Two girls, big and little, so sisterly, and alone, ride the waves, their father’s fast bursts of speed, in the back seat of the family’s new car, into the past or into the future. These two look so similar, not because of who they are, but because of what they’ve seen. One has seen Daddy throw a box of china dishes after her down the stairs, the winding, long stairs of the parents’ house. This one got away and never said a word, and afterward he never spoke about his gesture. One has seen Daddy raging with a steak knife, saying, “You will never leave me,” to their mother. The girls are different sizes, but what they know has given them the same expression and the same perspective, as if each were alone, swinging from one side of the back seat to the other—window to window—as their daddy pushes hard on the pedal that makes things blur.
One time the older girl imagined a crushed corsage under his foot when she heard the word petal was under his foot. The image stuck. The girls wear the same kind of saddle shoes, though they are years apart. The same brand of knee socks and shirtwaist dresses, belted with patent leather.
Blunt cut in a pixie, the little one’s hair makes a smile on her forehead. The older girl shakes long hair about her shoulders and is just at the age when she is beginning to signal boys with a gesture of brushing back her hair from one ear or the other. She doesn’t know why she beckons the boys. This girl needs glasses but she doesn’t know it, believes the blurs of tree trunks and of leaves, indistinguishable road signs, every blur she sees is just an accident of fortune. She doesn’t question the way she sees or the way of the world.
He sometimes shouts at them, at their mother, roils foul words at the top of his lungs, gulping like a fish, toward a make-believe audience, and only the three of them hear. Only this tired woman and two daughters he has yet really to notice comprise his audience.
Sometimes, he brings home boxes of candy for each of them, or a gift, like an umbrella, that will open one of their hearts so the one who receives his gift will really hear his next assault, really feel hurt. It is better not to be noticed so that nothing can be lost. Sometimes he mutters bad words or blurts them aloud. “Bastards!” he might shout. Today he says, exuberantly, “Feel that Grand Prix ride, girls? Soft as butter.”
The older girl who needs glasses has gotten used to the unpredictable, used to squinting at distant objects, used to trusting only that which she can hold in her hands. She’s fond of trinkets that glitter, dime store treasure she can always afford. When she gets married, she thinks she will live near the ocean, if her husband wants to, and wear a necklace of little pink shells that jingle like pennies against her brown, native breasts when she walks. The little girl, though, wonders where they are going so fast in the car, why it is so dark, and “Where is my mother?” Already she has learned not to ask the obvious questions. She wants to cry but can’t, wants to hold her big sister’s hand but knows she wouldn’t let her. So the little girl holds on to the armrest, holds on to her side of the back seat when the car takes the curves and centrifugal force pulls her out or more probably pushes her farther and farther inside herself until she doesn’t any longer know what she wants to ask. The fact of motion undermines the meaning of the journey, and this is how it will be for years.
Next summer the little girl will see a penguin in a zoo on an island. The penguin from Antarctica will be swimming under glass, under tropical sun, a new lesson in paradox. Every night before she sleeps, after a day AT SEA, full of floating food and drink, she will write a paragraph in her TRIP DIARY, feeling old because she is making memories for herself. Once she is no longer AT SEA she won’t wish to open the TRIP DIARY.Sense impressions will be what linger— rocking back and forth, side to side, trying to walk down the ship’s halls in a storm—everyone sea sick AT SEA but the little one, who is eight and indestructible, and the father, who is crazy and indestructible, too.
Her father will wake her up to see the red sky. “Sailor take warning,” he will say. She takes the old rhyme to heart, remembers it vividly when she is older than her sister is now and finds him alone on a beach walkway.
“You talk to him,” her mother pleads. “He will listen to you.”
So the youngest daughter goes out and finds him, approaches him cautiously, as if he might sting, this tired-looking jellyfish man, sitting like a small child on wooden steps facing the ocean.
“I went swimming and lost my glasses,” he tells her. “I’m waiting for them to wash in.”
“Oh,” she says, calmly. “It looks pretty rough out there.”
“It’s every man for himself,” her father says, staring at the choppy sea with watery, true-blue, eyes. “Goddam bastards,” he mutters.
