Circa 1992 my family took a vacation to the American Southwest, an awe-inspiring landscape of geologic majesty. Unfortunately, in order to witness this majesty, you have to do a lot of driving through barren desert-scape, which meant countless hours sandwiched between my older brothers in the back middle seat of a modest-sized, rental sedan.
I always got the back middle seat, while my brothers enjoyed the windows. Rationally it made sense for me to be in the middle because I was by far the smallest; my brothers are 5 and 7 years older. However in the ethical calculus of a first grader, me always having the middle seat was a grand injustice. It didn’t seem fair to make someone sit in a particular place in a vehicle because of that person’s physical attributes. Had I known about the civil rights movement, I would have drawn the analogy. However, my elementary school didn’t teach that until second grade.
My parents let us sort out back seat seating ourselves, and I always sorted out into the middle. Upon entering the car we would perform a Looney Tunes-like scene of locking doors, unlocking doors, switching seats, and running around the car, and invariably I would be trapped in the middle by the time the car was rolling.
So I began every car ride fuming, indignant. On this particular day, I was fuming, indignant as we drove through Monument Valley, a Navajo park along the Utah-Arizona border known for colossal sandstone buttes. It’s a vista of red stone, blue sky, and vastness. It’s what you picture when you picture the Southwest because countless iconic Westerns and commercials have been filmed there.
The Monument Valley tour loop is only 17 miles and takes 2-3 hours to drive, but in my memory, the drive was an immeasurable span of tedium and needless suffering.
Four minutes into the drive I asked, “how many more hours?” being sure to draw out hours with the breadth of my anguish.
My parents ignored me.
Finally, acknowledgement: “What is it?”
“I said, how many more hours?”
“We’ll get there when we get there. Look at the rocks.”
As an adult with an appreciation for and education in geology, I would enjoy Monument Valley. As a child, stuck in the middle, I was rancorous with “are we there yet” delirium. It occurred to me that we would be driving on a dirt road for hours to see some tall rocks, or whatever tall rocks I could barely glimpse from the back, middle seat.
My ideal vacation comprised a swimming pool, mini-golf, and 24/7 popsicle accessibility. A place, like my grandparents’ condo on Hilton Head Island, where we parked the car and thereafter only used bicycles and boogey boards for transportation. Driving for hours on a dirt road to see giant rock towers was not vacation; it was torture!
A Genesis cassette tape was playing.
“I can feel it coming in the air tonight, hold on…”
Even at age seven I had in inkling that being subjected to this kind of music could compromise our sanity. Had I been aware of current events at that time, I would have likened it to the psychological warfare used in the U.S. invasion of Panama.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life, hold on…”
“What is it?”
“I’m really, really bored.”
“Play one of your road games.”
We tried to play that game where you go through the alphabet and spot something that begins with each letter.
B… B… B…
D… D… D…
We gave up. There’s not a lot of alphabetic variety in scrubby desert.
Phil Collins belted, “Oh I can’t dance, I can’t talk… Only thing about me is the way I walk…”
Anticipating revolt, my parents resorted to an ignoble, but effective form of appeasement: stuffing our faces with snacks. Unfortunately they only had one bag of Doritos.
“Okay kids you can only have one Dorito every 10 minutes. Start your timers!”
My mother distributed our first Dorito rations and we diligently set our watches. My brothers ate them immediately, but I decided to make mine last. I slowly licked the neon orange powder from one side, then the other side. I nibbled a bit and sucked on it. I nibbled a little more. It was a repulsive strategy.
My brother objected. “Mom she’s eating her Dorito disgusting!”
My other brother agreed. “It’s making me sick! Tell her she can’t eat it like that!”
Mom: “Annelia, eat the Doritos like a civilized person.”
I would have pointed out that regulating and criticizing my food consumption could lead to eating disorders, but I didn’t know about those until the next year, when I watched a Lifetime Original movie with my mom about bulimia.
Me: “That’s not fair!”
Mom: “Eat them like a civilized person or don’t eat them at all.”
Me: “Fine. I don’t want any.”
I crossed my arms and commenced my first (and final) hunger strike.
Now Phil was singing, “Cos tonight, tonight, tonight– ohhhhhhhh.”
The Dorito tiff and never ending battle over the middle seat may give you a false impression of our sibling dynamics. It was not always my brothers against me. We had shifting alliances based on individual goals. Most of the time my oldest brother and I allied against the middle brother. And most of the time my oldest brother was my buddy, looking after my happiness and wellbeing.
He had ways to entertain me, one of which was a character known as Mr. Finger. This was his right pointer finger, acting like a little finger puppet. Mr. Finger would act out adventures and keep me from doing bratty younger sister things, like sucking on Doritos.
There was an elaborate backstory to Mr. Finger, the details of which I have forgotten. I’m pretty sure his parents died—because orphans were so popular in kids’ stories at the time—and he definitely had a little brother, Mr. Pinky.
Mr. Finger popped up to entertain me.
“Hi Annelia! How are you doing today?”
“Well how about I tell you a story?”
“Well how about we go on an adventure?”
“Tonight, tonight, tonight– ohhhhhh.”
I was not in the mood. I made my pointer finger into a gun and shot Mr. Finger point blank.
A few minutes later I wanted him back.
“No, you shot him. He’s dead.”
I pleaded. “It was an accident! Make him come back!”
“I can’t. He’s dead.”
Days later, months later, it was the same. Mr. Finger never came back. And that is how I learned that some actions have irrevocable consequences.