We left a day before my 17th birthday, just when the sun began pumping hazy orange light into a humid Friday morning. Mom was rushing from one room to another, making sure we didn’t forget any small toys or dishcloths, while Dad and I stuffed our sleeping bags into the U-Haul and Keith hunted for our cat. An hour later I sat behind the passenger seat, knees curled over a laptop case and one foot jacked high on a plastic container filled with Legos that I hadn’t seen since 7th grade. Keith was already dozing in the middle beside me, hands clutching an old color Gameboy and a 12-pack of Duracell AA’s; the other window seat was swamped in travel bags and pillows. The car felt smothering and I hadn’t even closed my door yet. I tried not to think about my friends, who’d probably sleep happily for the next four hours, and how Seth saying “God, that sucks” during a Brawl tournament doesn’t really constitute a goodbye. My thumb grazed over the keyboard of my cell phone as I glanced at the time. Not even 8:00.
My mother slipped in up front, clacking on her seatbelt and then turning to see how we were situated. Her brown eyes still seemed foggy from sleep. “Everyone comfortable?” She asked, smiling at Keith’s sleeping form. “Do you need me to take anything?”
As I leaned back against the headrest, I spotted the cat carrier sitting rather forlornly in her lap, our fat old calico squashed inside. It had taken Keith half an hour to corner her, stupid thing, but for a moment I understood what it must be like in there, inside a little box.
“No, mom. We got it.”
When Dad pulled away from the curb, I watched the house (it really wasn’t ours anymore, we’d been sleeping on the floor for a week now) fade behind us. No one saw us off – everyone had said their goodbyes last weekend at the party my uncle hosted – and if it wasn’t for the large U-Haul my father hooked to the tail of our gray sedan, our neighbors might have thought we were going out to breakfast and not moving to the other end of the East Coast. Not heading to Albany, Georgia; one thousand, two hundred and ninety two miles, twenty-one hours and twenty-two minutes away from Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was late August, and I had not seen the beach once or shot a single game of hoops with my friends. I’d spent my summer packing dusty photo albums and my great-grandmother’s quilts into oversized cardboard boxes and donating old clothes to Good Will. Tossing a decade of childhood memories in the trash. Karen Sanders had helped with the yard sales at first, until the sun started staining the roads the color of Cherry Kool-Aid at night and the college kids made bonfires on the beach. Then she sorta smiled and shrugged, and stopped coming by.
The thought is bitter, even now. “When’re we stopping for breakfast?” I asked, and watched my Dad glance at the clock on the dashboard. “Once we’ve got a couple of hours under our belt,” he said, “around 10:30 or so, it’ll be more like brunch.” We’d be in Rhode Island by then. I shifted my feet and searched for my MP3 player, the Game-Boy was easy to pry from my brother’s loose hands. The car felt small and over-warm, and my legs were already cramping. Mom rolled down the window as I tucked in my earbuds, pressing herself toward her door like maybe it would open. The wind caught her dark hair and lifted it up like strands of a torn spider web. It was starting to gray, I’d never noticed before. The fading strands glinted like tinsel sticking out of a box. Her face reminded me of my old English teacher’s after a long day–deflated, like a patient who’d been leeched of energy instead of blood.
It felt strange, knowing we wouldn’t be returning to that blue house with the hydrangea bushes in the front yard and the oak deck. It had been in our family for generations. Mom said her grandfather had the house built when he and her grandmother first got married, and it was always passed down to the oldest child. It would’ve been mine, if we’d kept it. I remembered Grandma had filled the living room with family portraits and grave photographs of straight-backed ancestors in grayscale; men with thick, handlebar mustaches and women in high lace collars and pleated skirts. Mom hung pictures of lighthouses in the bathroom and spent six months remodeling the kitchen. My room had a skylight, and when I was younger I thought that sheet of glass was the only thing that kept the stars from flooding my room.
