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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

The Trans Am Incident: Part I

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Episode 2 of “Things Which, In Retrospect, I Should Not Have Done”

NOTE: Matt and I also made a short film based on the events described in this story. To see that film, go here.

On the Lam

“Today a multitude of people of good-will are groping in the darkness that beclouds the minds of men… They wander like sheep without a shepherd, not knowing where to go.”
“The Real Feast of Ingathering Under Way”
“Watchtower” magazine, 7/1/50

“Make no mistake – Satan wants to lead you to your ruin. Many young ones out in the world will suffer the loss of their lives during the great tribulation because they allowed themselves to be misled.”
“Youths-What Are You Pursuing?”
“Watchtower” magazine, 4/15/93

First of all, it was dark; much darker than I expected. Second, I was starting to think I might be lost. I had been to Jim’s house plenty of times before, but this street did not look familiar… and why weren’t there any streetlights? Shouldn’t there be streetlights? Wasn’t there some kind of legal requirement?

Of course, on previous trips to Jim’s house, I had generally been in the passenger seat of our family’s VW bus, possibly fiddling with the radio, not paying much attention to our route. After all, driving was my mom’s job, not mine. To be honest, I usually sort of zoned out as soon as we left our cul-de-sac in Brier. But even if I had carefully noted every landmark and road sign, that information was unlikely to be helpful now. For one thing, I was on foot this time, which was bound to make things look different. Also, I was fairly certain that we usually took some sort of freeway to get to Jim’s neighborhood, and I didn’t think that pedestrians were allowed on freeways, leaving me no option but to hoof it through a bewildering labyrinth of residential streets, forest trails, and strip mall parking lots. And, as I mentioned, it was dark. My previous trips to Jim’s house had mostly been during daylight hours; it was currently 3AM.

3AM, on a cold Saturday morning in the late fall of 1983. I was 16 years old, and I was supposed to be at home, sleeping in my bed, safe in the bosom of my family. I was supposed to wake up on Saturday feeling refreshed, eat my favorite breakfast of fried potatoes and eggs, and try to talk my way out of attending Saturday morning Bible study. Later in the day, I had plans to ride my bike down to Logboom Park, and maybe rent a VHS movie with my friend Ed, and stay up late watching it downstairs on the VCR I had just purchased with my paper route money.

Unfortunately, nine hours earlier, my mom had handed me the phone, and my life was ruined.

Where in the hell was Jim’s street?

With some pleasure, I imagined what might happen if I collapsed, overcome by exhaustion and exposure, and died in the muddy drainage ditch at the side of the road. Or – even better – if the delivery truck just passing me skidded out of control, killing me instantly. I imagined my friends and family saying things like, “He may have been a bit of a handful at times, but Jason was a very special young man…”

Most appealingly, with me being dead and all, they would probably just forget about what happened under the blanket in the back seat of the Trans Am, on the way home from the Bible convention, several months earlier.

The Bible Convention, Several Months Earlier

“Another danger that threatens the moral uprightness of many is large parties . . . some of which were held after sessions of the district convention… ‘Wine is a ridiculer,’ and under its influence, some brothers have dropped their moral guard or awakened slumbering weaknesses… Thus, two young ministers engaged in homosexual acts after overindulging in alcohol.”
“Are You Remaining Clean in Every Respect?”
“Watchtower” magazine, 11/1/87

For a teenager growing up as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, there are plenty of things to complain about. Just for starters, there’s the humiliation of door-to-door proselytizing in your own neighborhood, hoping against hope that the next door won’t open to reveal that bully from your first period algebra class, or that cute girl who works in the library. There are also the five Kingdom Hall meetings per week, which pretty much guarantee that, no matter what night your school friends want to hang out at the malt shop – or wherever it is that teens hang out these days – you won’t be able to go. There are the conservative clothing guidelines, which definitely rule out the zebra-striped parachute pants you got at Mr. Rags and that “Official Bikini Inspector” t-shirt you bought at Spencer Gifts. Don’t even THINK about bringing home an AC/DC album, or going to a Christmas party, or asking a date to the school dance, or eating pepperoni in Canada, or…

Oh, I could go on.

