An excerpt from How The Trees Saved My Life (With a Little Help From Chocolate) to be released as a hybrid serialized novel/fundraiser.
Claude’s party was at his parents’ country house, supposedly an hour’s drive from Paris. Some friends of his picked us up in a Deux Chevaux, a cheap French car made of metal so thin it was like driving around in a tin can, but a cute, jaunty tin can. I was pleased as I’d never actually ridden in one, only admired them from afar. I squeezed into the back, in a borrowed skirt. It was true what they said: you could feel every bump of the road, every turn of the engine. It gave you a feel for the ground you were covering.
I don’t think I ever knew the names of the kids in front. The guy at the wheel was tall and skinny with frizzy, carrot red hair. He kept leaning forward, gesticulating at the traffic ahead of us, saying Ooof! Merde! C’est incroyable, ça! It was his brother’s car, on permanent loan as his brother had moved to Japan. Next to him, practically sitting on each other’s laps were a couple of guys who were beefier and less excitable. One kept turning around to talk with Stacey about some hilarious thing that Claude had done at school. Stacy kept laughing and looking at me like can you believe it? So funny! The other was in charge of rolling joints. I hadn’t actually smoked pot before, my friends at home being pretty straight edge. I took an exploratory puff. Nothing happened except that I choked, which was kind of embarrassing, so next time it came around I just pretended to inhale and passed it on. There was another girl with us in the backseat, on the other side of Stacy, whose name might have been Isabelle. She had short hair and beautiful, smooth olive skin and kept massaging the skin under her chin in this thoughtful way, like she was contemplating something very deep. Then she’d open her mouth and give out this gutteral roar at the cars on either side of us.
We were caught in eight lanes of traffic circling around the Arc de Triomphe. The windows were fogged and smoky, but I could see the general shape of the monument, lit from underneath. There had been a poster of the Arc de Triomphe in my French classroom. Napoleon had erected it to commemorate all the soldiers who died in the Napoleonic Wars, when France was the one dead set on taking over the world. Everyone in the car burst into applause. We’d gotten over into the next lane. We were still far from an exit, but progress had been made. Another joint was lit. An ambulance siren bleated behind us. Surely the cars would part for the ambulance. Mais non, they didn’t. We continued our circling, bumper to bumper, the ambulance siren keeping a demented score, our Deux Chevaux quivering with groans and giggles.
We must have gotten out at some point because the next thing I remember we were on a country lane, inching down a hill, the night deep around us, barely anything visible except the headlights shining on a stone wall. Stacy and her friends were talking about people I didn’t know, places I hadn’t been to. At the end of a switchback, the driver accelerated when he meant to brake. Everyone shouted Non! as we hit the wall. We were pulled backwards then forwards, but gently, as if in slow motion. Salaud, said the driver. He tried to reverse. Nothing happened.
Are you OK? whispered Stacy. Yes, are you? We were all whispering, ça va? ça va? Oui, oui. We all were OK. We opened the doors of the car. We stepped out on solid ground and careened around laughing, taken over by the need to pee. Into the brambles we scrambled. I could hear my pee and nearby Stacy’s and maybe some of the other kids’ crashing down like a torrent. Headlights cut through the trees. The boys ran into the road, shouting and waving. The car rolled to a stop. I wanted to know what the boys and the driver were saying, but Stacy stayed in the shadows. She was crouched over, sniffling.
It’s going to be OK, I said, putting my arm around her.
He’s going to kill me, she said.
The scuzzball my mother married.
The history professor?
No, back home.
He’s not going to find out.
You’re not dead. You’re alive. None of us were even hurt. This is not a big deal.
It was a big deal, she protested. A huge deal. Her step father was ballistic about everyone having a clean record. I wandered back to the road. The headlights of the car illuminated the Deux Chevaux. Part of its hood was smushed, and a light dangled by a wire. The boys were in deep discussion with a man with a tweed cap. Isabelle was leaning against the stone wall, smoking and looking beautiful. I wished I could go over and bum a cigarette and look as gorgeous and bored as she was, but I didn’t know her. I only knew Stacy. I couldn’t leave her hyperventilating in the woods. I tiptoed back.
Are you OK?
He won’t let me take care of his kids. He hires this babysitter and pays her for what I would do for free.
I rubbed her back.
We ended up at a tiny village police station with a black and white tiled floor, a French flag, a framed picture of Mitterand. We were made to stand in a corner while an old man with a drooping paunch and a white mustache and a couple of younger policemen huddled together. To our side was a cluttered desk, with a snapshot of a young woman on a horse propped up against a mug of pencils. The sun shone on her hair, making a jagged white halo. I imagined myself on the saddle behind her, the two of us taking off through the sun drenched field. I had only been riding once, with a friend who practically lived at the stables, who put me on an old mare known to be docile, who nonetheless broke into a canter midway along the trail. I held on for dear life, whipped by bushes and branches, and hadn’t been riding since. Now I was practically swooning at the thought of it. The youngest of the policemen ambled over, grinning unpleasantly. He indicated a row of straight backed chairs. Were all of us idiots? The older policeman wanted to know. Didn’t we know that the police had serious business to attend to? It would be our fault if something terrible happened because they were dealing with a carload of kids too high to get to a party.
Poor Stacy could barely breathe, she was so scared. But I’d been lectured by the police before. If you’re white, they usually just puff up their chests and say if you continue at the sorry rate you’re going, you’re never going to go to college, you’ll never get a job, you’ll be a blot on society, you already are, while you sit there all meek and polite, saying I’m sorry, sir, I’ll never do it again, sir, inwardly seething because you know there’s nothing wrong with late night skinny dipping or hanging out with guys in spiked leather jackets or climbing into a public fountain on a hot summer day. They make you pay a fine. They assign you to community service, which in Maryland means working at a state run liquor store, lugging cardboard boxes filled with bottles of whisky and scotch to the parking lot, waiting while men with thinning hair take their time opening the trunks of their cars, the boxes getting heavier, your fingers feeling like they are going to pop right off.
It wasn’t so different in France. The policemen grumbled and made like they were shocked by the youth of today, while we groveled and apologized, except for Stacy, who was crying too much. Then the old man, who turned out to be Claude’s uncle, cleared his throat. We would be given a break this time, he said, but we should not count on such leniency in the future. Our parents had been called. They would discipline us as they saw fit. We could think about that as we waited for them.
We were all very quiet. Even Stacy stopped sobbing. There should be a word for the sensation of waiting in a country police station with the clock ticking and the stillness hanging in the air and the shallow breathing of kids you barely know scared shitless at the thought of oncoming parents.
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