We’re in a blizzard, the sheer white of it haloing our Nissan Maxima as we careen across the northeast interstate, miles and miles away from the tropical green swelter of our backyard, the cicada buzz of Florida. Starting somewhere in New Jersey, the weather blots out the roads, swallows exit signs, engulfs my parents, younger brother and me in its silent magic. Our burgundy sedan skidding slightly as our mouths open in unison to the light falling soundlessly outside. For the first time in our lives, we feel like the lucky ones. Sole witnesses to a quiet miracle, a record-breaking weather event. This is a real indoor thrill ride, an attraction the likes of Mickey Mouse and company have never seen. Stay off the roads, the voice within the radio warns. Black ice and low visibility. And that poetic caution just encourages us further. As we pass rest areas and off-ramps, a collective thrill electrifies our innards. We’re probably the only car on the road, my mother brags. Mom’s body, nearly healthy, can now journey distances. Untethered from her bed and hospital rooms, she craves the foreign frozen white she’d once seen as a child. And now it falls endlessly. A gift.
The warm air streaming through the vents smells like burnt Doritos. I layer the tiny worlds of pop songs playing on the radio over the large natural one zooming by outside and everything seems to matter more. I press my face against the window, the cool against my cheek as close as I’ve come to touching snow. I don’t even need to, I think. This is enough. My family and I cozy in our puffy jackets, the nylon squealing with our every breath, the vast and beautiful emptiness of the landscape moving past us, the vastness of this moment.
This memory I trust because of the comfort it offers–the illusion of a comfortable family, bonded through adventure, united through endearing naivete. It’s everything after the snow melts and the trees disrupt the sky and the mountains choke the horizon and the Man and the Woman and their Boy and their Girl greet us from the front of their smalltown New York home that eludes me, that blurs at the edges like a lucid dream. We meet this family through a sick neighbor of ours, an older woman dying of breast cancer. It is the Man’s mother. Every month or so, the Man and his family fly down to Florida to visit the ailing woman and her husband. When she eventually dies, we get closer to the Man and his family. Well, it’s mostly the Man and Mom that become close, soft murmurs in living rooms, secret jokes exchanged, exaggerated laughter over telephone lines. Illness connects people, I guess. The whiff of death like pheromones. The last name of the Man literally means “fair one.” Synonymous with snow.
It is the Man’s idea that we make the trek up north and explore his roots. Most memories from this vacation are faint but pleasant: day trips to a dairy farm and abattoir, hikes across rocky streams, rollicking down unpaved roads in the center seat of the Man’s big truck, safely wedged between him and Mom while the trees grow taller and thicker, snagging us in their spidery canopy. My dad follows close behind in the Maxima. I catch his face in the rear view but can’t tell what his mouth is doing.
Other memories are visceral reels of film unspooling in my brain. So vivid and surreal that I wonder what’s been erased, replaced and edited and for what narrative purpose. For instance, the boys at the bottom of the hill. We view them from across the road, standing in their makeshift tool shed, the gaping maw of the open garage. The Boy, the eldest of us four, asks them to play. They answer back with spit and cussing and dark curls threatening and rosy mouths sneering. The slightly bigger one wields a hatchet, says he can cut us up. Says his parents aren’t home. Says we better start running. And then, inexplicably, these dark and curly child demons are chasing us through the graveyard that snakes along the Boy and Girl’s property. With hatchet in hand, the bigger one sprints, intent on violence. The smaller one appears to be walking on all fours. My feet scramble over the homes of the buried, the Girl with the name of a poisonous tree pulling at my hand, her golden ponytail fleeing from her neck in panic. We run and run, zigzagging through the names of the dead. I think of the monstrous men from horror movies who chase children with weapons that maim, that slaughter. There’s a fence, wooden rungs just tall enough for us to clamber over. And we do with gelatinous knees and oily palms. The Girl presses on my shoulders, pulls me down onto the icy earth behind a large tree. The Boy and my brother are there too, crouching and speaking loudly with frightened eyes despite the controlled clench of their rounded jaws. The Boy puts his index finger to his lips to calm and soothe us. His hair is spiky blades of grass that do not waver. I think I’m in love. The boys from the garage do not jump over the fence. Their profanity fades, the thud of their sneakers on hallowed earth vanish. Breathless, we head back to the house. Our parents have been there the entire time. Drinking wine and talking about that TV show where everybody knows your name. No one mentions the bone-aching terror we just experienced. We were just playing, we say as we enter the indoor warmth, removing our shoes and gloves, our outerwear. The adults nod dumbly, their glasses empty.
But it is the last night of our trip that plays in eerie soft focus and slow motion, unvarnished by time. The events recounted are impossible to confirm. The Boy has since died and he was the source. The Girl and I nestle in sleeping bags on the Boy’s bedroom floor. My brother rests on the bottom bunk and the Boy perches at the top. The wood creaks beneath our tiny bodies with the ginger movements of the adults downstairs. The smell of pine and flannel mix with the herbal and gamey scents leftover from dinner. Like a miniature sun, the boy’s night light burns, casting us all in slabs of shadow, as he tells us what he saw. His eyes raised to the ceiling, his voice small and hesitant as if it’s his own weighty confession. I can feel him growing older and wearier as his words grow brighter in the fiery orange light. Each utterance sparks and singes, then quickly turns to ash. Sometimes, I get confused and think I saw what he did, too. My mother and the Man sharing a furtive kiss, mouths briefly touching as the kitchen faucet runs, an undried dish in my mother’s manicured hand. The Man holding my mother’s face like a jewel to the light of the moon through the bay window. Deer meat from the Man’s early morning hunt thawing on the counter.
No one says anything except the Girl who asks what it means. No one answers her because we already know. Like the graveyard chase, we never speak of this again. I don’t recall sleeping.
On the ride back to Florida, I spy on my mother in the side view mirror. She’s upset because the cassette she bought at the mall is warped and my dad is driving too fast. Her mouth is a firm terracotta. She wears sunglasses and stares straight ahead because there’s nothing left for her to see. Decades later, I find a poem she wrote during this time in her journal. It’s on a random page near the back in careful blue lettering. The first line: “He’s moved your heart again and/the moon casts a shadow/over a grave.” I flashback to that house on the hill bordering the resting place of the dead. I never consider that this poem could be about my father.
The last stanza reads unfinished: “Does he dream your dream?/Are you just a memory?/Only you aren’t what he remembers.” I try to parse each line and insert myself into the shared dream of my mother and the Man. The dream of not being forgotten or misremembered, of time staying sweet and static, the present incapable of defiling the past. I cling to the Boy’s remembrance, his glimpse into this shared dream. I imbue it with vibrant color and detail as if it belonged to me.
My mother ejects her tape, meets my eyes, and limply waves. I raise my hand before skating my fingers along the passenger window, thick clear lines cutting through the mist. The shapes recede as the pane fogs over. Messages unseen.