It was a beautiful stone building with stained glass windows that spilled light onto the floor like olive oil at this time of day, but I refused to go inside. Looking at it through the window, all I could picture was cancer growing inside it. Parasitic. Destroying its tissue from the inside out, sponging up the blood of Christ. Termites eating away at the statue of Mary, a single blue-painted tear on her cheek.
The wheels of the Jeep screeched loudly, louder than I thought they were capable, as Dad sped with panic out of the driveway. We had been sitting in the living room a moment earlier when his phone rang. All I could hear was muffled crying on the other end. He had said “Where are you?” then “I’m coming” and then he was gone.
Amanda looked at me and I tried to hide the fact that I knew what was going on. I mentally replayed the phone conversations I had overheard that week, conversations that my parents didn’t want me to hear, until they snaked around each other in my stomach. All I could do was wait for the Jeep to pull back into the driveway so that my parents could tell us that Mom had cancer.
Ten years before, Dad pulled into our driveway in the brand new Jeep. I was nine years old and it was the beginning of summer, which meant I was either playing Sharks and Minnows in the pool or drawing my name in bubble letters on the driveway with chalk while the smell of barbecue floated through the violet evening sky. It was just another chlorine-soaked, suburban Americana kind of summer.
Carli, Amanda and I ran up and climbed into the backseat. Breathing in the rubbery scent, I could already see the adventures that awaited us. I saw us on our way to the beach, craning our necks to fit between the fishing poles protruding from the trunk, Mom and Dad playing Bruce Springsteen way too loud. I saw us on the way home, sunburnt, sleep looming over us, campfire smoke lingering in our sweatshirts and salty hair blowing all around (“I have such Jeep hair” would become a common saying among us that summer).
My favorite picture of my parents was taken that day. They were leaning against the hood of the Jeep, the sun dripping like syrup through the trees behind them. Just as I was taking it, a neighbor drove by and shouted “Nice ride!” out the window. Mom was tan and her hair was beginning to get lighter, as it does every summer. Dad’s eyes looked just as blue as the shutters on our house in the background. I think this one is my favorite because you can see it on their faces — the promise of more summers like these ahead of us.
Red-eyed, they broke the news. Even though I had known what they were going to say and had time to brace myself, the moment it escaped from their lips, I felt the whole world swallowing me whole. I ran to my room for safety. It wasn’t until I was up there, looking out the window at a world that was different than it was a few minutes ago, that I realized Mom’s car was still back at work. She worked ten minutes away, but Dad had been gone for over an hour. I thought about the forty minutes they had sat in the Jeep earlier, knowing they had to go home soon and tell us.
Mom walked in and sat next to me. As we hugged, she tried lightening the mood by joking about how Dad would be wrapped around her finger from now on.
“And hey, I can finally get all the free stuff from that tent at Race for the Cure, the tent they only let cancer survivors go in.”
She said the word “survivors” in a different pitch than the other words, like she regretted the word choice the moment she said it.
After we got all our halfhearted jokes out about the perks and elitism of cancer, she said we’d all pray and go to church more, and it was kind of funny how we only pray when we’re in trouble and need help, but we’re good people, right? We’re good people, she repeated, like the words were a piece of fabric she were clutching in her fist. But I couldn’t think about God yet. In fact, I wanted to curse off God with every profanity I knew. But I didn’t even have the energy to do that. All I could do was count back the hours, measuring how long it had been since a few words had broken up my life into a before and after. I desperately wanted to go back to the before, the boring math homework and the tubes floating across the surface of the pool. Fifty seven minutes ago, that was my world. Fifty seven — wait, now fifty six — minutes ago, everything was alright.
Carli still didn’t know. Dad went to pick her up from her track meet, and this time, the wheels of the Jeep didn’t screech at all. He was in no hurry to launch her into this “after”.
Amanda and I were next door, feeding the neighbors’ dog while they were on vacation. We were stepping onto their porch when Dad and Carli returned. I heard a strange noise. At first I didn’t know what it was. Then I realized, it was the sound of Dad falling apart.
