I tied and untied my Converse in the passenger seat, knees tucked close to my chest and sitting very still in the empty Southwest High School parking lot. One by one, snowflakes fell from a gray and motionless sky, only to land and melt instantly on the windshield, transforming into nothing but a dot of clear liquid, almost as if it were raining. It was New Year's Eve, my last year of school, and I was miserable.
Suddenly the driver’s side door flew open and a burly man holding a clipboard leaned down. The driving instructor.
“Cosette Evans, right?” he asked, plopping himself into the seat before I could answer. The car shook slightly and his cologne filled the interior, his stomach brushing the bottom of the steering wheel.
“That’s me,” I replied, letting my shoes slide to the floor. He glanced down at his clipboard and back up at me.
“So,” he said, clearing his throat. “Your fourth try?”
“Yes.” I pulled my glasses out of my pocket.
“Well you probably know the drill then, don’t you?”
We swapped places - I meandered around the front of the car and he around the back. It was a silver Honda Civic, the kind of car Dad had when I was growing up, but a few years newer. For a moment, I placed my finger in the beaded droplets that had collected on the hood and spelled my name in them. For good luck maybe, but nobody ever said fourth time’s a charm.
“I haven’t got all day,” the man grumbled from inside when he saw me dawdling. I wondered if he was always this impatient or only with the kids who hadn’t passed their exam the first time around.
I climbed into the driver’s seat and started the car, placing my hands at ten and two.
“Let’s not waste time in the parking lot,” he said. “We’ll make our way out to 27th and head downtown before the snow gets any heavier. Big storm coming.”
I put the car in drive and inched forward, too afraid of letting my foot leave the brake entirely. The snow was dizzying. Through it, I noticed the Shake Stop across the road with one of those colored “OPEN” signs all lit up and blinking, turning the snow that fell in front of it blue then red. Who would want to go there in this weather, I thought. Last year Jamie and I took Dad there for his birthday; it was the hottest day of the summer.
“One Peanut Protein Dream Shake please,” he said confidently to the worker.
“Peanut Butter Dream Protein Cream Shake,” I whispered to him, shaking my head and snickering with Jamie.
“How is anybody supposed to remember that,” Dad joked as he handed over a twenty. “It’s like the password to a secret club.” The worker laughed. I recognized her from school, a year or two below me.
But I remember it so clearly because it was the day before his diagnosis. We were sitting on the stones at the edge of the strip mall, looking over at the sun setting above Southwest High. I loved how it painted the brick walls a bright, dazzling orange. Midsummer was in full swing and the cicadas were just beginning to come out from the creek bed behind the building.
“You guys like high school?” Dad asked us.
Jamie grinned and rolled her eyes. “It’s summer break, Dad. Don’t do this.”
“I’m just asking,” he exclaimed, taking a sip of his shake. “I think you two will love senior year, especially you Cozy.”
“Because,” he replied, the sun illuminating his brown eyes, “you’ve always loved a good ending.”
As I flicked on the left turn signal at the 27th intersection, staring at the spot across the road where he’d said that to me, I was already fighting back tears. There wasn’t going to be a good ending. Things had become so different so quickly. How was I ever supposed to keep up?
At the light, I was hoping for a left arrow, but all I got was a bright green circle. I sniffled and eased off the accelerator into the middle of the intersection. Honestly, I hadn’t the first clue what yielding meant or when I was allowed to turn.
Driving never really clicked for me. It worked out just fine for Jamie. Dad had taught her, though. Once she’d learned how to do it, he’d become far too sick to stand, so I was left to fend for myself. I took a few lessons on Wednesdays after school and even some exams, but I always lacked the confidence to speed up or keep both hands on the wheel, all while watching out for other cars. It frightened me, like I was a risk to everyone else on the road. I’d get distracted, always picturing Mom throwing up in the toilet at three in the morning and the unforgettable feeling of Dad’s grip loosening on my hand in the hospital.
Somehow I turned safely and began driving north. The road was wide and gray, its two lanes empty except for our Civic. I stayed in the left lane, cruising a full ten under the speed limit. The instructor didn’t seem to mind - he kept saying “nice and easy” like he could sense my nerves. It helped.
I watched the trees, frozen and bare, reflecting on the windshield as if they were trying to protect us from the falling snow with their wicked branches. The suburbs built in the 70’s blew past in a flurry of white and brown. Some people still had their colored lights on, even though Christmas was finally over and the world felt worn out, like it’d just run a long race - the same one, year after year.
