It is 1995. I’m just starting my sophomore year at the University of Missouri and I am going to a barn party in the Ozarks, the boot-heel of the state, the buckle of the bible belt, with my first girlfriend who is a senior in high school. She is new to the town —population 800 — and is both surprised and excited to have been invited.
We are not the same kind of girls. I wear bright lipstick, dangly earrings, and loved the prom; she wears plain white t-shirts with rolled sleeves, tucked into cargo pants and can kick a soccer ball at eighty miles per hour. She is fierce and capable and I am so in love with her. We met over the summer working as girl scout camp counselors. A dozen Indigo Girls songs under a meteor shower followed by a confrontation with the Camp Director had us confessing everything, but somehow we feel like our secret is safe, that no one can see who we are to each other unless we tell them.
I make the drive south from central Missouri, through the Ozark Mountains — five hours of two lane roads — to go to the party with her. There is a keg. I’m sure it’s Bud Light. There are red solo cups, beer bongs, and Jack Daniels. George Strait is playing from a truck stereo to what appears to be the entire high school gathered in a big barn.
I remember the smell of the hay. Wet leaves. Spilled beer. Men’s Cologne — is it Drakkar or Cool Water? A boy, maybe 17, slight build, blond hair, in tight Levi’s and an unbuttoned flannel shirt, points at us and yells over the music, “You two look like dykes.”
Heads turn. I raise my chin. I square my shoulders. I look him right in the eye and speak directly to him — whatever I say draws more attention. A crowd gathers.
From behind me, someone gently grabs my elbow and whispers, “Ya’ll need to get out of here right now.” Then someone else steps in front of me and shouts something, and we run to my car. Digging in my pockets to grab the keys, fumbling to find the right one. Unlocking my door. Unlocking her door. Praying the engine starts. Looking in the rearview mirror, to see half a dozen boys jumping into trucks to follow us. They are close enough, that we can hear them yelling. They have giant spotlights that shine on us. If they run us off the road, they will rape me, but they will kill her.
The roads are gravel. Driving too fast, feels like hydroplaning, like you could spin out at any moment, but if you just steer with the flow, you can stay in control. If there were corn fields, my car would be hidden — but there are just miles of low-growing soybeans. No mountains, no hills, no trees — they see my every turn. I make the choice to turn the headlights off. Going 90 miles an hour I make the choice to hide.