Alejandro’s arrival, her life—at least her work life—was full of excitement and adventure, great happiness and even-greater fear.
The fear came from knowing that Alejandro would move on, probably sooner rather than later—he was too smart, too ambitious, to work as a driving examiner forever—and also the constant worry that he would start dating someone. Colette learned from conversational crumbs that Alejandro had dropped (and she, mouselike, had assiduously collected) that he was single, straight, lived by himself, and spent most of his free time playing saxophone in a jazz quartet called the Jazz Merchants. (Sadly, the Jazz Merchants mostly played at private events; Colette could not just happen to show up.) He was single now but he could meet and start dating some lucky woman at any moment! He could meet someone at a jazz rehearsal or the supermarket or the gym or—this last one was terrible to consider—during a road test. What if Alejandro drove off with some beautiful girl and came back twenty minutes later in love? And so many beautiful girls came to the DMV. Vic even had a code for them: “Chicken-Flavored and Lemon-Scented.” Chicken-flavored and lemon-scented, a Chelsea, a pretty girl. Vic and Gregg had always volunteered to take the Chelseas, but last year, Gregg had been written up for asking a girl if she was on the pill—“It came up in conversation!” he’d told Colette. “It was perfectly innocent!”—and now he never takes one if he can help it. Pre-Alejandro, Colette had taken only the extremely nervous Chelseas and the ones who looked vulnerable enough that Vic might be able to bribe them into giving him a blow job, but now she takes those plus any Chelsea who she fears is Alejandro’s type. Sometimes she thinks it might actually be easier if Alejandro had a girlfriend; it’s horrible to feel you’re competing with the world.
The happiness came from knowing that every weekday would be spent in Alejandro’s presence. Forty hours of pure pleasure—although minus time spent actually doing their pesky jobs, of course. Colette prepped for conversations with Alejandro nightly alone in her apartment: she researched jazz music, she signed up for an online class about craft-beer brewing, she watched professional hockey. (That’s love for you.) But most of that was unnecessary because Alejandro was so easy to talk to.
“How are your neighbors?” he would ask. “Are they still watching Calliou every night at top volume?”
“Yes, but now I go salsa dancing most nights so it doesn’t bother me,” Colette said, although of course she didn’t—she just put on headphones like a normal person. But it wouldn’t hurt to have Alejandro think she was out dancing.
Or he’d say, “Tell me where you went hiking this weekend,” and she’d say, “Cascade Falls,” even though she’d really been hiking through Ikea, shopping for new sheets and throw pillows and framed prints to spruce up her apartment in case Alejandro ever came over.
And it seemed like he would come over; he would ask her out. He paid so much attention to her. “I watched 90 Day Fiancé,” he said once. “It surprises me that you like it—you’re so levelheaded, so smart about everything, especially relationships.”
“I’ve done my share of impulsive things,” she said quietly.
Alejandro looked at her steadily, not smiling but looking like he wanted to. A bright, hot look. “Good impulsive or bad impulsive?”
The moment stretched between them like strands of spun sugar.
“Guava!” Gregg cried abruptly, causing them both to jump. “That’s the word I couldn’t figure out.” He chuckled happily into his beard and Colette let out a long breath, trying not to sigh.
Lunch rolls around, and Colette realizes that salmon is just like the thought of Ted Bundy taking his road test: frightening and disturbing, and yet she’s never thought of it until now. Gregg’s wife has packed him a little Tupperware container of cold poached salmon and Colette can’t imagine why anyone would make this, let alone eat it. The thought of biting into it, biting into a cool wet wobbly fish, its flesh on your tongue like a cold quivering glob of mucus—she pushes her salad away, half eaten.
Alejandro comes in, unwrapping a sandwich. Before he sits down to eat, he wipes the “2” off the whiteboard.
“What happened?” Gregg asks.
“A girl took her sweatshirt off over her head in the middle of an in tersection,” Alejandro says, writing a zero in the blank.
Vic leers around a mouthful of hamburger. “How were her tits?”
“I thought I was going to be killed,” Alejandro says. “I wasn’t worried about her chest. And she had a T- shirt on underneath, anyway.”
“What are you staring at?” Vic asks Colette.
“You really are reprehensible,” Colette says to him.
“Don’t be insecure,” Vic says. “Your tits are great, and getting bigger all the time.”
Unexpectedly, Gregg comes to her rescue. “I want to keep my dessert.”
“Fair enough,” Alejandro says. “You got the best time on the cryptogram.”
“No, I mean I want to keep it every day.”
“Gregg, man.” Alejandro looks pained. “Have some decency.”
