I learned to drive on my fourteenth birthday, the day I received my learner’s permit and drove 55 miles an hour home on North Dakota’s quiet highways. It felt fast. My mother told me not to brake with my left foot, “You don’t want to accelerate and brake at the same time. You can’t trust your impulse during the unexpected.”
I learned to drink and drive a month later. My brother gave me my first beer in Canada as we drove 90 miles an hour to our summer league hockey game. He taught me how to buy beer – “Just stay calm and confident, like they should know you wouldn’t fuck around” – and then he taught me how to toss empty bottles at road signs. “It’s like Grandpa told us,” my brother said. “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.”
Drinking and driving was the norm in my hometown, with its deserted two-lanes and straight gravel roads. Our siblings did it. Our friends did it. Our parents, teachers, and business owners drove home from the bars without batting an eyelash. The cops might even follow them home until they safely parked in their driveways. Teenagers could party in peace. Even the border patrol officers didn’t care if minors were glazed behind the wheel. A prairie booze cruise was just a fun Friday night after the big game.
Out of the nearly 200 total students in my graduating class and the classes above and below mine, five people have died in alcohol-related accidents. Even more have crashed and survived. North Dakota’s Department of Transportation has found that our county has the state’s highest percentage of drivers-under-the-influence and alcohol-related accidents.
Taxis aren’t an option in small-town North Dakota because we don’t have taxis, and designated drivers are hard to come by when parties can take place fifty miles from town in a distant pasture where guys park their pickups around a bonfire and blare country music with the tailgates down. To be sober at a party is to open yourself to ridicule.
I started drinking regularly after my seventeenth birthday – late by our town’s standards – and I was proud of getting away with it. My best friend, Jason, would allow only me behind the wheel of his Monte Carlo when we’d had a few Budweisers, or “diesels” as we called them because they were the best we could buy.
One night after a bonfire in the aspen hills five miles from town, Jason was too drunk to get us home. He tossed me his keys. It didn’t faze him that I’d tried to fuel the fire with a gasoline and oil mix. He vomited in the ditch not a mile down the road. A cop followed us, but I stayed three miles an hour over the limit: driving too slow is a sign of caution and fear – the cops won’t expect a drunk to push the limit when followed. We passed out on my bunk beds, and a week later Jason totaled that Monte Carlo on his way to toss back a few diesels. He said he was “sober as a judge.” He wasn’t injured.
On my seventeenth birthday, I drove my girlfriend’s new car 100 miles an hour through a four-way intersection. Kelsy and I were nearly late for her one o’clock curfew, and she still couldn’t walk on her broken leg – she’d had a car accident two months earlier. When I saw police lights behind me, I didn’t hesitate.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I got this.
I accelerated and lost them on the windy lanes by the lake cabins. At Kelsy’s cabin, we watched the cops pass as we lay on the lawn. Kelsy was worried they would recognize her car and know it was us. I didn’t tell her, but I was nervous, too. When I pulled my own car onto the highway an hour later, the deputy flashed his lights. No siren. I saw his silhouette approach through my tinted windows.
“When did you last drive through Sawmill Corner?”
He held his light to my face and then looked inside my car. When he leaned on the windowsill, I could smell his cologne.
“About two hours ago.” I knew he couldn’t prove it was me. It wasn’t the same car, and I doubted he’d seen my face.
“There weren’t any cars two hours ago,” he said. “We chased someone an hour ago. What have you been doing?”
“I drove my girlfriend home for her midnight curfew,” I said. “I don’t know what else to tell you. Have I done something wrong?”
He handed my license back and began walking away. When he reached the back of my car, he turned around.
“Your tail light is out.”
It was the first time I had talked my way out of a ticket. I realized that even if the officers knew I was lying, it didn’t matter as long as I could bluff. As my brother had told me, act like you believe in your innocence.
My brother has had several run-ins with the law, and because he’s told me how he went wrong, I still have a clean record. When he was seventeen and I was twelve, he tossed an empty out the window while driving through town. A pedestrian reported the car, and the cops pegged my brother for a minor-in-possession. His story, the one our folks believed: he’d had one sip, decided it was dumb, and tossed the full can. He was grounded for a couple of months.
Jenna was my first girlfriend and my closest friend. We saw each other the summer we turned sixteen, and a few months after we broke up, we decided that we wanted to be together again. It felt monumental, and I suppose it was.
As is common in North Dakota, a February thaw was followed by a March blizzard, and the roads had a good inch of icy snowpack. Jenna hadn’t wanted to go to the state girls’ basketball tournament that Friday because she and Kelsy, her best friend, were fighting. I told Jenna it was the right thing to do, and Kelsy picked her up.