“Why don’t you come and eat supper,” she suggests.
“I’ve got to wait for my glasses, or some S. O. B. will step on them.”
She sits down beside him. They don’t talk. A couple of children want to use the stairs, so she stands up and lets them pass. They have to walk around him. He sits tight, shoulders pinched up around his ears.
“Scat!” he yells when they’re almost past, and the two boys scamper off to the water.
She’s many years past embarrassment about anything he might do but growing impatient. “Daddy,” she says. “You need to eat something.”
“I’m going to kill myself,” he says plainly. This is his ace in the hole.
“I’d be very sad if you did that,” she answers.
“I’m just kidding.” He forces a sad smile that twists the corners of his mouth unnaturally and leaves his forehead painfully furrowed. He punches her in the arm too hard,
“It’s not very funny when you say these things.” She wonders if she’s still following a safe script. Her arm throbs but she doesn’t rub it.
“Your mother exaggerates,” he says. “No one in this family can take a joke but me.”
She works hard not to take the bait. “Your glasses aren’t going to come back in this same place.”
“I know it.” He stands up, and they walk back to the house. He tells her again how he and his best friend blew up a tree with a homemade bomb when they were ten years old. When the tree explodes for the hundredth time he laughs until he has to gasp for air.
Riding in the car, she is seven years old and going along with him at the wheel. She stares at the back of his head. It looks like a day-old doughnut. It looks old to her because she is not. And everyone else always is. Old and stale.
They are speeding through the dark. In this darkness they meet and pass lights, lights that flutter over her eyelids. She reaches under her dress and touches. Her mother looks like a black furry animal where she is touching. She also thinks her mother came over with the Pilgrims, because there are big cardboard boxes in the basement that say MAYFLOWER.Her mother looks scary and wild where she is touching. Her sister won’t let her look, so she doesn’t know if her sister looks like her mother or different, more like Barbie or Midge. The girl has no idea what she is doing, in this innocent version of auto-erotica, but it is herself she touches, and she is smooth, comforting, enfolded. All there as far as she knows.
The little girl’s feelings are so confused she doesn’t feel anything, only stares out into the night as she passes through it in their father’s sense of the journey. She remembers splashing in the bathtub when she was four, going sputter sputter with her mouth, in imitation of the car engine’s whir. In the Shriners’ parade a clown always drives a bathtub down the street, while another clown pretends to be the engine. She sounded more like a little squirrel chuttering, chuttering. Slipping into the suds, she warmed her chest and donned her washcloth, pretending she had breasts to cover. The water cooled, and she wanted to stay warm, to dream.
The bathroom door flew open. Startled, she said, “Daddy.”
“Shut up,” he replied.
The girl started to cry for no reason but surprise.
The mother walked into the bathroom. “What are you doing?” she asked the father.
“None of your damn business, you goddam Lesbian.”
“Get out,” said Mother.
The daughter rose to step out of the tub, mistaking the order.
“No, no, no!” said Mother.
The little girl stood for an instant, a snapshot of confusion, dripping, then quickly squatted on the mat. Her mother flung the rough towel from the rack. It sailed toward her and scrubbed her open eyes, on target.
The little girl covered herself with the towel, rubbed watering eyes, hair damp at the nape of her neck. She wondered what she had done.
She fell asleep cold. Damp flannel ensnared her legs and the mysterious sounds hurled at her mother resounded in her head. “Less than, less than,” she repeated, falling asleep, wondering, “Less than what?”
So many explanations have been withheld that it is impossible to say, to say what she has ever done wrong. Even the word Mother has. gone to the back of her tongue, swallowed whole, burrowed underground, though her mother is alive and the little girl doesn’t yet know of anyone who has died except her mother’s father who died before she met him. She cannot touch the word Mother—so scared to think she is not along on this journey, so afraid to wonder where that word’s power has gone.
