Year, Make, Model

The side panels of my Uncle’s truck are speckled with wheat colored mud and the dashboard is bleached from the sun. The glove compartment is filled with cassette tapes, track after track of music I’ve never heard before. My mom listens to Billy Joel and Elton John, and I can’t remember a time my father even turned the radio on. The tapes my Uncle has are covered with roses and skeletons and color. I hope he will put one on but I do not ask.

My Uncle slides into the driver’s seat and starts the engine, then turns to smile at me. I know the difference now: when someone lifts the corners of their mouth because they want to or because it is a chore they must do to help me feel normal. For nearly everyone in my life, I have become an object of concern, something deserving of scrutiny, something precariously balanced on the line between destruction and resilience. He shifts the car into gear and turns up the volume on a tape that’s already in the deck. It is easy to tell which smile is his.

The Midwest summer air crisscrosses over our bodies, in one window and out the other, as we drive to his house across town. He talks about things I don’t fully understand, and he cracks jokes. And even when there is silence it is gentle. There is an absence of what I have grown accustomed to: tension, uncertainty, fear.

I am acutely aware of how, next to my Uncle, the world is a good place with good people and I am not something that has already been broken.

I am eight-years-old and tired all the time. I want to fall asleep when my mom makes popcorn and puts on a movie, when I sit on the floor with my legs crossed so she can brush my hair, when I’m at school wearing the disguise of a normal child. Sleep is hibernation, preparation while in safety for unforeseen things.

I am eight and awkward and round. Before, I ate so my mouth would be full and I wouldn’t have to speak. When I wasn’t with Mom, I ate, because if I filled myself enough maybe the hole in my existence would fill up too. Now that we’re together, I eat the good things my mother makes because I have missed meals made by her hands. And maybe the same part of me that feels the need for sleep, that craves the safety of hibernation, can foretell other things. Maybe the primordial part of me that understands food is endurance and self-preservation also understands that these meals she makes will be the last time something of hers will nourish me.

But in my Uncle’s truck I am bound to nothing, I am surrounded by air and light and sound. It is a place beyond survival. His words are lullabies in my ears, but I do not want to sleep and I hunger for nothing. I want only to live in this moment. I want the road to unfold before us as I sit in the passenger’s seat and study his hair that is the color of sand. I want to look at his face and search for traces of my own, if only to prove to myself that someone like me has the audacity to be happy.

***

For years emptiness occupies my life no matter how much or how little I eat, no matter how few or how many hours I dedicate to closing my eyes. Empty wine bottles huddle together on the kitchen counter and I ignore their remains because if I look for too long, they become grotesque. Cigarettes crowd together, straight as soldiers, in packs that can be perpetually found in my bag. They wait to be chosen by my blind hand, to be set alight and glow, to disintegrate between my fingers.

I do not think of my Mother. I do not think of my Uncle or anyone from that side, as my father says. I do not want to remember anything west of the Mississippi River. I do not think of the details of my life, of all the ways I’ve been made vulnerable and damaged by the hands of others. When there are too many questions and no one to answer them, it is easy to close the doors of my life, to lock them and swallow the keys. The anniversary of my Mother’s death comes and goes many times over and her absence remains a wound that doesn’t heal. But it is easier to conflate my sorrow with apathy, my loneliness with independence, my grief with anger.

Not far from where I live my father lives too. On the infrequent occasions he visits, he looks past me, through me, away from me, just as he has always done. He looked through me when I was ten, when my face contorted with sadness as he told me my mother didn’t come, didn’t think of me, didn’t love me. He looked away when I was fourteen, when my mother died and I was my own consolation. He looked past me when, at seventeen, I would stumble home smelling of vodka and cigarettes. I am an adult now, attempting to construct a life without blueprints, without ever having seen an example of how life should be lived. When my father tells me to trust him, I do. I believe him when he says I was so young I couldn’t possibly understand what happened with my mother. You don’t remember, he says, she was a bad mother. And I believe him when he says he knows best.

