Passenger by Jamie Biggs

Passenger
Jamie Biggs

 

I looked outside the car window, waiting for the scenery outside of it to begin blurring past. I had seen it before. The trees that all became one obscure smudge of green and brown when I sped through backroads near my house during high school. The grey buildings that all morphed into one ugly headache the summer I took a bus from D.C. to New York. I had thought that if I let it blur past, I wasn’t really seeing anything but a hazy glimpse of what I rode by, but that wasn’t right. Because I remembered the red brick mailbox that I passed on my way home from school on a Friday in November, and the dead deer that was collapsed in the grass a mile down the road. And I remembered the blue car beside the bus on the highway, the one with the Baby on Board sticker stamped on the back window. It didn’t all blur past.

“Where to…where to…where to…?” My father was chanting in the driver’s seat, pressing buttons on the GPS with his index finger. He paused, stared at the screen, his hand shaking in a way that made me wonder if I was too even-tempered. All of his knuckles were swelling, the beginnings of a bruise. His middle finger was bleeding.

“Where have we never been?” he asked, looking at me. His hand was still shaking as it hesitated in front of the GPS, but his face was a desperate calm when he looked at me. This was all familiar.

For a moment, I had nothing but smart ass replies, likely because I was a product of his and my mother’s genetics. I think he could see them multiplying in my mind as the seconds passed. Eventually, I said Pennsylvania.

The GPS said five hundred miles was all that was between Pennsylvania and us, but I doubted that. Surely there was something more than miles. Probably Walmart’s, and fast food, and people having worse days than my father, but I didn’t mention it, just asked where in Pennsylvania he wanted to go.

“We’ll decide when we get there,” he said. Despite the nature of the trip, I smiled. This was childhood again, and I had counted on familiarity. I looked up as he backed out of the driveway and waved to my mother who was standing at the window in the family room, arms crossed. I could see the lights of the Christmas tree flickering behind her.

It wasn’t my first road trip with my father, but it was the first one of my adulthood. The first eighteen years of my life were filled with road trips to state capitals and tourist-trapping towns at least once a year, taking photos with my father in front of important buildings or things that had been ostentatiously given titles that began with phrases like The World’s Biggest. We would keep running until the bruises on his knuckles had healed or I noticed he was genuinely smiling in our photos, the ones that people now saw tacked on the walls of my apartment at school. They would be jealous, say how lucky I was to have done all of that traveling, how they never did anything like that with their parents. I was always taken back in time to walking through the front door, a new collection of expensive tourist T-shirts filling my bag, seeing my mother sitting at the counter. She would smile, ask how the trip was, and tentatively kiss my father on the cheek when he came inside with his own bag.

“He’s gone,” she would say, and he would forgive her, and I would unpack.

Over the years the “he” changed, but he was always the same to me. Someone who wasn’t my father. Your mother isn’t right, he would say on the trips, in the brief moments where I cajoled him into speaking about her. He would say she was messed up, but he loved her, and he loved me, and she just needed some time to clear her head, and so did he. But not together. I knew he was guilty too. There had been she’s for him, just like there were he’s for her, but never as many, and that seemed to matter to him. My mother had an affinity for men that weren’t my father and he seemed to like punching walls when he realized there was a new one.

There was a time when these realizations made me sick to my stomach with disgust, but that hadn’t happened in years. I saw a flag on one of our trips when I was in middle school, surrounded by all of these other flags that were whipping against the wind, sounding like they were begging to go further than the restraints allowed them to, but there was one at the end of them all that seemed unaffected by the wind, hardly moving, and I kept thinking—that’s going to be me. I’m going to be like that.

***

400 miles from Pennsylvania

A dog in the bed of a black truck with a thick red collar around his neck and two teenagers with backpacks walking down the grassy median. They had caught my attention in the blur of passing things. I wondered if it was possible to stare at a window without looking through it.

