Pack light. Don’t even think about bringing more than can fit in your hot pink backpack. There won’t be enough room as it is in the rusty Plymouth Voyager your dad calls his mini-man. But you will find a way, somewhere between your grandmother’s collapsible walker and the cherry red cooler your mom will load with two bags of ice, Shasta cola, and ham and cheese on Wonder bread in individual Ziplock bags.
Don’t forget your swimsuit. You are going to Myrtle Beach. Your mother will not buy you a new one if you forget. By the time you plopped out, your mother was already versed in excuses. She will not be interested in the reasons you forgot. She will look at you like you just told her you were pregnant and say, “Swim in your cutoffs.” Even with your underwear, they will feel like sandpaper against your who-ha when they get wet.
Don’t dilly-dally. You don’t want to be the reason the mini-man doesn’t pull out of the drive on time. Your dad will already be pissed because your mom isn’t in the van. She will be running around the house, dumping a week’s worth of cat food and water into mop buckets so “Cat” the cat won’t die while you’re away. Then, she will pop her head out the front door and yell for the whole neighborhood to hear, including Joe Matthews your neighborhood crush, “Who the hell took a dump in the toilet and forgot to flush? Do I have to do everything around here?”
Don’t answer this question. She will not be looking for answers. Open your mouth and she will glare at you in that your-father-works-so-hard-and-was-really-looking-forward-to-this-vacation-and-you’ve-gone-and-ruined-it-before-we’ve-left-the-drive sort of look.
Just look down at your hands and pick the dirt from your nails.
Myrtle Beach is a straight shot from Kansas City to St. Louis, after that it’s a nightmare. Your dad is going to want to drive it in one stretch. One 15-hour drive. Don’t even think about drinking anything, because he won’t stop for your juvenile bladder requests.
You will have to pee in a jar. You’re a girl, and this will be much harder than you think.
When your dad does pull into McDonald’s for his dangerously-hot coffee, order a regular cheeseburger and nothing more. This will not be the time for special orders. You can pick off the pickles and onions. Your dad is not made of money, and he will tell you this so many times you will think he has Tourettes.
Don’t even think about asking for a pack of McCookies. He will look at you like he just caught you with a joint and say, “No. Who do you think I am, Rockefeller? It doesn’t matter which one. They’re all rich. Don’t get smart with me. It’s a long drive and I don’t want to hear your mouth running the whole time.”
McDonald’s is clean and ergonomically designed to accommodate the quick piss. This is important, because your father won’t wait. He’ll pull into the Drive-Thru and give you just as much time as it takes to order and pick up his cup of coffee. There’s a door when you enter the Drive-Thru and one when you exit, which will lead you to believe that there are other dads out there like yours, dads who are obsessed with the shortcomings of juvenile bladders.
Sit in the very back of the mini-man, because the hatch will not have been recalled yet and the exhaust from the tailpipe will give you a buzz. Couple this with the fact that the family now has a Game Boy and you’ll be set.
Your parents will only be able to afford one Game Boy and you will be lucky to get it, so don’t complain about having to share with your older brother. When you do get a chance to play, it will only be because your brother will want to flip through his Hustler Biggest Tits of ’88 Special Edition. He will study the magazine front to back without getting caught by sticking it in between the pages of Mad Magazine. You will want to tell. But you will also want to look at the pictures, which will make you feel dirty. Because you are 13 and even without the magazine you have thought about what it would be like to have a boy touch your boobs.
Your parents will be smoking like Chernobyl the entire length of the trip, and they won’t stop on account of your whiney baby lungs being in the car. Don’t look up from your brother’s magazine and ask them to crack a window. The air conditioning will be running full blast and rolling down the windows will only waste resources.
“Second hand smoke my ass,” your dad will say with his pirate grin. “Do you know the kind of crap I had to breathe when I was a kid? I lived two blocks from a paper mill. Do you know what that smells like? Shit on a stick in July, that’s what.” Your grandma will also be smoking, but she won’t know it, and her ash will snake onto the upholstery and burn a hole in the seat the size of your thumb.
You will eventually reach St. Louis and the highway will wind around like the tail of a tornado. Your dad will go the wrong way. Don’t even think about opening your mouth in St. Louis. He will be looking for someone to blame.
Just look down at your t-shirt and pick at the link.
The arch will be open and you will imagine tiny silver boxes carting happy families to the top. Beyond that, you will see the river. Huck Finn went down that river. When you return to school from summer break, you will tell the kids in your class that you saw Huck Finn’s river with your very own eyes. They will stare through you like you were a sheet of cellophane and you will wish you had kept your mouth shut.
