By Nina Boutsikaris
I pump gas and watch what I think is a heron rise out of a flooded field across the salt-stained highway. Blades of grass poke up in all directions, brown and folded, collapsing over each other with resignation. Winter in these forgotten towns, Schooner and Lisle, Georgetown and Liberty, winter here is merciless and far stronger, far more stubborn than down state. The naked black trees expose desperation. The neglected back yards, heaps of dirt and frost-soaked wood chips, abandoned ropes nailed to empty doghouses, piles of tires and hollow, rotting trucks, shedding their curls of red and blue paint, like scabs. Children push plastic toys back and forth, prodding at the frozen earth with sticks and woolen mittens.
A bell jingles and my mother comes out of the small store with two bottles of water wedged between her knuckles and large bag of UTZ potato chips under her arm. She wears brown snakeskin boots and dark mascara. A man in a paint-splattered vest leans against his truck and jams his hands into his front jean pockets as he watches her walk. I replace the gas cap, open the car door and lean across the leather seat for my Polaroid camera, keeping my eyes on the bird that has just lifted off the ground. I snap photos: the wings against infinite gray, crystallized shoe prints in the mud, the handwritten sign taped to the side of the gas tank that reads TRY OUR FRESH MEAT. I turn the lens on myself and catch one brown eye and some bangs in the lower left corner. I pull out each print and hold them between my teeth.
All that my mother can say is, Christ, where the fuck are we. She shivers and slams the car door. Let’s go, she mouths, and raps on the window and with a long shell colored fingernail.
In the passenger seat I squint to read the map, tracing a long yellow line with my finger.
This looks fine, I say. It’s only about an hour to the border. She knows the way and she still complains.
And then what? Fifty more?
She picks at something above her eyebrow, adjusting the rear view mirror to glance at it. The heat blasts, too hot for me, and blows red hair away from her face. She’s from the south, my mom, from North Carolina. She likes rich food and cigarettes and church on Sundays for the dresses and the hats. She drinks iced tea from a powder with every meal. She applies makeup without a mirror. Brown color accentuates puffy chapped craters across the landscape of her lips.
At my feet are the photographs, drying. I keep a rubber-banded stack in the glove compartment. It’s an art project. For school. What you see is what you get.
Once we get through it should only be… another forty-five minutes, at the most, I tell her, spitting chewed chip across the creased paper.
Well good, and she arches her back. Baby, she asks me, could you just… She points to her lower back. Just down there, she motions. Ah, thank you.
I push my thumbs hard into the base of her spine and make tiny circles, watching her face for approval. She rolls her neck.
Out the window there’s not much to look at. The land is lumpy and bleak, piled up like cold oatmeal. Here and there billboards are nestled above the branches of trees advertising restaurants, Best Westerns and Christ’s love. A large, sad Jesus bleeds from the head with his arms open and his palms face up. An eight hundred number is printed across the folds of his robe.
I must be pregnant. I see another sign for a pregnancy counseling hotline and my insides flutter. It’s the third one I’ve noticed on this stretch of highway. Looming ahead, inevitable to my peripheral, I can recognize them now before I can read them, like the walk of an old friend. It has to be an omen. I’m hungry all the time. I’ve never really technically had sex, but I knew a girl who got knocked up just from getting some of the guy’s stuff on her.
Scared? Alone? You have options. A young woman looks forlornly out a window, clutching her knees to her chest.
My mother plays Billy Joel and sings along to the words. I kick off my boots and loosen the black wool scarf from around my neck.
Excited to see Nanny? she asks. She changes the music track and looks in my direction. I shrug.
That’s not nice, she says.
Dee, she’s special to me.
Yeah, I say.
My mother drives with straight elbows and tight fists. She laughs through a set jaw.
Well… excited to practice your French?
I fold the map in half.
They speak English there too, though, I tell her.
It’s polite to try to speak the foreigners’ language.
We are the foreigners, mom.
She drives. She turns the music up.
