In the spring of 2000, beginnings seemed to appear everywhere. It was April, and the father smiled politely as he drove through the Route 1 highway in New Jersey, on the bridge above the Raritan River where he lived nearby. The father had already done his research, but he listened anyway, hearing the salesman’s English swell with excitement.
When he bought the car and took it home to the little apartment he shared with his wife and his four-year old son, they both laughed at the smoothness of the paint as the green Honda Accord parallel-parked alongside the block’s curb.
“It’s our first car,” he said.
He was amazed by all the space in the interior, and he sighed with relief about how safe it felt. Later, when his wife took his son back into the apartment after it started drizzling, he sat in the driver’s seat, finally relaxing for the first time in weeks.
The father looked above, through the moonroof, where drops of rain had collected on the pristine glass. He could fall asleep here forever, before sunrise or in between commutes.
Almost fifteen years before, the father had graduated from his university in China as an electrical engineering student. His last semester was mired in terrible grades, as he immediately took his newfound knowledge to the streets, fixing old radios for the nearby elders.
He did not seek any payment or college credit, focusing purely on being out in the sun, whispering jokes as he made sure the repairs were performed thoroughly. He knew he was leaving the city soon to work, and wanted to make sure every radio he fixed could last a bit longer with his expertise.
At his new job, which took him far away from the north, he worked for a woman exactly his age with a bright smile in Nanning. They spoke during lunch hours in the city, where palm trees replaced the usual row of cedars that he had grown up with.
They eloped, marrying without bothering to tell either of their parents. In their happiness, they invited friends to a private dinner, drinking shoulder to shoulder. Later, the two wouldn’t wear rings, feeling no need for such details.
As the years progressed, they lived intermittently together, before each going off to work separate engineering jobs. His wife was a rising star in her arena for civil engineering. Meanwhile, the father grew impatient with the simple tasks he had in electrical engineering, and heard through rumor about how computers were beginning to become more accessible, modern.
Scientists had started to write in unique forms of code, that anyone could learn. Cobol, C, names for new inventions popped up everyday. He studied them alone in his apartment, shocked by the formation of a new kind of science altogether.
The timing made him anxious. His wife had given birth to a boy, almost two months premature. When the child’s fevers had calmed down at the hospital, and they could retreat back to their small Nanning apartment, he told her about his budding dream. Without any knowledge of the future of computers, he wanted to chase this passion even if it had no future. This odd world that was beginning to start, called programming.
He studied closely at home without making money, while the mother continued to work at the civil engineering firm, gathering promotions with every project. She soon was in charge of four bosses, each with their own division. She soon became one of the most prominent engineers of the city.
After three years of projects tinkering in his part of the bedroom, he was given offers to Paris and Beijing, with two offers in America, one in California and the other in New Jersey. With at least five of his remaining college friends having emigrated to New Jersey, he took a single suitcase and moved there first, promising to make a living comfortable enough for the mother and the son to settle there as well.
In fifteen months the two moved over, and the company where he had found work started its IPO. With the equity given to him as an employee, the father rented a two bedroom apartment in Highland Park, near Rutgers University. The remainder he spent on a beautiful green Honda Accord, the newest model and their first car, with a moonroof that rain could peacefully land on.
The mother, as the years went on, would take the car out on trips to empty parking lots, waiting for the malls to open. Sometimes she would cry quietly to herself, ripping apart tissues in her hands out of frustration.
In this new country, the mother learned quickly that English was a completely different animal, and that she learned languages very slowly. She had trouble finding work, with her previous leadership skills having no power in translation. The mother worked jobs she had never known before, sweeping garbage along the sides of engineering buildings half the size of the ones she used to run.
The son did not adapt well either, although he had had trouble even back in China. He could barely speak or write in either Chinese or English, and instead acted out in the American public schools. He yelled out noises, unable to communicate and could not understand instruction. Three times he was caught stealing at the supermarket; twice he bit another child and the married couple had to apologize to the other parents. It was embarrassing.
By the time their son turned seven, they had a daughter. This one was born at nine months, and the C-section performed this time around was safer at the New Brunswick hospital downtown. But the bills were starting to mount, with the health-care system completely different.
The mother started to take community classes in the town nearby, aggressively studying for the same classes she had aced before, but now only landing C’s due to the problem sets now being in English. But she was fueled by the embarrassment, and if her son could not get good grades, she would show him how it was done with sheer willpower. It did not matter what language she needed to learn, it only took that green car with its moonroof to bring her where she had to go.
She finished graduate school in America, commuting with the very same car while her husband took a new minivan to his work. The family leased a townhouse with blue shingles in a quiet neighborhood.
Outside the townhouse was a large hawthorn tree, where each spring, pink petals would blossom and collect on the moonroof of her green car. Each Saturday, the family went to the nearby grocery store, placing milk, bananas, meat, and rice into the Honda’s trunk. Years later, when the mother and her husband moved to their first and only house, the new owners of the townhouse cut down the cherry blossom tree. It broke her heart.
The daughter grew up to be a cheerful child. To assuage her grief over the hawthorn tree, the mother took her on small trips to the very river where the car was bought, playing Bach on the radio, which never broke down. The river never changed, always the color of teal and emerald depending on the season.
The son’s teachers teased him as a late bloomer. When he graduated high school, he attended the only college he applied to, at the neighboring Rutgers University.