But for sheer face-clawing “Please God Kill Me Now” tedium, the semi-annual Witness Bible conventions take the fucking cake. If the Witnesses in your area haven’t been guided by the Holy Spirit to build their own private Convention Center, your convention **might** be held at a fairground, so there is a slim chance that you could get lucky and have access to a Tilt-A-Whirl during the lunch break. Barring that, you are in for three to five ass-numbing days of rambling sermons on the prophecies of Daniel, scolding harangues on the dangers of homosexual disco music, and the allegedly inspirational testimonies of middle-aged women who overcame diabetes to spread “The Truth” in darkest Malawi… Don’t even get me started on the full-dress dramatic re-enactments of Bible stories; to prevent any sort of “personal interpretation” from adulterating the Holy Word of Our Lord Jehovah, these plodding morality plays are lip-synced to dialogue pre-recorded “Back East” at Watchtower HQ. And did I mention the barely edible food prepared by the Watchtower Kitchen Committee? Even if there’s a Burger King 10 feet from the convention grounds, you must purchase the Jehovah-approved lukewarm bean burritos and limp garden salads, or risk the accusing stare of the Presiding Overseer. In fact, the only part of the convention potentially entertaining to a teenage boy – the baptism ceremony – is completely wasted, because they make all the girls wear long, body-concealing t-shirts.

Oh, I could (as previously mentioned) go on.

Which isn’t to say that nothing fun ever happens at Witness conventions. In fact, I don’t think a convention passed without some illicit tomfoolery, usually involving un-chaperoned teenagers in a parked motor home. We would always hear about these things a few weeks after the convention, either whispered by the adults when they thought we weren’t listening, or (in the most extreme cases) as part of a “Special Talk” delivered from the podium at our local Kingdom Hall. Of course, they wouldn’t name names, but when, for example, the Presiding Elder delivered a stern lecture about “certain young Christian men who, under the spirit-weakening influence of alcohol, allowed Satan-inspired sexual urges to cloud their judgment, and engaged in uncleanness with a Pioneer Sister visiting from Switzerland…” we knew they were talking about Kurt. My friend Jim and I would shoot meaningful looks at each other across the Kingdom Hall, fervently hoping for two things:

  1. That we would, someday, have the opportunity to engage in uncleanness with a Pioneer Sister from Switzerland, and
  2. That, if we ever did get the opportunity to engage in the aforementioned uncleanness, we wouldn’t get caught, like that poor sucker Kurt, God bless him.

As of the last day of the Bible convention in 1983, however, pickings had been pretty slim in the convention-related uncleanness department.

That was about to change.

I feel compelled to emphasize this point: I was SIXTEEN YEARS OLD. My deeply-ingrained morals, my keen sense of appropriate social behavior, my fear of getting in trouble – all of that was frequently trumped by the demands of an ever-present woody. I could barely think straight. I did not have the slightest inkling that my actions over the next hour could trigger a chain reaction of shameful guilt, crushing punishment, suspicions of homosexuality, a nighttime odyssey through the wilds of North Lynnwood, and the unimaginable humiliation of my father explaining to me the meaning of the word “labia.”

The Trans Am

“Though a true Christian would never bow down to an idol, he must avoid anything God views as idolatrous, unclean, and sinful. For example, the Bible warns: ‘Deaden… your body members that are upon the earth as respects fornication, uncleanness, sexual appetite, hurtful desire… which is idolatry. On account of those things the wrath of God is coming.’ (Colossians 3:5, 6) Obedience to these words requires the rejection of immoral behavior… designed to arouse unclean sexual appetite. Instead of satisfying such an appetite, true Christians are jealous for God’s pure worship.”
“Jealous for the Pure Worship of Jehovah”
“Watchtower” magazine, 9/15/95

The convention ended, and for some reason, I was going home with Jim, which I was happy about because:

  1. Jim was my second-best friend (or best friend, if I was in a fight with Ed), and
  2. Jim’s mom drove a frigging awesome car.

My dad worked in the parts department at a Volkswagen dealership in his youth, and, perhaps out of a misguided sense of brand loyalty, my family always drove VW’s. Jim’s dad, on the other hand, was kind of a “free agent” car salesman, so his family rotated through a vast array of vehicles, encompassing every known make and model. Currently, Jim’s mom was driving a jet-black “Bandit”-style Trans Am, which was the coolest car actually owned by anyone we knew personally. The engine had a sexy, muscular rumble, the windows were tinted, and the interior was dark and plush. Just riding as a passenger in that car emboldened me, made me feel loose and wild, made me believe that the hoped-for uncleanness was at last within my reach.

This is probably a good time to mention the third reason I was happy to catch a ride home with Jim: I was in love with his sister.

