Laurie has taken the girls mini-golfing. We had decent weather on the Cape for the first three days. We walked the National Seashore and watched the kids cart sand from one eroding sand castle to another. Last night the skies over Orleans opened up, and it began pouring.
It’s chilly now, but at least the rain is down to a fine mist. Beth and Sophia began the morning fighting so, after numerous timeouts, Laurie decided to get them out of the cottage’s close quarters. Laurie said they’d be back by lunchtime and added, “Have a nice sulk while we’re out; maybe this afternoon you can pretend to enjoy being on vacation with us.”
This week on Cape Cod was Laurie’s idea. She comes from a family of means where getaways and vacations were standard fare. Christmas meant skiing in Colorado, and school breaks were often spent in Europe. Marriage to me has put a crimp in her lifestyle and wanderlust. I have just received a PhD, but I am now jobless and have no prospects. The GI Bill and university stipends have dried up. An advanced degree in Comparative Literature is worthless unless one teaches or wants to spend ten years researching a book on one of the few remaining esoteric literary subjects yet to be explored.
In the early years she never complained about our lack of vacations. Two toddlers made travel difficult and, since we subsisted on her salary as an admin assistant, it was difficult to afford a family pizza night let alone fly out to see her folks in San Francisco or think about spending a week anywhere.
My objection to this vacation was whether it’s prudent to spend money on something so ephemeral, considering how desperate we are for money at present. We need a new washer and dryer plus transmission repairs to my rusting Ford Explorer; the tab for all this comes close to what the cottage costs for a week. She countered my objections by saying she desperately needed a break. To me a break is a five mile run followed by a hot shower, sex and a good night’s sleep. The week’s rental, meals out and souvenirs (bought at the onset of either child’s tantrum) far exceeds what we can afford. Despite that highly logical argument, Laurie tearfully pleaded that we get away. “The kids need it and, god knows, I do.”
Beth is five and little Miss Sophia is three. Why the girls need a break from the Cartoon Network and day care is beyond me. In the six years we’ve been married, Laurie has supported the family so I can understand where she’s coming from. We rent a two bedroom apartment in Arlington, Massachusetts. I tend bar on weekends at Angelina’s, a local Italian restaurant. The status of being married to a PhD loses its luster towards the end of the month when bills come due. In May, the Cape trip, looming on the horizon since last Christmas, became Laurie’s ultimatum. “Other families have been to Disney World several times; we’ve never been anywhere except twice to my parents out in California. And Dad paid for the tickets just to see his granddaughters!”
So I went along with the Cape trip. I asked for more hours at the restaurant, but it’s not doing well, and there is talk that it will fold before year’s end. I decided not mentioned it to her. Going along to get along has become my motto.
At thirty-two, this is the first real vacation I’ve ever been on. The word had a foreign sound when I was growing up. It was something other people did like joining a country club, buying time shares or diversifying their stock portfolios. My mother and great aunt lived in a large farmhouse in Northern Pennsylvania. Their only means of support was to open it up for the summer as a bed and breakfast for city dwelling families. My room was needed for paying guests so I was shipped off to my Uncle Lou and Aunt Belle’s house fifty miles away in Wilkes-Barre.
Uncle Lou worked for the municipal street department. It was a pick and shovel job, digging up water mains, fixing potholes and snowplowing in the winter. He got two weeks off a year, which he wrapped around the July 4th holiday to give him the feeling that he was beating the system. The first week was always marked by sleeping late, then heading to the hardware store with me in tow to buy whatever he needed for the household projects Aunt Belle wanted him to tackle. After buying his building supplies, there was a late, often liquid lunch at the local tavern with co-workers who weren’t on vacation. By four we were back home, Uncle Lou was a bit too groggy for power tool safety so he took refuge on the living room couch, the late afternoon TV game shows a lullaby to his sonorous nap.
While the summer daytime hours were uneventful for me, the evenings were glorious. My uncle was a baseball fan of the highest magnitude. To beat the heat, the TV set, trailing a couple hundred feet of extension cord, was dragged out to the back porch, its sound muted and the radio tuned in to the Philadelphia Phillies station. Chips and salted peanuts in the shell were within easy reach. There was a case of Rolling Rock on ice in a large washtub and plenty of A & W Root Beer for me. Aunt Belle often boiled hot dogs and brought them out to us as if she were a stadium vendor, “Red hots, get your red hots.”
By the sixth inning Uncle Lou’s increasingly slurred commentaries regarding the Phillies’ batting and pitching ineptitude ran out of steam. Neighborhood cats no longer feared his empty beer can accuracy. And by game’s end he was asleep/unconscious in the chaise lounge, way too heavy for Aunt Belle or me to do anything other than unplug the electric and cover him up to ward off the evening chill.
