Interstate 87 northbound is mountainous, and my favorite route home. Especially at sundown. My dad used to stop his chores or conversations to admire a good sunset. Sometimes, when he caught the golden sky early on, he would snatch his keys from the kitchen and speed off in his car towards Interstate 87 to catch the sunset at its peak. Only there, around the mountain bends, would he get the view that satisfied him.
The last time I went home, I inched along in the right lane, driving ten below the speed limit. I didn’t drive slowly to make the beautiful journey last longer. I did it subconsciously, because of the beautiful journey. My eyes veered from the road and over the treetops as my foot eased off the gas pedal in my moments of distraction.
A drawn-out honk from behind me woke me from my daze. My eyes darted to my rearview mirror, where I found a little Prius trying to bully me into acceleration. I smiled into the mirror and waited until I knew the young, blonde driver was looking. I threw up a birdie and let off the accelerator. Now I was 14 below the speed limit. She answered with her horn. But the squeak from the Prius was far from intimidating. She stepped on the gas pedal and her cute, little car stalled before picking up speed. She swerved into the other lane and drove beside me for a moment before passing me. I only had a few seconds to read the hot-pink bumper sticker before she drove off into the beautiful, Interstate 87 northbound sunset. “Thank a vegan today or become one.”
Welcome back, I thought, to New England.
My first morning back home was met with the smell of toasted bagels and coffee. I hated waking up in the mornings. “You would sleep eighteen hours a day, like a cat, if you could,” my mom always told me. I always thought that was a funny thing of her to say–“if you could.” Couldn’t I? What was stopping me from sleeping eighteen hours? The smell of fresh bagels in the morning. That’s what was stopping me. (She also used to say she was surprised I didn’t weigh 300 pounds, considering my appetite.)
The smell drew me to the kitchen before my eyes had fully opened. I stumbled down the stairs like a zombie smelling live flesh. (Miss Vegan Bumper Sticker is wincing at that description.)
I hated coffee, but I loved the smell of it. I told my friends, who never understood this, that it was refreshing and helped me focus, similar to how it made them feel when they drank it. It wasn’t until I was older and married that I realized the only reason I liked it was because I grew up smelling it every Saturday morning. Without the smell of toasted bagels, I truly hate the smell of coffee.
“Coffee?” my mom asked as I plopped myself down at the breakfast table. She always asked that.
My dad set a platter in the middle of the table with sliced, toasted bagels ready for grabs. I grabbed.
“Uh–save some for your mother and me, sweetie,” my dad said.
“Oh my gosh.”
“I’m serious!” he laughed. “Get yourself a placemat, please. You’ll get crumbs all over the table, otherwise.”
“Eileen! You know better,” my mom said.
I got up from my seat, with bagel hanging out of my mouth, and went to grab the placemats from the basket in the kitchen. I never understood this house rule my parents had created. I guessed they learned it from their parents. I wondered what the purpose of the table was if we used mats to catch the crumbs as we ate. I saw the placemats as their personal ritual, rather than a practical dining strategy. Nevertheless, I was too old and had grown too wise to argue with my parents. I grabbed three placemats and threw them into their spots at the square table. I still hadn’t swallowed the bagel that was in my mouth. If I had been ten years younger, my mom would have been telling me to “take smaller bites.” Again, too old and too wise now. Well, maybe not wise.
My parents finally took their seats at the table. They sat across from each other, with me between them and an empty chair across from me. My mom sipped her coffee and grimaced. “Too hot,” she whispered. She made the same face every time she took a sip, which made me think she did not like the coffee. How could it be too hot for ten minutes? Maybe she drank it the same reason I smelled it.
“Game starts at three, sweetie,” my dad said. “I’ve already set it to record, in case we miss it.”
“We’ve never missed it, Dad.”
“In case we miss it.”
“We won’t miss it.”
“You won’t miss it,” my mom chimed in. “You only record it so that you can fast-forward through the commercials, dear. You won’t miss it.”
“We might miss it,” he said. We didn’t miss it. We never did.
“I’m going to throw another bagel in the toast–Eileen!” my mother said. I jumped and nearly spit out my orange juice.
She said nothing. She glared at me. Then she stood up from her seat at the table and stomped out of the room. I looked at my dad, but his head was down, as he shoveled bits of food into his mouth. My mother came stomping back into the room with another placemat in her hand. She flung it down at the empty chair across from me then walked back out of the room to only return again, this time with a plate and juice glass. She set them both at the empty chair.
