If You’ve Reached It, It’s No Longer Your Limit
First, you have to find an in. If you can’t find an in, let your in find you. For this to work, your in must catch you unawares, at a moment best unplanned. This is the most important step. Without an in, you can’t race a phantom rocket, because racing a phantom rocket requires a proper showing of the ropes.
Lucky for you, you’ve known your in since middle school. In fact, you’re hanging out with him right now. The two of you are walking to his car, shirts wrapped around your necks after a long day of shooting hoops at Almansor Park. You haven’t seen your in in weeks. That’s because Aaron Yang — promoter of clubs, hyper of parties — has taken his skills to a brand new scene. You have questions — are you really… so you’re saying… — and Aaron has answers. “We’re racing ghosts, man. It’s pretty sick… Nah, I’m trying to get in as a trainer.” The prickle in your spine grows and grows, and by the time you’ve reached Aaron’s car, you have already decided.
“So… Umm… You think I can give it a go?”
Modify Your Ride
Now that you’re in, you’ll want to hit the street. But not so fast. Like many an underground scene, phantom racing operates within a strict set of codes and protocols. Most important, there’s the issue of timing. The next phantom race is set for the August full moon, which gives you less than a month to get in shape.
Take the rest of the day off. Brush up on Aaron’s Import Tuners, flip through his S3s. The cars on the phantom scene will be of the souped-up kind, low to the ground, with a spoiler in the rear. Your body kit should do the same. With a twist.
On Monday, take your Civic to the shop on Garvey. If they’re feeling up to it, the guys at the garage will give you the Chinese discount. Drop Aaron’s name, and they’ll throw in a free smog check. Get all the modifications done — import motor, custom parts — and if you haven’t dipped into your college savings yet, ask them to airbrush it electric blue. Aaron rocks a slick Honda Prelude himself, painted Maraschino red.
Next week, when you come back for your car, you won’t recognize the behemoth that is your updated Civic. Angel-eye headlights, LED interior lighting, a Super Nintendo and DVD player. When you express grave doubts that this is the same vehicle you brought in, the cute receptionist with the bangs will smile. “We gave you the works.”
From now on, call it your ride.
Perfect the One Percent
Word gets out. Talk within the scene spreads quick. Within days, Hideki Mashimoto and Tommy Tran have their eye on you. (Avoid their tooling around for now, though keep in mind that this is their turf.) Meanwhile, Aaron appoints himself as your trainer/hype-machine. You are in good hands. He comes from a line of club promoters and chop shop dealing brothers, so this is his game.
Hone up your skills. Leave nothing to chance. Encountering a phantom rocket is ninety-nine percent luck. You must perfect the one percent. Drop out of summer school, ignore the Garvey Auto invoice staring you in the face. (Your mom is going to kill you when her bank statements come through, but that’s a worry for another day.)
Start up your Civic. Take her for a spin. Spend your summer hours getting to know Valley Boulevard. Start at the alley by Yoshi’s Ramen and don’t stop till you’ve reached Atlantic Times Square. Memorize each cross section, get a feel for every curve and pothole. Pick it up as you merge onto the highway, bring it down when you return to the street. Learn the high-speed drift, learn the power slide, learn to do it all while looking sharp. Rack up some corners, then clean your fender off with X1 polish. Challenge the occasional ricer on the road. Don’t be discouraged when you don’t burn him at first (if you aren’t breaking a sweat, you’re doing it wrong).
Struggle. Perspire. Push your limits. Trust your brake control, your load shifting, your steering and handling. Feel the chill in your spine as you slide to the next lane, the rush as you clear a downhill corner. Floor it, ram it, gun it. Whatever it takes to beat the clock. Each time you spot a cop, make a note of it in your journal: Date / Time of Sighting / Intersection.
When you finish your driving for the day, head over to the Tapioca Express in Alhambra. Justina Fong will be an hour and fifteen minutes into her shift. It’s a shame that your mom butchered your above-average looks with the poor excuse of a mushroom cut presently hiding beneath a baseball cap, because Justina is on record for liking your hair long. Haircut aside, you are wearing the blue bomber jacket she once commented on. Your Civic is parked in front where she might take notice.
