Once this kid—my passenger—grabbed the steering wheel and jerked it hard over while I was driving. Not just a little tug, mind you, but a full-on we-gonna-die! yank. The kind that elicited a blood-curdling scream and a shouted sermon. A 19-year old preaching car safety to a 15-year-old. This kid was all charm and immortality and sass. The car fetched and yawed but it didn’t crash into a telephone pole. He thought my fear was funny.
At age nineteen I hadn’t become comfortable yelling at people. That’s why the moment sticks. Now I yell at people for a living. Pro bono. Homeschool mom.
It wasn’t a year after the steering wheel incident I found myself looking at a car, at a half-unwrapped McDonald’s egg McMuffin. The driver’s seat was crushed, crenulated like those paper fans we made in elementary school. The sandwich was in the foot well. He must have had it in his hand when he threw the wheel too hard over. Must’ve dropped between his feet as the car began its flip.
An object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by another force.
This kid, he lay in a hospital bed on life support, monumentally acted upon. His hands were warm from the machines pumping his blood around. All the damage was on the inside where we couldn’t see. This is true for us, too.
Apparently, his brain was dead. I didn’t buy it. Too warm. Too much like sleep. Were I his mother, you’d have to pare me from that beautiful boy with a hacksaw. I’d cling like apple peel. I still do.
I still hold to him. Still yell at him. See him in my own 17-year-old son who drives like telephone poles don’t exist. He thinks my fear is funny too.
My friend began telling this post as if it really happened before remembering it was an entry for a flash fiction contest. I remember her waving it away and saying “…it didn’t really happen.” But it did. Not exactly as I told it, but it did happen, and it happens every day. For most people, getting in our cars is the most dangerous thing we do.
San Juan, 20 years ago. I wore a white sundress with yellow daisies and felt like Ponce de Leon. We posed for pictures on the crumbling ramparts of stone castles and swaggered along narrow cobblestone streets watching artists birth exotic paintings using only coffee cans and spray paint. My hair was half braided into cornrows because that’s all we could afford, and that was cool. Both the poverty and the half-head of tight braids– kind of like having one ear double pierced. It said, I cannot be tamed. At least, in January, 1995 it said that. Today if I want my appearance to hint bohemian, I need to wear a pound of metal on my face and sport enough tattoos to identify my dead body from a space satellite.
We were married on a cruise ship, docked in the port of Saint Thomas. In the sea glass morning hours before we got married, we snorkeled. Carpe diem was never spoken truer of a couple. Getting married? The best snorkeling ever? We can do it all. Such incredible hordes of fish and eels and neon dust riots we saw under the water that day.
Our vows were beautiful. Bob was dashing in his black tuxedo, this gentle man who’d been my best friend since 5th grade. After the ceremony, we paraded the streets of Saint Thomas, spectacles in our white and black wedding attire. Then we ate slices of the best pizza ever. I remember feeling like an island princess.
We always seized the day. And wrung every bit of adventure out of it– especially on our wedding cruise.
One of our ports of call had sea doos available for hourly rent. We’d passed them on our way to the phone booth, and I noticed the wistful look in Bob’s eyes. After calling home, we found there was “just” enough time to ride a sea motorcycle and ensure some vacation whiplash before the ship left. It was too tempting a rush for Bob to pass up.
The cliché is that time flies when you’re having fun. Well, it grew thrusters in those moments, and the ship waits for no one. Not even ridiculous newlyweds trying to squash too much thrill into too little time.
Panic: we stood on the sidewalk, little puddles of sea water gathering around our bare feet, all testifying to our romp on the waves. Taxi after taxi went by without stopping, the drivers shaking their heads at the two messes who would not be wrecking their cabs.
Finally, a taxi stopped, and we were directed onto the tarp in the way back seat. Smart guy. A fare’s a fare. Except, we weren’t. Fares, that is. We had no cash. More panic. Furtive whispering. Also the realization that Bob had left his shoes in the phone booth. No shoes, no cash. Hurtling toward the moment we’d have to deal with those unfortunate facts.
Ahh, life. And the kindness of strangers. Two such kind ones were sitting in front of us and happened to be on our ship. We knew that they had to trust us for the money. They paid our fare, and we paid them back once on board. A life lesson, and we came away richer in wisdom, poorer one pair of shoes, and carpe diem!, again.
The shoes we lost were Bob’s casual pair. Unfortunately, we lost them at our last port, so there was no opportunity to buy new ones. His shiny black dress shoes were all he had left. For dinner, he wore his shoes; the rest of the time, he went barefoot.
The last night of any cruise is different. All luggage, except toiletries and the next day’s outfit, is placed outside the room by midnight. While we sleep, our stuff gets sniffed and searched by the customs department. Then we, after disembarkation and a customs turn of our own, are reunited with our luggage.
It’s a process that works swimmingly.
So long as one doesn’t pack one’s jeans in the luggage.
If one were to pack his jeans in the luggage, that would be very unlucky, as the ship’s stores cannot be opened while the ship is at port. The luggage is long gone into America, and one is left with whatever is in the cabin.
If one were to walk through customs wearing the Emperor’s New Clothes on his lower half, shod in his black dress loafers and white tube socks, it would be a long walk, indeed.
Critical fact #1: We shared a waist size in those early days of our marriage.
Critical fact #2: Ship cabins have everything one needs to survive the walk through customs.
Critical fact #3: We are a resourceful couple.
Picture this: Half my hair in cornrows, with a sunburn on my face and a sleep deprivation hangover, with dainty sneakers on my feet, I walked off our cruise ship and through customs– wearing pillow cases tied around my waist. Like a skirt. Like, I meant to do that. Bob wore my jeans. Carpe diem.
It was a most comedic moment.
It was the perfect union of ridiculous and sagacious.
Us, holding hands on our first walk into America as husband and wife. Carpe diem. Seize the day. Or seize whatever’s available. And walk with a swagger. No one will notice the pillow cases.