The Day I Learned to Fly

highway heading to nowhere

I once rode in a van full of gay teenage boys. Okay, so it wasn’t exactly full but there were two of them and only one of me so I was still outnumbered. I sat in the back seat without a seatbelt on, next to Jim, who had a crush on Paco, who was driving. But I didn’t know that yet. About the crush, I mean. I’d find out later. We were in a big hurry to get wherever it was we were going to and it must have been important because Paco wasn’t exercising any driving caution in getting there.

I relaxed in the back seat of the Chevy Astro van and thought about the crush that I had on Paco, a standard teenage, high-school-girl crush. He was smart, funny, and had a great singing voice. He was in theater class. I should have known. I told him I loved him once. He didn’t say anything back. I gathered up my purse, my black suede mini-mouse heels, my remaining dignity, and shuffled into my house, not looking back. I cried myself to sleep that night.

But there I was in this Astro van completely unaware of the threat of death heading straight for us on that sunny Southern California day. Blue skies overhead, two lanes of painted blacktop in front of us, and nothing but a lifetime of undetermined experiences ahead of us. Had I known about the threat on three young lives heading our way, maybe I would have confessed my love for Paco one more time, which would have made an awkward end for all of us. Three Teens Die In Chevy Astro Van – I Love You Paco Last Words. Tune in at six for details. But I didn’t know about the death thing, either. So I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know a lot of things then. Except that I was in love with Paco. And even though it wasn’t a conscious thought, I didn’t want to die in a Chevy Astro van, or any other van for that matter. In fact, I was pretty confident that I wanted to live.

The van shot forward, carrying us down the road. We were singing along with RENT‘s “La Vie Boheme” at the top of our teenage lungs. Bisexuals and trisexuals and Peewee Herman. Paco sang the loudest. I really should have known. But on we sang, youth lighting us up and life shoving us forward and that damn Chevy Astro van just tearing down the road.

When we neared our destination, Paco let off the gas and we all rolled forward just a bit in our seats. The van slowed to a stop in the lane, blinker clicking away. We would turn left, across traffic. The way was clear. Paco started rolling forward. Then it was there. Looming death. It entered our lives from the next street up, taking a fast corner and barreling down the road straight at us. I saw the man that was driving the death machine. He had no time to stop. I could see his eyes taking in the scene. His left hand hung loosely at the top of the steering wheel; he hadn’t even had a chance to grab the wheel firmly. No sidewalks. No intersection to veer off to. No room to stop. I saw Paco see him, too. In the rear view mirror, I watched his eyes dart back and forth between the oncoming car and the parking lot that was our salvation. I silently screamed for him to stop. Don’t go! No time. We won’t make it!

Paco’s eyes shifted toward the oncoming car one last time and he made his decision. He hit the gas.

Perpendicular lines intersect at 90 degrees. I had learned that in my geometry class. I also knew that a Chevy Astro van took about ten seconds to go from zero to sixty. And in about three seconds, I was going to get a real life example of how math and automotive technology unite. And then I was going to get an English lesson, too, because the result would be incongruous.

As the Astro van punched forward with every pound of force Paco could thrust on the gas pedal, I was slammed into the back of the bench seat. We cleared the oncoming death vehicle by a fraction of an inch (I learned about fractions in Algebra) and we lurched over the curb into the parking lot. Now, it is important to keep in mind that when one sits in the back seat of a van that is evading collision and certain death, and is moving rapidly with little concern for smooth cruising, and one is not wearing a seatbelt, it’s going to be a bit bumpy.

I flew through the air. I remember the van hitting the curb. I remember the squeal of tires. I remember thinking, I should have worn my seatbelt. I lifted straight out of my seat. I felt my hair, powerless to resist centrifugal force, extending out in all directions around my head like a brown halo. I felt myself spinning in circles like an Olympic skater, arms tucked tight in defense, the world a blur around me. I felt myself land on my knees, positioned perfectly for prayer. My hands were on the bench seat, one to either side of Jim’s knees (who had worn his seatbelt). My neck and head bowed downward, my face in Jim’s lap. I felt my breath come again. My hair slowly fell into place, giving in to gravity. The van stopped. I looked up at Jim’s face, expecting something. Some sarcastic remark about my face in his lap. Some racy joke. Instead, it was Paco who spoke. “Are you alright?” he asked from the driver’s seat.

I was still looking at Jim, who was looking at Paco, and suddenly I knew.

I laughed. I laughed so hard I couldn’t even tell Paco I was okay. I was trying, almost screaming the words, trying to push them out through my maniacal cackle.

“I’m fine,” I finally managed. The laughs were still seeping out like bubbles escaping water, popping at the surface.

The man in the death car was gone. Jim and Paco knew they were in love. I had learned how to fly. And on the way home, I wore my seatbelt. 

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