University of Baltimore MFA student Terri Steel recalls the childhood road trip that changed her forever.
Another one whizzed by; we’d been passing them for hours. Bright yellow bubble letters against a black backdrop reading “SOUTH of the BORDER” and “CATCH Pedro IF YOU CAN!” The signs were a welcome sight, standing out against a monotonous stretch of landscape unadorned aside from the occasional nut shop dotting Interstate 95. I looked down at the bag of Stuckey’s pecans I had been munching on since morning. “How much longer until we get there, Mom?”
She didn’t answer, just took a long drag on her cigarette, blew the smoke out and cocked up her chin a little, the first sign I had seen of hope. Our faded, red Plymouth didn’t have air conditioning; windows rolled down, bare feet on the dash and bandanas in our hair, we looked like vacationers instead of runaways. I was starting to feel like one too, a far cry from the frantic dismay filling me the day before as we raced down Ritchie Highway, my clothes stuffed in an A&P grocery bag. Mom had surprised me with news of spending the weekend at my grandma’s, my father’s mother. The frigid February air fogged the windows and Mom’s cigarette smoke screened my view. I traced a finger along the glass to see outside as Mom casually mentioned that we were not actually heading to Grandma’s. We were leaving my father and brothers for a new life in Florida. Panic erupted as I thought of my little brother, Steven, six years old. I imagined him standing at home looking for Mom. My older brother, Michael, ran away often at 11, but I knew he still needed Mom too.
“How can you do this Mom? How can you just leave? What about Steven and Michael?”
Mom looked at me with distant eyes, swerving the car off the road and hopping out in front of a phone booth, the road dust rising and swirling around her as if she were the center of a tornado. She turned to me sternly as I took in my surroundings: crushed gravel, a cinder-brick building, “Car Repairs” in painted red letters, and flat fields that seemed to stretch on forever. A flock of geese cried overhead.
“I need to know now if you can handle this, Terri, because if you can’t handle this, I need to leave you here. Do you hear me, Terri? “ Her voice was shrill. “I can’t handle any more now! I’m going to call your Aunt Kitty and tell her where we are. I can either tell her you are coming with me, or I can tell her to pick you up. Now what’s it going to be?”
I searched for something familiar, but even Mom looked different.
“I’m coming with you,” I said wiping away tears.
Back in the car, I settled in, careful not to breathe too loud just in case Mom changed her mind.
I couldn’t blame her for leaving. Trying to please my father was something she failed miserably at—we all did—but the task was constant. Mom kept his dinner warm, waited for his presence, hushed us kids when his car pulled up, and reminded us not to say anything to set him off. But none of it mattered.
Everyone heard his disgust: neighbors, family friends, Mom and us kids.
“Why are you such a Goddamn, Nag? Huh? I mean, I was working for Christ’s sakes! Do you know what that is?” The windows vibrated. “Are you that stupid? Jesus Christ! What’s this, another dry steak? Do you think you could learn how to cook a decent meal?”
“Frank,” Mom pleaded. “Please! Lower your voice. You’ll wake the kids. I’ll make something else. Calm down, for God’s sake.”
Her voice moved to a forced hush. “You don’t think I know where you were? I hear you through the line when I call Dino’s, telling them to say you aren’t there. Do you know how embarrassing that is?”
Now into our second day as escapees, Mom perked up with each bright billboard we passed, singing along with Buddy Holly on the radio. I looked at my stash of souvenirs: a leather coin purse, some cheap beaded moccasins, and a plastic palm-tree key chain—all purchased to ease my mother’s guilt.
“Mom, isn’t it time to get some more gas?” I asked, thinking I could use another trinket.
“Yeah. Maybe. Let’s fill the tank and then we’ll break for the night.”
“But Mom,” I whined. “You promised we would see South of the Border!”
“Terri, can’t you see I’m exhausted? We’ll see it in the morning. I promise.”
I scored some Mexican jumping beans as we gassed up. We pulled into a Motel 6, grabbed a bite at the diner next-door, slept and rose early.
Two miles down the highway and another billboard beckoned, “SOUTH of the BORDER 400 Yards.”
