When I was growing up in California, my parents had a fairly loose policy of not driving me, my sister, or my brother around town. We biked to the dentist and doctor. To go anywhere else—school, the beach, the movies—we walked, rode the bus, roller skated, and hitch-hiked (the method of choice in high school).
The no driving policy was cemented sometime before my sister, Becca, went away to college, when we were both in high school together.
On that particular day, the rain was coming down like an unbroken wall of water. Becca had whined and complained, cajoling our dad to drive us to school so we wouldn’t have to walk through the rain to the bus stop (where we’d stick out our thumbs to hitch-hike). My father relented, grumbling and moaning as he picked up his car keys from the kitchen counter and walked out to the garage. He was barefoot in his threadbare blue bathrobe that reminded me of an overused, shredded tissue.
Becca pushed the garage door open from the inside, then quickly got into the front seat of the old station wagon. I sat in the back. My sister was relentlessly bossy when it came to priority seating in the car. I always thought she acted as if the family owed her for her having to put up with bird shit (from my brother’s un-caged bird who lived in our family room), clutter (covering every flat surface in the house), overflowing ashtrays (cigarettes and pot), nudity (my parents didn’t own bathing suits and always swam naked), moldy food in the refrigerator (cheeses that smelled like butt-holes) and moths flying out of the cereal boxes in the cupboard (which resulted in the aromatic branches from bay trees in the cupboards as a form of organic insecticide). What I didn’t understand in this equation was why Josh and I were owed nothing for putting up with it all.
Dad drove us all the way into school—the rain was so thick, I didn’t worry about anyone peering into the window of the station wagon and seeing that he was in his ratty bathrobe.
That afternoon when Becca and I got home from school, Dad came bounding down the stairs still in his bathrobe, hollering, “I WILL NEVER DRIVE YOU GIRLS ANYWHERE AGAIN, YOU HEAR?!” Oddly, my father often seemed inured to the little things that drove most people mad (traffic lights, rude sales clerks, finding a parking spot) but could be outraged at the things that most people didn’t think about (an orange that wasn’t perfectly ripe, the movie Fiddler on the Roof, a dog shit on the lawn). So it didn’t seem surprising that he would be ranting about having driven us to school.
“Do you know that I ran out of gas!” He bellowed.
“Where?” Becca snarled. Of course she was wondering exactly what I was wondering, and that was if our father had run out of gas near the school and if he got out of the car in the raggedy bathrobe under which he was completely naked.
“On Cathedral Oaks Road, just after I dropped you off!”
“Dad! Come on!” Becca said. I imagined my friends driving to school and passing my father loping down the road, his penis probably flopping out into the rain through the sheer flaps of his robe.
“Do you know how far I had to walk for gas!?”
The only thing between the house and the high school was acres and acres of lemon, orange, and avocado orchards. He would have had to walk toward the school, then past it, to get to a gas station.
“About a mile?” I guessed.
“Dad!” Becca said. “Did you see any of my friends? Did anyone see you walking to the gas station?” Her face was a dark stain of worry.
“How the hell do I know! It was fucking raining out! I was fucking naked under my robe!”
“We know,” I said, quietly. I was worried about my latest crush having seen my father. We had gone on only one date and I was hoping for a second.
“Dad!” My sister’s body was clenched as if she were trying to contract her entire being into one tiny, dark lump. “Why don’t you get dressed before you leave the house!? Most people do this—they put on clothes before they walk out the door.”
“I didn’t even go to work today, I was so outraged!” My father was pacing the entrance hall.
“Why didn’t you take off the wet robe?” I asked.
“I took it off and put it in the dryer, but then I was so fucking pissed off, that I just put it back on when it was dry.”
“You were too mad to get dressed?” I imagined my father working naked while he waited for the robe to dry. Would he have answered the door naked? Who knows.
“What is wrong with you!” Becca pushed past Dad and walked down the hall toward the kitchen, her giant backpack sitting on her like someone riding piggyback. I followed.
“Never again!” Dad shouted down the hall at us. “Find your own rides from now on!” I could hear his footsteps thumping up the stairs.
“It’s not like you’ve ever driven us anywhere before!” Becca shouted to the ceiling. Dad must have heard her, but he said nothing and simply slammed shut the bedroom door.
My father stuck to his promise and didn’t drive us anywhere again. It wasn’t a huge inconvenience—I only thought of it when I rode in the backseat of someone else’s parents’ car, the mothers who would pick us up from the movies at night, the dads who would drive us to the County Bowl for concerts. In fact, when I rank the oddities of my childhood this one comes out normal compared the period when my father was a voluntary mute and only communicated with us by scrawling notes on a yellow legal pad that he always carried in one hand.