Later I will understand that for him, it is easy to push and pull, to arrange the people in his life like ragdolls. He likes it when everyone sits quietly, their mouths sewn shut, their faces preserved in perpetual, unquestioning happiness. But right now, because I do not know these things, because the truth has also been locked behind closed doors, I am numb enough to believe this is happiness.

At twenty-three, it has been so long since I have looked to everything I have left behind. Sometimes a memory surfaces, a golden moment like the ride in my Uncle’s truck or the sound of my mother’s voice. I try to examine those moments before they escape, before I bury them again with trembling hands. I can only look at them with teary eyes, through blurred vision. Quickly, I sweep my memory of those moments because it is what I have always done. I survive because I run, because I bury things, because I close doors behind me.

***

My world has been reduced to my home, to the walks my family and I go on some afternoons. The world is small for everyone now; these days that have become weeks that have become months. And while sometimes the reality feels incomprehensible, I remind myself there is much to be grateful for. I remind myself I have lived behind closed doors before and that this is not the same because it is only a matter of time before they open again.

My Uncle’s voice sounds the same, even after all this time. Low and rumbling like the lull of an idling engine. He speaks slowly, telling me the details of his life like he is pouring me a glass of cool water. I am parched for his words, so I listen, I drink.

I sit at home in a swivel chair in front of a desk littered with papers. And he, I imagine, is at his kitchen table. I imagine it is the same Formica-topped, chrome-edged one I sat at long ago. There are faint scuff marks from his boots on the linoleum floor, the door to his backyard open so the breeze flows in and the choir of insects can be heard as they crescendo in unison. Everything, I want to believe, is still in its place. His voice sounds like fields of corn, like dirt under fingernails, like a summer afternoon.

When I hear myself, I become aware of how quickly I speak, how dissimilar the intonations of our voices are. It is a reminder of all the life we have lived without so much as a conversation between us. But finally, I have stopped running. I have gone back and opened the doors. I have torn open the stitches of my own ragdoll mouth. But it is not enough.

There is an impulse to say something that will bring me closer; I miss her. I have missed all of you. I missed so many things. We are the same, you and I. I don’t say it, but all my life I have longed for closeness; always I have wanted to say the words that are written on my heart.

The more we talk the easier it is because he is still the same. Every moment feels like filling a hole with earth, like planting a seed. I want to tell him everything: about the ways people can turn feral and destroy a human heart, about the empty bottles that once inhabited my counter, about a thousand other things that have lived in me. But for now, I tell him about my family.

“Does he treat you good?” My Uncle asks of my husband.

For a moment I am motionless in my chair. He wants to know. The unfiltered sincerity of his question cradles my heart. The only word I can think to describe it is fatherly. Before answering, I smile even though my Uncle cannot see me.

“Yes,” I say. “He does. My husband is a good man.”

Just before we disconnect our call, he says I love you. It is not an afterthought. It is the unflinching confirmation that even in my absence I have held space in his heart, that he has closed no doors. Something stirs inside and it feels like resplendence. Like the rumbling of a starting engine. I want to hold onto this moment. I hope that in an hour, a day, a week, a month, the feeling will not dissipate.

After the call, I remember a question I had been wanting to ask. The truck. What was the year, the make, the model? I need to name my memory. I am paralyzed with panic; the desperation to weed out uncertainty still a vestige from when there was no way to look back. I want to call again, to ask right away. But when I look around, I see the home I have made. I hear the familiar sounds of my dog barking, of music, of movement. I can identify who is walking by only the sound of their footsteps. I hear voices and sweet laughter. I am beyond survival now; my life is full and in bloom. For a moment, I am back in my Uncle’s truck; the windows are open, and I am wrapped in a warm breeze. Now I, too, have the audacity to be happy. I put the phone down and rejoin my family.

I’ll ask my Uncle next time.

Laura Seldner is an emerging writer currently living on the East Coast. Originally from New Jersey, she is a graduate of the Latin American Studies program at Rutgers University. A speaker of Spanish and Portuguese, she has spent time traveling and living in South America and has had a range of jobs including delivery driver, bartender, and translator. She is a mother, wife, and appreciator of nature, art, and life. This is her first published piece.