“Got New Year’s plans?” the man asked me, tapping on his clipboard with a pencil.
“Not really, no.”
“Mom and Dad let you go out with friends?”
In one quick breath I said, “My mom’s in a psychiatric hospital and my dad died in August.”
I shouldn’t have let it slip out that way. I hated how nonchalant I sounded - so disconnected, emotionless, when really I was the opposite. I came across so matter-of-fact, but there was no use in lying, especially when my parents were all I thought about.
“Jesus,” he said. I could feel his eyes on me, his sympathy. “I’m really sorry.”
I stared straight ahead as we passed under the glow of another green light, feeling my face turn sour and my eyes well up. The snow was thickening now into wide clumps. I turned on the wipers. How many times had Dad driven me down this road himself, me in the rear, kicking the back of his seat to piss him off, just so he’d reach behind and tickle my legs? He used to take me to the library all summer long, back when my hair was blonde, to the fields where I played soccer in first grade, and the sledding hill behind the YMCA that no one else knew about except for me and him.
I thought about my best friend Kayla and how warm the holidays felt at her house, with its massive kitchen island and her kind older brothers and Jack Russell Terrier, how lucky I was that she’d invited me and Jamie to sleep over on Christmas Eve. We slept in the same bed that night, just like we had when we were young and it would thunderstorm, her arms wrapped around me as I sobbed myself to sleep. Then I started to wonder why even when we found Mom unconscious in the bathtub earlier that month, I still hadn’t seen Jamie cry. Why was she always the one who could keep herself together? Why was she the strong one?
“My dad died when I was seventeen,” the man said softly, after a few minutes.
“Oh,” I mumbled. “I’m really sorry too.”
“It’s alright,” he said. A moment later, “ I wish I could tell you it goes away, but losing a parent never really does. Not completely. Especially when it’s sudden. It’ll always feel like a piece of you is missing in some way or another.”
I said nothing, feeling a tear slip down my left cheek.
“Sorry,” he said, turning back to the road. “We don’t have to talk about this. Really, I’m sorry.”
The two of us sat in silence until we crept up on South Boulevard, where the city began to get denser, the bungalows a little older but a little nicer. We were around the corner from the country club where Jamie and I worked last summer. I used to walk around the neighborhood with her on Fridays after we finished, waiting for Dad to pick us up and take us for Slurpees at the 7-Eleven down the road. He would wink and say, don’t tell your mother.
Before she was even seventeen, Jamie had already picked out a house on the corner of Sycamore Avenue that she wanted to buy when she got married and bought a dog. His name would be Sparky and she’d have two kids, a boy and a girl. I could never think about my future like that because I never knew what I wanted.
“One day you will,” Dad had told me when we were sitting together in the driveway last May. “One morning you’ll wake up and open your windows and see the world in a different way and deep down you’ll know exactly what you want. You’re still so young, Cozy. And just because Jamie thinks she’s got it all figured out doesn’t mean she really does. You always think about things too much, but that’s what I like about you. You’re so much like I was. Like I still am.”
I felt my voice tremble and say to the instructor, “Death was never something I thought about until he died. It wasn’t real, it was never something that could actually happen to anyone I know. It was only something they talked about in books or at church or on TV, you know? Like car crashes or tornadoes or something. That sort of pain seemed so far away from me, so impossible to understand. But now I get it.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” he replied as we approached another intersection. “Take a right here.”
Through the passenger window I saw the old Pizza Hut that got turned into a bank and next to it, the empty lots where there used to be a farmer’s market. Mom and Dad would take us when we were tiny almost every Sunday morning. I remember them swing dancing like fools to the jazz band by fountains. With silly grins on their faces they’d whirl around and all the other people would clap and dance along with them. Meanwhile Jamie and I would take our shoes and socks off and splash under the falling water, soaking our hair and our sundresses and giggling because we didn’t have a care in the world. Once we’d dried off, Dad would buy us each a Whoopie Pie, a chocolate one for Jamie and an oatmeal one for me. It’s funny, thinking about it now, realizing that little girl is still me, that I have the same hair but a little darker, the same hands but a little bigger, the same smile but a little less crooked. Remembering that time felt like looking out from deep inside a cave, from a place where the light no longer reached. In my memory, it seemed like the sun shined every day back then, and nothing ever felt wrong or sad or complicated or terrifying.
“How did it happen?” I asked him. The wind was picking up and the speed limit was forty now, but for some reason I felt this strange sense of peace.
