We drove to Jersey today, and I thought about going there as a kid, carsick in the backseat of mom's pale blue Nissan Stanza.
On the way to her mother's house, going over the toll bridge at Spuytin Duyvil, she'd pull into the right lane, so I could look down toward the train tracks on the river below. My sister would be passed out, leaning on her pink pillow against the port side window.
I loved catching quick glimpses of diesel engines on the Hudson Line as they chugged around the bend toward Riverdale (it helped that the places themselves looked and sounded like Narnia -- dales and the wide Hudson spilling into the lazy Harlem, hemmed in by the Palisades, pocked with trees and scarred with rocky outcroppings. Forested mountains, in other words, inhabited by talking trees, and populated by all sorts of wildness).
Mom would drive down the Henry Hudson Parkway past Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters, where I knew medieval tapestries of knights and hounds on the hunt hung in an ivy-covered palace overlooking the brown-blue Hudson. Then up over the George, with the Manhattan skyline to the south. All of these places and views, packed into a smoggy four-mile segment of a forty minute drive to her mother's house.
Beyond the George, the trip was always a pain, with traffic on the Garden State Parkway, and the landscapes rich in the stuff of childhood boredom: paper factories and golf courses, stone mid-rises and ads for personal injury lawyers. Jersey's multi-laned expressways throbbed in their stop-and-go staccato of Civics and Camry's and wood-paneled Caravans. They jockeyed around us with their piss-yellow Jersey license plates, keeping us from our destination: the house on Marrion Street (coincidence of note: covered in siding of the same piss-yellow color) with a pedal-driven firetruck in the basement that I'd drive in circles around stacked jars of pickled everything and invisibly chirping crickets.
Lately, this dreamy memoir tense feels too easy. I wonder who wants to hear the familiarly dishonest register of nostalgia anyway. But equally, it feels foolish to make up stories, and regardless: this is the stuff that comes out. What we've got of the world, we've got. And what else but what we've got can we share?
I could write stories about what I imagined in that backseat, I guess. A starship called the SS-IV. It was a two-tiered, four-rocket hyperspace cruiser and it could get me from our house in Westchester to Jersey in half a second. I'd think about the SS-IV and wonder if I would get carsick in space. I figured maybe not. But thinking about it made me less carsick in the Stanza, so I'd keep thinking about it.
So today, my father had this idea to drive his big truck out to Hot Grill, which was where we used to go to lunch when visiting my grandmother. They'd call me up from the basement and I'd give it one more lap around the pickles in the old fire engine. My grandmother would order a hot roast beef sandwich on a hard roll with a cup of coffee. I'd eat a hot dog with mustard and get it all over my face.
Today we had two each, with sodas. Mom stayed home with the dying dog, trying to get her to eat sweet potatoes, or boiled chicken, or some of the extra-fancy dog food that -- as desperation and imminence gathered -- my parents had purchased in the fancier grocery store.
I took pictures on my phone of Hot Grill. The parking lot, of Dad ordering the hot dogs, getting ready to eat them, eating them, the detritus. And feeling stupid taking all these pictures of nothing. Someday maybe my kids will find these weird memento moris of Hot Grill detritus. Like the way the Dutch painted their lemon rinds and exhausted plates of pastries and fruits. Except instead, it'll be red Hot Grill trays stained with chili and mustard, wet with kraut.
I'll tell them about my father, if they ask, and about the dog's last winter days -- the way she dragged her legs and we kept willing more life and sweet potatoes into her. If by then I even remember the Stanza, I'll have to decide whether it's worth it expend energy explaining what a minivan was, or what driving was, or carsickness, or why starships the way I imagined them had rockets instead of the fusion drives (which is what they'll actually turn out to have).