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Friday, July 14, 2006

THE TIME I FELT CLOSEST TO MY SISTER LESLIE

In the mid eighties I was going to college in Rochester, New York, a frigid, blustery place that provided a relatively safe four-year sanctuary from reality and all of my impending adulthood's incumbent responsibilities. Each September, I would arrive from my hometown outside of Boston and remain long enough for the leaves to wilt, desaturate, and fall to the ground before making the trip back home for Thanksgiving. Chronically lacking means, I haggled with fate over the least expensive possible conveyance.

As a freshman, I flew home on one of those ridiculously cheap airlines, USAir or People's Express perhaps, for something like $49 each way. The flight attendants collected the fare during the flight the way conductors do on the Commuter Rail in Boston.

As a sophomore, I took a Trailways bus from the station right next to the Midtown Plaza Mall in downtown Rochester. I think it was snowing that year and waiting to get on the bus in the slushy mess was depressing. It was an eight hour ride.

As a junior, I took an early morning Amtrak train straight into South Station in Boston. I fell asleep once we crossed the New York state line into Massachusetts and awoke to find a stranger with epaulets, striped cuffs and a kepi jostling my shoulder.

"We're here. Time to get off," he told me, clearly disappointed. Earlier, he must have formed some unrealistic expectation of me. I spastically jerked upright and popped my head over the seats to look around like a nervous prairie dog sticking up out of his hole. All the passengers had debarked and the engine had been shut down. But for the footsteps of the now exiting stranger who had awakened me, the train car was perfectly silent. I fluffed the hair on the back of my head to eliminate any flattening and squinted at the warm, white sunlight that poured through the giant panes of glass.

These modes of transportation held at least some charm. On the bus, I could romanticize about great bus-takers of pop culture, Ratso Rizzo and Harry O, for example. On the train, I could imagine myself a New York businessman commuting to Boston to deliver some vital paperwork to a partner's office. The plane, well, there was nothing charming about the plane which is somewhat ironic since air travel used to be so glamorous and sophisticated.

But it was as a senior that I nailed it. I took a bus to Ithaca, New York and met my big sister Leslie who was attending Cornell Law School. We were to drive home together in her 1978 Chevrolet Malibu Classic.



Calling it "her" Malibu still rubs me the wrong way. I pined for that car's ownership, or at least its guardianship. Denied it for years, ever since my father had limply decided to lease some unlikable foreign car and forgo the power, the presence, the unashamed American beauty that the Malibu held within its frame, engine, and design, I interpreted the notion of anyone but me behind its wheel as nothing short of a crime against the natural order of the world.

Oh, yes. You could say I liked this car.

A little history. The first car I remember my father owning was a 1960 AMC Rambler. Family lore holds that one afternoon, left in his charge, we four children accompanied Dad to Sears to purchase two rolls of pink fiberglass insulation. Seeming at first as soft as cotton candy and therefore the perfect material in which to roll around, the insulation became our big pink friend during the ride home. We bounced around the spacious back of the Rambler, wrapping ourselves in the stuff, hugging the stuff, pushing each other into the stuff while up front, Dad concerned himself only with the gentle blue swirls coming off the tip of the day's eighth, ninth, and tenth Kents. A few miles from home we started to itch uncontrollably and were horrified by the sight of tiny chards of fiberglass sparkling from within the skin of our bare arms, legs and faces.

Mom cleaned us up real good when we got home.

Ever upwardly mobile, Dad soon replaced the Rambler with a Ford Mustang, not one of the tasteful ones of the mid 60s but rather the larger, more macho one from the early 70s. I used to sneak into the garage, climb behind the wheel and pretend to drive even though my eyes were level with the speedometer. I also used to push the lighter in, patiently wait for it to pop out, remove it from the dash and watch the hot metal coils within fade from bright orange to flat gray. Once, I stupidly held the hot lighter against the steering wheel melting a tiny groove between two of the molded finger grips, a mistake for which I was reprimanded but oddly not punished.

Then in 1978, my father traded in the Mustang for the Malibu, one of the last American muscle cars: a V-8 engine, 305, four door sedan with power steering and power brakes. Luxurious yet powerful. This was a NICE CAR! And when I got my driver's license two years later, the first drive I took by myself with no one else in the car wasn't in my Mom's white VW Rabbit. Oh, no. It was in the Malibu. My after dinner mantra became "Dad, can I take the car tonight?"

