Car Doors and Sunflowers

from the vault, into my world

Note: This essay was written for a class & is a segmented essay. Intentionally.


I’m generally not a fan of car floors. There’s a reason my mother would pay us twice as much to clean the inside of the car as the outside: the inside of the average vehicle is a gross place, gathering dirt, hair, and the crumbs of hastily eaten Subway sandwiches and granola bars.

Minivans seem to attract even more of these elements than a tame four-door five-seater, and after two weeks of the six of us more or less living in our minivan, its rugs had little to recommend itself as a floor, let alone a bed.

And yet, there I was, lying on the floor of our minivan in a sleeping bag, pressed between Chloe, my smallest sister, and the back of the driver’s seat, trying not to think about how many pairs of dirty shoes had rested where I was trying to sleep. The skies to the South and to the East of Badlands National Park were bright with lightning, an unwanted nightlight. Thunder grumbled in the distance. I glared at the ceiling and felt my sister’s hot breath on my neck, thinking enviously of my parents sleeping in the cool evening outside.

I wished that this campsite at least had running water so we could’ve washed our feet before bed.

It was my last summer at home—the summer before my senior year—though I hadn’t known it at the time. My parents had been planning this trip for years, ever since our friends from back East had come to visit a few summers before. I hadn’t been displeased. The long—or sometimes too-short—months of summer tend to fly by in the kind of blur you get when you accidentally use Lysol spray to clean the mirrors instead of Windex. An epic road trip—16 states, 7,000 miles, 3 weeks—would certainly stand out. And even if I hadn’t wanted to go, I didn’t have a choice; this was the family vacation of a lifetime.

So we packed in earnest, all six of us planning outfits, rolling jeans as tightly as possible in our smallest suitcases and duffle bags, and asking the important questions, like “would Birkenstocks be formal enough for church on the other side of the Rockies?” and “which watercolor set should I bring?” Visions of laughter and sunglasses-clad faces danced in my head, sepia-stained and set to a fabulous soundtrack of Mumford and Sons and Bon Jovi. I reveled in the food I would eat, the epic photos that would accent my Instagram feed, and the surely religious following my travel blog would gain after I started posting about my family’s adventures. Even the annoying things my younger siblings do would be transformed into humorous anecdotes on such a trip.

Our car would constantly smell like Starbucks Americano.

 

I elbowed Chloe as she burrowed into my back. It was far too warm in the van for a friendly bedfellow; the windows were shut tight and already the smell of four people in a small space was suffocating. I didn’t want to think about what it would smell like in the morning. After elbowing her away—much to the chagrin of Molly, my other sister—for the third time, I had had enough. I was going to go insane if I didn’t at least open the windows.

Struggling out of the sleeping bag’s cocoon, I began to search for the car keys in the front. My father had promised to leave them for us; my parents had opted to attempt a tent instead of sleep in the trunk so it made sense to leave us some form of escape. My sisters groaned as I rustled around; Wesley, the lucky one, was passed out on the padded back bench.

The keys weren’t there.

 

I’ve heard of people going insane from heat and doing ill-advised things. There have been multiple studies that show that murder rates go up in the summer partially because heat makes peoples’ tempers shorter. The basic plot of Albert Camus’ The Stranger is that a man gets too hot and kills some people. In my case, it wasn’t just the fact that the van was hot that was driving me insane. It was the togetherness.

My family and I had had a pretty good time over the seventeen days we’d been traveling. We had climbed mountains and trekked through valleys; we had visited graveyards and Texan mega-churches; we had visited friends we knew well and crashed an extended family’s family reunion. Dad had taken many aesthetically pleasing photos of me—a perk of being a photographer’s daughter.

But we also had spent hours and hours in the car. Chloe and Wesley had argued and fought for hours. Dad had insisted on playing his weird dubstep-house music. Mom had asked far too many questions about how x or y event made us feel. And I had seen far too many fields of corn and soybeans without stretching. And I was feeling it in my introverted soul.

 

“Mom! Dad!” I hissed into the near-darkness. The only real light was from within the car, triggered by the open door and triggering anger from the pair on the floor. I ignored their complaints. No response from my parents. “Mom. Dad.” Still no response. The air was cold and heavy with the threat of rain. I repeated myself again and again, getting a little more creative as time went on. Finally, my father responded.

What?”

“Where are the keys?”

“Here.”

“You said you’d leave them in the car!”

“I have them here with me. Come and get them if you want.”

“Are you freaking kidding me? I don’t have shoes, and there’s no way I’m coming out in this freaking mud.”

“Well-”

Ugh, I hate you guys.” A sort of disgruntled hollowness followed. I could hear my mother mutter something to my dad, but I didn’t want to know. I didn’t care.

Distant thunder groaned.

 

When we’d first arrived at Badlands, I was excited. The dramatic rock formations serrated the sky and the gray castles building in the Eastern horizon were dark against the pale prairies of the park. I could smell the tension in the air and I loved it. Once the storm hit, my joy was complete. The downpour pounded the dirt from our car and the dust from the air. Wind and hail louder than any drumline engulfed the vehicle and we had to park until it passed. All that could be seen was rain. It was magnificent.

And then my mom got our minivan stuck in the mud of our dry campsite and the thrill of adventure faltered. I don’t know if Jesus healed the blind with this kind of clay, but it certainly didn’t heal our sharp tongues. The sun set, thunder rolled, and bitterness set in. Days of annoyance coagulated, bloated, broke.

We wallowed in our dirt.

 

My father came and rolled down the windows. He said nothing.

 

The morning was clear. Sunshine woke us willingly, happy to be off the floor if nothing else. Wesley was in a cheerful mood; he’d slept well. I was not. There was a bad taste in my mouth that had nothing to do with the lack of running water.

The ground had reverted to brick overnight. The soup that had sucked us in spit us back out a little worse for wear, though not so much as to keep us from making instant coffee and oatmeal with waterbottle water. It was a quiet morning. We did our best to shake the dirt off of the carpets on our floor. It’s easiest to clean the mud off of the pieces you can take out of the vehicle.

 

On the way out of the park, we drove by fields and fields of sunflowers. They were brilliant against the vibrantly blue sky, faces turned to welcome the sun. I made eye contact with my dad in the rearview mirror.

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