Gregg clutches his lunch bag defensively. “You guys can have some other dessert. You can go get doughnuts or buy cookies or something.”
“That’s not the same,” Vic says, and for once Colette agrees with him. She’ll miss the miniature éclairs, the cheesecake squares the size of postage stamps. But that’s February—all the joy leaks out of life.
Alejandro had hosted an office Christmas party at his apartment. He passed out the invitations, and Colette and Gregg and Vic had accepted. No one told Alejandro that their usual office Christmas celebration was ordering a party platter from Buffalo Wild Wings and having Vic bully his pre-lunch test-taker into picking it up—sometimes he even got the test-taker to pay for it. Instead they all said they’d be delighted.
Colette has a flat stomach and slender, shapely legs but square hips and no waist, which means that the khakis and green polo shirt the driving examiners are required to wear hide her body’s assets and emphasize its flaws. But for Alejandro’s party, she wore a short pale gold dress with bell sleeves and knee-high brown boots. She had wanted to wear makeup to work once Alejandro had started there, but she feared Vic’s sharp eyes and sharper comments. She wore makeup to the party, though, and styled her hair in loose waves.
Gregg had come without his wife (but with a Tupperware tray of miniature strawberry tartlets she’d made). Vic was there with a date—a woman named Shelley, who seemed nice and normal but maybe she hadn’t been dating Vic long enough to know how mean he was. Alejandro had invited Trina and Gina from Written Tests as well as people from Vehicle Registrations, Business Services, and Vision Testing. (Colette did not like the inclusion of Vision Testing, or at least not the inclusion of Lissa, with her platinum hair and low-cut blouse, but Lissa left early.)
Alejandro was as charming a host as he was a driving examiner. He circled among them with a wine bottle in his hand, topping up drinks, asking questions, loosening knotted conversations. When he got to where Colette stood listening to Bertha from Business Services talk about how she might update her phone’s data usage plan, he winked.
Twelve guests, eleven departures. Colette waited the others out by lingering in the bathroom and then letting Alejandro refill her glass while they waited for Gregg’s Uber to arrive. As soon as he was gone, Colette said, “I should call my own Uber,” and Alejandro said, as she had hoped he would, “Why not stay for another drink?”
They sat on the sofa and Alejandro said, “Okay, now that I have you alone, tell me about Bertha’s phone plan.” They laughed and sipped their wine. They laughed and sipped their wine. They laughed and sipped their wine until there was no wine left. And then Colette leaned forward and kissed Alejandro. He kissed her back and she felt an actual thump as they crossed the barrier from coworkers to more-than-coworkers, just like the thump when a speed bump took a test-taker by surprise. Thump, the front wheels go up; whack, the back wheels come down; and the whole car shakes. The room shook, or at least Colette shook, and then they were undressing and then Colette was straddling him naked.
Alejandro said, “Is this okay?”
She sensed that a pause would be fatal. So she’d whispered into his ear, “It’s perfect. Don’t stop.”
Colette is busy on her computer when Vic says, “Look up. Chicken-flavored and lemon-scented.”
Colette’s stomach lurches again—she imagines chicken soaked in cleaning spray—but it’s only Vic using the code. She looks out the window at the test-taker chairs.
The girl standing there uncertainly is definitely a Chelsea: very slender with tawny skin, light eyes in a small elfin face, and long light-brown hair that she has straightened and smoothed into shiny panels, like silk curtains. She’s wearing black leggings and a gray sweater topped by a raspberry-colored down jacket that matches the color of her lips. But even through the window, they can all see the nerves rippling over her in waves. Nervousness is actually distorting her expression—it’s like looking at someone on a television with faulty wiring.
“She’s yours, Colette,” Vic says regretfully.
“Yes, I guess she is.” Colette checks the folder. The girl’s name is Seraphina because of course it is. She turned sixteen in May and passed driver’s ed back in August, so why is she here on a school day in February?
Colette walks out to the chairs and shakes hands with Seraphina. The girl’s fingers tremble even when she’s grasping Colette’s hand.
“You look pretty nervous,” Colette says. It helps if you can get them to admit that. “Is that how you feel?”
Seraphina’s eyes are huge, like someone using the big-eyes filter on Instagram. “Yes,” she whispers.
“Everyone’s nervous when they do the road test,” Colette says. “It’s totally normal to feel that way. Let’s get started and you’ll see that it’s no big deal.”
On the day after Alejandro’s Christmas party, Colette got to work early, wearing khaki pants but with a green silk polo shirt instead of her usual cotton one, and dangly gold earrings. She sat at her desk and tried to busy herself with paperwork but every time she heard voices in the hall, her head lifted as though pulled upward by strings. And yet Alejandro didn’t show.
