The Blue Hour
I believe in a certain hour, the one that trails daylight and drowns the head of dusk, when the tops of cars and buildings make a sound like a breath letting out, and the bleeding twilight succumbs to flesh-dark blue. I cannot think straight at this time, doesn’t matter what I’m doing. If I’m working, I’ll have to stop. If I am with someone, I am unable to leave. If I’m alone, I’ll text franctically “where are you?,” “when are you coming back,” “come see me,” and I can’t put the phone down until I hear back. An hour or more. I consider driving times and Google “car rental price greenpoint.” I memorize the exact minutes of the last messages sent to me. Numbers are prayers I repeat until enough have passed, the blue hour fades, and I am beside myself no longer.
My family took vacations, more than any other family I knew, thanks to a job my mom started at an airline reservation center one town over. The first trip we took was to Chicago, a 70 minute flight on a 50-person jet, which I recorded by hand in a turquoise diary from takeoff to landing. There wasn’t even enough time to refill our sodas. I believed no one in their life had ever been this glamorous.
As soon as my mom started the job, we began our own individual lists of places we wanted to go. My dad preferred historical cities on the East Coast, my mom beach destinations or desert towns. I was ten, so none of it mattered to me. I became enamored, most of all, with leaving. Because we flew stand-by, we always listed ourselves on the first flight of the morning. My mom dressed us like adults, in business casual blouse-and-skirt sets. I loved walking through the airport, waiting for our names to be called at the gate, occasionally winning the surprise of a seat in first class. I suppose this is what added to the feeling of glamour, pretending I was somebody important, but the reverse was true as well, and each time we stepped on the plane, I’d settle into my seat, happy to know nobody, with nobody knowing me.
My parents had different ideas of travel, but they both agreed to Hawaii, leaving on a ten day trip while my sister and I stayed at our house with our grandma. They returned tired and tan, with boxes of macadamia nuts dipped in dark chocolates, dried flower leis, an album of photos that I would occasionally flip through when I was bored.
I did not understand their marriage, but it moved me, for reasons I couldn’t name or even distinguish from the fact of them being the only two people besides my sister who I saw every day. They had eloped to Vegas, a detail I thought was glamorous until a certain age, when it suddenly became something else. The photos of their wedding day showed my mom in a lace-tiered dress, seven years older than my dad, then, in his mid-twenties but looking sixteen. In the beginning of their marriage, they’d traveled, through the Southewest, in the Caribbean. These photos already had the gloss of antiques; the bad film amplified the sense that they were strangers. I stared, trying to recognize whatever might be leftover, that thing in their eyes that seemed slightly unfocused, what I thought could be one pair of eyes unable to move from the other’s.
The summer before I graduated from high school, we flew to Hawaii together, skipping Oahu for what we imagined were the lesser explored terrains. We hiked the lava fields and black sand beaches of the Big Island, snorkeled off the south shore of Molokai, drove the circumference of Kauai and most of Maui, where my sister and I tried unsuccessfully to sneak into the nearby Four Seasons’ pool.
There, my dad had rented a Chrysler, some unremarkable model, dark gray. In the mornings, we’d wake up before dawn and drive to a different mountaintop or a quiet beach on the island’s southern edge. Our hotel concierge had recommended we see the Road to Hana, the 68-mile highway that skimmed along beige cliffs, single-lane bridges and through dozens of hairpin turns. In the car, the cardboard air freshener hung limply from mirror copying the smell of coconut. My dad drove with an elbow out the window, the air conditioner and the engine beating for the upward climb. My older sister sat quietly, her legs an even brown while mine stung red with a few patches left colorless, a watery oatmeal.
After this trip, there would be another album of photos and most of them, unlike the first Hawaii album, would show my sister and me alone. On a boat, snorkel masks clamped over our noses, holding cups of rainbow colored ice, running behind three wild chickens crossing the road. We stopped at a waterfall at my dad’s insisting, and my mom takes pictures of us jumping, but stops once my sister starts to cry. She’s always been afraid of heights, and I think it’s the reason I’m not.
The sequence of photos gets fuzzy after this. Only one picture was taken afterward. It shows my sister, my dad, and me, reclining on a plush green cliff at the very end of the road.
When I’m nineteen, my dad moves out of the house he built for us. He only goes a few miles away, and when he leaves he doesn’t say anything, and I watch his truck back out of the driveway from the tiny square window of my bedroom, my breath making three cumulus clouds on the glass, going, going, gone. I want to do something, mark my grief in some important way, but instead I get in the car, and start driving. I drive past the Conoco station that’s now a Freedom station, past the high school, past the brown house on the hill where my oldest lives, the houses of girls I don’t talk to anymore, even the house where my dad has moved. Not once do I think about stopping.