The first hundred miles were for music. I knew that, the same way I knew he would turn the volume down abruptly and mutter something about my mother under his breath when that mile marker came. Then he would sigh and ask me to pick a more concrete destination to install into the GPS. I had already been on my phone, searching towns and cities in Pennsylvania for the past hour and a half, trying to find somewhere that would sustain our boredom and be open for visitors the week before Christmas. There was a town in Pennsylvania named Hershey. All of the advertisements had pictures of talking chocolate bars and street lamps with Hershey kisses in place of the lights. It looked repulsively happy considering the circumstances, and I thought about the museum tour that he had dragged me on when I was in the fourth grade. I had been miserable the whole time.

“Alright.” He had cut the volume on the radio. “Where are we going in Pennsylvania?”

“Hershey.”

“Like the chocolate?” he asked, blinking down at his hand. He’d never wiped the blood off and now it was crusted onto his finger, a reminder. He ran his fingers roughly along his pant leg until the blood flaked off onto his jeans.

“Like the chocolate,” I confirmed.

“Sweet.”

It wasn’t an intentional joke, so I caught my laughter in my throat and held it there. The drive to the destination was for breaking down, falling apart, silently fuming. Everything afterwards would be uphill—a piecing back together—but this was his time to be mad and childish and for me to be quiet. I wondered if he did this while I was away at school. If there were times when he made this trip alone.

When we passed by a Corvette with it’s top down and a man bundled in layers behind the wheel, I realized I didn’t have to be with him. Three years away from home—away from all of the desperate, runaway moments—shouldn’t have made me brave, but I was thinking about what it would have been like to watch him walk out of the door, the way my mother always watched us leave. When I had heard his fist slam into the wall, grabbing my bag was a visceral reaction. Like this habit I didn’t know I hadn’t broken. I didn’t want to be like them—the people who spit out accusations and retaliations like they were scripted. I wanted to be numb to them, to not care, to not think about how it could be, but I wasn’t numb the way I used to be. Something had changed me—time, distance, something.

 

***

250 miles from Hershey, Pennsylvania

The lights of a police car and two kids with their faces pressed to the glass in the backseat of a mini van were picked as somehow memorable, and when I closed my eyes, I could still see them.

Halfway through a days drive usually meant it was time for a stop, but neither of us were talking. I think he was waiting for me to speak, but everything I thought of sounded judgmental. I didn’t want to care like this. I remembered the trips when I would tell him jokes to rid the scowl from his face, but now I couldn’t imagine wanting to subdue his frustration. I wanted to watch him simmer. I wanted to watch the way his hands still seemed to tremble when he relaxed his grip on the steering wheel. And I wanted to scream, because this wasn’t me. I was supposed to let it all play out in its inevitable sequence of actions that had been laid out since day one and play my part as the daughter who was fine with this life, but my seatbelt felt like a chain binding me to the passenger seat I had spent half of my childhood in.

“Are you hungry?” he asked. “I’ve got to go to the bathroom, but we could go ahead and grab some dinner.”

“I could eat,” I said, pulling at the waist of my seatbelt.

Despite all of the years that had passed, I knew where we would end up when he took an exit a few minutes later. He stepped into the IHOP restroom while I was seated at a booth in the corner. The table was a familiar sticky. It was all familiar—the overpowering smell of bacon mixed with the surly employees that all spoke in monotone when they took your order. I hadn’t come this close to eating at one in years, but this was what we had done, and apparently what we still did. Whether it was two in the afternoon or two in the morning, we could find whatever breakfast chain the town we were in had to offer.

He returned and found me flipping through the dozen pages in the giant laminated menu. “What are you getting?” he asked.

“Pancakes.”

“Me too, probably.”

I ended up ordering French toast.

He drizzled syrup over his pancakes and I thought about the blue and red lights of the police car that had sped by us on the interstate. My own rearview mirror had reflected the same lights a few months prior. I had sat, waiting for the officer to show up beside my door, stomach turning. I thought being pulled over would be nerve wracking, but I never anticipated the over-powering sense of guilt that poured over me as I waited, knowing I had done something wrong and been caught. He ended up letting me go with a warning. I asked twice if he was sure. Maybe I would just keep speeding if there weren’t any consequences.

