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When I was eight years old, I wanted to be an astronaut. I saw the stars as stepping-stones in a big, black, tiered pond. Things you could step on one-by-one until you reached a Heaven in the clouds. Even when Heaven was gone, I still believed in the staircase. I'd lie in the grass to the left of the creaky swing set and count the stars on my way to Pluto. When Pluto stopped being a planet, I still went to Space Camp. Begging to know what was coming next. When they told me that the universe boiled down to one big black hole capable of sucking all matter into a permanently destructive vortex, frankly making nothing matter in the end, even if I did find a miraculous way to walk on burning plasmaballs, I cried. My mother came two days early. She just stuck her hands in her baggy pant pockets, shrugged, and told me to pack my backpack to come home. I asked her why. She said even if I’d decided I didn’t want to go into space anymore, I still had to go places on Earth.
I’m in the car. It’s still night. Slowly dawning. I’m driving I-65. Nora’s here. She’s pregnant. We’re naming him Emerson, after Ralph Waldo. We haven’t told anyone yet. Too much else, she says. It’s okay with me; I like how he’s just ours for the time being.
My birth father owned a car dealership, selling subcompacts mostly, in Ohio, not here in Indiana, where my mother lived. I was Son to him, not Tino or Tim or Timmy or even Kiddo. Nah, I was “Son” to him, like some character in a sci-fi movie, though he never was “Father.” If he loved me, there was no reciprocation. I learned to call him S***, with a capital S, but I still took the cards from the mailbox on the important days and hid them in the attic bed, read and ripped. At fifteen, I discovered the bus system; I payed my fare and met him in Toledo. Two years later, he wanted to give me a car, but instead I stole one, a Vega in the back lot. This one. It was yellow, the color of the dotted lines its left wheels have treaded for thirteen years. Now, it’s brown; the snow’s done a number on it. Anyway, I was confused. I trusted him only once in his life, and it was then, just after I betrayed his trust. And that was the thing – he trusted me. I got the title a week later. Nearly ripped the envelope in little squares thinking it was another sentiment. And it was, but I needed a car. I flipped it in my hands for hours, stared at the return address. First time I cared enough to look at it. Point is I forget it now, but I looked, I had it memorized for a couple minutes. Not because I’d ever write back, but because some part of my subconscious wanted his scrawly handwriting to tell me something. He knew, and I f***ed his name off for an hour, though I well knew I ought to be cursing myself. I didn’t hate him for the gesture; no, I didn’t like being at his mercy. I think he forgave me, saw a yellow Vega as some kind of cheap retribution for the fourteen years. He had his wishes, but blood only carries so much. Nora –
– groans. I swerve out of the lane. Drunk behind us. Let him pass, and I don’t think he’s drunk anymore. I think I was just driving too slowly for him, and I honk, yet I still feel guilty like I’ve committed a heinous crime because my mind’s been wandering and my right ankle’s been loosening. I’m angry. I tell Nora we should just put the yellow diamond sticker on the back window now, get the benefits of a B-O-B early. We laugh. She’s half asleep. She says it’s too early. My eyes turn to the dashboard and GPS; we’re close.
Nora and I were married at twenty-eight. It should have been earlier, but we waited, and there’s no reason except I was scared. It doesn’t hurt my pride to admit it. Nora says nothing hurts my pride, swears that it’s my best quality, but I felt like a failure on our wedding day. I had nightmares the week leading up, in which she’d scream when I lifted the veil. She’d see me for the first time clearly; she’d see my faults and see a monster, a piece of me I couldn’t bear to live with after I left both the parent who didn’t care and the parent who did. I was either callously nondiscriminatory or a fool. I don’t know; I’m bad at understanding myself. I’m scared of that, too, scared to try, so I’d rather just consider myself a fool. Nora loves me, though. The first time she kissed me, she told me she was like Wendy in Peter Pan – she’d always saved a kiss in the corner of her lips for the man she’d marry and wanted to give that kiss to me. She was a romantic, unlike me, still the geeky nerd from my childhood. But I thought about all the things I’ve held back from saying over the years, sticking the words to my lips. I’ve tried to pull them all off, one-by-one, but I’m still not a talker. So it’s futile, and anyway, it hurts to revisit unspoken words. I tacked them on with hot glue a while ago, and they don’t come off. It doesn’t matter, really; Nora gets me all the same.
Nora’s awake now. She taps me on the shoulder, tells me the radio’s too loud. I lower it, and for the first time, I hear it. I tap haphazardly on the steering wheel like a drum. Off in the night, while you live it up, I’m off to sleep / Waging wars to shake the poet and the beat / I hope it’s gonna make you notice. I can’t make out the drum pattern to this song, but I like it. I adjust my glasses, just as I catch sight of the green sign. “Nora –” She nods with a tilted head, looks out the window, as I cross the dotted line to switch into the exit lane. We drive about two miles, Nora leaning on my shoulder once in a while.
My hoarse throat responds to the broken silence with a vague monosyllable. “Eh.”
The GPS starts beeping. We’re here.
I didn’t hear from my dad for a while after the wedding. He came and all that, but he wasn’t the same. It wasn’t Alzheimer’s, it wasn’t depression, it wasn’t PTSD – that’s only for soldiers anyway, isn’t it? and what would he be traumatized by? – but he was different. He ate the cake, spent the night with his sleeping pills on the couch of Nora’s and my apartment, and left in the morning. Said goodbye, of course, but in the same way he said it two days before. I’d taken him to mom’s grave. He just knelt there and acted like he was praying, but his eyes were wide open and blank. Two days later, he stood in the doorway with the same blank eyes. Something was never right inside him. I don’t know what it was, but something was just never there. Something killed him. The doctors said it was his heart. I held Nora’s hand at the funeral.
“Tim, the envelope?”
I pull it from the glove compartment. Nora gets out and plants her feet in the dewy ground. I don’t know what to say, so I just slide over into the passenger seat and take out a cigarette. I stare at the manila envelope with the blank stare he also left me. Except he didn’t mention that gift in his will.
The address I’d come to know as a teenager when it was dashed with cheap pen on the back of corny Hallmark cards looked so elegant now on the letterhead.
“We’re here, Tim, we’re here.”
I think a lot about what it meant to be an eight year old. To be a gutsy idiot escapist, before you’re taught to fear such escapism. My eight year old self has died. Pluto died. The world is dying. You, I, the people we’re eyeing with our peripheral vision, we’re all dying. Death and dreams are like estranged lovers fighting over custody of their children, of us, and we don’t even bother to sit in the courtroom to listen to their stands. We just pledge allegiance to the pretty side, the side that offers us roses instead of lilies. Funny. We’ve laid our destinies in a world destined to kill us, and we don’t f***ing care. I have the deed to my father’s house in my hand, my beautiful, dead father's house. Baby, our house, baby, our house.