When I left for the tournament in my own car, I tried calling both girls to see where they were on the road. Both phones went to voicemail. Twenty miles from the tournament, traffic stopped in the middle of the highway. Police officers told me there was an accident and that we were all being re-routed. Ten minutes later, a friend called me. He said an on-coming driver had hit a patch of ice and then the passenger door of Kelsy’s car.
Jenna died instantly; a passenger in the other car, too. Kelsy broke her right arm and shattered her leg. I saw one picture of the car, when the local news station reported the accident that evening. Kelsy’s car didn’t look like a car. She remembers being trapped, breathing smoke, and hearing her and Jenna’s phones ring.
The next day in her hospital room, I hugged Kelsy and felt my tears fall into her brown hair. We were surrounded by flowers tied with green and pink bows, Jenna and Kelsy’s favorite colors. Kelsy clutched a stuffed frog, Jenna’s favorite.
Sunlight brightened the yellow and purple bruises on her face. Her cuts had just scabbed. I decided I couldn’t let her see me cry.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I got this.”
“No,” Kelsy said. “You don’t have to.”
That summer after my seventeenth birthday, the summer I first outran the cops and we raised $75,000 to build a high ropes course at the local Bible camp in Jenna’s memory, I drank and drove several times a week. The morning after our Fourth of July party, my classmates tried to flip my car while I slept in it. They aimed bottle rockets at the windows. I jumped out of the car, ran after the slowest guy, and threw him as hard as I could toward the ground. His nose broke on a truck’s bumper. I hadn’t seen the truck and felt bad about that. But it all stopped, nobody said anything, and they invited me to the next party.
On my eighteenth birthday, the night of my high school graduation, I tested how far my layered truths and lies could take me; like learning not to accelerate and brake at the same time, you have to practice how to react when you’re caught. In rural North Dakota, it’s a ritual for the newly graduated to throw the year’s biggest party. The police know it will happen, and they station officers at the five exits from our town. My folks knew I was going, as did the guests who had attended my reception. My father told me to “be good,” as he always did when I went out, leaving unsaid that he knew I’d be drinking.
Jason was one of the seniors who decided the location of the graduation party. When he called me with directions an hour before it began, he listed the nicknames of gravel roads, the house owners, a yellow sign by a creek, a quiet hilltop meadow, an abandoned house inside a grove of trees.
“Don’t follow anybody,” he said, “and if the cops tail you, drive the opposite direction.”
The cops busted the party at 10:30. When they came, they kept us around the fire and said no minors-in-possession tickets would be given if each car had a sober driver and carried no alcohol. There was one way in and one way out.
After a half hour, I grabbed a case of Busch Light, my least favorite beer, and walked over to the sheriff. He knew me as the band teacher’s son and a frequent church-goer. He knew that I had helped raise that $75,000, knew that Jenna and I had been close.
“I just wanted to thank you for making sure everyone gets home,” I said. “How’s everything going?”
“Oh, there were only a few runners,” he said, “but we’ll keep everybody clean. Firemen should be pleased with the haul.”
He pointed to the cases of beer stacked like an off-sale display in his pickup. His gut hung over the waist of his brown pants; a toothpick was half lost in his red moustache. It was common knowledge that the confiscated alcohol stocked the refrigerators at the volunteer fire department. During election years, our sheriff always took care of his constituents – beer for the fridges, fewer speeding tickets, and an increase in meth lab busts.
“Well, that’s my Impala right there, and this is all I have,” I said, raising the Busch Light. “Are we good to go?”
Jason and I got in my car. We had sixty more cans in the trunk. I messaged friends to meet us at Kelsy’s cabin, where my brother would show up with two more cases.
“Damn fine work, Olson,” Jason said.
We each cracked a diesel. I cranked the music and stayed three miles over the limit.
I would like to say my near misses that summer taught me a lesson – like the time I nearly drove off a road in Canada at four in the morning, when I knew I was too far gone to see straight. But we had to get home, so I convinced myself that I actually paid better attention to the road while drunk, that because I could get out of bad situations drunk, I could keep driving drunk. It was better, I believed, if I drove my friends home than if they drove themselves.
Just before my nineteenth birthday, I returned home from college and attended the local junior college’s grad party deep in the hills on private land. The cops came, along with the border patrol and their dogs. They had nothing better to do; maybe they needed the training.