“Heart attack,” said the man. “One minute he was grilling steaks for my brother and I, the next just…gone, that quick.”
“How about your dad?”
“Brain cancer.” I was staring at the road, mesmerized by the snowflakes dancing up the curb and weaving through the blades of flat, dead grass on the median. It almost felt like we were inside a snow globe.
“Jesus. Awful disease.” He sniffled and quietly wiped his eyes with a tissue from the glovebox, offering me one in the same gesture, but I wasn’t quite crying anymore. After a minute he said “You know, I remember hating it when people would tell me that eventually it would get better.”
“Yeah. I’m not sure I want it to get better,” I said, now coasting at the speed limit. “I just want it to be the way it used to, like to turn back time or something and be a kid again.”
“Oh man, we all wish that,” he chuckled. Out of the corner of my eye, a kind, genuine smile. “Every damn one of us.”
He had me turn into the entrance of Jameson Park. We’d practice parallel parking for a minute, then head back to Southwest High before the snow came down in sheets. The lot was completely empty except the shrunken snow pile in the corner, sharp with ice chunks and speckled with gravel and dirt. Even from across the parking lot I could see the contrast of the fresh powder settling over it, pure and white. I wondered if by tomorrow, the old pile would be completely invisible, swallowed up by the new snow falling from the sky and blanketing the concrete.
“This is the hardest part though,” said the man.
He laughed. “Well yes, that. But I mean the first year without him.”
“Oh, I guess, yeah.”
“It won’t ever go away completely,” he said. “But you’ll learn to live with it, like they’re a part of you. And then eventually you have your own kids and realize your parents loved you more than you could ever understand. It’s different. But it heals you.”
The man set out four orange cones in a rectangle and told me I was supposed to park in between them. With patience, he guided my maneuvers. Back for just a few feet, turn to the left and foot off the brake. Then ease it to the right and let the car slide in between. I could hear the tires crunching the snow underneath, mapping the car’s every move, every rotation of the steering wheel and every inch backward. The windshield wipers squeaked as they brushed wet flakes off the glass, and within no time I was parked squarely between the cones.
“Nicely done,” he exclaimed. “First try, too.”
“I won’t make you do it again,” he said, then hopped out to pick up the cones and place them back in the trunk. He bent over and peered through the passenger window. “Wow. I can’t even see the tire tracks from when you drove in here.”
I turned and looked at the entrance, but once again without warning my memories were taking over. I thought about the whole drive there and then the library. The warmth from the lights inside and the kids I saw reading in the nooks through the windows. The long, steep sledding hill, and how tomorrow there might be a new little girl there with her father, how they might think it’s their own secret hill too, just the two of them. The old farmer’s market and the soccer fields in the summertime, the parents who cheered on their daughter loudest even though she never touched the ball. I thought of all the other kids who one day would have to go through things they could never imagine, feel things they would never want to feel.
There was a certain stillness in that moment, that singular thought - the wind had let up and the snow fell softly for a few seconds, straight down to the earth. For the first time, I really looked at the driving instructor’s face, the warmth from his eyes, the white flecks of snow gathering in his thinned hair. He was almost smiling, his mind elsewhere, and I imagined that soon he was going home to his wife and their kids. A small and modest house, but a true home. It was New Year’s Eve for him too, after all. I pictured his wife holding two champagne glasses and his kids popping open those mini confetti cannons like Jamie and I used to. There in front of me was somebody else’s father, somebody they looked up to, somebody else’s everything. How lucky were they? How lucky had I been?
I thought about how one day I was eight and the next day I was eighteen. How I would have days where I felt even worse than I did today. And days where I felt better. I thought about finishing high school, how by the time I walked across the stage, all of this snow would just be a memory. The New Year’s blizzard, we’d call it. I’d miss this moment too, when everything was vivid and painfully clear, when for the first time since August I felt my father’s love again.
The last few months, I’d come to believe that memories were the only place I could keep my Dad, and if somehow I lost them all to time, eventually I’d have nothing left. But I realized there in the parking lot that so much of what I thought was me, was really him - my own brown eyes, the way I walked with long strides, the stupid old jokes I told, what I ordered at Chinese restaurants, how I held my mother when she was sobbing. Perhaps all of that was him too.
“Do you want me to drive us back?” the instructor asked me. “Snow’s getting pretty bad.”
“That’s okay, I’ll drive,” I replied, finally breathing out. “I actually like the snow.”