“Is that good?” he asked, nodding at my plate.

I shrugged. It was.

All of these years, and I had never asked the question that was on my mind. It was there while I was trekking along behind my father on our trips like a puppy, desensitized to his and my mother’s dramatics. I could never quite figure out how to say it. There wasn’t a sequence of words that arrived in my head that made the question seem appropriate. This awful suggestion—why don’t you just two just get a divorce? Any imagined response would be unfulfilling.  

Then, when I was fourteen, they’d asked me to sit down at the kitchen table because there was something that we needed to talk about. I had thought about this moment—seen it in movies, heard my friends talk about it. Since I was a kid, I had known it would likely be the unavoidable end, but my heart still started to pound. Before they could speak, I was sobbing. They ended up talking to me about a bad test score I had received. I still thought about it years later—wondered if I was like them, holding onto something I should have given up on years before. I saw the good and the bad. I knew which one of them surpassed the other.

***

100 miles from Hershey, Pennsylvania

I slept. When I woke up, it was night. Headlights surrounded us, but the car seemed dark. I ran a hand over my face and tugged against the seatbelt, letting my legs fall from where they were curled in the seat to the floorboard. I glanced beside me. He was driving with his elbow against the door, resting his head against his fist.

“You’re tired,” I said. I didn’t need to ask. Another familiar thing I hadn’t been able to forget.

“I’ll be okay.”

“I could drive.”

His expression changed, a look on his face that would have been expected had I suggested he swerve the car into incoming traffic. He always drove on trips, even after I received my license. Even when we all went out back home, he was behind the wheel, never my mother or me.

“I guess you could,” he said after a pause.

A few minutes later, we stopped to get gas. He held the keys and looked between them and me while he pumped gas. He tossed them through the window and I caught them in the palm of my hand. When we merged back into traffic, he was in the passenger seat.

Within a few minutes, he was asleep. I followed the GPS directions and flicked through radio stations until I found one that I liked. It had been my mother’s rule that whoever drove got to pick the music.

Finally, it was unfamiliar. I hadn’t sat in the driver’s seat of his car since I was was fifteen and learning to drive in parking lots. The music coming through the speakers was from the current century. The mirrors weren’t adjusted for me. His breathing became steady and I watched as his head slowly slumped, further and further, until it was propped against the window. I glanced at his hand sprawled across his knee. Passing headlights lit up the yellow and purple pattern that was forming across his knuckles. It would be at least a week before it started to look any better. At least a week until he would start thinking about turning back.

I drove. There was a pounding in my ears that muffled everything. My thoughts were fighting for attention, but I couldn’t decipher a single one. I followed the GPS, but it didn’t seem like I was going in the right direction. I noticed the unmarked car in the lane beside me when I went to adjust one of the mirrors. I pressed my foot steadily against the accelerator until lights and sirens intruded.

“What the—Mia.” My father woke up just as I was putting the car in park. Headlights passing illuminated us in quick, ungraspable moments. “What happened?”

I turned the volume on the radio down. “I was speeding.”

I could envision his expression effortlessly. No need to look. His eyes would be wide and his mouth pressed into a tight line. His jaw would twitch, but he would keep his mouth shut, too dumbfounded to speak.

I rolled the window down when I saw the officer approaching, then listened to the way his shoes clicked against the pavement until he arrived by the door. Cold air rushed into the car, overpowering the heat pouring from the vents. A flashlight shined down on me and I stared into it for a moment until my eyes began to burn.

His face was hidden behind the shadow of his flashlight. “You sped past me back there.” He moved the light onto my father. “Where are you guys headed tonight?”

“Hershey.”

