This post was sponsored by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
We started in the front, at least most of us did in those days before laws and car seats that did more than hold a baby upright. I had my tonsils removed in the 1st grade, and on the ride home I sat on my mom’s lap with my back snuggled against her chest. My throat was so sore I couldn’t speak, so to describe to my parents what a Popsicle was I pushed my finger through the film of vapor on the windshield and drew a rectangle with two sticks coming out the bottom. I was fortunate it was winter. Her arms were my seat belt.
Being in the front meant comfort.
Later, the only child sat in the front seat in between the parents if the seat stretched out like a bench. If there was a console, they laid (or sat or twirled) in back seats like royalty on wide expanses of bonded leather or short pile upholstery. One brother, then two. My space became crowded, but as the oldest I was able to skirt the middle seat thanks to irrefutable laws of sibling seniority.
Sitting in the way, way back didn’t happen until the fourth sibling in most cars or, if your mother tapped out early like mine did, when friends came home with you from school or out of town family came to visit or your parents picked up a hitchhiker. The reasons for additional bodies in a car were limitless in the 70s.
My mom drove a brown Buick station wagon, boxy with chrome trim on the windows and enough trunk space to fit a twin bed. One year, when my parents’ friends came to visit from Washington, four out of five kids landed in the trunk and played Sleeping Princess. It was a game I made up on the fly and believed was nothing short of brilliant. The object: one girl laid flat on her back and stayed as still as possible while the car made turns and drove over bumps. The other two girls and one reluctant prince would lean over the Sleeping Princess and monitor her for movement. Whoever went the longest without moving–slept the longest–won. Won what, I can’t remember. Bragging rights? This is where my memory fails, so the prize couldn’t have been great. My last memory of Sleeping Princess is Veronica leaning over me, inches from my face, claiming I scrunched my eyes into a right turn. I can still see her black hair sheeting the cheeks of her pale face. I resented that she looked like Snow White.
A few years later I was in the back of a dark blue El Camino with Michael and Annette, the children of our babysitter. We were coming home from getting ice cream and because my brothers were younger, they were inside on the bench seat. It was just after sunset on a warm summer day, the three of us leaning back against the cab window to look at the trees while we licked our cones. The mood was peaceful, nostalgic before it was even a memory, until a kid on a bike darted in front of the car and Mr. Gonzalez slammed on the breaks. We slid around the bed of the El Camino like pats of butter on a griddle until we came to a stop with our eyes staring up into the trees and our hands still holding our cones. We sat up, looked at each other, and laughed until our sides hurt. Then I took a big lick of ice cream and wished my parents had an El Camino.
Being in the back meant friendship.
I climbed into the trunk of my mom’s latest station wagon as a teenager to escape my brothers and their growing arms and legs. They were too large, too loud, too annoying. They were altogether too too. I gladly hid among the Samsonites, confident nobody understood, nobody had it so bad, nobody cared about the Many Injustices I Suffered.
Being in the back meant privacy. Blessed, welcome privacy.
My boys have had a different experience. By the time Mikey was born, I earned an honorary PhD in Car Seat. Not only did the boys always sit properly latched in their car seats at all times, for the first couple of months I sat in the back with them so that at a moment’s notice I could perform Many Critical Life Saving Measures like pop the pacifier back in, look out for spit up, adjust socks, and–literally and figuratively–back seat drive, something I should have a PhD in, if you ask my husband.
When Mikey turned 9 at the beginning of June, he reminded me that according to California law he was now allowed to sit in the front seat. I expected nothing less from him. But the front seat wasn’t what he was thinking about a week later when he went over the agenda for his birthday party. He wanted to go to a 66ers game (Angels minor league) with his two best friends and then have a sleepover. He had everything planned down to the seating arrangements in the car on the way to the game. He wanted to sit in the middle with a best friend on either side and, since there wasn’t anymore room, his brother would have to sit in the way, way back by himself. When Nico heard this, he burst into tears.
On that day, being in the back meant not fitting in.
Or, as Nico later cried that night when he was far more tired than he wanted to admit and far too young to watch the movie the bigger boys wanted to watch: “Mama, they’re not letting me pay any attention to them.”
When we packed up the boys to go to the game, I wanted to spread everyone out, two-by-two, so it was fair. The Mister, himself a younger brother, shook his head and had Nico get in the back so Mikey could have time with his friends. This is how it is for younger brothers, but only for a little while, he said. In a couple of years they’ll meet in the middle again.
Perhaps, and even though Nico was perfectly content once his dad revealed that being in the way, way back gave him iphone video game privileges, I wanted to climb back there and sit with him in solidarity. I didn’t, but when one of the boys turned to Nico and asked to play on the iphone I did happily crow, “Sorry, no can do! Iphone privileges are one of the perks to sitting in the very back all by yourself.” And in my head: HAH! SO THERE.
This may have earned me a side-eye from the Mister, but it was worth it. Turns out mamas can perform Many Critical Life Saving Measures while riding shotgun.
The next morning, the boys played wiffle ball in the street. When Nico scored a triple it was his brother, the catcher for the other team, who whooped and hollered and gave him many high fives. They all did, really. Nico soared around the homemade bases propelled by happy thoughts and a team of pixies. At his next time at bat, Nico struck out and burst into tears. Mikey rubbed his hands down his face before looking up at the sky in a plea for patience.
“It’s just that, mama, I want them to think I’m great.”
One day they’ll meet in the middle.
Until then, I’ll have to accept that brotherhood will some days feel like sitting in the front seat, and other days feel like being relegated to the way, way back.
A few weeks ago my husband and I got to see a screening of The Way, Way Back starring Steve Carell. (It comes out July 5th in select theaters.) We both had a great time, though I’m embarrassed to admit it took me a while to realize the movie is called The Way, Way Back because the boy, Duncan, sits in the way, way back of the car and life at the beginning of his coming of age summer. This is why no one pays me to review movies.