We were on our way to Dad’s house and Mom was driving with both hands clamped tightly around the wheel as if she had me by the neck. I had been snapping my seat belt on and off and driving her nuts by asking a hundred what if’s about Dad. She’d been hearing them for two weeks already and wasn’t answering. But that didn’t stop me. What if he’s not nice? What if he hates me? What if he’s as crazy as you always said he was? What if he drinks and gets nasty? What if I don’t like him? What if Grandma tries to put me in the refrigerator again? What if they make Pablo sleep outside? What if they don’t eat pizza? What if I want to come home quick, can I hire a helicopter?
“Yes,” she said to my last question, not really listening. She was taking the long roller-coaster way to Pittsburgh, which was up and down about a million mountain backroads, because she was afraid of driving too fast on the turnpike. As she said before we loaded up the borrowed car, “My license is slightly expired and I don’t have insurance, so just bear with me.”
“How can something be slightly expired?” I asked. “Is that the same as day-old bread? What if we get stopped by the police? What if we are arrested? What if the jails for boys and dogs look like giant birdcages?” She didn’t answer me then, and she wasn’t answering my questions now, even though I kept asking. All she did was tighten her grip and lean forward so much her chin was touching the top of the steering wheel. After a while her silence beat my talking like paper covers rock, so I kept my mouth shut even though the list of questions kept sprouting in my brain.
But then Pablo, my Chihuahua, started yapping nonstop. Maybe it was his neck she was thinking of squeezing because he was driving her nuts too. The roads were beat up and I asked her not to hit the holes because Pablo has a weak stomach and gets carsick easily, but she didn’t even try to steer around the bumps and holes. Her elbows were shaking and her jaw was so tight her front teeth were denting her lower lip. I knew she was stressed-out with the thought of seeing Dad, but right now I was more concerned about Pablo.
“Go around the holes!” I kept shouting as I rubbed Pablo’s swollen belly with the very tippity tips of my fingertips. He was lying on his back with his four feet up in the air like he was already dead, except his eyes were twitching.
“When you’re driving you can’t exactly zigzag down the road!” she hollered back. “We could lose control and flip over.”
“Well, Pablo’s stomach is about to flip,” I said, warning her.
“Then hold your hand over his snout,” she suggested, and squeezed the steering wheel a little tighter as the car stumbled along.
“Then he’ll get carsick through his ears,” I replied. “Or worse, it will back up and shoot out his you-know-where.”
She glanced over at me and glared. “You better keep his you-know-where aimed out the window,” she ordered. “I don’t want any nasty accidents.”
Just then we hit a deep hole and I lifted up off my seat. I saw another one coming and I took my hand from Pablo’s fizzing snout and reached for the steering wheel and Mom slapped my hand away just as the tire hit the hole hard and I bounced sideways and cracked my head on the half-open window and Pablo flipped over onto his hind legs like he was doing a wheelie then opened his mouth and did what I said he’d do all over the front of the radio.
“Oh, sugar!” Mom spit out. “Sugar, sugar, sugar!”
I knew that word meant trouble. The last time she said “sugar” like that was when she got the letter from Dad’s lawyer in the mail and I knew it wasn’t because she had something sweet in her mouth.
“Open the glove box,” Mom said. “There might be some napkins in there.”
I pressed the lock and the little door dropped down and smacked Pablo on his bandaged ear, which must have hurt. There was a box of tissues inside so I pulled that out and because I didn’t know what to do with Pablo I tucked him into the glove box and snapped the door shut. He started yapping again and I pressed my lips to the thin seam around the door and whispered, “Go to sleep. I’ll wake you when we get there.” He whimpered for a moment, then settled down. I tugged out a wad of tissues and began to clean the mess out from between all the little knobs and buttons on the radio, which was hard to do because the car was jerking around in all directions, so I quit.
I let Mom settle down for a mile or two while I chewed on my fingernails before she caught me and pulled my hand from my mouth and held it tight.
“Do you want me to drive?” I asked.
“I guess you may have noticed I’m a nervous wreck?” she started. “Well, I just can’t get my mind off your dad.”
That’s one thing I liked about him already. Her mind was on him, him, him. Usually it was on me, me, me, and I couldn’t do or say anything that she didn’t notice, but now I was hiding inside his shadow like a drop inside an ocean, and he got to take the blame for her bad nerves.
“You know I have mixed feelings about letting you do this,” she said. She was starting to get weepy so it was my turn to settle her down.
“What if he’s nice?” I guessed.
“He better be nice,” she replied.
“I mean really nice?” I said. “Like when you first met him.”
“He wasn’t even nice then. He was just okay.”
“Well, did you kiss him on the lips?”
“What do you think?” she said.
Just the thought of her kissing Dad made me silly and I began to sing, “Mom and Dad sitting in a tree k-i-s-s-i-n-g.”
“Stop that!” she snapped. “You’re buggin’ me again.”
I took a breather then started up again. “Have I done something wrong?” I asked.
“No,” she replied. “I just have a case of bad nerves.”
“Then, why are you sending me to Dad if you don’t think he’s any good?”
“I’m not sending you because I like him,” she replied. “I’m sending you because you might like him and because I think—not with my heart—that it is a good thing for you to have a relationship with your father. And now that he claims to have stopped drinking and has a job and has gone to court to get some visitation, I’m sending you to him because I think it’s the right thing to do. But don’t ask me how I feel about all this.”
“How do you feeeeel?” I asked, and leaned forward and pressed my smiley face into her shoulder.
“Don’t go there,” she said. “I really don’t want to feel anything about all this.”
“Mom and Dad, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g!” I sang again with my head bouncing as if my neck was a big spring.
“Now, Joey,” Mom said, lifting one hand off the steering wheel and pushing me back to my side. “Get serious. Don’t cling to the notion that me and him are going to get back together. No way is that going to happen, so just let it go and focus on your relationship with your father. You have six weeks with him. Figure out what you want from this guy before you get there. Give it some thought because he can be, you know, wired like you, only he’s bigger.”
Even as she talked I didn’t listen because I liked what I was thinking more than what she was telling me so I just hummed, “Mom and Dad, sitting in a tree …”
After that she re-gripped the steering wheel and seemed to aim for the holes. Some quiet time passed and since she didn’t pay any attention to me I said, “Are you sending me because of my trouble with Pablo?”
“That’s only part of it,” she said. “But that last little business was a wake-up call for me—and for Pablo. I mean, I can’t keep you locked up in the house all summer.”
The little business she referred to made me hang my head, because it was all my fault, and like most everything wrong I did, she felt responsible so I just slumped into the corner of my seat. I put my tiny tape-player speakers in my ears and turned on the music. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass were playing “Lollipops and Roses” and while I nodded along I added up the good and bad things about my behavior that day, which is what my special-ed teacher told me to do when I felt sad.
Before I had gone to special ed and got my new meds it would have been impossible for me to sit still and make a list of good and bad things. I didn’t have time for lists. I didn’t have time for anything that lasted longer than the snap of my fingers. But after I got my good meds, which were in a patch I stuck on my body every day, I started to settle down and think. And not just think about all the bad things that had already happened. I started thinking about the good things I wanted to happen. And the best part about thinking good things was that now I could make them come true instead of having everything I wanted blow up in my face.
So, as I sat in the car and took a deep breath, I asked myself what I wanted from Dad. Even though I thought for a long time, my list was short. There was really only one thing I wanted. So after a while I sat up and told Mom.
“I just want him to love me as much as I already love him,” I said.
She listened, then pursed her lips before saying, “Honey, I’m sure he does.” Her voice sounded like she had a long list of other things to say, but didn’t.