I heard a throat clear to my right, and prepared for the excuse that I knew was about to spew from my father’s mouth. “Sir, we’ve been driving all day, trying to make it to our destination before too late. I think we’re both just getting tired. My daughter here was probably wanting to get us there as soon as possible.”

The officer turned his attention back to me. “You were going seventeen over when I clocked you.”

I heard my father sigh.

“I know. I’m sorry, sir.”

“Can I take a look at your license?”

I dug through my bag on the console while he asked a few other questions, most of which he directed at my father—is this your car? how long have you been on the road today? He took my license back to his vehicle and told us to hold tight.

It was silent for a moment, and then: “Why were you going so fast? God, Mia. I should have kept driving myself.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“I know you’re sorry. I wanna know why you were driving so fast. Were you not paying attention?”

I rubbed my hands together. It was so cold. “I was paying attention.”

“Then what happened?”

I shrugged and looked out the window. It was reversed now. Everyone was speeding past me, and I was the blur—the inconsequential thing they might just notice and remember for years to follow. Neither of us said anything else until the officer returned and handed my license back to me.

“I’m feeling generous,” he said. I saw my father relax back into his seat, but I held my breath. It couldn’t happen twice. “I can see you’ve both had a long day.”

“Really?” My father had a gracious grin on his face as he leaned forward in his seat to look at the officer. I noticed he was sitting on his bruised hand. “That would be—”

“I was doing twenty over the speed limit,” I interrupted.

My father shot a quick glance at me. “Mia, please.”

“No.” I looked up the officer, who despite his apparent leniency, still had his flashlight trained on my face. “You’re really not giving me a ticket?”

“No, ma’am. It’s your lucky day.”

“I was breaking the law. You caught me. There has to be a consequence for that, right?”

He hesitated, putting his free hand on his belt. “Ma’am, I can write you a ticket if you really want one.”

“Yes.” I nodded my head. “Please.”

He clicked his flashlight off. I could make out his face for the first time, the expression of bewilderment on it as he shook his head back and forth. “Well, alright then. Wait right here.”

***

Hershey, Pennsylvania

We were sitting in the car, parked outside of a Holiday Inn. I was back on the passenger side, legs crossed in my seat, looking at the window. There was a smudge in the center that I hadn’t noticed, but now it was all I could see. Beyond it, there were cars and buildings and people, but all I could focus on was the window and the smudge. How had it gotten there?

“That was unlike you.”

I looked over my shoulder. He was frowning. “Can I ask you something?” He didn’t answer, just let out a long sigh and stared up at the sun roof, crossing his arms over his chest. “What do you remember from today?”

“Remember?”

“Yeah. What stood out to you today?” I held my breath again.

“Probably the scene you just made back there.”

“Not what happened with Mom?”

His gaze went to the dash and his hands went to the steering wheel, like the mention of her was enough to make him want to drive off and pick a new destination. Pennsylvania was tainted just by the mention of her.

“I would rather remember you fighting for a speeding ticket than my fight with your mother.”

Somehow I knew that he would remember what I had done, and that punching a wall would be put into a separate compartment in his brain—the same dark file where all of the bad memories of my mother had been placed. I remembered the interesting people that we drove past and the color of mailboxes, but he let details he didn’t care to remember slide by, to be buried by dust, or dirt, or mud, depending on how well they needed to be kept hidden.

“I always thought you and Mom would wind up divorced,” I said.

A minute passed before he spoke. “I guess the good outweighs the bad.”

I wanted to tell him his scale was broken, but I knew this was what he did. He picked out the good and pushed away the other. Let it blur past. I looked past him and noticed his window was covered in smudges. If it gets dirty enough, I thought, maybe he’ll be able to avoid seeing what’s on the other side at all.

 


Jamie Biggs is Gibson’s owner. Gibson is a two-year-old Border Collie. He’s a good boy.

One thought on “Passenger by Jamie Biggs

  1. Loved the details in this piece. I think my favorite part was the comparison to a flag unmoving in the wind: “That’s going to be me. I’m going to be like that.” Great work!

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