The Drive Days
By Valerie Visnic
Dad and I talked on the phone regularly back then, which meant I called him several times a week at my mother’s urging. She was convinced he would die soon. I needed to make every effort to talk to him or I would regret it.
But dad and I didn’t make plans for just the two of us. We saw each other at family gatherings, my mom and he having divorced years before.
The day he called, out of the blue, he had it all figured out. The following weekend I would drive from my place in Oceanside to my childhood home in Riverside, a mid-sized city 50-miles east of Los Angeles, and together we would drive up to Hof’s Hut in Long Beach to have a burger.
“We’ll take the roadster,” he said
Hof’s was a favorite haunt back in his professional drag racing days and the roadster was his latest restoration project. A classic he’d spent years on and that won first prize in every classic car show he entered, just like all the others before her. After Hof’s, we would drive back home and watch old movies—one’s he picked specifically for me and him. The Warriors, Platoon. Films that clearly skewed towards his interests, sure, but that’s how this all went with dad anyway. It’s also why I didn’t engage with him as much as my sister did, back when we were kids and now, too.
He showed little to no interest in things I liked, and I wasn’t all that interested in old cars and Turner Classic spaghetti westerns. The unspoken family edict was that it was up to my mom and sister and I to engage with him. To watch what he wanted. To eat what he wanted. To leave dad alone, at the kitchen table, to watch and to eat. But I didn’t like the one-way nature of that dynamic.
Now, as an adult, the idea of getting one-on-one, two-way attention from my father did not sit well with me. Because while I believed I should want it, I didn’t know what I was missing. Why stir the pot? Why mess with what’s not working well, when not working well hasn’t been, for so long.
The truth was I didn’t remember much about being a kid. My sister was the family records keeper, a designation not so much formally bestowed--as familial apprenticeships often go--as it was quietly (or at least indirectly) given.
“You’re kidding me!” she would jeer. “You really don’t remember that?” and I really wouldn’t.
Maybe deep down I was pissed-off or hurt or who knows? But not having any true emotional access to my dad was a constant fixture of my own inner landscape, which meant there was a certain remoteness about me. A kind of remove that would protect me from overwhelm, same as dad.
He was a giant glacier, hard, perched upon his throne at the kitchen table. Unmoving. Disinterested as glaciers sometimes can be. I remember going to car shows with him and my sister and mom. And I remember knowing that if you touched any of the cars you would die.
“Don’t get too close,” my mom would say.
And you never touched dad.
The truth is this Saturday burger run would have been wholly inconsequential had he and I been closer. Had we talked about more than just the weather over the phone. But sitting in the white vinyl booth with him on that particular Saturday—plates on the table, burgers sitting open-faced, my father’s face alight with anticipation—this burger joint was my prize for finally making it there, with him.
When a year or so after that afternoon he and I would spend several hours alone together in his hospital room before the rest of the family could get there—him flashing that devilish smile at me from his hospital bed as he flirted with the nurses in that ornery way of his--it would be those hours at Hof’s together that would sustain us. That would change us enough to land there softly, together.
I don’t remember what we talked about that day at Hof’s. There was meat and bun and fries; that much I can still see. And I must have put at least some of it in my mouth, chewed and swallowed, but I don’t remember doing any of that. What I do remember is what dad said once we were done eating and heading back outside to the car.
“You’re gonna drive home.”
As he handed me the keys and opened the passenger-side door–his cigar lit for the one, maybe two puffs he would take before snuffing it out and lobbing a sly grin in my direction–I remember thinking about the roadster being a convertible.
I had never driven a convertible before. I’d never wanted to, for hair reasons. But he put the top down, I think, because he thought the open air would make it more fun for me, although I proceeded to swallow so hard I didn’t forget how hard. Hands trembling, heart jumping, I considered the fact that no one but my father had ever driven my father’s cars, least of all me. My sister would later refute this, telling me she had, but my sister and I were different. My sister was capable. Or she was invincible. I think our parents thought both were true even if they dared not say that to me directly.
I, on the other hand, was fragile and not lucky. Always vying to get away.
Far away from our parents, from school, from home. My parents were convinced of my seeming disinterest in them both, and my penchant for independence and freedom.
