On the highway at night, driving to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where I’ve never been, hard rain drums the windows. I’m nine, perched in the back seat of our maroon Chrysler minivan with strips of faux wood paneling across the sides. My sister is seven, stretched on the middle seat, passed out in the space between me and our parents up front. We’re long into the fourteen-hour trip and hundreds of miles from Pittsburgh, from home.
Swelling from the tape deck is a familiar album: Invisible Touch by Genesis, featuring Phil Collins, whom I once referred to as Mr. Collins, knowing the formal address would amuse my parents. Then I felt embarrassed when they latched onto the anecdote as expected. The shame of getting exactly what I wanted. Leveraging love for influence, pressing easy grooves. Every time they say, “Let’s put on Mr. Collins!” I blush, heat prickling my face.
I’m tired of asking how soon, how far. I’ve never swum in an ocean. I rest my chin on the middle seatback and watch the blurred flanks of semis wheeze past, and my sister sleeps below me, and the wipers strain at full speed while my dad leans forward at the wheel to see, but the windshield still looks like a reflective smear, and Mr. Collins can feel your eyes go through him.
My sister’s breaths are steady, and her hair is damp on her forehead, as it will be thirteen years later when I hover over her in Aliquippa Hospital, home from senior year, shell-shocked, while she squirms in a coma. She will be swelled with fluid. I will whisper you cannot die into her ear after midnight in the quiet ward, hoping she can hear me and the nurses can’t. Nine days later she will wake up, looking like a castaway. Washed up someplace else. But we’re so far away from that. Here, her face is bathed in flickering blue light, and her throat and lungs are free of scars, and she has no idea what heroin is.
Neither do I. Drugs are cartoon pills and cigarettes with slashes through them in pamphlets from school. Heroine is Matilda, Punky Brewster, Meg from A Wrinkle in Time. Depression, if I know that word, is a dip, a place lower than what’s around it. A handprint on sand.
None of that matters, not yet, not here, because we can’t fathom it. The promise of real waves and endless horizon is everything. We’re getting closer. The dashboard needles glow, and trucks hurl spray against the fake wood, and Mr. Collins knows he loves you but he just can’t take this.
“Easy,” my mom says, touching my dad’s arm. It’s what she always says when he speeds or tailgates, but he doesn’t react as he usually does, with a voice edged and quick. The rain is too relentless to argue. They’ve told us the story of driving home from college during a downpour when the wipers quit. They pulled over and tied shoelaces to the blades, left the windows cracked, and yanked the strings back and forth by hand as they drove, each holding one. I don’t think of my parents as clever in a crisis, but they can be, they will be.
I watch yellow, red, cool blue lights slide over the seats. Mr. Collins is in too deep. My sister stirs, Raggedy Ann pinched in the crook of her arm, eyelids open slightly. My parents mention towns and exits in low tones, but mostly what I hear is synth like water and rain like percussion. Mostly what I feel is a thrum of safety that I think, then, is the true pulse of the world. I’m vaguely aware that we could crash, that the wipers could fail, that people are not built to survive at sea, though some will keep venturing out, despite the risks, they can’t help it, but these are only ideas like the ones in love songs. I don’t have to believe them.
The next day I’ll sprint down the beach and plunge into the surf, swallow my first stinging mouthful of brine, and then vomit, remnants of car snacks fanning around me like chum. We’ll spend the week fighting undertows, dragging ourselves out three hundred yards from where we waded in, the beach suddenly stark and alien, our towels and family vanished. She and I will catch each other’s eyes, wrung out, wobbly. And we will sense, maybe for the first time, what it means to be consumed, or freed, what being lost could feel like.