The children, both of whom dress in business casual for school and owned more electronic equipment by the time they were out of preschool than I have my entire life, felt that they had been rudely neglected, because they had never been on a camping trip. They’ve never skinned a chicken either, but they didn’t seem too upset by that.
“And don’t argue the whole way.”
I exchanged a knowing look with the man who promised to love, honor, and slay the Blue Screen of Death. “Okay,” we agreed. I can’t imagine why our children would feel the need to include this unnecessary instruction. No matter how far my husband’s viewpoint may stray from reality, he agrees it is important to appear harmonious in front of the children.
The last time they caught us in a discussion of escalating proportions, they locked us in the bathroom together overnight. One night spent reclining sideways on the toilet with his feet dangling in the sink while the faucet dropped icy droplets like water bombs between his toes convinced my husband that it was easier on everyone to just give in.
So early one summer morning as the sunshine twinkled brightly on the dumpsters at the end of the lane, we arose in peace and harmony, swallowed our body weight in coffee and threw ourselves into the car. We drove in silence and numbed goodwill for several minutes. “Okay, hand me the map,” my husband said, extending one open hand while juggling his travel mug and aspirin bottle in the other and maneuvering the steering wheel with one knee.
“Map?” I asked, eyeing him quizzically.
“You didn’t pack a map?”
“If I wanted to pack something I couldn’t read, I would have just brought along War and Peace in the original Russian. At least then people would think I was literary. Why don’t we just follow the signs?”
He looked at me as if I had just suggested lining the bed of his truck with dotted swiss, jammed his foot down on the brake and squealed into a gas station.
“Never mind. I’ll be right back. Want anything?”
“How ‘bout some coffee?”
“Mom, is this an argument?” A puffy face blinked sleepily at me over the back seat. His mouth was ringed with chocolate milk and PopTart crumbs, and his hair was arranged in a spiky asymmetrical design made famous by Picasso.
“Of course not, sweetheart. Pop just needs a map to find difficult locations like Asia or our mailbox.”
The boys exchanged knowing looks. “It’s a fight,” they chimed knowingly.
Coffee in hand and map accordianed across the dashboard, we resumed our trip. Half an hour later, my husband, who had not previously shown homicidal tendencies other than when I used his razor to shave the gum from the dog’s hair, began to exhibit bizarre behavior patterns, manifested by the asking of peculiar questions.
“How much farther?” he said, guiding the car steadily around a mountain curve. I stared at him blankly, and seeing that he was under the evil spell of optimism, did not bother to explain yet again that my literary portfolio did not include map reading. If he didn’t understand that point before, my directing us to the Blue Ridge Mountains by way of Costa Rica wasn’t going to enforce the point. I consulted the map, and lifted my gaze.
“According to this, about a quarter of an inch.”
“Never mind,” he answered steadily, his knuckles whitening and his palms making squeaky noises on the steering wheel. “Where do we go at the junction?”
“The Shady Rest Hotel?”
Snarling, he lunged abruptly for the map. Any leftover shreds of good humor drained away with the hot coffee that toppled into his lap as the car careened around the next curve.
“Don’t overreact,” I said soothingly, blotting up caffeine with the Northeast section of Macon County. “I was kidding.”
My life’s partner regarded me with the same intense stare I had seen on the faces of cheetahs watching sickly gazelle stragglers on Wild Kingdom. If he had one, I would swear I could see his tail twitching.
“Look,” I purred, wringing out the map. This chocolate drip is the campground. That potato chip grease is where we are now. All we have to do is follow this dotted line across those squiggles and we’re there!”
I don’t understand how some people can live with themselves the way they speak to other people who are trying to help.
“You said we couldn’t use that word,” came a voice from the back seat.
“You’re grounded for just listening to it,” I snapped, tossing candy over my shoulder in a gesture of goodwill and staring fixedly at my spouse. “How was I supposed to know those squiggles were the Blue Ridge Mountains?”
“As long as you have the entire map of the United States unfolded in the front seat, you might as well try reading the legend.”
“Okay, but you know I get sick if I read in the car.”
“One quick look won’t hurt anything. Pretend you’re checking out the sale price on a dress somebody else pulled off the rack.”
“Okay, if you’re sure.”
Later, when we finally found a service station with equipment to clean the upholstery, I heard the boys talking behind the gas pumps.
“Do you think we’ll get there alive?” one voice asked.
“I don’t know, but if we do, we’re gonna lock ‘em in the bath-house.”