Into the headlights of the cars that approach, she looks, trying not to blind herself but trying to see who is driving each car, trying for once to see past the white spots, through the windshields, and into the faces of men or women who are passing, going the other way, without a thought to the girls or to what might be true inside the shiny, wide-track, sedan. No one ever stops. The girls must be invisible. He keeps driving fast.
The little girl dreams she is trapped in a car with her father, trying to remember what one does when a car wrecks in water. He asks her “What do we do?”, his striped tie beginning to float up as water pours in, drowning their voices. She panics, tries blindly to open the car door, but the handle breaks off the way the handle broke off the refrigerator door, because she was hanging on it, he said.
The older girl looks to the dark windshields blurring past them, racing where they have been, strangers’ cars that race back into the dark past, and thinks that their father is driving each V-8, driving each car that passes, driving with two little girls prisoner in the back seat, kept silent and scared, huddled against opposite doors. When the older one looks at the younger one, who is sound asleep and breathing hard, she sees herself before so many years of this and envies her old hope that she imagines the little one still holds. The little one still jumps when the father bellows and seems disappointed when meals are spoiled by ugly accusations. The older one knows the hope for anything normal is hopeless. Her little sister’s honest reactions embarrass her and make her rougher on her than she really wants to be.
She waits for her little sister to stop complaining out loud and learn how to dodge the cigarette ashes that he flicks out the window, ashes that get sucked into the backseat and sting the skin. It’s dangerous for either daughter to sit on the same side as the father, and more dangerous to criticize him. The more outlandish he acts the more their mother forgets, and they are supposed to forget too. They fight to sit on mother’s side, but she never says a word. It will take years for the sisters to talk to each other.
As he drives, the older girl loses herself in thoughts of boys and thinks she’ll have her ears pierced soon. She wants to collect exotic earrings. She likes the surreal sound of earring tree. The older girl doesn’t know that when she gets her ears pierced furtively she will have a showdown with him one night when she plays with the studs until one of them pops out in her hand. Try as she might, she won’t be able to insert the post again. After a couple of martinis her father will only succeed in bringing blood and making everyone cry. While her father stabs at her sore ear, focusing through the bottom half of his glasses, she stares at their two faces in the medicine cabinet mirror. The resemblance quakes her breath.
“Hold still,” he commands. Her chest inflates and quickly lowers, flutters. “Hold STILL,” he repeats. And when she can’t, he takes a stab at her ear and misses, grunts, “Goddam.”
As the father drives, the mother sleeps so far gone inside herself that even the scent of her Shalimar perfume has vanished.
When he hits a bump, the little one wakes up. The car is still speeding forward, and she can feel her heart beating hard in her chest. She remembers what she learned in SAFETY CLASS: she must let the car sink all the way to the bottom of the river while she breathes from what’s trapped. Then she can roll down the window and swim up, following her bubble trail to air.
Years from now she will drive home from a party too fast, listening to loud music, winding a dark country road. The stop sign will come up, monolithic, knock her out of her oblivion and she will brake, guide the airborne car across the intersection, able to see only that which her headlights allow, a narrow band in which she feels her life is ploughing toward its end. She remembers the perennials in the trunk that will never be planted, worries who will feed her pets.
“So this is it,” she thinks, as the car bounds onto a rutted path and bounces over high grass, still flying forward. All through her childhood she feared that she would die in a speeding car driven by her father. When she was old enough to drive by herself and never rode with her father at the wheel again if she could help it, she feared her parents would die like this, in a speeding car. She pushes the brake with her knee locked tight. The car doesn’t respond. Her death seems anticlimactic after all this time. Surviving childhood has given her a false sense of security.
Then something happens. She stops.
Her door won’t open, so she crawls out the passenger side, thankful first that she is alone, and second, alive. Her car has halted inches from the side of an abandoned trailer, bumper inches from the trailer’s porch, wedged in like a piece of Whitman’s sampler.
A man appears shining a flashlight toward her car; he inspects the scene and then illuminates her face.
“Honey,” he says, rubbing his bearded chin, incredulous, “you just mowed the grass.”
“No damage,” she says, shaking and breathing hard.
The stranger confirms, “Not a scratch that I can see. You must have some powerful angels watching over you.”