Something tells me I’m not where I should be.
On the road yesterday, I stopped at a red light behind a little green Subaru. There, sitting in my headlights, were a boy and a girl cross-legged in the trunk, each no older than thirteen.
As soon as my car was still, I was conscious of keeping my eyes averted. It’s not that was I nervous in front of them, or particularly concerned about what they might think of me; instead, I was more unnerved by the strangeness of the situation, more intensely mindful of how uncommon it was to be face-to-face with someone, let alone two people, in the middle of the street. I was afraid that looking at them would make myself, and by extension them, aware of how little space or matter existed between us, how vulnerable they were in the brightness of my headlights, or how human we suddenly were to each other– much more, now, than “driver” and “passenger.”
Seeing those kids reminded me of a family vacation we took to Orlando about four years ago.
Though I was just under 20 at the time, like them, I was assigned to the trunk of my family’s SUV. We were visiting my uncle on my mother’s side, his wife (my aunt) and my two cousins, and since we had the larger car, we all piled into Dad’s black Pathfinder. Even with my cousins sitting two to a seat, there was no room for my uncle and me except in the trunk, with the pile of sweaters that my mom kept for “emergency.”
Traffic around downtown Disney was always thick, so we spent plenty of time on the interstate. On our first night out, squatting in the trunk, my uncle and I soon surrendered to the facts of our isolation, as it became clear that any attempt by us to join our family’s conversation would be followed by “What?” “Did they say something back there?” and “Sorry, can’t hear you!”
Part of the reason we were elected to the trunk was because we often kept a low profile in family get-togethers anyways. Since I was old enough to start seeing each of my family members as individuals (i.e. not “Uncle Brian: my mother’s brother,” but “Brian: the New Jersey native who runs absurd distances and is the soul brother of Bruce Springsteen”), I took pride in the discovery that my quietness wasn’t just a quirk—it was hereditary, imparted by my dad, first and foremost, but also by my uncle, who had a similar habit of listening twice as much as he talked, and who, even with the blunt force of his Jersey accent, often appeared all at once plain- and soft-spoken.
Although it meant removal from the relief of the air conditioner, there was something soothing about the trunk’s stuffy privacy, walled off by the backseat, and even the disorientation of traveling forwards yet backwards, much more observers of our travel than participants, as we could never note anything with the rest of our family at the moment that it happened but always a second after. It was as if we were removed from time as well as space, but for my uncle and me, it only helped make inroads into our own conversation.
We talked about Bruce and running, college and soccer, and then, coming to a stop at a light on the interstate, as we talked at the rear window, we must have both acknowledged the set of dull, orange headlights gunning for us, even as one of us was still speaking.
Without directly noting it, and with each half second that the lights drew closer, the pace of our words must have gotten heavier, must have slowed beneath the weight of the headlights bearing down, the weight of expectation that surely, eventually, the car would stop—but when it didn’t, that sank lower, folding under the nervous, and gradually, panicked realization that no—it was still going.
At some point, whoever was speaking must have abandoned conversation, and at the same time, both of our backs pressed solidly to the leather behind us, we recoiled under the front beams, feeling the warm cocoon of the trunk becoming in that moment our greatest regret, and the suffocating realization that there was nowhere to go and nothing to do but watch and wait – hope – for those headlights to grow only so bright before overtaking us completely, waiting, hoping for whoever was behind those lights to brake, until – at the last possible moment – she did.
The tires screamed and the lights drew close enough to blind, and we filled that uncomfortably narrow, empty space between us and the flat nose of the black Mustang with the heaviest of breaths—relieved enough, now, to look through the window and see the small, pale face emerge from what was just a second ago an abstract, unyielding force, which now appeared as nothing less normal than a young girl in a car, her long, paper-thin hair framing the glow of a cell phone, and her eyes lifting over the wheel at us with casual interest.
I remember Brian, in that first moment we were able to once again grasp onto speech, bypassing words and instead lifting a finger before cursing loud enough to draw surprised silence from the rest of the car, from our family who had no idea what had just gone on, and the girl’s eyes drifting down in response, entirely unconcerned, re-absorbed by the light of her phone.
“That fucking…” Brian started, until his words trailed off, swallowed up not just by the dead, flat air in the trunk but also by the curtain of the girl’s hair, her solid, focused indifference sucking up my uncle’s curses with all the intense uncaring of a black hole.
Something snaps me back, and I look up from the steering wheel of my car into the trunk just a couple feet in front of me, at the two kids sitting there in the Subaru, pinned through the glass by my front beams.
I’m looking, half expecting to see a face like mine, only younger, squinting into the headlights with a strange mix of curiosity and fearfulness.
But instead, their faces are washed out and blank, swallowed by a glowing from their palms.
They are happy, and I have never felt so foolish.
It was a surprise to the couple how human it felt, watching the van go. There were no eyelids to fold or last words to remember, but there was the pitiful way the van’s nose crinkled, and how small it appeared, hitched to the tow truck–this thing that, once their hearty vessel, now shuddered away as cargo.
They tracked the procession into the end of the day, fading out as participants and settling in as bystanders of their own debris, while off in the corner, a police car sat flashing, attending to its charge as the right-lane blockade, executing with all the vigorous passivity it required. It sat there, shrill and silent, as traffic nudged on single-file, transferring brake lights one by one until each fell still, and from end to end stretched a solid red vein. Then somewhere, a light turned green, and the lane dissolved into cars again.
At some point before the sun faded, and long after the van had spirited away, they sat there beside the road in a breeze of passing traffic, watching the lights change.
They’d waited this long, they thought. They supposed they could still wait.
Many times before, after, or while I write a post, I wonder why I’m writing it.
There is nothing to say that hasn’t been said. Even that statement itself has been written.
And that one…
and that one…
and so on.
So why did I post this? Why do I post anything?
If I have no chance of saying something original, I at least have a chance to say it originally.
That’s where I’ve placed my bets–words and their infinite permutations.
I’ve never been much of a gambler, but there. I’m all in.
Yesterday marked the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing. Not to rain on everyone’s moon crusade, but two days before that – July 18, 2014 – marked the anniversary of another sort.
On July 18, 1969, a speechwriter for President Nixon prepared a doomsday memo in the event that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin never returned from the moon. You can read the full memo here, but the title says it all:
I can’t fault the President or his speechwriter’s instinct to plan for the worst. Even as I imagine the President and the Clergyman, the protagonists in this Moon Disaster script, seated stiffly before teleprompters, rattling off lines with fixed, sorrowful expressions…even then, cringing at that production, I can’t fault them for acting in it.
At first, the most organic, human (and as such, humane) response to that scenario strikes me as silence, as a pain that cannot be propped up with words.
But when you’re running a country, or when you’ve been appointed to minister to the mourning, you can’t just sit there and emote.
You’ve got a job to do.
And sometimes, teleprompters are what help you do it.