There was something about driving an ancient Dodge Caravan packed with all of my worldly possessions, including my four year-old son and my cat, that reeked of failure and desperation. The back of the minivan was crammed with duffel bags of clothing and cardboard boxes filled with pirate action figures, perfume bottles, matchbox cars and race track pieces, sketchbooks, a remote-controlled dinosaur, mascara wands and eyeliner pencils, markers and stubby crayons; and black garbage bags stuffed with everything else: David’s rocket ship comforter, my flat iron, winter coats, story books, sandwich baggies full of earrings, and half-eaten boxes of Little Debbies that were probably smushed by now. I’d sold my bed, couch, and kitchen table for a fraction of their worth and had given my TV to Stacy for all the times she’d watched David for free. I’d also asked her to hold on to my rocking chair, the one piece of furniture I couldn’t bear to part with, until I could come back for it. I’d taken bags of clothes and toys that David had outgrown plus my old dresses, purses, and shoes to Goodwill, and still the minivan was bursting with the painfully mundane trappings of my life.
If I’d sped past myself on the highway five years ago (and undoubtedly I would have, because the Caravan wasn’t capable of high speeds), I would have looked at the maroon minivan missing its hubcaps; the back windows blocked by lumpy garbage bags and last minute additions to the trunk like Candy Land, a bag of kitty litter, a dustbuster; and then the driver—a pretty, twenty-two-year-old girl with dirty blond hair and a perfect nose sporting glamorous sunglasses, a bleach-stained T-shirt and frown lines, and thought—where the hell did she go wrong? And then I would’ve zipped past, changed lanes, secure in my own bright future, and forgotten her.
Ha. What a sucker I’d been. What I sucker I still was.
I raised my eyes to the rearview mirror and caught a glimpse of David rocking back and forth in his booster seat, singing quietly to himself, “The tie-ran-a-suss rex had big big teeth, big big teeth, big big teeth. The tie-ran-a-suss rex had big big teeth when dino-suss roamed the earth.” In her pink crate on the seat next to him, Vivien Leigh was mewling her dissatisfaction, as she had been since we’d left Milwaukee an hour ago.
“How you doing back there, buckaroo?” I called over my shoulder.
He lifted his blond head and squinted thoughtfully. “Me and kitty are singing,” he said.
“I can hear that. Do you need to go potty?”
He squinted again and cocked his head. “No.”
Which meant yes. I popped a stick of watermelon gum into my mouth. “We’ll stop at a gas station in a few minutes and you can go.”
The AC had been wheezing and puffing out only a tepid breeze, so as soon as I pulled off at the next exit, I cracked the windows and the pungent, familiar smell of manure blew in. Yep, definitely not far from our new home now. Strands of my hair whipped across my face, and I wished I could remember where I had packed my brush—probably in one of the duffel bags at the very bottom of the pile. Oh well. Who was there to impress at this Podunk gas station anyway? There were only four pumps, and a homemade sign advertising BAIT! BRATS! HOTDOGS! God, I hoped there were indoor bathrooms.
“Can kitty come out, Mommy?” David asked as I unstrapped him from his booster seat. Sensing freedom was near, Vivien Leigh was yowling for all she was worth.
“No, she’s fine,” I said and held out my arms for him to jump down. “We won’t be long.”
David curled his pointer finger around one of the metal bars of her crate sympathetically. “Do you want food, kitty? Do you want to play? Do you need to go potty?”
I glanced inside her crate. She shot me a haughty look and then, seeming to think better of it, let out a pitiful meow. “Oh, don’t be such a diva.” I manually propped the side windows open an inch.
David looked unconvinced, but he slid into my arms anyway.
Inside, a country music radio station played over the speakers, and the tiled floors looked like they hadn’t been mopped or swept in twenty years. Crystals of salt leftover from winters long ago stuck in the soles of my sandals. David galloped straight for the candy aisle.
“No candy,” I said in my best I’m-not-in-the-mood-so-you-better-not-startvoice. The man at the register craned his neck to get a good look at us, but I ducked behind a rack of trucker hats as I steered David’s little body to the restroom. Suspicious of what state the bathroom would be in, I flung the door open and flicked the light on with my elbow. It was pretty much in keeping with the rest of the gas station: sad gray tiles, scrunched-up paper towels on the floor, drippy faucet, toilet seat flipped up to reveal what I hoped was a ring of mildew.
“Don’t touch anything,” I instructed David and guided him inside.
He stood in front of the toilet for a second and then faced me. “Go outside, Mommy.”
“Just go potty, David.”
He frowned. “Go outside. I’m a big boy.” It was his rebuttal to everything lately.
I glanced at my phone—it was three o’clock already, and I’d told Duffy we’d be there around one—and blew out a sigh of resignation. “Fine. But don’t touch anything, and wash your hands when you’re done. I’ll be right outside if you need anything.”
