Ani Difranco can’t be played too loudly. This is the first rule of driving with my mom. We eat chocolate Frostys from Wendy’s and my mom drives stick shift and steers with her knee. Mom found Ani right after the divorce. She spent that summer searching for things she’d missed because of her Mormon childhood and early marriage. Like good coffee and angry music and terrible paint jobs. Mom painted her new apartment bright orange and filled it with Ani and espresso. My sisters and I always held hands when we walked to her place. It was close to our house, on the other side of the tracks and past the liquor store. None of us live there anymore.
That summer was the first time I ever said the F word. Whispered it like a dirty secret when I was mad at my little sister. Now my sisters and I know all of the lyrics. We scream them out our open windows to the empty interstate. We snuck from the city at four this morning, speeding away from the sunrise. We are going west.
sleepwalking through the all night drugstore
baptized in fluorescent light
I found religion in the greeting card aisle
now I know hallmark was right
Years after we left the church, Mom still plays Mormon songs late at night–a memory she cannot bring herself to forget. As we get older, Rennie and I sit on either end of the piano bench and sing with her. We learn harmonies like psalms, sing sermons that always taste bittersweet. “Quieter,” she says, “softer.” She tries to teach me not all strength is born in sound. It will take me more than a childhood to learn. But I am trying.
and I hope that you’re happy
I hope at least you’re having fun
‘cuz everyone is a fucking napoleon
yeah everyone is a fucking napoleon
We’ve been driving all day and all the highways look the same. You can get lost in a straight line out here. Rennie spots a blue sign. “They have a Wendy’s,” Mom shouts as she changes lanes for the exit. “Everybody know what they want?” We always go through the Drive Thru so we don’t have to get out of the car. All four of us get our own Frosty but we split the fries. I get sweet and sour sauce on my seatbelt and Zoë laughs and laughs and laughs. Mom curses as she swerves across the double yellow lane lines. We are lucky to be alone out here.
I think I’ve seen this bridge before. Mom says she thinks she’s seen this bridge before. She keeps driving. Ten minutes later we realize we’ve been going backwards since Wendy’s. Covering miles of interstate we’d already forgotten. Mom takes the next exit to try and turn around, while cursing exit ramps. We know this is just another hour she can’t spend sleeping. We cross the river for the third time this afternoon and my mom turns up the volume, rolls down the windows, and screams along. Ani always seems loudest when the windows are open. The wind rushes through the car and tangles our hair. It smells like salt, like leg cramping freedom.
I am writing
graffiti on your body
I am drawing the story of
how hard we tried
I am watching your chest rise and fall
like the tides of my life,
and the rest of it all
We hike on Russ Island and sing songs from Girl Scouts. We always sing rounds, each time getting louder and louder. This path has raspberries just starting to ripen. Zoë and I compete to see who can find and eat more of them. At the top of the hill, we find blueberries for the fourth summer in a row. We eat lunch underneath an old oak tree, looking out at the ocean.
“When I die,” Mom tells us, “scatter my ashes out here with the sun shining. Kayak out and leave me with a view of the ocean and a plaque.” She has told us this every summer for years. Dad used to agree and tell us we would only need one plaque, they would share. That was a long time ago.
The sunshine makes Maine’s icy water look too welcoming. Later we take turns jumping off cliffs in our underwear. We paddle home in red kayaks with blue lips, going against the wind. “Stay close to me,” Mom yells. I’m trying. But the paddle is digging into my hands and we have gone out farther than we should. Rennie screams but I can’t see her. Suddenly she is bobbing in the water next to me, holding onto her kayak and trying to catch her breath. Mom tells us to go towards the rocks so Rennie can get back in. On the way there I go under. Mom grabs my kayak and Rennie gets my paddle and Zoë screams. At least I was already wet. Once we’re all back in our boats we start fighting back to the harbor again, racing the setting sun. We sing to keep hold of each other in the rising fog, refusing to let the ocean swallow us. None of us will go down easy.
2:30 in the morning
my gas tank will be empty soon
neon sign on the horizon
rubbing elbows with the moon
These days we don’t drive much. Instead, we curl up in airport terminals with earbuds and stale bagels. The interstate blurs in my memory and I don’t know if I should miss it. Zoë and I fight over the window seat on the plane home from Grandma’s. We both like to watch the world disappear.
When we land, we learn my stepdad has lost his car in the airport garage, so we pile luggage and children into Mom’s car, pretending as hard as we can there is enough room for all of us. It is two in the morning and we stop at Wendy’s. Hunter and Macaylé, my step siblings, have never been taught to road trip so they are looking for a bathroom. I am looking for a chocolate Frosty. My mom is looking for a Drive Thru. We cannot all get what we want.
When we get back in the car, Zoë asks to put on Ani. Rennie and I laugh and agree. We tell Mom to play “Napoleon.” Hunter and Macaylé have never heard of Ani so we roll down all the windows and turn the volume up as loud as it will go. It’s been years, but we still know all the words. Hunter asks why she swears so much, and Mom tells him that’s the point. The point is the swearing, and the bad recordings, and the empty highway, and the open window. Ani is supposed to be angry, we tell them. She’s angry for us.
Hannah Smallwood is a long term writer, performer, and sarcasm enthusiast. She is an alum of the Washington DC Youth Slam poetry team and has performed at the Kennedy Center, Arena Stage, and the Smithsonian. She also has a published chapbook, Learning to Forgive Gravity. Hannah is an incoming freshman at Bryn Mawr college.