February 18, 2021 | Narrative
IHOP french toast
on stealing back empty hours
Gray hush of the predawn morning. Blue gravel cracks under my heels. We are lit up by the twinkle of my light-up sneakers, blue-pink-orange LEDs bursting with every footfall. My mom lifts me into my cushioned booster seat, but I buckle the seatbelt myself. She gets in the driver’s side, my father in the passenger seat, twin car doors slamming. The old cream Mercedes interrupts the sunrise with a violent diesel grunt and we’re off—down the mountain, across town, over the highway and down the exit ramp. The roads are vacant under the 5 a.m. sky, I-581 spilling purple and empty across the valley. In maybe 20 minutes, we’re pulling up to the airport temporary parking, the Kiss & Fly Zone. I am not kissing or flying, though. I am yawning, sleepy and small.
My dad lifts an overstuffed backpack onto one shoulder, suitcase strap over the other. Last time he went out of town, he came back with a plastic baggy full of rough chips of turquoise that he found in the desert. I ask him for more rocks this time, and he laughs.
“Only pretty rocks,” I remind him.
“Pretty rocks for her. Chocolate for me,” my mom adds.
He laughs, nods, kisses me on the top of my head, says goodbye, assures me he’ll bring me back something good. He disappears through the revolving doors and into the glassy, fluorescent airport lobby. To fly, I assume. Hard to say where. Nevada or Dubai, up or over.
We leave the airport parking lot with the car one person lighter. Instead of going home, we go to IHOP. It’s tradition.
This time, I get strawberry and cream stuffed French toast. Last time, it was chocolate chip pancakes. My mom is eating something savory, unappealing, with eggs. Next time, I think I’ll try something new, maybe the waffles. But the French toast with its syrupy strawberries is just so hard to pass up, sticky and red and staining the corners of my mouth. Difficult choices.
Hours from now, I will be dropped off at elementary school and sent into the fray. Probably tracing more letters or cutting out shapes, staring blank-eyed at colorful walls or being told not to read while the teacher is talking. Like every other day I tumble through unwillingly. But for these cool, untouched hours, this is a day with all its windows open. Fresh air against my skin. Every time we take my father to the airport, it is another heist, stealing hours from sleep and transforming them into a sugared secret.
My mom drives us home. It is 6:30 in the morning now. My belly is full, and my father is suspended in the sky over a state I’ve never been to. The radio spits country music, the audio absolutely fried by the ancient speakers. Other cars start to spill into the empty streets as the sun punches suddenly into the sky. My mouth still tastes like strawberry.
The years fold up with me tucked safely inside them. A hundred times we perform the same ritual: awaking in the brutal morning, ferrying my father to the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport. 5 a.m. feels earlier when I am ten than it did when I was five, and even worse at fourteen. The saccharine promise of the IHOP breakfast menu starts holding less and less sway.
But still, I go. Even after I’m old enough to stay home and sleep in. Wedded to tradition, maybe, or too attached to the familiar stillness of those mornings. My mom and I slide into the tacky green booth with the restaurant eerie and quiet around us. Sometimes we talk in lazy spirals, or gossip, or maybe read. I don’t remember what we said, now. I just remember the feeling.
I always found those stolen hours so lovely, all unclaimed and wild. Time that no one owned but us. No expectations pressing in, no deadlines or demands. The smell of powdered eggs, empty roads outside the window. Utterly peaceful.
Now, we live in a house that is crawling with time. Too many months spent in the same small space. Quarantined in a bedroom I’ve already outgrown, with parents who thought my move to college would be more permanent than this. We approach a year being rooted in the same place. A year of stepping on each other’s toes.
My hours feel crowded. Even secluded in my mother’s repurposed sewing room, alone with my pre-recorded lectures and endless p-sets, I feel like each second has already been claimed. The hours I spend working don’t belong to me, and neither does all that time spent trapped in a square on Zoom, or the long dinners I spend dancing around tense conversations. My time has been given away.
Each morning, I pour coffee into a mug that says TEENAGE DAUGHTER SURVIVOR in expansive black font—a gift I’d given my dad for Father’s Day, as a joke. Maybe the joke is that I’m the only one that uses it. I slide into the rolling chair with poor lumbar support, which neither of my parents wanted, and already I feel like I’m drowning. It is ten in the morning. I can hear someone speaking in the other room, which should not annoy me, but it does. As though I have a brain full of bees. An angry hive.
Even in high school, long before my world had shrunk to meet the walls of my house, I’d feel this way. As though each moment was too full, all my time belonging to someone else. My solution now is the same as my solution was then: staying up too late, so that I can exist in an hour when everyone else is asleep. A time on the clock that only I get to see and make mine. Or I reclaim my time by taking an afternoon to drive aimlessly, pouring regular unleaded gasoline into the problem until it’s gone. Brain numbed by the road, the wind bursting through rolled down windows, the music playing too loud.
I have my little ways of finding hours to reclaim. When the frenzy gets too loud and time gets too crowded, I have ways of making space, finding room to breathe. Stolen time. I end up sleep-deprived, spending too much money on gas, but some sacrifices must be made. Anything to feel the calm hush of a moment that no one can take from me.
After this last crumpled year, with its distorted months and rotting minutes, I’m finding it hard to make those few empty hours enough. I guess, in the end, I am always dreaming of a pale purple sky, a cream Mercedes. IHOP French toast on my tongue. An endless morning.