There were pros and cons to living in Hilly-Billy Central, surrounded by what was largely known as “red-neck country,” in Northern Vermont. The downfalls being that Blowing Donuts was virtually a competitive sport, our local “hang” was a Mobile gas station on Route 78 right off the highway, that when you were really frustrated you said, “Jeezum Crow,” and that to get almost anywhere at all, you had to drive at least a half hour.
Except to Canada.
By far, the biggest upswing to living ten minutes from the Canadian border, was that we lived a mere ten minutes from the Canadian Border, where the legal drinking age was 18. When you’re a high school Senior, that one perk made up for all of the other drawbacks of living in and around Swanton, such as being nicknamed “River Rats” by neighboring towns.
Living so close to the border, it was commonplace to see border patrol vehicles pacing our long, rural farm roads on the prowl for “aliens.” It was a daily conversation in our house as my father had been working for the Border Patrol for over twenty years by the time I was in High School and made sense why Mary’s front lawn permanently hosted a few of their defunct vehicles. I had learned about “aliases”,” running plate checks” and where certain hidden cameras were along remote areas of the border. It also made my treks across the border a bit more risky. I had to make sure I didn’t get into trouble, or it would not bode well for my father and his career, I’m sure. So, when we all began making our way across the border on weekends, I had to tread lightly.
First, everyone drove to the Mobile station on Friday or Saturday night to see what was happening. Whichever teenager was able to land the coveted position of Head Cashier at our local Mobile always knew who was having parties, where certain people were headed, who had stopped by earlier, and with whom, and where they said they were going. But usually, it wasn’t even necessary to check in with the cashier on duty because there was always a rotating door of Missisquoi Valley Union High students coming and going all night long. Oftentimes, there were three or four cars full of us kids, just loitering around the store, smoking cigarettes and drinking Mountain Dew, passing along relevant information about who was headed where. When there were no parties to speak of, there was always Bar Le Max, and since you could leave the Mobile station, hop on the highway and be at customs in ten minutes, why wouldn’t we?
By my senior year, driving up to Bar Le Max had become a weekly adventure that almost always involved a bar fight, a parking lot brawl or a drawn-out disagreement that would sometimes originate and end at the Mobile station. I loved being a part of it all, from a safe distance away—-a.k.a., the Designated Driver.
I would say, eight out of ten times that I travelled to Canada with my friends for the sole purpose of drinking when we really weren’t supposed to be, I volunteered to be the Designated Driver. The other two times I probably couldn’t get my mom’s car. The truth of the matter was, I didn’t trust anyone to abide by the Designated Driver rules, which were that you were allowed one drink upon arrival at Bar Le Max, and then it was sodas from there on out. I also didn’t trust that people wouldn’t speed. Basically, I could only really enjoy myself if I knew, without a doubt, that I would get home alive.
I guess I just adapted a strong need to be in control over the last several years of my life as I tried to navigate my way through adolescence, figure out who I wanted to be, tried to understand boys, figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and watch my parents’ marriage slowly dissolve over the years. While we had all adjusted to the new schedule of every other week and who had us for which holidays, it was still hard. And since I couldn’t control their marriage, well, being in control of everything else made me feel safe.
So, what better way to let loose than by traveling to another country and drowning my sorrow’s in a Seagram’s wine cooler while I watched Gary Bouchard and Kyle Menuir beat the crap out of each other because Kyle rubbed up against Gary’s girlfriend’s butt while everyone danced to Ace of Base. Truth be told, I watched the whole thing unfold from the sidelines and Marissa practically shoved her derrière right into Kyle’s crotch area and then acted like she had no idea what was happening. As I sat at a small table, gasping with some of my girlfriends, watching the crowd of people surround Gary and Kyle out in the parking lot, I saw Marissa come marching back into the bar, grab an empty beer bottle by its neck, hoist it up over her head and march back out to the parking lot, poised to crack someone in the head, before someone stopped her.
I’m ashamed at how much I enjoyed watching everyone’s antics while I sipped on my wine cooler from my seat.
Bar Le Max was a small dive that looked like it was made of plywood, located in the middle of yet another rinky-dink Canadian town called Iberville. After crossing the border, you drove down a straightaway, past numerous farms that boasted “Bertrand” or “Chevalier” on their tall silos. Then, you meandered your way through a couple of little towns, small one-story houses made of brick on either side, with a handful of “Depanneurs”, where you could exchange some of your American money.