Finally, at ten, she said to Vic and Gregg, “Where do you think Alejandro is?”
“Took himself a personal day,” Gregg said. “Gina told me.”
“He’s probably in bed balls-deep with Lissa,” Vic said. Colette could not keep her gaze from flicking instantly to Vision Testing, but there was Lissa, working as usual.
“Made you look,” Vic sneered. “I don’t know where that bastard is. Aren’t you cold as fuck in that shirt?”
Colette was indeed cold as fuck, and not just from the shirt. She shivered at her desk or else huddled frozen on test-taker passenger seats, breathing on her fingers to warm them, giving instructions robotically, staring out the window when she should have been watching the road. That day, a Thursday, wore on interminably, like some horror-movie monster who won’t die. She replayed the moment of leaving Alejandro’s apartment over and over: She had dressed quietly and leaned over to kiss him. “I’m going now.” She was too hyped up to think about sleeping there.
Alejandro had stirred sleepily. “I should drive you home.” His voice was slurred.
“Just rest,” she’d whispered. “See you tomorrow.”
“Safe journey,” he said. He was asleep a moment later.
Should she have stayed? Should she have texted him when she got home? Should she have called him in the morning? Stopped by with coffee and doughnuts? Why didn’t Alejandro call or come by with doughnuts? Why was she left to sort through every exchange for meaning, like a seventh grader?
Alejandro was there on Friday, same as always, friendly and smiling. But by then Colette understood that the previous day had been a buffer, a cooling-off period, a time to let her hopes diminish. Perhaps it had been a kindness; Alejandro had not seen the silk shirt, or the dangly earrings, or her eager face. Her fever had broken; she no longer glowed like a coal. Friday was just a day indistinguishable from thousands of others that had come before it.
But as she trudged through the snowy parking lot after work, Alejandro called to her. “Colette, wait a second!”
She stopped, heart rising like a balloon, and he caught up to her, pulling a wool hat on and hopping from foot to foot in the cold. He told her that he really liked her and valued their friendship enormously, but she had failed to use the mirrors correctly when changing direction and she had not responded appropriately to traffic lights and she showed confusion at four-way stops and she had driven too fast for the conditions and he was so sorry not to have better news, but she had failed to pass.
Or something like that.
Seraphina leads Colette through the double glass doors to where a Subaru Forester SUV is parked. They get in and Seraphina grips the steering wheel so tightly that Colette thinks her hands might sink into it, that the steering wheel might puff up around her fingers like Play-Doh.
“You can relax a little, Seraphina.” She wishes the girl’s name was shorter. “We’re not going to drive just yet. I want you to turn the headlights on. Can you do that? Good job. Now the hazard lights. Excellent. Now turn them off. You’re doing really well. Now I want you to start the car and drive up to that stop sign and turn left.”
Seraphina turns the ignition on and puts the Forester in gear. They drive up to the stop sign and Seraphina stops properly—which is excellent. Many, many people do a rolling or improper stop at this first stop sign and fail their test less than ten seconds after it had started. This stop sign has caused more tears and anguish than the ending of Charlotte’s Web.
Seraphina turns left and Colette instructs her to follow the access road up to the intersection near the shopping plaza. Seraphina is doing well. She guides the Forester smoothly, following Colette’s directions, and she’s able to read the signs when asked. But she’s still holding on to the steering wheel like someone clinging to the wreckage of a sinking ship.
“Now, make a right turn here at the intersection,” Colette says.
Seraphina pulls to a stop at the red light, and looks to her left, where three lanes of traffic are coming toward them. The oncoming cars—two sedans and a pickup—are all red and Colette has just enough time to think the cars look bright and angry on the dull winter-gray road and then Seraphina pulls out into the intersection.
She doesn’t do it slowly or hesitantly but she’s not panicking or rushing, either. She just swings the Forester around the corner and into the right lane as though she has a green light and not a single care. The pickup truck is behind them in the right lane and the driver hits his horn and doesn’t let up—an endless, furious howl.
“Go!” Colette shouts to be heard over the horn. “Go! Go! Go!”
Obediently Seraphina presses the gas pedal. The Forester surges forward but not fast enough. The pickup truck is closing up on them faster than an adrenaline rush. The snarling metal mouth of its grille is almost filling up the rear window.
