The foreshadowing on the Thruway wasn’t lost on me. A tractor trailer bearing the logo for ASA Apple on its mudflaps announced its arrival to my right, and I reached my hand to where my father’s Army cap hangs from my gear shifter, a quick squeeze of acknowledgement. It’s been how many years since my dad ran trucks out of that warehouse in Carteret, New Jersey? So many that most of the trucking companies he worked with are out of business, or have been swallowed up by bigger ones. We used to count the Yellow trucks on the highway, their logos a bright orange, matching the pens and pads that they’d given my dad as a thank you. CSX was another big account, one that elicited giggles whenever he said it. “I’m big now,” I’d tell my dad. “You don’t have to spell out C-S-X.” He laughed every time.
Every time. His laugh is what love sounds like.
By the time we got to Pennsylvania and unpacked the kids, our stuff, and helped myself to a glass of deep red wine to erase the imprint of the front seat from the back of my legs, Carteret, New Jersey was as far from my mind as my son’s Hebrew school registration (due Friday) or the laundry left in my washing machine back in New York. Two days of girl talk and swimming, lake water and blender drinks pushed thoughts of trucks, fathers, and Jersey to the far reaches of my mind, and fun was had by virtually all. It’s been over two years now since my father passed, and grief doesn’t seize me the way it once did or occupy thoughts that are better served by living and breathing and trying to do both.
It wasn’t like my dad took over my thoughts so much when he was here anyway. I’d been pretty independent from a young age, when he kicked me out of his house at twenty. Living with my drug addict boyfriend raised me up fast, even if was a crooked growth. I worked, I shopped, I drove, I existed - without any help from my parents, thankyouverymuch. Inquiries as to my well-being, opinions on my behavior were battle cries, and quickly vacated the vocabulary we shared with each other, icy politeness taking over where warmth and familiarity had once ruled.
I was big now. I didn’t need him.
(But I missed him.)
The irony comes in watching my daughter, four years of spunk and independence, jumping into the deep end of the resort pool, eyes open, ears closed to my cries of “Put on your safety vest!” and “Don’t you jump in that water!” She feels the cold rush of excitement, the refreshing shot of liquid fun run up her bathing suit and out of her nose. The drop in her stomach as she falls into the water, the desperate feel of her frantic kicks, the safety of my hands grabbing her waist and bringing her up for air. My sweet lunatic of a daughter. She doesn’t know what darkness looks like when eyes close and hands fail to reach you.
Red brake lights decorate the landscape of traffic as far as the eyes can see. Two kids sleeping in car seats behind me, the radio entertains with hits from the 90s, songs from my high school days, memories long buried and forgotten. Our caravan broke up ten miles back, when we stopped for pizza and resting in a room for which antibacterial soap was invented. Going home was a cinch anyway, following signs for the Tappanzee and then the Washington Bridge, under which I’d once believed lay Lake George. I was overconfident going over both bridges, but when I ended up on I-95 South into New Jersey with no signs for Eastern Long Island, panic set in. A quick choice of the express or the local lanes had me choose local because I knew I’d have to get off at a nearby exit and turn around. But where do I turn, and what do I turn toward? A reversal would put me back on the GW bridge, and would I end up in Manhattan? The Bronx? What I needed was a gas station.
What I needed was my dad.
The exit off of the Interstate put me into Carteret, a place my dad could drive home from in his sleep - and probably had from time to time. Abandoned warehouses stood between grown men riding beat up bicycles, wandering. Three gas stations I passed were closed, abandoned. Graffiti taunted me, a motorcycle beeped when I got caught in a traffic circle. My GPS was dead. The kids awoke.
Hope was a lit up gas station on the opposite side of the road, where a shirtless attendant watched me, unmoving. He leaned into my minivan, too close, when I rolled down the window to ask for directions. My wallet fell to the floor with a conspicuous thump. He laughed when I told him we were headed to Long Island. I didn’t laugh when my daughter called from the back seat, her fingers twirling the blond curl to the side of her forehead, “I like your tatoos!”
She doesn’t know about darkness.
His smile was open, friendly. He pointed me back toward the GW, told me to look out for the Van Wyck, to the Triboro bridge, and then to take the Long Island Expressway home. I knew I’d be fine once I got to the L.I.E.
And just as I’d thought, my shoulders relaxed upon entrance to my expressway. The radio came back on. My confidence restored.
I’m big now, I said to the Army cap swinging down by my knees. I don’t need you anymore.
(But I miss you.)