Mom pulled in as promised, but at 7:30 am the place looked like an abandoned carnival. Neon-green cacti with peeling paint sat on a gravel-pit parking lot. A statue of a man wearing a red-striped sombrero enticed us to taste hot tacos, but nothing was open. Mom spotted a woman opening the side window of a food truck where she ordered a hot coffee and two slices of blueberry pie. Spinning on a vinyl-topped stool, I giddily named all of the rides I would get on once the park opened.
“We only have time for the pie, Terri.” Mom said.
I looked down at my slice then back into her pleading eyes, trying to hold all of my nine-year-old childish desires of rides, games, and prizes inside.
“But it’s the best pie ever Mom. Isn’t it?”
Mom nodded, slid another fork full into her mouth, and smiled.
Gravel crunched and dust swirled as our car peeled out, leaving South of the Border behind for good, both of us filled with pie and hope.
We spent a week in Winter Park, Florida, with Mom’s friend Pat and her daughter, Jackie, at their lake house. I swam in the built-in swimming pool, soaked up the sun, and hovered around Mom refusing to let her out of my sight.
“Terri,” Mom begged, “Why don’t you go on a little bike ride with Jackie?”
“Nope. I’m fine. I like sitting by the pool.”
“Aw. Come on!” Jackie pleaded. “You can hang with me and my friends and I’ll show you around.”
Mom and Pat exchanged knowing glances. “Terri, how about you give us grown-ups a chance to talk, okay?”
“Talk, Mom. I’ll just swim,” I said, diving into the cool, blue water and coming up for just enough air to take me back down.
Jackie gave up and left without me, and soon Mom and Pat chatted as if I wasn’t there. Pat told Mom about the lack of jobs in Florida, how hard it was just to get by, how everything had turned upside down after her divorce, but Mom seemed determined. She would get licensed to sell real estate, find a home nearby and a decent school for me. It all sounded new, exciting, and promising.
Disney World, an ice cream parlor, shopping trips and giggles filled our days. No father, no yelling, no hitting, no sirens or police officers, it was a world that I had not known existed and I wanted to live in it forever—even if that meant leaving my brothers behind. But we left for home when the week was over.
The money had run out, the credit card maxed. A midnight conversation had sealed my fate. I listened, pretending to sleep as Mom begged into the receiver for time and money.
“Please Frank, I don’t ask for much and I am begging you here. I’m afraid I’m going to lose my mind and then what will happen to the kids, huh?” Mom said.
I peeked from around the corner, watching as she shifted her weight foot to foot, the phone pressed tightly to her ear.
“Frank, you have said all that before, but we both know what will happen when I get home and I just can’t handle it anymore. It’s all on me: the kids, the house, and you running around with that woman. My God. Do you know how embarrassing it is?”
Muffled sounds drifted through the phone, my father’s argument growing louder.
“Christ, Frank! Do you think it was easy for me to leave them? Maybe you should take some responsibility for once and act like a father,” Mom retorted. “They could use one of them, you know!”
Suddenly everything became silent and I got nervous. Mom began to cry, her shoulders heaving.
“Okay, Frank. I’ll head home tomorrow,” she said defeated, “but you better remember your promise.”
I stood in my hiding place, numb, as Mom brushed passed me without a glance.
I couldn’t believe she’d fallen for it.
The next morning we drove home without stopping, the bright greens of Florida replaced too soon by the dreary grays of winter. A somber silence presided in the smoke-filled Malibu, as Mom sucked cigarettes and the ashtray overflowed with musty-pink stubs. Roadside signs held no interest on our return. I knew what was up ahead.
The silence was shattered by my mother’s voice. “Aren’t you worried about your brothers, Terri? How do you think they would feel if we didn’t head back?”
I knew what my mother wanted to hear, but the words were stuck inside me and I was unwilling to give her the answer she longed for. I had glimpsed another way of life, a warm, inviting place with swaying palms and sun-glistened mornings. I loved my mother and the pull to please her weighed on my mind, but my own selfish desires won out. I kept silent.
“People can change, Terri.”
She was right. I had changed. Everything I was once so sure of—my home, my family, and my mother—now floated in limbo. I was no longer sure of anything except my dissatisfaction with what waited back home. I had been shown another way to live. Suddenly I could think of nothing more important than returning to that other world that lay out of reach, just south of the border.
Memoirist Terri Steel is an MFA student at the University of Baltimore. A mother of three–and grandmother of three–she currently teaches English at CCBC and is thrilled to have her work published for the second time in the Baltimore Fishbowl.