“The Death of the Drive-In” by Keren Toledano

Keren Toledano is a writing associate at The Cooper Union, and a freelance writer and editor. She recently self-published In Light of This & Other Things, and is at work on a young adult novel that is not set in the post-apocalypse. Her short fiction has appeared in Slice magazine, and she is the recipient of the Harvardwood Writing Competition in the short play category. She holds a BA in English from Harvard, and an MA in Humanities Education from New York University.

The Death of the Drive-In

by Keren Toledano

It’s July 4th, and She’s announced they’re going to the aquarium again. She never asks anymore, just announces.

“Sophie loves the sharks,” She says, and, turning to him, adds, “I read on the website the Great White is male.”  

He surveys her blonde hair and the cleft in her chin. Twenty years, He thinks. He used to joke that her cleft could hold a penny. That’s what He had called her when He had called her by name. My Penny. There are a hundred in a dollar but there’s only one of you.

And now, looking at her at the gates of the zoo, each of them holding a tiny hand, He sees that She blends in with all of the others.

They move as a unit, Sophie leading, moving in the direction of the lion’s den.

“Ion,” shouts the kid. “W-www-oar!”

Lion,” She corrects. She rubs Sophie’s nose with the back of her hand, wiping the snot on the side of her wrist.

He has done this many times, wiped a piece of his girl on his skin—blood, urine, whatever she produces. But when She does it, it surprises him. She has tissues and sanitizer in her giant green bag. She never leaves the house without them.

A lion nears the edge of the enclosure. All the onlookers move back except Sophie. When she reaches out to pet its fur, the hair on his arms and neck stand up. She pries her fingers through the silver swirls. Even if her hand breaches the fence, the lion’s head only comes to her feet. She is safe behind the metal wires.

But He knows that He should pull her back, even if only to teach her a lesson.

Ion,” she cries. “Wanna pet.”

And He doesn’t move.

He pictures his daughter on the floor of the cage, bloodied and broken. A wave of nausea rises up in his belly. Ever since she was born, He’s been having these thoughts—at the grocery, on the way home from playgroup. What if a can of peaches falls down at just the right angle? What if they’re crossing the street and she gets away from him and—? What if it happens on his damn watch?

A jolt of adrenalin shoots through his body. He can actually hear the thump of his heart.

He pulls Sophie back by the hood of her coat.

“Daddy,” she coos, and hugs his kneecaps.

He turns to find his wife. She is on her knees, rifling through her contingency bag. She keeps her arsenal in here—Band-Aids, meds, an epi-pen—the paraphernalia to combat disaster. She reaches into the bottomless sack, extracting a hat with a neon pink pompom. It’s covered in globs of dried brown mustard.

“Nice,” She frowns. “I said to pack the sandwiches in sealable bags.” She shakes the hat dramatically, then shoulders the sack and storms off without them.

He watches her walk on her long giraffe legs, the sway of her shoulders in sync with her hips. She is no less lovely than She was when they met. She may even be more beautiful at forty, her cheekbones chiseled, her skin more pale. But now these are familiar facts, no longer features that make him shiver.

On their first date, he took Penny to a drive-in movie. They were twenty, juniors at the local college, living at home and dreaming of elsewhere. It was at the end of drive-ins, in the early 90s. But there was still one, every other weekend in the parking lot of the Crow’s Nest Diner. They attached the speaker to the Trans Am window. That was a great car, rusted and red and falling apart. He bought it from a neighbor who could no longer drive it, the first Gulf War having claimed his leg. Watch her for me, the neighbor said, leaning on his crutch and handing him the keys. And he had, until the day He sold it, sixteen years later when his daughter was born.

“Pupps,” says Sophie, tugging on his jacket. “Want pupps.”

She means Barnyard Bob’s Organic Cheese Puffs, the only kind his wife will buy. They are white and deflate on your tongue and their taste doesn’t linger like the orange curls he ate as a kid. Once he ate so many that he made himself sick. His mom sent him to bed without supper. That was how he learned his limit.

“Pupps,” Sophie says, between open-mouthed chews.

He doesn’t understand how they don’t make her gag.

Up ahead, She yells into her phone. I said the Jefferson file, not freaking Jackson. You know they’re gonna fry me for this. Let me ask, Tina, do you like your job?

On that first date at the drive-in, Penny ordered her burger rare with extra fries. When the roller-skating waitress attached the tray to the window, he caught a glimpse of her black lace bra. “First one’s free,” she winked, and skated backwards away from the car.

“Fiend,” Penny smirked.