A hockey buddy and I ran into the trees and covered ourselves with leaves. After a half hour of watching flashlight beams ricochet from tree to tree, we were found by a cop wearing night vision goggles.
“Back to the fire, boys,” he said. We didn’t say a word.
We stood beside the trooper’s vehicle and watched as Kelsy, now my ex-girlfriend, took a breathalyzer test and got her first minor-in-possession. I kept shuffling to the end of the breathalyzer line. Eventually, the troopers grew tired of the cold rain and let us go. I gave Kelsy and her new boyfriend a lift home – I still felt responsible. I knew it wasn’t my confidence that got me off the hook, but the officers’ loss of interest in punishing me. I was fine with that.
On my twenty-first birthday, I was working at the Bible camp and was contractually restricted from drinking. As they had the two previous years, my parents brought cake and ice cream for the staff. My mother gave me a small bottle of wine that the nurses had given her the day I was born. We drank it together two months later after she bought me my first legal beer.
Just after my twenty-fourth birthday, Jason and I shot pool against our old classmates at the Stadium II, one of five bars in our town. I asked the bartender for her best whisky on the rocks, and she poured me a double Jack Daniels.
“No Coke with that, eh?” Jason said, taking a sip of his Budweiser. He was wearing a black Fox Racing t-shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. He might have worn the same ten years ago.
“Easier hangover if it’s straight,” I said.
We drank until midnight, when Jason went home and I drove my parents’ new car – their first new car in thirty-five years of marriage – fifteen miles to another bar, out by the lake. My old hockey teammates and I closed it. I would have driven home then, but there was an after-party. There was always an after-party.
It was nice that these guys wanted me around. I was the liberal writer who didn’t hunt, smoke, or chew. The one who had had gotten away.
In somebody’s garage, we drank homemade pure-grain alcohol until four in the morning. I texted my brother that I was worried, but he was in Fargo, 250 miles away, and couldn’t give me a ride. I got in the car.
“You sure about this?” an old teammate asked.
“It’s not my first time.”
There are two paved roads from the lake to my hometown. I intended to take the Town Line, a straight shot except for two turns. The other is the Lake Road, which winds and has several white crosses lining the ditches.
I didn’t realize I was on the Lake Road when a pair of headlights came at me. I swerved and spun into the far-side ditch, just next to the forest. I began to drive forward, realized a tire was flat, and pulled over. The other car stopped next to me. Two guys I didn’t know said I almost killed them. I asked for a ride. I still thought I’d been on the straight Town Line until they drove me back to the lake and left me at Sawmill Corner. I used one of their cell phones to call my father.
Dad didn’t lecture, even when I vomited in the ditch. I had left the car on a slope, and we couldn’t jack it high enough to change the tire. As we drove home, Dad told me we had to get the car off the road before the cops came asking questions. He would have let me drive home if the jack had worked. So Dad and Mom drove back with a bigger jack, got the tire changed, and Mom brought their car home.
The next afternoon, I was the one who brought up the previous night. I offered to pay for a new tire. They knew I didn’t have the money.
“I just hope this is your wakeup call,” Mom said at the kitchen counter. Her voice was even, and she looked me straight in the eyes. It was the same look and tone she had used after she found me hugging a toilet years ago, back when I was eighteen, about to leave for college. Six years later, little had changed.
“I won’t drive any more after three drinks,” I said. “The night just got away from me.”
Dad dropped his head. He’d heard these excuses all his life. His father had been an alcoholic, and there are stories of grandma preferring strawberry daiquiris while Grandpa sipped his whiskey, though Dad never talked about it to me or my siblings. I first learned about it when I read in my parents’ will that my siblings and I weren’t to live with my grandparents if alcohol was still in their home. When I finally had asked Mom why, she said it’s too hard for Dad to acknowledge the vices of his family. He thought that my siblings and I would love our grandparents less, that we wouldn’t remember the good in them. Mom always lost that argument.
“Why did you do it?” Mom asked me.
“I felt fine,” I said. “It just hit me too quickly. It’s not my habit.”
I almost convinced myself. Dad walked into the garage. To this day, he has never brought it up.
Before I moved to Montana for graduate school at the end of that summer, I got myself out of another three driving-under-the-influence charges. As my brother had taught me, I thanked the officers for doing their jobs, told them I’d made an honest mistake, and that I was more than willing to take any sobriety test. I always passed the field tests, and they never gave me a breathalyzer. I told myself I would start over in Montana. I would walk home if I got drunk because my luck couldn’t continue. But I can’t count the number of times since that I have awoken not knowing how I got to my bed.
