We were back in Summerfield, which meant my mother was back in bed. I found her propped up against a pillow, not reading and not sleeping but staring out the window into the empty backyard. She took a tiny sip of her coffee then sighed so heavily her bony shoulders drooped.
“Maybe Hannah can take you back-to-school shopping?”
At the time I wondered if I’d done something wrong since she wasn’t taking me herself. I reviewed every possible way I might have failed her. Was there enough cream in the coffee? Should I have made pancakes? But the truth is she never complained about anything I might have neglected, so the fear of disappointing her was something I manufactured—maybe in response to my father’s take on the parent-child relationship, which was that it’s transactional. Now, however, I understand that the reason my mother didn’t take me shopping wasn’t because she was mad at me. She didn’t take me shopping because the reality of being trapped in Florida for the next nine months with my father had suppressed her will to get dressed as well as her obsession with buying clothes.
Hannah ended up taking me to the mall, and I wish I could remember my conversation with her because there must have been a lot to talk about. She was leaving for college soon and I was about to start high school. But all I recall from our shopping trip that day was getting bleached Guess jeans with ankle zippers and on our way home breaking the windshield of her Firebird with my face.
Unlike me, Hannah knew about wearing seatbelts so it was just her knee that got banged up. She limped into the intersection amidst the wreckage while “Someone is Watching Me” blared at full volume because she forgot to shut the engine off. Upon seeing the car she’d dutifully washed and waxed every Sunday with its shiny red hood compressed like an accordion, she pushed her palms against her temples so that her elbows stood out at right angles from her head.
“Look what you fucking did to my car!” she howled at the couple with the freshly T-boned Buick.
The old woman in her lavender pantsuit teetered backwards, away from Hannah and the shrieking. Her husband rested one hand against the stop sign he’d blown past. They reminded me of the people who went to our temple, people who loved to kiss my mother’s cheek and who my parents often remarked should not be driving. I knew the accident was their fault but felt sorry for them because they seemed terrified of my sister.
Hannah’s moans rose and fell with the siren the entire thirty minutes to the hospital. Two male EMTs hung out in the back with us: the one with the buzz cut occasionally handed me new gauze to press against my nose and the other shot me a look every time Hannah wailed, like shouldn’t you be the one crying?
But I didn’t feel like crying. My face felt weirdly numb. In fact my only worry was that it would tax my mother’s heart to answer the phone and learn from a stranger that I’d been in an accident. I prayed it wouldn’t make her want to start smoking again.
But to Hannah, that car meant something. In high school she was the nerdy Jew who’d been branded “fire crotch” and deprived of even a single friend. Driving her Firebird into the Lake Weir parking lot each morning was her only triumph—if she couldn’t make the kids like her, at least she inspired envy. It must have stung to imagine her only brush with social approval being crushed for scrap metal.
The ER doctor confirmed I didn’t have a concussion, so once the pill they’d given Hannah kicked in and the screaming stopped, we got in the car with my father and Sarah. My mother was elated that we were alright and I know this because she got out of bed and put on real clothes to meet us at Mr. Han’s Restaurant. Jodie hadn’t gone back to college yet so she came along too, and with Hannah high on Valium and the rest of us high on adrenaline or relief it was shaping up to be a decent night.
My father said we could order whatever we wanted, and for once there was no talk about who should be having Diet Coke instead of regular. I got my own Pu Pu Platter appetizer and Mu Shu Pork. My mother who rarely drank finished her martini before the entrees came and after popping the last olive in her mouth, she poked at my father with the toothpick and giggled.
“Murray, I’m so stoned! Why’d you let me order that?”
After dinner we sat around drinking pots of free tea. The fortune cookies arrived on a tin platter, and my father did the thing he always did at Chinese restaurants: crack open a cookie, extract the tiny slip of paper, and then—with an expression of mock surprise—pretend to read: “Help! I’m being held captive in a fortune cookie factory!” The joke was funnier than ever that night and we closed the place down.
Now when I try to pinpoint why my father was in such a good mood, it’s possible that he was already celebrating the big lawsuit he’d win years later over Hannah’s knee. But I prefer an alternate explanation. I want to believe it’s because he, like me, was feeling fortunate. The police officer at the scene told him that if we’d been going much faster, they would have been peeling me off the asphalt.
But we weren’t going faster, so we got to spend an evening together eating Ocala’s finest Chinese food. Before my father paid the check, Mr. Han himself came over to say what a beautiful family we were. Everyone I loved was smiling at once and the air crackled with fuzzy warmth. When my father stood up and shook Mr. Han’s hand, I could tell he knew he had it good. For one night at least, we were all good enough.