She took her seat again without looking at me. Her chin was high. I sat still and watched her. My mouth had food in it, but I wasn’t chewing.
“We still do that?”
“Honey–don’t talk with food in your mouth,” she said.
I looked to my dad this time. “We still do that?”
He looked up, finally, and swallowed his last bite of bagel. “Well–” he shrugged as if to tell me that was a stupid question, since I had just seen my mom do it.
“Mom, I think–“
“Eat your food, sweetie.”
Too old and too wise to argue. I ate my food.
My visit home only lasted a week, though I wished it had been longer. My dad managed to get my mom out of the house a few times so that he could bring me on the back of his motorcycle. Mom was never fond of him riding, much less her 27-year-old daughter. So, we tried our best to keep our joy rides a secret.
My dad geared me up with a padded jacket, pants, a helmet, and gloves, all to wear over my regular outfit. “If something bad were to happen–it won’t, but if something bad were to happen,” he said, “nothing bad will happen to you. With all this on, I mean.”
We hopped on the bike. The extra clothing made me feel like I was the 300 pounds my mom always joked about. I hugged my dad’s waist, and our helmets clinked together. I had done it enough times to know that I could hold on as tightly as I needed, and I would not hurt him. Although I felt like I was squeezing the oxygen out of him. We rode on.
He may have been driving a motorcycle, but it felt more like a type of flying. We flew through the windy roads of Interstate 87. It was July, so the trees were full and greener than they’d get all year. Although the autumn leaves of red and orange were Vermont’s treasure, the vibrant green never lasted long, so I found July to be the most valuable time of year. We caught glimpses of the early sunset, nothing too spectacular. But to my dad, it was always a glorious wonder. He, too, slowed down as the orange in the sky grew darker. I wondered how much of the road he was actually watching underneath his helmet. I didn’t really care, though, because if anything bad were to happen, nothing bad would happen to me.
We made our way North again and headed home. We arrived to find my mom standing with her arms crossed in the driveway. I thought I heard my dad curse over the rumble of the engine, but I must have been mistaken. I had only ever heard him curse once, when the Mets lost to the Yankees in the bottom of the ninth inning on a walk-off homerun. It was my eleventh birthday. He said, “Fuck the Yankees.”
I hopped off the bike as soon as my dad had planted both feet on the ground.
“No,” she said. She tried to twist the helmet off my face but nearly broke my neck. I pushed her hands away and yanked the helmet off myself. She was yelling at me, but I wasn’t listening. I was confused because, although she acted angrily, her eyes looked weak–tired. I wasn’t sure how she managed to hold back tears because her eyes were about to overflow. She was still yelling, but she pushed passed me and took a few quick steps toward my dad. She waved her finger in his face and flung her arms around like she was trying to take off and fly into the sunset.
I shed my protective layer of padded clothing and set it off to the side of the driveway. My mom was still scolding my dad. He argued back every now and then, but he didn’t work himself up. She was just overly protective. I didn’t blame her, so we usually let her yell about things like that.
I walked inside and saw the dinner table set for four. I walked down the hall towards the bathroom to wash up for dinner. I stopped to look at the pictures on the wall of the hallway–something I hadn’t done in years. I saw a picture of me as an infant, draped in white linen. I had a mischievously-soft smile creeping along my face. I saw a picture of my parents on their wedding day, neither of them smiling–like it was some sort of Victorian portrait. I saw a family picture of the four of us, all in a pile of those New England leaves–the usual dead ones. My mom wore a grin that looked too big for her face, and mine matched. The picture was almost too perfect–with the leaves and the candid smiles. The photo was cropped tightly around us, making the spontaneous sunset in the back barely visible.
My parents came in and joined me at the dinner table. My mom’s face had been wiped–like she was never even yelling. Her eyes, I decided, were just naturally glossy.
“You’re leaving early tomorrow, sweetie?” my dad said.
“Probably around nine.”
“As if you’ll be up!”
“We’ll have breakfast ready for you at eleven,” she said. “Eggs?”
“I’ll take a bagel.”
She nodded and set the last placemat for dinner at the empty chair.
I took Interstate 87 southbound out of New England the next day around noon.
Anna Thomas is a student at Christopher Newport University. She will graduate in May 2022 with majors in Communication Studies and Political Science. Anna’s background as a student-journalist sparked her love for writing, which later drew her to focus on short story prose.