Before my twenty-fifth birthday, I saw a therapist for the first time. A relationship had worn me too thin. She’d been verbally and physically abusive. After she started hurting herself and told me she had a personality disorder, I realized that I couldn’t save her, or get myself away. I thought I had failed her, and I started drinking more.
I finally asked for help because I was tired of getting away with things, tired of pretending to the cops, to friends and family, to myself.
Kelsy and my closest friends have told me many times that the accident in which Jenna lost her life wasn’t my fault. Of course they’re right. But I have remained emotionally convinced of my responsibility. I told Jenna to go and make peace with Kelsy. At the time of the accident, Kelsy had a crush on me, which I had encouraged. She knew I’d follow Jenna to that game, and she counted on seeing me there.
I was sitting alone in my Montana apartment when guilt suddenly overwhelmed me. I looked at the calendar, saw it was the accident’s eighth anniversary, and I cried over Jenna for the first time since her funeral. I thought about the injustice of my living to taunt fate and endanger others when Jenna never had another day. I thought about my latest failed relationship. I poured a whisky.
I carry my failures like I carry my lies: I stack them atop one another and ignore them until they collapse under their own weight. Like my father, I struggle to acknowledge my vices. No matter what I convince myself, they are still there. My grandfather was wrong about the ease of asking for forgiveness, because the forgiveness of others won’t change who you are. It cannot erase the history, the blackouts, or the near-misses.
Five months after my twenty-fifth birthday, lights flashed behind me when I was two blocks from my apartment. It had been seven months since I had last driven drunk. My heart didn’t skip, I didn’t swear, and I wasn’t nervous. I told my two passengers to hide their beer. I felt responsible for keeping their records clean. They slid the unopened cans beneath their seats but left the empties in the cup holders.
The officer approached in a black shirt and tan slacks, and another squad car parked behind his.
“Do you know why I stopped you tonight?”
“I was three miles over the speed limit. It’s thirty here, right?” I had checked as soon as the blue and red lit my rearview.
“Actually, your lights aren’t on.”
“I’m sorry, officer. It’s my friend’s car – she asked me to drive them home – and I thought they were automatic. The streets are so well-lit, I didn’t notice.”
He looked inside the car and at my passengers. He asked me if I had been drinking.
“I was working a fundraiser for my graduate program. I had a beer five hours ago and two after. That’s all they would serve us volunteers.”
In truth, I had drunk a Scotch, several double whiskies, and a glass of wine. For the cops, I always claimed one beer per hour, no hard liquor.
I was wearing my tailored gray suit, black shirt, and a loosened black tie – I looked respectable, like I wouldn’t fuck around. The officer jotted my story in his pocket notebook. When he asked me to tell the story again, I repeated the lies well enough.
I had not planned to drive. I had purposely asked for a ride because I knew I would be drinking, but when my friend threw me her keys, I didn’t say, “No, we have to walk.” I could see and think straight. I drove straight. My mistake was assuming the car had automatic lights. My mistake was being me again and again and again.
“Please exit the vehicle and stand on the sidewalk.”
As the officer shone his flashlight in my eyes and had me follow his finger across my line of vision, I kept reminding myself to breathe. He told me they were testing because of protocol.
“Hey, you’re just doing your job.”
I returned to the car, and as I waited for the decision, my passengers thanked me.
“Don’t bail me out if it comes to that,” I said. “It isn’t worth the cost.”
It seemed easier to sit in a cell, acknowledging my guilt, than to get away one more time.
“You’re on the edge,” the officer said when he returned with a no-lights ticket. “You can’t afford this. You can’t drive with empty beer cans. If you’re buzzed, don’t even think about it. Think about these two. Think about people crossing the street, biking in the dark. You could kill them.”
I knew it, knew too well the consequences. I choked up and said he was right. It was the first honest response I had given. I thanked him for the ticket, said I would pay my debt, and pulled away. Only then did I remember to turn on the lights.
In the coming days, I would drink harder than I had in months; I would fall back into depression. I convinced myself that there was one way to end everything. I flew home and drove towards Jenna’s grave for the first time in years. I sat there often in the days after her death, and tried to dilute myself into thinking that her nearness could neutralize my insecurities. As I passed fields of sunflower stubble, I instead turned off the highway and followed the gravel roads to a different prairie cemetery. I parked on the church’s foundations and got out. I left the truck running. I found the headstone with my last name, my grandfather’s name. I realized then, it’s not right to place your vices on the dead. You’re only talking to yourself, anyway.