When I was fourteen, my father and mother and I left Iowa for a short time so that my father could find work in Florida, my father believing that there were oil rigs that he could easily work on down there. We had never been anywhere. This was before my mother left my father and I for a used car salesman named Michael Connelly. This was before I lost my virginity to a boy named James Harold in the back of one of Michael Connelly’s used cars. This was before my mother left me to learn how to put lipstick on by myself, that too much powder made you look older, that blue on the lids of my eyes didn’t suit the brown iris’ underneath. This was before all of that. This was before I had my own daughter. This was before I held her in my arms and had the strongest wish that my own mother was there with me. This was before all of that. This was seventeen years before all of that. This was when I was fourteen and green and innocent and ripe to learn about anything and everything and before I fell out of love with the world and before I fell back in love with it. This was when I was young.
We had traveled in a small red Oldsmobile, all of our possessions packed away in four suitcases, everything that we would need for those four months. I watched the outside scenery fly by from my car window, the colors of the landscape blending together, going from grey to green to blue as we passed into Florida. Heading on I-75, we stopped in roadside trailers that had names like Betsey’s Rest Stop or Big’s Cafe outlined in bright lights. It took us five days with all my father’s detours to get there. I would sleep, curled up against the back door, feeling the vibrations in my head from where it rested on it. At night, my mother and father would take turns driving while the other one slept. Sometimes though, I would wake up to them talking. I knew that I was supposed to be asleep, that I wasn’t supposed to be let in on these quiet moments in their lives, this contented quietness between my parents. I wanted to know their secrets, so I would keep quiet. This was long before Michael Connelly and when my parents seemed to think that screaming was the same as talking. This was long before my father and I were left and my mother had told me, “I’m sorry but I can’t make you happy, and I’m not happy myself.” Before she left. Just like that. Gone. I hated her for so long after that, for leaving my father and me. For making my father look at me like I was her. Later though, I realized it wasn’t Michael Connelly she had left us for but that she had left us for herself. I suppose I realized this when I had a daughter, when I felt the fear of loving a child. But, when I had my daughter, I also held her in my arms and promised that I would never leave her like my own mother had left me.
When we were almost to Florida, I awoke. It was still dark out and it was almost dawn. My legs were stretched out in the backseat of the car as far as they could, the suitcases piled beside me. My head was resting on the door and I could hear the faint sound of my father’s voice from the front seat, over the cream cushions with the red stripe down the middle. My father’s voice was soft and I almost thought he was quietly singing to himself before I heard my mother speak. Her voice was also soft and I could hear snippets of words strung together, phrases about what we were going to do and where we were going to live.
As the car sped down the highway, the flashing glare of the light-posts illuminated my mother’s face. She had always been a beautiful woman, dark brown hair, eyes that I had always thought were a prettier color than mine. Her chin was going soft, though, and she was turning into a woman of whom people would say, ‘how beautiful she must have been.’ My father, driving, was still talking quietly, the murmurs of words catching at me above the drone of the highway. I lifted my head away from the car door in hopes that I could better hear, straining my neck towards their words, propping my head against the bottom of the window. Mother had her window open and the warm night air rustled my hair.
James Harold and I met while my father and mother and I were still in Florida. It was after our Oldmobile broke down and after we bought a used car from a salesman named Michael Connelly, a true Irishman that had left Ireland for the land of sun only five years before. He wasn’t legal, that I was sure of, but he was a charmer. A car salesman was the perfect job for him, he could charm anyone. He charmed my mother.
The red Oldsmobile had broken down on I-72 going South. My father had been the only one in the car and he had hailed a ride with a woman truck driver back to the house we rented. Our neighbor, Mrs. Lane, had given us a ride to the used car lot. All the cars had been washed and waxed to look like new. This car lot was as if there was no such thing as dirt in the whole entire world. As my father looked at the cars, going up and down the aisles, my mother talked to Michael Connelly. That might have been the time she started to fall in love again. She had been a woman without love for a long time I now realize, but then, she was just my mother.
We bought an old ’59 blue Chevrolet. It wasn’t the best of cars and it would break down before my father and I went back to Iowa, leaving my mother in Florida, but when we bought it, it was as if we had a new car. We had always had the Oldsmobile, so this car, this car, was a bright new shiny thing that would always gleam in my mind.
