He leaned out of his beat-up car and asked for my number. I gave it to him.
He leaned his elbow out of the window of a rumbling old Ford and cocked an eyebrow at me. "Afternoon, darlin'." And he said it just like that, with a little country inflection and everything.
It was the same way he'd been hollering at me for weeks — cruising around the neighborhood in that rumbler of a car, painted flat-black, headlights always on, even in the daytime, like a glaring pair of animal eyes. Always riding shotgun, always saying, "Hey there, little lady," or some bullshit. Like a goddamn TLC song.
Usually I would just spit out a sour "Pssh!" before walking away. But that day, as he damn near craned his entire torso out of the car, I looked at him: blown-out neck tattoos, helmet of pomade hair, spiderweb elbow. What was he doing here?
His blue eyes looked me up and down. I was wearing a black pleated skirt, one I'd sewn a Misfits patch on, that I for some reason kept wearing even though I hadn't listened to the Misfits in three years. Which isn't that long, but feels a lot longer when you're eighteen.
His eyes lingered on my knees as he stared from inside that cage of a car. The engine growled like a snarling beast. I felt powerful.
"You gonna finally give me your number today?" he asked.
I shrugged. "Fuck it." I wrote it down and handed it to him through the window.
He held my fingers as he took the scrap of paper. Our eyes met, and he winked in a way that didn't make me feel powerful — that made me feel like he'd won. Well, he had. And he knew it.
He grinned at me, a scar creasing above his lip.
It was 2001, and I was living back at my parents' house in Oakland. No one used words like "hipster" or "gentrification" then. We didn't need to; those things hadn't happened to Oakland yet. But there's always the first wave, the derelicts and ne'er-do-wells who break the floodgates, and that's what Joe was — a redneck greaser who'd ended up in an apartment down the street. Joe wasn't all-the-way redneck, but he was the closest thing I'd met. I'd grown up one of the only white kids around. My brother and I had made sure to distinguish ourselves from real white people by "talking black," not listening to country or rock music, and relentlessly making fun of rural whites.
Well, it didn't work; I'd always felt out of place. As a teenager I'd rode the hour-long bus to Berkeley, where I thought I'd find my people. I started going to shows and smoking meth; I rotated through a cast of identities — goth, punk, indie. I never got any of them right. Then I tried out other things — being a stoner, a pill popper, an alcoholic. Those I got too right. I'd been clean a little over a year that summer I moved home, after having scraped my way through that first year of college sober. I hadn't fit in with the collegiate Orange County breeds either.
Now I was home, lonely, working days at a swimming pool where twelve-year-olds smoked weed in the locker room. When I met up with my old friends at house parties and hangout spots, my hoodie zipped up against the fog and clouds of skunky weed smoke, I felt even more alone.
That was when Joe showed up in that black car. Suddenly seeing a white dude in the neighborhood was intriguing. But of course I couldn't take him seriously. With his inflection, his hair, and his membership in a car club that was better known for beating people with tire irons than for fixing cars, he was the living embodiment of all the shit my brother and I had made fun of as kids.
But seeing as I didn't have much else going on, I met Joe at his apartment a few days later. He was still getting dressed, wandering around in his boxers, a no-longer-in-your-early-twenties beer belly bulging from beneath his wife beater. He smelled like Old Spice and hair grease.
I sat on the corner of the futon (no frame, on the floor) and watched as he strapped on a Confederate-flag belt buckle. I raised my eyebrows. "You've gotta be kidding me."
"Relax," he said with an eye roll, "it's not what you think. It stands for Southern pride."
I blinked at him hard. "Yeah, well, I can think of something else it stands for."
We stood there in a kind of stare-off, plastic Venetian blinds cutting little lines across our faces. "I'm not going out with you wearing that," I said. He grinned then and winked at me — the same kind of wink as before. Then he put on a Budweiser belt buckle instead.
So we started "dating." And by "dating," I mean having sex in his bedroom, shades drawn and crackly old LPs playing in a half-assed attempt to keep the grunts and slaps from reaching the virgin ears of his roommates' kids.
After that first date, we never left his apartment. Shit, we barely left his bedroom. Which was fine with me — I didn't really want to be seen in public with him anyway. I mean, people would have seen us and thought we were the same — two white kids who didn't belong.
"Is he, like, a Republican?" my friend Alicia asked.
"Nah, a Libertarian."
"What the fuck is that?"
I shrugged. "A Republican who believes in abortion."
Joe may have been a greaser, but even I knew that no one just becomes a greaser. It's always part of an evolution, an identity that someone arrives at after a succession of discarded rebellious identities. Sure enough, Joe had been a gutterpunk — a Drunk Punk, actually. He even had a tattered old police report from some juvenile arrest — he showed it to me — that included "a tattoo that says 'Drunk Punx'" under "Identifying Characteristics." He was proud of that. He told me how he'd dropped out of the ninth grade and train-hopped his way to Berkeley. "I used to hang outside of riot grrrl shows at Gilman," he told me, "and yell 'Bikini Kill cooks my breakfast!'"