Jeri and Jim and Their Dad

“An intimate relationship with one’s parents can make one very conscious of their love and principles, thus making it less likely for one ever to disappoint the family. The same is true of our relationship with Jehovah. But how can we strengthen that relationship? By getting to know God intimately. Our deep personal study of God’s Word will help us to know and love him so well that we will resist any temptation. As expressed by David in Psalm 23, we will always feel that our Shepherd, Jehovah, is with us. How foolish it would be to make a grave error while having the Shepherd so near!”
“Do You Appreciate Your Inheritance?”
“Watchtower” magazine, 11/15/84

Anyone could have told you these things about Jeri: she was beautiful, voluptuous for her age, extroverted and funny. Jeri was louder than a girl should be, and her unabashed, open-mouthed laughter and occasional unhinged screaming were both exhilarating and a little scary. She was strong, and sometimes shockingly physical; if she got angry or was playing at being angry, she might just haul off and hit you – hard. Once, while I was timidly dog-paddling in a deep lake, Jeri leaped from a nearby boat onto my shoulders, locked her arm around my throat, and held my head underwater for a few terrifying seconds; I had to fight her with all my strength to break free, and, gasping for air, thrashed my way back to the dock. But these confusing, violent outbursts were always followed by Jeri’s infectious laughter, and it was hard to hold anything against her. She was delightful, spontaneous, warm, exciting, ferocious.

She could also be extraordinarily kind, in unexpected ways. On a camping trip, many years after the events of this story, I was having one of my fairly standard allergic meltdowns; my lungs scratchy and congested, my eyes filled with salty tears and ringed with angry red circles. A seemingly endless river of clear mucus drained from the headwaters of my inflamed and swollen sinuses. I’m sure it was unpleasant for everyone who had to listen to me or look at me, but trust me when I tell you that it was even more unpleasant for me. In point of fact, I was miserable. Without asking, Jeri heated some water on a propane camp stove, made me drink some herbal tea, then told me to sit in a camp chair near her tent. She draped a cool, wet cloth across my eyes, and then massaged my forehead and my temples for a long time, until finally, gradually, the pressure in my head began to dissipate. Nobody in my life, before or since, has ever offered to do something like that for me.

Some people, including Jeri’s brother, would have told you that she was a flake, but they were wrong. Many times, I had been privy to sly, knowing remarks Jeri made when nobody else was listening, and I had caught the meaningful looks she shot at me when her brother behaved like an ass. I was fairly certain that Jeri was the smartest member of her family, and wondered why she pretended not to be. Hindsight tells me this may have been a survival strategy she developed in response to her father, who was a violent, alcoholic bastard.

Though Jim’s dad occasionally beat Jim’s mom, the elders in our congregation encouraged her to stick it out in the hopes that her meek respectfulness would eventually lead to his conversion (he was not a Witness), so she stayed, and the beatings continued. One night a couple of years after the events of this story, Jim’s dad came home drunk and looking for a fight. From their bedrooms, Jim and Jeri heard the front door bang open, heard their father yelling, barely coherent, heard their mother answer in a careful, slow voice, heard him shove her against the refrigerator. Jim leapt out of bed, ran to the kitchen, and tried to place himself between his parents, tried to short-circuit the familiar escalation of abuse. Jim’s dad responded by throwing him down the stairs. After this, he stepped over Jim’s prostrate body, stalked out to the garage, rolled Jim’s motorcycle out into the middle of the street, and climbed into his 4×4 pickup. After revving the engine ominously, he slowly, methodically, backed his truck down the driveway and drove over Jim’s bike, back and forth, several times, until it was reduced to a pile of useless gears and cables in a pool of spilled gasoline. It was, not coincidentally, around this time that Jim came to live at my house.

But this story is not supposed to be about Jim and Jeri’s dad. To introduce him now is threatening to permanently derail this story, so I’ll just leave you with three things I remember Jeri’s dad saying to me in my youth:

“You guys wanna go out tonight and shoot some cans? Mexi-CANS, Puerto Ri-CANS, Afri-CANS…”

“Don’t take much to get a chick pregnant – just one in the air and one in the hair!”

“That lug nut is tighter’n a twelve-year-old!”

Delightful man, Jeri’s dad.

Each member of the family developed their own response to the toxic environment; Jeri’s, as far as I could tell, was to act like a flake. She giggled a lot, and said crazy stuff that didn’t make sense, and generally seemed like a helpless, noisy goofball. Her dad pretty much ignored her, which seems to indicate that her strategy was a sound one. But when I was alone with Jeri, she would speak in a different, less manic voice, look at me directly instead of nervously darting her eyes around the room, stand still instead of flitting about, and she wouldn’t laugh – not at all. The little bit I knew about her home life, how it seemed she was distorted under the relentless pressure, and the ways in which the world underestimated her, all made me feel protective of Jeri. I convinced myself that we were connected by some nebulous bond, some unspoken understanding. Predictably, these benevolent (and, yes, paternalistic) feelings got all mixed up with the same kind of feelings I had for any semi-attractive girl in the vicinity, but in my teenage mind, it was nothing less than true love.