It's probably best that I not recount here much of what transpired in and around the car over the course of the two years that followed other than to say that the fates of multiple individuals, some known to me, some not, were profoundly affected by that particular Chevrolet. But I will say this. The car was my constant companion, one that stood by me through all my personal obstacles, emotional and physical - friendships, romances, encounters with law enforcement, snow drifts, days at the beach, black ice, concerts, parties, a prom, and more concerts. I can't exactly call it unconditional love – the Malibu did NOT appreciate neglect or mistreatment – but it was always there for me to make me feel better when things went awry, to carry me away from the pain of being a teenager and to carry me toward the seeming unlimited freedoms that early adulthood promised.

So once my Dad had outgrown the Malibu, he looked among his children for a worthy steward. On a muggy August evening during dinner on the back porch he rather matter-of-factly agreed with Leslie that it made the most sense for her to take it to Cornell. She could use it to get around and to drive and from school. I lobbied meekly for the car to come with me to Rochester, a situation I had literally been dreaming of for years, but knew in the end that age, as it always has in our family, would trump whatever reasoning I could muster. The oldest child always gets first choice of everything and this was just another reinforcement of that time tested rule.

"Someday I'll get that car," I promised myself, a promise I eventually fulfilled after college, but not until every other member of the family passed on it.

When I was a senior, however, in need of transport back home for Thanksgiving, Leslie owned the Malibu. The car sat at the bottom of her short, sloped driveway on a layer of slushy ice. An early snow had blanketed Ithaca the day before. The weather had warmed but now a steady drizzle and a shroud of gray gave everything a dull shine. Poor Malibu. My status had been reduced to that of occasional passenger. Maybe Leslie would let me drive. Probably not. But I held on to something, some hope that something good would come from this trip. Six hours with my sister. Was it possible?

Six years older than I, Leslie was by circumstance distant from me. In teen years, six years is a lifetime. Even though she had attended the some of the same schools as I, had many of the same teachers as I, and had experienced many of the same adolescent highs and lows as I, the particulars of our respective time periods differed enough to keep us from sharing much as we grew up. 1974 was a world away from 1980. Though in retrospect I see that as a confused teenager I could have benefited from her experience, thereby forming a much richer bond with her, I also know that at the time I was positive that she was too old to understand me. How could I be so certain and so wrong at the same time?

During the ride home that November, however, we were somehow no longer separated by those six years. In a way, I had slightly caught up to her. We were just old enough to have developed some perspective on some things our worlds held in common: our family, high school, university, our hometown, politics, and life in general. We were both getting used to the idea that we were no longer children and that adulthood consisted mostly of relentless, difficult decision-making. She had already made one of her biggest choices: what career to pursue. I knew no more about what I wanted to do with the next five, ten, twenty years of my life then than I did when I was 12 – perhaps less. (When I was six I told my mother I wanted to be a garbage man so I could ride on the back of the truck all day. Weeeeeee!)

In the Malibu, heading east, we talked about it. I told her I was scared. She said she was scared, too. We talked about being scared. Her fear was a tremendous source of comfort for me. I like to think that mine comforted her as well. I told her that I didn't like going home for the holidays because I felt like a disappointment to our parents. She told me that not only was I wrong, but that I shouldn't worry about disappointing them, that in the end none of us can be happy with our relationships with others until we're happy with our relationship with ourselves. It's psycho-babble, for sure, but it was just what I needed to hear at the time. I was angry, confused, absurdly conflicted. How is it possible to feel like an under-appreciated piece of crap? It was the first time I had opened up to anyone in my family about my fears and my shitty feelings of shitty self-worth. It would be ten years before I would be that honest again.

Leslie listened and took me seriously. She treated me like an adult. Nothing could have possibly helped me more at that point in my life. It's the closest I've ever felt to her.

As the gray sky darkened and the names of the towns on the green highway signs grew more familiar, and the Broncos and Explorers and Suburbans drove by with dead deer after dead deer strapped to the hood, a thick fog rose a foot from the surface of the road. Not used to seeing deer that close up, we were freaked out when the angle made it look like they were looking right at us, blankly, from beyond the dead. We were freaked out but Leslie remained steady, a source of reliability amidst the chaos of the world outside the Malibu. Despite the weather, we made good time. As we drove into our town, onto our street, up our driveway, I still felt scared. I still felt uncertain. But I also felt somehow older and wiser.



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