Six in a Cutlass in a Saint Paul suburb. That weekend visitors had come to town. Tom and Sharon, another married couple, had known my parents back in Milwaukee. Tom and Dad had written ad copy together. The visitors slept on the pullout couch that weekend in the TV room. We’d all crammed into the car at night, the four grown-ups, my brother and I, driving home from seeing some sleepy suburban sight my grown-up brain can’t recall. I was nine, my brother, four. Headlights reflected off patches of smooth ice.
Beside me in the front seat, Mom turned around to say something to her friends, but then stopped herself. Then she whispered, near my ear, “Aw.” Dad glanced in the rearview mirror. I’d never heard my mother use this word, so I twisted around, pulled up to me knees, and peered over the seat.
Tom slumbered, lips parted, his head against his wife’s shoulder.
Rugged, the world would call a man like Tom. A Newport cigarette ad—strong, tan, perfect teeth. A Sears underwear model in the Sunday paper who stands around with other men, all of them in their briefs, footballs tucked under their arms, chatting about—what? Fishing? The Vikings? What do you talk about to another dude in briefs?
“He looks like an angel,” Mom said. My little brother, pressed against the backseat door, gave a bored glance, looked away. I stared down at sleeping Tom; at his soft eyelashes, coupled with the strong, stubbled jaw, relaxed in sleep, and everything in me paused.
Through the windows, patches of streetlight slid across his face, and something moved through my chest. I want everyone to go away, I thought, so that I can look at him by myself. The rough shadow of his beard. How would it feel, I thought, to curl up against him?
The question tangled up with feelings: I wanted to be like him, to resemble him, to take Tom’s angelic face as my own, envied and admired. Later, in college, I’d read the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Her lantern’s light falling across his sleeping face. Her sudden and doomed devotion. I floundered in troubled waters, strange feelings like these, all caught up in my lungs.
The car turned a corner, and shadows slid back over Tom’s face. Even at nine I knew I couldn’t have the things I wanted from him, and that only sharpened my hunger until I had to look away. As I did, Sharon smiled up at me, and for a moment I hated her for owning him. Anxious that she’d read my thoughts, I turned back, settling against the seat, my shoulder pressed against my mother’s side.
Rays of streetlight moved over the hood of the car and up the windshield. The week before, I’d stayed up too late watching Donald Sutherland on TV running from aliens—pod people bent on taking over the planet. They looked like everyone else but felt nothing, and as we made our way home, I pictured the streetlights as alien sentinels, scanning passing cars for panic or fear.
If they sensed the things I wanted from Tom, they’d snatch me up and carry me off to their oozing nests, and lay a quivering pod beside me, an alien boy inside, his skin running like hot wax till his face matched mine.
Mom looked out at the neighbors’ houses. Dad held his hands at two and ten o’clock on the steering wheel, and his eyes kept returning to the rearview mirror. A hunger rolled off his skin. I could feel its heat. I feel it now. I’m close to 50 and it smolders.
I was a nine-year-old kid who knew nothing. Too young to grasp hunger, but still it shamed me—the naked need pulsing in my father beside me in the front seat of a Cutlass in 1980. Dad was a plainspoken cipher. An awkward man from another planet. He was all I had, the driver steering us through the these turns.
In another year he’d leave our mother for a life spent in the company of other men. I was a chip off that defective block, and he was already teaching me what not to do.
Hide your hunger. Dig a hole in the floor of your brain and throw it inside. Cover it with grave dust.
A man slept behind me. He’ll still be there when I’m 50, the thing I can’t have, softly snoring in the back seat.