Michael J. Soloway
My mother kidnapped me in her ’78 Chevy Nova when I was eight. I went without a struggle, without a fight. That would change soon enough.
She was thirty-four. The car was brand new. Except for the roof, which was white, the car was rust orange—Burnt Sienna, from my knowledge of crayon nomenclature. Not the wisest color choice for a getaway car, but my mother wasn’t known for her wise decisions, nor for her ability to blend in, unlike the lizards I kept as pets back then, who could go green in an instant, in grass or in the boat of an Aloe Vera leaf. The Chevy reminded me of a Creamsicle. The bench seats had yet to fade in the Florida sun; the air conditioning still blew cold. Leaves hadn’t had a chance to find their way into the ducts, where they’d eventually rattle the vents like a playing card in the spokes of a bike. Decals and paint were factory standard. When I sell it nine years later, before I leave for college, the oil pan will leak and the wiper hose will have a tear. But then, it was perfection.
We got stranded in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Home of the University of Alabama. Home of the Crimson Tide. And our home for the next four weeks. “A month?” my mother screamed. The brand new Chevy Nova my father had bought gave up after only 1,900 miles. Blown engine. “We’ll fix it,” a man said. “It’s under warranty.” We’d left my father in a coma back in Miami; I hoped and prayed he had a warranty too.
We stayed with a doctor and his two kids. A man our friend Mitzi knew. They met at Temple Israel. He was Jewish and divorced. We were Jewish but celebrated Christmas. (In later years we’d celebrate Hanukkah with an electric menorah with chipped orange bulbs.) He had two children: Heather, nine, and Joshua, six. Together, we woke on Saturday mornings and watched Looney Tunes and the Justice League and the Smurfs and Thundercats. We even had a live-in maid—Miss Millie. She was the color of Raw Umber and round and slept up a stairwell around the other side of the house. It all felt like vacation, especially the days we were able to swim in their backyard pool.
I was still getting used to the hills, finding my balance, my equilibrium, and my sea legs of sort. Oftentimes I felt disoriented, as though I were wading in the tug of the oceans back home with waves that could knock you down in an instant if you didn’t learn to do the dance, take the proper steps. Alabama was the antithesis of Florida—rock for sand, dirt for clay, oak for palm, creek for ocean. I felt good about the trade. The beach in West Palm was notorious for its tar and piles of seaweed. I was ready to see the woods behind the house. Ready to smell colors—Mountain Meadow, Atomic Tangerine, Tumbleweed, Manatee, and Wild Blue Yonder. Ready to hear the water of an Alabama creek roll along.
Trees and leaves and dead branches fell and landed straight down into piles, confused lines that looked like they could have been the end of the earth, like proof to conspiracy theorists that the earth was indeed flat. What locals called hills I called mountains—inclines going straight up from traffic lights into neighborhoods that reminded me of Mt. Olympus standing high above the mortals. The woods behind the doctor’s house were made for kids like us—wanderers, explorers, curious boys and girls prone to unpredictable fits and bouts of stupidity. Very little grass made the forest bed, but it was plush with all that had fallen: pine needles and moss and leaves and mushrooms and mounds of pliable sap moving like glaciers out from the base of pine trees. Heather led the way, with her brother close behind. We tried to match her footprints stride-for-stride but her brother’s were much too small and mine just too long to cover her tracks. Instead, I slid more than I walked behind.
The gentle rush of water—you could hear it well before any of your other senses picked it up in the distance. Then came the smells and the taste of pine and rock in the air. Iron ore and flavors like rosemary. When I finally saw it, it was through the trees, at the bottom of the hillside. If I stopped moving to focus my eyes, I could catch a right angle through the leafy canopy and steal a glimpse of the creek as it poked over rocks.
Heather called it a brook and slapped her brother on the top of the head when he insisted it was an ocean. “No, stupid,” she said. “Do you see any sand? Do you see any boats? Or any seagulls? Or seaweed? Or do you see any waves? And what about a lifeguard?”
“What’s a lifeguard?” he asked.
“I’m your lifeguard,” she said. Heather intended to lead us across the creek to the other side by stepping on large smooth rocks that were just treading water themselves but provided a small platform to stand, to leap, to escape, to cross without getting wet. Her brother followed without protest or struggle, stepping on the same rocky path, foot-to-foot, trying to match her stride-for-stride, nearly blowing his sister’s tire from behind. “Slow down,” she said. I was still standing along the shore. In my mind, I was a boy diving into the deep end of the pool for the first time. My sneakers are brand new. If I get them wet my mother will slap my face and pull my hair and find something Southern to beat on me with—a boot, a cowboy buckle, a leather strap. Heather tried to get me across. She was persuasive. She knew what to do. “If you come with us, I’ll show you mine,” she said. “And you don’t even have to show me yours.” My what? Her what? Taken by the arm, Heather’s hands were much rougher than I thought they’d be, more like what I imagined Millie’s would have felt like after all those years keeping the doctor straight, like the pads of an old dog. I pulled away, but we made it to the first stone. My sneakers, new as they were, slid but I stayed upright. The creek snapped at me, water splashing, like a salmon coming to spawn, then die.
I was still upright when my foot landed in the frigid stream. The water in Florida was always so warm, but Alabama was like someone had dumped a cooler of ice right on that very spot. My sneaker was drowning, but I couldn’t even feel it. My ankle was numb. My entire body vibrated with cold and fear.
Back at the house Heather tossed my shoes in the clothes dryer and told me to stop crying. They rattled, laces clicking against metal, thumping at every roll. I was afraid my mother would hear. I was afraid Millie would barge in and have no alternative but to “tell.” I was afraid of Heather for other reasons.
Fifteen minutes on high heat passed like days. I could still hear the echo of banging and clicking through the walls, even when the dryer stopped. Then voices. Laughing. Moaning. What is that, I thought. Heather smiled and put her ear to the wall. Show me hers? Show me his? She kept it there and listened until the thumping stopped and my new sneakers were toasty and dry.
Next day, I didn’t know how my father was doing or if we’d even go back home when the Nova was road worthy again. My mother didn’t talk about it and I didn’t ask. This is how I learned to roll and keep rolling.
Don’t stop. Don’t commit.
Call it fear. Call it immaturity. Call it wanderlust. Just don’t call it running away. To me, running away was skipping down the block and hiding in a row of shrubbery for an hour, then shuffling home with your head down, just in time for dinner, where your mother has set a place at the table for you in anticipation of your eventual return. That night, nobody said a word except, “please pass the rolls.” And they did.
Michael J. Soloway grew up eating oranges, catching lizards, and listening to the gasp of tennis ball cans being opened in south Florida. He received his Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Wilkes University and will earn his MFA in January 2014. In addition, Michael has served as managing editor of more than a dozen nonprofit magazines and just finished his first memoir Share the Chameleon, about attempting to break his family’s cycle of abuse, as he becomes a father for the first time in his 40s. Brevity Magazine published Michael’s short essay, “Introducing Mother Nature,” in 2012. In addition, Split Lip magazine published his nonfiction essay, “Sticks and Stones,” about his grandmother’s slide into dementia, in March 2013. His work has also appeared in Red Fez, Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts, and Under the Gum Tree magazines. An excerpt from Share the Chameleon will appear in Split Lip magazine in September 2013.