It is a Saturday evening in Mid-August, and from my seat, I inhale the Atlantic. Grilled swordfish- lightly charred and garnished with something called lemon beurre blanc- is on the plate that has been set for me. My parents sun-kissed faces are gazing intently upon my new tattoo, my sister’s nose buried in her cell-phone, and my brother’s head slumped upon the table. Forty-eight hours earlier, I stepped off a connecting plane into their arms, back into the time-impermeable summers on Cape Cod we still carve into our calendars. I fly home tomorrow. By home, I mean my life in DC. I am a visitor here. I am not permanent.
To anyone else in the restaurant, we look like an aging dad, a younger mom, two male twenty-somethings and a teenage girl. Sure, if you looked closer, you’d notice similarities amongst the group’s members. And if you knew the faces even better, if you knew them as well as I know them myself, you’d notice every discrepancy etched in our skin, every scar and imperfection. This is my family. I didn’t get to choose them. I couldn’t tell you what they might have looked like if I had, but this collection of piercing blue eyes and goofy charm is what I’ve got and it’s the best I can imagine so far.
My father pays the bill when we finish dinner. My sister and brother hurry out of the restaurant and towards the dimly lit parking pier on the other side of the street. While I follow behind, my mom and dad dawdle inside, and by the time they exit my sister is halfway across. She takes two steps into the crosswalk and past the YIELD TO PEDS sign beside it when a red pickup truck with a surfboard in the bed speeds around a bend into view. She’s almost there by the time the driver has made it clear he isn’t stopping. She falters as the headlights grow giant on her face.
My brother pulls her back. He wraps her tightly and flips off the driver. Finally, with an urgency saved for rage of the road, the man screeches to a halt and rolls down his window. My brother asks can’t he read the fucking yield sign. The man asserts it doesn’t count because it’s on the opposite side of crosswalk from where we entered. Further obscenities are exchanged.
From twenty feet away, my father begins shouting, and by ten feet, a crowd has taken notice. He throttles past my brother, barreling towards the man, who is now getting out of his truck. The guy puts a single foot on the ground before I can appear between the man and my father. I can tell by the way he stumbles back that I’ve been unnoticed and he’s been partying. The two of us square our shoulders towards each other, standing about a fist and a half apart.
The man looks about thirty. He’s got wavy blonde hair with the kind of muscle and tan that says he doesn’t much care for shirts. Beneath his glazed-over eyes, there’s the realization that he has overestimated his odds in a fight.
“We are walking away. All you have to do is walk.”
But now he’s out of the car. He shoves me. I square my shoulders and take another step towards him.
“We are walking away. All you have to do is walk.”
He shoves me again.
There is no room for fear. There is only the desire to protect, and the knowledge that this guy might beat the shit out of my dad.
His mouth hangs dumb and uncertain, as if he’s lost his words with his yielding abilities. My sister shrinks behind me, her cell phone buried in her pocket. Behind her, my mom’s arms are tangled around her husband, now fighting his way towards the man. She yells for someone to help please call the police and my brother asks her to shut the fuck up- he is standing to my right. I can feel him. He will not let this man make the first move.
I might have every justification for throwing a punch- at this forlorn, drunken stranger-but I will not, because he’s someone else’s family and mine doesn’t need to see him beaten black and blue by pride.
He falters. I spin around and we rush my dad away towards the pier where our car waits. Without a word, we file inside, my dad taking his customary position as driver. With a sigh, I settle in the back. The man has cleared by the time we pull out. We drive through the crosswalk and cruise into the night, dark except for the occasional pair of headlights. Somewhere down the road, we pass a red pickup truck, inching along in the right lane.
The nuclear family was an unforeseen casualty of the American dream. Somewhere along the road from the last century, the relative value of a happy household slipped from our minds. A loving partner, and a couple of healthy kids; a lawn big enough to learn to play catch on and safely fantasize about what resides beyond our borders; what more could a person want?
I do not mean to criticize ambition. One can want and still cherish these things. But how many of us have grown up wanting to become movie stars, astronauts, politicians, and how many were kept up late at night by the hope of popping out a few kids that were normal? We don’t realize what a blessing “ordinary” is until things go awry; my healthy, devoted parents have and will always be my keepers; my brother and sister, likewise, are tenets of my existence.
To love and to be loved. It is more than enough.
The following morning, I rise in a house that is filled with my family. I pack my bags and eat breakfast. From my seat, I watch my father fumble with his iPad as my mom tries to peruse the internet in search of our next retreat. In the den, I can hear my sister watching cartoons way too loudly, and upstairs, I can feel my brother fast asleep. Soon, I will leave the confines of these wooden walls and be blown onward, and when I do, this house will no longer be full. But before I go, I breathe it in, and I know that these are the moments I will take with me.