Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

A Cold War Story

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

A Cold War Story

Article excerpt

Nineteen eighty-six was the year of disasters. In twelve-year-old Rita Gee's mind, there were three of utmost importance: (1) the blowings-up of the space shuttle Challenger, and (2) Chernobyl, and (3) the completion of the HOV lane that connected the suburbs to downtown Houston.

The disastrous effects of the first two were obvious. A moment of silence was broadcast over the school P.A. system for the astronauts, and the science fair was postponed a week out of respect for the wrecked mood of the nation. Even though Russia was their sworn enemy, a "Save Chernobyl's Children" fund got started at school, and Rita dutifully clinked away her lunch money along with the other kids. Challenger and Chernobyl, their names had a kind of harmony.

The High Occupancy Vehicle lane, however, a single, concrete pathway that divided the east- and westbound highway lanes in the middle, was considered a triumph all around, once it was completed in the summer of '86. Gordon and Sylvia Gee were particularly thrilled. Two years before, they had actually stuck a sign in their front lawn that proclaimed "YES on HOV." Rita was surprised to see her parents so involved in civic affairs, considering sometimes they "forgot" to vote on really important matters, like who should be president. Gordon had an explanation for this, as he did for everything. He told Rita that because of what happened to her grandparents back in the Big Road, how one day they were just performing their civic duties by driving out the Japanese, and then the next day, they were the ones being driven out by the Communists, and because back in the Big Road, the government kept a file on every one of its billion-plus citizens, they had learned an invaluable lesson. Mine our own business, Gordon liked to say, encouraging Rita and her older brother Calvin to do the same, to be courteous but not necessarily a Good Samaritan, to address all social ills by excelling in school, thereby honoring one's self and one's parents without stepping on anyone's toes.

But the HOV initiative turned out to be a personal issue for the Gees. It meant that Sylvia, who worked the reference desk at the downtown public library, no longer had to drive herself an hour and half to and from work every day. She could get whisked away instead on the Park and Ride bus, on its soft velour seats with their cushy high backs, and surrender her full attention to her Ladies' Home Journals and Good Housekeepings. Given what happened to Sylvia the year before, improvements to her commute were critical. It was known around the Gee house as the Car Trouble, even though the incident had nothing to do with mechanical failure. As Sylvia drove home from the library one evening, she pulled her champagne-colored Honda onto the shoulder of the freeway and inexplicably parked it there, her fingers knuckling the steering wheel. She stayed frozen like that for two hours, a pale, perspiring statue, until two policemen brought her home in their cruiser. The worst part of it was how Sylvia couldn't explain what had happened.

Rita's brother Calvin had his own theories.

It's called despondency. Melancholy, depression, gloom, Calvin said, before he put his nose back in a big book called Mastering SAT Vocab. In a year Calvin was going off to college; they could get nuked tomorrow and he wouldn't notice.

Gordon tried to tell Rita that Sylvia's moods had to do with a bunch of things, things that maybe Rita was too young to understand. He said something about Sylvia being far away from her own parents, who were still in Taiwan. And something about the Gees living in Texas, where it was hard to fit in, where people sometimes said things to Sylvia over the library reference phone like Gimme someone who speaks English, where if you accidentally cut someone off in traffic, someone might say, Go back to 'Nam, gook, and where it was hard to make friends with their neighbors, who had, as Gordon put it, different feelings about things. …

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