Towards the end of the second week, as his vacation grew to a close, he became sullen. The many planned projects had not been touched. Lumber, concrete blocks and other construction materials were dragged out by the old shed and piled next to last year’s “to do” list.
When he went back to the rat race in mid-July, we still watched baseball each night, but it was within the stuffy living room confines and even further limited by only two beers so he’d have a clear head for work. More often than not, as a sign of domestic compromise, we repaired to the kitchen and crouched around the tiny Philco, Bakelite radio so Aunt Belle could use the set to watch her shows.
This, then, from about age eight until I left high school, was my summer ritual. Being my Uncle’s baseball buddy, helping my Aunt Belle with housework (she’d had a mastectomy and wasn’t able to lift much), and occasionally picking up spare cash by doing yard work for their neighbors filled the hot months. When I returned home after Labor Day, I was refreshed and ready to begin the new school year with an intellectual vengeance. Not having to work was the basic definition of a vacation I grew up with. A photo montage of Paris to show the neighbors or a bloated a picture album of an Alaskan cruise left on the coffee table was distinctly alien to my experience.
At this juncture in my life things are much more complicated than my uncle’s. Laurie has talked to her dad about giving me a job. He is slowly cutting back from the lucrative insurance and financial planning business he’s owned for thirty-five years. His only son and youngest daughter now run it. I’ve met them twice and find them both tough to take for all but a few hours. We have different value systems. Paul is a sailing enthusiast, wine connoisseur and speaks endlessly about various French and Italian vineyards he’s visited. He asked what vintages we serve at Angelina’s and seemed affronted when I answered “red mostly.”
Piper is three years younger than Laurie. She is the family airhead. Her job entails looking pretty, memorizing the sales pitch on how the firm can handle one’s insurance and investment needs, crossing and uncrossing her legs, in essence marking time until Paul or daddy can rescue her and provide substantive details to the client. When I first met her she was very much into horses as she was dating a polo player. The second visit two years ago found her a vintage foreign car devotee, again due to another man in her life. The family has officially declared me “very bright” and claim it wouldn’t be at all difficult to pick up the insurance game. And I could get an MBA at San Francisco University (the family alma mater) if I wanted to really delve into the nuts and bolts of the industry.
Laurie has dropped hints (more like saturation bombing) that she would love moving back to the West coast. Her view is that San Francisco is just as intellectual as Boston only with better weather. She envisions living in a nice home, doing charity work, inviting friends over for cocktails—all the things her mother has done for years. In the Boston area she is forever condemned to a cramped apartment and on the receiving end of charity. In fact, we now qualify for food stamps and the kids are eligible for the reduced school lunch program. Laurie complains she’s too embarrassed to have people over because, “What couple in their thirties with so much education still has Salvation Army furniture and lives like this?”
My cell phone chirps to break my musing. Laurie says the girls are impossible. They began the mini-golf course and Sophia hit Beth in the face with her putter then threw the ball into a water hazard when her turn was taken away. That was on the second hole. When further disciplined, Sophia went into tantrum mode. Laurie is now stuck in heavy traffic, angry at the kids and at having blown over twenty bucks for the disaster. She proposes coming back, picking me up and taking the girls for fast food to calm the waters. We each take a kid and eat at separate tables, a strategy that has worked in the past when they began to act like this. I’m in one of my moods where all I want to do is read so I tell her I don’t feel like going out today.
I hear the stress in her voice. “I know you didn’t want this trip and feel I forced it on you, but since we are here, could you please not spoil it for everyone. Try and be nice at least for the kids.”
I concede defeat. “Pick up burgers at the drive-thru and bring them back here.”
“But we’ll have the same problem. When they get like this, they’ll be at one another’s throats all day.” She is trying to act calmly. I can hear Beth screaming bloody murder in the background.
“Bring them back and I’ll ride herd. You can go off by yourself, maybe shop at the mall.”
There is silence on her end. She is calculating the loophole, why the nice gesture from her erudite, otherwise asshole of a husband. “Are you sure? This is a ten as far meltdowns go.”
“I’m okay with it. I’ve been there before.”
“Is there anything you want? I was going to swing by the convenience store for milk.”
“I’d like some beer.”
“Beer! You don’t even drink. I can’t remember you ever having a beer, even when my dad offered you some really special stuff he had imported from Belgium.”
“I feel like beer; something on sale, maybe Rolling Rock. I’m on vacation.”