Colette grabs for the steering wheel and pulls to the right, trying to get the car over to the right shoulder. Seraphina steers with her and presses even harder on the gas pedal and the Forester shoots across the shoulder and up the grass embankment. Colette sees white sky through the windshield and then abruptly black asphalt as they head down the other side of the embankment and then—shake, rattle, and roll, just like the song—the Forester comes to a stop in the (thankfully empty) outer parking lot of a shopping plaza. The wail of the pickup’s horn peaks and then dies away as it races by on the other side of the embankment.
Colette yanks the emergency brake up, then she reaches over and slams the car into park and pulls the key out of the ignition. She leans back in the passenger seat, panting, her hand resting on her stomach. Not this. Please not this. She won’t be able to stand it. But maybe it will be okay—it’s not like they went on a roller-coaster ride. The impact was minimal. Their seat belts didn’t even lock.
She opens her eyes and turns to Seraphina, who is trembling all over in a weirdly disjointed way—her head is shaking and her arms are shaking and her hands are shaking and her fingers are shaking, but all separately, all to an independent beat. She looks like she might jitter apart completely.
Her panic makes Colette calmer. She steadies her voice. “Are you hurt?”
Seraphina shakes her head. “I didn’t see the cars,” she says. “Just didn’t see them. I mean, I saw them but they didn’t seem real.”
“That happens sometimes,” Colette says. Amazingly, this is true. Sometimes test-takers get so nervous that they experience a sort of cognitive dissonance—they blow through very visible stop signs or make right turns from the left turn lane.
Seraphina moans. “I feel like I’m going to throw up.”
That made two of them. “If you need to, just open the door. I’ll check the car,” Colette says. She gets out and walks around the Forester, looking for damage, but it seems to have emerged unscathed, and even the embankment doesn’t look too chewed up.
She gets back in the car. Seraphina has stopped shaking and her color’s better, but her eyes are still enormous. She pushes back the panels of her hair and Colette sees how small Seraphina’s face is, how thin her neck. She’s a childlike sixteen, despite her prettiness.
“I know that was really scary,” Colette says gently. “But we’re okay. The car’s okay, I’m okay, you’re okay.”
Seraphina looks at her strangely, intensely, her eyes blazing, and shakes her head. “No, I’m not. I’m not okay. I’m pregnant.”
“Ohhhhhh,” Colette says slowly, making a number of mental adjustments. “I see. Are you sure?”
“Took three tests in the CVS bathroom last week,” Seraphina says. She talks in a strangely precipitous way, like she’s just filling in details of a story everyone already knows, and maybe she is. “I knew even before the first one but I kept taking them, hoping for, like, different results.”
“How far along are you?”
“Seven weeks.” Her tone is a little impatient, like Colette should know all this.
“And the father—”
“Does Brayden know?”
Seraphina makes an impatient gesture. “Yeah, like I’ll just call Brayden Shaw and say, ‘Remember your little sister’s caroling party? Well, I got some follow-up news for you.’”
“But isn’t he your boyfriend?”
“Nope.” Seraphina shakes her head at Colette’s ignorance. “Because, guess what? He has a girlfriend.”
“Oh, Seraphina, I’m sorry—”
Seraphina keeps talking, evidently warming to her story. “What happened was his mom hired my friend Tia to help her with her daughter’s caroling party and Tia couldn’t do it so she asked me. But when I get there—no mom, no kids, just Brayden. I didn’t really know him. He goes to private school, so it’s not like we’ve talked. Tells me the party’s canceled because, like, the neighborhood association is against caroling and his mom is having everyone meet at the ice rink instead. I say, ‘Okay, well, I’ll just go back home,’ and he’s like, ‘Aw, come in and have some cocoa first.’ He said it like if I didn’t do it, he would be so let down. He made it sound like he was lonely and wanted to have cocoa with someone, like cocoa doesn’t taste good if you’re having it alone, and that’s true. Plus, you know Brayden, who wouldn’t want to have cocoa with him?”
Colette doesn’t know Brayden but she realizes she doesn’t need to—she knows the type. Handsome, arrogant, charming when it suits them. The type who whistle at you and then give you a stupid who me? look. The type who cock an eyebrow sexily at the camera even for their driver’s license photo.
“So in I go and we really did have cocoa because his mom had bought all these supplies for the party,” Seraphina says. “Then we went down to the basement and played Dark Souls III on the PlayStation and then we had sex on this giant beanbag thing his dad bought when he had back trouble. Although, I mean, a lot of stuff happened between the PlayStation and the beanbag.”
“What kind of stuff?”
Seraphina shrugs as though the details don’t concern her. “Talking. Kissing. More talking. I mean, one thing we talked about was that I asked him if he wanted to have sex with me.”
