Life on the Pennsylvania Turnpike
Lisa Clister Brown
Delaware River Bridge/New Jersey Turnpike Exit
Westbound, Milepost 359.0
Daddy is driving. Uncle Tommy snores in the front seat. My uncle lives in Philadelphia and his real name is Uncle Tommy but Daddy calls him Agnes—Agnes T. Muffin the third. I don’t know why and I don’t call him Agnes. But he is my uncle and he is Daddy’s brother. He is sleeping; I am awake in the backseat. I shake my new snow globe. The snow dances around the Statue of Liberty and I pretend she is finally free to leap from her pedestal. Now, like us, she can roam the streets of New York City. She can pause to buy a paper bag of chestnuts from the street vendor, his shiny aluminum cart steaming with their moist earthy scent. Like me, Miss Liberty can ride in a hansom carriage around Central Park where taxis whiz by, outpacing the steady clip-clop of the burley grey horse, and masking the horsy smell with a blanket of exhaust fumes. Like me, Lady Liberty can even shop at the toy store, that amazing toy store, and choose between a stuffed fox or a pink skirted doll or a sparkling snow globe.
A rest stop flashes by the window.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I announce.
“You can hold it,” Daddy replies, confident in me because I am a big girl.
“But I really have to go,” I explain, “Really bad.”
“You can hold it,” Daddy repeats.
I can’t hold it and urine spurts out of me like shame. I let the snow globe roll to the floor so I can’t see the disappointment in Liberty’s eyes. Uncle Tommy still snores and Daddy drives. I decide not to confess because when I do, I will be in big trouble.
Westbound, Milepost 109.9
It is hot— boiling, blazing, burning hot. My thighs stick to the grubby white vinyl backseat of Meme and Pop’s Buick. Kristin’s toddler round leg sticks to mine, her silly hair ponytail irritates the sunburn on my left arm. She is asleep, her limbs sprung like rubber. But even as she sleeps, she grips the inert leg of her baby doll tight as a Band-Aid. I am not asleep. Neither is Uncle Chris. I try to scoot away from Kristin, but she slumps heavier against me. My leg brushes against Uncle Chris’s sinewy kneecap. I can feel his coarse hair against my skin. He shifts, scowls and stares at the scenery. He is fifteen years old, too old for picnics at Prince Gallitzin State Park with parents and pesky nieces. I am too old for baby dolls, and silly hair and rubber toed red canvas Keds.
“Will you take me out in the canoe next time?” I ask.
“No,” he replies. “You aren’t old enough.”
Westbound, Milepost 90.7
The cassette in my Walkman cuts off mid-song, the interruption is enough to startle me awake. Julie lolls on my shoulder; I gently prod her to lean against the chilly window of the bus instead. Even in the dim light, I can see her cheek pocked by the impression of my jacket’s zipper. She and I ride in the front of the Seven Springs ski trip bus. We boarded the bus first, allowing enough time to settle ourselves, to inventory our ski hats and gloves; to consume our snack of Oreos and Coke, to exchange tapes—my Cyndi Lauper for her Duran Duran. But the songs merely remind us of whom we aren’t: girls just want to have fun, fun with wild boys. The wild girls were nearly left behind. They were the last ones to board the bus, scurrying across the parking lot, recklessly leaving a trail of goggles, gloves, and lip gloss on the salt crusted pavement. In the rear seats, the wild girls snack not on Oreos, but on the tender lips of wild boys, swapping the aftertaste of contraband beer. They exchange hands, tongues, and spit. They snuffle under ski clothes still carrying the faint trace of the joint they shared back in the lodge.
The headlights of an oncoming truck cut like a searchlight through the windshield of the bus, freezing me in their beam as if I were guilty. The chaperone Earth Sciences teacher shifts his bulk in the seat across the aisle. He glances sideways.
“Get your feet down,” he mutters to me. He is unable to spot evidence of any obvious crime, but certain that the situation still expects his authority. I shrug and comply, then restart the cassette.
