It was 1983 and I was six years old, riding between my father and brother in my father’s Oldsmobile, back when front seats stretched from door to door. My father drove, and my brother, who was nineteen, already grown, sat on the other side of me with his window down and his arm draped on the door, his elbow jutting out of the car a little. The wind tousled our hair. They both smoked, and spoke with their hands, though my father kept one hand on the steering wheel. The ashtray jutted out from the dash, and occasionally my knees bumped into it. The sky was gray with impending rain. My father turned the car into a McDonald’s parking lot. The tires hit a rough patch in the asphalt, and the to-go cup full of Coca-Cola jumped out of the cup holder and flipped quickly. My little hands reached out and righted the cup, the bottom barely dusted by ashes. Bob took the drink from my hands. He smiled at me and said, “Good catch. Good thing you were here.”
In 1986, Madonna’s best friend and former roommate passed away from AIDS. The next year, at one concert, the pop icon handed out a comic book to share information about the disease that had taken her friend. I didn’t know this then, of course—only years later when I searched through Madonna archives on the internet, hoping to trigger memories of my brother. He and I both adored the queen of MTV: her confidence, plastic bracelets, hair spray, and, of course, her music. The comic was about a little boy who had contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. The boy, Ricky, is in middle school, and the comic opens in a classroom with another boy telling the teacher, a blonde woman who may or may not be Madonna, that he is afraid of Ricky because Ricky has AIDS. The teacher, in a modest skirt suit with pink colors, her hair swept back away from her face except for bangs that fall over the frames of her glasses, reminds the student that Ricky is his friend and that he must try to be more understanding. While reading a scan of the comic online, I remembered my own health class in middle school. The day the teacher spoke of HIV and AIDS, the subsequent snickers from the other kids. I ran out of the room and into the hall. My teacher followed me out and hugged me under the fluorescent lights next to the lockers. She wasn’t Madonna, but she had blonde hair and glasses and Madonna’s compassion. I cried in her arms and told her about my brother. This was back when AIDS meant death—quick and painful. Images of men withered down to bone, with small dark splotches on their skin. Back when my mom had separate cups for Bob to use whenever he dropped by, cups that would be thrown out immediately after he left the house.
In the memory, Bob smiles at me. This is why this memory stays. That smile. The approval. In the moment, I felt completely loved and needed. The cup flipping, so insignificant, and so illogical. Wouldn’t we have gotten the cola after going through the drive-through and not before? But I see the sky, the golden arches as the car maneuvers into the lot, the flick of ash from my father’s cigarette, the bump, the cup bouncing out of the holder and into my hands, Bob’s white polo shirt, the taut muscles in his forearm, the hair curling away from his head, upward, his smile, a burst of heaven. If I hadn’t been there, the cola would have spilled. If I hadn’t been there, Bob would not have smiled.
Start Sunday morning with a flash essay in your inbox. Enjoy short works hand-selected from the Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Diagram, River Teeth, and Sweet Literary archives, as well as the occasional original work.
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