When the arch and the river disappear and all you see is a car on cement blocks parked next to a house with no glass in the windows, you will know your dad is lost, officially. Your mom will ask in her mouse voice, “Should we stop?” Your grandma will clutch her purse and say, “Let’s lock the doors.” But your dad fought in Vietnam. He has a mossy green tattoo of a skull on his right shoulder and has killed a man. You will take solace in this. He will have a loaded gun in the glove compartment, and this will make you as excited as the time you sang Oklahoma in the seventh grade play. You will see the gun, want to hold it, show it to a friend. It will be just one of the million stupid things you will want to do as a kid.
When he finally finds the highway, don’t mention he was lost. He will not be against pulling over to the side of the road and belting you on the butt. Your mom will not get involved and save you if you open your big mouth. She will be on his side. You seal your own fate when it comes to your dad and the belt.
At some point in the trip, your mom will tell you she’s had it with you and your brother’s bickering. But actually, she will be contemplating what’s worse: working or staying home and cleaning up after three kids all day. Scrubbing toilets and making beds like some goddamn maid at the Super 8, snooping in your dad’s wallet when he’s in the shower to see if he’s sleeping with the lady at work. The one with the long fingernails. You will know this is her problem, because you will have heard her tell this to her sister in whispers behind a locked bathroom door. She may even be thinking of an old boyfriend. She’s surprising like this. She owns a pink bra and makes desserts for no reason.
“Let’s stop for ice cream!” The words will fly out of her mouth like a hot pin and puncture the bad air that has been building up. Your dad will agree that this is a good idea. Probably the best idea of the whole trip, and you will wish it had been yours. Although you will know he wouldn’t have thought it was such a good idea had it come from you. Never mind this; you will get to order whatever you want at the Dairy Queen outside Macon, Georgia.
You will remember this particular Peanut Buster Parfait every time you get ice cream for the rest of your life because your dad will order one too. You’ll sit next to him on an egg-white fiberglass table with the words Jody loves Keven 4-ever! Darcy is a big fat bitch! scribbled in black marker and he’ll smile at you and say, “I didn’t know you liked Peanut Buster Parfaits.” Then you will know that he notices you. Years later, you will pass Dairy Queen and burst into tears. This will scare your kids, but you will tell them you are okay. You will have outbursts like this for the rest of your life and behind your back people will say you are unstable.
You won’t go to the bathroom at the Dairy Queen, and this will worry your mom. You’ll tell her there is nothing you can do about it. You don’t have to go at that very minute and cannot force yourself just to appease your father. Your dad will have to stop an hour into the drive. It will be an emergency. Your bladder will fill up like a rubber balloon and you will have to pee. There won’t be a container left in the van that isn’t filled with your brother’s piss. You will also be lactose intolerant. It won’t be your fault. It is something you were born with.
Quick N’EZ will have toilets in the back, but they will not have hired anyone to clean them. Quick N’EZ is where people with explosive diarrhea go. You will wonder if God made others’ parts different than your own because you will see shit splattered in places you never thought possible. You will also run into a drifter washing his armpits in the sink. This will make you weary of gas station bathrooms for the rest of your life. You will beg your father to reconsider.
There will be a state-funded rest stop up the way, and in Georgia that won’t mean two shits. Someone will obviously be pocketing the money. You will want to be careful. Word on the street will be that some psycho chopped a kid’s penis off with a rusty knife in one of the stalls earlier in the summer. There will be a black-and-white photocopy of him hanging outside the pisser. Have you seen this man? Yes. You will think. It looks like Mr. Stevens your eighth grade math teacher. The one who sniffs your skin every time he walks past your desk. The boy was about your age and his parents never heard him scream. They were probably sitting in their minivan smoking with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning blasting, which is what your parents will be doing when you are all alone in one of the stalls, rocking back and forth, trying to poop as fast as you can. You will be thankful you don’t have a penis to cut off.
When you’re done you will hurry back to the mini-man. You won’t bother to wash your hands. There’s never soap in the dispenser and the water will just spread the germs. You know this because you are logical. Your mom will ask, “Did you wash your hands?” You will say, “Yes.” You are not a liar, just smart. You already know there is no point in discussing it. She will ask questions like this for the rest of your life and you will have figured out early that it is best just to lie. It is her motherly duty to ask questions, like putting green vegetables on your plate. She doesn’t care about the truth. She wants you to tell her what she wants to hear. Did you do your homework? Did you clean your room? Are you dating that boy? Whose marijuana is this? Didn’t he wear protection? Will you be coming home for a visit? What did you say your name was?
