He was never tasked with picking us up from anywhere and truthfully I don’t remember if on this occasion, we were coming or going. What I do recall was, he couldn’t see the road. Katie and Reid were oblivious in the back seat of the Isuzu looking small, bright and cute. Katie was wearing a purple hooded, Spring jacket and lavender corduroys just big enough for an American doll. She would never reach 5 feet and to this day gets mistaken for a kid. The curls dangling from her side pony declared she was the baby. There was never a question our father adored her. Before she could speak she’d expressed a palette for exotic foods, going fast and having a charming daring streak; all traits our father shared. When she’d reached furniture monkey age, she’d make her way across the room grasping the rocker, a make-shift lobster trap table and the sofa with chubby, determined fists all to request a bite of sardines and Tabasco on saltines. He’d laugh tears both because she was impossibly adorable and no one had ever seen a toddler work so hard for tinned fish. “Oh! My Baby Face!” If you want to see a living definition of joy, look at my sister. Both she and my father have a distinct, slightly devilish laugh which always made me simultaneously curious and cautious. His nickname for our brother is Bummer. In the same ways Katie could become distracted by her own excitability our brother could get sidetracked by his blues. He’d been born a preemie and had to live at the Shriner’s hospital on and off the first year. He fit in a shoe box. Our mother barely looked pregnant while carrying him and probably smoked. Her doctor was a yogi with a playful ease about him and would tell her to anti-stress. He also made thoughtful eye contact with me, as if he could see me, which no other person I knew then could do. He made her drink beer to slow her contractions and stop labor from coming, which she said probably bought her an extra month. Reid came 4 years after me. At first I insisted we send him back to Jesus but quickly adjusted and took over as big sister once his lungs finished growing. Anyway, I declared them mine for a hundred reasons. There was never a question I was assigned to be their watch-keeper. No one dumped them in my lap like some burden. I saw them come into the world, had figured out some important do’s and don’ts and felt like I should probably keep an eye out for them. My hunch was right.
Realizing he couldn’t see where he was going, he pulled over. The truck had the pancake syrup smell which I’d grown to use as a warning to pay attention. It was unconscious; my heart would start beating inside my belly and somehow my ears, eyes and skin would open higher. We were just outside an overpass next to some off-road construction. The hi-way was flanked by banks of white pebble, rock walls dotted with weathered hay bales. Across the 6 lanes was the little blue box building where we dropped off the electric payment and if you kept going down that side there was the gross chain restaurant that smelled like warm potatoes and old coffee. Eventually you’d hit the CVS plaza which also had our old dentist and the Carvell’s. When we moved to the second house on Park Place, Tattro would come by with the all the guys and along with my dad they’d clambake the living room. The biggest guy with the long braid, goggles and leather vest would take us on his motorcycle to pick out an ice cream. Across from the CVS plaza was King’s Department store where mom had worked cutting blinds. Next to that was Mezzaluna, the birthplace of casomorphins. One night after driving home with their pizza box warming the tops of my legs I’d declared that when I grew up I’d eat pizza every night for the rest of my life. You said it too. It’s now the funniest joke I’ve ever told.
Katie and Reid followed our father up the side of the road walls. The part closest to the overpass was still partially grassy. The hay bales were bigger than my sister but she tried picking them up anyway. We used them for target practice at Meme’s so the whole notion wasn’t entirely crazy but I just kept picturing my brother and sister falling backwards down the steep hill into rushing traffic. I paced between gesturing to retrieve hay, watching our father attempt to sober up (or drink more? there was a thermos and he was perched against the bumper) or looking into passing windshields for a helpful face. To the best of my knowledge no one ever heard about this particular pit-stop.
The recurring dream went like this: we’re inside Papa’s grey box car, the responsible one which smells like peppermint and new car and gives me migraines. It’s moving down the hi-way to Cumberland by my will and the three of us are floating around inside the cab. I’m trying to take the wheel but can’t get inside my body long enough to be in control. We’re passing by the exits and I forget the number we need. I can’t make us safe but it’s all I want to do.
Safety is an illusion anyway. At some point I gave up trying to stave off real dangers and took up a battle of my own. It wasn’t a declaration or acceptance of powerlessness, but instead an active avoidance. It gave me something to do besides facing the reality of how much danger there’d been. I re-tell the snapshots in bite sized memories even to myself.Being any size other than small indicated a lack of self-possession, financial and sensory gluttony and something about sleaze. Weight became this symbolic burden of all the real things I feared; losing things I never retained and not wanting to stop and mourn them in front of a potentially invalidating audience. Sobriety is not a guarantee of encountering an authentic person. We each find unique ways of hiding from ourselves and each other; my father drank, my mother worked and saved. I favored going hungry. Compulsions and pathologies are never groundless though we’ve been enculturated to prefer partitioning the mind from the body. Isolation is a genius marketing tool.Division is the politician’s best friend.
There were reasons my father drank himself into parallel dimensions while my mother nursed abandoned babies and befriended ‘transvestites’ long before it had social currency. (Her name was Kathy; she wore Levi’s cut-offs, Dr. Scholls, carried a purse full of unfinished crossword puzzles and had a full-on, Magnum P.I mustache. She and my mother would chat like any other pair of girlfriends on the sidewalk in front our project block. Kathy would also sometimes be the recipient of a frozen lemonade, along with the other kids, if the ice cream truck stopped by on a full change-bucket day. She ate her treat with dainty, furry hands and endearing, child-like gratitude.) There were reasons they both worked 7 days a week across multiple jobs while using night time for hunting, planting or sewing. There were reasons my mother insisted she just keep going and avoided having surgery until one of her major organs fell out. Hi. I’m your bladder. You should stop now. We all carry things we’d prefer to avoid mostly because we don’t know what to do with them; like 3 kids, genetic cellulite, feelings, socially unacceptable personal histories, rejections, failures, losses. I notice there are some things we carry which we’ve yet to name, things that feel disturbing but we don’t know how to explain it or who to try and describe it out loud to. We fear the weight of shame on top of the weight of pain.
Everything I never eat is one less thing I have to carry or pay for; like memory or sin. Compassion and forgiveness made it possible to take the first bite; the bites that made my hair grow back, turned my on ovaries, shed the lanugo and allow me sleep through the night. To my west coast neighbors it’s not considered anything for a grown woman to maintain a body fat percentage under 20. Three cheers. Go you. You could lose more. I may be slightly and forever irked by the reality that we even dare have opinions about each other, considering life. The truth is I’ve found myself in a current state of ambivalence; give in, pull through. It tuns out, the same reasons we once used to hold on are the ones we rediscover and use to let go.