And that’s when he kissed her, to the thrill of the boy in the car next door. He gave the boy a thumbs-up as he traded his spearmint gum with Penny. They stayed that way for the rest of the film, kissing and touching, getting close to the point, but not close enough. When he backed away, he was covered in goose bumps. Penny put her hand on the back of his head. “Come here,” she said, and nibbled his ear like a gob of Chicklets.

The movie was awful, plot-less, black and white, the kind of movie they showed at dying drive-ins. When he was a kid, the drive-in was the home of the summer camp slasher. He adored those films, tales of youth in peril in the woods, and there he was in the safety of the Chevy. His parents let him see Halloween when he was six. That was before it was child abuse to do so. He sat on his mother’s lap the whole time, shivering in the AC stream. She kept trying to cover his eyes, but he pried them off or just watched through her fingers. He heard the movie twice, once from the screen, then from the speaker blaring sound into the car.

The thrill was the moment before it happened, before the hatchet came down or the blood started pouring. It was watching the victim with his back to the killer. That’s when the hair on his neck had stood up.

By the time he met Penny, moviegoers had retreated indoors, wanting even more comfort than their vinyl car seats. They wanted central air and Dolby surround sound. The Crows Nest now showed only French New Wave, the only group willing to rent the screen was the art department of a local high school. The radio transmitters were covered in gum. The screen bore streaks of bird shit and rain. It used to be the waitresses were local teens. Now the bulk of them had college diplomas. As he drove Penny home, he thought of the waitress in the black lace bra. She looked to be at least twenty-five, and here she was flipping burgers at a drive-in.

They moved to the backseat when they got to Penny’s house, continuing the dance they had started at the movie, diving in and pulling away.

He asked to come inside.

“Not tonight.” She grinned, then kissed him and left him alone in the car.

He pulled out quickly, his muffler dragging like nails on the asphalt. Girls, he thought, such terrible teases. But he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

After that, they were a foregone conclusion, the two of them with nothing in between. They never went back to the Crow’s Nest drive-in. But they found other places, living places, places like the Poseidon Diner. They’d order souvlaki and share it with a spoon. He loved the Poseidon, the neon lights scribbled on the walls, a disco ball twirling over each table. Their town had three Greek diners, three Greek families and a diner for each. But the Poseidon was the best. They’d lean back in the leatherette banquette and stare at themselves in the mirrored ceiling. Penny would move so her reflection distorted, her features off center, her body grotesque.

“Would you still like me if I looked like this?” she’d ask.

He’d wink and say, “Of course I wouldn’t.”

It was six months in that something shifted. Penny ordered bourekas instead of souvlaki and rubbed his knee underneath the table. “Your place,” she said, and he got the check like he was fleeing a fire.

His parents were away at a real estate conference. Penny didn’t look the least bit nervous, running her fingers through her hair, perched like a bird on the edge of his bed. She looked lovely, in a long white dress that skimmed bare ankles. Still tan from the summer, her hair a shade lighter, her pink cheeks dusted with a dash of freckles.

“Music?” She asked.

He pressed Play, and Wu Tang screamed, Ignorant and young, wanted to be the one (BAM! BAM!)

They both laughed as he hit Track Change.

When he took off his shoes, he was facing the wall, beads of sweat lining up on his forehead.

There was a moment before it happened when he wanted to hit Stop, to stand on the edge and gaze down into the darkness. For months they had been spinning around this point. The thrill was in nearing and pulling away, just as the killer jumped out of the forest.

And this could be a slaughter, alright. If he blew this, he would lose his Penny. The prospect of failure made him even more aroused.

He didn’t hit Stop. The music moved back and forth, back and forth. Dylan. Depeche Mode. The Nine Inch Nails. A playlist He would always remember. And to his pleasure, the terror remained, though it lessened as he reached the center.

When it was done, she fell asleep in his arms. He woke to the touch of her hand in the morning, moving firmly, not too hard, not too soft.

“How’s that, baby?” Penny sighed.

He nodded his head, tipping it back until his mouth fell open. “Perfect,” He said.

But he wanted to say, It won’t be like that again.

When he was finished, she wiped her hand on her thigh, just like that, wiping a piece of him off on her skin. She’d never done a thing so lovely.

Now they are outside the aquarium. His arm is asleep from holding Sophie. He puts her down, and she screams so loud that people turn.

Daddy,” she cries, “carry Sophie.”

“Carry me,” her mother says, and He wants to pinch her, to hear her squeal.

He scoops up the kid and walks toward the door. Next to the turnstile, an acne-faced teen sells inflatable sharks. He buys one for Sophie, but she doesn’t take it.

“Baaah,” she says, his little lamb, and plugs her mouth with a bandaged thumb.

He looks over his shoulder. His wife is talking to a security guard, checking her watch and nodding her head. She waves to him, “Go ahead without me.”