For some time before The Trans Am Incident, and for several years after, Jeri and I carried on a clandestine and sporadic affair, though “affair” makes it sound like there was actual sex involved, and there was not. When I spent the night at Jim’s house, Jeri would sneak into my room late at night and kiss me. When we all went out to a movie, Jeri and I would find a way to take adjacent seats, stroking each other’s hands or thighs beneath a discreetly placed jacket, eyes fixed rigidly on the screen. At parties, she would sit on my lap until a concerned adult shooed her away.

With alarming, breathtaking vividness, like a movie exploded into thousands of individual still photographs, I recall every nuance of a cherished moment at a local water park. I complained that my soft drink didn’t have enough ice. Intuitively sensing the precise instant when everyone was looking the other way, Jeri held my face in her hands, leaned close, and transferred an ice cube from her open mouth to mine. Time became elastic and all sensation narrowed to the pressure of her fingertips on my cheeks, the taste of root beer on her lips, the heat of her breath, the unexpected shock of the ice on my tongue. I closed my eyes and reached to embrace her, but she had already pulled away, laughing and skipping toward Humpty Dumpty’s Bumper Cars. I felt dizzy, drugged, and had to lean against a nearby railing, watching as Jeri rejoined her friends on the path ahead.

When sitting behind her in a car, I would find any excuse to lean forward and lightly touch Jeri’s neck, or creep my hand around the side of the car seat and slip it beneath her sweater. If we found ourselves alone in a room, even if only for a moment, she would wrap her arms around me without a word, and the powerful affection I felt for her, the warmth of her body pressed against mine made me feel like crying, like nothing else was real, as if I held the power to create worlds or destroy them.

These clumsy moments of desperate intimacy happened whenever the opportunity presented itself, regardless of whether I was currently dating someone else, and regardless of the risk of getting caught.

Which all begs the question: Why the secrecy? Why didn’t we simply date, like every other starry-eyed teenage couple? Alas…

First, our Witness parents believed that we shouldn’t be dating anyone until we were “spiritually mature” and “financially self-sufficient.” In my case, those requirements would effectively preclude me from dating even now, at age 39. So at age 16, openly dating someone was out of the question. Second, there was a slight age difference that made a hook-up unlikely, or possibly even illegal; Jeri was my sister’s age, which means that at the time of this story, at the time of The Trans Am Incident, when I was 16, Jeri was 13. At most.

Of course, I want to believe that what happened between us was mutual. It certainly seemed that way to me at the time, but a 16-year-old boy’s grasp of gender ethics is limited. Or non-existent. To my regret, even though Jeri was in my life for 15 years or so, even though we later became close (and purely platonic) friends, we never discussed this part of our history.

Sittin’ in the Back of a Car…

“When tempted to give in to passion, think of what is of greater consequence—how this would hurt Jehovah God… Consider the emotional devastation and loss of self-respect you would suffer… Not to be overlooked, either, is the loss of your theocratic privileges or the possibility of being expelled from the Christian congregation! … Is any momentary pleasure worth so high a price?”
“Youths-What Are You Pursuing?”
“Watchtower” magazine, 4/15/93

As it turned out, Jeri was also bringing a friend home, so, on the drive home from the Bible convention, there would be five of us riding in the sexy, sexy Trans Am: Jim, Jim’s mom, Me, Jeri, and Jeri’s (very attractive) friend Mara Matthews. As we approached the car, I was looking for an angle to exploit which would allow me to sit next to Jeri, but that problem solved itself: Jim was the largest non-driving person in the car, so he naturally sat in the front passenger seat. The two girls both claimed to want window seats, thus I had no choice but to sit in the middle of the back seat, between Jeri and Mara. Strangely, it often seemed to happen this way – as if through the sheer exertion of my will, circumstances naturally fell into place to afford greater opportunities for getting busy with the ladies.

We took our places as the Trans Am roared to life, its throaty, window-rattling growl conspicuous in a parking lot full of sensible station wagons and mini-vans.