We’d had a trampoline in the backyard, one with a net around it so we could jump onto it off the deck. Mom said it was dangerous, but Dad let us do it as long as we stuck to regulation codes. At my party last year, on my 16th birthday, Karen Sanders jumped into the trampoline for the first time. She had long blonde hair that almost curled, and a body that was as lithe and slender as a cattail. Seth and I had to convince her to jump; she thought the drop was too far, that she’d hit dirt and break a bone. I jumped first to show her it was safe, and when she finally leaped her hair billowed behind her like a flag. She landed on her feet but her knees crumpled, and when she bounced her shirt flew up, showing a flat white stomach and the underside of a bra the color of a blue-raspberry Jolly Rancher. It branded into my mind. I was the only one who saw it. She was embarrassed and flustered but I said it was okay. My mouth dried and my palms got sweaty, like my body didn’t know what to do with its moisture, and I kept glancing around, making sure no one else had noticed. It felt like she’d shown me a treasure.
That was the night I asked her out. She’d smiled quick and bright, like the blink of a firefly, and said yes.
Around 10:00 Dad pulled the car into the narrow parking lot of a small town restaurant called Percy’s Place somewhere in Massachusetts. It was a squat white building with a yellow awning above a door with a red rooster on it. It looked very “local,” I decided. Karen Sanders liked to use that word a lot.
Dad had to park across three spots in the lot in order to fit the U-Haul. As we all disentangled ourselves from the car, stiff and slightly dazed, I realized my father had to let go of my mother’s hand in order to get out of the car. Had they been holding hands the whole ride, I wondered? At the going away party, my Uncle Rob and my mother didn’t speak. She was officially the guest of honor, but when Uncle Rob had my parents stand up he only talked about the house and about Dad’s job. He didn’t mention Mom once, but I had figured it was a mistake.
As we headed into the restaurant, Mom made sure to keep a window cracked open for the cat. Said the next time we stopped we’d have to let it out for a while. The inside of Percy’s was littered with checkered countertops and Norman Rockwell paintings, an attempt at folky that felt almost deceptive. Our hostess was pretty, probably in college, her lips dragging over her teeth in a wan smile that said she didn’t want to be up this early any more than I did. As soon as we’d settled onto our shifting laminated cushions she placed our menus on the table and hurried away.
“Well, this is a neat little place, isn’t it?” Mom glanced at the picture above our table as Dad slipped his hand back into hers. There was a boy and a girl on it, the general scraped-knee-and-pigtails variety that Rockwell usually painted. At the going away party, she’d sat at the table and let him get her food, which I thought was strange because Mom’s really particular about her food, and usually doesn’t let anyone touch it. I’d forgotten about that, I realized, but didn’t think much of it. I was starving, and the menu was a gift from heaven. I was convinced that the “Dapper Dan” breakfast special-eggs, bacon, pancakes, sausage, baked beans, homefries and toast-was named for me, and decided on it with no hesitation.
“Daniel, anything look appetizing to you?” I looked up from the menu and saw my mom’s teasing smile. I smiled back and nodded, tugging my cell out of my pocket to snap a picture of the menu.
Mom shot me the disapproving look that usually preceded an irritated reprimand. “Daniel,” she started, but the waitress arrived just then, settling four glasses of water down with a cheery “Hello!”
When the food arrived I snapped a quick picture of my plate and forwarded it to Seth. He would love it. None of us really spoke as we ate, we’d never been a family for table talk. My food was delicious, and any food was usually enough to keep me quiet. Keith had finished quickly and settled down with his Gameboy, occasionally asking the waitress for refills on his chocolate milk. My Mom and Dad poured over maps and paperwork, making sure we really had everything we needed.
In my back pocket, my cell phone stayed silent.
The weekend before we left, my uncle threw a party so our friends and family could ‘see us off.’ Friends, relatives and neighbors swarmed into his yard, eating hot dogs in white buns and drinking beer out of plastic cups and saying “We’ll miss you ” over and over again. “We’ll miss you, don’t forget to stay in touch.” No one mentioned that my mother and her brother did not once look at each other. After sunset Karen and I stole back to my house down the road and curled up together on the yellow grass where the trampoline had been to watch the sky turn black. “The Egyptians thought the sun died every night, and was reborn every morning.” She told me quietly, eyes on the purpling sky, watching the stars and planets glow faintly, before turning to me and saying in the same breath, “I think we should break up.”
