A few days ago I was stuck in traffic behind a van. The windows on vans are for some reason always tinted, but motion inside caught my eye and I watched the silhouette of a little boy flying an action figure through the air. I remember what it was like to be there: the parents up front, worrying about the traffic, the dad driving and the mom following a map. Maybe they tell the little boy to quiet down so they can concentrate, and maybe he does, but he’s still lost in his own little world; the action figure still flying, the movements guided by his hand.
Sometimes I wish I were still in the backseat.
We had a minivan when I was a kid — with three kids on a road trip, you almost had to. We had the typical early 90’s van — no DVD player or individual seating or doors on both sides…Our van was navy blue, boxy in shape, and a little cramped, with only one door in the back — one way in and one way out. The only reason we survived, I think, is because my parents assigned us all our individual space.
The middle seat was the place to be, and although we would switch throughout the trip to play the fairness game, since I was the youngest (and the only girl), I usually got it for the duration. I’ve always loved smaller spaces, where you can snuggle into a corner and feel cozy and content — I used to make forts out of the furniture and blankets in the basement, and I remember my roommate and I rearranged the furniture in my college dorm room so that I had a little nook that consisted of my bed, a rug, and a bookshelf. My brothers probably wanted that middle seat so that they could spread out; I coveted it because it was nestled between my brothers and my parents, where I felt safe and secure.
Plus, there was a lot more room for my stuff.
My mom was a genius when we went on road trips. The day before, she would take us to the comic store and the bookstore where we would stock up on “quiet distractions.” My brothers would get the latest Green Lantern and X-Men comics while I picked out Sweet Valley High or R.L. Stine books (Fear Street, not Goosebumps — I had standards). Mom would make us wait until we were at least a half hour on the road before we could start reading — “to make it last,” she would say — so I would color or write in a fresh notebook while my brothers inserted tapes into their walkmans and put on their headphones.
I loved packing my bag for car rides — books and crayons and notebooks would find themselves stuffed into my backpack, the travel pillow resting on top, ready to use. I always slid all the way over so that I could lean against the window, my bag of goodies sitting in the space between me and the driver’s seat, the cooler and bag of treats lined up next to it. I was in charge of the snacks, which annoyed me as the trip dragged on, as it meant I had to bookmark what I was reading and cater to the whims of my brothers.
“Susan, hand me a juice.”
“Ok.” And I would hand one back and pick up my book, intent on going back to that world where there were no car horns and traffic, and my parents’ low voices and brothers didn’t exist. There was just me and words and a whole other place.
“And the pretzels.”
Sometimes I still feel like that little girl who wants to cozy up with her notebook or crayons, who can drown out the rest of the world and let someone else take the wheel and worry about directions for awhile. Sometimes I wish I were still in that van, safely cocooned in that middle spot with everything I’ll ever need surrounding me.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m not still in that place, afraid to move up and move on.