Neon Stickshift

I am driving along the California 1, at least an hour south of Santa Cruz, alone. It’s four o’clock in late February and I am going further into the lazy standoff between afternoon and evening. The sun is mostly gone and clouds age from white to grey, glowing like the exterior of a candle. Redwood trees are ready to lightly step over the two-lane highway and walk on the water. In between water and trees is me, a tiny joint in the land and ocean’s shared skeleton. The light still can’t make up its mind. Is it safer in the ribcage of a cloud?

This time of day is so sad. Being stuck in neither day nor night is loneliness. Everything is different in limbo; though several feet in circumference and rooted deep, the tree trunks seem frail. I think about the elderly women in the retirement home where I volunteered when I was sixteen. Once a week I would go to their “rec room” and paint their fingernails. The room had a few small tables for playing dominos or cards and it had no windows. Nurses in Disney-themed smocks passed out Dixie cups with four M&Ms in them, a kind gesture to make confusion and boredom sweeter.

I’d drag a folding chair around a semicircle of stained La-Z Boys with a plastic box of half-full polish options. A lot of the women couldn’t speak anymore, either because their teeth fell out and couldn’t afford fake ones or their voices were taken by dementia. They’d look at me with earnest, blank affection, extending their hands after I offered my own. I learned that giving options in groups of three often made the selection process smoother. They were also open to suggestions. How about a turquoise? Or a bright red? I think this purple would look beautiful on you. A small nod.

Their hands and fingers were blemished—liver spots, small cuts, deep bruises, arthritic lumps, missing nails—but smooth to the touch. I’d gently hold their hand in my left, painting with the right. The first time I visited, I’d replace a hand with an origami crane made of tissue paper. I was so afraid to move wrong and break something, to crush the bird. These trees remind me of their fingers—mangled but with the elegance one gets to keep when they’ve existed for a long, long, long time.

These are the two degrees of separation between me and all this water: empty passenger seat, car door. There is no metal barrier like there are on other highways—highways with shorter cliffs and more forgiving curves in the road. Here, there is only edge. And below, there’s no shore, no sand, no boats, no people. Just a lot of one thing.

If I look at it long enough, I become mildly panicked that I will forget how to drive and will go careening into the ocean. Suddenly, my brain will delete the muscle memory and instinct to shift the gears, to press the brake, to gently move the wheel. Cocooned in metal and oil and rubber, on four wheels, parallel to the salty mass covering seventy percent of the whole world. The strangeness of it all will become too much and I will self-destruct. This is why it’s important for me to stop for a coffee, or quickly check my texts, or to open the dashboard to look for a CD (an unironic necessity since I lost the AUX cord two months ago): staring at the road reminds me that I am afraid of what is already happening.

This car is mine, I bought two-thirds of it. It’s red, my favorite color since last year. I’ve liked driving since the first time I did it. I was fourteen when my mom started letting me drive the two of us around the neighborhood. Stopping at all signs, using blinkers, waving ‘hello’ to neighbors pushing strollers, this was when I’d disclose the most information about my life to my mother.

We’d discuss how anger is my most fundamental emotion, and I’ve been mad ever since I was a baby. My twin brother was much more mild, and sometimes my hostility caught him off guard. It made him feel far away from me. I still do it sometimes. She didn’t judge my rage but shared my confusion about where it came from, and together we considered what I was going to do with it. As the A/C ran gently, there was a quiet anticipation that my innate tendency to hold anger in my body would detach me from many people. I would part ways many times.

I never had sex before I was eighteen, and I think she was comforted to know that if I had, I probably would have told her in the car. She would’ve told me how important it was to be “safe”. By that, she said, I mean to value yourself over how . . . intoxicating it is, the feeling of being wanted.

At eighteen, I imagined that sex had a transcendent ability to seal people in time. In a frat house bedroom, there was a glowing sign read “BOOBS” in liquid neon. I don’t know if I found it funny, or hated it, or if I commented on it at all. I just remember focusing on the sign, opening and closing my eyes as I slowly swayed back and forth on unwashed sheets. When my eyes were shut I could still see the five-letter word. It flashed behind my eyelids like a firework. I’d open again; the electrocuted shade of green made me squint. The letters grew a pale red outline as I moved between the darkness of the bedroom and the internal memory of light. BOOBS. BOOBS.BOOBS.

