I was supposed to be home thirty minutes ago, but I decided to pull off and wash the minivan anyway. My dad is the kind of dad who, upon arrive at my house for Christmas will notice the state of my vehicle’s cleanliness long before he acknowledges the decorative seasonal changes to my 1600-square-foot home. He also purposely calls my daughter by my name because he thinks seven-year-olds like that kind of stuff.
Mom is different. She’s the kind of mom who is already taking off her coat before she’s fully inside the home. She’s pushing up the sleeves of an outdated white holiday sweater that she seemingly cannot remember wearing the year before to our annual get-together. It doesn’t bother her that she’ll be wearing the same garment in each year’s picture, which, of course, one of us puts online for weeks this time of year.
So, a car wash was suddenly in demand. My daughter Frankie and husband Lance were instructed to make a cheeseball and some cookies from one of those cheap prepared rolls you can buy anywhere for a couple bucks. Those, remarkably, are the only kind my dad likes. Mom will make more once they’re there, and there will be about fifty left after everyone has either fallen asleep or headed back home. I’m bound to find Lance in bed or in the kitchen with a handful later tonight.
There’s a line at the car wash because it’s two days before Christmas, sunny, and everyone wants to get the salt off their vehicles at the same time. I’m behind an old Camry, which, for a split second, I thought was the exact one I sold to someone in town about three years ago. Of course, it isn’t it, but it reminded me of my life pre-van. Lance wanted the van–or at least that’s the story I plan to tell other parents forever–before I even mentioned it. Frankie was never a problem to get in and out of the old sedan I’d had since college, but it needed way too much upkeep by then, and we were toying with the idea of more children still in those days. Frankie’s still the only one, but this car in front of me makes me wonder if she’ll ever have a baby brother or sister some future Christmas morning.
I’m handed a receipt and a guy starts scrubbing stuff off the front fender. He’s wearing sunglasses along with the required shirt-and-tie uniform. It’s like he’s on his way to an audition for Reservoir Dogs right after today’s shift. The satellite radio my husband has to have is set to a “traditional holiday” station, but I switch it off for local news and something poppy. He doesn’t know I still listen to Top 40 stuff whenever he’s not around because he’s very passionate about music and I think I might just destroy his soul if he learned that I’m into teeny-bopper stuff that our daughter is starting to ask for for Christmas.
The guy scrubs the sides and rear and I watch the Camry evaporate under the thick gray noodles that separate the wash from the outside world. The local DJ is at the mall and is reporting live. Something about heavy foot-traffic near the Victoria’s Secret across the hallway. Girls are screaming about something nearby. I look toward the empty passenger seat where Lance would be sitting and flinch to change the station.
“Ma’am!” The fake Mr. Pink bellows with his hand encircling his lips. He must have said it a few times. I look up and he’s waiving me to pull forward. I check my side mirror as if I’m in real traffic and see four or five cars who are probably frustrated a bit with me. In college, I suggested to a friend that we work on a design to put up a “Sorry!” sign in our back window for times when we know we fucked up while driving. It never made it to a prototype, but I think about that when I do stuff like this.
Victoria, the name for the van that Frankie assigned the day we brought it home, slides under the set of heavy tarp-like noodles and I can see the old Camry’s taillights. It takes me a few seconds to question why they’re at that angle. Victoria and I are on the treadmill and advancing forward toward the first stage of the wash. A kid named Billy Voltaire–age sixteen–is covering an Elton song on this station all of a sudden. The red taillights of the Camry grow larger with each second. Then, a ker-CHUNK that stops my car and thrusts my head forward. I’m not hurt at all, but I get my first ever taste of whiplash. The kid’s voice on the radio couldn’t be worse right now, so I smash the power button so the butchering can cease. Water is blasting my windshield, but it’s not circling around the vehicle the way it usually does. Of all things, I think of what it might have felt like to be the victim of those horrendous days of being assaulted by fire hoses.
My car is halted but all the machinery around me continues to hum, spurt, blast, and wheesh water and soap. I can hear muffled yelling from, I presume, more would-be Tarantino characters, but they do not seem to be able to hear each other clearly. No one, I’m wagering, knows how to shut everything off. The Camry’s lights are bright red. The driver must have his foot on the brakes but I can’t figure out why.
Then, those lights move.
They slant some more off to the right. If it helps, it reminds me of watching the car in front of you slide off the road slowly, powerlessly, and pathetically. It’s definitely not on the treadmill anymore.
I suddenly have to pee and the water jets from all around are not helping whatsoever.
I stretch my head up and around the steering wheel–the way people do when they’re desperately trying to get to the bottom of the reason for the stopped traffic at 6:24 pm on a Thursday–to no avail. The only result of my useless searching is a crink in my neck. That’s what Gramma called them anyway. She didn’t finish–or go to–medical school but she always seemed to have words and remedies when she was alive. Mom has never been as confident in her at-home cures, and I’m ready to take Frankie to the Quick Clinic every time she says words like “bellyache” or “itchy.”
