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Chewing Lips on the CBE

Flashback Memory from March 2018


Long Islanders have commuter nerves of steel. Upstaters like me, not so much.

A wall of eighteen wheelers surrounds me on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Their progress, inch by creaking, groaning, lurching inch, propels me into a state of anxiety. The anxiety is cross hatched with a twist in my stomach that only slightly distracts me from the fact that the earth moves under my tires as we slug slowly over each tremulous overpass.

It’s barely eight o’clock on a Thursday morning. I’m nervous and starving. I grope desperately in the bottom of my backpack next to me, finding a small package of peanut butter crackers to munch on. Mmff, so dry. I drink the two inches of old and cold coffee from the paper cup in my cup holder, there from yesterday. I punch the radio dial every five minutes, searching for musical diversity. I reapply lipstick every mile or so, having chewed my lips dry and ragged. Grabbing a piece of cardstock lying on the passenger seat with the large #213 on it, (a recent visit to the Honda service center), I blindly scribble in the spaces around the numbers as I inch along, playing “I Spy” with myself, chicken scratching the names on the massive trucks as they inch past my window: Thomas’ English Muffins, Dunkin Donuts, Tuscan Milk, Hunts Point Fuel Oil, Spring Water, unknown cargos. License plates hail from: Maine, Minnesota, Michigan, Oklahoma, Indiana, Missouri, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois. I write those down too, the words almost completely illegible. Cars from Georgia, California, Texas, Virginia inch along with me. Are they on vacation or business? Maybe they're rental cars? I mentally retreat to pretend interviews where I leap out of my car and approach each driver and ask them where they are headed. Some frustrated journalist fantasy.

I wish I were on the elevated train line that looms overhead. I wish I were walking on the overpass through the Bronx or sitting in that low flying helicopter that hovers above, then whisks off sideways, like a large bug that's changed its mind. I wish I were anywhere else. A sudden acceleration to 14mph feels like a triumphant accomplishment, but just as suddenly, it's back to zero, foot to the brake, slapping me back to reality. The stop and start, the nerve wracking snail’s pace, the claustrophobic, helpless feeling of my Honda sandwiched in between towering trucks, like a tiny toddler lost in a sea of adults, allows plenty of time for the inevitable flashbacks of my visit to Long Island to see my sisters; one healthy, one not.

We took Margaret out to dinner last night, signing her out of the nursing home and awkwardly getting her into the car. She has been there to recuperate from what may have been a stroke, but it is looking more and more like a recuperation is not going to occur. While my other sister keeps up a lively chatter, Margaret appears to listen but offers little by way of comment or response. She struggles with small bits of comments; her cognition and speech are slowed to near oblivion by the cruelty of sudden onset dementia. When she does speak, she chooses her words carefully, not able to recall the familiar terrain of conversation. The thoughts and words are in there somewhere, but scrambled and hidden, maybe something like unlabeled boxes in a disorganized attic.

The attentive waiter took our dinner order, then asked about wine, turning to Margaret, “What wine would you like with your dinner?” Margaret turned to us with such a look of innocent trust, I swallowed hard to keep from crying. “What do I drink?” We tell her Chardonnay. She looks up to the waiter, her blue eyes clear, and graciously says, “I’ll have that.” Gosh, I miss her so much.


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