Bar Le Max was on the left side of the road and would most certainly have been overlooked if you weren’t searching for it directly. It was the type of bar that had four people in it on a Saturday night: The bartender, the DJ, a middle-aged man sitting at one end of the bar with a camouflage vest and a pocket knife on his belt, and a middle-aged woman at the other end of the bar with sagging tattoos and frosted hair that reached the middle of her back.
To this day, I firmly believe that the past and present generations of Missisquoi Valley Union High students kept that bar afloat for years, and that the party never really got started until they saw a bunch of cars with Vermont plates pull up, one after another, most likely blowing donuts on their way in.
Once inside, people immediately made their way to the bar, where the bartender was more than happy to pour drinks, and the two patrons at either end of the bar perked up, excited that now there was some kind of action. We would situate ourselves at the flimsy, round, wooden tables and let our drinks warm our chests as we took careful note of who was coming in through the door. The first half-hour or so was slow as everyone arrived, the DJ blasting dance music, the disco ball lighting up the room, but the dance floor a gaping, empty space—for the time being. We were merely getting warmed up.
Fast-forward a couple of hours, and you’ve got a different picture. The bar would be packed with us red-necks. Empty bottles and glasses and straws littered every inch of the table tops and often fell to the floor, and Little- Miss- Quiet- Cynthia Myerson—who always took such immaculate physics notes, had straight bangs and a stick up her butt—could be found toward the back of the dance floor, her legs wrapped around the waist of some guy, as he carried and bounced her around. Her right arm was wrapped around his neck and her left arm waved in the air as she belted out the lyrics to “Cotton Eyed Joe.” Bar Le Max had the power to unleash the pent-up hormones of the most unlikely candidates.
Even on nights that I was the Designated Driver, I would sip my Pepsis and still be able to have a blast with my friends. I’d particularly go nuts when Madonna’s “Vogue” came on since I knew every single word and every single move from her Blonde Ambition Tour. My dad had taped it for me years earlier and I had watched it so often I memorized the whole thing.
But eventually, all good things would come to an end.
Driving a car-full of eager teenagers on the way up to Bar Le Max was no big deal. It was driving them all back that sucked. First of all, when you’re the Designated Driver, you’re always ready to leave sooner than they are. There was always a good half hour of trying to find them, trying to round them up like a herd of drunken cows, trying to convince one person that they should not go home with so-and-so, or trying to talk another one out of punching his friend because he looked at his girlfriend the wrong way, and ushering them to the car knowing that getting them into the car was only half the battle.
It was on the way back from Canada that I asked myself, “Why? Why do I do this?”
Almost every car ride home from the bar entailed the following: at least four to five very inebriated underage drinkers (by America’s standards); one obnoxious drunk guy from my class in the passenger seat, who apparently still thought he was inside the club, as he couldn’t talk in a normal-toned voice, but was yelling and still trying to grope people.
“Ochkay, may sure you puh on your seabel ochkay, Michelle?”
“Why don’t you make sure you put on yours and just be quiet, okay?”
“Yesssssir! Ochay, sssssshhhhh.” He would never be able to just sit there and be quiet and I would end up having to tell him to “shut up” countless times during the drive home. He would unabashedly flirt with me the whole time, to which I would always respond as though I were annoyed. I didn’t know what to do with flirting because I didn’t know how to flirt back, so I just acted annoyed.
The car ride home also always entailed one couple on their way to second base in my backseat. Sometimes, one member of the couple had shown up at the bar with another person but then left with yet another, which may or may not mean I’d have the jilted lover chasing me down the whole ride home. They’d take up the majority of my back seat while one lone girl, usually a good friend of mine, squished herself in the corner of the backseat, boxed out by the amorous couple, who would try to rest her head on the side of the window desperately trying to feign off “The Spins”.
Apparently, someone had taken out my Madonna CD and put in a Pearl Jam CD, probably because they were sick of hearing “Vogue.” Eddie Vedder sung “Daughter” while the token drunk guy in my passenger seat thought he was Eddie Vedder. The entire ride consisted of me telling the drunk guy sitting next to me to shut up every few minutes and having to continually turn down the music. Checking my rearview mirrors for traffic was useless, since all I could see were the two heads of the couple making out bobbing up and down and swaying back and forth and completely blocking my view. Only occasionally did I ever have to stop and pull over so someone could puke. No one really talked to me since two passengers were making out, one was trying to sleep, and the other one wasn’t making any sense and was mostly talking to himself.