Walk inside. Stuff your hands in your jacket pockets. When Justina says hi, be cool. Lean into the counter. Speak in as few syllables as possible.
Avoid gazing into her bottomless brown eyes.
“So,” she says as the clock ticks, and begins to stir a pot of tapioca.
Lose your grip on the counter. A pause, in which she smiles effortlessly.
“Umm, so do you want a free drink?” she says. “I still have my shift meal, but I’m on that one diet that’s supposed to take off fifteen pounds.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Of course you haven’t,” she says. “God, I would literally pay to have your metabolism.”
“Are you calling me fat?”
“ — ”
“I’m kidding!” she says. “Lighten up. Jeez. So do you want my shift meal or not?”
When she asks you what kind, tell her to make you her favorite.
“Almond tea,” she sings, and grabs a blender. “No tapioca.”
Like every childhood friend you’ve competed with academically, climbing the ranks that got you into your magnet school and currently battling it out in the affirmative action no-man’s-land of the Ivy Leagues, Justina has her sights fixed on Harvard. Anything less, and her life is a failure. It won’t be easy — a B-plus from freshman year English, a failed campaign for the class vice presidency — but her father owns the entire Ocean Star chain in San Gabriel, which matters. You have never considered applying outside the UCs. Your mom is prepared to take out loans — no help from your dad, who’s been missing for years — but you’re convinced you’ll freeze up the second you step foot on campus.
“So, hey,” Justina says, suction-cupping your cup of almond tea. “Wanna come over next week? I still can’t figure out these fucking Riemann sums.”
“Sure.” Say it nonchalantly, before reaching for the straw dispenser.
“How about Tuesday?”
“You sure?” she says, and waits for a response.
Nothing from you.
“Okay,” she says. “So I’ll see you then?”
“Seriously, you don’t have to,” she says, and hands you your drink. “You probably have a ton of things to do.”
Shrug it off. Grab a straw. When you drop it by accident, don’t bend over to pick it up.
Do Your Research
On the second blue moon of 1992, an Arcadia High senior took a joyride down Valley Boulevard. Kirby Kwan, the joyrider in question, had been driving home from a late night study-sesh at the local cram school. Cruising down Valley in his brand new Hyundai, he noticed the moon looming larger than usual, the asphalt paved with an eerie light. Attributing the effects to the time of night, Kirby kept driving, and soon enough an orange junker Integra sped down the next lane. The flash of the Integra’s headlights provoked him. Kirby took it to be a challenge from a fellow insomniac ricer, and being the casual racer he was, he did what he knew best. With a rev of his engine, he gave off the universal signal. The Integra revved back. Next thing he found himself racing his opponent down an empty stretch. As it turned out, the Integra was no clunker. The car kept at full throttle, its speed and compression ratios putting Kirby and his Hyundai to shame. Both boy and ghost made it all the way to Atlantic, when suddenly the Integra vanished around a corner. Kirby pursued its tail, but when he turned the same intersection, the Integra was gone. There was no trace left. He drove up and down the street all night, but when he finally pulled over, he wondered what had happened. Only one thing was clear. The Integra had no driver to account for.
In the years following Kirby’s encounter, many sightings like his would occur. This strange double vision would result in countless theories attempting to explain the ever-present phantom rockets in your town. And yet, just as many skeptics have called these theories into question. The most popular counter-theory asserts that the phantom phenomena is only a trick of the eye. Due to the tint jobs so popular in fixing up one’s ride, it’s hard to see through a car window at night. Try it yourself. Go for a drive on the 10. When possible, merge into the fast lane. Notice that anyone hiding behind the illusion of tinted glass can easily be taken for a phantom driver. Consider the SUV currently tailing you. Slow down so he’ll be forced to pass. When the driver switches lanes in an impatient rush, try to make him out. Do you see him?
Over the weekend, a SARS-like virus sweeps through your town. Talk of a possible epidemic ensues. Three days later, everyone from your mom to your favorite UPS deliveryman is wearing the mask. Everyone, except for you.
That’s because it’s Tuesday.
