Nonfiction from Kristine Langley Mahler


Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

The Rules (an erasure essay)

from The Seventeen Book of Etiquette and Entertaining (1963)

Good, safe, polite: you know, you remember. You come close. It’s unexpected, it’s dangerous.

You want a collision.

Hugging is just annoying, failing, blind. Others roar ahead, changed; slower reactions and dawdling is bad, but a last-minute flash of a directional brake (refusing to enter) is pure selfishness. Hardly worth it. Sometimes, while you wait to emerge, you block access to a friend. You can’t help it when he wants to leave before you do. You probably get too close. You know you get thoughtless, leaving a trail of debris he can easily collect, but won’t.

You come across as nothing less than the remnants of someone else.

You inconvenience, you hang back in the rearview, a clown-car-at-the-circus so full of ends that you can hardly maneuver. It’s not necessary.

Boys are worse offenders than girls, deafening and hard to handle when getting too affectionate. You’re more sedate, but you hear the siren call of need, a blemish.

You require constant care; they haven’t the foggiest notion. You dart between cars, walk facing the traffic. You can’t avoid an accident.

Girls can be reckless for the sake of hands on skin. You can’t stop, you demand complete attention, you climb from front seat to back seat while the car is moving. You disturb no one. Behave. You’ll remain a child, cranky and restless, played out. You’re madly in love but shrewd. You never, never advise a boy on how to change. That way lies spinsterhood.

This is one of those agonizing customs. You accept the obstacles of tight skirt, high heels, low-slung manners. You wait. You fill the endless interval by pretending to rummage about; you stare, and then you hop out by yourself; return, wait a second to see if he wants you. You want to make him feel like Jack the Ripper.

There are two girls you’d rather be; you let one girl get in, then the second girl, a grownup. You reach for a maturity you haven’t shown. You do your arithmetic before he starts the division. You can’t be stopped. You can’t be discreet.

He belongs to you and you are covetous about your need, inconsiderate in your requests.

You make sacrifices for the sake of harmony. You are understanding and accommodating, you’re consistently thoughtful, you lick out the ash trays, sweep out the sand.

You’re underage, you’re awkward, you’re a teen and you don’t want to be. You want the house, the college parties, the roses in the cheeks, a boy you like offering a future, the dizzy heights of ownership, a status symbol. A covert, constant repair will become your condition. You doubt, you test, you risk, you never learn. No one will instruct a girl who wants to learn about a trap.


Source: Haupt, Enid A. “Chapter 13: Car Talk: The Rules of the Road.” The Seventeen Book of Etiquette and Entertaining, David McKay Company, 1963.



Kristine Langley Mahler‘s work received the Rafael Torch Award for Literary Nonfiction from Crab Orchard Review and has appeared/is forthcoming in New Delta Review, The Rumpus, Quarter After Eight, Barrelhouse, CHEAP POP, Sweet, and elsewhere. She is currently completing an erasure book on Seventeen‘s advice to teenage girls, a grant-funded project about immigration/inhabitation on native land and the privilege of home, and a graduate degree in creative nonfiction.

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