I’m thinking about Gramma and her firm stance on everything from democracy to salisbury steak when I see my engine lights static-flash. My eyes go straight to the gas gauge–the only one I confidently know how to remedy–and learn that Lance did not, in contrast to what I swore I heard him say this morning–fill up the van. These symbols all bare the ROY-G-BIV standards, but their figures are irrational garbage to me. I know lights shouldn’t be on. I know Lance is somehow responsible. I know the Camry’s lights haven’t moved and that I still have to pee.
There’s a twenty-four ounce sippy cup, miraculously, behind me between the kids’ seats. There’s also miniature toy wrappers, folded stickers from the grocery store, a baby toy Frankie hasn’t touched in months, and a healthy stack of fast-food napkins that are white or recycled brown.
The water in the car was shuts off. Like, all of it. The men are all yelling. Loudly. Profanely. Gramma would jump out of the car, somehow avoid any drips from overhead machinery, and give them all a lesson on language and manners. Me? I’m pretty sure I’m gonna try to piss in my kid’s sippy cup.
When I reach for it, my car begins moving forward and the water jets blast my driver’s side window. I feel like I’ve been caught by a principal or priest for thinking of devilish things. I actually say “Shit!” and jam my ring finger against the steering wheel. The Camry is getting closer. Or, specifically, I’m getting closer to it. I’m longing for the time, a few moments ago, when that dipshit kid ruining a classic song was my only problem.
I hear a screech and realize it means I’m about to stop again. I didn’t recognize it the first time, but I’ve already adjusted to this hellish nightmare of a situation that my brain stopped me from getting whiplash a second time. I pee a little. Not a lot–like Gramma did before she passed. I love how my vagina can stop things on its own and not wait for any permission from me.
“Ma’am!!” I finally hear. It’s Mr. Orange. Maybe. At this point, nothing is certain. Lance loved Mr. Orange the most, I think. The guy is looking right at me. Actually, he’s probably curious about the sippy cup between my legs. I reach for the automatic window button. “NO! Don’t roll it down! It could start up again anytime!”
“Okay,” I say, and casually toss the empty clear cup to the passenger seat.
“My man-a-ger is on the way.” He’s talking to me the way Lance and I used to talk to Frankie before she started school. He even has his hands around his mouth as if my window was the equivalent barrier of bank vault. I want to be anywhere else. “He can fix it, but it will be about ten more min-utes!!” I consider telling him that he’s shouting way too loudly, but he’s already gone. He didn’t offer to extract me or anything. He’s clearly more concerned with keeping me dry, which, of course, is ironic in the worst way.
He’s gone, and I hear a few more muffled shouts. The Camry has been stagnant the entire time, and I have to wonder about its occupant(s). Is she(?) like me? Did she have to wash her car for the same reasons I did? Now? On December 23rd? Is she alone? Is she always alone?
She’s probably smoking a cigarette. I miss them. Now, that is. I don’t ever want to smoke around Lance or Frankie, or with other moms even when they talk about it. I don’t want to smoke when my mom says something insulting. I don’t want to smoke when I think about my useless degree hanging in the office that no one in the house uses.
But I want one right now. I’d do anything for a quick cig. Even if Mr. Brown were to jump in my car, I would probably ask him for a Marlboro Light 100 before I interrogated him about entering my car without my permission. I close my eyes and think about smoking. In the dorms. In my Camry. In my life before Lance and a family. Before worrying about holiday baking and finding matching stockings for our faux fireplace.
The thing is, the pee impulse goes. My eyes open, and I turn on the radio, and the teen wannabe is gone but replaced with something even more drab and revolting. Lance would shit. My mom made me a little picture frame that’s designed to hang from the rear view mirror. It has three panels, but she only filled one. The other two have stock photos still of those picture-frame models. White shiny non-smoker teeth. Vest jackets and denim. High tan boots on the woman and perfect child-actor hair on the kid who’s unnaturally acting as if he doesn’t want his picture taken. I ask myself why I didn’t fill these with Lance and Frankie right away. What mom doesn’t do that instinctively? Of course I should have used that degree to do something other than find Lance and get pregnant. Of course I should have told Davey Bennings that I loved him too when I did. Of course my mom shouldn’t have dug that hole in the backyard without calling the gas company first.
The Camry girl in front of me has it made. She’s still free. Free to go anywhere once she’s out of here. Free to live her life and use her degree and wait for kids and stay unmarried and eat cookie dough and never enroll in a pilates class if that’s what she wants.
What am I saying? I don’t hate my life at all! I love Lance and Frankie and cylinder cookie dough. I don’t like vest jackets or cigarettes. I love reading books to my daughter in terrible, untrained voices and hearing her laugh when her dad tickles her neck.
A knock on my window. My eyes had closed.
“Ma’am?” He’s older and looks like my eighth-grade science teacher. He motions for me to roll down my window. I do it. “Go ‘head and put ‘er in neutral again.”
I rattle my head and smile at the sippy cup beside me. Shift.
“Here’s four free car washes, Ma’am. We’re awfully sorry. Have a nice Christmas.” He looks toward the exit. The Camry is gone. “You’re free to go.”
I thank him.