Headlights on Dark Roads

December 6, 2007
By Kari Nelson, Willow Springs, IL

I. Headlights on Dark Roads

The street, black and glassy, is rolling under the wheels of our car as we travel to Ohio for Thanksgiving. I watch the lines dividing the lanes blur together, ribbons of yellow obvious on the pavement. The car window, icy and slippery, is holding my head up, and I stare out into the night- nothingness, just road and sky and stars.

My older sister Ellie sits on the seat beside me, flipping through a magazine, studying every detail of the beautiful models she aspires to be. My mother has a book open on her lap, attempting to look interested, but we all know it’s too dark to see the pages. Most likely, she is avoiding having yet another conversation about why we don’t want to be going on this trip, knowing there’s nothing we can do about it. My dad, hands firmly on the wheel, is unconsciously nodding his head to the beat of the classical music playing on the radio, a Beethoven Sonata.

This year will be the same as the rest: making the long haul to my grandparents’ house in rural Ohio, buried in the forest preserve. My grandmother will try to bring the family together by baking endless amounts of desserts, my younger cousins will run all over the house and probably breaking things, my grandfather will sit stiffly in his checkered armchair, emotionless, watch a football game and criticize every member of our family for some trivial flaw.

We will all eat dinner at the long, rectangular table, where we’ll smile and pass the cranberry sauce or ask, “How’s school?” or bow our heads to say grace. We’re civil enough for the hour we have to sit there, but all of us are silently wondering why we bother.

It’s late now, almost midnight, and we’re getting closer to my grandparents’ house as the seconds pass. No words are spoken and nothing can be clearly seen outside the car. Only the headlights, illuminating the road ahead of us, pointing us to a gathering we are definitely not thankful for.

II. Glass House

The front of our house, the big picture windows making it look bigger than it is, is made of glass. From the outside, anyone can see our living room and dining room, the sweeping staircase, and the foyer upstairs where the stained glass lamp glows and the bedroom doors remain closed to the outside world.

The four of us sit around our dining room table, with candles and ceramic serving bowls, complimenting my mother for a delicious meal no matter how inedible it seems. We start up conversation, my mom asking Ellie about her plans for the winter dance (which I doubt I will attend, crowded gyms and blasting speakers are not on my list of must-sees), my dad informing me that if I’m interested, I can come to his office over winter break and file and label documents if I want to earn some extra money to shop for Christmas gifts.

After dinner, Ellie and I clear the table without being asked, me rinsing the dishes and handing them off to her to put in the dishwasher. My mom thanks us and goes to her bedroom to read, Ellie immediately heads to her room to talk on the phone, plan her next day’s outfit, turn on her music so loudly that it can be heard through the walls in my room. My dad heads into the living room to watch a documentary or a show about lawyers, just so he can point out the inconsistencies. I am invited nightly to join him, and occasionally I take him up on it. But tonight, I opt for my bedroom and the inevitable hours of Physics homework that await me.

Trudging up the stairs, I notice a car driving through the winding roads of our subdivision. It slows almost to a stop in front of our house, as passing cars often do, to admire the beautiful windows and unique structure of our home, unlike any other house in the neighborhood. My parents are often complimented on this, as well as their respectful and conscientious daughters.

The car passes and I continue upstairs, taking one last look at the street outside. The glass of our house shows our tidy living room, the perfect picture of our family at dinner time, the colored lighting cast from the lamp in the foyer. What the glass doesn’t show, what is hidden, however, is different than the beautiful image my parents try to uphold. The only cluttered place in our house is the basement, the upstairs bathroom is splattered with hair products and toothbrushes and towels. My parents’ bickering is kept to a murmur in the back rooms of our house, the constant sibling rivalry between Ellie and I kept behind the closed doors of our bedrooms.

Glass is transparent. It shows everything, there is no hiding behind it, and the outside world sees exactly what my parents want it to: the perfect nuclear family, polite and dutiful and quiet. The glass is our family façade, hiding all the secrets we keep invisible behind doors and walls. But the thing about glass, the most important thing, is that it can shatter, all too easily. Glass, even if by accident, can break.

III. Snapshots

My mother keeps photo albums stacked in or living room, sitting on shelves with fancy leather covers. There are posed pictures of our family at holidays, our yearly Christmas card photos, and pictures at Graduations and closing nights of musicals and chorus concerts. On our mantel, a single framed picture sits leaning against the wall, not crooked, not dusty. The four of us are in the center, my sister and I sitting symmetrically on the floor next to each other, my parents standing behind us with proud grins. I remember the day we drove to the photographer in the mall to get that picture taken. I remember being posed; I remember smiling despite the screaming children running outside the store and the blinding lights on the ceiling. Most of all, though, I remember leaving the photographer in a rush, being late for Ellie’s dance class, and fighting the whole drive home.

In my room, another album lays in a box under my desk. Its cover is tattered and worn from the years my grandmother used it before she passed it on to me, and the pictures in this album are different than the forced, faux-happy pictures my mother likes to believe dictate our lives.

These photos are candid, some taken by friends and family members but mostly by me, and they aren’t all pretty or picturesque or show a tight-knit supportive family image, but these pictures are real. This is what my family is like; this is what my parents try to hide from other people.

There are pictures of my mom without her makeup on a Saturday morning, my dad halfway down the stairs in his flannel pajamas, arms out to his sides, dared by my sister and I to perform a song on Christmas morning. Ellie and I swimming at my Aunt’s house in Florida, for once not fighting for the position of best child, the perfect model daughter.

These photos, flawed and silly and sometimes just ridiculous, are the people behind the glass house, the truth behind the façade that sits on our fireplace. But the true happiness in the dusty old album will sit under my desk forever- even if I tried, I couldn’t overpower the faked happy family behind the glass of the frame, and nothing, it seems, will ever change.

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