It’s 11:30 on a Friday night in the summer of 1989. Most young people are out with their permed mullets and jean jackets having Swayze-fueled times of their lives. I am in the backseat of my mother's car, with my mother sitting beside me, the front seat populated with my sister and her 22-year-old lunkhead boyfriend. We're on the first of many family road trips to Florida. We will make this exact same annual trip over the next five years, getting lost five more times. In the summer of 1991, when the lunkhead in the driver’s seat is my sister’s husband, I will be eager to point out how many times we’ve gotten lost in this exact same way. My mother, again seated beside me, will grimace knowingly and remind me that no one likes a know-it-all child.
Here in 1989, rings and vows have not been exchanged, and yet my mother is allowing this young boy to drive her car. This car that isn’t quite paid off and that no one is allowed to eat or drink or fart in and whose insurance policy probably doesn’t cover this stubborn Southern good ol’ boy with a passion for spectator sports and music performed by men in cowboy hats and just happens to be dating her eldest daughter. The white Buick Century has dark burgundy velour interior and little chrome ashtray compartments in all the doors and the seat back. I like to play with the compartments, flipping the lids and thinking up other uses for them. I am not allowed to put gum or empty gum wrappers or coins or secret notes in these ashtrays. I am not really allowed to put my fingers into the ashtrays. But I do it anyway. There are four of these ashtrays in the back seat. My mother is not a smoker, but I suppose car manufacturers were not producing non-smoking cars in the 1980s.
In winter, I am not allowed to draw shapes or letters on the fogged up windows with my greasy child-sized fingers.
But this strange boy with no sense of direction and a low threshold for distraction can drive this car. No one can even offer to take a driving shift when we go off track. My mother, with her phobias of highways and poor night vision, cannot trade places with the boy. My sister has yet to get her driving license and can only control the radio and the air conditioning, neither of which ever offer relief to the backseat.
The boy is a smoker, but he is not permitted to smoke in my mother’s car. He is, however, allowed to use his dipping tobacco. He expels the “dip-spit” into a 20-ounce bottle that used to contain Mountain Dew. This bottle will be full by evening's end. Despite the number of dip-spit vessels that will accumulate in her home in the future, dipping is somehow a more acceptable habit to my sister. In the years following this trip, the couple will argue over his smoking. My sister will outright forbid it in her house. Early on, the boy will accept the challenge to quit smoking along with the additional challenge of lifting weights in his afternoons after work. “Working out” comes to mean watching Ricki Lake (and sometimes pornography) and lifting the occasional beer can. He sneaks the occasional cigarette, but he's bad at hiding the evidence. When his dream of having a six-pack means drinking it all before dinner, he negotiates with his wife that he will stop smoking if he can grow a beard. She finds beards to be significantly less attractive than the prospect of a fit hubby but reluctantly agrees. He grows a beard and sneaks cigarettes. This will go on for too many years.
I cannot have a strawberry milkshake or french fries in this car. He can have an unopened bottle full of gross tobacco spittle tucked between his legs in the driver’s seat.
It is always 11:30 that we find ourselves tired, grumpy, and carsick scanning the road with bleary eyes for cheap—but not sleazy—vacant motels. Given the option, the boy would just pull into a rest area and nap until sunrise. His girlfriend is in that delusional phase where she thinks the boy believes that she wakes up with hair done and a full face of fresh makeup, a phase will continue well into their marriage. She will not sleep in the car. My mother would stuff the boy in her trunk if she didn't fear the legal ramifications. I probably dozed off for an hour or so.
It's a four-hour drive to our destination, theoretically. We’re to meet up with his family and stay in their beachfront timeshare for the weekend. We leave after work and try to take a side highway to avoid rush hour on the interstate. The boy thinks he knows the route because his family traveled this way all the time when he was a kid. But he doesn't really know because normal kids don't pay attention to things like exit numbers and on-ramps. By the summer of 1993, I will know the exit numbers and recognize all the tiny town names and all the landmarks, like the abandoned convenience store with the fading old-fashioned Coca-Cola sign and that one boiled peanut stand and the other boiled peanut stand and that tree that looks like Sweetums from The Muppets. My mother will remind me that no one likes a smart-ass teenager.