Go ahead. Grab your keys. Start up your Civic, back it out the drive. Ignore the box of facemasks your mom has left on your passenger seat. You are driving to Justina’s house in San Marino on a perfect summer afternoon in which her parents aren’t home.
Ring the doorbell. When Justina lets you in, she’ll be wearing the mask. “Oh, hey,” she says, the light blue paper covering up a thinly veiled smile.
Kick off your shoes. Keep your socks on. The heated tiles will warm your feet.
“Is that your car outside?” Justina says, closing the door.
“It’s very blue.”
“Did you bring your protection?”
“Here,” she says, and gives you a papery blue cloth with elastic bands attached to either side. Gulp down your utter dismay. Put on the mask like the good sport you are, then follow her into her father’s study.
Inside the study, you’ll notice the family portraits documenting each Ocean Star grand opening the Fongs have planted throughout LA County. For the rest of her life Justina will be known as heiress to the largest dim sum chain in California. This has long been a source of distress. In the four years you’ve known her, she’s been kidnapped once, assaulted twice, threatened by phone a half dozen times; three of the six times her father got the ransom call while entertaining a mistress. You are the only soul Justina has told about her father’s infidelity, a secret she keeps in exchange for a monthly check. It’s not her father she despises, but herself, for taking the cash to keep silent.
Justina flips through her textbook to the chapter on Riemann Sums. While she looks for it, contemplate the portrait of her six-year-old self. Cute, and yes, a little fat. “Here’s how far I got,” she says, showing you the diagram.
When she hands you the textbook, take it. Chapter 9. She hasn’t attempted more than two pages, a family of stick figures enjoying a summer picnic in the margins. You explain the math in your roundabout way, and what follows is you doing her problem sets while she gamely watches. She nods vigorously each time you finish a problem, the mask muffling the few words she attempts.
At one point, she sighs. “I’ll never get into Harvard.”
“This problem isn’t that hard. Here, look.”
She looks at you. Now you are breathing harder, your breaths dampening the inside lining of your mask. Your breaths grow shallow, your lungs collapse. Then Justina closes the book, sits on her father’s desk. Inch forward. Run one hand through her hair, touch the mahogany oak of the desk with your other. Electricity spreads through your limbs. When she closes her eyes, attempt to remove the mask. The mask gets tangled in her hair, your heart now pumping blood to your nether regions, the electric particles moving into your fingertips and swimming in your sweat. Despite your repeated attempts, you’ll continue to flail. How will you remove a bra or panties when the time comes? How will you be Mr. Suave if you are failing at all your practice? Think to yourself: I’m fucked. Finally, in the midst of your untangling, you snap Justina’s eye. “Oww!” she says, backing away. “Oww. Shit. Shit.”
Apologize profusely. Apologize some more.
She holds a hand to the wounded eye.
“I’m sorry. I’m. Shit, here let me — ”
She slides off the desk. Look away from the red whip marks on the side of her face. You want to touch her check, but right now you are holding your hanging jaw.
She looks away from you. “Oh, God. Oh, God. This is so embarrassing.”
Stand there with your mask hanging from one ear. Decide what to do with your hands. Stuff them into your pockets. Now tuck away your erection.
Get back into the game. Stick to your schedule of driving in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings. When you get home, Aaron texts you, Yo, Where U At? Wait for his follow-up text. Want 2 Go 4 more rounds? Reply: Sure. Grab your jacket, your wallet, your keys.
But wait. A knock on your door. “Just a second.”
Until now, you’ve managed to ignore the sizable dent you put in your college savings, back from when you hacked your account to finance your modified Civic. You still don’t know how you pulled this off. You were naïve to think your mom wouldn’t ask about the electric blue Civic parked on her driveway, and until this moment, it worked. Your 4.3 weighted GPA and your 1590 SAT score have together delayed this moment, but now that it’s here, there’s no point in denial. This is what single-parent omniscience looks like: arms crossed sturdily, eyes burning a hole into the pile of undershirts on your bed. Translation: All is not well in the Yee household.