For the first time in a long time we are together, alone. She works late. But for the past few years she’s made this trip to Montreal and whenever I’ve gone with her she acts like she doesn’t know how to get there. We go to visit Nanny, as my mom calls her; an aunt she was close to a long time ago. Now Nanny is an old woman with one hundred plants, who dreamt of Paris and left the southern sun for Canada. Her apartment is above a convenient store on a cobblestone street that looks like it could be Paris, if you narrow your eyes. All that Quebec coffee made her blind, my mother says, but she still knows where each plant is, hanging on curtain rods or lined up along the windowsills. She sings to them and waters each one, pouring slowly from a measuring cup. It’s not that I don’t like visiting her. I just never have anything to say.
When we get to the border it starts to snow. Dreamy, fat flakes collect on the windshields all around us. We wait for an hour and thirty minutes in a long line of cars until we reach the customs booth where a man with a French accent takes our passports and asks how we are related, where we will be staying and if we are carrying any weapons or illegal substances. My mother smiles wide, flicks her cigarette, and leans languidly out the open car window, her head cocked to one side. Her drawl comes out, a sleepy, low drawl. She tells the man we are going to see her aunt.
She’s a lil crazy, says my mom. The man nods and hands us back our passports and we’re off into the slippery darkness towards Canada.
Twenty minutes later the snow is so thick we can’t see four feet in any direction. My mother bites her bottom lip and sits up very straight. I lean forward looking out for signs.
I don’t know. This is bad, Diana, she says. She breaks. The car slides forward, just enough to make us jump.
We should pull over. We should definitely stop Diana, don’t you think?
Where are we gonna stop, mom? There’s nothing. I can’t see anything. Can you? I can’t.
Don’t snap at me Diana. Jesus, she says.
She bites her lip some more. There are the hints of car lights far ahead of us, and some a little ways behind.
I’m just going to pull over. Ok?
She’s not actually asking me, but I nod.
I think about the baby that could probably be inside me, already hating me for being sixteen and irresponsible. Mom, I say. But she’s pulling over now and pulling out another cigarette from a soft red and white foil carton. She rolls down her window a quarter of an inch.
We can just sit here for a little. She exhales, and crosses her arms over her chest. Christ.
I lean back as far as I can against the car door and aim the camera at her face.
Oh, c’mon. Don’t do that Diana. I’m a mess.
She pushes her hand through her hair. But I catch her in mid inhale, her fingers cupped over her mouth and her eyes closed. It’s close to eleven at night. In the dark I put my hands over my aching abdomen and push against the dull hipbones that stick out from under my jeans.
I have to pee, I tell her.
Me too, what do you wanna do? Wanna just get out?
tyle=”text-align: justify; text-indent: 9pt; line-height: 120%; vertical-align: middle; border-top-width: 0px; border-right-width: 0px; border-bottom-width: 0px; border-left-width: 0px; border-style: initial; border-color: initial; padding-top: 0px; padding-right: 0px; padding-bottom: 0px; padding-left: 0px; font-size: 1em; font-weight: normal; margin-top: 0px; margin-right: 0px; margin-bottom: 0.75em; margin-left: 0px; “> I open the car door and look around at the white. I step out a few feet into the field by the side of the road and unzip my pants. The car motor is muffled with the quiet of the snow.
I stand up when I’m done but my underwear is damp and warm. I lift my hand into the light and see a dark red smudge on the knuckle of my thumb. I get back in the car and cross my legs . My mom has my pictures splayed across her lap. She’s leafing through them like a prospective traveler, glancing at a pamphlet for a trip she could never afford.
Things are pretty good, I say aloud.
What? She stares at me.
I said things are great.
I’m smiling now, for the first time today, because, god, everything’s fine. We could sit here until tomorrow. I don’t care. And I can help make dinner tonight, or tomorrow or whenever we get there, and I won’t have to think about telling him or anyone.
Thank you. Thanks for the sarcasm, she says, tossing the stub of her cigarette out the window. She rolls it all the way up, too tight, farther than she needs to, and watches the glass pane closely as it is pressed into the rubber groove.