birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

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Three Seconds When I Was Twenty-Two

At twenty-two, I thought I was too young to be divorced, too young to be seeing a therapist, too young to be going to twelve step meetings and too young to have lost my father. The Universe disagreed. I’d been in denial about Dad’s alcoholism when he was alive and was struggling with it now that he was dead. It may sound funny, but I was overwhelmed by it. I couldn’t understand how I’d been oblivious to it for so many years. “Don’t you remember your tenth birthday?” my sister said. I did, as soon as she reminded me. Just as I remembered the school plays he arrived at late, or not at all, the dinner parties that started fine and ended with fights, the morning afters when we had to whisper because “dad was sick.” The list was a long one, and every item Glenda ticked off, I wanted to slap myself and say, “I could have had a V8!”

A lifetime of these events came crashing down on me and I couldn’t cope with them. So, I went into therapy. Molly (what a great name for a therapist) sent me to Adult Children of Alcoholics, which was an eye opener. One of the other members there eventually turned me on to John Bradshaw and his Inner Child work, which was all the rage back then. I read all his books, even attended some of his weekend workshops.

I decided to take my inner child to Disney World. Just the two of us. (I’m still a proponent of ACoA and Al-Anon, but I’ve outgrown the Inner Child fad.)

I had been driving Dad’s old Ford 150 pickup. It was a three-speed in the column. I was never comfortable with it, but it was a connection to him. I kept it long after anyone else would have traded it in for a more reliable car. Now I had an old, beat up 1979 Honda Accord. That’s what I drove from Fort Lauderdale to Orlando. Just me and a stuffed Curious George doll, who stood in for my inner child. I no longer do inner child work, but Curious George is watching me from my dresser as I type this. Molly and the ACoA meetings saved my life, and silly as he is, George helped, too. I’ll probably still have him when I die.

Anyway, I left I-95 and was on the Florida Turnpike. I’d been booking for about an hour when up ahead I saw a black something in the middle of the road. At first, I thought it was a hat. I was going 75 mph and was soon too close to stop and avoid hitting it, but close enough to tell that It was a turtle plodding across the highway. I glanced in the sideview mirror to see if I could change lanes and go around it. There was an eighteen-wheeler in the other lane, coming up fast. All I could do was center the car over the turtle and pray. The Honda was low to the ground and I didn’t think I’d be able to clear the turtle, which was bigger than a turtle ought to be. The top of its shell looked to be eight or nine inches off the ground. I passed over it and looked in the rearview mirror to see if it was okay.

It was fine. Still plodding along, unharmed. My car hadn’t even grazed it. I was still looking at in the mirror when I saw a motorcycle behind me coming up on the turtle. The big truck was no longer in the other lane, and even if it was, the motorcycle had plenty of room to maneuver around the turtle.

Instead, the motorcycle driver took careful aim. The turtle exploded in a shower of red and black. I gasped and jerked my eyes to the road ahead of me just long enough to make sure I wasn’t in danger of hitting anything, then looked back at the carnage, now just a tiny speck of red on the highway, getting smaller in the rearview mirror. The cyclist pumping his fist in victory.

At first, my anger wasn’t on behalf of the turtle. I’d tried so hard not to hit it. What was the point? I could have saved myself the bother. Later, as the bloody explosion kept replaying in my head, the futility of the turtle’s trek across the turnpike kept niggling at me. Again I asked myself, What’s the point? What’s the point of trying to cross a busy highway when you walk so slowly? What’s the point of trying to understand a lifetime of a drunken father when he’s no longer here to ask about it? What’s the point of taking a stuffed toy to Disney World? What’s the point of doing the twelve steps when you’re not the one who’s the drunk? I almost turned around and went home.

Growing up in Florida, trips to Disney World were no longer special. I went all the time, either with the family on summer vacation or on school trips. The newness hadn’t yet worn off of EPCOT, though, and The Living Seas was the newest attraction there. I spent the first day in the Magic Kingdom riding the same rides I’d gone on every year since I was a kid. The next day I went to EPCOT. It was a hot day and it was cool inside The Living Seas. I was sitting down near the base of the Aquarium watching the fish swimming in their never-ending circle. A sea turtle swam by at eye level. I was in front of an air conditioner vent. With the breeze hitting me in the face and the sea turtle gliding in front of me, it was like he was flying. Curious George was in my lap. “He’s beautiful,” I whispered to George.

The turtle continued swimming past me, fading into murky greenness as it rounded the curve and I couldn’t see it anymore. I remember thinking it was no less beautiful than the turtle that was killed on the turnpike.

Twenty-two is too old to be hugging a stuffed monkey while you rock back and forth on the floor at a Disney World attraction, crying over a dead turtle you saw for three seconds.

Gillie

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