When the door closed with another click, the cashier’s head darted up again. Unluckily, we had a direct view of each other as I waited outside the bathroom. He was middle-aged with a thick brown beard and a green plaid shirt. I supposed he was a nice enough guy—somebody’s uncle who sent birthday cards with a twenty inside, the best bowler on his team, maybe—but all I felt right then were his eyes crawling all over me, undoubtedly trying to determine the color of my bra and the cut of my underwear. Yuck.
I narrowed my eyes at him and then feigned interest in the odd assortment of items shelved nearby—windshield wiper fluid and ice scrapers right alongside boxes of tampons and bags of Funyuns. My gum was starting to lose its flavor, and I hadn’t heard the toilet flush or the water run yet. I pressed my ear against the door.
“Everything okay in there, buckaroo? Need any help?”
David didn’t respond, but I thought I could hear him singing softly: “…when dino-suss roamed the earth…”
I pressed on the door handle, but it wouldn’t budge. “David!” I called. Was the door stuck or had he locked it? “Let Mommy in, okay?” I was acutely aware that the bearded cashier was watching the whole scene with interest.
“It’s time to go, David. Let me in so we can wash up and then go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.” I jiggled the handle again, but no luck. I squatted down to be at his level and spoke into the crack. “Did you lock yourself in? You need to turn the knob or the little dial thingy, okay?”
“I know how to lock and unlock the door,” David said. It sounded like he was crouching, his mouth hovering near the door jamb.
“Great. Then unlock it so I can come in.” I stood up and swung my purse back over my arm.
“Need any help there, honey?” the cashier called.
I didn’t even bother to look up. “No, thanks. We’re fine.”
“Alrighty then,” he said, heavy on the skepticism. “Let me know if you change your mind.” Like he was worried my son was going to wreak havoc in his precious, pristine gas station bathroom. Right.
“David, unlock the door right now,” I hissed.
“If I unlock the door, can I have candy?”
“No deal. Unlock the door this instant, David.” My tone was stern, but I wasn’t fooling anyone. My four-year-old clearly had the upper hand here. The cashier knew it, I knew it; even David knew it.
There was a long pause, then the sound of water rushing. I could only imagine what he was doing inside. Unscrewing pipes? Playing in the toilet? Licking the floor?
“It’s time to go, David. Please unlock the door for Mommy.” I was so tired. I’d been up until three the night before packing the minivan and attempting to cover up the holes in the walls and scrub out the carpet stains for our apartment inspection. Not that I’d gotten my deposit back anyway.
The water stopped. “If I unlock the door, can I have animal crackers?”
Fine. Given the circumstances, it seemed a small concession to make. I was starting to worry Vivien Leigh was dehydrating into cat jerky in the minivan. “Yes, if you unlock the door you can have a snack.”
“Sure. Whatever. Just open the door.”
A few seconds passed and then the door clicked, and I scrambled to open it. David looked up at me with his wide brown eyes.
I gripped his shoulder a little too tightly and peered in the toilet. The water was grungy, but not yellowish at all. “Did you go potty?”
“No, Mommy. I told you I don’t need to go potty.”
“David,” I said, and then stopped, too angry to continue. Count to ten, twenty, a hundred, whatever it takes, Stacy was fond of saying. You can’t take back your words. I bit my lip. “Don’t ever do that again. Now let’s get your snack and get back on the road before Grandma Duffy starts to think we changed our minds.”
Of course there were no animal crackers, so we settled on a dusty package of mini chocolate muffins, which I was pretty sure had been sitting on the shelf a few years past their absent sell-by date, but David wouldn’t be dissuaded. The cashier enjoyed a good close-up of my cleavage in my V-neck as we checked out but then sent me a disapproving look as I handed the muffins over to David. Great, even he thought I was a totally incompetent mother.
I buckled David into his booster seat somewhat gruffly, but enamored with his mini muffins, he didn’t seem to notice. The standoff in the gas station was just another one of the footholds I lost with him every day. Sleeping in his T-ball jersey and socks? Sure, why not? As long as the cleats came off. Eating a Swiss Cake Roll for breakfast? Fine. How different was it really in nutritional value from a Pop-Tart or doughnut? Burying and then digging up his action figures in various holes in the backyard like a dog? Whatever. As long as it kept him occupied. I was a disaster at discipline because David knew my Achilles heel—I didn’t have any energy left in me to fight.
As I pulled out of the gas station, I did a double take. Leaning against one of the pumps was a blond man wearing a leather jacket, despite the heat. He was much too tall and heavyset to be Patrick, but my pulse accelerated anyway. No matter how much time passed, Patrick would always be my own personal boogeyman, lurking behind every corner.
“Tell me a story,” David said around a peaty mouthful of chocolate muffin.My head felt like a wasp’s nest—brittle and buzzing. “Not now, buckaroo. Maybe later if you’re good. I need to focus on the road now.”