From what I understood—from helping Sarah clean out the fridge after the condolence casseroles friends and neighbors had brought had spoiled, from helping Jake carry some of Isaac’s things down to the basement, from watching them talk to each other like a tremendous wind roped all their words away—I was less surprised that Sarah had asked me to take this trip with her than I was with where she said the trip would be taking us. I asked if she had talked to Jake about this.
“He has his work,” she said. We were sitting at her kitchen table with two untouched glasses of iced tea. Sarah dragged a finger through the water pooled under them. “He won’t miss me.”
“You could find a job,” I said. The line of her jaw sharpened as she clenched her teeth. “Maybe not in pharmaceuticals, but you have your degree. You could get one.”
“I haven’t worked in almost seven years.” She looked around the kitchen like she was memorizing the sheen of every surface, each droplet of grease on the walls. “Unless you’d count taking care of him as work.”
I’d put my hand on her leg then, as I did now. “You were a good mother,” I’d said then, as I did now. Back in her kitchen, she had jerked herself away from me, but here in the car, her right foot still toeing the gas down, she said, “Let’s not talk about him, please. Something else. Tell me about another road trip you went on.”
“The time we drove up to Montreal?”
“No, something I wasn’t part of. Something I don’t already know about.”
I tilted my head to the window, flattening my ear there. The curvature of the highway hummed into my skin.
My family didn’t vacation often, but the summer I was 13 my father drove my brother, my mother, and me from New Jersey to Disney World in one of his efforts to make her love us more. He split the journey into two days, stopping at a motel in South Carolina for a night, instructing my brother and me to wait in the car until he had obtained the room key so the receptionist wouldn’t discover we were splitting a king-sized bed between four people.
As soon as we unbolted the door to our room in that motel, all four of us collapsed into bed, energy husked by the 11-hour drive. I was the first to wake a few hours later. We had forgotten to turn the lights off. Our shoes were on the carpet like a handful of seeds, and my father was still wearing his glasses. My mother slept actively, the same concise line between her eyebrows she always wore in the day. I knew they would awaken in an hour and take turns showering, the three of us creeping around my mother, dreading the inevitable snap of her voice. I knew that tomorrow she would pin the griminess of our Orlando hotel, its two roaches scuttling across the baseboard, on my father and not be appeased until she herself had talked to the manager, hissing that he could never do things right—I knew all I would remember of the next four days would be my mother’s refusal to go on any rides and eventually her refusal to leave the hotel because it was too hot and too sunny and she didn’t want to darken her skin—but in that motel at 1 a.m., I looked at the three of them, the four of us, and thought, “We are all just a series of breaths.” And I went back to sleep.
I told some of this to Sarah. She smiled and said, “I like that, Rachel. We’re all just a series of breaths.”
Pausing, she glanced into the mirror to change lanes. Then she said, “But is that it? It’s just the physical, and the mental and emotional has no bearing on who we are?”
I sighed as the car glided into the adjacent lane, a silver sedan passing so quickly on our left that Sarah’s car rocked in response.
“Looks like someone’s in a hurry,” I said, trying to keep my voice buoyant. When Sarah didn’t answer I sighed again, said, “It was just a thought I had when I was 13. I don’t know if I believe it now—I don’t know if I believed it back then.”
Silence for the stretch between two exits. Ohio at this speed seemed a glance of a green bird’s wing. Signs for Indiana now were becoming more frequent, and I was counting the breaths until we would enter. We were five miles from the border when she spoke again. She said, “I wonder what Jake would say if I told him that. I can just imagine how that conversation would go.” The leather of the armrest crackled as she sunk her elbow farther in. “‘What are you trying to say, Sarah? We’re only a product of our physical makeup? You know Isaac was more than just his autism.’”
“Jake wouldn’t say that,” I interrupted.
“Maybe not. But he’d be thinking it, or something like it.”
“No he wouldn’t. Sarah—we know Jake. He’s always stood with you, through everything, and he’ll be with you through this too.” The highway barrier undulated in my vision. “And so will I, if you need me.”
She said nothing. I held my breath. We crossed the border.
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