Consider a settlement. A bargain of sorts. If you confess now, the consequences may be less dire. Don’t push your mom any further. Too much overtime at the Garden Café has made her testy, and her back pains are only getting worse. She’ll ask you once. “Would you care to explain this to me?” She tosses the folded papers into your lap, the incriminating numbers. “Don’t you lie.”
How do you respond?
a.) You withdrew it for your SAT class deposit.
b.) You opened a new savings account with a higher yield.
c.) You’ve been hacked!
d.) Tell her the truth.
Variation on a Phantom Rocket
You were six when it happened. It was five a.m. on a Sunday. You looked out your bedroom window, nothing but the early morning mist, the shadows tucked away in their sleepy corners. You heard the sound of an idling motor, an old school chugging mixed with a wheezing sound. A black Accord pulled up on your driveway, a tall figure stepping out. The car door slammed shut, and in the window you saw a familiar shape. You knew that shape to be your father. Then the Accord made a three point turn on your driveway, before heading in the opposite direction. You would never forget the sight of this single maneuver. You knew it was something you weren’t supposed to see — planned in the early hours, for this reason — but now that you’d seen it, you couldn’t stop staring. Feet perched on a stack of Encyclopedia Britannicas, you didn’t move a muscle. Nothing escaped but your barest breath. Your eyes lost all their moisture (for the rest of the day, it stung to blink), and all you could see was the black Accord disappearing into the San Gabriel smog, never to come back. You never saw your father again.
Don’t Be A Pussy
Ten days before the full moon, Aaron stops by your house to give you the updates. First, the good news. A race is on for next Saturday. The bad news? Hideki Mashimoto and Tommy Tran have been talking smack.
Prop the door open with your foot. Do not let Aaron in. Officially, you are grounded. Aaron is duly aware of this, but holding a pair of Super Nintendo controllers, he nods to your car on the driveway. Technically, your mom hasn’t forbidden him from your Civic. And as long as you don’t steer away, your driveway counts as house parameters.
Pile in. Aaron slides into shotgun. Connect the controllers to the small device installed in your dashboard. “It’s not looking pretty,” Aaron says, inserting the disc into the console. As your trainer/hype-machine, he berates you for taking a break from your driving practice. You tell him you’re confident, but he calls your bluff. “No, you’re not.” Then he reminds you that it’s his reputation that’s on the line. “You think I give a shit that you’re grounded? I don’t care how, but you’re going to find a way to be there on Saturday.”
Sigh. “If only.”
Aaron picks up the saran-wrapped remote control, presses on. When the Nintendo starts up, he speaks the words of the wise. “Don’t be a pussy.”
The interface asks you to choose a character. Select Princess Peach.
“Who’s being a pussy?”
Aaron selects a menacing Bowser, fully prepared to take out his frustration on you.
“Okay, Jay Chou,” Aaron says, ridiculing your now-famous haircut. “Prepared to get owned.”
Now let your thumbs get to work.
Bring Your Game
Saturday afternoon — one week before the race — you are shooting hoops with Aaron at Almansor Park. (Being grounded, you’ve discovered, means nothing if you’ve memorized your mom’s work schedule.) The sun is out, a gentle breeze. After an off week, a day like this can revive your senses. Aaron passes you a ball. The sound of a ball hitting pavement has always calmed you down, something about it reminding you of a beating heart, thump, thump, the rhythm describing the shaky line of a cardiogram. And yet, thump, thump, you are dribbling the ball, thump, thump, when the beating heart starts to echo. Thump, thump. Thump, thump.
You are not alone in your dribbling, you realize, when suddenly Hideki Mashimoto and Tommy Tran appear on your court. You make out their shadows first, before they materialize life-size before you on the blacktop. Hideki throws a Spalding your way, dive-bombing it into your concave chest. A challenge to two-on-two.
The situation is dire for several reasons. The first being how much the thought of losing repulses you. The second being your greater contempt for those who don’t try at all. And so it is quite sobering that Tommy and Hideki are of the muscle head persuasion — we’re talking XXL LeBron jerseys, bleached rattails, studded earrings, nicknames like Fat Buddha and 300 (as in pounds) — and though this is shaping up to be one of the most uneven matches in Almansor history, you have no choice but to boldly accept their challenge.
