It is a sweltering day in the Summer of 1989. A rare day indeed. Its heat is powerful enough to stave off protests about turning on the a/c in my parents’ old Sentra. The milk chocolate colored jalopy was anything but satisfying but it did manage to get us from place to place safely enough. I am alone in the car with my mother; the only of her six progeny to ride with her on this day. Our destination unknown. This fact, it seemed, is the only detail to erode from my memory over the years.
My mom has just received a new magazine in the mail and, since I lacked the age or expertise to commandeer my parents’ car, my mother found solace in reading excerpts at traffic lights. It only seemed to whet her appetite for more. More time.
At one particular traffic light, at the busy intersection of Montana and New York Avenues in northeast Washington, DC, my mother pulls up slowly to the crosswalk, content to let the final few seconds of the yellow light leave its perch while the crimson eye took its post. Her intention is to savor the precious time allotted from the sentry that stood watch by delving into her magazine. She utters these fateful words to me: “Let me know when the light turns green, okay?”
I sit for a moment, relishing the responsibility as my mind zips around. I am bored and too comfortable in the label “precocious” at the time to follow directions. I think of how neat it would be to spook my mother, to see the look that compassed an “Oh, you got me!” phrase. I don’t know what that face looks like on my mother, but I want to.
But I then I think of how silly it is; how dangerous the implications could be. There is the punishment that would certainly come from it; the idea that this is not, in fact, a fool-proof plan. This is not worthy of the budding thoughtsmith I believe myself to becoming.
But just as I wrestle the stupid idea to the ground, the unthinkable leaps from the closing drawbridge that my mouth fails to be.
I feel shame. Heat. Wetness in the midst of my dry mouth. I see light…the sun beaming through the windshield. The tires screech. They tend to do that when they are brought to an abrupt halt. It’s typically called “slamming” on the brakes. My mother, I believe, did so much more than slam on them.
Her mouth is agape. She looks at me and loses words at the same time the smile leaves my face. I realize that there is no amusement in “Park” as I rub my finger across the capital “p” of the transmission shift.
I hear silence: the cry of a mother too disappointed to speak, too shocked to utter anything at all.
The echoes from the shock penetrate the windows. The whirring of the motor from the AC Unit in the car is the only respite; the only sound outside of the impatient blaring of the horns of oncoming vehicles.
The magazine she once held is under her feet. I have no idea what she was reading or what significance it played, only that it was where her attention was at the time my plan was hatched. It should have never been incubated. If that were the case, then it would have never been intimated.
I taste the acrid air, my head is hung low, realizing that the effort to crawl into a ball at this point would bring more attention to a little boy whose seemingly innocuous remark rendered him desperately chasing the inconspicuous.
Words do not pass. The remainder of the trip is in silence. I busy myself by slowly spinning the wheel on the handle of the car window roller. It feels firmer in my hand than usual. It helps to partially ensconce the blunder which plundered the joy from my mother’s afternoon.
Life sometimes doesn’t flash before your eyes. Sometimes it waits until after; setting up shop in the minute milliseconds that dwell between blinks. I learn about the tenuous nature of my existence; the passing of time and the true breadth of the gravity of my situation: the weight of which siphoned the stop out of “go.”