When we made the drive up from Manhattan to Franconia, my father and brother rode with my uncle and grandfather. And I rode in the car with my mother and aunt. Everyone needed their space before getting stuck together in the old farmhouse that we summered in.
Mom smoked cigarettes the entire way while forcing me to recite from the Nora Roberts novel pressed between my legs. Whenever I got to what they called “the good parts,” my mom stubbed out her cigarette and cranked up the windows and they both laughed so hard that you’d have thought we were all happy.
I remember asking my brother what their rides were like, but he was only eight and could never recall much. I, on the other hand, was twelve and there was nothing more entertaining or instructive than listening to the two of them rant on the way up. Returning to school in the fall, I’d have stored up as much of their rancor and wit as I could so that if any boy said or did a mean thing against me, I’d launch into a tirade about how he “talks big about his gun but is quick on the trigger.” I doubt anyone understood what that meant at twelve, but if you spewed anything with enough acid, even the incomprehensible tended to hurt.
When we approached the turnaround for the 9 to Portsmouth, they joked about just running away to the docks to see what kind of trouble they could get into. What kind of men could whisk them out to sea. Something about the pitch of mom’s voice seemed to fuel the foot on the accelerator, either that or the other way around. And when we inevitably passed that exit, their joking shifted to longing and eventually a form of regret. As if the road we traveled was an inescapable one. My aunt turned around and said, “This is just girl talk, okay?”
The closer we got to where we were going, the momentum died. The spark left their tongues and though we’d been pushing 80 the entire way, they slowed and pulled into the rest stop just outside of Manchester where mom doused herself with perfume and splashed cold water on her face before tossing Nora in the trash, because she could and would always buy another one.
Then they rolled down the windows and leaned their seats back to nap. Often, I wondered whether or not they were sleeping or just pressing their eyes shut, daydreaming. One time, I snuck out of the car and dug Nora from the rest stop waste bin and slipped my mom’s sunglasses free from her face and onto mine. I expected the world to look somehow different through those lenses. I turned the pages to the good parts expecting to be let in on some joke. But I never laughed. I never saw what they saw. Not until I was much older.