“We’re screwed,” Aaron says, with the expression of someone who has been denied the right to forfeit.
Here’s a sampling of your game:
Hideki dribbles circles around you, blocks you from inside.
Tommy glides into Aaron, pushes him onto the blacktop.
“Motherfucker, what’s your problem?”
Hideki dribbles past you.
You intercept the ball. You hold the ball in your hands, about to toss it into the net, when —
Tommy ambushes you from the side.
You drop the ball.
Hideki swoops in.
“You like that?”
Aaron goes for a steal.
“Watch out — Look — ”
You swoop towards Hideki, but —
Tommy bear-hugs you from behind.
“What now, bitch?”
Aaron attempts to steal from Hideki, Tommy still hugging you.
“Get off me!”
Tommy lets go, sprints toward Aaron. Pants him from behind.
For the next half hour, Hideki and Tommy play dirty. So far you’ve put in a clean game, but now it’s time to borrow a few tricks from the Mashimoto/Tran handbook. Block. Hand-check. Nut-kick. Tickle. Use your teeth if the situation calls for it. Execute a half-dozen moves you never thought possible, until you receive matching scrapes on both elbows, a crater-shaped bruise below your left nipple. Fight until your Nike Airs resemble nothing of the condition you brought them in.
By the end, a small miracle to take home in your pocket: the score isn’t too uneven. 13 points to their 57. Still a complete disaster, but at least you have some face to go home with.
“I think we’re good,” Hideki says when they’ve had enough. He makes to spit on the blacktop, but the saliva string lands on your shoe.
“Roll out,” Tommy says, does the hand gesture in the air.
“I think I’m gonna be sick,” Aaron says, then hyperventilates into his hand.
You are working up a jumbo-sized sweat, enough, you imagine, to fill a septic tank. But just when you think you and Aaron are stranded on the court — decimated, humiliated, dehydrated — Hideki rolls past you in his dad’s Audi. You hear the tectonic beats, the latest NOW That’s What I Call Music! sampler on full blast, before the tires screech. Hideki rolls down the window, sticks out his oval-shaped head. Says you’d better bring your game or stay at home.
Do Not Call Justina
“Hello?” she says, picking up after the seventh ring. “Hello? What time is it?”
“Uhh, my bad. Sorry, I didn’t mean to — ”
“Oh, hey,” she says. “No, it’s cool. I wasn’t sleeping or anything, so.”
“Did I wake your parents?”
“No, I’m not at home. They got into another fight, so.”
“Those guys have been calling again. I can recognize their voices.”
“Where are you?”
“At the restaurant.”
“Should I come over? I’ll come over.”
“No, it’s okay.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, but thanks.”
“ — ”
“ — ”
“Hey, didn’t you say you could see Atlantic Times Square from your room?”
“Try to find me. I’m on the fifth floor.”
An animal — not a dog, but something feral — howls.
“Do you see me?”
“How about now?”
Outside, you find a black Accord chugging down the pavement of your street. The click-click-click of an outdated motor. Slowly, at no more than 5 mph, the Accord makes its way down the blue asphalt. Black paintjob blurs into the night sky, a gray smudge moving down the street. Blink. A millisecond later, the Accord turns a corner. Look for it. Shift your eyes to the right, and discover something else. A sudden movement, a familiar shape. Your mom standing on the driveway. Staring into the night.
“Okay,” Justina says. “I have a better idea. I’ll pick something else, and you try to find that. When you find it, I’ll guide you from there to me.”
“ — ”
“ — ”
“Wait, so what am I looking for?”
“My God — ” she says.
And then you find her.
“Look at that moon.”
On the night of the full moon, pull into Aaron’s garage for a last minute tuneup. Come to a full stop, then pop open your hood. Aaron spot-checks your engine, gives you the scoop: fifteen drivers tonight. Starting time is ten o’clock.
At nine-thirty, Aaron peers up from your engine. “Everything checks out. Do me a solid and hit the garage opener.”
