Do you have a song that instantly teleports you back in time? For me, that song is “With You” by Linkin Park. It reminds me of that perfect summer day when Mike, Jesse, and I were speeding down the highway in Mike’s blue Sunbird. When we were blasting our new favorite album Hybrid Theory from the rattling car speakers.
Mike was the first of us with a driver’s license. He had saved up enough money to buy himself a used 1992 Pontiac Sunbird. It was a bright-blue convertible, decorated with a thin red stripe along its sides, the inside smelling of vanilla and old smoke. I remember Mike spending hours polishing the car, despite it being scuffed up and having been rear-ended; Mike insisted that if you squinted your eyes hard enough, the football-sized dent was imperceptible. We didn’t care one way or the other: the car gave us the freedom we had been craving; its CD player provided the soundtrack. Nothing else seemed to matter. Quite unlike us, we weren’t self-conscious as we shouted along with Chester Bennington. That day, we were the cool kids, no doubt about it. Two weeks later, Mike was dead.
Our group of friends had been drinking at Miriam’s house, her parents traveling in Europe. She and Mike had been an item for two years, an eternity in high-school time. While some of us still partied, only a mile away, Mike wrapped his Sunbird around a tree. An unrecognizable mess of bright blue metal and broken glass was all that was left. The tree lost some bark; Mike lost his life.
That night, Mike had offered me a ride home. I told him my mom would pick me up. He called me a little momma’s boy, slipped behind the wheel and took off into the night.
He was in no capacity to drive, but that was the thing with Mike: He always seemed to know exactly what he was doing, no matter how full of shit he truly was. I was drunk myself. He practically lived around the corner. He’d be fine.
The next day, I realized Mike was late for class, possibly hung over. Then the principal entered the room, his face stern and ashen. I already knew what had happened before he told us.
I can still hear Miriam’s pained screams echo from the hallway as Mrs. Delaware led her to the nurse’s office. I’ve never seen Miriam smile again since that day.
Details of the accident were scarce, but rumors quickly filled the void, spreading like the common cold between lockers and water fountains. There was talk about cocaine and other drugs. Some described the grizzly scene the EMTs encountered, even claiming Mike had still been alive in the wreck, begging for his mother.
A picture of the wreck was in the papers that day. It made its rounds through the school’s hallways like a secret love letter. To this day, I have not seen it.
Whatever they had pulled from the mangled wreck was hidden inside a large red cedar casket at Mike’s funeral. They polished it to a flawless shine. It was surrounded by a sea of flowers and grief. From a framed picture, Mike gave us one last shit-eating grin. I couldn’t help but imagine his contorted body and his broken, distorted face laying inside the casket.
Mike’s death was still raw when Mrs. Delaware rolled out the old TV from the back of the class and wordlessly shoved a VHS into the tape player.
As if the death of our classmate hadn’t been painful enough, we now had to endure lousy actors preaching to us about the dangers of drunk driving. I’m sure Mike would have laughed his ass off. By the end of the week, the entire school had seen the tape, and kids reenacted their favorite parts. By that metric, the tape had been an overwhelming success.
Over the year, Mike’s death slowly faded from our collective consciousness, though it never quite left us: It became a cautionary tale told by people that had never met him. I bet they still tell first-year students about the local kid who drank and died. They’d point to the old scar on the old maple tree and tell them how Mike begged for his mother in his last living moments.
I eventually got my license, my mom’s rusty station-wagon, and the role of designated driver. I mostly drove Jesse and me around, rarely others. Jesse drank whenever the opportunity presented itself and eventually, even when it didn’t.
He used to be a fun drunk, the life of the party. After Mike’s death, every drink made him instead more morose, every swig angrier. I knew he was hurting, but so was I.
Fights became a regular occurrence with Jesse until nobody wanted him around. I was hoping it was a phase and that it would disappear over time, just like Mike’s name from the school’s hallways. Instead it got worse. I grew frustrated. I told him, “If you keep this up, you’ll end up just like Mike.” Truthfully, I deserved the black eye.
After that, we went our separate ways, ignoring each other’s existence. I still wonder if I could have done more for him. Maybe I will stop being a little momma’s boy and call him. See how he is doing after all these years. I’m not there yet; I might never be.
But whenever I hear With You coming up in my playlist, I am back in the Sunbird with Mike and Jesse, high on our newfound freedom, when everything seemed possible. Despite the painful memories that followed—or maybe because of them—I leave the song in my playlist, quietly singing along, and thinking about what could have been.
Copyright 2021 Sven Camrath