I imagined this man looking at his neon sign when he was alone, thinking about the millions of pairs out there and how he could see all of them if he really put his mind to it. Big ones, small ones, mismatched ones, perky ones, inverted nipples, low-hanging ones, tattooed ones, no nipples at all. He’d wistfully remember all the boobs he’d already seen, and looked forward to the future ones. The sky was the limit. It gave him hope. His neon sign hung in homage to the boobs of the world, and he was so proud of it. It was from eBay. It wasn’t even intended to be funny, even though his fraternity brothers laughed at it every time they saw it. Visiting girls would laugh too, yeah, boobs are great. I considered mine, and worried if they were memorable, if I was worth remembering.

Later, at a house party, somebody would grope me while I was asleep on a daybed. The naked, fluorescent overhead light was on and drunk teenagers were wandering from room to room, blissfully unaware of touch. He didn’t stop, even when our eyes met. I didn’t think it in that moment, but in my blotted recollection, the frat house neon sign is there. Larger-than-life, a Las Vegas-scale sign. In the same loopy script, but ten times in size: BOOBS. I stared over my eyelashes, past his blonde head. Winning slot machine combinations rang. Dollar bills flew around the room. He ignored the flashing and dinging of the machines and the fluttering of the money, keeping his gaze between his hand and my heavy eyes.

In the morning, I was on the daybed and he was gone. I sat up and looked around the room—for dollars, poker chips, the sign flashing dimly in the morning sun. I searched for evidence. But it was just me, my shoes still on. My mom picked me up soon after—I gave her a hug but didn’t ask if I could drive home.

I bet my mother came to eventually rely on these slow, repetitive loops around the block to feel like she still knew me the way she did when I was an angry baby. I’ve heard in movies how mothers often feel as if they “lose” their teenage daughters. They lose them to weed, alcohol, their friends, their boyfriends, their emotions that are too extreme and wholly unreasonable. I don’t think my mother ever thought I was lost, but constantly straying just far enough to be out of reach. In the car, I called her “Mama.”

It’s getting late, and I keep catching myself in the rearview mirror. I’m going deep purple and orange, seeped in the light that won’t decide. That honest glow, when everyone is softer in the skin and hair and bends in the limbs, but eyes go brighter and darker at the same time. Deeper. Everything else becomes gentle, touchable, but the eyes are hardened and cracked wide open. Our internal lives rush to the front. See me. See us.

The eyes grow irises of recollection in the late sun’s honesty. We wince in the bright yet waning sun, privately hoping to stay beautiful. I’ve looked at a lot of people in this light: friends, bartenders, my mother, people on the bus, cops, people I’ve slept with. As the day goes, the sun equalizes; people are striking and luminary, naked. It’s jarring and intimate to look somebody in the face. Even though the sun moves this way every day, there’s nothing ordinary about it.

When the light moves behind all the water, shadows and veins and wrinkles come back and we are ourselves again. Until tomorrow. But in the car, my beauty remains. Briefly—changing lanes or stuck in traffic or bored on a straight stretch of highway—I see myself in the rearview mirror and remember that I am more permanent than everyone else. Every day, I will find something new in the only face I’ve ever had. It makes sense; this mirror exists in order to show both what’s behind you and with you. Within the principles of safe driving, it’s the same thing.

Hard-pressed mother Anney in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina says something about sameness. How you’re better off whistling for the moon than hoping for certain things to change. I turn on the headlights and squint, slowing down as the sun meets my eyes. The sun will always move to eye level, turning faces the color of its projection, then it’ll move away. But it’ll always return twenty-four hours later—or so we assume, because it’s all we’ve ever had.

The neon sign is shoved in the trunk; it’s come with me every time I’ve left a house or apartment behind. It barely fits anywhere in the red car, and takes up half the space in every bedroom I’ve moved through. It’s so heavy, and the electric bills are always high. But I know better than to leave it for someone else to carry.

I wonder how many of the rec room women are still alive. If they’re dead, I wonder if they laid in an open casket, paper bird hands placed across their empty chests. As time goes on, I’ve considered how many of them are somebody’s mother. Probably lots of somebodies. Maybe the ocean is also mother, or millions of mothers, to all the rest of the water on earth. To the bottle of water in the cup holder from the gas station in Castroville. To the weak, leaded stream that trickles from the bar bathroom sink. Everyone originates.

I learned from the internet years later that the blonde boy’s mother’s hair fell out, a side effect of chemotherapy. I never met her, but I picture her quiet eyes as she let it fall from her head, unresisting, for a mother bird to made a home out of. As everything originates, it also translates; I am the only one who stays the same.

I see my own mother in the passenger seat, asking careful questions. I think about everything she knows and won’t ever know. I wring my own hands over the middle of the steering wheel. I remind myself to leave things as they are. I shift into a higher gear as the maternal cycle turns, the ocean and I moving south, the sign radiating and buzzing behind me.  

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