On the way to Florida, my father had said to my mother, “Janie, I’m trying to think of what to do.” There was an edge of excitement to his voice.
“I think we may stay here.” He paused, looked out my mother’s window, said, “Feel the air, Janie. Put your hand out the window and feel how warm it is!” He stopped as if considering a great idea, looked out to the road again and then back at my mother, “We wouldn’t ever have to buy heating. It would be wonderful.”
My mother’s head had turned towards him and had fallen to one side like she was considering what he was saying. She breathed deeply, and then said, “John, if that’s the best thing you can think of it wouldn’t work and you know it.”
“Now, why do you have to go and say something like that? I thought it was a great plan.”
“Well, maybe for you, but not for us,” and she motioned to the backseat to where I quickly closed my eyes in case they looked back.
“Janie, we’re going to be happy here. I just know it.”
My father’s face was so full of excitement, there were crinkles around his eyes that ran deep with happiness. The first rays of dawn were breaking and the night was disappearing until only a fuzzy grey remained. It reminded me of a rainy morning in Iowa. My mother started to say something but the moment was gone as my father yelled, “Look at that!”
Pointing towards the wind shield, his finger hit the glass as his body rocked back and forth on the seat, one hand on the steering wheel, all the same hope and excitement as when my own little boy saw the ocean for the first time. I rose up and turned my head to look out the window for what I thought would be a huge expanse of water. The sun was rising high over the road now.
“What are you looking at?” my mother asked.
My father’s head jostled up and down and his mouth slightly opened as if in shock.
“Look!” he said, pointing to some unknown place, “There. It’s the ocean!”
I had met James Harold at a beach dance. A dance that I didn’t want to go to but which my mother did. My mother and I would go to the town dances without my father. He had found a part time job being the custodian of a cemetery, which was another way to say that he dug the graves at night before the funeral the next day. It was at those dances that she would drag me to that she and Michael Connelly must have started talking. Almost the whole town would come out, and since my mother had gotten a job in the local dress shop, almost everyone knew her. People didn’t know who my father was. He was the man that dug the hole for your great-aunt’s casket to be shoved in. Mrs. Penny, the Mayor’s wife, would string up lights that I thought you would be able to make out from the moon. Everyone seemed happy.
Michael Connelly sang. And when he sang, the whole town would stop to listen, especially my mother. I never wanted to go to those dances. I never wanted to dance. I would stand in the corner with the eighty year old ladies and talk to them about when they were young, before WWII, and how they used to dance with all the handsome men. I don’t remember which dance it was, but I remember seeing my mother from across the room, her hand was lightly resting across her abdomen, her fingers were curled up underneath the slope of her breast like she was clutching at something. I remember thinking how pretty she was. She had started to wear her hair down and carry lipstick around in her purse. I remember seeing that she was looking at Michael Connelly, and I remember somehow, just knowing, that she was in love with him.
James Harold and I were not in love and when we found ourselves in the back seat of the ’59 blue Chevrolet, it didn’t seem wrong, or right. It just seemed to be the thing that would happen. My mother had been seeing Michael Connelly at every week’s beach dance. James Harold had always come up to me, got me punch, always asked me to dance with him. I wasn’t beautiful like my mother, but I was decent looking. It took me longer than girls who still had their own mothers to feel like I was pretty.
James Harold and I ended up in the backseat of a car that was sold to us by Michael Connelly. It may sound strange, but the only thing I remember from that night is the smell of those light blue seat cushions. It smelled like shoe polish. It smelled like Michael Connelly had taken shoe polish over the leather seats to make them look new. It smelled like my mother when I would find her after the dances, not knowing where she had disappeared to. It smelled fake.
My father and I would leave Florida a month after James Harold and I were in the back seat of that car. The car didn’t last that long though. My father and I had to find another car to drive back to Iowa in because by then Michael Connelly was no longer a salesman. He was with my mother in some place where my father and I never found out about.
When we were almost to Florida, I had looked out the window to where my father was pointing, a small sliver of hazy blue-green in the far away distance. It would turn out to be a swamp when we got closer. My mother had put her head back on the cream seat, right in the middle of the red stripe, and closed her eyes. My father had leaned forward to where his chest was touching the steering wheel, still looking towards the nebulous glow in the distance and I wasn’t ever sure, but I thought I heard him say, whispering underneath his breath, “This will be it,” over and over again, “This will be it.”