Looking back, I realize now how much teenagers suck at holding their liquor.
I got no reprieve from being the invisible taxi—until I saw the bright lights of customs and shouted for everyone to get ready and “stop making out for just a minute,” and to “shut up!” once and for all, so that we could pass through without any issues. Everyone would “come to” and hand over their IDs.
Smiling, I pulled up to the booth.
“Hello there,” the customs officer said, checking his computer and eyeing me with inherent suspicion.
“Hi,” I say sweetly, soberly, IDs poised and ready.
“Please roll down your back window, miss,” he responded, peering down as the window slowly sunk into the car door, revealing three glassy-eyed teenagers who began smiling and waving.
“Where are you coming from?” he asked, taking the pile of IDs from me.
“Bar Le Max,” the annoying drunk boy responded a little too loudly, leaning over into the driver’s seat.
“Shut up and sit back,” I hissed.
The customs officer rifled through the IDs, looking back toward all of us for a second time. “Oh yeah, Bar Le Max, eh? Did you all have a good time?”
We all cautiously nodded, unsure of what the right answer was.
“Are you bringing anything back with you today miss?” he asked.
Thankfully, he handed me back the pile of cards, waved his arm to the left and said, “Okay, you’re all set, have a good evening.”
Another successful trip to Canada and everyone was alive, although tomorrow morning was really going to suck for most of them.
When the last of the tiny crowd fell out of my car and shuffled to the front door of their house, half asleep and still drunk, I slowly backed out of their driveway and headed to my mom’s. Pearl Jam was still playing, although much more quietly, and for once, I was not in the mood for Madonna. I never really cared for Pearl Jam’s “Vs”. album, except for one song toward the end. I loved the track “Crazy Mary,” and skipped all the others until I got to it and turned up the volume. The gentle strum of the guitar filled my car, and Eddie Vedder’s raspy, sexy, voice came through the speakers. As odd as it was, I almost enjoyed the car ride home alone more than anything. I could be by myself, with my own thoughts, without having to put on any pretenses with people I didn’t know very well. I could let my guard down and decompress from the night. It’s not that I didn’t like people, I just often found them exhausting to be around.
I also wasn’t a thrill seeker by any means. I liked not getting drunk, not feeling out of control. I liked being behind the wheel of the car and having my wits about me. I don’t think it was too different from me arranging soup cans in the grocery store, or making sure I tapped my toes the same amount of times on each foot. I liked order, I liked routine, I liked being alone, and I liked feeling safe. I was scared to lose control and so did whatever I had to in order for that not to happen, which may have been why, since the 7th grade, I knew I wanted to be a Psychologist. What better way to keep from going nuts than to understand it and be an expert about it. At 17, I already knew that I would major in Psychology and minor in English. Maybe someday I’d even be able to combine the two.
Driving along the quiet roads in Swanton, at 2:30 in the morning, Pearl Jam beating through my chest, I came upon Mary’s house again, the border patrol cars as they had always been, her porch still rife with garbage bags up to the porch ceiling, blocking the windows. I pictured her sitting in that big house all alone, except for her dog. Was it as dark inside as it looked outside? Did she sit in an old chair, the TV illuminating her face? Did she see me staring at her house? Was she sleeping right now, or was she a Night Owl? Did she find people exhausting? Is that why she made her house seem so uninviting?
Some people around our little town said she was “crazy,” and I thought again of the day I saw her and tried to say hello. How I was hurt that she hadn’t even known I was there, or worse, didn’t care. I don’t know if it was the late night, or the music, or what exactly, but I decided that night that I didn’t think anything was wrong with Mary like other people sometimes said. I think she just wanted to be left alone, that’s all. I wished that I’d never tried to say hello to her and had just let her be, like she probably wanted. Maybe she liked to feel safe and maybe she felt safe in that house, what with all the government vehicles and garbage blocking her windows.
Eventually, around 2:45, I pulled into my mother’s driveway and turned off the car. I was exhausted and so, so glad to be home. As I crawled into bed, careful not to wake my mother or sister, I nestled myself under my floral bedspread, Eddie Vedder’s words echoing in my ears, thinking of Mary.
I wondered if it was true, if the things we feared the most really did meet us half-way.