Sometimes what you want is far away, a dream.
And sometimes everything you want is right next to you.
On Sunday, two days ago, the five of us traveled in our van to New Jersey to see the relatives there. As the children get older, it is rare that we are all together on a day that is not a holiday. We played a mix CD that Eli made; it might have been the one he called “Hedge Money” or the one called “Sky Mall Mix.” They’re both good.
The three of them are talkative. We eavesdrop and only occasionally interject. I had my notebook on my lap most of the way.
Eli (almost 20) gives travel advice Lydia (age 16), who is headed to Vietnam and Cambodia next year: “There are going to be so many leeches there.”
Lydia disagrees: “Don’t you think I’ve already gone on the web to see what kinds of insects there are?” This does not surprise me. Lydia is thorough and always prepared.
Eli keeps insisting. Lydia says heatedly, “Eli, sometimes you try to act as if you know more about something than I do, when in fact I know more about it!” I wish I had her awareness and the guts to go with it when I was a teenager. Really, it took me until I was about 35 to even think what she said.
Eli looks at a photo of Grace (age 12) on someone’s phone. He says to her, “You’re so hospitable. You’re going to make a great escort someday.”
Grace: “What’s an escort?”
Eli has two more weeks to go at Otto, his summer employer, a new, upscale pizza place in Brookline. By now, with his hands and forearms covered with oven burns and knife nicks, he’s had it. He describes his quitting fantasy (don’t we all have them?): “If I were ever so mad at Otto that I was going to quit on the spot, I would take a bite of everything that was about to be served and be like ‘Fuck you, Otto,’ and walk out the door.” We laugh.
Grace catches sight of a hospital billboard along Rt. 84 S in Connecticut. “Robotic surgery?!” she exclaims, rather alarmed.
Eli reports that last year some friends of his went to Hooters “and they found it depressing.” He adds, “I wonder if the CEO of Hooters has any daughters. I’m assuming it’s a man.”
Lydia: “I hope not. I wouldn’t want any daughters to have the CEO of Hooters as a father.”
Jimmy takes out his iPhone, connects it, and starts playing d.j. First up is Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher.” Lydia sings along. I say, “This is one of those rare love songs that are like ‘I love you and I’m happy,’ not ‘I love you and I’m so fucked up.'” A contemporary song that gives me the same (love/happy) feeling is “Feel So Close,” and Jimmy finds it on his iPhone and plays that.
Eli looks at another phone picture of Grace. “You have small eyes.”
Lydia: “Small eyes, big secrets.”
LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” comes on. We randomly start singing bits and pieces. Eli asks, “What’s this?” We’re dumbfounded. He is sincere. How could he have missed it?! Probably all that dubstep he’s listening and dancing to.
Eli (who I am starting to think has the starring role in these car interactions) tells Grace she has to be more confident.
Grace retorts rather drolly, “I’m twelve.”
Grace and Eli tease Lydia. They tease and tease. Almost under her breath, Lydia starts singing, “I feel so close to me right now… [hums]… I feel so close to me right now… [hums]… I feel so close to me right now…”
We arrive at my in-laws home and pull into the driveway. Lydia says, “I have to pee.”
Eli replies, as though the host, “You have come to the right place.”
On the ride home today, the passengers were largely silent, as was the stereo. Each child was tethered to an iPhone and listening to a private playlist. We stopped at exit 14 of Route 84 in Southbury, CT, which I think of as my exit. There’s a Starbucks there, and we got drinks and bistro boxes for lunch. I went also to the Stop & Shop and bought carrots, blueberries, pretzels, a piece of chocolate for each, and water; we had three hours to go until home.
Distributing the snacks in the car, feeling not rushed and totally contented, I recalled a stop my family had made on a long car trip across the U.S. in the summer of 1977 or ’78. We were in the Midwest, maybe Wisconsin, and as my father was gassing up the station wagon, my mother went into a little store and bought crackers and Muenster cheese. I think she got out a small cutting board and knife from the camper we hauled behind us, and as we started driving again, she held the board on her lab and sliced the cheese into squares, handing us each the occasional piece. It was my first taste of Muenster and, although the orange coating made me hesitant, I loved this new food and I still do: like solid cottage cheese, but saltier, and pleasing to the teeth. We were on an adventure, yet safe and fed.
There have been other long car trips with other beloved people. I remember a long day with Betsy around San Francisco, up to Muir Woods and the coast, then out to Sonoma. We drove back late and over the Oakland Bridge into the city, me at the wheel. As Betsy dozed and I gripped the wheel, I fantasized about driving over one of the rises on the highway and dropping off the other side into nothing. There have been a few long rides with James, always associated with a writing conference and somewhere remote, and the car has become our way to meander both geographically and conversationally. One time Jimmy and I drove from Nashville to Memphis to go to Graceland and Sun Studio; the memory of the ride — with singalongs — is as vivid as the image of Elvis’s Jungle Room. There are some friends I’ve taken imaginary car rides with; I know they would be good company.
When a car ride is good — easy weather and road conditions, enjoyable companions, a peacefulness, and a little something to eat — I feel both self-sufficient and secure in love, as though everything that could ever be needed can be found with this person or these people. And even though we are traveling at so many miles per hour, time seems suspended and the destination not the point.
I took the photograph at the top. In fact, I took several of these people while we sat out on the ICA steps that face the harbor in June 2008. Not illustrating a road trip, I know, but there’s something in these pictures that is like an echo of how I feel when I’m on the perfect car trip.