There’s nothing like a road trip, especially when you’re six feet two and cramped in the middle of the backseat of a Honda Civic with two other people. It’s great to drive over the magnificent interstates, watching cars fly past you, and stopping every hour or so to get coffee or soda at the local rest area. Actually, it’s a good thing we did stop or I’d probably have come home with a broken back.
The aforementioned road trip sounded like a good idea before the details came out. My girlfriend invited me to go to Charleston, South Carolina for a week to visit her father’s family. I thought why not? Wasn’t Charleston just named the Friendliest City in the U.S. or something like that? I said sure. Charleston’s a beautiful city with lots of theater and music and history.
What wasn’t to like?
Well, the first hint came when I reached Megan’s house and saw the Honda parked in the driveway, but I wasn’t alarmed. I figured her dad was going to rent a bigger car. Usually, he drives a big Caddie, but I found out the Caddie was in the shop.
“He couldn’t wait till the Caddie’s out of the shop?” I asked.
Megan just shot me a look. It said all kinds of things like “moron”, “forget it”, “we’re doomed”. It’s tough to start a trip when someone gives you that kind of look. I just set down my duffle bag and shut up.
Her sister Kendall stormed into the family room and flipped on the television. She was still in a tee shirt and pajama pants. She sat on the sofa with her arms folded and a deep scowl on her face. Kendall didn’t want to go to South Carolina.
Usually, I get along with Kendall pretty well, even though she’s fourteen and is a giant pain in Megan’s ass. It’s funny because they don’t even look like sisters. Megan is dark and curvy while Kendall is thin and blond. She likes to give Megan a hard time her curves. Megan likes to torment her about her minus-A cup bra size. I guess it all works out.
My brother and I used to beat the crap out of each other then go outside and play pirates or batman or whatever. We used to have pissing contests where we’d stand on the back porch and aim for the holly bushes just to see who could hit them. Tim usually won. Finally, Mom caught us and told us if we wanted to live like stray dogs she’d fix us a nice house outside. Dad backed her up, but I caught him smirking.
Megan’s parents are divorced. So I guess you could say, her family is going through a tough time of it. Her dad Bill walked out two years ago and took up with Charlene who’s a real piece of work.
Everyone hates Charlene.
Charlene is one of those women who views every other woman as the competition. She was once the Tri-County Dairy Princess and got a sash and tiara and all that. It turns out that being the Dairy Princess was not a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Charlene now lives off the income from her late husband’s estate. She used to peddle crap on one of those commercial TV channels, but got axed because she gained a bunch of weight. She said it was from the medication she has to take for her back.
In any case she needs constant attention because something is always wrong with Charlene. Her back, her feet, her stomach, her bowels—she’s a walking medical disaster according to her, though she looks perfectly healthy and eats like a horse.
Sometimes I think Bill gets tired of Charlene except she cooks and cleans for him and calls him her “sugar bear”. Every time she does, Megan sticks her finger in her mouth and pretends to gag.
I don’t usually have strong feelings about people one way or another. Live and let live is my motto, but Charlene has the personality of a sea snake. She constantly makes cracks at Megan and Kendall and Megan’s mom and her new boyfriend. She bitches constantly at Bill. “You don’t do this right; you should have done that.”
I’m the only person Charlene doesn’t totally attack. Megan says it’s because I’m a guy under forty who’s decent looking and doesn’t hold up a cross when she comes near. I tell Megan that Charlene just hasn’t gotten to know me.
Anyway, Bill decided that we’ll leave at four in the morning, so Megan’s mom Jan and her boyfriend Tom graciously let everyone camp down in their house. I offered to make a pizza run and she gave me a kiss.
“Oh, Dan, you are such a love. Take Megan with you.”
Kendall wanted to come too and put on a pair of shorts. She sat glumly in the back seat. “It’s gonna be a disaster,” she said
“We haven’t even left yet,” Megan said, but I noticed her kneading her purse. She gave me a shaky smile.
“It’ll be better once we’re on the road,” I said.
We overslept. It wasn’t a surprise because when you eat pizza at nine, it’s hard to get yourself in the mood to sleep at ten. I didn’t fall asleep until after one, partly because Megan’s dog Moonie decided to sleep on my chest, and Moonie really needed a bath, and partly because the couch in the family room was not the most comfortable in the world.
We weren’t up until eight. Then we had to get dressed and eat and finish packing. Bill’s master plan was to leave at four a.m. because he figured we’d get in by four p.m.
As it turned out we left around noon.
Traveling to South Carolina is actually pretty easy. You get on I95 and head south. The problem is that you have to get through Baltimore and DC and Richmond traffic.
It was hot, already eighty degrees and humid. Charlene put on the air, but after ten minutes she got cold and turned it way down. My back was soaked in ten minutes. Kendall’s head lolled against the window.
“I can’t breathe back here,” she said.
I thought, “Oh shit,” because Kendall and Megan both get car sick which is why they had the windows and I was squashed in the middle with my knees pressed against my chest. The front seats were all the way back. I could understand Bill. The guy was taller than me, and outweighed me by at least one hundred pounds, but Charlene was just over five feet.
“Do you think you could move your seat up, Charlene?” Megan asked. “Dan has no room.”
“I have a bad back. Sorry, Dan.”
“No problem,” I said. “I do yoga.”
“You know, they say that’s very calming. No wonder you’re so laid back,” Charlene said.
I don’t do yoga, but right then I wished I did.
We were only in Delaware and I wanted to strangle Charlene with my legs.