Outside, a peroxide circle hangs in the sky. The ghost of today’s sun. As you stand on Aaron’s driveway, you’ll feel the summer air blow between your fingers. Aaron takes out an Altoids tin packed with the blue-orange powder of finals week Adderall. He scoops some onto his finger, holds the dust to his nostril, sniffs. When he hands you the tin, do the same.
On Valley Boulevard — air pulsing with exhaust and screeching scrap metal, ground bass shaking fenders — the road is clogged with racers and spectators alike. Out here, Civics and Supras are the norm. Rounding out the lineup are two Eclipses, a G35, ’92 Skyline GT-R, twin Preludes, a chop shopped Mazda RX7, hot pink Corolla, a single STi. As you make your way to Yoshi’s Ramen, Aaron will point out tonight’s spectators: underclassmen crouched over sizzling hot pots, two to a blanket, their cigarette smoke blotting out the smoggy sky.
Join the rest of the gang at Yoshi’s. Everyone is gathered around the Valley-Atlantic stoplight. Your knuckles are white and numb from gripping the steering wheel. Your stomach is in knots. Your heart thump thumps the remaining seconds.
A familiar voice calls out. “Sup, noob? You bring your game tonight, or what? Just so you know, I got you a paramedic on speed dial.”
Take a moment to admire the white Audi pulling up beside you. Hijinks aside, Hideki deserves major props for turning out the slickest full-body ride on tonight’s circuit. For handcrafting it himself, for coating every piston in his garage. Too bad he has the charm and wit of a raving banshee.
From the passenger side, Tommy: “Yo. See you foolz later…”
Hideki: “When you’re choking up the hill!”
Windows slide up.
Clock hits ten.
The light turns green.
All at once, the drivers take off. Fourteen cars bolt down the road, zero to sixty, leaving nothing behind but dirt and black tire marks. And yet, you get the distinct feeling of sliding backwards. Something has gone terribly wrong. Your Civic is not moving.
Your foot slips on the clutch. The engine stalls.
“Oh, come on!” Aaron says, fists clenched, as you try to get going again. Start the ignition. Get the engine running. Step on the pedal and drive.
Spend the first portion of the race catching up. This is bad. You’re as good as dead, a stillborn racer. You’ve heard the term “freezing up” before, but so far the curse has eluded you. For the next mile and a half, the road will be stripped of your fellow ricers, the asphalt covered with their tracks. Aaron reminds you it’s not too late, no pressure buddy, but then again, uhh, maybe you should snap out of it? Like… now?
“I’m trying,” you say, suddenly spotting the hot pink Corolla caught at the red signal light. Coast until the light turns green. Pull up, pass it, watch the Corolla shrink in your rearview.
“Good,” Aaron says, glancing back. “Now try a little harder.”
On the highway portion of the race — two miles down the 10 — your judgment wavers. Drivers resembling fellow ricers turn out to be regular citizens. The Skyline you tail turns out to be a yuppie on his way home from the office. He honks at you, gives you the finger. Then you chase a white Legend off the shoulder. Aaron cringes. “Uhh, I think that was Eddie Lee’s mom.” Look back. Duck your head. Don’t expect a warm welcome the next time you’re at Eddie’s house.
The next several minutes will start to blur. You will feel in the grips of a fever dream. Suddenly the cars look like they’re spinning, pulsing with color. Pink Corolla aside, you have not seen another ricer since the start of the race. You hear Aaron’s voice in your periphery, a mix of “Dude, snap out of it!” and “You’ve got to pick it up!” He has a point. You did not come all this way to place second-last. You did not sneak out of the house, endure your mom’s lecture only to admit that she was right. Besides, do you really want Hideki to come out on top? Did you forget how much the thought of losing repulses you?
Exit the highway. Come back to your senses. Re-routing to Valley Boulevard, something will click. It’s not about gaining speed, but becoming speed. Press the pedal all the way down. Aaron yells into your ear: “Steady! Steady! You trying to get us killed?”
Keep going. Trust your instincts. Let the moon act as your guide. In the distance, the body kits and bumpers start to look familiar.
Now we’re back.
Pass the black Eclipse. Speed up on the Prelude. Slide around the chop shopped Mazda. The sky-blue Supra cuts you off. Should you steer right, or keep going? Aaron says it’s your call.
