“Are you girls buckled up?” It’s the first thing our driver says to us. Then he asks: “How old are you girls, anyway?” The answers to these questions are (a) yes, of course; and (b) in fact, we are 30 years old.
We are on the book tour for our new novel Hello Girls, and things have just gotten extremely meta.
Rewind three years. The two of us meet just months before our debut novels were published. We have one of those friendships that you tend to have at summer camp in your teenage years: talking all night from the moment we meet; sharing the deepest, most tender parts of our histories and laughing until we’re hoarse.
The first time Emily comes to visit Brittany, we get in a car and drive through Wisconsin, eating Combos by the handful and talking about the books we want to write, continuing the excavation of our hearts in all-night breathless conversations.
We are on fire. We are wise. We are strange. We are angry. We are Thelma and Louise, screaming down the highway, stopping only to refuel our bodies and our car. We walk into the gas station, and the clerk looks up, grinning. “Why, hello, girls!”
And the record scratches.
It’s not the first time this has happened. We elicit this greeting anytime we leave the private cocoon of our car and walk through the sliding glass doors of the outside world.
It trips us up. It makes us think about when we were actual girls—nine, 10, 11 years old, and we’re playing in the sprinkler in our front yard, and suddenly we realize that the car driving by has slowed to look at us like we’re already in our adult bodies. It makes us think about when we’re walking through the mall with a five dollar bill and our home phone number in our pocket, headed to the Limited Too, when we realize we’re being followed by a much older man. It makes us think about how back then, we were never just children, and still somehow always girls.
Now that we’re adults, we’re still that. Girls. Assumed to be pleasant, easy-going, nonthreatening. We are the caramel ice cream sundaes of the world; a bouquet of flowers. Set dressing. Nothing important.
It isn’t the first time we’re brought crashing down to Earth this way, and it won’t be the last. We get back into the car and, tires squealing, peel out of parking lot. On the road, we sing the words back and forth to each other, trying to figure out why they grate on us: “Hello, girls! Hello girls! HELLO, girls!”
It goes on for days. The grinning. The greeting. The gazing. It’s a paper cut compared to the rest of the injustices of the world, but through the course of this road trip, we’re starting to collect all our paper cuts in the same sore spot until it burns. After the third or fourth or fifth gas station clerk, we get back in the car and turn to one another.
Emily takes a breath. “For all that guy knows, we just robbed a bank.” Brittany leans in to the game. “For all that guy knows, we have a body in the trunk.”
We cackle—an ugly, private sound, the way we are together when no gaze is there to transform us into something sparklier than we are. There is, after all, the version of Thelma and Louise from the beginning of the movie, the false version the world sees, and then there’s truck-stop Thelma and Louise, all dusty and bedraggled and blowing up semi-trucks. The more complicated truth.
That’s when we start plotting our book. In HELLO GIRLS, Winona and Lucille are two teenagers on the verge. Their home lives are suffocating, and they’ve been made to be adults much sooner than they should. They find solace in each other—in their shared weirdnesses, private jokes, glitter makeup, their desire for freedom and ownership of their lives. When it’s clear that they can’t make it one more night in their hometown in northern Michigan, they steal Winona’s grandfather’s convertible and hit the road, looking for a place they can call their own.
Hijinks ensue: bad decisions, worse haircuts, learning the hard way about who they can trust. It’s a riff off stories like Thelma & Louise, stories about women finding their freedom in friendship on the road. Winona and Lucille’s story is dark and funny and complicated, in the way that so many teenage girls are—because they’re not set dressing, and they’re not snack cakes. They’re people with their own stories, their own wants and desires. One of the hardest lessons they learn is how to define themselves for themselves, rather than through the eyes of those people who look at them.
At the end of our book tour, we ditch the Ubers and the planes and rent a convertible to take us from Los Angeles to Fresno. For the first time in days, it’s just us and the road. (And two silk scarves. And a box of Mike and Ikes. And “Goodbye Earl” by the Dixie Chicks on max volume all the way.)
It’s a three hour drive. We don’t stop for gas. There are no charmed greetings, no soft-filter gazes. When no one else is looking, we fully exist in our own bodies. We point ourselves north, and drive.