“And you, um, didn’t use protection?” Colette asks gently. (So Gregg was right— this kind of conversation can happen organically!)
“Brayden said he didn’t have any condoms,” Seraphina says. “And I didn’t have any—who brings condoms to a kid’s caroling party? So then we heard his mom and little sister come home and we got dressed really quickly. His mom was super sorry about the mix-up and paid me for babysitting anyway. Brayden stood behind her and did this”—Seraphina holds a thumb-and-pinkie phone to her ear—“but he didn’t call me the next day or the next. Finally I sent him an emoji of a penguin waving hello and he texts right back and says he has a girlfriend and can’t be talking to me. Says ‘I’m sorry if that wasn’t made clear to you.’ Those were his exact words. Like, you know, someone else should have made it clear to me. Like ‘Oh, I thought the Department of Girlfriends had informed you.’ When were they gonna inform me? When we were on the beanbag?”
Colette tries to steer the conversation back on track. “What about your parents? Have you told them you’re pregnant?”
“Tell my parents?” Seraphina asks. “Tell my parents? Listen, I can only have thirty minutes of screen time a day. My mother has a boxed set of Touched by an Angel. I can never tell my parents. The only person who knows is Tia.”
Colette is getting cold but she doesn’t want to give the keys back to Seraphina or ask her to turn on the car. “Do you know what you’re going to do?”
“I’m going to get an abortion,” Seraphina says firmly. “That’s why I need to get my license, so I can drive there. I can’t take an Uber because my parents would see it on the credit card and none of my friends can drive me because they only just turned sixteen. I’m the only one old enough to get my license now.”
How strange—the course of your whole life could hinge on your birth date, or a neighborhood association, or staying late at an office party.
“Seraphina, it isn’t legal to get an abortion in Maryland without your parents’ consent.”
“It is in Connecticut,” Seraphina says. “I googled it. I’m going to drive there and Tia’s going to come with me. We’re going next Wednesday when there’s no school because of a professional day.”
The madness of this plan fills the car like static suddenly, crackling and hissing. Colette pitches her voice low, in hopes of reaching Seraphina through it. “You can’t do that, Seraphina. Even if you had a license, it’s an extremely bad idea to drive yourself. Your reaction times could be very slow after the procedure, or you could even black out. They probably won’t even let you leave if they know you’re driving yourself.”
“Tia’s coming with me and we’re going to say she’s driving me.”
“No.” Colette sighs. She rubs her forehead, thinking. “No, you’re not. Give me your phone and I’ll put my number in it and we’ll figure something out.”
“Will you drive me to Connecticut?”
“No. But I’ll find someone who can help you.”
“Help me get an abortion?”
“Yes, if that’s what you want.” Colette has a friend who used to work at Planned Parenthood. She’ll know where to refer Seraphina, and how to help her tell her parents.
“I want it.”
“Okay,” Colette says. “Give me your phone.” She’s never given her number to a test-taker before and supposes she might come to regret it, but what else can she do?
“Thank you,” Seraphina says. She closes her eyes and whispers, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” She sounds like she’s thanking the universe more than she’s thanking Colette.
“You’re welcome,” says the universe in the form of Colette. (Because surely the universe arranged this particular road test.) “Okay, let’s trade places and I’ll drive you back to the office.”
“Wait.” Seraphina opens her eyes. “Did I pass or not?”
Back at the DMV building, Colette parks the Forester and hands the keys to Seraphina. “Just tell your mom you didn’t pass. Say you need to work on your left turns. Call me tonight.”
“Okay,” Seraphina says, reaching for the door handle.
“And don’t drive anywhere. It’s not safe.” It occurs to Colette that Seraphina is probably more dangerous than Ted Bundy right now, at least as far as road tests go. Okay, so that’s her new rule: no serial killers or insane teenagers, at least for the next few months. Vic and Gregg and Alejandro will have to take them.
They walk back into the building and Seraphina heads off to the waiting section. Colette goes into the driving examiner room where Alejandro and Vic are leaned back in their roller chairs, watching something on Vic’s phone.
Colette looks at Alejandro. “We need to talk.”
“About what?” Vic smiles like a velociraptor. “You pregnant or something?”
“It doesn’t concern you, Vic.” She keeps her eyes on Alejandro. “Are you free after work?”
He hesitates only a moment and then nods. “Sure. Let’s go get a drink.”
“Good.” Colette feels the speed-bump jolt again as she passes from one part of her life to another. Bump up, bump down, a little shake, and the world changes. But it’s no big deal, she tells herself.
People do it all the time. She’ll be a good mother. She just knows it.