Westbound, Milepost 67.4
If I sit any closer to the passenger side door I’ll fall out. I’ll plunge to my death, splattered onto the crumbling pavement, a suicide drop from the cracked and duct taped seat of the tow truck. I’ve already come close enough to killing myself tonight, or so the tow truck driver says. The same tow truck driver who I’m leery of sitting alongside. I wouldn’t want to give him any ideas. No. But we’d be quite the couple if I did sit next to him. I’d be riding the humped middle of the bench seat, my hand on his denim thigh, and him crooning with the radio. If he were someone else, he could be my soul mate, my savior under flashing yellow lights. But he’s not some blue collar Adonis who stopped to pick up the tattered pieces of my life and my damaged rear bumper. He’s just a working stiff, an average semi-balding Joe, somebody’s husband, or uncle, or next door neighbor. He’s kind enough to take me home, along with the wreckage of my car. I imagine him arriving at his own home later tonight. He’s loosening the laces of his work boots, shaking his head, and telling his haggard wife that college don’t teach common sense, that’s for sure.
“You got to be more careful in weather like this,” he cautions.
He’s right and I nod my pounding head. Then I pretend to sleep as I desperately look for the signs that say Pittsburgh.
Westbound, Milepost 56.6
Near the end of the long drive home from Washington D.C., my day planner list on my lap, I present the details as Kevin drives. This works well, as it necessitates that he keep his eyes on the road and cannot look me directly in the face.
So, we will get married. We should get married. We are going to get married. We want to get married. He’s the one. I’m the one. We’re it. It makes sense. It’s what we want. It’s not official yet; there is no ring but while we’re home, we can start making plans. We’ll plan while we’re there. It makes sense: the reception at Longue Vue Club, Crabmeat Hoezel, bridesmaids in navy silk shantung, wild flowers with a variety of greens, candles, lots of candles. The bridesmaids needn’t match the tablecloths. It will definitely be double-breasted. Maybe ninety guests? White chocolate curls on the cake. Maybe we’ll have a receiving line? What song should we dance to, should we dance to as husband and wife, what song?
“I need to say something,” he blurts out.
Oh, God. We are not going to get married. He doesn’t want to get married. We can’t get married. He can’t get married, at least not yet, at least not to me. He wants to see other people. It’s me, but it’s not me. He’s not ready. It doesn’t make sense, not yet, maybe not ever. He needs time. He needs space. We need space. He needs to keep his eyes on the road.
“Whatever you decide about all this,” he continues, “don’t get those invitations with the ripped edges. They’re stupid.”
So, we will get married. It’s not official yet; there is no ring but while we’re home, we can start making plans. We’ll plan while we’re there. It makes sense: embossed invitations on crisp white paper with razor-sharp edges, the reception at Longue Vue Club, bridesmaids in navy silk shantung, candles, and lots of candles. And what song should we dance to, should we dance to as husband and wife, what song?
Gateway/Connection Ohio Turnpike
Westbound, Milepost 1.4
A mile ahead, Ohio lays out its landscape, a fertile pool of green that will spill into Indiana, Illinois and westward. Our eyes won’t find relief from flatness until the Wyoming Rocky Mountains leap into the sky. The Rockies! Like Laura Ingalls clutching the buckboard of her covered wagon or Sacagawea with her baby on her back, I am making the quintessential American journey—except that I’m driving a German car and there are guaranteed hotel reservations awaiting my arrival. I suppose I couldn’t really be a pioneer; I’ve never dealt well with discomfort—roughing it means the Holiday Inn.
In my rearview mirror I can see the kids. Surprisingly, they aren’t asleep yet even though we’ve been on the road for an hour. Zack clutches his ratty well loved rhino to his chest; preferring its companionship to his Game Boy. Stephanie presses her terrycloth snuggle pig against the window to afford it a better view. They haven’t discovered the hidden cache of travel games and Goldfish Crackers. When everyone is punch-drunk with the effort of sitting still for so long, we’ll play potty talk Mad Libs.
I take my eyes from the road long enough to glance at Kevin and smile. He is studying the map, concentrating on the intricacies of Chicago traffic, wondering where we’ll eat lunch in South Dakota. The deeply grooved pavement purposefully slows the car, causing it to moan and grumble, as if it questions the crazy journey on which we are about to embark. Kevin produces the turnpike ticket and a crisp dollar bill from his wallet; I place our offering in the outstretched hand of the toll collector. We escape Pennsylvania with little fanfare. There is nothing in this gentle scenery to delineate our passage from one state from the next. There is no fence, no river, no bridge, and no tunnel. It is just a transition, made in the blink of an eye at sixty miles per hour.
“Welcome to Ohio,” I announce, reading the cheerful sign. “We’re on our way.”