Before we had even reached the freeway on-ramp, Jeri’s coat had been positioned over our laps, and my right hand had found its way to her left thigh. Only the soft cotton of her dress held me at bay, cruelly preventing the direct contact I craved so intently. Though my glazed eyes were staring fixedly at the road ahead, though I did not acknowledge Jeri’s existence with so much as a glance in her direction – every cell, every neuron, every nerve ending – all available sensory apparatus – was keenly focused on that tantalizing point of almost-contact in Jeri’s lap. I shivered as her fingertips stroked my lower arm and wrist, and I could tell she was performing some sort of complicated adjustment beneath the coat. A minute later, she took firm hold of my hand and began to move it, leading me to experience a moment of panic: Was she, finally, rejecting my advances? Was the sweet, sweet moment over before it had even begun? As it turned out, she was simply moving my hand in order to pull up the hem of her dress; when she pressed my hand back down into position, I felt the warm skin of her bare thigh. There was still a one-hour drive ahead of us.

Jeri yawned dramatically. “Gosh, I’m tired. I wish we had a blanket back here…”

“There IS a blanket back there,” Jeri’s mom tersely reminded her. “Right by your foot. And please don’t use the g-word. You know how Jehovah feels about profanity.”

I helpfully reached down and got the blanket off the floor, not wasting the opportunity to touch the delicate white stockings covering Jeri’s ankles.

“You know, I’m pretty tired, too,” Mara chimed in, stretching sleepily for emphasis. “Can I get some of that blanket over here?”

The back seat was small, and the blanket was large; it easily covered both Jeri and Mara, who each snugged down with the blanket up around their shoulders and promptly closed their eyes. Being in the middle, I was of course also covered. And not simply ‘covered’; it was like a small pup tent had been erected in the dark back seat of the Trans Am. We could have done just about anything under there, and nobody would have been the wiser.

Jeri had positioned herself to allow me greater access to the Holiest of Holies, and things progressed about as you’d expect with a 16-year-old boy under a blanket with a beautiful, willing (albeit problematically younger) girl in the backseat of a Trans Am. Annoying hindrances such as seatbelts and clothing were adjusted or simply removed. Hands, legs, and arms were as intertwined as possible, given the inherent restraints of being seated one foot away from Jeri’s mother and brother.

The excitement, not to mention the physical exertion of the various bodily contortions was causing sweat to form on my brow, and the chances of getting caught were increasing with each passing mile, but nothing short of a fatal head-on collision would stop me now. Like Ponce de Leon, I was on a quest, convinced that the Fountain of Life or something equally revelatory was just around the next curve, but enclosed this time by elastic straps, concealed beneath gossamer white cotton. In my arrogance, I thought nothing could deter me from the pursuit of my sanctified goal, but, like so many pilgrims before, I was distracted by other, equally attractive, fountains I saw along the way. After all, I was sixteen, under a blanket in the backseat of a TRANS AM… and there was a second girl in the backseat with me.

Unlike the devious Jeri, I thought Mara was genuinely asleep. To brace myself for the various gymnastics on the right half of the backseat, my left hand was on the seat beside me – dangerously close to Mara’s leg. It’s also possible that this was simply an excuse to touch Mara’s leg, though I honestly can’t remember.

On second thought, let’s just assume that my motivations were strictly corrupt; that’s probably more likely. Not satisfied with the big plate of cake and ice cream on my right, I was also hoping to gulp down a few slices of that apple pie on my left. However absurd these gluttonous fantasies were, they didn’t take long to materialize. In the midst of a particularly intricate maneuver with Jeri, Mara boldly scooped up my left hand and deftly repositioned it, holding it tightly against her bare stomach. If you were looking at my face, and if you were watching for it, you might have detected a brief twitch of my nose at this moment, and possibly some eyebrow movement, but these were the only visible signs of the momentous events transpiring beneath the musty blanket.

I remember seeing, in a book about the JFK assassination, a diagram showing the physically impossible, absurdly contrived body positions required by the “single bullet theory” – Kennedy standing on his head, with one leg wrapped around Connelly’s neck, the other leg jammed under the driver’s seat, Connelly’s left arm twisted around behind his own back and snaking beneath the passenger seat, both feet resting in the glove compartment… When I think back to that night in the Trans Am, and try to imagine how exactly we did all the things I remember doing, I conjure something resembling that diagram, which is worrisome. The seeming impossibility of those physics-defying positions, not to mention the suspiciously “Penthouse Forum” nature of the story, makes me wonder if I have exaggerated and distorted this memory beyond recognition. Either that, or my 16-year-old body was infinitely more flexible than my 39-year-old body.

Some of it is a blur, and I’m fairly certain that a few of the most salacious details are just the result of my mind filling in the blanks, but one particular moment lingers, indelible, awkward, delicious: With my right hand fully occupied in Jeri’s lap, Mara silently unclasped her bra and pressed my left hand against her small, perfect breast, as the Trans Am hurtled through the warm evening, and Jim snored vigorously in the front seat.

On to Part 2 >>>

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