The first time you ever rode in the front seat of a car you were 11, the same year you swore you would never fall in love. In the earliest days of your parents’ separation, your dad had taken to picking you up after school in his beat-up brand-name sedan, and you knew that his sudden presence in your daytime life meant that he’d lost his nine-to-five again but you didn’t care. It was the middle of May, the time of year when school begins to feel for both student and teacher like the world’s most pointless endeavor because the air is first starting to smell sweet after the months-long dusk of Ohio winter…and your hair had recently grown long enough to be worn in a ponytail, and after school you got to run errands with your dad. Copy shop, dry cleaner’s, pharmacy. You hit the Dairy Queen on the way into town. He let you choose the tape to play in the deck, and you picked his bootleg Dire Straits concert album because you liked the way he’d written each track title down on the little card in the tape case in his all-uppercase handwriting. Every so often he’d glance over at you––prepubescent, crooked-toothed, skinny––riding shotgun, and he’d say:
“Don’t tell your mother.”
You didn’t. You wouldn’t. You loved the existence of a secret between your dad and yourself: in those uncertain days, it might have been all you had. When he dropped your off at your mother’s house in the early evening, you did as you were told and didn’t tell her that you weren’t hungry for dinner because you were full of chocolate-dipped soft serve and didn’t tell her you didn’t want a story before bed because now you sat in the front seat and now you were a Big Kid.
You grew up haphazardly, coexisting in the space between your parents, in the odd realm between where your mother ended and your father began, alone with their potent, infrequently concealed resentment of one another and the yellow backpack you carried between their houses every Wednesday night and alternating weekends. You collected the secrets your parents leaked to you in their crushing loneliness like rare stamps, like state quarters. You didn’t tell your mother that your father let you ride shotgun and eat ice cream for dinner and have sleepovers on school nights while he drank cheap beer in his fluorescent-lit bedroom, his lumpy mattress the same one he’d slept on with her for 14 years of married life. You didn’t tell your father that after he’d left, your mother went into the basement with the phone number for the pizza-delivery place and a DVD of the “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries for several months and didn’t come out. You couldn’t know what you hoped to do with these secrets. You didn’t even particularly enjoy accumulating them as they weighed more and more on your small growing body like so much rainwater collected in your clothes when you got caught walking home from school in a storm. They weren’t your secrets. They were theirs. But you had become, no matter how they tried to protect you from each other, from themselves, the vessel in which their secrets simmered and boiled over.
When you were 11 you learned to wear a seatbelt when you rode shotgun in a car. You learned to tip the delivery guy liberally in thanks for his silence, his compliance, when you ordered a pizza. You learned to keep secrets like your life depended on them not leaking out. You learned never to fall in love because it only took a moment, but to fall out took years.
Charlotte Freccia is a second-year student of English, Creative Writing, and Women’s and Gender Studies at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where she also holds an associateship at the Kenyon Review. Her poetry and short fiction have been published in Zaum Magazine and Potluck Magazine, and she is a recent recipient of the Philip Walcott Timberlake Award.