I’ve never forgotten Rachel. In the fall of 1988, while beginning UCLA with a head full of Calculus, I paused to reminisce about the brunette I met in Gladstone, Australia in the last few months of 1984:
Who’s going to pay attention to your dreams?
Who’s going to plug their ears when you scream?
Who’s Going to Drive You Home Tonight?
Four years later it still hits me hard, piercing my skin and clawing at my heart. The effect is always the same, whether I’m flying 800 miles per hour over the Pacific Ocean, hurtling my VW Bug along the snowy Interstate 80 across the Sierra Nevada mountain range, covering the San Francisco 49ers vs the Dallas Cowboys at Candlestick Park, or dancing my mind to sleep on the crowded floor of a Californian nightclub.
Drive by The Cars is about the only thing that knocks me off schedule these days, jarring econometric formulae out of my mind. For three minutes and fifty seconds life no longer reduces to differential calculus. For three minutes and fifty seconds I question and doubt.
Is there more to life than sex and success?
For more than three minutes and fifty seconds my mind washes with memories of walking along the Gladstone wharf in small town tropical Australia in 1984 with her – Rachel – a phantom of delight.
Sweet sixteen and shy, she had black shoulder length hair, short on the sides and top a la Flashdance.
I walked past her every day at 5:18 PM, closing time. I smiled and joked. She’d look up at me and giggle. Then her mother would come by and pick up Rachel and her twin-sister LeeAnne and take them home.
I spent my days composing witty sayings to lay upon Rachel. Sometimes they jumbled but Rachel pretended not to notice. It took me several weeks to work up the courage to ask her out.
Then one Friday, knowing that my brother Paul would be away all weekend and that I’d have the car, I resolved to invite Rachel to dinner and dancing that evening. I shot out of work at 5:15 PM and rushed up the street to talk to her. When half-a-block away, however, I saw her mother was there early. I could only wave as Rachel rode away.
Once at home, I stormed through the phone book and found four families with Rachel’s last name. I called each in vain. My house was empty and this was one evening that I couldn’t spend alone. I showered, dressed and drove back to Gladstone, resolving to lose my troubles in the smoke and noise of the Shanghai disco. As I drove the radio played my song, drenching me in questions: Rachel, Rachel, who’s going to drive you home tonight?
I came into town with the irrational thought that I would see her tonight. The rational side of my brain, however, told me that I wouldn’t. She was too young to get into the Shanghai and I knew of nothing else in Gladstone that night to attract her.
I found the disco packed. I disappeared easily into the mass of moving bodies, emerging at last into a little corner overlooking the dance floor. I found a friend, Sue Scott, my brother’s new girlfriend. He had left her behind on his weekend jaunt to the Great Kepple Island resort.
“It’s a special trip just for the soccer team,” Paul told her. (He told me that taking Sue to Great Kepple Island would be like taking coal to Gladstone.) Sue said she understood but she didn’t.
We found a table and sat talking. She drank heavily and needed little stimulus to spill her pain. I sat there hour after hour listening to her problems and watching her face fade in and out of the smoke and flashing lights. When she finished it was my turn and she listened sympathetically. (It would be about the last time the two of us got on. She moved in with my brother a few weeks later. Each jealous for Paul’s attention, we hated each other.) By eleven PM we both felt miserable. Needing a break from the noise and gharish atmosphere, I walked out of the Shanghai and into the calm spring night.
I walked alone (a familiar feeling to me to this day) past my brother’s real estate office, past Rachel’s law office and all the way down Goondoon Street until businesses turned into homes. I circled back again, walking quickly to get Rachel off my mind. Then out of a coffee shop she came.
She walked fifty yards in front of me with a female friend. Rachel couldn’t see me in the darkness but I could see her silhoutted against streetlights. Oh, what was it you said, Mr Wordsworth:
A dancing shape, an image gay
To haunt, to startle, and waylay
With the phantom of delight just ahead of me, I could hardly breathe. I listened to her laugh with her friend. I could smell her perfume. That she was so sweet, so innocent and so right there, was so too much. I fled across the street and tried to walk away from her.
“Oh Luke.” I heard her cry my name. She smiled at me and beckoned. I crossed the street and walked to her; unable to breathe, unable to speak. Rachel introduced her friend but I could only nod. I fell in with them and we walked down the street, past the Shanghai and on to the Gladstone Harbor.
She’d seen a play in town and afterwards had paused for a chocolate milkshake at the coffee shop. Conversation came easily. Another of Rachel’s friends joined us and then we paired off.
I walked alone with Rachel on the wharf. I would have been glad to talk to her until morning but she needed to get home. “Who’s going to drive you home tonight?” I asked.
She laughed. She loved that song by The Cars too.
Rachel didn’t need to call her parents for I was going to drive her home tonight.
I made my way uncertainly along darkened streets, unused to driving on the left side of the road. The radio played Drive and I felt Fortune smiling on me. Rachel’s white teeth flashed smiles at me in the flickering light. We stopped outside her home and I turned to her and stammered “Would you like to come with me to a party hosted by Sue Scott tomorrow night?” She would. Before she left, she wrote her phone number on the only paper I had – a Spearmint gum wrapper (which I still cherish.)
I did not kiss or even hug her goodnight for I felt no need. The future promised complete satisfaction.
Future’s promise shattered. Rachel’s parents forced her to cancel the date because, I later realized, they confused the name of the host with another woman in town who had a bad reputation. The next weekend I couldn’t get hold of Rachel, and ended up asking out her twin sister LeeAnne – a vivacious personality in her own right. We spent an active evening together – eating, drinking and swimming. Around eleven PM while walking beside the harbor we met Rachel and her date. We all laughed and LeeAnne and I moved on. We spent the early morning on the Tannum Sands beach. I returned her home at sunrise.
I never got to go out with either of them again. They found other men.
POSTCRIPT: In a trip back to Gladstone in 2000, I found out that Rachel died in a car accident a few years earlier, the victim of a drunk driver.
A few weeks later, in a visit to my parent’s home in Newcastle, 95658, just before they retired to Australia, I finally threw away the gum wrapper where Rachel had scrawled her phone number that Friday night by the wharf.