Cross Country

I am in the car.

I am in the backseat of the car.

My Grandma is in the front seat of the car. My Grandma is driving. My Uncle Steve is in the passenger’s seat, and I am in the backseat. I am in the backseat of the car, squished up against the window, and my dad’s head is resting on my outer thigh. My dad’s sweaty head and his sweaty hair. And in his sweaty head his eyes are glazed and cloudy and rolling around wildly. Looking for a friend he would say later.

I am that friend but he doesn’t know it because I don’t look in his eyes because I am scared. Instead, I look at my Grandma and my Uncle in the front seat and they are talking and acting like nothing is wrong. I think I am glad about this. I think I feel relieved. But maybe I don’t.

Every once in a while, my dad’s hands and legs and arms jerk in violent spasms. He has whacked me a couple times now, and I think he probably will again. It’s an accident, an involuntary spasm. And anyway, it doesn’t hurt.

His sweaty self smells like ham that’s been left out in the hot sun — sweet and sour and slimy. We are driving from Texas to South Carolina, and we are in Oklahoma. I am in the car. I am 23 and I am in the car.

Ten years later, I still won’t be able to think of this car ride without sobbing, even though the fear is gone now and I know that my dad, recently diagnosed with Lyme, was experiencing his first Herxheimer Reaction. Ten years later, I’ll look back at this weekend, at my cousin’s wedding, and I still won’t be able to pinpoint the worst moment.

Sure. The terror of the car ride was pretty bad. The smell and the spasms. But was it any worse than the moment I looked up at the reception and saw my dad in the middle of the dance floor? Holding a highball in his right hand, with his eyes half-closed and his jaw slack and his gray suit pants all cattywampus and his shoulders slumped and his cheeks sucked in and hollow and his arms tucked to his sides and bent at the elbows and his pointer fingers extended, pointing first at this person and then at that person, bobbing his head. Dripping his drink as he danced with himself in some sad, strange parody of Steve Martin’s wild and crazy guy routine. Was it any worse than the moment I decided to go over and pretend to dance with him, just to spare him the embarrassment he couldn’t even feel?

Or, maybe the worst moment was after we stopped for a fast food breakfast. When my dad ate all of his hashbrowns but two and then, five minutes later, dumped out the last two hashbrowns in disgust: “Look at this! Can you believe what they’re trying to pass off as a large order of fries…of, of hashbrowns I mean. What a rip. What a RIP!” Or, maybe the worst moment was right after that, when my Grandma laughed, not unkindly. Lovingly, like you laugh at an amusing child. And maybe the kindness and the love made it worse somehow.

Or, maybe the worst moment happened minutes after we got home. Just home from Dallas. When I thought I might rest after a sleepless 14-hour drive and Jessica, who was also home from grad school for the summer, brought her grad school friend Nan over to meet me. And, because Nan is about my mom’s height and has hair about my mom’s color, my dad thought she was my mom. And said: “Oh thank God you’re here, Beth.” And went to hug her like a desperate, drowning man, and would have hugged her if she hadn’t recoiled and he hadn’t stumbled over the doorstep on his way. Or, maybe the worst moment was when this story somehow surfaced at church a few days later. And the lack of kindness and the lack of love made it worse somehow.

Or. Maybe. Maybe the worst moment was when my dad woke up the day after we got home and wouldn’t look me in the eye and when he did he said: “I was lost. I didn’t know where I was. I was lost and alone and scared and I was looking for a friend and couldn’t find one. I was looking for you to be my friend and you wouldn’t. You betrayed me.”

But I didn’t betray him. I didn’t betray him when I pretended to dance at the reception and I didn’t betray him when I protected my face and my head from his flinging arms by resting my right hand on his shoulder and I didn’t betray him a few days later, when I let those church people have it.

And I’m not betraying him now. Oh my brothers. And oh my sisters.

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