The sobs escaped from deep in his chest, like sour notes escaping from the body of a violin in a first grade music lesson. He leaned against the hood of the Jeep as he and Carli hugged, and the picture of my parents leaning against the hood, my favorite picture, surfaced from the blackness of my memory. In that moment, as I gripped the porch railing, I believed I was nine years old again and I had traveled through time to this dark place. The same blue eyes that had sparkled in that old photo were the same eyes that were now overflowing with fear. I couldn’t tell if this moment was the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end, but what I believe Dad and all of us feared most was missing out on the middle. It had been cut out with the same surgical tools that would be used in my mother’s body. Even though there were hundreds of more pictures to take, pictures just like the one that was stained in my memory, the year ahead of us was stillborn.
I knew that I wasn’t really nine years old and that time travel wasn’t real. The reason I knew was simple. Nine year-old girls believe that their dads aren’t afraid of anything. And as I heard the noise, I knew that wasn’t true.
Later that month, I went on a drive to the liquor store with Mom, (1) because I had to practice driving for my road test in a few weeks, and (2) because we were going to need a lot of wine available in the house from now on. With two brown bags under our arms, we stepped out into the frigid parking lot in our puffy coats. As we crossed the slush-covered road in front of the shopping center, the aroma of Chinese food permeated the air. Mom turned to me and said that she didn’t care that dinner was almost ready back at the house, and asked if I wanted to get a couple of egg rolls.
“We’ll keep this between us.”
So there we sat in the Jeep with our egg rolls, which were just as good as they smelled. I didn’t care that I still had homework to finish. Mom tried to bite into her egg roll in a non-messy way, unsuccessfully. She was wearing the earmuffs that she wore systematically every time it snowed, and her reddish-brown hair fell down to her shoulders in tight spirals. I couldn’t help but think about the fact that in a few months, those curls would be gone. Mom had always put a lot of work into her hair. We were the only two women in the family with untamable curls, so we found solidarity in times of humidity, rain, etc. Countless hours of my preteen years were spent cross-legged on her king-sized bed watching Law & Order as she ironed my hair straight. I silently vowed to never complain about curly hair again.
But I didn’t want to think about that anymore. Instead, I breathed in deeply and took a mental picture of Mom in the seat next to me. I remember thinking that she probably didn’t know how pretty she looked, and I was about to tell her, but then she started talking about her day at work. So I listened, savoring our time-out from the Edible Arrangement horror house awaiting us. I breathed out, and while the heater melted snow off our boots onto rubber floor mats, I melted into the comforting dark of the parking lot.
I passed my driver’s test the next month, and Carli passed a few weeks later. I drove the Jeep whenever I was allowed, even when I had nowhere to go. It became a sort of companion that winter. Cruising around our small town cleared my head, and little by little, the suburbia I’d always scorned became a solace. I wanted the chain link fences, telephone lines, the beeping of barcode scanners at the grocery store, the monotony. Driving around at different hours of the day, I noticed things about my town that I hadn’t before. The way a tin, box-shaped diner gleamed at sunset. The red flags sailing in perfect circles against the white sky during color guard practices. The rattling of shopping carts over speed bumps in parking lots. My sphere of existence had cracked open. Colors and sounds bled through.
I parked outside the church once. It was a stone building with stained glass windows that spilled light onto the floor like olive oil at this time of day, but I refused to go inside. Looking at it through the window, all I could picture was cancer growing inside it. Parasitic. Destroying its tissue from the inside out, sponging up the blood of Christ. Termites eating away at the statue of Mary, a single blue-painted tear on her cheek. I fantasized about throwing rocks at the building, eggs even. But I just sat there. I sat there for over an hour, eyeing the place up and down, then drove home with “Little Drummer Boy” on the radio.
Jeeps are built to be sturdy, to withstand harsh elements. This one did its job, years after that summer evening when my sisters and I first climbed into it with our bony, mosquito-bitten legs. It was high up, had smooth brakes, reliable wheels. That winter was long and brutal, with lots of snowstorms. The car kept me safe from skidding on icy roads in my first few months of driving.
But it also kept me safe in another way. It was the wheel I gripped when I told my friend about Mom at a red light in front of the gas station. It was the only witness to my fantasies about egging churches. It was my hiding place that took me wherever I wanted to go, deep into suburbia, far away from the blue-shuttered house brimming with flowers, cards, Tupperware, and the cancer-themed joke book from Aunt Mary Lou.
The heater warmed my frozen hands, and the 92.3 radio station kept my mind quiet. Breath fogging up the cold glass windows, I spent countless hours safe inside my trusty snow globe, my army fortress, my diary and my friend, when the world outside was too harsh.
All of these roles, it filled for me that winter. That’s what this Jeep was built for.