On this trip, I have brought a couple of Anastasia books by Lois Lowry, two notebooks, and my small collection of cassette tapes to play in my white portable boombox. When it gets too dark to read or write my secret story about the ginger boy from my class who also lives in our apartment complex, I sit in the dark and think about the ginger boy while pretending that this Phil Collins song is about us.
The boy brings his radar detector in case he gets the chance to speed along these two-lane county roads. Along the rural back roads of lower Alabama, the detector blips rapidly, frequently. The boy talks of speed traps and cops with their quotas. Do policemen actually have quotas for tickets issued in any given period? Is this a myth perpetuated by bitter male drivers who feel unjustly targeted? The average American Redneck is apparently born with lead feet and an over-productive speed gland.
No one thinks to make travel plans at a time when perhaps policemen aren't eager to make their ticket quota.
The AAA map might as well be written in Sanskrit as none of the car's four passengers can really make sense of the squiggly lines. Well, my mother can but refuses to interject this time. My sister will be mortified if our mother challenges the boy in any way. We are supposed to be a normal family, going on a vacation with his normal family and we are going to make normal family memories if it kills us.
There's road work and lanes blocked around Troy, which slows traffic to a snail’s jog. The boy tunes in a football game on the radio, so he can alternate between yelling at the log truck in front of us and whatever displeases him about the game commentary. The boy always wants to listen to the game, despite the fact that the game always upsets him. My sister would rather listen to cowboy rock or Air Supply, but she’s letting him have his way because she wants him to believe that she is a Nice Person. However, she is desperate to get in on the yelling action, but instead of upsetting her boyfriend, she directs her anger at me and the Rock of the '80s compilation cassette I’m enjoying. The faint sound of Kenny Loggins' "I'm Alright", it seems, can be heard through the tinny headphones over the radio, road noise and redneck rage. She sweetly demands that I turn it down. She’s jealous because I have my tiny bit of freedom in my boombox while the boy listens to the game.
My mother is quietly white-knuckled in the back seat with me, no doubt mulling what lie to tell in case of an accident. Will she have to somehow swap places with the boy to climb into the driver's seat if there's an accident or if the radar detector is faulty and we get pulled over? Will she claims he's her son and it’s okay for him to drive her car? Will she play the dithery old woman who doesn't know the rules? We can't afford a ticket or an accident or even an extra night at a motel that we're stuck with because it's too late to do anything else.
The boy gets lost after stopping for gas in Opp. We're halfway to Andalusia before my mother sneaks a look at the map and tries to gently hint that we've gone off track. The boy curses under his breath. My sister says we'll just turn around at the next exit. My mother will not suggest that there's another road that we can turn onto to get back in a southward direction because the boy insists on going the way his family drove for years and it really shouldn't take this long. There is nowhere to turn around for another 30 miles. My sister is panicked. My mother is anxious. The boy is probably frustrated and embarrassed. I am sleepy and bored because it’s dark and woodsy and that ginger boy is never going to think of me in a way that will inspire him to write Casey Kasem to play that Phil Collins song as a long distance dedication to me. In her panic, my sister turns around and hisses at me to turn off my goddamned music or else. Because absolute silence is a surefire cure for being lost on a rural road near midnight. At least we finally made it across the state line.
By 1994, still no one has the foresight to book reservations at a place that's a reasonable distance between the highway and a gas station. Everyone still expects we'll make it to our intended destination in one night. At 11:30, we’re still approximately an hour and a half from our destination, theoretically. And we will still spend half an hour driving around a slightly bigger town in hopes of finding a cheap motel with a front office that's open late nights and doesn't terrify my mother. The only differences are the car is paid off and I can have a Coca-Cola in the backseat.
Eventually, we are freed from our motorized prison and drag our crumpled selves into a slightly bigger space to pass the time 'til daybreak.
These are our traditions. This is what we call vacation. This is us having fun.