“If I don’t get air, I’m gonna vomit,” Kendall said. I glanced at her. She looked kind of green, so I hit the button for her window. Hot air poured into the car, but at least it was moving.
“Jesus, Kendall,” Bill said. “You’re letting the hot air in.”
“Turn your head that way,” I said, pushing Kendall towards the window while Megan frantically looked for a plastic bag. It occurred to me, I’d get hit right in the face by any blow-back chunks.
“She’s gonna vomit, Dad,” Megan said in her I’m-not-bullshitting voice. When she uses that voice, you know something bad is about to happen.
“Shit. Goddamn,” Bill said. He glanced in the rearview mirror then pushed the air up to high and closed the window. It began to feel marginally cooler in the back.
“Oh fine, don’t worry about me,” Charlene said.
“I’m not,” Megan said. “I’m worried about my sister.”
“It’s okay, honey. I’ll get you a blanket at the next rest stop,” Bill said.
“That’s my sugar bear.” Charlene gave him a smacking kiss on the side of his head. Megan looked sick. My knees pressed tighter into my chest.
“You see, kids, that’s a real man for you,” Charlene said.
“And you’re a real bitch,” Megan muttered low enough so just I could hear it. I kissed her on the top her head.
“That’s my sugar bear,” Megan said.
Five hours later we were on the other side DC, and Bill was cursing. There’d been an accident on 295, and we’d crawled for two hours staring at the bumpers of the cars in front of us. We couldn’t even get off for a coffee break because traffic was so bad, and Charlene wasn’t sure where in DC we’d end up.
“It’d be okay if we were in a nice part of town like near the White House or the National Mall, but what if we ended up in some bad section? We might be car jacked or robbed and never get home.”
I wanted to tell her I pay someone to car jack us if they took her and left the rest of us on the corner, but I didn’t. Megan texted me: “DC carjack 🙂”.
We stopped for dinner someplace past Richmond in a roadside diner. You could tell they catered to the interstate trade by the number of trucks and packed up cars and SUV’s lined up in the parking lot. I didn’t care. I needed real food.
The swampy air was thick with the aroma of diesel fuel, but I was still hungry. Even Kendall perked up at the sight of the soft serve ice cream machine inside. Charlene immediately pranced off to the bathroom, wiggling her ass as she walked, and followed by Bill.
“Talk about muffin top,” Megan said as we slid into the booth to scan the menu.
When they came back, we left and got back in time to see the waitress, a pleasant-looking woman named Betsy, taking orders.
“Sorry guys, we were so hungry, we thought we’d just get started,” Charlene said in her sweetest voice. “Why don’t you take a second to look over the menu?”
Megan and I ordered turkey clubs and Cokes, our usual diner fare, but Kendall was shifting in her seat. I glanced at her and thought, Oh shit.
“I want a vanilla milk shake, please,” Kendall said, “and pancakes.”
“Would you like whipped cream on those pancakes?” Betsy asked.
“Yes. A ton,” Kendall said. “I can eat whatever I want because the doctor says I need to gain weight.” She shot a poisonous look at Charlene whose aqua shirt gapped enough that you could see her black frilly bra underneath. “I take after my mom.”
“Well, aren’t you lucky,” said Betsy. She smiled at Charlene. “It’s so nice to have a daughter who thinks so highly of you.”
“She’s not my mom!” Kendall shouted loud enough that the whole restaurant turned silent for a moment. “She’s My Dad’s Bimbo!”
I don’t know why, but my first thought was where did she hear the term “bimbo”? It was followed by Betsy saying, “Why don’t I just put in that order for y’all.”
Charlene’s face was the color of a fire engine; a couple of women in a booth in the corner were trying not to laugh; two big guys at the counter gave Charlene a cursory glance then looked away. Bill didn’t say anything to Kendall; he didn’t say anything at all. He just stared down at the table, and I thought he looked like he’d aged about a hundred years in that moment. Charlene was fuming, but she didn’t say anything either though I guess she gave him an earful later, or maybe she didn’t. There really wasn’t much to say.
We ate in silence. After dinner, Bill gave Betsy a big tip, and we left. No one spoke all the way to South Carolina. Somewhere between Virginia and North Carolina Kendall fell asleep with her head on my shoulder. At least I thought she was asleep until I felt her uneven breaths and my shoulder began to grow damp. Megan was already hunched against the window, her head against the glass, and it seemed kind of weird to have this little kid huddled into me.
In my house, I was the kid brother always running to Tim for comfort, such as it was. But here I sat like a big block with my knees pushed up against my chest, while this kid lay against me and cried. I put my arm around her shoulders and started to whisper, not words of comfort, because I knew whatever I said would be useless and pathetic.
I said, “Did you know that Charleston was named for King Charles the Second of England? Charleston was founded in 1670 and was originally called Charles Towne. It’s known for its art music and cuisine and was voted the ‘Friendliest City in America’ in 2011. They hold the Spoleto Festival every spring, though I think we missed it this year, but it’s a big deal. All kinds of artist and performers come to participate, and it runs for 17 days every spring. Anyway, there’re still lots of things to see, and Charleston is right on the water.”
I was dredging up every fact I knew about South Carolina, speaking as soft and quiet as I could. I heard her sigh a little as her breathing started to become even.
“Maybe she’ll fall in the water,” Kendall said sleepily.
“Maybe, but if not, did you know Charleston has these things called Palmetto bugs. They call them that, but they’re really great, big flying roaches.”
In the darkness, I could feel Kendall smile.