A hippo can hold its breath for a really long time.
I wish Mama and Daddy could.
I pressed my forehead to the bus window. It left a smudge, but I didn’t care. I was riding a Peach–a Georgia Peach. All the buses in the fleet had gigantic peaches painted on the sides. The bus was decked out. There were four flat-screen TVs bolted to the ceiling and scattered throughout the bus. Of all things, a repeat of Good Afternoon, Atlanta featuring an interview with Mama and Daddy had come on ten minutes ago.
Mama and Daddy had made arrangements for me to sit in the front seat behind the driver where she could keep an eye on me. But as we waited for the last passenger to reboard the bus at our fourth Waffle House stop, I stood.
I went to slip Grace, the wrinkly bus driver, a five, a move I had seen Daddy do at fancy restaurants to get a good table–but he used Ben Franklins. As in hundred-dollar bills!
Grace laughed a deep Coca-Cola chuckle as she shooed the money away.
“Thanks, Maebelle, but no thanks. I can’t be bought, but I can be persuaded.” Grace kept on, “I tell you what, we’ve got another girl traveling solo. Take a seat near her, next to the toilet,” she said, though her pronunciation of toilet sounded like twa-let.
I nodded. Getting away from the sound of Mama and Daddy’s TV voices would be super-great.
“All righty now, go ahead. But don’t forget, these eyes”–Grace pointed to her eyes, which were hidden behind big sunglasses–“can see you anywhere.”
“Yes ma’am, thank you ma’am,” I said.
I grabbed my backpack with my name, Maebelle T. Earl, embroidered crookedly (yes, it was my handiwork) on the zipper pouch and carted it down the long bus aisle, then took a seat diagonal and one back from the girl Grace had mentioned. She was asleep–dead asleep. She had one of those travel pillows wrapped around her neck and had a bag of snack mix in her lap. Her hand was still inside it and a bit of drool was creeping out the side of her mouth. G-r-o-s-s, gross. Had she fallen asleep midbite?
I plopped down as Grace revved the engine and took off for another lonely stretch of highway. I scootched around in my seat and did my best to settle in. At least back here, I figured I wouldn’t be able to hear Mama and Daddy spout their self-help talk. I was wrong.
“The third step in our Making Our Love Last series is to face one another, breathe deeply, and to try to match the intake and outtake of your breath with your partner’s,” Mama’s voice said from the nearest TV as I dug in my book bag.
I reckoned there was nowhere to run. Mama and Daddy’s fame was spreading. They had just left for a nationwide book tour that kicked off in New York City, and they were being interviewed on the Today show and on Regis and Kelly. The publisher was so happy, they’d sent a limo to the house to take Mama and Daddy to the airport. I rode in it too, before they dropped me at the bus station. I may have had a T in my name, like everyone on Mama’s talented side of the family does, but in my case, my middle initial stood for NO TALENT. As in not a lick.
This fall, when I started school at Robert E. Lee Middle, I was going to be in regular classes. Regular! No more Gifted and Talented program for me. I’d been kicked out. Or as Mama had explained it when we went over the official letter that arrived two days before, I was “not pegged this year.”
That night, we’d had a family meeting, Daddy in his wingback chair with Mama perched on the arm and me on the couch. “Darling, tell us how you feel,” Mama’d said.
“Fine,” I said. They didn’t believe me.
They told me it was A-OK if I didn’t want to talk about it. That in time I would. And that maybe a summer away would even do me good. In the meantime, they let me know I was more than fine the way I was and that as long as I did my best, my best was good enough.
I didn’t swallow a word of it. My best made me regular, not gifted or talented. I was normal, as in nothing special. Truth be told, that was what had my chin hanging so low. Not traveling via bus or being without Mama and Daddy for the summer.
“Tweedle, Georgia,” I whispered to myself. That was where this bus was headed, or at least where I was: Tweedle, Georgia.
I couldn’t wait to see Granny and Gramps. Mama and Daddy were therapists and they said all the right things, but that was because they had to. They were trained to. When I needed cheering, I often talked to my grandparents. Even over their crackly cellphone, they were the two biggest cheerleaders any girl could have.