It was my parents’ 17th anniversary, a night for outward ‘I-love-you’s and inward ‘what-was-I-thinking’s. These anniversary dinners out as a family were standard: eat something expensive, maybe have dessert, then my parents might dance to prerecorded entertainment or a sullen piano player.
Little could any of us have known that, that night we would all be dancing…
Dancing, that is, with a partner named Death!
Despite not having exchanged Christmas gifts and despite the seemingly endless stream of late-night arguments, my parents were making an effort to celebrate their marriage. Like the atheist that buys Christmas presents, it sometimes is easier to go with the flow than not. That said…
My dad had made reservations at Scully’s, a waterfront restaurant in downtown Seattle. It was a “nice” restaurant, which meant that we were to put on our version of nice clothes. I waited for the rest of my family in the living room, proud of the outfit I’d put together: a buttoned shirt, cotton pants with a large wrinkle stemming from mid-thigh to just below the knee and brown, laced-up shoes, set off nicely by white socks. I gave my hair the four-finger once through and, voila!, I could easily have been mistaken as a debonair bachelor (and part-time GQ model) out on the town.
I sat down in my dad’s chair just as he emerged from the master bedroom and told me to “…move it.” He was dressed in one of his 8-year old suits paired with scuffed loafers, no tie and he reeked of Old Spice. His mustache and beard were actively competing against one another for the title of bushiest, while the patches of thinning hair on his head were slicked elegantly back with water and held in place by a 4-5 second spritzing of Aqua Net.
A few moments later, my mom followed looking far nicer than either of us. Her permed hair hung at her shoulders with the full-bodied bounce of dozens of tiny Slinkies. She wore a black dress with gray stripes, a fake pearl necklace, dark stockings and shoes, earrings that dangled to her jaw line and a perfume that was always three feet ahead of her. “You look nice,” she told me, despite the fact that there was no possibility she believed it.
“So do you,” I said with a hint of obligation.
“Mitch, get down here!” my dad called out to my older sister.
Within a minute, Michele was downstairs. Oh, she was dressed, but it was not to impress. No, she was dressed to blatantly challenge society’s Puritanical and misogynistic standards for beauty and unspoken expectations of appropriate fashion. Her bleached, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired hair stood at a plateau that reached at least 11 inches. Her eyes peered out from behind orange and blue eyeshadow that extended out to her temples; her cheekbones were raised and accented by layers of blush. She wore an oversized men’s suit jacket with the sleeves rolled up and a studded belt about the waist of her checkered pants. Take that, society! Without a word of acknowledgment of her outfit (my parents had learned that it was best to not engage my sister), the four of us put on our jackets and walked silently out to the car.
As my dad steered the station wagon toward the freeway, my sister asked me in a low tone, “Dress yourself?”
Gee, I must have really looked good for my sister to remark on my appearance. “Uh huh,” I smiled.
“Try it with your eyes open, next time. You’ll have better luck.”
“Zitty!” Self-conscious all week about the zit on her cheek, Michele was quickly enraged and slammed a 3-ringed fist into my leg.
I let out an ‘Ow-w-w-w’ for my parents’ benefit, making it sound more painful than it really was. My dad turned his head and yelled, “Knock it off! Botha you!”
He lit a cigarette and cracked his window maybe three inches out of what can only be assumed was an generous, almost altruistic, regard for the rest of us. Behind my dad, I sat being consumed by tobacco smoke and the chilly Pacific-northwestern breeze. He offered one to my mom, but ignored my sister when she requested ‘a butt.’
Through most of the ride, none of us spoke. This wasn’t due to any feelings of discomfort or harbored resentment, this was simply a sign of normalcy–which for us meant listening to the oldies station and keeping to ourselves.
My dad had gotten off the freeway in order to avoid traffic by taking back streets, passing through the train yard, then a few more side streets. As we got closer to downtown Seattle, the city lit up big and bright. The Space Needle poked at the moon and the nearby stadium glowed like a big bowl of radioactive waste. The sky seemed undecided between showing more of the stars or bringing in more clouds.
As we neared the darkened train yard, my dad tossed his cigarette out the window and said, “I don’t know ‘bout you guys, but I’m gonna order crab. A big, fat one. I heard this place has this big fish tank that you can choose your own lobsters and crabs out of.”
Michele, a stalwart vegetarian as far back as the month before, asked, “Do they have cattle in the back, so I can choose which lips and buttholes I want for my sausage?”
Ignoring my sister, my dad looked at me in the rearview mirror and asked, “You know what you’re gonna get?” Before I could answer, though, my dad, his eyes now looking past me, said, “That guy’s really ridin’ my ass.”
I turned and saw that a delivery truck was riding closer to our car than was probably legal. Then, just as my dad’s attention returned forward, the train signal directly ahead of us, which had gone unnoticed until that very moment, began flashing and ding-ing. “Goddammit!” my dad hollered, stopping the wagon suddenly. Brakes squealed behind us as the delivery truck stopped too close to our bumper, the inside of our car blindingly flooded by its headlights. Peering out the side window, I could see that we were three quarters of the way over the broad, white line of safety that cautioned drivers to ‘Keep clear’. My dad blew his horn and waved for the truck driver to back up and give us room, but the truck never moved.
“Dad!” Michele called out, looking out her window.
My dad’s eyes followed hers. “Shit!” The crossing gate was lowering itself right over Michele’s head. “Back up!” he yelled out to the truck. “What the hell’s going on?!”
In the side view mirror, my mom saw the line of cars behind the truck. “There’s cars. He can’t back up.”
“We’re screwed,” I said.
