Long stretches of field streak by my window. Brett nods along to a podcast only he can hear as he guides us faithfully down the highway. I put my headphones in and open Facebook in an attempt to distract myself from Elsa’s ballad blaring from the back seat. We are barely two hours into a seven-hour drive and I already can’t take another round of “Let It Go.” I scroll. Several posts in a row show the same video. I click the video and a clip from a local news station plays a story of an old dinosaur.
In an instant it feels like all the oxygen in the car has been sucked out. I gasp and my vision blurs at the edges.
“A giant Brontosaurus named Dixie, once stood tall and proud at a gas station in a town you’d only know by this dinosaur and a giant sign of a cow jumping over a moon,” a man’s voice narrates over old still photos. I squeeze my eyes shut. I can’t hold back the tears. Long forgotten memories begin flashing through my mind.
“Why is the band called Queen if it’s a boy singing?” I ask as we pull into a gas station. My mama laughs and turns the dial off. I swing open the door and forget my question. I step out into a small parking lot and stare in wonder at a massive dinosaur looming over us. The gravel slides under my feet and I race to the base of the giant and crane my neck back to try to see the top of her head. She has an oversized egg nestled in front of her feet.
She is a mama!
I stand on my tiptoes and peer into the hole at the top. We just learned about dinosaurs in kindergarten. I am anxious to see a baby dinosaur looking back at me. But it was empty.
I walk away and kick rocks on my way back to the car. I am sad for the mama who is without her baby.
I turn to see my grandparents pull in and park next to my mom, I didn’t know they’d be here. My mom pops the trunk and hands a box to my grandpa. I packed my toys into that box last night. Why are they putting my toys in their car? Grandma grabs another box from the trunk and loads it in the car. I run over, confused and concerned for the whereabouts of my toys. My grandma hugs Mama tight and I wedge myself between them.
“Am I going to your house Grandma?”
“Yes baby.” She pats my head.
“For how long? Why do you need my toys?”
My mama stoops down and holds my face in her hands. “I’ll see you really soon. I love you bunches,” she tells me. She holds the door open for me and I crawl into the backseat of my grandparents’ car. She buckles my seatbelt and presses her wet cheek against mine. We pull out of the gas station, and I spin around to stare out the back window. My world fades into the distance. First my mom.
A warm breeze moves through the trailer park, making the willow trees sway. I stand, watching the stillness shift, just for a moment. I hop on my bike and pass front yards filled with rocks instead of grass, hoping to find someone under the retirement community’s 55-year age requirement. But I am alone.
I glide back into our court. Grandpa holds the screen door open and I skip into the double wide. It’s hot. I beg my grandparents to take me swimming, but there is no time. Grandma buzzes around, searching for one of my missing shoes. She folds my pajamas, grabs my blue duffel bag, and sets them inside.
My blue bag! It’s Friday! It’s my weekend to go visit my dad. His new apartment complex is full of kids and has a swimming pool. I run to find my swimsuit stuff it in my bag.
We drive down the highway. My legs stick to the grey cracked leather seats. I stare out the window until I can see Dixie on the horizon. We pull in, I scan the parking lot. My grandparents huff in front of me, they hate when my dad is late. And he is always late. They wait outside the car, lean close to each other and whisper harsh words I can’t make out. I run to Dixie to find quiet and hide from the sun.
The phone drops beside me.
I visited Dixie on the second and fourth Friday of each month for the better part of four years. I sat at the base of her feet nearly 100 times. Dixie was a constant through divorce, custody battles, and school changes.
When I was a kid, it seemed almost whimsical to visit a dinosaur so often. But now, as an adult, I see it for what it was: a point on a map, an arbitrary gas station on the side of highway 80, chosen by a mediator to be the pickup and drop off point for my dad’s twice a month visitations. A location not personal enough to any of the adults in my life to elicit an emotional response. Adults who were too offended and exhausted by each other, that they could not bring themselves to knock on the other's door.
I slide my hand into Brett’s and squeeze as I breathe in the salty-sweet air of snacks and juice boxes. He looks over at me and smiles, but my tears catch him off guard. He draws my hand up to his face and kisses the top. I scoot to the edge of my seat and stretch my body across the console to rest my head on his shoulder, the warm sun pours through the windshield and bathes me in comfort.
The baby wakes from his nap and cries out; he’s hungry. We pull into a random gas station and park in a patch of gravel. Brett and I move in harmony, unbuckling the older kids and tying shoes. I toss Brett the sanitizer, and he takes off after the kids who are already running and sliding on rocks as they race to the bathroom. The baby squirms as I pull him to my shoulder and we settle together to nurse. I kiss the top of his head and breathe in the smell of new life.
The sun tucks behind a cloud and I decide to stretch my legs after he finishes nursing. The gas station signs are faded but feel familiar, and a dry patch of grass stands empty nearby. I walk over, bouncing and burping a wiggly baby, I dig my toe into the dirt and stare up at the sky. The hot sun glares down and I squint, wishing for shade.
I close my eyes and it’s as if I can see Dixie towering over us with a little girl hiding under her giant belly. Shielding herself from the sun. Hiding as car doors slam and fingers point. Pretending to not hear her grandma call her new step-mom a bimbo. Wincing when she hears her dad yelling about being escorted away from an assembly, one she invited him to. Rolling over and covering her ears and staring up at the dinosaur. Waiting.
The baby lets out a burp and his body relaxes into my shoulder, completely at rest. I open my eyes and stare at him as he breathes easy. I match my breaths to his, slow and intentional. I nuzzle my face to the top of his head, warm and content. I turn back towards the van but stop and glance down. I imagine the little girl again, but now she’s standing next to me, staring up at me instead of a dinosaur. She is afraid and lonely.
You are loved, you are needed, you are worthy, I whisper to her, longing to reach out and stroke her hair. I blink and she’s gone. I wipe my eyes and head back to the van.
I tuck the baby into his seat and make my way to mine as the doors slide open and the kids run towards the van. They yell “Mama!” and barrel in, bursting into a story of a game of tag. Brett tosses me a bottle of iced coffee and a bag of rye crisps, my favorite. We pull out of the gas station as “Let it Go” bursts through the speakers, again. I swallow the grapefruit sized lump in my throat as we all join in with the chorus. Applause and laughter erupts from the backseat and even the baby is awake and kicking his feet in delight.
The excitement fades and I fish my phone out from between the seats to finish the news story about the dinosaur. A video shows pieces of the old giant, disassembled and laying in a field, somewhere in a neighboring city. The owner appears and talks about how, due to a lack of permits, Dixie and her egg had to be removed. They were never supposed to be there.
I wish I had never been there.
I put my phone down and look back at my kids. The big kids are giggling and throwing goldfish into their open mouths. The baby kicks his feet and coos, satisfied and sleepy. I grab Brett’s hand, rub my thumb against his tan skin. I’m so glad to be here.
Guest post written by Arianna Musgrove. Arianna lives in Northern California with her husband and their three young children. You can often find her reading endless picture books and heading out on nature walks with the kids and their dog. She writes and podcasts in the margins of motherhood. Follow along on Instagram and www.fromthemiddle.net.
Arianna is a member of our Exhale community, and this essay is a product of our creative workshops. Learn more at www.exhalecreativity.com.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.