Turn to your left.
Four drivers join you now.
that! You —
I think you. uhh.
Steer Right. Steer Right. “Hey there, buddy”
Blink. Snap out of it. Up ahead, the white gleam of Hideki’s Audi. It glides away from sight, reappears again.
Make your way to the front of the line. Don’t think, just go. When you reach the lights of Atlantic Times Square, you’ll know you’re in phantom territory.
Up ahead, a trace of orange aluminum. Tinted windows aglow.
This is it.
Speed up, downshift, heel-to-toe it. As you accelerate, Aaron jolts up, chanting “HOLY SHIT!” and GO! GO! GO!”
Take on the Audi. Keep your eye on the phantom Integra. When both cars clear the corner, you’ll have more company. The purple Mazda, the twin Preludes have all caught up. Slide around the Eclipse, gain speed on Hideki’s Audi.
You have the lead. Block out Hideki as he tries to slide in. Aaron cranes his neck, says, you’re good, you’re good man, solid, steady, oh shit, here comes Hideki! In your rearview, the Audi comes at full speed, getting closer and closer and —
The play you orchestrate make no sense, but soon it will become your trademark move. At the final hairpin Hideki attempts to tear around the rail, but anticipating his move, you steer left. Ram it, run the brakes, restore your grip. The effect has Hideki sliding backwards, his Audi left in the dust. Aaron’s eyes pop out at the feat you’ve just pulled.
Take it from there. Adrenaline carries you across the flat edge of road. Foot glued to the pedal, the feeling is unreal, Nintendo-esque. For a second you are neck-and-neck with the phantom. Three seconds more, and you’re up to speed. Breathe. Later you’ll have trouble explaining what it’s like to race a phantom rocket, you won’t remember much of it at all. You won’t remember the phantom breath clinging to your windshield, the mind-fogging blackout, the white smoke clouding your vision as it blazed away, the sound of cheers as you pull in back to the crowd. Instead, you’ll recall the feeling that someone was watching you. From somewhere far up, though not too far away, behind a pair of bottomless brown eyes.
Call it a hunch. Overachiever’s instinct. “He really smoked you,” Aaron will say by the time you’re driving back, Hideki’s Audi stalled on the side of the road. “That was fucking — that was… whoa!”
Then, not to get too carried away, he’ll declare it beginner’s luck.
You will call it perfecting the one percent.
Late at night — after the post-race parties, after you’ve vomited all the liquids you drank — you find yourself driving down Valley Boulevard. The sky is a shade of dark tea, the moon shining bright as a searchlight. You left Aaron’s party early — the bumping, the grinding — and now you’re headed home. Nothing can take the taste of victory away: not your mom’s fury when you stumble home late, not your opponents calling it a fluke win, not the newfound realization that you must now hold on to your title. Don’t give in. Save your worries for another day. You still have many moons to go.
Keep driving. The night is still yours. Go up one street, then another. The storefronts you pass are all closed, the gas stations turned over to ghosts. Even the lights at the Ocean Star are taking a break. When you pass the road that leads you home, continue to drive. Check the time on your clock. Don’t believe for a second that it’s five a.m.
Come to a stop at the light. Wait there a few seconds. Silence at first, but then you hear a familiar noise. You hear the old school chugging, the engine wheezing, long before you see it. Even before the Accord comes down the opposite lane, before you make out the driver’s shadow, you’ll sense another race coming on. Your hand closes over your stick. Your muscles tighten. Here it is. It pulls to a stop before you. Waits at the light, hums.
Then you get the feeling of something bigger than yourself: a small planet puffing up in your chest. Somewhere in your gut, you know it was all leading to this. The race, your training. This moment, right here. Now.
The light turns green. The Accord takes off.
Don’t expect it to last for long.
1. Blue moon — 1.An extra full moon appearing in a subdivision of a year. 2.Metaphorically speaking, a rare event, i.e. “once in a blue moon.”
2. Cram school — Most likely the Ace Academy in Rowland Heights, where students from different high schools were known to meet and form racing crews in the 1990s.
3. Ricer — Slang for one who drives a rice rocket.