On his way in, He hands off the shark to a boy heading out.

He brought Sophie to the Shark Encounter last year. She wasn’t afraid at all, had freed herself from his grip and run straight down the long glass tube, the blue light glinting off her yellow hair. The sharks were swarming in spirals overhead, their snouts to the glass, long fangs gnashing and gums on fire. And she’d just laughed, in staccato bursts that broke his heart. On the way home, she cried like a banshee. Sharkin, she repeated, snot-nosed and gasping. Where’s my sharkin? It was only later that He understood. She had thought they were going to the Sharkin Counter, and He hadn’t bought her a baby shark.

That night He couldn’t fall asleep. He kept thinking about the drive-in, of the thrill he felt as he waited to scream. How sad that Sophie hadn’t feared the tunnel. His head filled up with teeth gnashing sharks. I’ve ruined her. I’ve made her believe not a thing can hurt her. Of course his greatest hope was that nothing ever would. But one of the best parts of being a kid was the fear of knowing that something just might—one day, when your parents weren’t looking. And you’d be alone in the middle of the woods.

It was the fear of growing up that made you want it so badly.

The humidity hits him like a blanket of steam. He loves the aquarium, the kelpy air and the turquoise glow. The place smells biotic, almost human. He has always been captivated by the sea, primitive, dark and unfathomable. He is less interested in the sharks and puffers, the aquatic stars that live by the top. What He likes are the ones that troll the bottom, the part of the ocean so deep that even the light of the sun can’t reach. If He went down, He would be pancake flattened. But there are creatures, thin and light as slips of paper, fangtooths and viperfish and lambent eels, that live there.

They turn the corner to the Shark Encounter. Standing at the mouth of the tunnel, he puts Sophie down. She doesn’t complain this time, just holds his hand and sucks her thumb. She takes no interest in the gnashing sharks. She is looking at the red lights flashing on her sneakers.

“Mommy,” Sophie points.

He turns to the exit. He sees his wife sitting by the penguin habitat, eating Sophie’s cheese puffs and texting with one hand. He must admit she looks beautiful today, cheeks flushed from the cold, curly tendrils brushing her shoulders.

It’s not like it was a conscious choice. It happened slowly and all at once, when He knew her so well that She stopped being Penny.

He proposed to her when she finished law school. He was already a CPA. It was four years after that first time in his room. They moved into a house with three beds and two baths. She worked for a firm that had six partners. Her commute was ten minutes; his was twenty. They each worked eighty hours a week.

Ten years later, they paid off their mortgage. She said it was time for a kid and He nodded. Five weeks later, they named the sonogram Sophie.

He went back to the drive-in one last time, six months after Sophie was born. She sent him on a midnight diaper run. He bought four boxes and a six-pack of beer, and found himself driving to the Crows Nest Diner. It was Bodhi now, yoga center and wellness retreat. It offered vinyasa in the old parking lot, the asphalt covered with a planted lawn. He took his shoes off and walked through the grass, chugging a beer and pulling blades out with his feet.

Where the screen had been there was a giant billboard. Bodhi, it read, Find your peace at the center of the lotus. Their was a photograph of a lotus flower, large flat petals, and a seed pod filled with gaping black holes. It looked like a cluster of sunken wounds. It made him nauseous but he couldn’t help staring.

He lay on his back on the prickly grass, his eyes on the seedpod. He imagined himself as a miniature climber, lowering himself into one of the holes. He wanted to know what was at the bottom.

But there wasn’t enough light. So He hung there for a moment, feeling electric in every pore, waiting for something to jump out of the darkness.

Then He went back to the car and finished off the six-pack.

Sophie is tugging hard on his pant leg. He looks at her, this bioluminescent fish He has fathered. She gleams in the stream of the neon blue lights, painting her skin with watery swirls.

She is smiling at him, her little lips shaking. She claps her hands and her breathing comes fast.

“What is it?” he asks, tickling her. “What’s so funny?”

She crumbles into him, laughing in uncontrollable bursts. She covers her eyes and hops up and down.

“No!” she says. “No no no!” But still she is laughing.

And then she screams so loud that He jumps!

He reels backwards, his body slamming into the tunnel. A mako shark rams its jaws near his head.

Gotcha.

And Sophie screams even louder this time. “Mommy,” she cries, and claps her hands.

His wife is holding the plastic shark. She must have wrestled it back from the kid. “Oh, Mark,” She winks, “you’re such a baby.”

He picks up Sophie, breathing in the scent of her lavender shampoo. He wants to say, You’ll never feel more alive.

“I’m starving,” says his wife. “Sushi?” she asks, and points at the mako.

He hooks a tendril behind her ear. “Come on, Jess,” he says, “let’s beat the traffic.”

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