There were signs from the beginning. Signs that this was going to be an uphill-both-ways kind of life, but maybe those were the kinds of people we were. Uphill-both-ways-in-the-snow kinds of people.
I was five at the time, and one doesn’t think about these things at five. One thinks about the hand signals one makes to her father as she kneels at the back of our white Ford Aerostar, flashing what might appear to a passerby as an odd amalgamation of gang signs but were in fact a five year old’s hand signals for impending danger. FALLING ROCKS. CURVING ROADS. STEEP INCLINE. IMPENDING STRIFE BROKEN BY MOMENTS OF PURE, UNADULTERATED JOY AND LOVE. The road signs on the interstates between Florida and Arizona said everything but this last phrase, but they could’ve said it all. In many ways, they did.
The first cross-country move we made is also the first move I remember. We traversed the country from Florida to Lake Havasu, AZ, in two vehicles: Mom, little J, and me in the Aerostar and you in the rented U-Haul. You were nervous about driving it. More than once you said, “I don’t understand why I’m the one who has to drive this thing.” You didn’t like having to do things that were unenjoyable, Dad. Driving a U-Haul was one of them.
We brought the cat with us in the van. She probably would have preferred being left in sweltering Florida to being dragged across the country in a minivan with two kids and the swerving roads. Instead, we left Mom’s ice-skating trophies behind. You heard about those trophies for years afterward, every time you and Mom got into it over who had sacrificed more for the other. You drove the U-Haul, Mom gave up her trophies. Everybody gave up something in that move. (I left behind my first best friend, the curly-haired selfish beauty, Bonnie.)
I don’t remember you and Mom discussing what the I-Ching said, but surely you must have asked it. No day began without a reading from your dilapidated leather-bound copy. You sat in your director’s chair with a steaming cup of coffee and a half-eaten piece of sandwich bread smeared with peanut butter next to you. Each morning you tossed three pennies against the counter and jotted down the combination. There were scraps of paper all over the house with your pen marks on them, the code for which passage in the I-Ching you should consult. Three straight lines stacked one on top of the other. A straight line, a line split in half by a circle, a dotted line. Two dotted lines and a line with a circle. And on and on. Either way, I don’t remember the book saying anything about our move to Arizona. It must have agreed.
The trek took seven days. We stopped at night in dive motels, paid for rooms with two beds and plunked our tired bodies onto the thin mattresses, let the cat out of the carrier to wander the worn carpet.
I remember enjoying the trip for the most part. Mom drove while J and I played on the pallet of blankets she’d set up behind the driver and front passenger seats. The van didn’t have any other seats besides those two, but we didn’t mind sitting on the blankets. It made it easier to play. Whenever there was something pretty to look at, J and I would either stand up and look out the front window or the back, the latter of which meant shimmying down the tiny passage between our pallet and the boxes of paintings until we reached the back window.
The van didn’t have any windows on the sides. For years I was madly jealous of my friends’ parents’ cars: sedans with side windows where you could stay seated and see the world fly by on the other side of the glass. A seatbelt was a luxury because it meant you had a seat all to yourself. And a seat meant a window. To this day I love losing myself in the view out a passenger car window. Funny the things you get attached to.
We made it all the way to Texas before the U-Haul broke down. You and Mom rented a new one, unloaded the boxes and furniture, and reloaded it all into the new truck. I have no memory of this, but I’ve heard Mom talk about it. I don’t know what you guys did with us or the cat while you lugged a houseful of belongings and paintings and art supplies between one U-Haul and the next, but it must not have been very fun.
The hand signals are what I remember the most. We devised a system of gestures to let you know what the road signs said once when we reached the mountains you dreaded. (Eyesight wasn’t your strong suit.) When we’d approach a sign—say, FALLING ROCKS, which was your most hated of the options we encountered—J and I would crawl to the back of the van and crouch on our knees (standing up was problematic because of the curvy, bumpy roads). We’d wave our skinny arms around to get your attention and give you whatever hand gesture we needed to, conveying appropriately the peril that lay ahead, then crawl back over to our pallet.
PURE, UNADULTERATED JOY.
It was in such a manner that we made our way across the country to the desert of Arizona. You’d taken a teaching job—not anywhere big, but it was a stepping stone, as stepping stones go. Art History students at the Mojave Community College were soon going to meet their match: You, a Yale-educated painter who was currently barreling across the state of Arizona with two kids, a wife, and a very cranky cat in tow. Mountains be damned, we were going to survive this trip, set up shop in the middle of the blazing desert, cook ourselves some eggs on the sidewalk (which you kept telling us could be done in the desert), and watch you become famous.
This was the plan, and we were sticking to it.