“Hold on!” My dad slammed down on the gas pedal, propelling us out of the path of the crossing gate.
Ahead of us stretched a poorly paved road, a suggested top speed of 20 mph, and seven railroad tracks.
On our left was the oncoming train, its lights blinding, its horn blaring. Realistically, the train was far enough away not to worry, but any train coming straight at you is a train that always seems too close. The moment our wagon cleared the occupied track, though, my mom called out, “Oh god!”
From her and my sister’s side of the car, the glowing Cyclopean eye of a second train headed our way.
A single track lay between us and the second train. The space between the tracks wasn’t wide enough for us to remain safely still, nor could we back up for obvious reasons. Despite being seat belted in, the four of us bounced around wildly as my dad drove faster than the road allowed into and then out of the path of the second train. Michele gripped the strap above her window with one hand, and kept the other on the door handle, readying herself to flee from the car if my dad gave the order to do so. My mom held pitifully to the dashboard in an attempt to buffer herself from being thrown around. My dad leaned forward with a calm intensity, surveying all sides at once, ready to make whatever snap judgments the fates might call for.
Not one of us spoke or reacted with anything other than complete disbelief as we all turned to see a third train coming from our left, just two tracks ahead.
Behind us, car horns called for the trains for stop (either that, or they were cheering us on and exchanging bets on two ill-matched opponents in a game of chicken) and the three oncoming trains blared at us to get the hell out of their way. My dad did the only thing he could do to avoid the third train and drove faster. Not meant as an off-roading vehicle, our station wagon began bouncing and shaking violently. The whistle of the third train screamed whistle-based obscenities as we crossed its path with only thirty or so feet to spare. Granted, thirty feet may sound like a lot, but from inside a slow moving station wagon on the receiving end of a 50-ton train, it seemed like two inches.
I looked back to see all three trains pass and wondered whether or not any of them had tried to slow down. I assumed they had, though I never heard any piercing-like screeching of the brakes or saw sparks blossoming from beneath any of the wheels. Then again, between all of the horns and the rattling from inside our car, it would have been difficult to distinguish any one particular sound.
“Is everyone okay?” my dad asked, to which we all answered one-syllable affirmations. — “That was close,” he said, not showing any signs of being rattled, though I’m sure he was.
“I thought we were screwed,” I said. Immediately, Michele hit me in the leg for the second time that evening. “Ow! What was that for?”
“Stop saying that, it’s disgusting.”
“Don’t even start,” my dad warned.
None of us spoke the remaining 8 1/2 minutes to Scully’s.
Even once inside the safety and peaceful surroundings of the restaurant, no one spoke of the incident. There wasn’t anything to say, really. It hadn’t been any of our faults and thankfully none of us had been hurt. When the waiter came to our table, he told us his name and, as he passed each of us a menu, asked dutifully, “How are you folks doing, this evening?”
“We’re alive,” my dad answered. All four of us then exchanged glances in response to what was an unfunny inside joke.
Later that evening, while my parents shared one of two dances, I occupied myself with large bites of my mousse and Michele picked at a miserly scoop of sherbet with little enthusiasm. I finished my dessert in five, gluttonous bites and an equal number of chewing motions. Then, wiping my mouth with my hand, I watched my parents dance.
My parents looked at each other with courteous eyes and exchanged pleasant smiles. To the eyes of any stranger in the restaurant, it might have appeared as though these two people were in love. I asked myself if they still were, then wondered if, in fact, they ever were. Were they in the process of rekindling those old flames in their hearts with a nostalgic dance? Were they merely getting caught up in the moment, finding a sense of romance in the idea of having an anniversary, getting sentimental over the number of years they’d spent together, recalling the thoughts they each had as they stood before their family and friends and took their vows all those years before? Did my parents look back on their 17 years together and think, ‘Sure, there’ve been some tough times, but, overall, it’s been a good ride’ or did they wonder how different their lives would have been had they answered the priest’s question with ‘I do not’? I didn’t really know my parents (what kid really does?), I didn’t have a clue as to what dreams they had given up by getting married, what directions their lives would have taken had they walked down a different path. Why didn’t they just split up and chase those dreams they let slip away once before? I didn’t know. Maybe, just maybe, they really did love one another. Or maybe it was just easier to stay together rather than divorce and admit they’d made a mistake. “What kept my parents together?” I wondered. Was it love? Pride? And how different was theirs from other marriages? Also, would they be mad if I ordered a second piece of mousse? Could I get an even bigger piece?
By the time we arrived back home, most of these reflective thoughts had been fogged up, if not forgotten, by a heavy sleepiness, a sort of crash brought about after the earlier rush of adrenaline and fear mixed with a sugar high from the mousse. So, as Michele rushed to monopolize the telephone for the next hour or so and my parents sat down in their matching orange chairs to watch the evening news, I retreated upstairs without a word to or from any of them. And though I laid down with heavy eyelids, I stayed awake for a good 45 minutes.
Replaying the evening in my head, I began embellishing here and there, retooling the facts for a more colorful tale. Instead of three trains, I added a fourth (five just seemed ostentatious), and instead of Michele holding onto the door for dear life, she was screaming hysterically, her arms flailing wildly. I imagined how I had to grab a hold of her arm heroically as she, blindly overcome with fear, attempted to jump from the moving car. Then, I inserted a moment of heart-stopping suspense when our car actually stalled as we crossed track number two, my dad skillfully turning the ignition on was the only thing that saved us from becoming what I had, by then, termed ‘Amtrak pancakes’.
Anyhow, that would be the way everyone at school would (and did) hear the story, the next day.