Rubbernecking

A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.

Tennessee Williams

April brings back my sister Heather. She arrived on April 7th, 1959, and left on October 17th, 2014. We were born six years and one month apart to the day and for me, April belongs to her.

I know better than to love Texas in the spring. Spring belongs to those who earn it — those who endure winter, worked with, and against snow, or suffer through the prevailing virus, the incessant wind, and cold. And yet there is nothing like central Texas in bloom, flanked by a temperature that seduces everyone into forgetting about the scorch to come. 

When I lived in New York I had an annual pilgrimage. I would leave late winter in New York and fly to springtime Austin to visit my sister and her family. I would take a cab from the airport and watch a city at ease out of the open window. Everyone would be in flip flops and t-shirts with coy slogans underscoring their hipness and intellect. Most would be cruising around on bikes. No one ever seemed to be rushing.  

One year as I pulled up to her house, I spotted a pristine, white 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible hunkered at the curb. I knew right away it was hers. Heather was not prone to impulse purchases. She approached any material indulgence with judgment, guilt, and anxiety, part of her inheritance from some dour Dutch or Scottish ancestor. She clucked over conspicuous consumption like some depression-era housewife, her disapproval broadcasted, as it always was, by her crossed arms and furrowed brow. “So no red Mustang?” I asked as she came outside to greet me. A 1963 red Mustang had always been her come hither car of choice. Mine was a 1965 convertible red Corvette. 

“Well. I confess, I got distracted. He caught my eye in the used car lot and, well…”, she trailed off. Trailing off is a family trait. “But — isn’t he “a hoister” to use your words?” We giggled and went into the house.

two girls in the snow with a snowball
Heather and I

I could picture the seduction scene — the hundreds of colored triangles strung across a used car lot the size of Delaware somewhere between San Antonio and Austin. Then came the rubberneck, the next exit for a closer inspection. He was large and low, with the solid rear of an offensive lineman. He had the added come-on of two black stripes on his flanks that were, again, so decidedly not my sister. His white leather interior was pinched with white cord at the seams. They went home together.

The top was down, and the car was filling up with saffron-colored pollen shaped like small whips. He was an automotive gigolo of the first order. 

On the last day of my visit, we went for a ride. We purred along, turning onto Austin’s circular 360, and watched the needle easily sweep to ninety-five, and then back down again. We slowed to gawk at the Texas bluebonnets and paintbrush before exiting the highway to spin back into town. Then came the postage size yards blooming with lurid azaleas, lantana, verbena, and vigorous daylilies in front of the small, sweet clapboard houses. The mimosa trees looked as soft as the air around us.

I felt a tug of connection to my home state, buoyed by the struts of a sexy muscle car, the romance of the road, and a shared groundedness with my older sister.  We were cranking Michael Jackson,  improvising dance moves to “Billie Jean” in our seats, and laughing so hard I started to hiccup. We were those teenagers who kept cranking the volume, public tranquility be damned. When Heather pulled over to let me drive, I slid over and let my foot get heavy.

A car like this turns law into mere suggestion. We fell into the speed, preening like showgirls as the wind whipped our hair to new heights. It did not take long to get pulled over. The cop who inspected my out-of-state license gave us the obligatory lecture about hauling ass through a residential area. But he could barely contain his admiration for the souped-up Cutlass and chuckled conspiratorially as we explained that we were sisters stealing time alone, and did he understand what that felt like?

He let us flirt our way out of a ticket with a stern warning and then we floated away. But the spell had begun to fade and I turned the white bullet around and headed west to her house. We returned to her toddler and preschooler, her waiting husband, an unprepared dinner, and other details of traditional domestic life. The next day she took me to the airport in a sensible car. The one with the car seats, sippy cups, and pacifiers (or chupos if we’re talking Texan) rolling around on the floor, the upholstery grainy with crumbs. My niece and nephew were strapped in like stoic astronauts. 

I flew home to the freedom I would take for granted until I had children of my own. She sold the Cutlass before her third child arrived. “It‘s just not practical and family-friendly,” she told me. “It was a silly indulgence.” So she bought a Suburban, the carpool vehicle of choice. Shortly before she died, she asked me if I remembered that car, that day, and our stolen freedom. Did I ever.

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