I was sitting by myself on the school bus and feeling pretty good about it. Most of the time I hated riding the school bus because it was always packed and I might end up sharing a seat with two other kids I didn’t know or, worse, didn’t like. So I was happy until Annabeth walked down the aisle and plopped down next to me. Annabeth and I moved in very different circles. People who grew up in Nashville will understand what I mean when I say she was from Antioch, but for outsiders the best way to put it is that she was a little bit country and I was a little bit rock and roll. To fine tune the illustration even more she was wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt with the sleeves cut off and I had at least one Weird Al cassette in my backpack. In spite of these divisions we had a bit of a history. She had a boyfriend who was a year older and who shoved me around sometimes. Annabeth and I were also in gym together and she’d briefly played this game of pretending she liked me and trying to get me to go under the bleachers with her. I ignored it and after about a week she gave up. I still felt my hackles go up when she sat down next to me on the bus.
“You’re a smart guy,” she said, “maybe you can help me with a problem I’ve got.”
I’m a sucker for flattery but I still thought she might be setting me up for a joke so I kept my guard up. And then slowly let it down as she explained that her mom and her mom’s boyfriend had gone out Saturday night. Sometimes when she was left alone, which happened a lot—sometimes they’d stay out all night—Annabeth would take her mom’s car out and just drive around the back roads. She’d grazed a hydrant and scratched up the right front corner of the car.
“I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” she said. “My mom will probably understand but her boyfriend’s gonna kick my ass. Can you think of anything?”
I couldn’t. And I know this is the point where most responsible adults, and even some responsible teenagers, would say she shouldn’t have been driving her mother’s car in the first place. She was fourteen—too young even for a learner’s permit. I wasn’t smart enough to come up with any advice but I was smart enough to know saying that wouldn’t help, though. I could even understand why she did it. Stuck out in the sticks, bored and alone and feeling just on the edge of adulthood taking the car out must have provided a sense of freedom, of control over her life she couldn’t get any other way. And we all do stupid things as teenagers. Most of us also learn, even if we don’t get caught, from our mistakes. T fine tune the point I’m making she needed a sympathetic ear, not a judgmental asshole. So I was sympathetic. It’s ironic that for once Annabeth wasn’t trying to make me feel bad but she succeeded at doing just that. I felt bad about the situation she was in and I felt like a schmuck that I couldn’t offer anything useful.
I don’t know what got me thinking about Annabeth’s problem lately. It’s just one of those things that bubbles up from the depths of my mind once in a while. Decades later I still don’t know what advice I’d give her, although I have an idea that she should have told her mom what happened, quietly, without the boyfriend around. If the boyfriend was a serious threat—and it sounded like he might be—she needed her mom to, well, be responsible.
Maybe that’s what ultimately happened. Annabeth and I never talked again but she didn’t miss any school and she seemed to be all right. Or maybe things worked themselves out some other way. But after that her boyfriend left me alone, and if she and I passed each other in the hall she’d smile at me. In the end I’m pretty sure she liked me.