Over fifty years ago, my great-grandfather had a blue house built for a family that didn’t yet exist. He did not know his granddaughter and her husband would single-handedly break the family solidarity. He did not know that she would sell that house after his death, nor did he know that his grandson-in-law would get a job transfer sending the family across the country, breaking the tradition of living close. He would have called them ungrateful, especially my mother. My mother, who set trash bags and boxes into the U-Haul with a mechanical delicacy, wearing blue jeans and a dull gray sweatshirt she normally reserved for days when she was so sick the only thing she could do was sprawl on the couch and down mugs of oolong tea, snuffling into tissues. It was somehow unnerving to see that shirt on while she was healthy.
One day, Keith dropped a swan figurine Mom and Dad got at their wedding. Dad spent twenty minutes making sure he’d swept up all the glass shards, and Keith sliced his palm and cried while Mom got the disinfectant.
“It wasn’t that important, anyway, don’t worry,” she said, but her eyes were already shiny and even Keith knew she was lying. Her grandfather would have chastised her for being so attached to an object. Her grandfather would have reminded her that family and people are more important than wedding gifts.
After we left the restaurant, we rarely stopped again. Dad had thought of visiting D.C. or New York to do some sightseeing, but with the U-Haul clinging to our bumper, the idea was too risky. Most of the day was spent playing “I Spy” games and dozing heavily. Mom said I slept through whole states, and each time I woke up it was in a nostalgic haze. I didn’t really care, Karen Sanders was in my thoughts either way. Was this what it felt like after you passed out or got wasted? I was never brave enough to try when my friends drank, I knew Mom would smell the alcohol on me and I didn’t want to see how she’d react. I wondered, though.
My head jerked back every time my thoughts wandered, and my brain clouded. My eyes landed dully on a square blue sign coming up on the right: Food, Rest Stop 12 ½ miles.
We were somewhere in West Virginia the last time I woke up, and Dad said we were almost at our hotel. Keith was going on about wanting to climb the cliffs on the side of the highway. The banded rocks rose on each side of us like folded layers of melted wax, lines of red and brown and yellow-white, the color of dirty egg yoke, all folded on top of each other. I remembered my geography teacher last year said stuff like that happened during earthquakes, when the rocks get hot enough to bend but don’t melt. Karen Sanders had told me it wouldn’t work out, that she didn’t want to attempt a long-distance relationship. My head fogged again and I leaned against the frame of the door.
When we reached the hotel Keith was out, hand still clenched around his Gameboy. I struggled my way out from under my pillow and jacket, eager to stretch, while Dad popped the trunk. My knees and back popped and my body lurched when I stood, protesting movement after being immobile for so long.
The hotel room was generic: a flat, matted carpet underneath a TV set and wardrobe, and two queen sized beds covered in comforters that crinkled when you sat on them. The bathroom was small and smelt strongly of Febreze citrus. Mom lay down on one of the beds, looking like she hadn’t seen a mattress in days. Dad tucked Keith into the opposite bed and settled beside her, silently rubbing her shoulder. I went to walk the cat.
Mom had bought one of those fancy cat leashes a while back, made the calico get used to the outside before we moved. Idly watching as the feline searched for a place sufficiently like her litter box, the leash loop securely around my wrist, it did not occur to me how strange a picture we probably made. It was dark, she could have easily been mistaken for a small dog.
The parking lot was almost completely empty, and our white U-Haul caught so much light I had to squint. I flicked through my phone, checking to see if I had missed a message during a rest stop. I hadn’t. I checked again.
The cat had finished, and was now chewing contentedly on grass that was growing near the sidewalk. I jerked the leash, and the cat snarled before heading back for the grass. With a sigh I reached down and scooped her up, fighting her claws.