Sometime recently I lost track of all the times I have moved. I know the shortest amount of time I’ve stayed anywhere is six weeks, and the longest, now, in Brooklyn, is 18 months. When I left Minnesota for the last time, it was to go West and because it seemed too easy to drive all of my belongings in a Ford Taurus halfway across the country, I invited an ex-boyfriend to come with me. The trip was pleasant, for the most part, exiting the flat, stale heat of Dakotan fields for the clustered peaks of Wyoming, Idaho, the forests so thick you choke on your first breath outside of the car. We sang songs and laughed and then got quiet. I was too angry at him to talk and he knew it. When I asked him to choose something to listen to, he picked the same mixed CD every time.
At twenty-two and twenty-three, and partway through twenty-four, I drive alone through Washington state cris-crossing mountains I don’t know the names of, across bridges that are so new, I still hold my breath when I pass over them, along tiny towns on the coast of Oregon, near where my sister lives. I wake up early on Saturday mornings and drive myself out of the city to hike without supplies, with maybe half a Pop Tart in my glove compartment. I’m never prepared. I drive around at night because I can, because I like knowing that I know the streets I’m on, even if I don’t know where I’m going.
Last summer, I flew from Brooklyn to attend the wedding of two friends. I’d rented a car to get from the Minneapolis airport three hours north to my hometown. The night before the wedding, everyone gets a little drunk at a sports bar about a mile from where I’m staying, at my dad’s house. I’m only a few blocks away when I see lights blinking behind me.
I don’t recognize the officer who pulls me over, although I have the feeling that nearly every girl I know here has gotten married to a policeman. He stands at my window with his flashlight aimed low.
“Do you know why I pulled you over?”
I try to concentrate on keeping my eyes from squinting while the lights reflect sharply in my mirror. “No. I don’t.”
“You’ve got your headlights off.”
I look down at the dashboard, pretending to understand, but I don’t. The dashboard is backlit by blue. Should it be more blue? “It’s a rental,” I explain. “I just drove up from Minneapolis today.” I flick at a few knobs just to avoid his eyes for a few seconds longer which is when a flash of pavement lights up in front of us.
The officer leans in to give a scan of the car front to back and then raises his eyes to mine before stepping back into the street. I can’t tell if he’s through with me or not, if he’s maybe pulled over anyone else tonight who had once poured their grief across the town, the state, and was out trying to see what remained of it. I apologized for the mistake.
“It’s a good thing I stopped you,” he said without smiling. “Now you know.”
There are days in Brooklyn, in fact years, when I couldn’t care less about museums or free concerts or Tuesday afternoons spent drunk in a park and all I want is to touch a steering wheel. There are times when the sight of a person lowering himself into a car seat has nearly ruined me. I’ve almost cried watching someone idle at a red light, the look on their faces, the purple calm. I’m a different person without a car, timid, prone to lying on my bed, easily overwhelmed.
Friends recommend biking, and the first time I push through the city I believe them. I buy a bike from a guy, a heavy green cruiser with a rusted basket on the handlebars. He gives me a deal. One night, I’m drunk and leave it locked up outside a friends apartment, don’t go back for two, three days. It’s gone by the fourth.
The blue hour comes quicker in winter, but stays longer in summer.
A hundred versions exist of this story. I’ve tried to write a hundred more versions. Nothing matches up. The truth, or what happened, whatever you want to call it, fades each time I try to picture it, until the only thing left is the sky.
When we drove the Road to Hana, I was seventeen. I remember the groan of the engine, my dad cranking the wheel like it was a wind-up toy, the speed at which we round corners, our weight shifting like teacups on a taut string. I caught sight of my mom’s face just as a sharp turn opened a view to the ocean and framed her head, turned toward the water, her blond hair resting in curls at her shoulders. I wish I had a picture of this. Of the bluest waves rolling below. Cliffs laid out like ribbons and the color of the sky. It couldn’t have been real. The sky folded open and beneath it my family.
I found my mom on the small tiled veranda outside of our room, hours later, sitting on one of those plastic beach chairs that can dent your bare legs. The sky was dark, a trace of sapphire low and sanguine-looking, and she was crying. I remember how I felt important to be sitting there and listening to her. Don’t leave, I’d said to her. I spoke it like a plea, but it wasn’t. I suppose it was selfish of me, like everything at seventeen. I don’t know what I would tell her now. I don’t know if it would be different.
I cried on the trip I took with my ex-boyfriend, only once. It was in Idaho, and we’d just left Yosemite in a hailstorm that made the foreign drive feel like a game of Russian Roulette. I’d been driving the whole time and made it out of the weather. He’d fallen asleep while the sun was setting in an orange sprawl across the windshield. I’d kept my foot just slightly above the pedal, maybe a quarter of an inch while I drove us up and over patches of hills, dusted with reds and purples, hardly a hint of blue left. I started the CD over, let us coast until the hills turned to black.
KARINA BRISKI believes in road trips without redemption. Her favorite roads are U.S. Routes 169, 37, 53, and 13 and Deception Road on Fidalgo Island, WA. Her nonfiction and fiction appears online. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.