Eventually you will reach the beach and the salty air will sting your eyes like a campfire. Cleansing flames will burn the stench of the 15-hour ride like old newspapers. Your dad will pull the mini-man under the Days Inn carport and you and your brother will run as fast as you can toward the water. Put on your bathing suits!” Your mom will yell from the car port. “We’re just getting our feet wet!” You will yell back, then dive head-first into the waves. The water will be cool and warm at the same time, and you will find this unbelievable.
You will lose your left shoe in waves, but your mom will buy you a pair of rhinestone studded flip-flops in the gift shop and she won’t even ask why you didn’t take off your shoes before jumping into the water. She will be too happy to care.
Your dad will sit like a turtle shell, bare bellied under a yellow hotel umbrella, and you will not see him move the entire trip.
Your older brother will sneak cigarettes from your mom’s purse and make you smoke one so you won’t tell.
Your baby brother will be too young, and your grandmother too old, to do anything remarkable.
You will meet kids from Detroit, Minneapolis and Chicago, all who will ask where you’re from and then say, “You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.”
You will eat soggy ham and cheese on the beach and wash it down with an ice-cold Shasta cola.
You will watch the sun burn upward from the ocean for the first time and think nothing could be more beautiful.
This is your family. This is your life. These are your memories you will carry around with you like the sand you won’t be able to remove from the pockets of your cutoffs.
Years later you will be too old to go on vacation with your family. You will go to Mexico with your dorm mate on Spring Break. You will get drunk and do things you will not remember, things you will want to forget. These things will involve a bottle filled with a Windex-vodka concoction that you will purchase from a dishonest maid. When you get back from the Mexican Emergencia, you will stand on the balcony of your hotel room and lift your shirt to show your boobs. No one from below will hoot. You will eat Ramen noodles to save money and vomit to stay thin.
You will meet a boy with eyes the color of heartbreak. A boy who has never shot a gun. You will laugh, lose your virginity, fight about the blonde he is still dating out east, break up, and get back together. His family will fly First Class to Kansas to meet your family and they will have nothing to talk about. Your mom will cover the cigarette hole in the gingham couch with a cotton blanket. Your dad will think it’s a good idea to take everyone to the riverboat casino. His parents will stand by one slot machine all night, nervously dropping in coins. You will be furious at the thought of what his parents must be thinking about your parents. You will carry this anger around with you like a pail.
You will marry Heartbreak in a used wedding gown that your mother will spend her entire month’s salary to buy. It will have hundreds of faux pearls the size of teardrops and a train that your bridesmaid will not be able to keep straight. As you walk down the aisle toward your new life, something inside you will crack. Your heart will burst before he breaks it, and your knees will give. No matter, your father will lead you to your groom like a wounded fawn. You will remember when you were going somewhere, anywhere but here.
Your brothers will be ushers at your wedding and empty the church out backwards. No one from your side of the family will have ever been to a wedding reception that wasn’t in a church hall, and they will sit at their tables and frown. None of this will matter. You will convince yourself that this is the start of a lovely life. You unsuccessfully tried out for drill team every year for four years, and you are determined like this.
Just look down at your fingernails and pick off the polish.
You will miss your mom and befriend your cleaning lady. You will not allow smoking in your house, and therefore your parents won’t visit. They will accuse you of treating them like second-class citizens for making them smoke in your garage.
Your mom will send birthday cards with pink teddy bears and request you tell your children she loves them. You will be angry and vow not to return to Kansas. Instead, you will take your family on a jet to Hawaii. You will hire a boy from the neighborhood to mow your grass and feed your Persian cat. He will charge too much, but not enough to complain. Your kids will whine like you never did, suck down Diet Cokes and walk freely down the airplane’s aisle to the bathroom at their leisure. You will stay at the Four Seasons and your children will order Tai Lemon Chicken and bubbly water. They will beg for tiramisu. You will smother them in enough sun block to keep them glue-paste white, even after a week in the sun.
They will have weak bladders and selfish hearts. You will worry that they are not like you, that if faced with something other than the life you have provided, they will fail.
You will sit on a teak chase under a straw hat and watch your children tiptoe in and out of the Hawaiian tide. You will wonder where your husband is. You will think of your old family and want to call them. You will wish for Myrtle Beach, a pair of cutoffs, the sun frying your face like an egg, your mother smiling from the carport, and a 15-hour ride with your family just a week away.