This was as good as it got: my father all to myself for ninety minutes, maybe two hours if traffic was heavy. No bickering from Emily and Avery in the back seat. No giving up the front seat to Dawn. I was again riding co-pilot.
I adjusted the AC on my side and tuned the radio station to today’s top hits. My father turned down the volume from the controls on the steering wheel.
“Did you have fun at the orchard?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. When I was younger, my parents took me apple picking every autumn, driving out to Long Island for the day, filling our baskets to overflowing and spending the rest of the weekend baking apple pies and making applesauce. A sweet memory from my childhood.
“I think the girls enjoyed it. Of course, they would have had a better time if Dawn had come along, but we’re learning to spend time together on our own, and that’s important.”
“I suppose it is,” I said.
“The pregnancy is tough on them. They’re too young to understand.”
“It won’t last long, and when the baby’s born I’m sure they’ll be ecstatic.”
“I hope so,” he said. “What about you? Will you be ecstatic?”
I shrugged. Sometimes the thought of a little brother or sister excited me. Other times, I suspected he or she would just be someone else coming between my father and me. “I just hope there’s enough of you to go around.”
He didn’t respond, the miles speeding behind us on the Thruway. “You feel left out,” he said at last.
“Left out. Left behind.”
“It doesn’t help that we live so far apart.”
“No, but I can’t live with you and Dawn and the girls. It’s too much.”
“You know I’d do anything to have you with me.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” I said. “If that was so, you’d have to leave them, and that’s not happening.” These words were difficult to speak aloud. I guess I’d been hoping he’d wake up one day and realize his marriage to Dawn was a mistake and come home to my mom and me, or, at least, move out of the McMansion. A baby erased all possibility of that happening.
“This is my new life, Aerin. Nothing is going to change. I have you, Dawn, Emily and Avery, and this new child. You have to accept it.”
“I know,” I said, my voice small.
“It’s been four years.”
I nodded, not trusting my voice.
“I’m sorry I’ve hurt you.”
I waved my hand at him to stop. “We’re so past that,” I said willing my voice not to quiver.
He nodded and tapped out a rhythm on the steering wheel. The mood in the car seemed lighter. I sat back in my seat, more at peace than I’d felt in a long time. Coming to terms with him and his new life was a long time coming, but now that I’d accepted our new normal, I knew everything would be okay.
“We haven’t had much time to talk about you. Everything all right?”
“Have you heard from your mother?”
“I got a letter the other day.” She’d written three pages, most of it about her progress with her therapy, her swimming, and her new job in the library, sorting and shelving cartons of books some church had donated. “She’s doing okay, adjusting to life in that place. She said she might be getting some new privileges at the end of the month, and maybe she’ll be able to send email.”
“That sounds good. I’ve only heard from her once. I wish she’d write again.”
“I’ll tell her.”
Traffic backed up on the Thruway, and we idled a while. In the late afternoon, the leaf peepers and apple pickers headed home. Poor Dad. He’d have to face the same traffic in reverse after he left me at Maggie’s.
“It’s unfortunate your mother had to go to such extremes to get help for her problems,” he said, his eyes fixed on the car ahead as he inched us forward.
“She never does things the easy way,” I said. “I think she’s learning to slow down, to realize that it’s not her job to save the world.”
“That’s what I loved about her,” he mused. “She was never afraid to fight for her beliefs. She put everything she had into righting wrongs. Sometimes she put in too much.”
Like us, I thought but didn’t say it, understanding that the same words reverberated in his head, too.
“You were once the same way,” I said.
He nodded. “The two of us made a formidable pair. From day one it was Gordon and Devon against the world.”
“We grew up. We wanted to change the world, but when we took on jobs, marriage, a child, a mortgage, we didn’t have time to fix the world. We barely had time to build a decent world for ourselves.
“I realized it a lot sooner than your mother did, and chose a more stable work environment where the risks were small and the rewards were great. Devon kept going, trying to save the world one patient at a time at St. Vincent’s, rattling the powers that be about healthcare for the homeless, volunteering at soup kitchens and shelters, always striving to do good no matter the cost. I’m not saying her work wasn’t necessary or important, but it took a lot away from what we were trying to accomplish as a family.”
The traffic started moving, and he shifted gears, accelerating and moving into the left lane to pass the minivan in front of us.
“I managed to get out of that trap, but your mother loved it,” he continued as we once again sped down the Thruway. “She thrived on it, and couldn’t stop. Then the worst catastrophe that ever hit our country occurred and she was right in the middle of it, and couldn’t let it go. I can’t blame her – I almost gave up my job at the firm to get involved with the post-September 11th effort - but by that time our marriage was in trouble and showed no signs of reconciliation, so I stayed my course to keep things afloat at home.”
His version of the story sounded a lot like Maggie’s, and I saw no reason to disagree with him.
“Her joining the Army Reserve ended things for us.”
“She couldn’t help it,” I said in her defense. “She was compelled to join.”
“I get that,” he said, “but I couldn’t accept it.”
“And here we are now.”
“And here we are now.”
A mile or two rolled by in silence as we each absorbed these words. We couldn’t go back to what we were before. Our lives had diverged in such different directions. I was the one caught in the middle, pulled two ways, and at the same time preparing to embark on my own undefined journey. Scary.
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