I snorted. "You know I was probably one of the girls at those shows." I imagined us both having been there, some night years earlier, squatted against the brick wall and smoking, neither one of us fitting in, but (I told myself) for entirely different reasons.
Joe was like the punch line to a joke I didn't know how to tell yet. I assumed he was just in it for the barely-legal sex, that I was as much a joke to him as he was to me. "Jeans get 'faded," he told me. "You do not."
Once Joe told me a long-ass story about a guy he'd had to beat up over some obscure beef involving "honor." I must have had a real what-the-fuck look on my face, because Joe started explaining to me how one could never hit a lady, no matter how much she deserved it.
"What is that?" I asked. "Some sort of redneck code of ethics?"
He stared at me hard for a second, inhaled like he was going to say something. I stared back. Then he gave me that scar-creased grin of his and laughed. "You're feisty," he said and pulled me closer to him. "I like my women feisty."
We talked once about being sober. He was lying on his back, fingers stroking my thighs, when suddenly he asked, "What you got, darlin', like a year?"
"Clean time?" He nodded, and I shrugged. "Around there. Little more."
He looked out the window. "I had some time once," he said.
"Yeah." He was quiet for a minute before he rolled over to face me, tattoos sagging across his belly. "I did a stint in one of those programs they got. You know, instead of juvi."
I didn't ask, but I had a picture of what he meant. Those kidnap-your-kids-and-send-them-to-Utah gigs were still big then, but those were for rich kids. I pictured Joe, young and angry and without any tattoos, in some run-down state program. I pictured the gray walls and cement beds, the sour urinals, and said nothing.
"Didn't stick though," Joe said finally, before taking a sip of his Budweiser and rolling back over.
It went on that way, a little longer than I'd like to admit. Joe remained a joke to me, even when he pulled my hair and pinched me so hard it left marks. Even when he picked me up and threw me across the room; even when he held my underpants up over my head and refused to give them back, so that I had to walk home in that Misfits skirt with my ass damn near hanging out; even when he called drunk and yelled at me for not coming over.
I suppose it would have kept going on that way — me coming over, getting fucked in a fairly satisfying fashion (compared to that of all the willowy artsy boys I'd dated, at least), him sweating all over me. I'd like to say it was me who eventually ended things, but it wasn't. Joe exploded in a drunken rage one afternoon. I cowered and didn't at all live up to the feisty vision we both had of me. After that, he stopped calling. I'd also like to say that I let it end there, but I didn't. I called him more. It was before texting, so I left notes on his doorstep, wedged between the door and the battered frame.
He never responded.
Four years later, I was cruising down Telegraph Ave., running errands with my then-boyfriend, when I saw Joe. He was crouched down, smoking a cigarette, but there was something different about him — a clearness to those blue eyes, skin a little glowy.
He nodded at me. I gave my boyfriend's hand a squeeze before I walked over, alone.
"Hey, darlin'." And he said it like that, just like I remembered.
"How you been?" he asked.
"Been all right." He squinted in the sun. "Hey, I'm sorry about how that all went back then."
I shrugged, then added, "Me too."
"I was… I'm not drinkin' anymore."
"That's really good to hear."
I nodded. "Yeah."
We were quiet for a moment. "Hey, you think I could buy you a cup a coffee?" he said.
I smiled and shook my head.
Joe nodded at my boyfriend. "That your fella now?"
"Yeah." I looked over at Paul and smiled. I knew what Joe was thinking — "art school fag" — even though Paul was neither.
But that's not what he said. Instead he just looked at me. Our eyes locked for a second, the way they used to, and some kind of wordless energy passed between us — as if to say, here we both still were, still waiting for the punch line, still waiting for the joke to be funny. Then Joe flashed a grin at me, that same scar-creased grin. "Take care of yourself, darlin'," he said with a wink before walking away.
But it doesn't stop there, because I stayed in Oakland, and when you stay in a place, you never really get away from things you've done or the person you've been. Most of a decade later, I was still sober, back to being single, still not sure what to do with myself, covered in tattoos and blending in with all the other hipsters, just like I was one of them. I'd ditched the Misfits skirt, but still felt like a misfit.
One afternoon, my friend Alicia called me. Some friends were shooting a music video in the bar below her apartment — what had once been a legit gangster bar, before the farmers-market crowd chased them out. "Bunch of dudes from that old car club downstairs," Alicia told me. "Didn't you date one of them?"
"Yeah, Joe," I laughed. "Is he there?"
"With a scar above his lip? Yeah, he's down there."
"No shit. Is he drinking?"
"Pssh, they're all shithoused." She let out a wry laugh. "They're all bikers now."
I watched the video when it came out, and sure enough, there was Joe, a little fatter, a little older. No black car, no pomade — no hair at all, actually — and riding a damn chopper. But there was something in the way he leaned back on that bike, the way a snicker seemed to be waiting beneath that creased lip — like there was a punch line to it all, and he knew it. Like he'd known it the whole damn time. Like even now, we weren't so different.
Like even now: the same-ass Joe and the same-ass me.