“We didn’t think you’d want to, Val” or “That’s really more something your sister would enjoy” they’d say, trying to assuage, or at the very least get me to see that my since-childhood quest for freedom, was in direct proportion to my habit of avoiding things and people that were good for me.
This is, of course, only basically true, not unequivocally so.
When we pulled out of the parking lot, onto the street—my hands gripping onto the steering wheel like the life raft it wasn’t. Him on my right with a newly relit cigar in hand.
I try in vain to slick back my flying hair. Furiously tucking each floating puff tightly back in quick bursts behind my ears. My one hand leaving the wheel for half a moment, then back, shaking. I hit the gas and the car rushes out from under us. My father looking over at me, grinning. The adrenaline pumping through my memory, clotting the day in my body like a scab on the inside.
We hit the 405 freeway. Then the 55, then the 91. I’ve been on all of these roads before. I know where I am, but I’ve never been here, like this. Quicksilver Messenger Service’s “The Fool” danced out from the speakers into the warm air. Everyone within a mile can hear. We’re blasting down black, swinging in and out of white dashes.
Signal. Look to this side. That side. Look again. Gas!
By then, he was getting worse, although no one but Mom seemed to really know it at the time. He was thinner, more hunched over. As moody and brooding as ever. But smaller. Shorter. The lung cancer wouldn’t overtake him for another year or so. He and I tried not to think about time, then. We didn’t look down at our watches to see how much we had left.
Now all I want to do is drive.
Not freeways, but the winding country roads in the hills between my place in Oceanside and 30 or so miles away in Temecula. Those California roads that cut through rolling hills. A house nestled here and there. The trees reach across the curly road forming a canopy of protection above me as I glide from under. The path forward forms at each last second. I never know how much I have to swivel the wheel in order to make it in and out of each turn. I can’t see too far ahead. I never really know.
Driving is in my blood.
Summers, my mother used to take my sister and me on vacations to see our family in Washington State, right below the Canadian border and we always drove. It would take us three days, the three of us. Even as a little kid I couldn’t help but wonder how she did it. No car bingo or TV tray to hold her little tuna and cracker snack packs like the ones she bought my sister and me. No big pillow from her bed in case she wanted to take a nap.
But she never complained. She never traded off with an adult passenger, stretching her legs out to accommodate a worsening knee problem. There was no front seat passenger. No parent to switch off with on these trips. Dad would stay back to work, sending his two daughters and wife off on these road trips without so much as blinking an eye. My mother was capable, though. Determined. Truth is, he probably couldn’t have stopped her even if he had wanted to.
We were always going somewhere, the three of us. And always by car. I used to feel sorry for my mom having to do those long drives. Now I recognize how much she loved them. This is where she had freedom. Pick up and go somewhere, anywhere you want. Never having to convince a less than willing partner to come along. When I got older, she would take my son and me on drives at night to look at houses in the fancy neighborhoods. We would put on the local jazz station and talk about deep stuff. The state of the world. The times before…
Even before she retired, she talked about getting a little teardrop trailer and hitching it to her car, driving around. Stopping to camp at all the U.S. national parks.
"Just me and my binoculars looking for UFOs.” she would tell us.
I’ve thought about taking my mother on one of my drives. I see her often enough. She drives 80-miles, one way, to visit my son and I every other week or so. Hitting the freeway after only a few hours at our place, but promising the drive doesn’t bother her—she likes to get out.
There were a few hard years there, for me and Mom. I was upset with her for something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. But we still have lots of regular Saturdays together.
I sometimes think if I should have been upset with anyone, it should have been him. She’s the one who did everything. All the discipline. The Girl Scout stuff, the school meetings and performances and the vacations and the Christmas shopping and the cooking. All of it. And yet, instead of being angry with him for not being there, mostly I just felt sorry for him.
I suppose there’s more to blame on a person who’s there all the time.
When I’m out on the road, just me and the music, I feel them both. I know in these moments that I get this driving thing from them. This wanting to be free. Untethered. Able to drop what I’m doing and traverse the unknown, alone. I don’t want to see or talk to anyone when I’m out there. When another car comes into view, sometimes I’ll pull off the road and give it a few minutes.
Hopping back out there once I know it’s just me again.
Valerie is a writer living in Los Angeles, CA where she is also a counseling astrologer. She's currently working on her first essay collection, loves burritos, and long meandering conversations.