The next morning we all trekked down to the continental breakfast, and I had just settled down with a glass of OJ and a bagel when she walked in the room. She was probably my age, if not a little older. A little on the shorter side, with a slim waist and wide hips. She smiled at me as we passed by, her eyes were the exact same blue as the walls of the old house. She was wearing a blue striped sweater that hung off her left shoulder, exposing a long expanse of uninterrupted smooth, freckled skin. She was wearing a strapless bra. The idea made me clutch at my cup of orange juice, splay my fingers out over the sweating glass in search of relief. I watched as she wandered the room, saving a table for her family before heading to the waffle maker. Earlier, I had decided against waffles, but now I scuttled back my chair, reconsidering.
We stood side by side, waiting for the timer to count down, when I realized how short she was. She barely came up to my shoulders. She leaned down to pull out her waffle and the lax shoulder of her sweater dipped forward like the bend of a horizontal curtain, revealing just enough skin to hint. I stopped breathing, just for a second. I wondered if her bra was blue, like her sweater. Like Karen’s bra that day she leapt onto the trampoline, or blue like her eyes. We didn’t speak, and when I came back to my seat I felt foolish.
“You alright?” My Mom asked. “Fine,” I said. “Everything’s fine.”
The night I asked Karen Sanders out, we were both lying on my trampoline long after my party had ended, her head nestled in the crux of my shoulder. She pointed out stars to me and the synthetic weave beneath us dipped and creaked whenever she moved her arm. Her dad studied astronomy as a hobby, she said, and she could name a lot of the constellations. She probably named half a dozen, but her heat struck me on one side, and the almost chill of an August night got me on the other, combined with the scent of her hair in my nose, I really wasn’t capable of rational thought. I laid there and listened, absently drawing circles on her stomach with my thumb, loving the warmth she radiated. In the end, I could only recognize the Big and Little Dippers, but I’d always sort of known those anyway.
We left soon after breakfast without seeing the blue-topped girl again. I think I spent the whole day (outside of rest stops and one bridge we looked over at the South Carolina border) completely asleep. It was dark when I woke up again, and I figured we’d get to the new house in a couple of hours. Mom was driving now, the first time I’d seen her take the wheel this trip. The radio was spewing muted tunes of classic rock and garbled with Dad’s low, rumbling snores. I shifted slightly, readjusting my leg over the box of Legos and pulling off my headphones. The earbuds were giving me a headache. My right leg had gone numb up to my knee, and I shifted and tried to clench my toes. Outside the car the sky was as dark as the bottom of the ocean, and the stars seemed to swim as they reflected off the window. I craned my neck, trying to see over the car, catching the tail end of what might have been the Big Dipper. My breath came a little thicker, as if the night air had leaked through a window like water and flooded the car. Everything felt bigger, almost infinite. I could almost believe that the universe spanned billions of miles and that other galaxies existed somewhere. My brother’s head was sinking into my shoulder and my leg was still numb, and everything inside our sedan was warm and jumbled and close and I knew if I opened my door, I would fall out and maybe never land anywhere.
My thoughts wandered to Karen, with her slender waist and long hair, but the picture in my head came up with brown hair instead, and she was wearing a blue sweater pulled off one shoulder that I knew she didn’t own. All I could think was that Karen dumped me without even trying to make it work and Dad held Mom’s hand all day yesterday.
There was something significant in that I couldn’t place. I sucked in another breath, it felt like inhaling with a damp towel over my mouth. How different would things be in Georgia? We’d have to get a new license plate for the sedan. Somewhere down there was my new school, and I supposed if things turned out I would have new friends. We wouldn’t have winter like in New Hampshire.
For a moment, I opened my mouth and wanted to speak: Hey Mom, where are we?, but my voice had settled in my lungs. It was dark in the car, passing cars and the dashboard lights only dimly illuminating the front seats. The red bulb on the radio threw my mother’s face into relief, seeping into the creases around her eyes and catching her grays. Why had she wanted to move? I felt like I was seeing something important, something profound in my mother’s face at that moment, like the first time you recognize the way the wind feels wet before it storms. My lips closed. Instead of speaking, I pressed my face to the cool glass and kept my eyes open, focused on the yellow lights of passing cars. I would stay awake until we got to the house.