Although the college was only a twenty-minute drive away, he was only able to drive slowly and on local roads. Speed and danger frightened him, and the drivers in New Jersey were famously aggressive.
In his second year of college, he fell in love with a woman a few years older than him, a genetics student who didn’t want to be seen with him in public. She would attend parties late into the night, calling him asking to be saved. It was a joke, she said. But he was too young, and took the calls seriously.
One night she went on a ski trip with her cohort to the Catskills during winter vacation. The woman called the son drunk, announcing ominously that she would walk into the snowy woods when everyone else was sleeping and die from the cold.
The son took the green Honda onto the highway for the first time, trembling as the car went over sixty miles an hour. The windshield, half-frozen from the January air, barely showed the street lights as he made his way into the mountains. He stared with desperation as the GPS announced he had crossed state lines into New York State, completely alone.
He called her several times, panicking when there was no answer. Although she had fallen asleep and never actually went out into the snow, the son stood outside the car looking out into the Catskills wilderness, as if he would miraculously see her. He was shocked by the great pines, which seemed to grow endlessly into the distance, and the hills seemed to merge with the sky.
As he stood there, four coyotes crossed into the parking lot in which he was standing. They were smaller than his friend’s Labrador, but far bigger than foxes. They circled the green Honda, making no noise. Despite his years of speech therapy, the son found himself just like his childhood days, yelling and howling at the animals to go away. When he stamped his feet fast enough they ran off, but he could have sworn they were laughing.
The son laid in the driver seat, letting the engine run so the heat could keep the car warm. Shaking all over his body, he stared above as bits of snow landed from the dark onto the moonroof, before falling briefly asleep.
The green Honda had started to break down and could only handle short distances. Coincidentally, that was all the mother needed to travel to her new job, ten minutes away in the next town over. Now fifty-seven, she accepted an offer at an engineering building in the same complex in which, twenty years ago, she had swept the parking lots.
During the interview, the mother was recognized only for the reputation she had built over the course of two decades. Her English had not improved drastically, but she was known for a swift decisiveness and an attention to the larger picture that no other engineer could grasp.
She developed a habit of placing stuffed animals in the car. The plushies took on many forms—tigers, horses, dogs, foxes. They laid in the back of the car in bright and happy colors, and her interns would giggle in good sport as they walked by. She’d smile as she drove back from the office, waving good-bye to the other engineers as they spotted the green Honda, with the signature Hello-Kitty doll on the dashboard.
By the time the daughter graduated from high school, the green Honda was in no condition to be driven. With the father’s promotion to a large financial company just a few years back, the family bought the daughter a silver SUV, the newest model.
There were no questions asked, and no one in the family besides the daughter bat an eyelash. She herself felt surprised by its presence, and it would sit at times in the driveway of the house. The color and touch-screen was so advanced that it seemed more like a concept, an idea.
She barely drove the green Honda, instead taking the SUV to meet friends at Rutgers, where she would soon attend. Her friends would go out with her, laughing as they cruised around the campus. The daughter would chat with them while eating donuts or sandwiches, pulling them apart in her hands.
Before declaring an English major like her brother, she found work one summer after freshman year as an arborer. Her task was to collect data on the trees surrounding the Raritan River area, from New Brunswick where she happened to be born, to Highland Park.
One day her SUV needed maintenance, and she had no choice but to ask him if he could drive the green Honda to collect acorns. She watched with suspicion as the car groaned with brake problems, barely five miles to reach its destination.
She laughed as the son bent over in pain to help her collect the fallen shells. She looked above at the moonlight, where the sky was shielded by a combination of the oak and the pine.
The son, about to turn twenty-seven, had graduated with a creative writing major. He soon found scattered work as a freelance writer, intermittently publishing poetry and fiction, and sometimes newspaper articles on the side.
At the end of his education, he found himself at a party where a dozen filmmakers quickly became friends with him. He was insistent that his days of sleeping under the snowfall were far behind him.
Late one winter, he helped out on the set of one of his friend’s short films, before making his own at a Chinese restaurant nearby.
The son shooed away questions about why he wanted to expand into making movies. He simply wanted to see where the passion could lead him, if it was possible to take on so much weight. Although he did not go to film school, he had a quiet suspicion that as long as he was decisive, a path could be made for him in the craft.
He wanted to shoot a new short film, at the southern end of New Jersey on the beach. His team was especially excited to make full use of the Atlantic, and the sunrise off into the distance. They prepared a production schedule for the end of April, where the trees and flowers of the state would be in full bloom. In one scene, he wanted the main character to call a classmate from his car. But they needed an old, muted vehicle to blend into the film.
The son’s friends had asked him to move to Brooklyn with them later that summer. Perhaps he wanted to say good-bye.
His father looked away when he asked for the Honda. They then both turned out towards the driveway where the vehicle sat silently, as if it too, was waiting.
It was the car’s twenty-second birthday. The son drove the car slowly onto the highway, wincing as he expected the engine to give out or the brakes to act up again. Despite the drive being over thirty miles, the clear sky seemed to pose no obstacles for the journey ahead. The Honda was steady as the two drove off to the sea.
The light from the sun reflected perfectly off the faded green paint of the Honda. Whether that morning was its last day on the road or not, it made no difference. The movement underneath seemed to carry the arc of entire centuries, without caring when the world would ever start or end.
Haolun Xu is a poet, fiction writer, and filmmaker born in Nanning, China. He was raised in New Jersey. His writing has appeared in Guernica, Narrative, Joyland, and more.