Grant Faulkner is the executive director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founding editor of 100 Word Story. He attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but then finished his MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State University. He has published stories and essays in The Southwest Review, the New York Times, Poets & Writers, [PANK], Gargoyle, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Word Riot, Puerto del Sol, Carve, and Eclectica, among others. He was recently selected for Wigleaf’s Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions.
Torch agreed to let Bianca drive us there. Our sixteen-year-old daughter who treated us like new hires. The ink still wet on her learner’s permit. I stretched out in the backseat, giving what I felt was an Oscar-worthy performance of “Person with Frontal Lobotomy Reading Us Magazine.” Torch sat up front, sipping from a 24-ounce Styrofoam cup of coffee, doing his best not to antagonize the beast. He found what worked best was to ask about her out-of-control friend Chloe.
While it calmed him to hear the crazy effed-up shit his daughter wasn’t perpetrating but merely reporting, it had the opposite effect on me. Did he think Bianca, who could go from sullen to hysterical in the time it took to read a Tweet, was merely standing by, detached and observing with her clipboard while Chloe tried crystal meth? I was not so wishfully naive. And now, on our way to the backwoods hippie spa that was Torch’s Christmas “gift to our love,” as he put it, I honed my focus like nothing could possibly matter as much as this photo of Justin Timberlake feeding the meter in the “Stars—They’re Just Like Us” feature. Beyonce shopping for a doll for her daughter—“They shop at Walmart!” Gwenyth Paltrow and her son selling lemonade in front of their Brentwood house—“They sell fresh lemonade!”
Torch would need to pee again in ten miles. A vacation with him was similar to the way some go wine tasting, only we stopped at every gas station convenience store along the way. I’d watch as he perused the rows of beverages, weighing the options of a Coke vs. another huge coffee vs. a 5-hour energy drink, and he’d buy them all, along with a Snickers and some beef jerky and Pringles, as if preparing to be stranded alongside the road. Then, just thirty minutes later, he’d say, “I’m sorry, but I have to pee again,” sounding all surprised, as if he couldn’t explain the runic vagaries of his urination patterns. He’d end up so hopped up on caffeine he wouldn’t sleep, so his “gift to our love” would be an exercise in insomnia, accompanied by hairy hippies soaking nude in the hot springs and smiling their blissed-out, ohm-fucking-shanti smiles, and I’d have to listen to him complain all the way home how he couldn’t get any true relaxation in this life.
Bianca passed one car, then another. I felt us careening. The state of my pretend lobotomy was making me dizzy. “You’re speeding,” I finally said.
“It’s legal to go five miles over the speed limit.”
“You’re going ten over.”
“It’s a four-lane highway.”
“It’s our safety.”
“Stop trying to control me. I’m not a fucking baby.”
“Don’t use those words, darlin’,” Torch said. “It hurts me to hear you say fucking.”
Bianca sped up in a muted version of “fuck you.” The car’s engine sounded like a broken chainsaw. The haughty jut of her jaw line scared me. My mother told me that being a good parent was choosing your battles, but the battles I’d chosen, I’d lost. My troops had long ago deserted me.
Is this how the stars live? I wondered. Is Reese Witherspoon really just like us? Does she pick up Us magazine and stare longingly at the sparkling champagne dress falling off Jessica Alba’s divinely shaped boobs, and think how, how? Does she wonder how George Clooney figured out everything about life, everything, and hope that maybe he has incontinence problems and wears a diaper to the Oscars? Will she look at pics of Brad and Angelina with their stylish, rollicking tribe and be reassured that somebody knows how to live, that somebody out there is having fun?
“I’m sorry, but I’ve got to pee,” Torch said.
Bianca finally slowed down at the next exit.
We all stood in the hallway waiting for the bathroom. You could have taken a family portrait of us then for our Christmas card. We were there, together, our fluids binding us, as if forever.